Authors: Tananarive Due
He has no voice. Still screaming, a wounded sound that shreds his soul, Kaya runs past him through the classroom doorway, and a heavy door slams shut behind her. He tries to open it, and it is stuck at first; when he finally pulls it free of the frame, he stumbles into darkness. He can still hear Kaya’s cries in the distance, winding away from him. He calls for her, his own voice strained from sobs.
The darkness nearly paralyzes him in its vast emptiness, numbing his reason. He could stop fighting, he realizes, and simply float into the darkness. He is so weary he feels pain in his joints when he tries to move, but each time he considers surrender he hears Kaya’s frantic, frightened cries ahead, closer than the last time. Daddy is coming, he says in a choked whisper. Daddy won’t leave you alone.
He bumps into new doors and struggles to open each one; each leads to darkness more complete, more enveloping than the last. He is breathing in gasps now. The darkness is as dense as liquid, and he cannot breathe at all. He is drowning in it. He is drowning.
Finally, he heaves his weight against a door that opens freely, momentarily blinding him. He is on his patio, and now he can see the brightness glowing from the green floodlights. He recognizes the potted palms and air plants, each in their proper place. Kaya is hunched over the white wrought-iron table, her back facing him.
Yes, now I remember, he thinks.
“Hey,” he says, and she does not answer. Then he notices the unmistakable dripping beneath her chair, feeding a blood puddle that is growing and snaking its way toward the swimming pool. Even the pool’s lapping waters are tinged with red, bubbling and hissing in a mist. He runs to Kaya to hold her.
Kaya’s cheeks are sunken in a death mask, her skin frightfully pale and paper-thin. Her shriveled arms cradle a package wrapped in brown paper and tied neatly with twine. The box is addressed to him with a bright red marker in a handwriting he believes he knows. He nearly collapses to his knees when he sees the package, and he lunges to try to take it, but he can’t wrestle it from her grip. Her open eyes are lifeless, her irises glazed and clouded white.
From nowhere, an unseen hand wraps itself around Hilton’s throat, gently at first, but then seizing him so tightly that all air is blocked, siphoned out of him. He feels himself shrinking to nothing. He cannot move to see whose hand it is, and he is powerless to fight. “Hey, bro,” says a voice he will know soon. “I’m afraid I don’t know nothing about birthing no babies.”
Hilton can see nothing now except darkness that grows steadily more dense as the last of his air seeps away. The hand won’t free him. He is drowning again, in blackness. “Help us, Daddy,” Kaya pleads in a voice that belongs to the dead.
Hilton felt a warm hand on his forearm, and he jolted to wakefulness with a cry to fling it away.
“Hilton, what’s wrong? Wake up.”
Dede’s voice. He sat up straight on the living room’s leather couch, clutching the armrest as he gasped deeply to breathe. His heartbeat pulsed hard from his neck’s carotid artery, and he could feel his chest constricting. He glanced at the snow flickering on the screen of the television set, then the faint light creeping through the front window’s curtains.
Dede’s African masks, crafted from wood and leather, glared at him from the walls as though they could leap down. Dede was bent over him, her face shiny and puffed from sleep. It took him time to realize Dede was talking to him.
“What?” he asked, still trying to catch his breath.
“You looked like you stopped breathing,” Dede repeated. She pressed her palm to his chest, where she could feel his heartbeat. “My Lord, Hil. It’s like what happens to babies. Remember what the pediatrician said that time? When we’re sleeping, we sometimes forget to breathe. Most people wake up when that happens, but sometimes infants don’t. You didn’t wake up, not until I came.”
Hilton stared at Dede, riveted by her moving lips and her words that seemed to follow a split second after. “We’re always closest to death when we’re asleep,” he mumbled. “You know that.”
“What?” Dede asked, her eyes widening.
Suddenly, as his mind began to clear, Hilton couldn’t remember exactly what he had said to her or why. He’d felt such a certainty before, with that voice that didn’t even sound like his own, but now the words fluttered in his ears like nonsense.
“You’re not awake yet,” Dede said finally.
“A . . . a bad dream,” he said hoarsely. “What time is it?”
“I don’t know, something before six,” she whispered. “Get up and come to bed, Hil. You’re going to wake the children out here. I could hear you all the way across the house.”
Hilton nodded, wiping perspiration from his face with both hands while he sat up, but he didn’t move to stand just yet. He always needed a brief time for readjustment, to remind himself that whatever horror he’d seen in his sleep wasn’t real, that he had escaped it. Again, vague scents and sights seemed to linger around him, waiting to lash out.
“Where’s Kaya?” he asked, his voice still strained.
Dede didn’t hear him, or she ignored the question as the mumblings of someone only half-awake. She smoothed her hand across the top of his closely cropped hair, a soothing massage.
“How long have they been back?” she asked.
Hilton blinked several times. He hadn’t wanted to tell her about the dreams, thinking if he didn’t, they might vanish again. The truth was, they seemed worse each night; and his birthday, when they were usually at their worst, was still four months away, in March. He sighed and sank back against the couch’s softness, which earlier had betrayed him and lulled him to sleep. “About a week,” he said.
“Like before?” she asked.
He nodded. Dede turned the television set off, then sat beside him on the sofa and tapped her fingers against his thigh. Abbott and Costello were stirring beneath the bed-sheet draped over their birdcage, fussing softly at each other. “I don’t like it when you dream,” Dede said. “It reminds me of a bad time. I don’t want that again.”
He kissed her nose. “It won’t ever be like that again.”
“You can’t go without sleep, Hil. I wondered why you’d been staying up so late. It’s been so long, at least five years. I never even thought—”
“Maybe it’s stress, or I’m just worried about that letter we gave to Curt. I hope so.”
Dede hesitated. “Do you think you should—”
He squeezed her knee, then stood up. His legs felt unhinged, waterlogged. “I promised Raul a Heat game sometime next week,” he said, reading her mind. “I’ll bring it up when I see him.”
“I hope you will. Or maybe a regular doctor. The way you breathe when you sleep has always worried me,” she said.
Hilton started to follow her down the hallway toward their bedroom, but he paused when he saw the sliding glass door leading from the family room to the green-lighted patio. He turned and padded back to the living room, then to the hallway that led to the study, Jamil’s bedroom, and then Kaya’s.
Her door was nearly closed, but it was still ajar. He pushed it open slowly, careful not to allow the hinge to creak. Kaya’s walls were plastered with posters of her favorite television and rap stars, and the clothes she had worn the previous day were thrown across the back of a chair. All that was visible of her in the mound beneath her blankets was a single ponytail. He wanted to touch the mound, to see his daughters face, but he dismissed the urge as irrational. No reason to wake her. She was there, just as he’d known she would be. Whatever poison had touched him from his dream was poison in his mind only, and it had no potency in the safety of his home.
Still, his pounding heartbeat hadn’t slowed. Just dreams, he reminded himself, and he gently tugged the door to his daughter’s bedroom until it clicked shut.
Jackson Memorial Hospital, a sprawling drab-colored complex wedged along busy streets near the expressway in northwest Miami, was the only hospital equipped to receive the county’s most badly injured accident victims; it also served the county’s indigent, who could spend hours in gur-neys in crowded hallways waiting for a bed.
Antoinette Grays had her bed in a room by herself, the receptionist told Hilton after a few strokes on her computer keyboard. Hilton recognized the wing from the heavyset woman’s directions because he had visited there many times before; it served AIDS patients exclusively.
Hilton put his arm around Kaya’s shoulder and began to steer her out of the way of people with dazed and overburdened expressions who shuffled through the hospital’s lobby. In their faces he could see all of their details still unsettled, all of their fears unresolved, their irritation acting as sole sustenance to push them through each hour. Newcomers at Miami New Day often wore the same expression, lost and angry.
“Tell you what . . . I’ll drop you off in the cafeteria, you grab a quick lunch, I’ll run to Antoinette’s room, then we’ll get to the movies before two,” Hilton told Kaya.
“You’re crazy. Haven’t you heard about hospital food, Dad?”
“Do you want to hang out in the waiting room?”
She turned her eyes upward. “Can I go in with you?”
The question surprised him, so he had no ready answer.
Hilton pulled her closer and patted her shoulder as they neared the elevator. “Why would you want to do that?”
She shrugged. “I’ve never met anybody with AIDS.”
“It’s no fun, Kaya. I know you’re a young lady now, but this is a wing even a lot of grown-ups avoid. I guess it’s human nature to run away from death. That’s why people like Antoinette don’t get enough visitors.”
“Wouldn’t she like to see another teenager?”
Hilton smiled at her, jabbing the elevator button. Kaya definitely had a point there. Antoinette had dropped out of school and grown up so fast, so hard, he couldn’t think of another young person in her life. “Maybe she would. Are you sure about this? This is something you really want?”
Kaya nodded, although her lips were tight with nervousness. The elevator’s bell rang and the arrow lit up in green before the door slid open. Hilton sighed. “Okay then, princess. I’ll explain a few things to you when we get up there. It’s not like a regular hospital wing.”
The only other nonpatients on the floor today were nurses organizing charts at the nurses’ station, talking over each other’s voices. Through door after door they passed, Hilton and Kaya glanced at solemn men and women staring up at their mounted television sets or asleep, curled up. The faces were gaunt, cheerless. Most of the rooms were bare, with no efforts made to personalize them.
Miami New Day had sent Antoinette a bouquet of brightly colored carnations, and they were the centerpiece of the table beside her bed, where they glowed in the shaft of light from her window. Two slightly deflated red helium balloons were taped to her wall by their strings.
The only view from Antoinette’s window was the wall of bricks and rows of windows from the building next door or, if she had been able to stand and peer downward, an alleyway. She’d been watching a “Sanford and Son” rerun when they came in, and the mounted television set ran in silence above them while Hilton and Kaya pulled chairs up to her bed.
Antoinette’s arms were strung to two intravenous drug pouches, and tubes ran from her nose to an oxygen machine to help her breathe. With the dexterity of experience, she found the button to raise her bed so she could see them better. Antoinette wore her hair in a short jheri-curl style that looked dry and brittle for lack of care. Though she appeared thinner than ever to Hilton, her face beamed as though she weren’t sick at all.
“Look at you, all fixed up like what’s-his-name, Dr. Huxtable on ‘Cosby’ or somebody,” Antoinette said, half laughing although she sounded weary. He heard congestion bubbling in her chest when she breathed.
“Do you think this look is me?” Hilton asked, running his fingers along the paper mask covering his nose and mouth. Both he and Kaya wore masks and gloves as a part of the wing’s regulations, a protective measure designed for the patients, not the visitors. Their germs could be deadly to an AIDS patient robbed of basic immune defenses.
“Uh huh,” Antoinette said, conserving words.
Hilton squeezed Kaya’s hand. This visit was hard for him, and he wondered now if it had been smart to bring his impressionable daughter. “This is my oldest, Kaya. She wanted to come up and see you. We’re going to the movies today.”
Antoinette glanced at Kaya shyly, then looked back at Hilton. “What you gon’ see, Mr. James?”
Kaya answered before he could, explaining that they hadn’t decided between the new movie with hip-hop artists Kid ’N Play or a Walt Disney cartoon. Kaya wasn’t sure about the cartoon; too babyish, she said. She was thirteen, but she wasn’t allowed to see too many R-rated movies yet, she said.
After swallowing with apparent effort, Antoinette said, “I like Kid ’N Play. I hope I get out before they stop showing that.”
Without a beat of hesitation, Kaya asked, “Which one do you think is cuter?”
Antoinette shook her head. “They both look good to me,” she said, and suddenly their conversation sounded like two schoolmates chatting over lunch in the cafeteria. Kaya went on to talk about how her friends liked Kid because he was “red-skinned,” as they called him, but she didn’t believe people look better just because of a lighter complexion. She asked Antoinette if she agreed.
Hilton listened to their conversation, transfixed and momentarily mute. He’d never seen Kaya so self-directed, so deft in social relations. He knew she had to be nervous and sad and sickened just like he was, but he could hear none of those things in her hurried, casual tones as she tried to draw conversation out of Antoinette. Kaya’s eyes smiled above her mask, enabling the barrier between them to disappear. Antoinette told Kaya she liked Luther Vandross, and her favorite song was “A House Is Not a Home.” Hilton didn’t know these things about her, would never have known. They sounded like instant friends.