Beginning note: By popular demand, my next short story was about Akilah. Some of you do want to know more about Rafael’s past, which I’ll get to. A younger harder, meaner, no-fucks-given Rafael is going to be fun but challenging. And I know a lot of you really want some stories about Akilah and Rafael after All the Hidden Things and before its epilogue but that has to wait until after Best Laid Plans for reasons that you’ll know when you read Best Laid Plans (hint, hint). More notes at the end
My family talks about me as though my refusal to talk also impairs my hearing. If I felt like it would be worth talking to them and that it would benefit me to do so, I’d tell them that. As it is, when I’ve talked to my aunt in the past, she has a tendency to hear me without listening to me and it’s better I know exactly what they have planned in store for me upfront so they don’t catch me by surprise.
“I don’t know what to do with her, mom. She goes to school. She comes home. She locks herself in the room. She has to be sneaking out of there at night to get something to eat because she doesn’t even come out for dinner,” Aunt Jazz says.
Actually, I just stop and get something to eat on the way back here. I have my own money. It’s not that hard to figure out.
“Don’t talk about her like she’s not sitting right there,” my grandma chides.
I can feel my Aunt Jazz’s gaze on me sitting on the couch from where she sits at the kitchen table with my grandma.
“Doesn’t matter. She doesn’t respond to anything.”
“Maybe because you don’t give her anything worth responding to,” Grandma snaps. “Maybe I should take a page out of her book because on a lot of days I wish I could just ignore you and not respond to your stupid shit.”
And this is why, despite the fact that we don’t agree on anything, my grandma is the shit. We may always bicker, but she’s always stood up for me even if she fusses at me later for the same thing she defended me for. Too bad she won’t move back to Atlanta from Colorado. I’d live with her. To be honest, I’m still a little angry with her about that. Even if it makes me sound like a spoiled brat.
I tune out the rest of their conversation because they’re not and continue to read on my kindle. Lately, all I’ve been reading is romance novels. They’re sometimes a little predictable and rarely do they surprise me and there needs to be more in the mainstream that feature black people, but they take me to a happy place. It’s nice to read about people who get their happily ever after despite the hardship. It’s so uncommon in real life. And while I’ll never admit it to anyone because I don’t want anyone to even get the idea that I think a man is the indication that a woman has made it in life, to get a happily ever after with a guy just like the novels would be nice. Well, maybe not just like them. I’m not dating a jerk.
Eventually, my grandma comes to sit next to me on the couch. I glance back to see if my aunt is still at the kitchen table, but she’s gone. Probably to her room.
“Akilah,” Grandma says with a sigh, her bracelets dangling on her wrists, “Baby. Do you have to make this more difficult than it already is for us?”
I press my lips together and keep my eyes on my kindle, even though I’m no longer reading. Me? Making it more difficult for them? What about how difficult they’re making things for me? My brother just died less than a year after my mother did and not once has anyone stopped to ask what I want, just shuffling me around like my opinion about any of this has no value. Mom and Amar, while they didn’t always understand me, didn’t do that.
When I don’t answer, Grandma adds, “We can’t make this easy for you if you don’t try to cooperate with us.”
The problem isn’t me cooperating with them but them cooperating with me. And since they won’t give on their end, I won’t give on mine.
When I keep looking at my kindle, swiping two pages to keep up appearances even though I haven’t finished reading the previous pages, Grandma finally gives up talking to me. Instead, she stands up and asks, “You hungry? How about fried chicken? The spicy kind?”
I pause at that. I may be largely ignoring and not talking to my family, but Grandma’s spicy fried chicken is life. Not to mention she asked me what I wanted.
I look up at her warily.
“Yeah. That got your attention,” she says with a roll of her eyes. “With mac ‘n’ cheese and green beans?”
I nod. What can I say? I’m a southern black girl from Atlanta at heart.
Then I say the first words I’ve said to any of my family in days, “No fatback in the beans.”
“So now you wanna talk? If you gone be so particular about how you want your food, you gone help me cook it,” Grandma says.
It’s not like I made a wild request that would make cooking the beans harder. If anything, I’m making it easier on her because it’s one less step. But at least she asked me what I wanted. And at least she isn’t like my aunt who said I was going to eat whatever the hell she cooked, however the hell she cooked it regardless of what I don’t eat.
I nod and put my kindle down on the side table next to the lamp and stand from the couch. Grandma shakes her head but smiles as she guides me into the kitchen.
I hate Keisha, my social worker.
First, after my brother died, she somehow found out that instead of living with my aunt like I was technically supposed to have been doing since my brother deployed again, I was living by myself. And she made me pack up my stuff to take to my aunt’s house.
I don’t see why it was such a big deal. I’ve known how to pay bills since I was nine. I’ve known how to work an oven and stove for longer. I’ve slept in a house by myself while my mother worked overnight since I was twelve. I know how to take care of myself. The one time I want the system to fail so I can slip through the damn cracks, the system decides to work.
Now, after my Aunt Jazz complained about me being a delinquent because I don’t come straight home from school every day and get home at ten o’clock and then lock myself in my room and refuse to talk to anyone, Keisha has recommended I go to counseling.
Apparently, my behavior is a psychological reaction to the traumatic loss of both my mother and my brother in less than a year. And then Aunt Jazz added in some bullshit about my granddaddy dying a couple of years ago too and went with it because she doesn’t know what to do with me. I wanted to tell her that she’d know what to do with me if she tried, but my silent streak with my family has been going for almost a solid three months now, and I want to see how long I can hold out.
To be clear, I don’t have anything again people who get counseling. And I don’t think it means you’re weak if you need someone to talk to. Ijust don’t need counseling.
At least Keisha had the sense to make sure my counselor was a black lady. She wears bright red lipstick that stands out prettily against her brown skin. And she’s got her hair in one of those curly hairstyles that the natural hair girls do on YouTube which surprises me because I don’t see a lot of professional black women wear their hair natural for work. My mother used to always press hers pin straight when she had a job interview and most days for that short time she had a “fancy” receptionist job.
“How about we start with an introduction?” she suggests. “My name’s Jacquelyn. But everyone calls me Jackie. What’s your name?”
I’m not going to answer that. She already knows my name. It’s in the file she’s already started about me.
I shrug and watch for a flicker of irritation to skirt across her face like it does on my aunt’s face when she asks me something and I refuse to say anything. It doesn’t. Instead, Jackie says, “I know what you’re thinking. I already know your name. But that may not necessarily be what you want to be called.”
Well. Look at that. An adult who actually cares about what I want.
When I still don’t answer, Jackie asks, “Can I call you Akilah?”
I was ready for her to pronounce it wrong so I could shake my head and then have her really confused. But she actually got it right on the first try. Uh-key-luh.
I decide to give her that win and nod.
“Great. Let’s get started. Where would you like to start?”
She’s the shrink. Isn’t this her job?
I don’t say anything, and Jackie doesn’t seem bothered by the silence that falls in the room, choosing to just sit silently with me. I try not to seem intrigued by that. But in the last few months that I’ve been doing this silent treatment thing with my family and at my new school, no one has just sat with me in silence. They just think I’m weird.
I wonder how long she’ll hold out the whole hour I’m supposed to be here. Well, the next fifty minutes since we’ve already taken up ten. I wonder if I can hold out fifty minutes. My aunt wouldn’t let me bring my phone or my kindle, so I’ve got nothing to pass the time.
It doesn’t seem like Jackie is going to let me play that game though.
“Akilah, I know damn well you don’t want to sit and stare at me for the next fifty minutes and neither do I. So how about this? You ask anything you want about me,” Jackie says.
I raise my eyebrows. She must be desperate to get me to talk. She also can’t know what she’s getting herself into by asking me that.
“Go ahead,” Jackie urges.
She asked for it.
I start simply.
“How old are you?”
Jackie’s poker face breaks as she looks at me in confusion. “What do you mean leaning?”
“Like on a sliding measurement of being bi, are you more likely to date a man but you’ll date women too or are you more likely to date a woman but you’ll date men too?”
Jackie nods in understanding and says, “The latter.”
“What are you most afraid of?”
“That’s a loaded question. What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. It can be anything.”
Jackie pauses to think about it for a minute before saying, “Pigeons.”
I blink and don’t say anything. She has to be shitting me. And if that’s what she’s going to do, shit with me in some misguided attempt to get me to open up? Well, I guess we’ll both be sitting here in miserable silence for the next forty-five minutes.
“Serious,” Jackie says as though reading my mind. “Pigeons.”
“Not… nuclear war or bringing another black child into a world that will love what they do but not who they are or I don’t know. Growing up successful, but alone and not having anyone to be there with you?”
“Have you actually just looked at pigeons?” Jackie asks while writing something down on her legal pad and circling it. “They’re fat. Ugly. Congregate in huge groups to cover up one area while not giving a damn about who or what’s around.”
“I guess that’s true, but they don’t hurt anybody.”
“I wouldn’t put it past them. They are the poster bird for evil.”
“How do you have an office downtown, and you’re afraid of pigeons?”
“I avoid them when I have to walk around.”
I stare at Jackie for a moment, still not convinced that she’s not messing with me. But I feel like if she were trying to manipulate me into opening up, she’d go with something a lot more convincing and believable for her greatest fear than pigeons.
“That’s fucking ridiculous. So ridiculous that I’m going to believe you. For now,” I add. I don’t want her getting any ideas.
Jackie shrugs and then says, “Do you mind if I ask you something now?”
I actually do mind but… hell. If she’s getting paid for this, I might as well make her do her job. I shrug in answer, hoping she takes that as a yes.
She does and asks, “You mentioned earlier about growing up successful but alone and not having anyone there with you.”
“Because that would have been a lot more believable than being afraid of fucking pigeons.”
Jackie nods in agreement and continues, “Is that your fear? Growing up successful but alone?”
“I was just using it as an example.”
“I know. I just want to know if it had any meaning to you.”
“No,” I say flatly as I sink down in my chair and cross my arms. “I mean I’m used to being alone. My mom was always working and then my brother went off. And even when they were there, they weren’t in a way. But being alone is no big deal. I’d rather be successful and alone than be around people I can’t stand or are assholes to me all the time. Or being around people and still feeling alone.”
“Okay,” Jackie says as though it’s no big deal but it reminds me of the way my brother would say “okay” to me when I told him my opinion about something, and he disagreed but wasn’t going to argue with me. Just that he was going to let me believe what I said for the moment.
“What are you most afraid of then?” Jackie asks.
Why do I feel like I’ve been cornered? Like in the romance novels I read where the hero corners the heroine and she has nowhere to go and is forced to give in to his whims which makes her realize she’s wanted him all along. This isn’t totally like that. Those situations are problematic at best, and I keep reading those types of romance novels despite knowing that. But Jackie’s not forcing me to answer. I can always just refuse to say anything. But… why do I feel like whether I answer or don’t answer, I’m doing exactly what Jackie wanted anyway?
“I don’t know,” I finally say with my arms crossed.
Somehow after that, Jackie turns my questioning her into also questioning myself because she asks me back every question I ask her which makes me more careful about what I ask her. Some questions are easy. But even being careful, I keep getting that cornered feeling and I feel like Jackie has learned a lot more about me than I think I’m giving her.
Before I know it, the hour’s up.
My aunt is waiting for me out in the waiting area when Jackie walks me out.
“Hope she didn’t give you a hard time,” my aunt says.
Jackie smiles. “Not at all. We had a very enlightening discussion.”
I don’t know if I’d call therapy a discussion but I guess.
“To have a discussion would mean she’d have to say something.”
I glare at Aunt Jazz for that one. I want to say that I always have something to say but just don’t find her worth saying it to, but then that would defeat the sentiment.
Jackie doesn’t respond to my aunt either and instead says, “Bye, Akilah. I’ll see you next week?”
She asks that like my family is giving me a choice. But I guess I won’t complain about coming back or avoid going to my aunt’s house to get out of it.
I don’t hate Keisha anymore. And I like Jackie.
She’s a good listener. And I know it’s her job to listen to people talk about their problems, but it’s also someone’s job at Walmart to manage the self-checkout area but they’re never there to manage it when people have issues with the machines.
I don’t have any issues and Jackie definitely disagrees with me on that though she won’t outright say it, but she acts like the fun-loving aunt I wish I had. She doesn’t even laugh when I tell her about my spirit. She’s even patient when I can’t quite explain what it is beyond a really good or sometimes really bad feeling about something.
Like I knew the night my mom was going to die, even though she had been feeling better than she had in a long time and had enough energy to stay up and watch the movies running on television in leading up to Halloween. I just leaned against her with my ear resting against her heart to listen to her heartbeat and my arms around her while we watched Nightmare before Christmasin the dark. One minute she was laughing at the movie and the next she was dozing off until she finally fell asleep and then, I don’t know how long it was, I couldn’t hear her heart anymore.
I also knew my brother wasn’t coming back from his last tour and fought him tooth and nail after my mother died for him to not to sign up to go back in the first place. He thought I was just being clingy and had abandonment issues from my mom dying and promised when he came back it was going to be me and him. We were going to travel inside and outside the US using some of the insurance money that he cashed out from mom’s life insurance policy that Grandma had apparently been paying for forever. And then he was going to go to school with some of it and then put the rest aside for me to go to college and law school one day.
It’s been a while since I’ve had a good feeling though. And lately, my spirit hasn’t spoken to me at all.
Jackie’s also making me write in a diary. She calls it a journal. Same thing to me.
Anyway, Jackie thinks I’m not allowing myself to make meaningful connections with people and pushing everyone away, and apparently, that’s not healthy. So she wants me to write about the times I do make those connections. Whatever the hell that means.
I would have argued with Jackie about it more but we made a deal. She convinces my aunt to get me the dog I told her I’ve always wanted but my mother and brother wouldn’t let me have—a Rottweiler—and I make sure to write in the journal.
I think she told my aunt it was part of my therapy. I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but I don’t really care because on Christmas—which while I refuse to celebrate for a multitude of reasons that only start with its over-commercialization and encouraging people to go into debt to show how much they supposedly care for people, but I’m not turning down free shit—my uncle brings a furry eight-week-old Rottweiler puppy into the living room.
I squeal and practically snatch her, carefully, from him when he passes her to me. And we bond instantly as she barks excitedly in my arms. I at both my aunt and uncle. And though I’m still not going out my way talk to anyone in my family, I say, “Thank you.” They’ve earned that.
“You better be thankful,” Aunt Jazz says. “Took enough damn time trying to find you that thing. Who the damn hell knew there was so much work in getting a God damn dog? You ain’t getting shit for your birthday either.”
I have the incredible urge to ask her if it ever occurred to her that not saying anything sometimes would make people like her better, but I resist. I’m going to be grateful. Even if I still don’t like living here.
“And I’m not training it either. And make sure that thing don’t piss or shit in my damn house.”
The puppy’s name is Emma. And the next morning, when we’re outside and I’m looking at YouTube videos on how to train my new rottie and Emma’s wrestling with a toy next to me, she’s the first thing I write about in my journal.
At Jackie’s urging, I finally tell my aunt that I have a job at a bookstore after school which is why I don’t come home until late and how I always have extra cash so she’ll stop thinking I’m selling drugs or something.
Okay. That’s only partly true. Yes, I have a job at a bookstore. No, I don’t sell drugs. But that doesn’t mean I’ve never helped a drug dealer by holding onto drugs before and that I don’t have some cash still left over from that. But that’s a secret I’m taking to my grave.
Speaking of said drug dealer, I haven’t seen Rew in a while. Not since before I got his message about the police watching me for an “unofficial” investigation and that I shouldn’t try to contact him or anyone involved in his marijuana business until his inside people give me the clear that they’re not watching anymore.
I would write about him in my journal but that’s probably not something I should just write about in a journal people can easily get their hands on. Still. Rew always looked out for me and respected me. Ish. The straight up telling me at fourteen that he wanted to fuck me and get me pregnant after I was overage (sixteen in Georgia) and then trying to actually come onto me after he came to see me after my mother died until I threatened to shoot him with the gun he gave me kinda calls the respect into question.
I sometimes write about the customers I see coming in and out the bookstore, and I write about my best friend, Blanche. She’s a gossip and has a bit of a mean streak against other girls who date the guys she wants to date and fuck with, but she’s okay. I’ve never given her anything about me that she could gossip to anyone else about. Not that anyone would care about anyway.
“You should get a boyfriend,” she tells me when I’m over her house one day.
We don’t see each other every day like I used to since my aunt refused to drive me across town to my old high school and switched me to one that’s closer, but we hang out on weekends.
I scrunch up my face at that.
“Oh, come on. They’re fun.”
“What’s your definition of fun?” I ask.
Blanche closes her left hand to just before it becomes a fist and sticks her pointer finger through the space.
“Yeah. Not for me,” I say.
“Why not? You know Willie? Light-skinned guy on the basketball team.”
“He asked me out once.”
“You didn’t tell me that. Did you go?”
“Because he’s an idiot,” I say with a roll of my eyes. To be fair, he may not be an idiot but he definitely wasn’t interested in talking about anything that I wanted to when he sat with me outside school during lunch one day.
“But he’s got a great meat game. You should have tried it for that.”
I shake my head. “I don’t wanna have sex like that, Blanche.”
“What do you mean like that? Sex is just sex.”
“It is. But it’s not.”
Blanche rolls her eyes at me and says something in Spanish.
“I’ve told you about talking to me when I can’t understand you.”
“You’ve got to stop reading them romance novels. You think some big fine hunk is just going to sweep you off your feet and he’s going to be your first everything and you’re going to live happily ever after? That’s what you want?”
“No,” I say. But the answer is really a lot more complicated than that. I just don’t want to date someone because everyone else is doing it and some guy says some sweet, flattering words about me to get in my pants. I at least want to have something in common. To have a conversation. To get to know him a little. To know he’s at least a good guy I can feel good about making the choice to have sex with even if all we’re going to get together is a “happy for now” until we go to college and go our separate ways instead of a “happily ever after.”
“Then what do you want?” Blanche insists.
I shrug. “My spirit will tell me when I find it.”
She scoffs. “Your so-called spirit is going to have you an old, lonely, grumpy virgin if that’s what you’re waiting on.”
“I don’t judge you for being promiscuous. You don’t judge me for wanting to wait for the right one.”
“I’m not promiscuous!”
I grin at that. “How many guys on the basketball team besides Willie have you hooked up with?”
“How do you know I hooked up with Willie?”
“How else do you know he has a good meat game?”
“Girl’s locker room talk,” Blanche shoots back.
“Sounded like you pretty intimately knew how great his meat was,” I say as my grin widens.
Finally, Blanche bursts out laughing and says, “This is why I’m friends with you. Lil smart ass bitch.”
I fall out laughing with her.
I make sure my aunt and uncle don’t hear me come in the house. Mostly because I’m tired and just want to get in the bed with Emma and I don’t feel like dealing with my aunt’s attempts to connect with me and care about what she thinks I’m into.
I creep up the stairs and am just about to go into my room when I hear my aunt and uncle talking in their room at the end of the hall. Normally, I’d ignore it but then I hear my aunt say, “If we don’t do something she won’t have a fucking house to live the in. It benefits her.”
I frown. Are they talking about me?
I silently creep a little closer to their room to listen.
“And it won’t be a lot. Won’t even put a dent in it. There’s like three hundred grand from that policy her brother cashed out when her mom died alone. She won’t miss a few tens of thousands, especially when we giving her free rent. And once we pay the credit cards and everything off, we can just put it back,” Aunt Jazz continues.
They are talking about me. Specifically, the money my mom and brother left me. Even more specifically, they’re talking about using it to pay off their debts. Debts they got long before they took me in. And they’re suggesting doing it without telling me.
“Maybe we could do that,” my uncle agrees. “We could have it put back by the time Akilah’s eighteen more or less. She wouldn’t notice anyway.”
I think the fuck not.
My tiredness forgotten, I stomp down the hall to their room and burst the door open and say, “Don’t you fucking touch it! It’s mine!”
Aunt Jazz turns to look at me from where she’s sitting rolling up her hair.
“What the damn hell you barging in here for with all that yelling and cussing?”
“You’re going to use my money to pay for your fuck-ups! And you weren’t even going to tell me. You can’t do that. My mom and brother left that for me so I would be taken care of and could go to school without worrying about paying for it.”
“I’m tired of your god damn attitude. Don’t wanna talk for months and then the first time you say more than a sentence to me living in my damn house it’s to prove how ungrateful your ass is. We are making sure you’re taken care of. That’s why—”
“You didn’t even want me here!” I say raising my voice over her. “I didn’t want to be here. I was fine living by myself until Keisha made me pack my bags and come here. You want me to be grateful for something I didn’t even ask for, and you haven’t even tried to accommodate me in the name of deprogramming of all the ideas my mom let me put in my head and instilling discipline in me like I wasn’t getting up and going to school and paying bills without you and like you’re not the one in a bunch of debt because you’ve got a gambling problem and lost your job because you went on a girl’s trip when your boss told you you couldn’t get time off.”
“Who the hell told you that?”
“I wasn’t talking to you. Didn’t mean I was deaf. I hear when you guys are talking like I’m not there,” I say with a roll of my eyes. God. I can’t stand this.
“I don’t have to explain shit to you,” Aunt Jazz says.
“Except when it has to do with my shit that doesn’t belong to you,” I snap. Done with the conversation, I stomp out the room and to my own, ignoring my Aunt Jazz calling behind me.
I slam the door shut and lock it, which wakes Emma, who was sleeping in the corner of my room on her bed. She forgets sleep when she sees me though and barks in excitement before getting up to run around my legs.
I pick her up and take her to bed with me while trying not to cry.
I was fine by myself.
I was fine not being around people who didn’t want me around.
And I don’t really know where I want to go or who I want to be with, but I do know it’s not here.
I text my aunt and uncle that I’m spending the night at a friend’s house after school on Friday. It’s not technically a lie. I just left out the part where said friend lives in Macon, Georgia and not Atlanta. Nor that he’s not really my friend, but my brother’s old friend. And that I didn’t tell my brother’s friend I was coming either.
To my brother’s friend’s credit though, he opens the door, sighs when he sees me, and wordlessly lets me in the house.
“Alex. Who’s that?”
Mallory, or “Mal” as my brother used to call her, comes around the corner with her auburn hair pressed in silk sheets that brush the top of her shoulders and blend in nicely with her copper-colored skin and light brown eyes. She’s picked up some weight since the last time I saw her, but overall she looks good.
“Akilah,” Mallory says before Alex can reply. “What are you doing here?”
Even though her first words weren’t a greeting, I don’t feel unwelcomed as she comes up to me and hugs me tightly. She holds onto me a little longer than necessary, and I guess that’s because I’m the only piece of my brother left available for her to hold.
“I need Alex’s help with something. Legal help.”
Alex rolls his eyes and runs his hands over his mustache and goatee as he says, “What the hell did you get into not even four months since your brother left and need me to get you out of?”
“It’s not my fault,” I say as Mallory finally lets me go but keeps an arm around my shoulders. “It’s the state that’s making me stay with my aunt and uncle so that I need your help to emancipate me.”
“Emancipate?” Alex says as his eyebrows shoot all the way up to his hairline or where it would be if he had any hair.
“Let’s talk about this over dinner,” Mallory suggests and then turns to me and asks, “Up for Mings?”
“You know I’m never turning that place down as long as it’s here,” I reply.
Alex ends up being the one to go pick up the food leaving me and Mallory behind.
Once we’ve settled in the living room after she’s made sure I have something to drink and I take Emma out her kennel and introduce her, Mallory says, “So how have you been, Akilah?”
I shrug. “I feel like I should be the one asking you and Alex that.”
Mallory sighs and says, “Taking it one day at a time. It’s slowly getting better. We’re getting used to Amar not being here with us.”
Amar, Mallory, and Alex were my real life equivalent to Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, and Hermione Granger. Maybe not equivalent. Amar, Mallory, and Alex always seemed to be something more to me. Where there was one, there was always both of the others in some way. I don’t even think they realized what it was or how seamless they were together or how they gravitated to each other. Or maybe they did and just didn’t want to say anything. I get that. Maybe it’s what Amar wanted to talk to me about once he got back. He was vague about it. But he kept saying it was something important and that I needed to know and that he should have told me a long time ago. Guess I’ll never know now.
“So what’s this thing about being emancipated? What even is that?”
I reach into my bookbag and take out my tablet and open a file folder full of the research I did on the subject since three nights ago.
“It’s when you being legally responsible for yourself in the eyes of the law. Normally, it automatically happens when you turn eighteen. But there are some circumstances where a minor can get emancipated early. Essentially, you go before a judge and ask them to make it so that legally you can do everything an eighteen-year-old can do. Ish. Mostly it extends to signing contracts and being legally responsible for yourself. I can’t do something like smoke cigarettes. But I could even get married without a guardian’s consent. At least, that’s how I understand it from the law I looked up. Though that depends largely on what judge you get in front of so I’ve read. But I’m not trying to do that. I just want to be able to take the money my mom and brother left me out of trust and go back home and finish out high school where I was supposed to. And when I looked at the terms of trust for my account, it said that all control turned over to me once I became emancipated and—”
“Akilah. Hold on,” Mallory interrupts. “You’re going too fast. I’ve never heard of this. I never even knew it was something you could do.”
“I didn’t either until I looked it up,” I say and instead of trying to explain it to her, I hand her my tablet. “All my research is there. Not sure how reliable it is because it is Google, but that’s why I’m here to talk to Alex.”
On cue, Alex returns with the food. And while I chew on a chicken on the stick and he eats General Tso’s chicken, I explain to him my plan.
“I don’t know about this, Akilah,” Alex says.
“That’s why you’re the lawyer. It’s your job to go find out about it.”
“I didn’t agree to be your lawyer. Let’s get that totally straight before you go running off with this idea.”
He’s not going to tell me he’s not going to be my lawyer. I know that. So I just continue.
“You do this all the time. You work in family law. You fight for children to be placed with one parent or another or even be taken away from someone. It’s not different.”
“It’s a lot different. I’ve fought for children to go from one person’s custody to another. Not to totally take them from anyone’s custody so they can take care of themselves.”
“First time for everything,” I declare with a shrug.
Alex looks at me incredulously while I continue to eat on my chicken. Emma climbs onto my lap from where I placed her on the floor, and I have to hold the stick out her reach. I may love my dog, but I ain’t about that white shit where you eat after your dog and let the dog eat after you.
Instead, I put my food down and then grab a fresh stick out my plate before plucking off a piece of chicken and feeding it to her. It’s just grilled chicken. Nothing that will hurt her.
Finally, Alex says, “Say I helped you. You got any proof that you can take care of yourself as well as you say you can?”
I hand Alex the tablet I handed Mallory earlier, but this time with the folder containing everything I thought I might need to convince Alex to help me open.
“Is this your brother’s bank account?” he asks as he scrolls through.
“It was. I just didn’t tell the bank he was dead so I could still have access to it. I also have a job. And the house my mother left me and my brother. And I’ve been paying the bills because my mom would forget since I was nine. And if I can get the emancipation, I can get all my inheritance out of trust because the terms specifically said it’s turned over to my control at the age of eighteen or emancipation. Whichever is first.”
“Akilah, it’s not going to be just about the fact that you can practically take care of yourself. The court’s going to want to know if you have the emotional maturity and savvy to take care of yourself.”
“For someone who doesn’t know anything about this, you sure do know a lot about this,” I point out. “And the government is letting emotionally immature and not savvy eighteen-year-olds sign themselves into hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of student loan debt. I feel like if no one has a problem with that, they shouldn’t have a problem with the sixteen-year-old who actually has the cash taking care of herself.”
“The law doesn’t care about what people feel. It’s the law.”
“Technically the law is based off of what people feel. It doesn’t just come out a vacuum,” I say. I know this because I listen to law podcasts from actual lawyers and law students when I’m at work.
“We still have to follow it.”
“Just about all great black liberators would disagree with you. Especially on particular matters called slavery and Jim Crow.”
Alex sighs. “Okay.”
“Okay?” I ask, not sure what he means by that.
“Look here. If you want me to do this, you’re going to have to help me.”
“By staying out of trouble and keeping your mouth shut one,” Alex says with a pointed look.
“That’s easy. I’m not talking to anyone anyway.”
“And I’m going to need people who will vouch for you. Professionals.”
I nod, pretty sure I can persuade Keisha to sign onto this. She told me outright if she didn’t have to take me to my aunt and uncle that she wouldn’t have. Jackie… she’s going to be harder. But I think I can convince her.
Alex sighs again. Then he says, “God. I hope I don’t regret this.”
Like I predicted, Jackie wasn’t totally keen on the idea of my emancipation, worried that it would just make me go back to withdrawing from people and prevent me from making meaningful connections. It took an hour of showing her that I’d been filling in the journal, that I had even been trying not to be such a brat to my aunt and uncle, and a lot of begging to get her on board. Keisha was going to be easy to convince anyway, but once I got Jackie on board it was even easier.
I expected my aunt and uncle to be angry at me when Alex finally filed the papers (a petition he called it) in court and they were served the notice. But my uncle just shrugged and my aunt just rolled her eyes and said, “If she wants to take care of herself, let her. She’ll come running back when she gets a taste of the real world.”
Grandma makes a big fuss over it when I call her and tell her what I’m planning to do. But she does it in that way that makes me think she doesn’t really believe it’s something I’m actually going to even be able to go through with. I half expect her to come from Colorado to intervene, but she doesn’t. That’s the good thing about my Grandma being retired. She’s not as quick on her feet as she used to be.
All in all, getting emancipated is much easier than I thought it would be. My aunt and uncle don’t object, even though Alex told me to prepare for the possibility. They definitely don’t show up for the hearing. Keisha and Jackie give their sworn statements for me. A judge looks over the information proving I have the means to take care of myself. She slams the gavel. It’s done.
I’m almost disappointed that it was this easy. Only almost. I’m tired of being around people who only barely put up with me.
I still have to check in with Keisha every couple of months so she can make sure I’m doing okay. But for the purposes of law, I’m an adult.
I can do whatever the fuck I want.
School’s out for the summer so I have nowhere to go in the morning. I don’t have to go to work, and I’m in no particular rush to go back to my aunt’s house to get what few things I left over there. I’ve got my bookbag, my electronics, my old house key, Emma (the judge side-eyed me just a little for bringing Emma in her kennel with me, but I’m sure she’d seen stranger) and most of my stuff is still in the quaint little three bedroom house I was raised in. I really didn’t care what the judge had said. I wasn’t going back to my aunt and uncle’s house.
I take an Uber home. And once I’ve dropped most of my stuff next to the door and let Emma out her kennel so she can explore her new home, I start to go to my old room. Then I remember that this is really my place now and head for the master bedroom.
I should probably clean up. No telling how much dust has collected and what kinda bugs have passed through. And I need to go get some boxes to pack up all my brother’s and mother’s things and… do something with it. But that can all wait until tomorrow. Hopefully when I can get the electricity on.
Before it gets dark, I find my old battery charged clip-on lamp. I bought it as a smart ass response to my mother telling me when I was younger that as long as she paid the bills she didn’t care how late I wanted to stay up but I wasn’t gone use her electricity after ten o’clock. So I used the battery-powered lamp to read at night.
I clip the lamp onto the headboard of the queen sized bed and turn it on before getting under the covers with Emma to read more romance novels on my kindle.
“So I guess I’ve got the inside info on where the parties are going to be from now on,” Blanche says one day when she comes over to help me set up a new coffee table and entertainment system from IKEA.
The only thing I haven’t had to replace in the living room is the couch because I threw the old one out and got a new one after my mom died. It had just felt weird keeping the couch she died on. When I sat on it, it felt like she was still sitting next to me.
“I’m not throwing any parties here,” I say bluntly.
“Oh come on, Akilah!”
“My emancipation is only a piece of paper right now. They can take it back. I’m not fucking that up. And keep your damn mouth shut about it. If I hear someone talking about this, I know it’s because you told them.”
“I’m not going to say anything.”
I glare at her while sliding a shelf in place.
“I’m not!” Blanche assures. “Jeez. You’re mean.”
That’s why gossip about me doesn’t come out her mouth. Because she knows anything she could say to try to embarrass me, no matter how true, wouldn’t rattle me to the point where I wouldn’t be able to tell her about herself in front of our entire school. Yeah. I know. Me and Blanche have a strange relationship.
“No parties then. But what about—”
“I’m not bringing guys here to hook up with.”
“But you’ve got the teenage dream! No parents to cockblock or make you keep the door open or to just generally dodge. You can’t just leave that on the table like that. I can give you some suggestions.”
“The boys would be all over you. Especially the white boys. They love dark skinned girls. You’re exotic to them.”
I look up at Blanche again and then shake my head as I stand so we can shift the entertainment center into place.
“What you just said is so problematic I don’t even need to explain to you why. Don’t say anything like that again.”
“Yeah. You’re right,” Blanche agrees as she helps me shift the entertainment center back.
While I set up the TV and place books and movies on the shelves, Blanche works on the coffee table.
“Hey. Where are you getting all the money for this stuff?”
“At a bookstore.”
“The house is paid for. I just have to pay the taxes and utilities. It’s enough.”
It’s going to be hard enough for Blanche to keep her mouth shut about the emancipated minor thing. I’m not telling her about the money my mother and brother left me.
Mallory helped me with that since she’s an accountant. She helped me separate everything into different accounts and then taught me about interest. And how to just withdraw the interest every year to live off of. And then she told me to come to her about taxes next year when the time came. She even helped me give my aunt and uncle last year’s interest to pay off their debts. It was never that I didn’t want to help them or wouldn’t have. It was that they would have done it without ever asking or telling me. That’s what everything with my family has been about lately.
With the rest of the money, the idea is to ride through the rest of high school, then college, then law school and the bar with it. Then after that? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll buy a car at some point. Or have enough left over to buy a house.
“You sure you don’t want a boyfriend?” Blanche asks again.
Maybe I’ll experiment with dating when I’m in college. When something stupid I do won’t have Keisha running to report me to a judge to reverse my emancipation. Right now, I’m honestly not interested in guys, even though I appreciate the male body.
Before I can answer, Blanche adds, “And I get that high school guys are dumb. I give you that.”
“I didn’t say they were dumb. I just… haven’t found one I have a lot in common with.”
“But what about college guys?”
“I am definitely not dating a college guy and bringing him here.” Then, in a firm tone to let Blanche know I’m done with the topic, I say, “I’m not dating or getting a boyfriend any time soon unless the fates conspire against me and by some miracle I meet my soulmate or something. Otherwise, I don’t want a guy right now. So stop asking.”
I’m usually not this nosy. Okay. Scratch that. I am this nosy but not usually about new people. My philosophy is that if you stay out of my way, I’ll stay out of yours. And even though I’m glad to be back at my old school with familiar people that I grew up with through elementary and middle school; even though people are glad to have me back; even though it’s only been four full school days and already I’ve gotten into a debate with a teacher about the wording of a history textbook, I still stay out people’s way.
But while getting books for biology out my locker, I catch a figure out the corner of my eye. Well, there are two figures really. But only one of them is the reason I turned around.
It’s a boy. Well… I shouldn’t call him a boy. He doesn’t look like a boy. He’s practically a God damn giant. Easily almost as tall as the tallest person on the basketball team. And really wide. Not fat. But wide as in not super lanky looking like my brother looked when he was in high school before he went to basic training. Either way, he’s bigger than I am at my tallest—when I wear heels to give my five foot three-ish three more inches—and my largest—around my period because bloating is a bitch.
He’s got big thick hair down his back that’s not all the way curly but more than wavy and this red-gold brown looking skin. He’s looking down at his tennis shoes with his hands in his pocket like he’s trying to make himself look smaller. And standing with him is a light skinned woman with long brown hair talking to another student getting what looks like is directions judging by the way the student’s hands are moving.
I turn my attention back to the boy though. He looks up, not at me but at the woman standing beside him, and I can just see his face. There’s a certain charm about him. Boyish, I guess. But with a hard edge to him. He looks like this is the last place he wants to be.
He tells the woman next to him something (sister, mother, aunt?), and she hits him in the arm for it. He dramatically grabs the spot where she hit him, and the woman rolls her eyes for what must be the same reason I do. No way that really hurt.
They both start to turn around in the opposite direction, toward the offices I guess and suddenly I get this urge to walk over and say something. Not to the woman. To the boy—Man-boy? Boy-man? I’m not really comfortable calling him either. Something in between maybe?
My spirit’s never led me wrong before, and it’s the first neutral—not necessarily good—feeling that I’ve had in a while. I slam my locker behind me and start to make my way over when Blanche, who I’d forgotten was standing next to me, asks, “Where ya going?”
I blink out my staring to look at her and ask, “Who’s that? Is he new?”
I’m thinking he’s new, but I wasn’t here for sophomore year. He could just be new to me.
“That guy right—” In the couple of seconds it took to talk to Blanche, the guy and the woman aren’t standing there anymore. I look further down the hall to see if I can catch them turning a corner, but no. They’re both gone.
I sigh and say, “Never mind.”
I nod and turn to make sure my locker’s secure while trying to get rid of the nagging feeling that I missed out on something. Even though I’m not sure what.
I write about the guy in my journal when I get home. I may be emancipated but I still have to write in my journal and keep in touch with Jackie. Keisha looks out for my physical wellbeing, and Jackie looks out for the mental and emotional side.
There’s not much to write about him. I only got a quick look at him. I doubt this counts as a “meaningful connection.” He didn’t even see me.
I debate blacking out his entry with a permanent marker but decide to leave it. Jackie would tell me that if it made an impression on me I should keep it, even though it seems stupid. I do decide not to think about the guy again. Whatever my spirit was leading me to, I missed it.
Or that’s what I think until I’m in the girl’s locker room three days later changing for gym.
“Alright girls. Gather round. We need to cross-reference our tea,” says Jayla, a thick and curvy brown-skinned girl with her hair in box braids. And when I say thick and curvy, I mean thick and curvy like Serena Williams. Hourglass figure, thick but slim waist, big hips and breasts. The type that can gain thirty pounds and you can’t tell because it’s not flabby. I wish I could look like that. But if I gain weight it goes to my arms and gives me a stomach pooch.
“Tea about what?” Delilah asks from the corner of the locker room where she’s discreetly changing her clothes. No one thinks anything of it. A lot of us are weird about changing in front of other girls. But I know she’s trans.
She transferred into our middle school in seventh grade, and I saw her estrogen patch and thought it was birth control. I forgot how I put the pieces together after that, but I do know in freshman year when we had to change for a field trip, she wouldn’t come into the lockers with us. The other girls, not oblivious to her discomfort but definitely oblivious to why, began to tease her. After I cut in and made a few, admittedly below the belt, comments about everyone else, I led her to the nurse’s bathroom so she could change there. When she thanked me, I asked her outright if she was trans—that was probably rude in hindsight—and she timidly admitted it. We’re still not really friends, but she knows she can count on me to intervene if anyone’s giving her trouble.
“About the new guy,” Jayla clarifies.
“There’s a lot of new guys,” says another girl in disinterest. “That’s nothing new.”
“This new guy is different. He’s not just a guy. He’s a whole grown ass hot man!” says a white girl sitting with Jayla. She’s the other Delilah, but to prevent confusion, we call her Lil. “And when I say hot, I mean hawt.”
“You think anything with a big dick between its legs is hot, Lil,” Blanche says.
I side-eye Blanche hard for that one. She’s one to talk.
Apparently, Jayla thinks so too because she says what I’m thinking and all of us burst into laughter.
“Okay. Serious, y’all,” Jayla says. “We don’t have a lot of time. Who’s seen him? What do we know about him?”
“Tall black boy. Curly dark hair down his back. Looks kinda built?” asks Shauna.
And suddenly I go from not particularly caring about the guy they’re talking about to super interested because it sounds like the guy I saw three days ago.
Everyone turns to Shauna in interest. She would know who he is. She helps out in the offices sometimes and sees people’s records and keeps tea on anyone interesting.
“He’s from Miami. Nineteen, almost twenty, and in our year.”
I sigh. A dumb one only interested in how he looks. There goes any interest I had there.
“I don’t know why though,” Shauna continues. “He’s super smart. They made him take a test, and he qualified for all the advanced classes except in English and they even suggested he do a dual enrollment with GSU. But he’s missing so many high school credits they made him a junior. But they’re trying to put him on a fast track so he graduates a semester early since he’s already so far behind.”
Okay. Maybe not dumb.
“Why didn’t he just get his GED?” I ask.
Shauna shrugs. “He asked the same thing but his sister wants him to get the high school experience. I think they had a deal for him coming to stay with her, and this is part of it.”
So the woman was his sister. Interesting.
“His name’s Rafael before anyone asks.”
“Ooh,” Lil says and then makes a humming moan sound. “Sexy name for a sexy guy.”
“Hey,” Jayla says directly to Lil. “You keep your lil pale hands away from him, Becky. The black girls got first dibs.”
We stop talking after that because we’re all going to be late if we don’t get out of here soon.
Today for gym we’re outside on the track field. The boys are already there, and I instantly spot Rafael. He pretty much towers over everyone else and sticks out like a sore thumb in a gym shirt that’s obviously too small for him. He seems aware of it too, shifting his shoulders around like that’s going to make more room in it.
Lil wasn’t kidding when she said he was hot. He is absolutely fine. And every straight girl in our class is definitely aware of it. I don’t even normally pay attention to that stuff.
“Damn,” Blanche whispers to me from where we’re standing a few feet behind Rafael. “Look at those shoulders. And that back. And that waist! I’ve got to get tapped by that.”
“What if he’s gay?” I ask.
“God, I pray he’s not gay. Like, harder than I’ve ever prayed for anything.”
I giggle at that, and Rafael turns to look at me and Blanche. Blanche hits me on the arm to make sure I see, but I’ve already caught Rafael’s eye. I smile at him, hoping I’m conveying a “you-need-something” message to him, but he turns right back around.
I laugh a little and whisper, “Okay. Now I’m definitely praying with you. I hope God listens and forgives me for any of my criticisms of organized religion if any of it is actually true.”
Blanche snorts loudly. I hit her in the arm, but it’s too late. We’ve got everyone’s attention now. The teacher included. Great. Now he’s going to go tell everyone that it’s “Miss Ghaliya’s” first week back, and I’m already causing disruptions in class.
“Is there something you want to share with the class, Akilah?”
Some people snicker, and I glare at a few of the culprits before looking at the teacher in annoyance. If he’s going to call me by my first name, he ought to say it right.
I sigh and say, “First? It’s Uh-key-luh. It’s not that damn hard to say. Second, she’s the one who laughed.” I point to Blanche as I say this. “Why am I the one you called out? That said, yes. Yes, I absolutely do have something I’d like to share with the class and because I want to share it I’m going to ignore the blatant colorism at the fact that Blanche is the one who laughed and who everyone heard, yet I’m the one in trouble.”
If he’s going to go back to the teachers and talk about me, I’m going to give him something to talk about. Then I look at Rafael and grin at him. His eyes—they’re dark grey but they didn’t stand out to me before now—narrow a little. But I’m not fazed. If I’m going down, someone else is going down with me. And why not the new guy who everyone is talking about anyway?
I turn back to my teacher and ask, “How the fuck am I supposed to concentrate around that?”
As I say this, I point a finger and nod my head in Rafael’s direction. Then I continue, “I mean look at him. The shirt is so damn tight it’s practically bursting at the seams every time he moves. Every time he so much as twitches, I notice a muscle flex. Put that together with those dark grey eyes and that long wavy dark hair and that flawless golden-brown terracotta-ish complexion and my ovaries are practically screaming at me to go make babies with him because he can provide for and protect offspring no matter how true or untrue that could be which makes it extremely difficult to pay attention to your instruction. All that said, can you please get the dude a bigger shirt because there is no way you expect all of us to concentrate otherwise.”
Everyone’s jaw drops in disbelief at me, and Blanche has her hand over her mouth like she’s trying not to laugh again.
“Miss Ghaliya,” my teacher says in a warning tone.
“Look,” I continue like I’m trying to be reasonable. “Just last week you made one of the girls put on bigger shorts because her ass was supposedly distracting the boys. All I’m saying is that there needs to be some gender equality around here, and if the boys can’t be blamed for being distracted, neither can I be blamed for not paying attention because of those guns. And if that’s the case, he needs to put on a bigger shirt. Unless we want this to be made into a viral social media post. I really don’t think the school needs the bad rep.”
“Akilah,” the teacher says in a tone that makes me just know I’m about to be in so much trouble for this.
“It’s fine,” Rafael suddenly says in a tone that I’m sure is a pitch or two above his normal voice. “I have a shirt in my bag.”
“See how easy that was?” I say but not to my teacher. I say this in Rafael’s direction with an all too innocent grin.
But he’s not grinning. He looks absolutely pissed. That’s weird. Most of the guys would be flexing their guns in pride at my flattery right now because the girl who doesn’t really give two fucks about guys and has turned down every date she’s ever been offered, no matter how fine or popular, admitted she was attracted to them. I don’t know why, but that excites me. For some reason, even though he’s mad, I feel my spirit’s approval that I’ve gotten his attention. It only makes me stretch my grin wider.
“Would you also like to apologize to Mr. Ortiz?” my teacher asks.
“For what?” I say with a shrug. “All the girls can name at least five occasions where one of the guys have done the same thing to us.”
“It’s fine,” Rafael says before the teacher can say anything else. His voice has gone back to what I assume is normal. Smooth. Gentle. Not very deep or rough. It sounds pretty. “I’ll go put on another shirt.”
“I’ll go with him to make sure he doesn’t get lost,” Devonte, a boy on the football team, says and before our teacher can object he runs to catch up with Rafael, who’s already halfway back to the school.
My teacher doesn’t say anything else to me as he continues to instruct the class but I just continue to look where Rafael is making his way back into the school.
In the books I read, especially the romance novels, people always just know when they meet someone that’s going to be important to them. Just a feeling after interacting with that person for the first time. A feeling that they don’t know the significance of until later.
Even though my gaze meeting with his and me embarrassing him—yeah, I’m going to have to apologize for that—can hardly be called an interaction, I think my spirit is sending me one of those feelings. More than just a feeling. A piece of knowledge that I just know, even though I might have pissed Rafael off enough to make him hate me and I have no proof except a stupid feeling.
I just met my husband.
I’m about ninety to ninety-five percent sure of it. And the other part my spirit fills in.
“Okay,” Blanche whispers to me even though I just got in trouble for talking. “I knew you were a crazy bitch, but that was crazy even for you. Really, Akilah?”
I shrug. “He’ll get over it.” I hope he does anyway. He can’t be my future husband if he holds that against me. “I think I’m going to ask him out.”
Ending note: I think it’s made pretty clear in the All the Things series why Rafael fell for Akilah and why he makes certain choices, but it’s not as clear why Akilah falls for him. And that’s because there’s only so much that can be shown about Akilah from Rafael’s point of view. So this is part 1 of Akilah Through the Years. It’s pretty much going to be a bunch of scenes that fill in the blanks of Akilah’s own evolution into woman she is at the end of the series and sheds some light on why she makes the choices she makes, especially where it concerns Rafael.