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Authors: Tananarive Due

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BOOK: The Between
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His assistant director, a beefy and excitable young Muslim brother named Ahmad, blocked the doorway to Hilton’s office with his six-foot-four bulk. “The newspaper is on the phone,” Ahmad went on, “and that’s not the worst of it. Some citizens council is all stirred up, saying they’re going to the commission tomorrow to protest the expansion.”

“They’re protesting now?” Hilton asked, taking a pile of messages from his secretary’s desk. Wanda, who was talking to a caller on her telephone headset, looked up at him with a smile, shrugging. “There isn’t a residential neighborhood in a mile’s radius of this place,” Hilton pointed out.

“You know that. I know that,” Ahmad said, stepping aside so Hilton could toss his worn leather briefcase on top of his desk. “The newspaper wants a comment. I said we have to clear all comments with you.”

Hilton considered it a moment, longing for a second cup of coffee. “Wait. I’ve got something better. Tell the reporter to come here at—” He flipped through his schedule book, finding it crammed with tasks for the day. “One-thirty. I’ll give them a tour of this place and show them what we do.”

“Have you seen the facility today?” Ahmad asked, hesitant.

“You all just have to get it straight, and we’ll explain we’re doing some relocating. You’ve got four hours.”

“Yes, sir,” Ahmad said, always eager for impossible tasks, which was a prerequisite in this field.

“I’ve warned you about that ‘sir’ business. I ain’t your damn daddy,” Hilton called after him, feigning anger.

“Sure sound like him, though,” Ahmad shot back.

Miami New Day operated with an award-winning format; the semiprivate center split its eighty beds for men and women between homeless addicts and paying clients who couldn’t afford pricier hospitals or who were willing to give up frills for results. The center was created in 1972 with a trust fund from a Miami Beach socialite whose son died from a drug overdose, and who blamed his death on a lack of treatment facilities. In her will she set aside more than a million dollars to get Miami New Day running; the center still relied on dividend checks from investments made by its original board of directors, but it also received public funds because it took referrals from the state social service agency.

A client had committed suicide ten years before, but the center had run relatively free of tragedy since then. Only a small fraction of clients returned to Miami New Day after their treatment ended, and counselors provided follow-up visits to make sure they stayed clean. More and more clients, men and women, were turning up infected with the HIV virus, however. More than once, Hilton had attended the spare funeral service of a former client who kicked a drug habit in time to get sick and die. Their brief, troubled passages made Hilton wonder if some souls weren’t born doomed to misery.

Since his appointment as director by the board three years before, Hilton had gained a reputation for cleaning house. He knew which counselors still had a genuine commitment and which were merely putting in time for their paychecks, and he had no patience for the latter. He’d replaced four staff members and brought in Ahmad from the state agency. He did so despite reservations from the board, because they’d worked well together, Ahmad himself was a former addict, and he worked long hours to do any job right.

Hilton had high standards but didn’t have the budget to pay well, so he tried to compensate by making the working conditions pleasant; his staff had a carpeted lounge with a microwave oven and vending machines, he allowed them to work flexible hours, and the center had weekly staff meetings so that no problem could go too long undiscussed. Hilton let his staffers know they weren’t alone in their battles; since he had experience as a counselor, he spent much of his time working with the clients, learning their names and gaining their trust. One thing marriage counseling instilled in Hilton was a compulsion for open communication. Whether at home or at work, he knew that anything left unsaid was far more dangerous than spoken words could be, no matter how hurtful. His staffers joked that if the coffee machine was broken, he would call a meeting to discuss how they felt about it.

In his search for more coffee, Hilton found the staff lounge empty except for the white-coated back of Dr. Stu Rothchild, a physician who had worked at Miami New Day two days a week for several years. Stu was Hilton’s age, in his late thirties, completely bald at the top of his head but with bright red hair everywhere else, extending to his face in a matching beard. Stu always played Santa Claus at the center’s Christmas party for addicts and their families because with powder in his hair he was a ringer. He greeted children with a twinkle in his eyes and an inside joke: “Shalom. Merry Christmas.” Hilton heard Stu muttering about the lack of decaf when he sat at the table.

“What’s this rumor I hear about somebody protesting us?” Stu asked. “Are they going to have a sit-in and march around the building singing ‘We Shall Overcome’?”

“Who the hell knows?” Hilton said. “Man, I don’t even want to talk about it. I hope this doesn’t fuck up our grant.”

“I don’t see why money is a problem. You should have plenty of campaign contributions left over,” Stu said, joining Hilton at the table with a smile. Stu was Hilton’s closest friend at the center and as a result knew best how to provoke him.

Hilton glared. “I know that’s a joke. We spent our savings on that campaign. Good thing the kids don’t have any crazy ideas about going to college.”

Stu squeezed Hilton’s hand affectionately. “I’m pulling your leg, boss. A little levity.”

“Yeah. Very little.”

Stu sipped his coffee, then kneaded his freckled forehead as though he had a headache. “I do have some bad news, though, since you’re here. About Antoinette.”

Antoinette was sixteen, and she’d been fifteen when she came to Miami New Day to try to kick her crack cocaine habit. Stu tested all new clients for the HIV virus; this girl’s results came back positive, and Stu diagnosed her with early symptoms of AIDS. The slight teenager’s face didn’t change when he told her, and she calmly announced she’d like to stay and get clean. That was all she wanted. Her boyfriend had died the month before, and he finally confessed in the hospital that he had AIDS, she said. He didn’t like condoms, so she’d been sleeping with him for two years without them. The amazing thing was, Stu told Hilton later, she said it without a trace of anger in her voice. Antoinette was slightly thinner and with shorter hair than Kaya, but her sweet nature and intelligence reminded Hilton of his daughter.

“I don’t want to hear this,” Hilton said.

Stu nodded, glassy-eyed. “She’s back at Jackson Memorial with fluid in her lungs. She may pull through it again, but there’s not much they can do except keep trying to drain them because there’s so much tissue damage. I stopped by to see her yesterday, and her uncle is still being a prick. She’s not getting any visitors, not a card, no flowers. It’ll break your heart, this kid in a hospital room by herself with four walls to stare at all day, not knowing if she’ll live or die.”

“I’ll post a notice to let the counselors know,” Hilton said, and he cleared his throat to regain his voice. He would never get used to seeing kids dying. Never. “You think I can hold off for two more days? I probably can’t make it there until Saturday.”

“I’ll warn you if I think she’s deteriorating.”

Hilton didn’t speak for a second, and Stu simply stirred his coffee. “Goddammit,” Hilton said finally.

Despite Dede’s cautioning, Hilton ended up involved in his clients’ lives outside of the center; he’d found himself helping Danitra move into her new apartment Saturday because one of his counselors couldn’t make it and Hilton didn’t want her stuck trying to move by herself. Now, this weekend, Antoinette.

“Just go when you have time,” Stu said. “You can’t save the world all by yourself. And you’re not looking well yourself, Hil.”

“No?”

“You’re wearing some mean bags under your eyes.”

“Oh, yeah,” Hilton said, still preoccupied with thoughts of Antoinette. “I haven’t been sleeping much this week.”

“Well, you know my spiel on that,” Stu said. “You can’t take care of anyone else if you’re not taking care of yourself. Right?”

Hilton smiled at his friend. “Okay. Right. Now, lay off.”

 

By four-thirty Hilton was several hours behind in his work. Between the reporter’s tour, inquiries from his contractor, and attempts to reach the mayor for reassurances, much of the paperwork he had planned to read that day, including a grant proposal that needed to be postmarked by morning, was still untouched on his desk. While he was on his telephone holding for the contractor, Ahmad walked into his office and dropped a new stack of papers in front of him. “A petition,” Ahmad said, turning to walk out. “Next we’ll be getting threatening phone calls.” Hilton scanned the blur of signatures.

your herd won’t live

On impulse, he raised his eyes and locked them on the framed family portrait before him on his desk. His family posed for a new photo each summer because the children changed so much each year, so this one was barely three months old; they all looked exactly as they had last weekend at the park, except that they were all smiling in front of a hokey meadowland backdrop,
unborn seeds

Gazing at his family huddled together, their round faces and smiles, Dede’s hand on his knee, Kaya and Jamil side by side, Hilton felt a searing sadness, a claw at his insides. He sat up straight in his chair, hung up on the contractors office, then dialed Dede’s number.

“Sorry, Hil. She’s away from her desk.” “Is she gone for the day already? Is she in court?” “She was just here. I think she’s in the powder room.” Hilton knew that if he didn’t leave a message with the secretary now, he would forget as he had all week. “Just tell her to remember to bring home that letter she mentioned last weekend.”

“Oh, that nutty one?” the woman laughed. Hilton couldn’t remember this woman’s name, although he’d dealt with her for years. He wanted to tell her there was nothing funny about it, and that only his friends could feel free to call him Hil. Most of all, he was annoyed Dede had shown the letter to her office as a joke.

“The one with the threats,” Hilton said patiently.

“No problem, Hil. I’ll leave a note on her desk.”

CHAPTER 6

Hilton lived at the end of a cul-de-sac just east of the boundary—and accompanying higher property taxes—of courtly Coral Gables, on a street where even at midday ficus trees and live oaks blanketed everything beneath them in shade. His house was bordered from the street by a waist-high wall built thirty years before from pure coral rock that had turned brown and crumbled slightly, and the house had coral-rock arches at the end of the path leading through the yard to the front door. Bougainvillea hedges with bouquets of pink blossoms grew against the house like a crown of colors.

They’d never have afforded the four-bedroom house with its Spanish-tile roof, swimming pool, and polished wooden floors if the old widow selling it hadn’t liked his family instantly. She couldn’t keep her fingers from pinching Kaya’s cheeks, which made Dede tense because she recoiled when she believed whites were treating her children like objects of amusement. But this woman was sincere, if a little condescending, and the house had them enchanted, so Dede held her tongue.

The woman told them how happy she was to see a fine young black family, how she’d been brought up by a black nanny in Virginia, how she’d always hired blacks to clean for her and became such good friends with them, how her husband had marched with Martin Luther King. “I know you all think I’m a silly old fool,” the woman had said, tears glistening in her rheumy eyes, “but I know what struggle is all about. If Aaron were alive today to see you here, he’d be tickled pink. Tell me what you think you can pay, and let’s talk about a price.”

Now, after dark, the bright solar lamp Hilton had installed soon after they moved in cast a surreal light over the house and painted shadows from tree limbs and leaves across the walls. Through the living room draperies he could see the blue glow of the television set. Dede’s Audi was already parked in the gravel driveway; Hilton pulled up behind it and sat a moment in an awe-inspiring solitude in which even the crickets didn’t stir. He broke the spell by opening his car door and slamming it shut.

Jamil cornered him to talk about his after-school soccer game while Hilton sat at the small kitchen table and wolfed down leftover African beef stew, which Dede made with a taste of peanut butter for flavor. (He’d balked when he first heard the recipe, but he’d loved eating it since the first time he tried it.) Then it was time for “The Simpsons,” so Jamil excused himself to watch television after assuring Hilton he had finished his homework and had left it on the kitchen counter for inspection. Hilton didn’t hear a fight about which child would watch the big TV in the living room and who would have to go to Kaya’s room, unusual for a Thursday.

“This stew is something else, my queen,” Hilton said to Dede, standing to kiss her when she wandered into the kitchen wearing a loose-fitting African housedress and a casual head wrap. This was her time for freedom; she never wore African clothes in court or at her office.

“Did you see the rice Kaya made on the stove?”

Hilton patted his stomach, which was taut from overeating. “It’s right down here. Where’s Kaya tonight? Rehearsal?” When Dede sat at the table and looked at him with a searching smile, Hilton expected news of the rape case she’d been arguing for weeks. “A verdict?” he asked.

Dede shook her head. “More important,” she said. “Kaya got her period today.”

Hilton stood still, aware that his face must be frozen in a comical expression of bewilderment. “Already?” he asked.

“She’s thirteen, Hil. All her friends got theirs by last year, so thank God she finally did. You know how children hate to be different.”

Hilton sank back into his chair. In the short time since they’d lived in their new house, Kaya had grown from ten to thirteen, and what an immense difference that small journey made—the difference between “Daddy” and “Dad,” and now the difference between a tree-climbing child and an appearance-conscious young woman biologically equipped to make a new life herself.

BOOK: The Between
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