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Authors: Nikki Woods

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I tried to breathe again. Wasn
'
t it Toni that sang that song? Breathe again. Breathe again.

I
'
m trying!

I screamed violently to myself. Then something floated by. I squinted and strained, but still couldn
'
t distinguish what it was. My heart pounded in my ears with the ancient rhythm of African tribal drums, growing louder and faster by the second. Then a voice joined the
dance in my head. It was faint; I turned. I searched. Me? I waved in annoyance as if swatting away a mosquito looking to fatten itself on my blood. I didn
'
t have time for this.

Cha na man
.

Me soon come.

I recognized the sound of my voice, but who was I talking to? I spoke again and my Jamaican patois is at the same time familiar and unfamiliar. The irregular cadence of the rhythmic language tried to connect me to a memory tired of being ignored.

Sinking further and further toward some unknown pit, I
'
m supposed to be doing something, but I don
'
t know what. Then I saw her. She was floating. Peaceful. And she was so very still. She almost looked as if she were sleeping and the river was her bed, the soft waves, her pillow. I stretched out my hand and waited to feel her familiar grasp. The gentle current tugged at her as if trying to coax a shy child into joining a schoolyard game. Everyone was running to the edge of the river in a mixture of arms and legs and the film that was moving too fast before was now in slow motion
—
each detail in excruciating clarity. If I couldn
'
t breathe before, now way too much air gushed into my lungs. Screams came at me from all directions, ringing loudly in my ears. Despite the noise, I could still hear feet pounding on the sandy bank.

Everyone else seemed to be in motion, but fear and disbelief would not allow me to move. No amount of coaxing could draw me any closer. I am already close enough, close enough to see the pink, yellow, and green bathing suit that I had convinced her to put on earlier that day. Close enough to see that her chest was painfully still. Close enough to know that the vision of her slight motionless frame would forever be branded in my heart and soul.

I bolted straight up in the bed, terrified; my spine ramrod stiff. Eyes wide, mouth dry, and my pulse raced—but at least I was awake. My nightgown was attached in circles to my body, stuck by the sweat that also created a small wading pool in the small of my back. And with each chill bump that sprang up along my arms, my breathing slowed and I prayerfully realized that the terrible images from just seconds ago were gone.

The mocha-colored window blinds swayed angrily against the windowpane, trying to withstand the force of Chicago's winter wind. I must have fallen asleep on top of the covers after Essence and Keela left. The scattered pieces of the contract that I had tossed triumphantly in the air were strewn along the side of my bed, peppering the tan, blue, and maroon area rug. Then I remembered: I had placed them there, meaning to read through them again before I fell asleep.

Sometime during the night, I had yanked my heavy homemade patchwork quilt from its folded position to further buffer against the icy night air and I gathered it closer to me now. I strained to remember the ending of the recurring nightmare, but it always stopped at the same point. Cocoa slept soundly, curled in her corner of my room. I smoothed my lace eyelet sheets beneath me as if a neatly made bed would provide security, but the haze refused to clear.

The phone shrilled, slicing though the silence and my thoughts scattered even further. Something was wrong. Why else would someone call this late at night? It had to be two, maybe three o'clock in the morning. I rubbed my eyes and squinted, but still couldn't quite make out the numbers on the caller ID. Again, the phone rang. Deep down, I knew. Of course, I knew. I knew, but my breath still caught in anticipation as if willing, alone, had the power to change the outcome of this call. I picked up the phone in the middle of the fourth ring. The receiver was
barely to my ear when I heard the voice, soft but urgent, heavily accented and harboring a lifetime of secrets.

“Kingston.” The voice belonged to my great-aunt Beatrice, my grandmother's youngest sister, calling from Jamaica. The line crackled and I pressed the phone harder against my ear. Aunt Bea's voice was steady, but the pain hidden beneath her whiney, alto tone would be embedded in my mind forever. “It's time, Pickney, time for you to come home. We just found Mama Grace.” She paused before the dreaded words, “She's dead” left her lips.

Chapter 3

I hadn't been to sleep since my Aunt Bea's early morning phone call. In only three hours, I had packed, booked a flight, and called Jonetta to let her know I would not be coming into the office. I even arranged luxury accommodations for Cocoa at the Paws House Hotel. Pretty good in my estimation, considering I was totally numb—numb and disconnected like a balloon that had slipped from a toddler's hands. My grandmother's passing had not become my truth yet. The scenario belonged to someone else. Death can do that though, make you reflect on what's really important, which was exactly my target of deep thought as I glanced over at Randy.

Despite yesterday's conviction, I had dialed Randy's number and roused him from a deep sleep so I wouldn't have to catch a taxi to O'Hare.

He was blinking the sleep from his eyes and trying to smother a yawn while he negotiated his Mercedes Sedan through the pre-morning rush traffic that could be a nightmare along this stretch of the Dan Ryan Expressway.

Despite being dressed in a sweat suit, he was still quite fashionable, the latest Nike Air Jordan gym shoes completing the ensemble. His hair was cut low and shone from this morning's application of Dax Wax that had been worked in by his stiff bristle brush. Randy's thin mustache
and goatee were just as neatly groomed, a toothbrush dipped in gel brushed downward to keep every hair in place.

The muscles in his triceps bunched as he absently wiped some residue from the control panel of his car that looked like it belonged in a fighter jet. Not an ounce of fat draped his body as if Michelangelo were brought back from the dead, dropped in the middle of the ghetto and forced to make a black woman's version of David. His hands lightly gripped the steering wheel in standard driving format. Sparse black hair covered his knuckles, and his long fingers tapered into tidy square nails. His hands were well taken care of as he visited my nail technician for manicures more often than I did. Finally, I slid a lingering glance over the fullness of his lips and my memory sparked faintly. Each time I was just about ready to walk out the proverbial relationship door, memories of those lips whispering hotly in my ear, and deliciously exploring all the secret conclaves of my body would keep me right where I was—in a dead-end relationship.

I would be the first to admit that our relationship started out as one centered on an almost animal kind of lust. We had incredible sex, nasty sex—sex so good it stank. But what started out as an electric connection had withered into merely a mutually satisfying relationship. He used to play the role of the perfect boyfriend to a tee, but now all we'd become is a textbook case of one hand washing the other. A stockbroker who modeled on the side and aspired to be an actor, Randy needed connections. Because of my new foray into the entertainment business with the Mansini Music Group, I was constantly attending fund-raisers, benefits, and political soirees. This put me in a position to meet people who could possibly further his career. I needed a man
on my arm who was not only debonair, but also an intelligent conversationalist with the capability to conform to any situation. It used to work very nicely. But it was getting harder and harder to remember why we'd ever hooked up.

Randy already had his Bose stereo set to a popular Hip-Hop station, volume blaring at a deafening level from the ridiculously expensive surround-sound speakers, his low cut fade bobbing lazily to the upbeat tempo. The morning-show personalities were hamming it up. The current target of their humor, the Chicago Police Department, which once again found themselves on the cover of the leading local paper thanks to yet another police screw-up. I lowered the volume and flipped the knob to a news/talk station to get the real story behind the accidental shooting without busting an eardrum.

Randy sighed and clamped his lips together. He viewed my changing the station as an invasion of his personal space, but he must've decided it wasn't a battle worth fighting and busied himself switching lanes. Then, the news segued into commercials and I adjusted the volume even more for either conversation or silence. I opted for conversation. Though things had been strained between us for quite some time, we were still a couple; the least we could do was talk.

Adjusting the vent, I looked over at Randy again. “You look so cute when you're sleepy. I can just imagine what you looked like waking up early on a Saturday morning excited about watching cartoons and eating Captain Crunch.”

“I didn't get much sleep last night.”

“Well, thanks for getting up and taking me to the airport. I really appreciate it—just one more thing I didn't have to figure out. I already think I left something behind and it's driving me nuts. You know how it is when you're packing in a hurry. I hate to forget anything when I'm going to Jamaica. Things are so expensive there. Even the little things—soap, toothpaste—you know what I mean? I checked everything twice, though, so I should be okay.” I wasn't okay, though. I looked around and couldn't believe that I actually was thinking about asking Randy to pull over so I could go rumble through my bags and check for the twenty-eighth time when suddenly he did another lane change to avoid something in the road. This put us solidly in the middle lane sandwiched by other testy commuters. Pulling over was out of the question; we were pretty much at a standstill.

“So this was a big load off my mind,” I continued. “I know you had a late night with the Reebok photo shoot, but Essence is leaving to go out of town herself this morning and Keela is, well, Keela or I would have gotten one of them out of bed.”

Randy grunted in response. All right. Humble appreciation was not working. Not a morning person even after a full night's sleep, he perked up only after a Grande Vanilla Latte and a cinnamon roll slathered with icing. But pile a lack of sleep on top of that and it wreaked havoc on his home training. Unfortunately, we didn't have enough time to swing by a Starbucks so we both had to do without the daily shot of caffeine to smooth our rough edges. I closed my eyes,
settled into the leather seat, absently fingering the one-carat diamond stud in my ear and continued undaunted.

“Essence should be back when I return, so you don't have to worry about picking me up from the airport. Either she or Keela'll do it.”

Randy grimaced and I rolled my eyes. Keela and Randy couldn't stand each other. She disliked him because she spotted his more-than-obvious game from Jump Street. He despised her because she constantly tried to hip me to it. Keela was just looking out for a sistah. In the reverse situation, I would do the same. But I understood Randy's game, too, and decided to play with him anyway. I'm a big girl. What they both failed to realize was that I really never cared that much and it has just gone downhill from there. Two years of indifferent convenience and only moderately good sex can be hell on one's self esteem.

Randy sent me a sideways glance, his nostrils flared. “I don't know why you still hang out with her, Essence either for that matter.”

“They're my best friends.”

“They're nosy and they're sneaky.”

“How can you say something like that? They've never done anything to give you a reason to even think something like that.” I shoved a frustrated hand through my hair. My defense sounded weak to my own ears.

“All they do is ride your coattails, Kingston. That's not a friend. That's a user.”

“So what do you do, Randy? I mean if you really think about it, they could say the same thing about you and have quite often, I might add. But last time I checked, I was a grown woman who could form her own opinions about who she dated and who she hangs out with.”

Randy laughed dryly and honked his horn at a car in front of him. “Mark my words, some day you'll wish you'd listened. As the old saying goes, ‘with friends like that, who needs enemies'?”

I waved a tired hand in his face to make him mad. It angered him to be dismissed like a child.

As expected, Randy growled, “I'm not a little boy, Kingston.”

I pursed my lips smugly at his loss of control. “Then don't act like one. You're entitled to your opinion, Randy; I just don't want to hear it right now, especially if you have nothing to back it up with. I mean really, do you have to start a fight just before I leave the country for my grandmother's funeral?”

The conversation came to a dead stop just as the traffic picked up. We snaked under the viaducts and various exit ramps that made up the loopy intersection of Chicago's expressways before we broke into open ground. Drizzle started to fall as the gray in the sky deepened to a foreboding charcoal.

Whipping out my cell phone, I angrily punched in the number to Scooby's manager while counting to ten. This was the third time I'd tried to call him and still no answer. They were probably passed out from partying. I hung up without leaving a message.

I wanted to fume in silence, but I also didn't want to leave on such ugly terms. So wanting to be the bigger person, I tried again. “Please run by and check on Cocoa before you go to work. I left her food and water, but you know how she can get. I don't want her tearing up something because she's lonely. Last time I went out of town, she got into my sock drawer and I don't think I have two pairs that match anymore.” I ignored the frown that flashed across Randy's face. “Don't worry, that's all you need to do. My neighbor, Henry, will come over after he gets off work and check on her. And Keela will take her to the kennel tomorrow.

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