Gym Hallway

I’m leaning on the wall. Next to the gym, I think. This must be high school, because there are two black guys in front of me. I’ve seen one of them before: he has a dark, shiny scar on his temple. His name is Jio.

Alice is here. She’s behind me. She’s curiously quiet.

Another black guy, who I’ve never seen before, is on the floor. Jio’s eyes are closed. He’s stomping the kid in the stomach and shouting: Pick a fucking side, piece of shit, you pick a fucking side.

Then Jio starts heaving, and stops stomping. He reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out a boxy white inhaler. He jerks his head up and draws on it, hard, once, twice. The third time he looks right at me. Somewhere way down, maybe in his stomach, I think he’s surprised.

Jio frowns. Then he looks out the window, like an idea just turned his head, and he goes back to kicking the kid on the floor. But he starts shouting something again, louder now, like he’s trying to have two conversations at once. He starts wheezing again, though, so he has to say it in phrases: White boy… hey… white boy… where have I seen

And then—oh, no, I’m wrong. My head feels like a water ripple. I lean back and almost fall down the basement stairs. After a few minutes I start to remember.

The coolest woman in the world is in my house. I knew her soon as I saw her. She has short black hair and wears a red and black plaid shirt.

She came in after dinner. Mom put a cookie sheet in the oven, and poured her some wine in the living room. She grew up in our house.

I’m so glad you kept the wallpaper, the coolest woman in the world says. Then she laughs. I mean, it’s just a special joy to see a place you love is in good hands.

I can hear Dad smiling in his chair. I don’t think they know she’s the coolest woman in the world, but I can’t leave, because they might actually ask an important question.

She hasn’t been back for a long time. She went to the old Junior High, when it was open, but says she doesn’t have any good stories. She used to play card games with her brother in the attic, just like my brother and sister do. The stairs creak over my creak. I guess they’re listening, too. Dad yawns.

I smell something funny. Suddenly the dining room door slams open and Mom’s right in front of me, pulling a smokey pan of cookies out of the oven. I crack the door. The woman’s around the corner. I can hear them both perfect now.

This may sound… I… don’t mean to be forward…

Mom’s waving her oven mitt at the cookies. Pardon?

The woman doesn’t make any noise. Like she’s not breathing. Maybe the coolest woman in the world doesn’t need to breathe. There isn’t much time, she says.

Oh, these are already done for, Mom says. She opens the window over the sink. The smoke isn’t sure what to do, so she fans it.

Oh. Thank you, no…. Not the… This is about your… family.

Mom looks up from the cookies. Her whole body pinches a little.

What about my family?

The woman says something I can’t hear.

Excuse me? She puts her oven mitt on the counter and her hands flat on the counter, staring behind the corner. Who are you?

Of course the coolest woman in the world’s not going to tell her who she is. She doesn’t tell anyone that. She lowers her voice. Your family is in danger.

I think you should leave. Mom turns toward me, toward the door. Her eyes get the kind of big like she’s yelling at one of us. The woman raises her voice.

If you want everything—all this—her hands appear around the corner, pointing to the ceiling—to survive, you’re going to have to… to dredge th—

Added: January 1, 2013 | Last changed: May 12, 2016