The Jenny Hackman Memorial Prize for Fiction, 1st place
CW: physical abuse
I hear barking coming from inside the house as I help my parents unload our minivan in the already packed driveway. It sounds like Nella got big. I toss my backpack over my shoulder and bend to lift my two duffle bags. Frustrated because I’ll have to make two trips to bring everything inside, I curse myself for overpacking. Again.
When I get to the door, I don’t bother knocking. I push the handle down with my elbow and bump their dark blue front door open with my hip. Nella, their beautiful black lab, greets me at the foyer, but keeps her distance when she sees me struggling with my things. I free my hands and crouch down to scratch behind her ears.
“Hi, girl,” I coo, kissing the top of her head. Her tail wags excitedly. They must’ve taken her to the groomer’s today, her shiny black coat smells like pumpkin.
“Esther?” I hear my auntie shout from deeper in the house.
“Yeah, it’s me.” I find my aunt already slaving away in the kitchen. She smiles brightly at me and I beam back at her.
“How are you, my dear?” She wipes her hands on her apron before wrapping me in a tight hug. Despite being around food, she smells sweet, like her expensive perfume. “Your parents are behind you?”
“Yeah, they’re outside. I’m good, how’re you?” I reach into the bowl of cut up vegetables, but she swats my hand away.
“Good! It’s great to see you. How’s school? Work?” She continues seasoning and mixing the bowls of food in front of her.
“Everything’s good. Marc and Ro are awake?” I ask over my shoulder, heading back to where I left my things.
“Marc is outside, but Ro should be up. Rosie!”
I don’t hear a response, so I make my way down the short hall towards her bedroom. I push her door open with my back and smirk at what I can see of my cousin, barely visible under a mass of blankets.
“Happy Thanksgiving, kouzen!” I shout, unceremoniously dropping my stuff on her ottoman.
“What time is it?” she croaks, rubbing her eyes.
“About 10:30. You plan on getting out that bed soon?”
“Nah.” She closes her eyes, a small smile tugging at her lips. Nella finds us and lays in her dog bed in the corner of the room.
Shoot, I might join her once I get the rest of my stuff out of the car. The drive from Brooklyn to Long Island is always killer this time of year, even from the comfort of the backseat.
I head back to our minivan and grab the last of my things. On my way, I can overhear my parents catching up with my auntie.
“Esther!” my mom calls from the kitchen.
I find her sitting at the island. “Yeah?”
“We’re gonna go pick up your grandma. You said hi to your uncle?” she asks, picking at the bowl of vegetables. My aunt doesn’t seem to notice this time, so I reach for them too. She swats at my hand again. Tough. To ease the hurt, I remind myself I’m only missing out on raw carrots and sweet potato chunks.
“No, I haven’t seen him. He’s outside?” Rubbing my hand, I make my way to the fiberglass sliding door. I see my uncle and my other cousin Marc in the backyard, shoving piles of brown leaves into Home Depot paper bags. I linger for a second, waiting for either of them to look this way. Marc catches my eye and waves before jogging over. He’s grown a couple of inches since the summertime.
I slide the door open, smiling, “Happy Thanksgiving.”
He throws his long arm across my shoulders, pulling me in for a side hug. “Happy Thanksgiving. How was the drive?”
“Not bad, traffic was terrible near Queens.” I catch my uncle’s eye and wave at him.
“Traffic is always terrible down where you are.” Marc readjusts the beanie on his head, his starter locs poking out from under the brim.
“OK, you got inches now?” I tease, pulling at one of his locs.
He smirks before dragging his beanie off, shaking his headful of blond-tipped locs. “Talk to me nice.”
“Talk your shit when they reach your nose,” I tease. My body tenses under the crisp fall breeze. “How much longer are you guys gonna be out here?”
“Uh,” he looks back at his dad before surveying the rest of their large yard. “Maybe an hour? He said he wanted the yard clear before everyone came.” He pulls his beanie back on.
“’Ight, well, have fun. I’m inside with Ro. Find us when you’re done.”
“Gotchu.” He nods, then heads back to help his dad.
To pass time, and to distract from the hunger that threatens to debilitate me, we play Crazy Eights on the floor of Rosie’s bedroom. I’m up three, Ro’s won two, and Marc has yet to win a round.
“Y’all cheating.” Marc throws down his remaining cards and rolls his eyes. I’m up four.
“Maybe try not sucking?” I pick up everyone’s cards and shuffle them. Marc flips me off before picking up his phone. I guess he’s out.
Rosie leans back onto the side of her bed. “So, how’s Dre?”
I deal the cards out. “Who?”
She winces. “Damn, it’s like that?”
I shake my head. “It wasn’t going to work out between us anyway.”
She lifts her cards and rearranges them in her hand. “How come?”
“He just… he was so forgetful. At first, I didn’t mind it because it’s like, okay, we just met and we’re getting to know each other. I don’t expect you to remember every little detail, you know? But two months in and you’re still asking me where I’m at in the middle of day? My schedule is the same every week, you should know where I am.”
“Right.” She throws down a six of hearts.
“I got sick of repeating myself. Also… not the best kisser.” I drop two sixes.
“Dang.” She places an ace, a four, then a ten of clubs at the center.
“Right.” I toss down one of my eights. “Diamonds.”
She draws a card from the deck. “You talking to anyone new?”
I sigh, “Honestly, no.” I drop my seven of diamonds. “I feel like I’m always initiating with guys and I don’t want to do that anymore. The next person I’m taking serious needs to be more upfront. Straightforward.”
“And remember where I’m at.” She picks up another card.
“Straight like that.” I drop a diamond nine. “How’s Jordan?”
“Good,” she gushes. She places a nine of clubs at the center before hiding behind the rest of her cards.
“Ew,” Marc interjects. I giggle and toss down my two black Jacks.
“We walked Nella and his Pitbull at the park last week. It was the cutest thing.” She picks up another card from the deck.
“Aw, that’s cute. He’s been here? Met everyone?” I pick up a card.
“He’s met Marc, of course, but not my parents. He hasn’t asked me to be his girlfriend so I don’t want to get ahead of anything.” She drops a Jack of hearts.
“Makes sense.” I throw my last cards, two red Queens, on the carpeted floor between us. “He works, drives?”
“He’s a mechanic and he pushes a BMW.” She grins.
“Period. Hopefully that works out.” I bring my knees to my chest, leaving the cards where they lay.
“Hopefully. Oh! You heard that Auntie Daphnie and Uncle Ronald got divorced last month?”
My eyebrows shoot up. “She finally caught him cheating?”“Yes!” She shouts. I toss my head back, laughing. “Caught him with his shorty in the house, girl.”
The audacity of Caribbean men. “That’s crazy. They’re both coming tonight?”
“Should be. They both texted my mom and said they’d make it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she didn’t show.”
“Why would Daphnie not show up?” Marc asks, turning away from his phone with a confused look on his face. “She’s actually dad’s sister and caught him fucking someone else.”
“Because she’s embarrassed.” I shrug. “He might’ve fucked up, but she’s still the woman that stayed with a cheating man until she couldn’t.”
“And while we all knew. And I think she knew we knew.” Ro adds.
“She had to know we knew.” I reach for the cards. “Besides—”
The bedroom door suddenly flies open. Someone I don’t recognize fills the frame. He’s tall. Dark skin. His freeform locs reach just below his eyebrows. The black hoodie he’s wearing tells me he plays club basketball. His eyes find Rosie and Marc first, allowing me to openly stare as he beams warmly at them. A dimple marks his right cheek. I can’t help the pull I feel at the corners of my lips. We all stand, but he greets my cousins first. I catch his name through pieces of their conversation. Jonas.
His eyes land on me and he cocks his head to one side, looking me from my head to my toes. “I don’t think we’ve met?”
I have to tilt my head up to make eye contact. “No, I don’t think so.” I extend my fist. “What’s up?”
He looks down at my hand, takes it in his, and pulls me in for a tight hug. The gesture catches me off guard, but there’s something about the way he holds me. He smells good. He looks down at my hand, takes it in his, and pulls me in for a tight hug. The gesture catches me off guard, but there’s something about the way he holds me. He smells good. He presses his cheek to mine for a kiss before gently releasing me. “Very nice to meet you, cherie. I look forward to getting to know you better.”
I offer him a small smile, admittedly pleasantly surprised. “Nice to meet you too.”
I find Rosie in the bathroom. I close and lock the door behind me. “Who’s he?”
“Who?” Ro stands from the toilet and flushes.
I roll my eyes. “Don’t play stupid.”
She smirks. “You like Jonas?”
“Who is he?” I repeat.
“Family friend. His mom knows ours.” She starts washing her hands.
“He’s never been here before.” That was supposed to come out as a question, but my mind is whirling. I look forward to getting to know you better.
“Not for Thanksgiving, but we see him a lot throughout the year.” She holds my gaze in the mirror as she rinses the soap from her hands.
“How your moms know each other?”
“You got a lot of questions,” she smiles. “You like him.”
I blink. “They work together?”
“Yeah. His mom just got registered. She used to rely on her baby father, but she left him a while ago.”
Baby father? “You know why?”
“He put his hands on her,” she replies matter-of-factly, drying her hands on a decorative towel.
“Shit.” My face twists with disgust and concern. “It got bad?”
“I know she’s had to spend nights here. Jonas has friends he’d stay with.” She shrugs. “He don’t fuck with his pops.”
“Yeah, I can imagine,” I take my high bun down and wear my long knotless braids loose.
She smirks at me. “Getting pretty for your man?”
My face warms. “Please. My edges started hurting.”
“Mhm,” she turns to look at me. “He’s from Bedford, you know. Right down the block from you.”
I turn to face her. “There’s something you want to say to me?”
“I just better be the maid of honor at your wedding.” She scrunches her nose at me before exiting the bathroom.
I roll my eyes and follow her out. “I’ve barely spoken to him.”
“Right, but he’s already clearly into you, cherie. You said you wanted someone straightforward.” She gestures where Jonas is on the other side of her bedroom door.
“I didn’t mean just straightforward. He has to be respectful, thoughtful. A good listener…” I trail off. “Besides, I’m not sure I want to be in a relationship right now.”
She shrugs, resting her hand on her bedroom door knob. “Either way, this about to be an interesting Thanksgiving.”
She pushes her door open and Marc and Jonas look at us before continuing their conversation. Jonas responds to Marc, but his eyes linger on mine. They’re splayed out on the floor so I sit on Rosie’s ottoman and lean back on her bed. I’m scrolling through Twitter when Jonas sits next to me, effectively pushing me to the edge of this tiny piece of furniture definitely not meant for two.
“Um, I think there’s only room for one here?” My mind processes little else besides our thighs pressed together.
He smiles at me, “I think we fit here just fine. Marc says you’re Esther.”
I nod. I catch a slight accent when he says my name. He extends his hand. “Jonas.”
I take his hand and we slowly shake. “You’re Haitian?”
He nods. “I was born there, actually,” he answers, still holding my hand.
“Oh? When did you come to the States?”
“When I was twelve. I stayed with my grandma before my mom came out.”
“How long did that take?” I can’t help but think about who his mom was with when she was alone.
“Only a couple months. My mom made sure it was during the summer so I didn’t miss school.” He drops my hand and leans back. “You’re Haitian?”
I nod. “Lived in Brooklyn all my life.”
“You’ve been to Haiti?”
“Four times. I’m hoping to spend the summer there when I finish school.”
“By yourself?” Is that a touch of concern I’m hearing?
“Nah, I got family down there.”
“Oh, okay. Can’t have a pretty Zoe-dam like yourself in Haiti alone.” He smiles at me, coy.
I scoff. “You talk like this to every girl you meet?”
“No,” he replies, slightly defensive. That means yes. “There’s just something about you—”
“Please.” I roll my eyes. “How old are you?”
He smirks. “Old enough.”
I stare back at him expectantly.
“Well?” He offers me the same expectant look.
He smiles widely before nudging me with his shoulder. “I’ve always had a thing for older women.”
I hold in my laugh. “Bad joke.”
He chuckles, “You said you’re from Brooklyn?”
“Mhm. Ro said you’re from Bedford?”
“Yes, ma’am.” He smirks at me. “You asked about me?”“You didn’t?” Marc says you’re Esther.
“Fair point, cherie,” he grins, standing from next to me. The small space he leaves behind allows me to register just how close we were moments ago.
Marc, Rosie, and Jonas passed out around three, but I can’t fall asleep because of how hungry I am. I always seem to forget how bad this gets on Thanksgiving. My body probably registers this as trauma and blocks the memory each year.
I find my parents seated at the kitchen island. Other women I recognize but am not entirely familiar with gossip while they help my auntie prepare food. I grab an apple from the fruit bowl.
“Dinner will be ready soon,” my mom remarks, watching me bite into my granny smith. Seated right next to her, my dad tears apart Haitian bread and smears chunky peanut butter on the small pieces.
“Soon? You mean four hours?” I say around a mouthful of apple. I walk over to my dad and reach for a piece of bread. At the sight of my hand, his grip tightens around his butter knife.
“Ah, you’re not the only one who’s hungry,” he jokes in Creole, watching me take a couple pieces of bread.
“Where’d you get the bread?” I ask, looking around the kitchen for any stray pieces. My god, I’ve been reduced to a scavenger.
“The bread was supposed to be for breakfast tomorrow,” my aunt responds, stirring a steaming pot of rice. “No more for anyone.” She stares pointedly at my dad. He offers her a thumbs-up before dunking his knife back in the peanut butter jar.
“Where’s grandma?” I turn to my mom.
“Napping downstairs.” My mom takes a piece of my dad’s bread. “You met Jonas and his mom?”
“Jonas, yeah. Why?” No way her alleged mother’s intuition is that strong.
She lowers her voice. “Rosie told you about his dad?”
“Sort of. Auntie told you?”
She nods. “I didn’t recognize them when they got here. You know how I am, once she mentioned abuse, I had all the questions.”
A trait I know all too well. “His dad’s gonna be here tonight?”
“No, he’s down in Maryland.”Curiosity gets the best of me as I look around for a woman that could be his mom. “Which one is she?” I notice a woman in scrubs. Maybe?
“She’s wearing blue scrubs,” my mom responds in Creole.
Her skin’s much lighter than Jonas’s. She’s holding a glass of dark liquor in her hand. She’s sitting on the couch, facing the TV. Her hair is straight, dark, pulled back in a low ponytail. She catches my eye and waves. I offer her a small smile. I hope the pity I feel doesn’t show on my face.
“It’s devastating, really,” my mom says, more to herself than me. “I can’t believe it went on for so long.”
“How long did it last?” I take another small bite of my apple. My appetite is gone.
“Well, auntie says it started before Jonas was born and ended only because she finally left him.”
Jesus. “What finally did it for her?”
“He started hurting Jonas.” My mom shakes her head. “Lord, that woman is better than me.”
My heart breaks for him. I can’t begin to imagine what his childhood looked like.
“Essy!” I look over my shoulder to see Marc, Jonas, and Ro awake, wrapped in hoodies and jackets. Marc brings his pointer finger and thumb to his lips and Ro holds up a lighter, indicating it’s time for our customary pre-Thanksgiving dinner walk.
“I’ll be back.” I stand and reach for a water bottle from the pack on top of the fridge.
We stroll aimlessly through Farmington Hills Park, a blunt rotating between the four of us. Marc and Rosie argue over who owns the lighter we’re using. Jonas passes the blunt to me, and the tips of our fingers touch.
“You don’t smoke,” he teases, watching me take a hit.
I exhale, smirking. “You don’t know me.”
“I’d like to, though.” He looks down at me, his soft, earnest tone of voice catching me off guard. “You in school?”
I take another pull and pass the blunt to Marc. “Queens College, you?”
“Trade school. I work mostly. And play ball.”
“You don’t hoop,” I mock him.
“I don’t?” The look on his face dares me to question him.
“Nahhh,” I shake my head, fighting a small smile.
“Copy, I gotchu right now.” He runs up to an empty court we’re passing in the park and fakes his best step back and jump shot. I can’t lie, his form is impeccable. He looks back at me from where he stands and shrugs.
I casually lift one of my shoulders. “I coulda done that.”
“Word?” He gestures to the hoop. “Be my guest.”
I’m not one to back down from a challenge. I run up to him, fake left, break right, step back, and make the same jump shot.
“Yeah, Esther!” I hear Rosie shout from where she and Marc wait for us.
I shrug. “Had to show ‘em how it’s done, feel me?” I head back to my cousins, Jonas close behind me.
He laughs before offering me his hand. “You ball?”
I shake my head, taking his hand in mine to dap him up. “I’m just nice like that.”
Our fingers remain curled into each other’s for a few seconds. “Play me. One on one.” He smiles softly at me. I feel my heart flutter in my chest.
“Maybe,” I reply, dropping his hand before slipping mine into my jacket pockets. “Where do you work?”
He takes the blunt from Rosie. “Auto body shop. I wanna own my own before I’m thirty.”
Ambition is always a good thing. “Good for you.”
“What’re you studying in school?” He takes a few pulls and offers me the blunt. Our fingers touch again. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like the order of this rotation.
He nods. “That sounds cool as fuck.”
“It is, I like it.”
“Our kids will definitely live comfortably.” He smirks, coy.
At the mention of kids I have to fight the urge to ask him about his father. Might as well ask the obvious, instead. “You’re seeing someone?” I blurt, instantly regretting how it came out, but this blunt is making me loose lipped.
He exhales sharply through his nose. “You been nosy, cherie?”
Oh, what the fuck? Disappointed, I roll my eyes. “You flirt with me all day just to have a girlfriend the whole time?”
“She’s not my girlfriend,” he deadpans, staring ahead.
“So, who is she?” I pass what’s left of the blunt to Marc.
“No one you need to worry about.” The tone of his voice suggests that I drop the subject.
“No one is worried, I’m just curious.”
He gently pushes me with his shoulder. “No one you need to be curious about, either. She’s just someone I see sometimes.”
My face falls. Please be serious. “You think I’m stupid?”
He looks down at me, taken aback. “No? Look, she’s a grown woman. She knows what it is and what it’s not.” He shrugs, casually. “She can leave me alone whenever she wants to.”
I don’t think I like his answer, but I have to remind myself that I met him this morning. I fall silent.
He drops his arm across my shoulders. “You mad at me?”
I shake my head. “Nothing to be mad about. We’re not together.”
He pulls me close. “Yet.” My heart does that thing again. Jesus, tighten up.
“Yo, Esther,” Marc taps my shoulder. “Light yours, this one’s out.” He tosses the roach in some bushes. I reach into my pocket and pull out my blunt and lighter.
“You can’t roll,” Jonas snatches it from me before I get to light it.
“Okay, now you’re getting disrespectful.” I extend my hand. “Give it here.”
He puts the blunt between his lips. “Light it for me?”
Feigning exasperation, I step closer to him and roll the metal spark wheel toward the ignition button. Before he’s able to inhale, the wind picks up and puts the small flame out. I take my left hand to cover the lighter, but the wind seems to be coming from every direction. Jonas pulls me close and turns me, his height shielding me from the wind, then cups both his hands around mine. I flick the lighter once more and the flame jumps out from the top.
“Thank you, cherie.” He smiles around my blunt, smoke sliding out of his nose and mouth.
We arrive back at the house just in time for dinner. The sight of rice, baked macaroni and cheese, chicken, ham, mixed vegetables, beet salad, and turkey beautifully spaced on the large oak dinner table nearly brings tears to my eyes. My stomach rumbles.
The four of us stand among the adults as my aunt leads prayer. She then asks everyone to say one thing they’re thankful for. The most popular answer is sante, our health. I second that, feeling immensely grateful that everyone made it here safe and well for another year.
“Where are the plates?” I ask Rosie when we finally get permission to start eating.
Before she can answer me, Jonas appears at my side and offers me a plate, fork, knife, and napkin. I look up at him, unable to hide the gratitude on my face.
“Thank you.” I smile.
Pleased by my reaction, he smiles back at me. “Of course.”
“Wow, thanks,” Marc declares sarcastically.
“Right,” Rosie says dryly, before they both head off to get their own plates. Everyone moves toward the table to serve themselves, so I choose to stay behind for a few seconds instead of fighting my distant family over chicken legs.
Jonas leans close to me. “I wish you’d look at me the way you’re looking at that food.”
I laugh before looking up at him. “Maybe I would if you looked as good as that mac does right now.” As if on cue, my stomach grumbles again.
“Damn,” he chuckles.
“I haven’t eaten all day,” I reason, facing forward. I watch everyone scoop food onto their plates, waiting for an opening. If this wasn’t Thanksgiving and these people weren’t my family, I actually might fight for one of those chicken legs.
“What else you got your eyes on, cherie?”
“That rice, the chicken. Some of that ham. The beet salad. Those sweet potatoes…” I trail off. I can almost feel myself growing feral with hunger.
“Heard you.” He locks eyes with me before taking my plate and heading to the large table.
His stature forces people to make space for him. I watch him fill my plate with exactly what I asked for. Oh.
Rosie finds me with her plate of food and bumps me with her hip. “He wants you bad, cherie.” She giggles.
“He told you about Nadia?” Marc finds us with two plates of food in hand.
So that’s her name. “Sort of. You know her?”
“Not really, but I know he’s been seeing her since before the summer started.”
I watch Jonas talk with his mom. She’s still holding that glass. He says something to her that elicits a bright laugh. Her entire face transforms. She looks so young. Something about the way she smiles at him pulls at my heartstrings.
“You think she’d come here?” I ask. Jonas catches my eye and winks at me. My cheeks warm.
“Doubt it,” Marc answers around a mouthful of food.
I watch him eat, equally amused and grossed out. “It’s good?”
“Hella.” He shoves another spoonful of a little bit of everything on his plate in his mouth. “He’d probably get tight.”
“If she came here?” Nadia. It’s a pretty name.
Before I can ask why, I feel a hand on the small of my back and turn to see Jonas with my plate of food. Everything looks and smells amazing up close, and my stomach rumbles again. I take my plate from him and he hands me a water bottle, “All good?”
A small part of me melts, and I nod. “Thank you.”
“Don’t worry about it. Where we eating? Downstairs?” he asks Marc and Rosie.
“Yeah, let’s go.” Marc heads to their finished basement and the rest of us follow.
The four of us splay across their sage green sectional that faces a large flatscreen TV. The football game that’s on serves more as background noise than actual entertainment. I’m more focused on clearing this plate, anyway.
“You’re really enjoying your eats.” Jonas peers at me, smug.
“I sure am,” I reply, shamelessly working the cartilage off a chicken bone. Nella eyes me from under Ro’s legs and I toss her what I can’t finish.
He wipes his mouth with a napkin, crumples it, and drops it on his clear plate. “What was your favorite thing on that plate?”
“Um,” I look down at what was a full dish moments ago. If he wasn’t watching me I’d lick this plate clean. “Probably the…” I trail off.
“You can’t decide?”
I shake my head, snickering. “It was all too good. Auntie did the damn thing this year.”
“And did,” Marc proclaims, working on his third plate. At eighteen, it’s not surprising that his appetite grows each year, but I’d be lying if I didn’t find it partially concerning.
“How are you related to Marc and Rosie?” Jonas turns to face me and lifts his legs onto the cushion between us. His feet are maybe an inch from my thigh.
“My mom and their dad are cousins.” I prop my elbow on the armrest and rest my head on my relaxed fist. “So, we’re technically second cousins, but blood is blood. The specifics don’t really matter to me.”
He nods. “Heard that.”
I see an opportunity to feign ignorance. “How do you know them?”
His eyes linger on the TV, but there’s a distant look in his eye. “Our moms are friends.”
“From Haiti?” I ask, trying to coax more information from him.
“No, they met when my mom came to the States. Mutual friend, I think.”
“Oh, ok.” Unsatisfied, I add, “This is your first Thanksgiving here, though?”
“Yeah, we usually celebrate with my dad’s side of the family.”
Getting somewhere. “What happened this year?”
He shrugs and finally looks at me. “Your aunt makes better food.”
That probably isn’t a lie, but it isn’t the truth I was hoping for. I wonder if he told Nadia about his father. I don’t like the expression pulling at his face, so I decide to change the topic. I poke his foot. “What was your favorite thing on your plate?”
“Definitely that ham,” he answers automatically, a small smile appearing on his face. “Whatever’s left of that is going home with me.”
“Imagine,” I laugh. “You got a house full of Haitians plotting on that ham. I’d be surprised if there’s any left to take home.”
Marc stands. “I’m gonna go look for dessert, y’all want anything?”
Jonas lifts his hand. “Yeah, I can get some—”
“You got me a plate?” Marc interrupts, pointing at him. Jonas falls silent. I chuckle.
“Right.” Marc makes his way upstairs.
“That wasn’t crazy?” Jonas asks Rosie and me.
“You wanted some of the coconut cream pie?” Rosie asks him, rising to her feet.
“Yes, please.” He offers her an endearing smile.
She looks at me, and I shake my head, “I’m OK.” She disappears up the stairs.
Jonas pokes my thigh with his big toe, grinning.
“What?” I ask.
“Tell me something.”
I eye him, skeptical. “If I tell you something, you tell me something.”
“OK. You first.”
Let’s start safe. “My favorite color is brown.” I tug at my brown hoodie.
He smiles. “It suits you.” My cheeks warm at the complement. “I like black.”
I nod, and we fall silent. Hm, maybe not that safe? “I’ve only been in one relationship.”
He squints at me, likely catching on. He gestures to the TV. “I’m not a huge football person.”
My eyes reach for the ceiling. I guess we’re not going there.
He smirks. “Not juicy enough for you?”
“No, it’s okay. Uh, I’m allergic to amoxicillin.”
He’s quiet for a while. “I’ve only been in one relationship, too.”
I perk up, slightly. “What happened?”
He shakes his head. “It’s your turn, cherie.”
I sigh. Here goes nothing. “He cheated on me.”
His eyes snap onto mine, but his face remains expressionless.
“Because it happened in high school, part of me wants to deny that it was even a real relationship. We were 17. But yeah, while we were dating, I found out he slept with some girl in our grade. She was a cute little Dominican.” I shrug. “The dog in me understands.” I hope my joke covers the hurt that’s still there.
He reaches for the hand that’s resting on my thigh and gives it a squeeze. “That boy is stupid as hell. Fuck him.”
My heart jumps in my chest. I offer a tight smile, grateful, but desperate to move on. “Your turn.”
He squeezes my hand again before letting it go. “In a fight, she told me I’d end up like my dad. We broke up later that same day.”
Finally. “What’s wrong with your dad?”
He lets out a long exhale. “Everything. He hurt my mom. Me.” He chews on his bottom lip, that distant look taking over his face again.
“I’m sorry.” I mumble, gently placing a hand on his ankle.
“Obviously I know I act like him sometimes, he’s my fucking dad, but I’d never hurt my wife or children the way he did. I’d never do some shit like that.” He shakes his head.
I believe him. “Hey.” I squeeze his leg. His eyes find mine. “Fuck him.”
The corner of his lips lift. “Fuck him.”
I release a breath that I didn’t realize I was holding. Wow, that was a lot. And now it’s my turn. “I do hair on the side.”
“Oh yeah?” He smirks at me. “Give me your number, I’ll text you when I need a retwist.”
“Let me see?” I reach for his hair. He lowers his head and leans forward to make it easier for me. I run my fingers along a couple of his black locs. “You started these yourself?”
He nods, still faced down, then shakes his head, swinging his hair wildly.
“I’ve never retwisted freeforms,” I admit, still toying with his hair.
“Practice on me.” He looks up at me, beaming. He drops his phone in my lap. He’s already filled out the contact name as Esther with a brown heart. I melt into the cushions. Damn him.
The house is silent, mostly empty now. Nearly everyone went home around midnight. My parents are staying in a hotel this year since the guest room here got turned into an office. I sleep with Ro in her bed. Jonas sleeps on the couch downstairs. His mom had to work a night shift, so she left soon after dessert was served.
Dessert. The reason I’m awake. I can’t stop thinking about that coconut cream pie. I creep into the kitchen, find the pie in the fridge, and place it on the counter. I take a knife from the drawer, rip a piece of paper towel from the roll, cut a pretty hefty slice, and lay it on the paper. I sit at the island, relishing in the silence.
My mind wanders, but stops at one thing. Jonas. He kissed me on the cheek when he said good night to me. The way he held my face, the feeling of his lips on my skin… What’re the odds that someone like him would show up not even two weeks after I decided to leave boys alone? He listened to me. He did things for me without me asking. Made me laugh. He put a brown heart near my name! That honestly might be what did it for me.
The sound of hastened footsteps and the front door quickly opening and shutting pulls me from my thoughts. I double check the time. 1:42 am. Nella finds me in the kitchen, looks at me, then looks in the direction of the door.
I tip-toe over to the window above the garage, Nella’s claws clicking against the wood floor close behind me. The first thing I see is a silver car that I don’t recognize parked in the driveway. Then I see them. Two figures, shrouded in darkness. I squint, trying to make out who they could be when the motion sensor light picks up their movement and they become partially illuminated.
One of them is a girl. I can just barely see her face. She looks mixed, Black with something else. Maybe Spanish? She’s wearing a bonnet and what looks like pajamas. Even from here I can tell she’s small.
The other person has their back to me, but I know it’s Jonas.
Is that Nadia?
I watch them speak, wondering what she’s doing here at this time.
She’s someone I see sometimes.
Realization hits and my stomach drops. I remember that their business is not my business and turn away. Nella moves from behind me and jumps onto the couch to look outside.
“Smart girl.” I scratch her sides. “It’s okay, let’s go back to sleep.”
The motion sensor lights turn off, but Nella lingers, her eyes laser focused on where they stand.
I look at the two of them again. They’re standing closer to each other now. I don’t want to see what I think is about to happen, so I gently pull Nella towards me. “Come on, girl,” I whisper. I’m shocked when she resists me. A low growl rumbles from her throat.
My heart picks up in my chest. I feel tense as I watch them intently. I wish I could hear them. I notice the window is slightly ajar and I lean closer to the opening. A cold breeze seeps through the crack and slides around my neck, sending shivers down my spine.
“Your phone don’t work? I’ve been texting you all day,” she hisses.
“The fuck is the matter with you?” I hear Jonas whisper-shout. The anger in his voice fills me with dread. He sounds like a completely different person.
“Fuck you,” she spits back at him.
“The fuck you just say to me?” He steps closer to her.
I’d never hurt my wife the way he did.
“You heard me. You think you’re a big man, huh?”
“Stupid bitch, watch your fucking mouth.”I push myself away from the window, my heart pounding against my ribs. I don’t want to hear any of this. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice the motion sensor lights turn on again. Ignoring every instinct in my body, I look back outside. What I see rips the air from my lungs.
Nadia is clutching her cheek, tears streaming down her face. Jonas jabs his finger in her face, and she swats his hand away, angrily wiping at her tears. I suck in a sharp breath and my hand flies to my mouth as his rises to strike her again. I shut my eyes before he makes contact.
I stumble away from the window. My hands tremble uncontrollably. I sink to the floor when my legs threaten to give out from under me. Tears wobble in my eyelids. Nella slowly treads over to me and lays at my side. I let one tear fall and several soon follow suit.
I’d never do some shit like that.
My heart breaks for her. For us. Nadia. I wonder if he calls her cherie after he hits her.