Lali stood in her mother’s kitchen washing dishes, staring listlessly out of the window over the sink. A car horn blaring in the front of the house broke her out of her trance. Lali didn’t bother to check on the noise. Her neighborhood was blustering with activity at any given time during a Summer Saturday. She continued washing the dishes, this time staring at her own reflection until she was almost completely returned to her autopilot state. Her best friend, Charlotte’s face popped up on the other side of the kitchen window. Her nostrils were flared, and her tongue was slightly poked out, held tightly between her full lips, with only her top two gapped teeth revealed.
Lali squeaked at the unexpected sight before she opened the window and asked, “What are you doing, weirdo? I have a front door.”
“Waiting for you to come outside! You didn’t hear me honking for you?” Charlotte asked excitedly.
“No, well yes, but no. I didn’t know it was you calling out to me. Whose car do you have?”
“Nathan’s.” A mischievous smile flashed on Charlotte’s face.
Lali rushed to dry her hands, “I’ll meet you out front,” she told her friend as she quickly shut the window and booked it to the front entry.
“Bye, Mom! The dishes are done,” Lali yelled over her shoulder before slamming the front door closed behind her.
Lali ran up to Nathan’s brand new, candy red, Jeep Wrangler and jumped in the front seat.
“We removed the doors and top this morning,” Charlotte told her as she shifted in gear and peeled down the street.
“Whoa, what’s the rush?” Lali asked, gripping onto the dashboard for balance.
“He was asleep when I left.”
“Your brother is going to kill you!”
“Us. I think you mean, he’s going to kill us.”
“Because possession is nine-tenths of the law and you, my friend, are in the vehicle with me. Which puts it in our possession.” Charlotte laughed maniacally before admitting that while he didn’t know she had the truck, he will once he wakes from his nap.
“Oh, that’s good, I suppose,” Lali replied, sticking her arm outside of the car where the door should have been.
The sun penetrated Lali’s deep brown skin warming her body to its core. Her unkempt, knotty hair swayed in the wind. She closed her eyes, tilted her chin towards the sky, and inhaled deeply. She had one more month until it was time for her to start her sophomore year at university which gave her one more month to convince Charlotte to enroll in school. While Lali focused on soaking in the sun and thinking of ways to get her friend to commit to getting her higher education, Charlotte focused on her need for speed and took a sharp left onto the highway.
“Let’s go to the beach,’ Charlotte suggested.
“What? Which beach? I don’t even have on a bathing suit,” Lali whined.
“We don’t have to swim. Besides, I am still wearing jeans too. We’ll be fine.”
Charlotte continued barrelling down the freeway, passing each exit Lali knew to have a beach on it. After a whiled, Lali let go of her concerns. They drove for about two hours, singing along to the music on the radio and talking about their plans for the upcoming weeks before Charlotte pulled off of the freeway onto a small parking lot. There was a sign that said “Scenic Outlook.” And though the view from where the car was parked was amazing, this wasn’t what Lali had in mind.
“I thought we were going to the beach,” Lali remarked.
Charlotte hushed her.
The young women jumped out of the car and stared at the body of water disappearing on the horizon. Charlotte parted her own soft and full curly hair down the middle of her head and put two French braids on each side. Then she walked away from her partner and into the wooded brush nearby. Before Lali followed, she gathered her thick, coily hair into a ponytail on the top of her head. Their sneakers skidded down a dusty walking trail that ended at the bottom, near the shoreline. About a mile down the shoreline is where the homes of the rich and possibly famous could be seen. The girls continued to walk until the shore was less pebbly and more sandy. Lali sat down and removed her canvas sneakers while Charlotte walked ahead a bit further. Wind chimes clanged from a deck nearby. She dug her toes deeper into the sand and watched her friend pick up a small piece of driftwood, squatting low to scrape it into the sand. The girls remained silent for a while but would occasionally shift their attention to the setting sun.
Lali could still feel the warmth lingering on her skin, her face, arms, and hands were now the color of black cherries. She looked up at Charlotte, who was still drawing lines in the sand, unaware of her friend’s observing eyes. Charlotte’s tan gave her melanin the appearance of a bronze statue. The light from the disappearing sun reflected heavily on the tip of her round nose and atop her high cheekbones. Feeling Lali’s eyes taking her in, Charlotte looked up, her face lit up starting with her bright white teeth and ending with her dark chocolate eyes.
“You look like you’re wearing eyeliner,” Lali said. “How’d you get so pretty when your brother looks like a foot?”
They began to laugh hysterically.
Charlotte replied, still doubled over with laughter, “He does look like a foot, doesn’t he?”
Charlotte raised from her haunches and brushed the sand from her pants. She took a small silver cigarette case from her back pocket and opened it up to reveal pre-rolled joints. She sparked a joint before walking over to join Lali sitting in the sand.
After a few pulls, Charlotte passed the spliff of marijuana to her friend then began removing her shoes as well.
“This is the life, isn’t it?” Charlotte asked rhetorically.
With the joint still on Lali’s lips, she rested back on her elbows. Together they watched the last sliver of sun disappear into the crack between the water and the sky. A half moon and a handful of stars were left to lead the way.
“We could build a bonfire if we walk a little further down. You want to?” Charlotte asked.
“I don’t know, Cholly. It’s getting kind of late. Shouldn’t we head home? That’s a long drive.”
“I told Nathan we were keeping the car until tomorrow.”
“You did what? When? What did he say?”
“Lali, relax. You don’t have to be such a mom. We’re fine! Come on, let’s go. We’ve got all the time in the world.”
Lali took another puff of smoke then passed it to Charlotte. They each gathered up their shoes and began walking further down the shoreline. There was a mess of driftwood both big and small pieces that blocked the entrance to the beach near the homes. Lali prepared to turn around and head back to the car but Charlotte was already wobbling on the mound, her joint barely hanging in the corner of her mouth. Charlotte turned to look for Lali but she was still standing on the other side with her arms crossed.
“Oh, come on,” Charlotte goaded, “you can make it across. It’s really not all that bad,” she told her. She held out her hand for Lali to take.
Lali reached up to her friend and they continued walking the nearly ten-foot boundary hand in hand. She wobbled a bit then steadied herself to take the joint from Charlotte’s lips. The increased strength of the breeze pushed a strange pride in her chest. After taking another inhale of marijuana, Lali raised her hands over her head and whooped as loud as she could. Charlotte didn’t hesitate in joining Lali in shrieking at the top of her lungs.
“How’s that feel?” Charlotte asked her.
“Like I’m under a spell, Cholly. I love you so much,” Lali answered. “I couldn’t have a better best friend.”
“I love you too, Lali.”
A roll of thunder in the distance called attention to the midnight blue sky turning black. Sparks of lightning over the now turbulent waters startled the girls, causing Charlotte to lose her balance.
Lali gasped for air, lunging out of her sleep. The beads of sweat on her forehead rolled down her temples and burned her eyes. She couldn’t breathe.
“That’s not what happens. That’s not how it ends,” Lali said between her frantic gulps for air, her hands erratically grasping at the sheets.
“What’s wrong? La’Isla, what’s the matter?” Nathan reacted. Lali’s panic attack startled him from his sleep.
“Cholly, Cholly isn’t gone yet. There wasn’t a thunderstorm. She’s not gone yet. We still have to make the bonfire!” La’Isla continued to frantically grab on the bedding.
She tried to jump out of the bed but her mid-length white nightgown is tangled in the sheets. She fought against the bedding like a rabid animal. Nathan gripped onto her shoulders, trying to pull her into his bare chest. Her body tensed and twisted away from his hold, tangling herself further in the sheets.
“No, help me! l have to find Cholly. I need to get Cholly so we can make the bonfire. She can’t leave until we,” Lali cut her own sentence short with her continued struggle to get out of the bed.
She kicked at the sheet wrapped around her feet. Nathan pulled on the sheets to loosen them from around her ankle. Once she was able to move freely, she swung her legs off the side of her bed and tore out of her bedroom and down the hall. She screamed for Cholly as she ran.
Lali ran down the stairs of her parents’ home, stumbling and sliding down the last three or four steps. Her mother, father, and Nathan ran after her but didn’t beat her to the front door. She swung the door open and kept running, her bare feet were getting scraped by the pavement.
“Cholly!” Lali’s screams echoed down her silent block. “Cholly, please we haven’t finished our trip, please.”
Her eyes darted around the front yards of her neighbors as if she were hoping for Charlotte to reappear from someone’s garden. The solar lamps lining the streets made it difficult to see past anyone’s front sidewalk.
Nathan cursed under his breath before racing down the street behind her. Lali kept running until she reached the dead end of her block. She pushed herself through a narrow clearing among a thick brush of trees and weeds. When Nathan reached the same clearing, he cursed again. Along the path, there were twigs and sharp rocks.
“La’Isla!” he called through the brush. “La’Isla!” he repeated.
She didn’t answer. Nathan looked over his shoulder to see if her parents were following them but they had yet to reach the end of the street. He gingerly stepped onto the debris on the path, careful not to put too much weight on his feet. He walked the path, now whispering for his friend.
“Lali, are you here? Where are you?”
Lali could be heard whispering somewhere in the distance. The only audible word was Nathan’s late sister’s name. He continued along the dense path for another short stretch before it opened up to a field. Lali sat in the middle on her knees, sobbing for her lost friend. Her nightgown was ripped and the bottoms of her feet were littered with nicks and cuts. The blood from her feet stained the hem of her nightie.
Nathan approached Lali with caution, quietly kneeling beside her, pulling her to his chest. He hushed and rocked her, wishing he could take her pain away only he was in as much pain as she was.
Tears rolled down his soft, hairless cheeks and crashed on top of Lali’s head. She continued to sob while Nathan swayed their bodies rhythmically. They lingered in the embrace. Nathan’s hands pressed into Lali’s back. This was something Charlotte would do for them whenever they sought comfort.
“When I push into your back, it’s like I’m relieving the pressure and releasing the pain,” she would say. Her large eyes would light up before she’d offer a sympathetic smile.
Lali could hear Charlotte’s voice in the wind, snapping her back to reality. She quietly closed her burning eyes and lifted her chin towards the tree occluded sky. A heavy breath escaped from the bottom of her chest. The corners of her mouth turned down once more, her eyebrows twisting in pain. She released her agony through clenched teeth.
“Come, Lali,” Nathan whispered, standing to his feet and raising Lali to hers at once.
Her shoulders slumped, deepening the curve in her spine. Her eyes, still closed, creased deeply across her lids. Lali’s joyful, dark eyes were now adorned with rings and puffs.
“I can’t live without her, Nate.”
“You have to, Lali.” He paused then said, “We have to. Come.” His hoarse voice ached his throat.
Nathan effortlessly swept Lali into his arms and cradle carried her back to the narrow clearing in the brush. He gently lowered her to her feet before proceeding into the clearing, walking backward so that he could hold Lali’s hands and guide her back to the street.
Once they were back on the street, he lifted her off her feet once more. Lali winced from the sting she felt when her weight was relieved from the soles of her feet. She wrapped her arms around his neck and rested her head on his shoulder.
“Have you been talking to anyone about the last time you were with Charlotte?”
His question suspended in the humid night air. Lali pressed her cheek into his shoulder, her lips tight and her shoulders stiff. He felt her weight increase in his arms. With her family’s home now in view, Nathan could see her parents stand from the steps on their porch and begin walking to meet them.
Her mother, Heather, held Lali’s slippers and her father, Charles, gripped his phone in his leather worn hands. The closer the pairs were to meet one another, the faster Heather walked until she reached Nathan and La’Isla first.
“Lali! Lali, are you okay?” her mother, wrought with worry began to frantically search and frisk Lali’s body.
Grey and white streaks stained Heather’s sepia brown face. Her weary eyes settled on Nathan. His burnt umber skin had lost its glow. He inhaled deeply and rested his eyes but his shoulders remained taut and erect. Heather turned to see if Charles had caught up. He stood apart from the rest of the group. His calm demeanor chilled Heather but she knew he was grieving in his own way. If not for Charlotte, he most certainly grieved for his La’Isla.
“Let’s get her inside,” he croaked, rubbing his forehead then pressing his thumb and middle finger into his eyes. His eyes felt heavy with sand. “I told you not to bother with those slippers, Heather. Look at her feet, they need to be cleaned first.”
“Are you alright, son?” Charles asked, directing his attention to the young man whom seemingly held it together throughout this entire ordeal.
“Yes,” Nathan answered, still hoarse. “I’m fine.”
Charles turned to walk back towards the house. Heather followed behind him, reaching for his hand. Her fingertips tickled his before his large palm engulfed hers. She rested her head on his shoulder after taking a glimpse at the young pair trailing behind them. Sprinklers watered their ankles before returning to the abundant, colorful perennials and thick green grass that that graced the front yards of every home.
They turned up the walkway to the Harriot home. Charles’ feet heavily tapped on the pavement before it thunked on the first step. He pushed the front door open then stepped aside for Heather, Nathan, and La’Isla to get by. Nathan sidestepped through the doorway, walked to the living room, and laid Lali down on the sofa.
Her mother disappeared into the kitchen and returned with a small basin filled with warm water. She dipped a cloth into the water, rung it out, then placed it on La’Isla’s head. She then sat on the coffee table and dipped another cloth in the water before wiping the bottoms of her daughter’s feet.
Lali winced a bit before sinking into the sofa. Nathan sat on the edge of an armchair nearby while Charles watched pensively from the living room’s doorframe.
“Rest, Baby,” Heather whispered, dabbing the nicks on Lali’s feet. “Charles, honey, can you get Nathan a blanket from the linen closet?” she asked.
“No, thank you, Mrs. Harriot. I think I should head home,” he interrupted.
“Nonsense, you’ll stay. At least until the morning,” she retorted.
“It’s just around the corner,” he quietly replied.
She looked up at her husband for his assistance.
“Come on, son. I’ll get you home.”
“Charles,” she implored, “he can go in the morning.”
“Heather,” he asserted.
She nodded before getting up from the edge of the coffee table and taking the basin to dump in their half bathroom.
Charles turned to go upstairs, Nathan followed closely behind him.
As they walked towards Lali’s bedroom, Charles stopped short causing Nathan to bump into him. He turned and said, “Son, I think between the four of us in this house, you are pained the most. I knew Cholly damn near her whole life and saw her as my second kid. You,” he paused for a beat, “You are a close third.”
They chuckled, attempting to clear the tension.
“My point is, y’all need to heal. Now, I’ve been lenient. You walking around the house without your shirt and whatnot but you and my Lali are moving too fast. You’ve got to face your grief first, son,” Charles advised. “You don’t have to face your grief alone but you came into this a single young man and before you find yourself in a relationship, you have to ask yourself if you’re gonna be the same man once you’ve learned to cope.”
Nathan stared at Charles, tears welling in his bottom eyelids. He nodded stiffly, trying not to blink, fearing that his blinks would allow his tears to escape. Charles inhaled sharply before pulling Nathan in for a firm hug. Nathan tensed, restraining his sobs.
Charles stepped back, holding Nathan an arm’s length away with his hands on his shoulders and said, “It’s okay to cry. She was your baby sister. It’s okay to cry.”
He pulled him back into the fold of his chest and Nathan’s knees slacked.
“You stay up here and rest. I’ll sit with Lali, okay?” Charles instructed. “You shouldn’t be in that empty house alone when you have family right here, okay?”
Nathan nodded slowly, walking into La’Isla’s room.
“Get some rest,” he said. “And put your shirt on,” he called over his shoulder.
Charles walked over to the linen closet and retrieved a blanket. He trudged down the stairs to see his wife standing at the foot.
“He’s going to stay?” she asked.
“Yes. And you’d better call his mother before I do,” he advised before brushing past her.
“I told Claire that we would look after him.”
“Heather,” his tone softened when he turned to look at her tenderly, “you cannot replace that boy’s mother. He needs her and Lali needs us.”
He clicked off the light for the stairwell, leaving Heather standing in the dark before retreating to the weathered armchair.
Pre-Order Now – Releasing October 25, 2018