Short Stories ~ Chapter Series

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The Trick of the Great Snake

 

Part One

Jake: the Agnostic

Jake always began to shake off the maze of his waking consciousness just as the creature slithered its way up to the doorway in (of all things) a snazzy yellow and red sports coat. It stood there, blocked from entering, by a squared entrance the size of a trap door. Flames licked all along the opening, and the snake (serpent) gazed forever downward, hypnotized by the eternal blaze. And then Jake woke up, as usual. Damp with sweat and his heart pounding in his ears, Jake threw off the soaked sheets and slammed the side of his fist down on the alarm clock that blared into the twilight of morning.

Today was the day. After having the nightmare again, he had decided to paint his dream and put an end to the pattern of remembrance. Working quickly, he began by blacking out the white canvas with wild streaks of yellow ochre and crimson red. For the scales of his serpent, he chose forest green and sandy brown. Almost at random, he worked, using quick sharp strokes to give the illusion of flow and reflection from their fixed positions on the painting.

Jake used wavy taps with the bristles of his brush against the canvas to simulate movement. The overall effect was pretty cool, if he did say so himself, though he hardly knew what to make of the whole scene.

It vaguely occurred to him that perhaps it referred back to a memory of his community college lectures in Psychology of Great Literary Writers 3003. The week spent analyzing the divine comedy Dante’s Inferno had given him and his classmates waking nightmares. He had been plagued with visions of the different hells and the many professions that had landed the eternal occupants there. The creative writing discussion group his class had created hadn’t wanted to delve much further in analysis beyond than the (safe) classroom lectures. The memories of the unknown (and yet known) were chilling and had definitely left an impression on him but, more than likely, it was a visual memory from a Chinese fortune he had read not long ago.

Jake remembered seeing a Facebook post about 2013 being the year of the snake. He was not really into the occult but he was guilty of occasionally reading his daily horoscopes and astrological reports while he scrolled through the random mash ups of status updates he and his friends would post. More importantly than the origin for the inspiration, was the trick the great snake was capable of in his dream. There were just so many options the snake could take.

He could stretch the coat across the opening and slither his way through the gateway (after casting off the rainments). The phrase briefly floated into his mind but he banished that thought away as childishly immature and sat back on his bed to take in his work, seriously.

The snake could make a jump of it. He had made him a bit taller, though Jake wasn’t sure exactly how snakes could stand up, but this one could and was, its body was long enough that whatever it used to move would land him the short distance it would take to clear the endless drop.

So the purpose of analysis becomes a question of reason, Jake thought to himself carefully, why is the snake stuck? Further more why was he himself, Jake, struck and stuck, (as it were) by this recurring image? Was it his mind working out a problem, perhaps? Was he at a philosophical quagmire in his life?

Perhaps the problem was more personal, after all, he was between girlfriends at the moment and work as a freelance writer was thin for just about everyone in the beginning. It could be little more than his mind taking hold of his childhood fears and current frustration to nag at him with this odd (craven) image. His mind latched onto that and still he pondered, could it be as simple as not having the success all those writing sites had assured him of?

Jake had vowed he would take a year to prove to himself, one way or another, that he could make it the publishing business. If he could not hack it as a writer then he would start over at community college again. That wasn’t helping him with the dream however. The morning had kicked off with a fresh painting but as the colors began to set reality was also slowly settling in. What could he do with the rest of the day??

Suddenly his cell phone started vibrating across the polished oak night table beside his bed. Jake fumbled around for the release mechanism to cease the meddlesome shaking then flipped it open to read his messages. There were three messages from online agencies declining his submissions because his writing experience was thin. Seventy three junk mail scams from generous Nigerian princes and international dying widows looking for someone to inherit imaginary millions. Jake rolled his eyes at the gall of those faceless scammers, deleted them all and zeroed in on the emails from real online writing forums. He counted a slim three open invitations for literary contests (that required reading/registration fees of course) and several more mass emails for paid writing subscriber links.

Jake clicked glumly through a couple of adequate looking prospects before closing his phone with a soft but resolute thud. He had to see about getting a “real” job. One that required he show up to be accounted for, complete his daily tasks then received a paycheck at the end of every other week. That would start what they called in recovery ‘a positive snow ball effect’. One good thing leading to another positive decision to another goal being met until you had a huge white snowball of good things instead of negative ones to show for yourself. Why was that necessary? Why did he always feel this infernal need to validate himself? Why was that the constant motivation for action? Who was he to prove anything to anyone? No, he was going to stay in positive head space. The lingering doubts would have to wait until after the year was up. Until then, he was golden.

Jake shrugged off the aimless mental puttering and went about his morning, mulling over the few possibilities for the day as his body went through the motions of his morning ritual. The knobs for the shower squeaked and hissed as he turned them on, the steam from the hot water meeting the air conditioning caused the mirror to fog up with condensation as he stepped in and began washing everything.

Axe was his new favorite, and as he was lathering up, the thoughts about that hell-scape scene he had painted and what could waiting on the other side for the monster began to cloud his thoughts again.

What could possibly be waiting for him? It was clearly a doorway or an opening but to where; another world, new city or dimension? What was with the smoking jacket get up and those impossible cliffs in the horizon? It had to either be a vision of hell or a sign of him needing to call his psychiatrist to make an appointment and check his levels again. Whatever it was, it was intriguing but un-easing at the same time. It just made him uncomfortable giving that snake any type of power or human ability, but the overall impression it left was that it was a being trying to reason.

It was clearly stuck. Just like he was, in the shower, daydreaming.

“Sick!” a small male voice whispered.

“Twisted!” a tiny female voice exclaimed.

“Totally wicked.” An adolescent voice agreed appreciatively, with a note of reflection and depth as the others (who were still out of sight) murmured in agreement. “Jake out did himself with this one.” said the art critic while the sound of hand meeting flesh broke out across the hum of juveniles forgetting they are in the midst of doing something they shouldn’t.

“Don’t touch it!” the girl scream whispered, and the small voice of John whispering “Ouch!” could be heard above the scrape of the shower curtain rings against the metal rod as he stepped out of the tub.

“Get out of my room!” Jake roared as he put on his towel, the resounding thud of small and hearty feet stampeding across his room ended with the slam of his door being shut. There was something to be said for living at home. The constant interruptions, random praise and antics gave his mornings a touch of realness that just couldn’t be recreated in a dorm or studio apartment. Not that he could afford either, his conscience finished for him.

“Jake!” he had just enough time to step into shorts and throw on a tee shirt before his best friend Terrell came through his bedroom door. “You ain’t answer yo phone, bro, I was finna tell you, dayum!” Terrell stopped mid sentence in the door way with his mouth open as he shook his head slowly.

“Uh uh, dude, we got to get you back to church.” Terrell finished somberly.

“Shut up, Terrell, it’s just based off a dream I had.”

“I ain’t even tryin’ to hear about it, dude. I can just tell this cat is bad news. Last trick out the hat kinda bad. I ain’t tryin to know what he done to get there. Way he built, he too tall to jump. He gone fall right in soon as he snap up in the air. He gotta time his move just right. He can stretch on out and cross the bridge but that coat gone catch fire, or he gone catch fire in the split second it take for him to draw the rest of his body over it. You think that’d be it but nah, there’s a sprite in that magic wall of flame and smoke. A fire sprite, makin’ them heads dance. And there’s spears shootin between the bars. So fast, through the smoke, you almost can’t see ’em.'” Terrell trailed off humbly.

“Stop playin’, Terrell, you see all that?” Jake said incredulously, he switched on the lights and sure enough, through the streaks of the multicolor wisps of acrylic smoke, it was all there. Jake had swirled a tale of a giant meeting a mental challenge that left any viewer wondering if the great snake was up to the task before him.

He could see it all through the blackened portrait. An atomic red sky, it almost seemed endless, gave the scene a sense of terrain within the two dimensional images. So much detail had been incidental in the creation. He had just worked the paint until it looked right. But where had the actual image come from? And what did it all mean?

“It creeps me out, dude. I hope I can do something with it like sell it or make a story out of it or a comic strip or something but I don’t know.”

“What don’t you know, fool? You know. I’m superstitious as all get out, dude, my folks superstitious too, my granny be done called the pastor to lay hands on you soon as you come up on the porch if she seen this. She ain’t even givin’ you no chance for an explanation. She like ‘Come to me now, Lord, in the name of Jesus!’ And we would be stuck in church for seven Sundays tryin’ to get the devil up off you, boy! Wouldn’t be no ifs, ands, or buts, bruh, in the Lord you must trust” Terrell finished the old Sunday school mantra heartily, although by this time Jake was on the floor crying actual tears at the thought of it. He hardly knew what he was laughing about but the hilarity in Terrell’s voice plus the absurdity of the wild conclusions had his sides aching for relief.

“Nah, for real, dude, take some pictures of it and post that jawn up on Ebay, let it auction, it could pay for ya whole semester, dude. Better yet, keep the royalties, make it a poster and make residuals off at that one painting. See dude, you gotta always be thinking bout the next gig and how to finance it, ya dig? But let’s get off that for a minute, I gotta go make this hustle real quick, is you rollin or what?” Terrell finished rather pointedly. It was a little unnerving, Terrell’s ability to switch subjects and emotions (fact/fiction) and then end up looking you right in the eye for a response. It never got old, but it was an awkward way of returning to reality.

A hustle with Terrell could mean anything. Literally, well, just about: anything. Since the times when they were young sporting neon green TMNT shirts with faded acid wash jeans and high top Gumby fades, till the late 90’s when it was gold chains, flashy church shirts and Stacy Adams shoes, Terrell was and always would be about a “hustle”.

It came from his Grandmother who knew how to sew clothes (suits for every occasion, man woman or child) and attended every church function there was at Solid Baptist Missionary Church. Solid, she would often be quoted as saying, for the faith in his sweet heavenly blood.

This phrase was often uttered in all due reverence, wherever and whenever the occasion permitted it. Whether it was after inviting a new member to bible study or paying the appliance man for his work on her rusty dishwasher, when they were through, they would know about her faith, solid faith in her church and in the sweet savior’s blood.

It was rather blood-thirsty mental imagery and often turned his stomach a bit, but in either case, it gave Terrell the power to talk his way in to (and just about out of) anything. He did need that ride to the mall for the application to the computer store. Jake let the question play out on his face before he tried to ask.

“Yea, we goin’ past the mall. It ain’t gone take but a minute. You can have a seat in back, dude. You chill, but, fa real though, are you ready?”

“Yea, I’m ready to roll.” Jake slipped on his shoes and turned off the light without turning back to see the picture. It was a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’, or so it seemed.

2

The ride to the mall was uneventful. “The hustle” so to speak was Terrell having to drop off four of his younger siblings for gas money. The time passed quickly and they had several hours before they would have to pick the kids back up so before long the conversation turned back to the portrait of the snake, again. Terrell was going on about the beating of imaginary drums that could be heard after seeing the dark rise of black mountains, “Like remnants of a volcano that erupted and died out years and years ago, man” Terrell was saying.

“Got me stuck on this rhyme like;

the last trick out the dark magician’s hat,

the great snake debates, his final task.

Flames climb higher,

fire by trial, trial by fire,

he’s stuck

hypnotized

by hell’s unholy pyre,

no escaping that life,

fire birthed sprites

dance across the embers

in the endless night.

Yea, that’s it,

find out the trick,

the one day, the one way

cross the dark pit

that’s blockin’ his path,

causing strife,

in his life.

Yet untold,

yet to behold:

the great snake trick.” Terrell finished but continued to bump the heels of his hands against the steering wheel as he nodded his head to the rhythm of the spontaneous spoken word poetry. It was tight, the symmetry of the lyrics along with the beat and his careful precision breaths made the rhymes smooth and potent.

“Damn, yo. That’s why we boys, dude. I paint that and you come up with a whole rhyme for it off the top of ya head while we chillin’ and ridin’. Man, we too on point today.” Jake said flippantly with excitement as rolled down the window for air.

“Ain’t no such thing, my dude, bein’ too on point. You know the devil is catchin’ us slippin’ every and all day. It is not a light subject, nor do I take it lightly, but fa real dude, that picture is like a metaphor for life, bro. It’s that next trick, that next cheat, that next thrill on the way. That last shot of tequila or that last ounce of dro you buy. It’s that last one, that last move that could be the death of you. That could take it all away. The snake’s: last trick. Did you name it yet, dude?”

“Nah, I just painted it, last night, in a daze, or maybe it was in this morning, I don’t remember I was in a weird head space.”

“Had to be for you to get all that out. When was the last time you painted something?” Terrell inquired briefly as he clicked on his turn signal, checked the side and rear mirrors before accelerating into the passing lane to turn.

“Years, dude, it was crazy. It came out of nothing. It always does though. Life will be going along and I will be so close but I won’t succeed like with the job hunt and the writing. It’s like I just try to get it and wham I reach a stalemate. They won’t call me back or I won’t have a ride or something stupid will be standing in my way, dude. Just blocking me, invisible sometimes like a policy or a system or a recommendation something-”

“Something bad, you can just tell it’s bad too, huh? Sight unseen whatever is coming, has to be bad?” Terrell asked.

“Something like that. All roads lead and return to the snake today though, huh?” Jake sighed “I have no idea what it means. It’s impossible to interpret, T. It’s just a dream.”

“See, that’s what I mean, that’s how I know it’s a real thing. It’s not just on the canvas, dude it is going on in your life. Your mind just made it into a snake trick, but it’s not impossible. Murphy’s Law clearly states that whatever can happen: will happen. The impossible becomes possible because something found a way. That snake of yours, it’s tryin’ to find a way.”

“Don’t talk about it, like it’s a thing. Like this smudge is capable of intelligence, man. It was born from placing a brush tip to a porous surface, it’s not even on the same level of actual serpents it’s just: serpent-like.” Jake ended adamantly and sunk deeper under his seat belt. “I just don’t think of it as a part of me that I prefer not to give power to.”

“Say what now?”

“If you give it a forced line of reasoning, just by the way it’s positioned, just because it has on an article of clothing, doesn’t mean it deserves that chance, you know? It’s an image. A graphic image at that, and I drew it, but I don’t want it to continue. I don’t know if it deserves to continue.”

“Dude, what you mean ‘continue’? You mean making a franchise out of it or another portrait to continue the story like that ‘continue’ or, what exactly are you saying?”

“I mean, it was a rogue subconscious thought. Recurring but rogue, I don’t know where it came from. Maybe it’s supposed to end up in the fiery pits, dude. It’s a snake with a damn sports jacket on. You know that’s hell I drew. A carnal image if ever there was one. I don’t want no demon escaping hell. Not literally or figuratively, on my pictures or off and I am surely not trying to talk about it no more today!” Jake yelled and put his head against the side of the door to cool off his sweaty forehead.

It was impossible to reason it out with Terrell who could understand everything about life and nothing at all about those things he mentioned. Those things that are bad: sight unseen. That was what that image was. Something he could feel just by looking at it that it was bad and that he didn’t like to think where it came from or what it could possibly mean, least of all why he should keep seeing it.

“Look man, it’s only bad if you think of it as bad. It’s like you said, maybe that is the end for him. Maybe you could write a kid’s story about how he got the jacket or maybe he loses the jacket and it makes him light enough to jump and make in on the other side and he’s transformed back into a kid, or something head trippy like that.” Terrell finished quizzically his head tilted to the side as he drove and imagined it out loud.

“Head trippy, huh? How about he’s a man that’s been transformed into a giant snake. By decree from a higher power as part of the Red Queen’s Revenge. A punishment for him ruining her wedding day. He burst through the gates of her courtyard with their enemies in battle and made her wedding guests bloody, which is why he is made to wear that coat, in remembrance of his shame.”

“Dude, write that down! I’m serious, as soon as I drop you off write it down because I want to read it.” Terrell finished adamantly.

The brakes squealed to a stop and he met Jake’s eyes with the serious face that signaled instantly that: he meant business. Jake nodded and they drove on through the day with no further discussion. Yup, today was the day, indeed.

3

Jake spent an hour walking the local strip mall, filling out applications and glad handing a few managers, then another forty five minutes in the coffee shops internet cafe updating his resume and uploading them to major online job networking sites before meeting back up with Terrell to pick up the kids.

They rolled back down the street listening to the local hip hop station with little to say to one another and Jake happily changed his position to the backseat of the car to break up the warring duo, Taylor and Tyler who may have been twins but were nothing alike. Luckily, the bookend girls (one older named Tasi and one younger named Tasha) were well-behaved. They sat quietly while the two boys argued back and forth about who would win in a fight if universes paralleled and their favorite Marvel characters could battle their favorite Dragon Ball Z characters. After a few inventive insults, the boys agreed to disagree just as they pulled up in front of Terrell’s grandmother’s house.

The kids bumped and thumped the suspension system as they exited the vehicle. While they ran off Jake opened the car door and smoothly reclaimed the front passenger seat. Terrell’s grandmother (a small, sweet faced round woman with graying hair) motioned with a wave from Terrell to come see her. She squinted, recognized Jake and waved hello to him as well. Just as Terrell left the car, his cell phone tumbled out of his back pocket and landed on the driver’s seat.

“Hey dude, if it rings, answer it for me, all right?” Terrell said through the space between the hood of the car and the open window before he ran the short distance up the drive way to converse with his grandmother. A few seconds later, eerily quick, the phone vibrated and Jake looked down at the screen.

Dat Ass blinked several times and Jake shook his head in disbelief. Seriously, bro…. Jake thought to himself and quickly answered the phone.

“Hello?”

“Awww hell naw, who this is?” a loud female voice cried indignantly. Jake rolled his eyes and cleared his throat against the sass that wanted to reply to her obvious ignorance.

“This is Terrell-”

“Hell naw, it ain’t! I don’t know what kinda light voice-ed, prissy lil boy this is playin’ on my boo phone but I am not too shy to get on the ‘puter and spotify yo ass!” She said in a rush.

“This is Terrell’s friend. He’s talking to his grandmother.” Jake bit out between clenched teeth and tried to stare daggers into Terrell’s back, but he was completely engrossed in the conversation he was having with Ms. Etta and was oblivious to the weight of Jake’s stare.

“Oh, I was about to say…anyway is he still coming through? I have to get to work and I can’t be late, I ain’t got time to be waiting on him when money is just out there waiting to be made, you feel me?” She drawled lazily. No, Jake thought.

“Well, he’s talking to his grandmother-”

“Damn, did I say I was deaf? I heard you say that the first time! I said is he still coming through to get me?” She said a little louder and it was all Jake could do to control his tongue from getting away from him.

“Miss, I have no way of knowing-”

Miss? Do I sound like a Miss? Hell naw, let me tell you something, I don’t have time to play games, boo boo. Tell Terrell old flaky ass I will get another ride and hit me up later since yo ass is clearly special and have no idea how to talk to a real woman. Bye, fool!” Jake blinked in absolute exasperation, looked down at the phone and saw call ended just before it disappeared into darkness. Terrell had sprinted back to the car just as Jake was looking up in disbelief.

“Damn, was that-”

“Dat azz? Yea. What you-”

“Don’t ask, Jacob. And don’t judge, she been through a lot. It’s just the hurt talking. Don’t take it personal. She said she ain’t waiting, huh?” Terrell said a little out of breath as he climbed back into the driver’s seat and fired up the engine with the turn of the ignition key. “Damn.” He swore softly and gently reclaimed his phone.

He rarely called Jake by his whole name, only when it was serious, and as they were backing out and traveling down the road he caught his grandmother’s eye. I’m sorry, Ms. Etta he mouthed to her and shrugged as she wiped at her eyes and turned away back into the house.

“Girl, I told you I would take you up there. It ain’t like you got to punch a clock. Be still, I got you.” Terrell said and Jake was abashed at the loud wailing he heard coming from the phone. “Don’t. It’s okay. He’s alright. I will be there in minute.” The wailing stopped abruptly and Terrell shook his head again and looked down at his phone. “She put that in there. You know her.”

“Dude, I doubt-”

“No, you do. She’s Cynthia’s little sister. Sadie Anne.” Jake’s jaw dropped to his chest. He couldn’t seem to sync up the image of the sweet little brown-faced girl with neat little braids and soft smile with that loud mouth trash talking creature on the phone. “Yea, that’s her. Only they call her, Shady Sadie, after Cynthia went off to the military and got killed, she fell in with the wrong crowd. They dogged her out, she ain’t have nobody to look out for her, got turned around but not before-”

“I don’t want to know-”

“Yea well, you probably already seen her. Ended up on one of those ghetto videos that went viral. Lost her job. She’s doing her best but there’s no way to salvage her reputation. She’s doing whatever she can to get by. Got a job watching some friends of her family’s kids or something. She just needs me to carry her over there. She ain’t ready to take the bus.” Jake looked over and saw the concern in the crease of Terrell’s brow. “We almost there. Don’t trip. Don’t read too much into it.”

Jake turned his head and saw a run down apartment complex come into view on the left. A hooded figure, head down, wearing loose baggy clothes looked up quickly and scuttled across the street before they had a chance to stop. A car screeched to a stop just a few inches from where she bounded out into the street seconds before, but the person never stopped, even though the driver was shouting angrily after her.

Sadie cleared the street curb with a little jump and had slid into the back seat just as they came to full stop at the stop sign.

“You ought to be careful.” Jake said towards her general direction. She was much quieter in person but still just as guarded but she was clean. The smell of Dial soap and bubblegum wafted up from the backseat where she sat.

“It don’t matter.” She said dismissively and shoved a rumpled bill up through the head rests. “Here’s $20. I just need a ride there. I have my own way home. Is that the guy from the phone?” She asked Terrell, carefully snatching her hand away before their fingers could touch.

“He’s alright.” Terrell said evenly, and held up one finger, signaling for Jake to say nothing and keep his eyes forward.

“Sorry. Thank you, Terrell. I appreciate it.” She said to the back of Jake’s seat and readjusted the volume on her headphones.

He couldn’t make out the artist she was listening to, but when the hook came up she sang softly along (in tune) and rocked her head, this way and that, in time to the beat. Jake could see the shadow cast by her head from the sun setting behind them, as she meekly tapped on Terrell’s shoulder to point towards the house she wanted to be let out at, he noticed a small black tattoo on her forearm. Jake wasn’t entirely sure, but he was almost positive he had seen that same design on a bit of graffiti on the fence outside her apartment complex. She seemed too small and sad to be apart of a “tagging crew.” As she departed, Jake tried to imagine exactly what had happened, what the turn of events could have been for her to have given up like that.

Sure, it was a sad story, she had loss someone close, someone she had looked up to but that still didn’t excuse everything. Judge not lest ye be judged came into his mind briefly, and he had to agree with it. Life was just different for young girls alone, now.

He could remember that, of course there had always been a few girls that strayed from the flock so to speak growing up. Abandoning any hope in the education system because they didn’t have a guardian or a steady hand to lead them in the right direction, so they just did whatever they could to feel better about the emptiness they had to face in the future. They were a few back in the day, now, it seemed like those college bound girls were the outcast and the trend was these poor aimless creatures, marked up and snapping at anyone who could be threat. It made his head hurt thinking about what Terrell’s younger sisters Tasi and Tasha would have to face when they finally made it to high school. When, his mind thought darkly, you mean if. After all, tomorrow is promised to no one, no one at all. Jake shivered at the cold cruel logic in that.

“Hey, you straight, bro?” Terrell asked as they pulled into Jake’s parents’ driveway.

His family was off to the four winds as usual. Both of his parents worked well past “dinner time” leaving the siblings to fend for themselves in the evenings. Right now the boys were out at football camp and his niece was probably at her mom’s house. Yet another sad tale of struggle and survival, Jake thought. His mind was still thinking about that lost little girl with the pigtails he remembered teasing whenever they walked Cynthia home from school. Always with a book in her hand, and some corny joke she had just learned. Come to think of it, Janeane was probably around Sadie’s age when she gave birth to his older brother’s daughter.

“Just can’t get my mind around it. Is this what you thought life would be like by now, Terrell? All of us still stuck, still struggling, still trying after all these years? We ain’t get caught up in that life, the gangs and the drug scene, I mean, why is it all so hard now?” Jake asked forlornly and let his head drop back on the head rest in a sullen funk.

“It’s just like they always told us in church, Jake. You can’t take God out of the equation and expect man to think of everything. You have to do the best you can, within the confines of the system, and pray for God to make a way.” Terrell said evenly.

“How can you hold onto that type of faith, when the system is designed to reward those with no faith, and punish those with empathy and compassion? I mean, think about it, how much does it truly take to survive, as a man of God, without getting your hands dirty, doing the devil’s work to make a living? A million dollars? Two million? How can a free God compete with the devil’s commerce? Realistically, I mean, how do we ever get ahead?” Jake sighed as he asked that and immediately wanted to take that back.

“I hear you, but you have to remember, no matter how much they want to fight it, God included them in his master plan. The ‘richies’, the government officials, the free people and the lost souls, one way or another, God makes a way for his people to survive. And he takes all souls, you never know when it’s coming, or what tomorrow holds, but you know, deep down, beyond all the so-called ‘pressure’ society puts upon us, the truth is: God has got this.” Terrell finished and spread his hands to signify opening. “He has made a wide berth, between the world and us, we just have to follow his path and wait patiently.”

“You really believe that? Even now?” Jake asked credulously.

“Got to. Without faith, what are we? Sheep being led to slaughter? That ain’t in the plan, Jacob.” Terrell sounded so sure it was spooky.

Jake tried to believe him, tried to think back onto all those old bible school lessons they had sat through and the endless hours warming the back pews while Terrell’s grandmother sang in the church choir and made her mission rounds. He wasn’t immune to the sermons, the words touched him and he could say he was saved with confidence, but what did that really mean?

“You don’t have to have all the answers, Jake. Just have to know that you’re on the right side.” Terrell said absently. Jake looked over and saw Terrell tapping away at his phone. He had changed Sadie’s entry from that obnoxious nickname to her given name. “So, what’s up? You riding, or you gonna work on that story to go along with the painting?” Ugh. That again, Jake thought.

“Work. Got to. Hit me up later and let me know how everything turns out.” Jake said and opened up the car door.

“Remember what I said, Jake, it’s what you make of it!” Terrell called out as he hit the reverse and disappeared around the corner.

4

Jake found himself seated before his old desktop computer’s monitor with Microsoft Word opened and ready for the magic to begin. The faint glow of the white screen and blinking icon had always caused a nervous ripple of excitement in him somewhere. The jitters of starting something new, was familiar to any artist but more than anything it was the damn painting reflecting back at him that held his attention and caused his gloom. It just didn’t come out as it was supposed to. The critique was common of any tortured soul struggling to come to grips with what to do with his creation, true, but no, this painting, this time it was different.

When he looked at it, it wasn’t the soft blurred simplistic lines and flecks of paint that was his signature style he had developed in his extracurricular courses. He had tried to focus his mind on whatever master of whatever age the class had been covering, and had grown comfortable with doing some still life paintings of fruit and a few simple landscapes over the course of the three month class sessions, but they were just for practice. His conceptual pieces, the ones where he tried to think of what to paint and then work the acrylic until it looked right to his eye, they had always bothered him. Not so much the techniques he used, but the subjects. It was always the same before.

The still frames of his graphic comic book series that he was still developing. He had wanted this to be a sort of painted negative on canvas. It was a waist high snapshot of sorts, in the style of Japanese anime. He had his nameless faceless hero leaning against a brick wall in some city somewhere. The light arced down from the street post on the left side of the panel, and all that was visible from the viewer’s perspective was his bent head and slumped back. He tried to use only the simplest of color values to give the effect of gritty texture, reminiscent of his Dick Tracy comics. It wasn’t half bad, but it just wasn’t quite “right” enough for him to continue to develop it.

Jake sighed and glanced down at the cheery date and time stamp on the bottom right edge of his screen. 11:11 p.m. time to scour the internet to distract his self from the endless introspection. He checked his several internet email addresses. He deleted the egregious spam folders and found himself scrolling through the internet history to see what was available to waste time on. He frowned at the entry labeled during the time he had been out with Terrell. Dat Azz lmfao was there, highlighted and just begging to be clicked on. Jason. Jake thought darkly.

His younger brother was the only one who was taking computer programming courses and had the nasty habit of hacking into his parents’ network to see what his siblings were up to but kept forgetting to cover his tracks. He wasn’t sure exactly what the excuse was this time, but clearly his own laptop had been out of commission so he needed to use Jake’s desktop for his internet trolling. He was so disgusted he almost didn’t click on it. Almost.

The link was for a viral clip website, but the photo in the middle of the open window was clearly Sadie. She was blurry and whoever was holding the camera phone seemed to be having a seizure of some sort but he wouldn’t be able to see what was going on without clicking play.

Did he want to know? Would it make a difference at all to him? That was Terrell’s friend after all not his? His mind instantly brought up the image of smiling and laughing Cynthia and Sadie trailing behind her, the ribbons holding up her hair coming undone as she walked behind them and tried to find a place to fit in with the older kids. Jake clicked play.

Part 2

Sadie: The Free Spirit

Mirror, mirror, mirror, mirror, mirror, mirror, mirror, moonlight

Sadie repeated the phrase over and over again in her mind until the arguing stopped. She didn’t know when the familiar feelings of wounded betrayal, rage and guilt would give way to acceptance, but it would, and then she could make a decision.

Life had been much simpler living in the shadow of the graceful whirlwind that was (had been) Cynthia…waiting for her older sister to come home from saving the world had been the then aspiration that held her through the awkwardness Sadie had always felt at being different (STUPID!).

No matter how many books she read or however many magazine quizzes she had taken, she just; did not, could not, and would not: fit in. That was fine though. Now: it all made sense.

Scuffling sounds of departure and slammed doors interrupted that blast from the past sense of overwhelming dread and finally, Sadie took a long deep cleansing breath in through her nose, one then reached past her diaphragm and pooched out her tummy a little, then slowly let it out through her mouth. She rolled both wrists in controlled clockwise circles (leading with the middle finger), then shook the tension out like she had learned in her belly dance dvds.

She took several more deep breaths keeping her eyes closed so she could still stay in touch with her surroundings, until she heard the car doors slam, heard the separate clicks of ignitions coming to life then the aggravated honks and tire squeals as her roommates left for the night. Sadie waited a few moments more, and when she was sure there would be no sudden interruptions, carefully raised herself up from her cross legged seating position and gingerly edged her way over to the basement door.

She looked back once at the dank dark unfinished room and said aloud, “Grateful. Even for this?” Yes. Said the still small voice inside her that lately, she could regard only as foolish. Sadie shrugged, picked up the broom from the hook by the door and steeled her nerves for the mess they had left for her to clean. What did it matter now, anyway? What did anything truly matter now? She agreed with that second voice, it was louder and truer than any of the other things she had heard that evening. It was resolute in it’s negativity, and that was the last push she needed to come into action.

Sadie creaked open the battered wooden door that gave way to the tiny cluttered kitchen and was instantly assailed by the sour smell of the kitchen sink. Ugh. Mold. Again. Already?

There was no need for her to wonder where it was coming from, that much was obvious (the dish towels) her eyes took in the task ahead systemically from side to side and her body took action almost automatically. First things first; everything that needed to be washed needed to make it over to the sink, when the counters were clear, then she could wipe them off, after that, the floor could be swept, then the dishes done and finally she would mop before she would let herself rest. Cleaning was second nature to her, it was something that had to be done and though she had her problems (addictions) no matter what state her being was in, she could get it done.

The buzzing vibrations of her phone signaled, not only that she was getting a call from someone. No the tempest of emotions that familiar sound dug up in her was all together new in her experience with the world as of late. She took a deep breath and rescued the battered little chunky triangle from it’s charging station and flipped open the front plate to the number. She frowned at the inability to recognize it and took another deep breath, inwardly praying for it to be another wrong number and not another wounded victim looking for empowerment through provocation. Sadie used both thumbs on the keypad and typed noncommittally:

Who this?

Terrell’s friend. Just wanted to check on you.

Sadie frowned immediately. Check on me? After all she had been through, she still required checking in on? No. This was something else. Something entirely new. He had seen the video. The feeling that had accompanied that thought struck her deeply, but not from a place of a shame but rather a place of recognition. He wanted to share something with her. Sadie thought of the boy, Jake, she had looked up to when they were all younger.

Jake with soft sable colored curls covering his mocha light brown skin, the “teaser”, the one who would always crack wise to the female crossing guards and who in return would laugh at his jokes and tell him what a fine young man he was.

Jake was difficult to place (in the old ways), but he was a friend of Terrell’s. Terrell: who had never judged and always seemed to stay the same as he changed. Terrell, who was meant to be Cynthia’s but she had gone off to war to prove something to herself and never come back home. He saw the video, and wanted to talk to her about it. Not again.

I’m fine. Do not text me again, please.

She closed her eyes and prayed that that would be the end of it. That he would be satisfied with a quick deflection and ultimately be satisfied with the superficial and resist the temptation to probe her deeper but no, there was a response.

Don’t be that way, Sadie. Please. I want to talk in person.

She sat down immediately. Not in degrees like someone preparing to sit would, but in a rush like all the strength in her body went to her clenching core with nothing left for the knees to hold her body up. The rocking came as she burned holes into that last word with her all focus. In person? Men weren’t interested in talking to her person. They were on a device used for communication if that was what he was truly after. Sadie was indeed; suspicious, damaged, betrayed by her own weaknesses, but she was not without a true sense of compassion for others. Sadie quelled her doubts and pushed forward.

Talk about what, Jacob? You can’t offer me anything new by ways of protection, you can only bring up the past. I am not interested in dredging up my sorrows to appease your sense of empathy.

If he was taught as she was, she had totally revealed herself with that statement. State your business or move on, stranger.

You trying too hard, little girl. Can you bring yourself back out of that dark place you have held yourself in to talk to an old friend, or do the possibilities frighten you?

Damn it, he was good. Sadie was flooded with dozens of emotions in that bit of exchange. She looked back at the messages on the phone with incredulity, then that old flame of curiosity made her bite her lip against the shaking nervousness she felt at possibly playing a new game.

Fine. When?

Tomorrow. Are you busy during the day time?

She frowned at that as well. Didn’t this guy have a job? Sadie tried to remember Jacob as anything other than Terrell’s best friend. He was in the classes before hers, they were all older, she never really saw them during the day when they were all in middle school. After school, she was on her own because they were always with the popular crowds.

Whether it was debate teams, basketball, church functions, the three of them always seemed to warrant an invitation to everything together or apart. Sadie didn’t, but that was different, no, they were older and had graduated together in a separate wave of expectation of success for graduating seniors just before she got to high school as a freshman.

Be specific.

I just want you to read somethings, look at my artwork, it’s no big deal. Stop fighting me.

A new feeling of recognition hit her and the accompanying memories of Jake. Jake with a dogged worn down spiral notebook in his hand and a ball point pen tucked behind his ear as he went through the halls with his head up, looking determined and moving with purpose against the crowds in the halls: he was a writer! She immediately felt a new wave of appreciation and respect that he would even try to reach her, after seeing that. Sadie finally felt she could let go of the initial embarrassment and stop stalling.

Fine. I do not want to be around people though. I am not technical, nor do I want to be. I studied too; literature, art and music. I don’t need any lessons on what is possible. I just want to be an enlightened critic with bearable critiques, fair enough?

You got to know everything before you agree to something, that is still wise, little girl. I wouldn’t steer you wrong. You remember, now?

She bit her lip again as a hot miserable tear slid down her cheek. Sadie could remember, she and Jake writing stories together and his advice to her whenever she got frustrated with phrasing or puctuation placements. He had been patient but respectful, teasing but not cruel. It was only one summer that they had been at Youth Studies together at the church, but her one on one time with him had been the support she needed to keep searching for her written voice.

I remember. Can you pick me up, tomorrow? Or have Terrell pick me up, I will be ready.

But, of course. Take care tonight. Get some sleep.

She smiled to herself and signed off. She nearly got away from the phone long enough to escape the buzzing sensation that tickled her thigh as she tried to rise and get up. The number was familiar and she froze inside. The memories of yesterday were gone, and the sensation of dread that followed was all together different. It never failed, the moment she tried to forget…

Wyd

It wasn’t hard to figure that one out. What you doing?

Nothing.

Leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me alone. Sadie kept repeating it in the front of her mind even though she knew it was fruitless to pray against someone else’s intent. A predetermined right, in their eyes, to play.

U doin something, wyd?

She played along, it was much quicker and easier that way, to avoid the negativity.

Just finished cleaning going to go to sleep lots to do tomorrow.

I don’t need anything.

Thank you for checking on me.

Sadie tried to ignore that first wave of emotional pangs associated with addiction that still haunted her. The need to feel anything else in order to get through the gnarled grip of constant unknowing, had shrunken to specific peaks of acceptance between her mind, her heart and her body as she grew older. She wasn’t cut out to be a saint. She wasn’t cut from the same cloth as Cynthia although they had the same genes they came out completely different.

Cynthia was tall and graceful with an undeniable beauty and charm that had never left her. Sadie was only slightly above average; in every, and all things, or so it seemed. Often Sadie had succumbed to the sin of envy of her older sister whenever she looked in the mirror at herself. Cynthia’s natural disposition gave her the power to put people at ease with nothing more than a smile. Sadie couldn’t compete for attention on childish things in the ethereal glow of those pearly whites.

Cynthia was always on the phone to someone else whenever Sadie needed a patient ear to listen to about her playground troubles. It will work out, I’m on the phone, Sissy, be a big girl, go work it out. Go work it out was Cynthia’s best interpretation of sisterly advice. Ignoring her younger sister was the worst. Forcing her to go out amongst the other children, who had linked up into defend-able groups while she was a lone lonely target, had forced a rift between them as family. Deep down, she was different, but she still longed for that connection of acceptance, and she had found it, with the wrong group.

The phone buzzed in her hand again, pulling her out of her thoughts and she tried to look up at the sky to get her bearings before responding. It was dark, but the moon was clear and bright, it was a waning moon towards the beginning of crescent, it had been full but not it was steadily rotating and there were clouds; powdery, whispery, moving ever so slowly against the endless twinkling stars in the night sky.

She took it all in and looked down at the phone. She couldn’t help but wrinkle her nose at the obnoxious sexual requests, he was so silly really. She just shook her head and answered as politely as possible no matter how outrageous, no matter how much it cost her, regardless of any other port out there in the storms of life. Sadie accepted him, because he accepted her and for her that was where the brain games ended.

No, thank you. I am tired. You have fun.

I will remember that.

Sadie froze. Ugh, no matter how she tried to avoid it, it always came to that. The direct offer, the patient prodding and then the caveat. She didn’t want to face tomorrow alone. Not the fictional tomorrow that men drive themselves to distraction over, no, the very real tomorrow of two weeks from now. When she was alone and hurting, he would at least answer her, he would at the very least not leave her alone to face the darkness. Twisting and hurting as she fought between realities and possibilities of a future being labeled as nothing worth nothing to no one at all. Spare meat, not fresh, just spare… excess to the predators.

The dark turn caused her to change her will and submit to the insistent provocation. She asked the obvious, he confirmed, she agreed and prepared to pay his demands. It was just much easier this way, no harm, no foul. She was a big girl. Sadie could do what she had to: in order to move on.

Something inside her was screaming that this was just nonsense, she could fight if she wanted, there was a way out if she believed, but that fictional voice of female righteousness wasn’t in control of her known reality: Sadie was and besides that voice was always proven wrong. Oh well, she thought as she went through her bathing rituals and waited for the next buzzers to signal his arrival, tomorrow will come someday, till then I will play along.

2

The next day went along without a hitch. They arranged the rides without having to involve Terrell who was often obligated to his family for childcare and met in Jake’s room to discuss their works without any awkward tension.

It was just how life had evolved over the ages, like magic but without all the sap. It was just another type of reunion or meeting of the minds that they had both been exposed to in their separate experiences with higher education. There was no need for pretense or etiquette in a platonic relationship based on mutual interests and respect for one another as equals. Jake was slightly older, but he was as new to the publishing business as Sadie, they had two perspectives (on different areas of history (they would soon find) but in the end, they still felt like “students of life” in general.

Sadie sat with her black satin scarf covered head reading over Jake’s story Untitled on his I-pad as Jake read over her printed short story entitled The Interview. It didn’t take very long for Jake to finish and he looked up to see Sadie watching him finish intently.

“So?” She said expectantly, her little brown hands gripping the edges of his I-pad so tightly she was leaving little impression marks on his glass case.

“Relax, Sadie. Don’t break my I-pad. I ain’t got the money to replace it.” He said with a wink and she gave it back to him with a hushed rush of apologies that he dismissed with a quick gesture of his hand. “It’s clear you’ve studied Literature but your approach to the setting the scene, the atmosphere of surreal expectation of ambush by the female lead and the attitude of the production crew towards their guests, is it intentional based on personal experience?” Jake asked carefully as Sadie thought it over.

“Yes and No, would be the best way to answer that. I have a passing interest in psychology that went along with getting my associates but it is mostly my feelings about “reality television” shows in general. Why, is it too abrasive?” She asked the painting earnestly.

Look at me.” Sadie bit her lip and met his eyes reluctantly. “You know, it wouldn’t really be like that don’t you?”

“I know I wouldn’t sign up for that type of scenario but that isn’t the point of a supernatural story. Are you a fan of science fiction or supernatural writing?”

“It depends on my mood, I guess. If I were in a creative writing class and given the topic as an assignment, I would try to stick to the guidelines. Given the choice, I would pass for something a little less-” Jake struggled to find the words.

“Antagonistic?” Sadie offered and Jake nodded. “It’s a side effect of-no, I don’t want to-” Jake urged her to finish her thought with a circular hand gesture for her to continue. “I was going to say public educational system but you’ve been through the same formative schools that I have.”

“Well, four years later. When I was in school, Tupac and Biggie were still alive, the term hip-hop for music was just getting recognition as more of a cultural understanding rather than a commercialized idea and we had strong black role models to aspire to on regular television. It wasn’t the same afterwards, just a few years later, established artists and musicians had done more than just rap or verbalize beef into two different genres: the game changed completely when they actually died. I mean so young, at the start of their careers, before they even had a chance to mature and grow as individuals instead of just perpetuating the East-West beef to boost their album sales. Life really does depend upon your support system and who you aspire to be like.”

“You make it sound so obvious when you leave out the rest of it.” Sadie mumbled rather dejectedly.

“What do you mean ‘the rest of it’?”

“The politics and the pressure put on us to be responsible, abstain from sex, just say no to drugs and keep hope alive by any means necessary. You know, the constant mixed messages we would get, those of us who didn’t fit in with the cool kids and were struggling to find an identity based on televised life rather than social situations is what I’m saying.” Sadie finished hurriedly and quickly ripped her story back from his hands. “I’m not labeling you, by saying, ‘cool kids’-”

“I didn’t take it like that.”

“I don’t mean to imply that life was impossible to figure out back then. It felt clear, but being a black woman, I only had a few major talents to aspire to and no way to reach my ultimate goals of becoming someone of distinction on my own.” Sadie was packing her things up so quickly as she spoke she didn’t realize Jake was a foot in front of her until her scarf caught on his belt buckle as she rose to leave. The snag caused the satin scarf to come undone and her naturally wavy hair tucked neatly into a pony tail gleamed in the light from his desk lamp as she slumped back into his plush chair with a breathless sound of surprise.

“Why are you always running away, now?” Jake asked as he gently disengaged the thread from his buckle and sat next to her on the bed, his hand on her knee. She froze instantly at the touch and he removed his hand quickly. “I wouldn’t judge you. You know that, don’t you?”

“You’re too close.” Sadie bit out and Jake slid away towards the edge of the bed. She relaxed some but the teeth of the zipper to her bag were biting into her sweating palms. “I’m not Cynthia, Jake. I never was. I never could be. She was my sister and I loved her but she was the star. She knew it, everyone else knew it. If she’s the star then I was the ugly stepsister. I may be mixing my metaphors but-”

“I understand.”

“You think you do. That’s kind of my point. I was always the joke after you guys left. I was always trying to do right and find somebody to play with. The kids in the neighborhood had already decided I wasn’t ‘friend’ material. I spoke too proper, or I didn’t know what fun was or ‘who was I’ was always the response to any idea I ever had around them. Not just in school, constantly. Our parents worked and I never blamed them for that, I was always appreciative but it just wasn’t-”

“Wasn’t what all those programs promised you, huh?” Jake finished for her softly and leaned over to his computer desk to grab a wet nap for her wet face.

“No offense, but do you see how comfortable you are with me? You get it because you’re a guy. You’re in that magic advertising bubble of adult male 18 to 35. The way it is now, you have all the answers for anything your heart desires. What do I, as a social outcast and societal reject, have to aspire to? I’m not interested in being a “hyperactive optimized yet clearly masculine” version of myself. Fighting for the idea of respect among my female peers online whilst shopping the days away because I can’t fit my life into a profitable demographic to survive on my own. I am not interested in chatting aimlessly all day while I wait for some guy to come along and rescue me from my profile picture in cyberspace. I’m not interested in just linking up with some random someone out of necessity because it’s what we’re supposed to do. I want it to be real. Does that make sense?” Jake nodded and sat back at his computer desk.

“You know what I’m about to say, don’t you?” he didn’t look at her as he spoke so he couldn’t see her shake her head no. “It’s church you’re missing, little girl.”

“It wouldn’t work, Jake.”

“What you mean?”

“You don’t know it all-”

“What could-”

“Let’s just drop it, okay? Even if you sat back and read all the transcripts of my digital life, even if you dissected my social activity into surveillance footages, even if I had a thousand friends singing my praises and the right diagnoses to explain away my behavior; it wouldn’t change the present outcome or the end result of being labeled in this way: on the wrong side of justice.”

“Sadie-”

“Guys don’t want ugly ducklings with sordid pasts. They want the size twos and zero swans whose greatest accomplishments in life is being able to say they have zero body fat and red bottoms. It’s just the way it is, and going to church wouldn’t save me from wanting more than just a chaste life of solitude after all that’s been said.” Sadie didn’t raise her voice or sound anguished at her perspective of the world from her position. She sounded resolved: which was much worse in Jake’s opinion, she had given up hope and felt doomed to life of inescapable ignominy and sin. “I haven’t given up on God, don’t mistake me. I just been through a lot of support programs and studied a lot on talk therapy as real medicine as well as online social interactions and when I fell from grace into drugs: I fell hard. I can’t just turn off parts of my past when I’m under attack or uncomfortable. I will do or say just about anything to get someone to leave me alone. God doesn’t let you live life that way. You know that, just as I do.”

“You think too meanly on folks, Sadie.” Jake admonished softly.

“What do you mean?” She asked warily, with her brow furrowed in anticipation for his response.

“You thinking you’re the only one this has happened to. Thinking life is only online. You’re not the first girl to sin or the only one sinning, but you’re the only one making it impossible to move on to what God has for you. Don’t you know that?” Jake asked quietly while Sadie stared down at her sneakers.

“Why does talking to you always make me feel stupid?” Sadie mumbled softly through sniffles as she wiped her face clean of the tears.

“It’s easier to see a situation when you are outside of it. That isn’t stupid; it’s a part of life, learning and spiritual growth.”

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