“Tabitha Lynn,” Mama called from the kitchen. “Go and wake your Gammy McHenry. Dinner’s ’bout ready.”
One door down, in the bathroom, I tried on another smile for the mirror—my hand holding my chin in a contemplative pose. But my reflection couldn’t hide the crooked teeth or the giant zit that poked up from behind my fingers like Mount Vesuvius. My freshman photo in St. Pius X’s annual yearbook was going to be a total train-wreck shot.
“I know you hear me, birthday girl,” Mama shouted. “Hurry up now, or no cake for you later.”
Laughter danced in Mama’s voice.
“Yes, Mama,” I yelled back before I looked a final time to the mirror. Yep, a definite train wreck of catastrophic proportions. There was no way any boy would ask me to the Homecoming Dance. Unless, I thought, he was blind. Then I took in the zit again and changed my mind about that theory. Blind boy feels that whopper, he’s gonna think you got two noses, Tabby.
Somehow, I thought when I woke that morning—my fourteenth birthday—I’d be different, changed . . . for the better. But no, it was still the same me staring back at me.
The first thing I saw when I poked my head inside Gammy McHenry’s bedroom doorway was Jamie. He sat cross-legged on the floor at the foot of the bed. He was making his latest god’s eye. This one’s color-combination alternated between green and blue. For once, thankfully, his clothes remained on his body.
“Gammy McHenry,” I said, “supper’s almost ready.”
Gammy McHenry lay atop the bed’s quilt in her favorite grey cardigan and a flower print housedress. She was still as a statue, though her eyelids were partly open as if she was studying the ceiling. Or praying.
One of Jamie’s god’s eyes, a small black one, rested upon her breasts between her intertwined fingers. It was a diamond-shaped hole in her chest.
When I glanced to see if Gammy McHenry had on her shoes yet or if she was gonna need some help, I was sure the god’s eye winked at me. Real fast like, I looked back from Gammy McHenry’s shoes, but the god’s eye looked the same as afore—black as sin, but unblinking.
Now, I’d never seen this particular god’s eye, but that didn’t surprise me. Jamie had made hundreds those past months. A dozen or two decorated the walls in that room alone. The many-colored yarn constructions looked like kites against the room’s faded blue paint.
Quite the name, but I guessed it fit. Must be a million kids made them at one time or another in Sunday school. Simple to make too. Take a couple sticks, place them into a cross, and start wrapping the yarn. Jamie liked to use Popsicle sticks for his crosses. Taped a bunch of them end to end until he was happy with the length. It was like he knew just how much stick he needed based on the pile of yarn he found.
Now that was a joke. Three days before, the freak had ruined my yellow cashmere sweater finding his yarn. Don’t know how many months it took Gammy McHenry to scrimp up to buy that sweater for me, but it sure didn’t take Jamie long to unravel it. Even had the nerve to give it to me as an early birthday present.
The black god’s eye seemed to stare at me. I forced my gaze away.
“You too, Freak,” I said. “It’s time to eat.”
Jamie continued to weave yarn about the crossed Popsicle sticks in his lap. He used the repetitive, hypnotic, back-and-forth pattern I’d seen countless times. He sang in a quiet voice while he weaved. “Aye-eeeeeeee. Aye, aye-eeeeeeee.” Drool dribbled from his chin.
“That’s right,” I said. “Aye, aye, Captain.”
Five years old, and I’d yet to hear more than Ma, Gam, pee, poo, aye, or Ta-ee come from his mouth. Ta-ee being what he called me. For the ten-thousandth time, I was thankful Mama didn’t have lead poisoning when she was pregnant with me.
“Better come eat while it’s hot.” I hoped he wouldn’t throw a tantrum and wreck my birthday like he did most every other day. “Or it’s the brig for you, buster. And then you can forget ’bout any birthday cake.”
Jamie didn’t react—even to the word cake, which normally brought him round real fast—so I was thinking full-blown hissy fit when I stepped toward him. When I did, the floorboards groaned.
The sound triggered a wave of gooseflesh.
I realized something was missing from the room.
Some sound besides Jamie’s singing.
Then I knew what I wasn’t hearing. Breathing.
Frozen mid-step, I stared down at the top of Jamie’s head suddenly afraid to look over at Gammy McHenry, who I realized wasn’t sleeping, or praying, but was in fact dead.
Mama didn’t believe me when I told her Gammy McHenry was dead. Acted like she ain’t heard the words I’d just said.
“Where’s your brother?” Mama pulled the meatloaf from the oven. The smell of cooked beef and onions filled the kitchen. “Thought I told you to get him.” She used a foot to slam shut the oven door. Oven mitts on hands, she walked the meatloaf to the counter by the sink and plopped down the heavy glassware pan.
Next to the steaming pan was Gammy McHenry’s antique stand mixer, its bowl filled with mashed potatoes just waiting for butter. On the narrow strip of wall above the cabinets were more god’s eyes.
I pictured the black one resting atop Gammy McHenry’s chest and my head spun.
“Mama, didn’t you hear?” I asked. “Gammy McHenry’s . . . dead.” I leaned against the hallway arch for support, praying my knees wouldn’t buckle. The heat from the oven didn’t help. Beneath my hands on the wall were the pen marks Mama made when she measured Jamie and me on our birthdays to see how much we’d grown.
“That’s not funny, Tabitha Lynn,” Mama said then turned. She took off the thick quilted mitts and frowned. “Not even close. I got enough worries on my plate with Jamie. Now you trying to add to that? Shame, child. Now go and fetch your brother and great-gram this instance.”
I shook my head and said, “No, Mama.”
I loved meatloaf and mashed potatoes. That’s why Mama made it special for my birthday. Normally, the aroma started me to drool as badly as Jamie. Right then it about made me puke.
“No?” she demanded. The crease between her eyebrows deepened.
I couldn’t stop my head from shaking. Soon my shoulders and upper body joined in. Fourteen-years-old that day, and I was gonna faint away like an old lady standing too long at church. I clung to the wall for dear life while last year’s blue pen mark blurred into a rushing river.
Mama, meantime, must have seen how bad I felt and realized I wasn’t joking cause she repeated herself. “No.”
This time there was no scorn in the word.
“No,” she said over and over. “No, no, noooooo.”
The god’s eye returned at the wake.
I’d clear forgot about it. Yet there it was back upon Gammy McHenry’s chest, black and bottomless-looking as ever. I was tempted to go up to the coffin and snatch it from her hands, but I’d have to touch it then. And something in me didn’t want to do that. The same something told me if I did, I’d die just like Gammy McHenry.
I chewed the lip of the plastic cup I’d been drinking from while the cup’s once-sweet-tasting soda pop soured my stomach. The air reeked of the flowers that stood guard round the coffin.
I forced myself to look away from the god’s eye.
Around me, well-wishers roamed Sodermann and Sons Funeral Home in temporary packs. Groups of three to five, they huddled close to one another mostly speaking in soft tones with the occasional bray of laughter breaking above the constant beehive drone. I sat as far back in Viewing Room 3 as possible. A hard-as-steel folding chair numbed my backside while I viewed these so-called mourners, Gammy McHenry’s friends—people from Second Baptists, people from the bakery, people from her past.
Didn’t they see the god’s eye? I wondered. Didn’t it bother them like it did me? Couldn’t they feel its wrongness.
The god’s eye hadn’t been there when Mama took me up to view Gammy McHenry. Then Gammy McHenry’s rosary beads decorated her praying hands.
What the heck kind of word was that for looking at a dead body? Just as bad as well-wishers. Who came up with stuff like that? Wasn’t as if nobody tossed loose change into Gammy McHenry’s coffin and made a wish.
Then there was paying your respect.
A man took that moment to break from a triumvirate of middle-aged ladies that been mulling near Viewing Room 3’s refreshment table to do just that—pay Gammy McHenry respect. He’d been laughing more than some. Big, both wide and tall, he was sorta good-looking with nice hair, light-skinned, though he smiled too much for his own good. This here man walked—no, sauntered—up to the coffin before he kneeled on the padded-contraption Sodermann and Sons had set there. The kneeler looked like the ones at St. Pius X’s chapel, yet this one was mobile. He bowed his head for a short spell then stood.
I’d been timing people to see if there was a connection between how well they knew Gammy McHenry to how long they paid respect.
Before the big man turned to move away, he leaned forward and touched Gammy McHenry.
I’d seen others do this too. Some even leaned in for a kiss.
Weren’t Gammy McHenry up there in that coffin. Not really. I’d seen that when Mama forced me to pay my respect right before Mr. Sodermann opened Viewing Room 3 for public viewing.
Once again, Mrs. McHenry, my condolences in this time of grief. Private family time. Take as long as you want. Let me know if you need anything else.
I needed Gammy McHenry back in my life, not that store mannequin version decked out in a fancy dress I’d never seen afore, lying in her satin-lined box engulfed by enough flower-stench to make a person sick.
If she wasn’t already dead.
Suddenly, a high-pitched screech came from the hallway that led to the restrooms.
It was him no doubt brung the god’s eye. Though I ain’t seen him near the coffin and the thing inside that was not my Gammy McHenry.
Unlike me, Mama hadn’t forced Jamie to pay no respect. Heck, it had taken Mama a major battle that morning just to get him into his little-boy suit.
“Gam? Gam? Gam?” he had yelled while he pointed at the closed bedroom door, squirming like a caught garden snake while Mama attempted to stuff his boney arms into the miniature tuxedo shirt’s sleeves. And all the while, Mama had been trying to soothe him, saying, “Gammy McHenry’s gone to a better place.”
Another screech sounded inside Sodermann and Sons Funeral Home Viewing Room 3, louder, longer, and then Jamie burst from the shadowy hallway entrance. Butt naked. A haggard looking Mama was hot on his heels, but Jamie’s a slippery one. When Mama reached for him, he darted sideways and ducked between two old ladies.
At first, the old ladies looked shocked with surprise. Then they laughed gently as only women who’ve reached that ripe old age can.
“Jamie!” Mama called while she fell further behind her target. “Behave.”
Jamie might have lost the earlier battle, but not the war. Reaching the aisle that separated the rows of folding chairs, he took a sharp left—his thin legs a blur—and headed toward the coffin.
I figured he just wanted to pay his respect the best way he knew how, but Mama looked near apoplectic.
“Jamie, please,” she cried.
Jamie hooted in reply, put on a renewed spurt of speed, but before he could reach his goal, the big man snatched Jamie clear off the floor and spun him in a wide circle.
I waited for Jamie to pee on the man, or something worse, but Jamie squealed in delight.
“Hey there, little big man,” the man said. “Think you forgot something. Where’s your clothes? Where’s your mama?”
A smile touched my lips—the first one I could remember since the day of my birthday when I’d practiced for my yearbook picture.
Mama, in the meantime, rushed up to the man, took Jamie from his arms. “Thank you, Dwayne. You’re a godsend.”
It was the following Wednesday afternoon, right after the dismissal bell, when Marci Hillenbrand and Ami Kapoor cornered me at my locker.
“Hold up, Tabby,” Marci said.
Ami hid her braces behind a hand before she said, “Hi, Tabitha.”
Around us, an army of uniformed teens shuffle-walked the halls of Pius X High School, their voices legion, their clean white shirts embroidered with the papal crest and the motto Domini Sumus. “We Are the Lord’s.” Most of the talk was of who was going with who to the dance on Saturday.
It looked like my prophesy about Homecoming was about to come true; no boy had asked me out yet. I thought I’d caught Mitchell Brubaker sizing me up in Physical Science. Turned out he hadn’t been. Mary Beth Cantor sits directly behind me. It’d been Mary Beth, his eyes probed.
I closed my locker and leaned against it. “Hey, guys, what’s up?”
Marci was the stereotypical blonde pretending to be stupid just so boys wouldn’t be intimidated. Ami, on the other hand, was the only person in our grade with skin darker than mine. The two were co-captains of the junior varsity cheerleading squad. They’d allowed me to join their circle of friends even though I wasn’t a squad member.
Mama hadn’t even let me try out.
You going to that school to get a first-rate education, Tabby dear, not to become a two-bit bimbo.
As if Mama was the one who earned the scholarship.
“Well,” Marci said, “Ami and I were thinking . . .”
From Marci’s tone, I already knew I wasn’t going to like what they thinking.
“We thought . . .” Ami’s braided hair bobbed in time with her wobbling head. “That since we don’t have practice this afternoon—”
Marci vaulted atop Ami’s sentence. “—And since you’ve been to both our houses . . .”
Both girls lived in beautiful fairy-tale McMansions along Lake Drive. My place, East 4C of the Garden Heights apartments, would’ve drowned in Marci’s marble-tiled bathroom alone. My heart belly-flopped onto my stomach while my mind—for whatever reason—conjured up an image of the black god’s eye. I hadn’t thought of the god’s eye since Gammy’s funeral. My head shook side to side.
“Come on, Tabby,” Marci continued misinterpreting my shaking head. “It’s only fair.”
“Please, Tabitha,” Ami said, “I’ve never ridden the subway before. It’ll be exciting. A real adventure.”
I didn’t know what Marci and Ami expected. The most thrilling thing that ever happened at Garden Heights during my lifetime was the summer nice Mister Goldberg from 7E won four hundred dollars on the daily scratch and bought ice cream treats for everyone in our building.
“Purty-please, Tabby.” Marci batted her eyes as if I was a drooling boy.
Ami just smiled expectantly with her big brown puppy eyes all cute like.
I really didn’t want my new friends to see where I lived. It wasn’t that I was ashamed of where I came from. I just didn’t feel ready to share this much of myself with Marci and Ami so soon after Gammy McHenry’s death.
I liked to keep my worlds separate.
Before I knew it though, I heard my voice say, “Sure, that’d be fine.”
Pulling up to Garden Heights twenty minutes later in Ami’s father’s brand-spanking new BMW sedan, I’d yet to penetrate Marci and Ami’s true desires. I did know what I craved more than anything—an empty East 4C. And at 3:07 p.m., that was what the case should be—at least for another thirty minutes, forty tops. ‘Til Mama got home with Jamie in tow after picking the freak up from his special school. So there was lots of time to show my two friends the McHenry’s spacious abode and be off with Mama none the wiser.
“This it, Tabitha?” Mr. Kapoor asked from the front.
I wanted to say, No, sir, this is all a mistake, a bad joke, can you take me back to school now?
“Yes,” I said from the wide back seat I shared with Marci.
Marci and Ami’s wish to ride the subway had been nixed the second we walked out Pius’s doors and Ami spied her father and realized she’d best get permission to go on her quest.
The subway? And a city bus. Er, how about I take you young ladies instead? No—no trouble at all.
From the worried look in Mr. Kapoor’s eyes from the rear view mirror, I figured I’d best keep the visit short. A cat’s shake of the leg as Gammy McHenry would’ve said. Give the girls the five-cent tour.
“I’ll wait right here,” Mr. Kapoor said. His gaze darted to where Ami sat on the passenger seat then out the windshield again where Garden Heights sat like a pregnant woman too tired to keep herself looking nice just waiting for her water to break.
“Thanks, Daddy,” Ami said sweetly before she pressed her door’s lock release.
The resulting clunk sounded too much like a clod of dirt hitting a coffin lid.
“This is . . . nice,” Marci said not long later. “Really.”
Marci stood close enough to me we could’ve shared the bubblegum that chomped between her lips. Its smell was making my stomach churn. Ami was more adventurous. She moved as if on an invisible dog leash, circling Marci and me who stood in the middle of the living room near to the sofa and TV. I’d neglected to mention the sofa doubled as my bed and bedroom.
“Well,” I said. “This ’bout it. Casa de la McHenry.” I raised my empty hands. “Um, you guys want a soda or something?”
I made a move toward the kitchen, but Marci clung to my hip, preventing me from going more than half a step across the rag rug that covered the scratched floorboards.
“No,” she blurted. “Thanks. I’m good. We’re good.” She cast a glance to Ami. “Right, Ami?”
Ami had moved to the hallway entrance. Off to the other side sat Gammy’s rocking chair, end table, and lamp. The well-worn McHenry family Bible rested on a lace doily beside the lamp base. Slips of folded magazine pages poked out from its side, bookmarks for Gammy’s favorite passages. A dozen or so god’s eyes decorated the walls.
“What’s down here?” Ami asked.
“Just the bathroom,” I said. “And Mama’s room. And Gammy McHenry’s.”
“She’s the one who died?” Ami asked.
My cheeks burned. “Uh-huh.” I wished Marci would give me room to breathe. Her breasts, beneath their fuzzy sweater, brushed my arm. I shivered.
“And you said that you found her?” Ami looked as if she wanted to move down the hall but hesitated.
Why had I brought these strangers into East 4C? They didn’t belong here.
“Jamie was with her,” I said, “but he didn’t know no better.”
“Jamie’s your brother?” Ami touched the hallway’s arch as if she was a doctor like her father, taking the room’s temperature. “The one with . . . issues?”
I wanted Marci and Ami to leave.
But I didn’t say nothing of the kind. I was the fool invited these two into my home. Like Gammy McHenry would’ve said, Guests needs be treated as guests. For all I knew them, the two could’ve been blood-sucking vampires.
“Can we go and see?” Ami blinked her eyes real fast like before she added, “Please, Tabitha.”
Suddenly, I realized this was the real reason for the friendly after-school visit.
Or at least it was Ami’s ulterior motive.
Directly above Ami’s head hung the red, green, and yellow god’s eye Jamie had made last Christmas for Gammy McHenry. It was one of his first creations. To make it, he’d unraveled the yarn from a pair of old mittens and a scarf. It looked down at Ami as if judging her.
“I’m not sure—” I said.
“—Really, Ami.” Marci’s gum snapped away a mile a minute. “Can we go now?” She glanced my way. “I mean, we shouldn’t make your dad wait. Especially in this . . .”
I didn’t realize my hands were in fists until Marci looked down and backed away from me. When she did, she ran smack dab into the coffee table. Tripping over it, she fell sideways onto the rug. A second later, she grabbed her ankle and started to cry.
Shocked and confused and still a little bit angry, I looked from Marci over to where Ami stood, but Ami had already slipped down the hallway.
I didn’t think things couldn’t get any worse, when the apartment door banged open and Dwayne marched in. He held a suitcase in one hand and a squirming, kicking, and screaming Jamie stuffed under the other arm. The way Dwayne looked at the snot-slobbering Freak, made it seem as if Jamie was a harvest chicken just waiting for the block.
“Ma!” Jamie squealed. “Maaaaw!”
Dwayne’s eyes—and his gritted teeth and vein-bulging temples—said he might not even bother with that old hatchet, but rather eat Jamie alive.
Marci took one look at the duo at the door and hollered all the harder.
Not one to be outdone, Ami took that moment to vault from the hallway as if hell’s own hounds were fast on her heels. Her dark complexion had turned ash gray. She flew by Marci and me without a look, dashed past Dwayne and Jamie, and almost knocked down Mama who was out on the landing carrying a cardboard box marked D.F.
“Mama,” I said. “You can’t be serious. We don’t need him.”
Mama and I sat side by side on the sofa watching the ten-o’clock news. In the corner, Gammy’s lamp offered the room its only other light source.
A Scooby-Doo-pajama-wearing Jamie sat cross-legged near our feet on the rug. He was creating a new god’s eye. A gray one, its yarn was from Gammy McHenry’s favorite cardigan. It’d taken him a little over two hours just to unmake the sweater. The buttons lay scattered between his crossed legs. He would no doubt incorporate them into the design. He sang while he worked. Though every once in awhile he’d bring the growing god’s eye to his nose, sniff, smile, and say, “Gam,” before the work song resumed.
The yarn must’ve been imbued with Gammy McHenry’s smell—a mixture of Ben-Gay, old lady sleep-sweat, and magnolia-scented talcum powder.
I was tempted to reach down and bring a handful of yarn up to my own nose, but a crash from down the hall brought me back to reality.
Mama’s gaze darted to the shadowed hallway. “Hush, Tabby. Dwayne’ll hear you.”
“So what if he does?” I said.
“Tabitha Lynn McHenry, don’t you raise your voice to me.”
“Sorry, Mama, but—”
“No buts, young lady. I told you already. Without your great-granny’s bakery money, there’s no way to make ends meet.”
Ends meet. Another strange adult world phrase.
How do you do, I’m Mister End.
Well, what a coincidence—that’s my name too!
I looked down at the tangled yarn pile, spotted one frayed end trailing out from the mound. It was draped round Jamie’s ankle as if it wanted to wrap itself about him like an anaconda. The other end was at the heart of the god’s eye. Jamie’s hand weaved back and forth, back and forth, round and round he goes.
I knew for a fact Jamie’s special school cost a lot of money. And there weren’t no scholarship for making god’s eyes neither.
“Besides,” Mama said. She patted my arm. “You seen how good Dwayne is with Jamie.”
I thought of the vein pulsing at Dwayne Fitzpatrick’s temple from a few hours ago, the clenched jaw, that hungry shark look in his eyes.
My mouth opened, but then I bit my tongue when I recalled how nice Dwayne was at Gammy’s wake.
Jamie could get on the nerves real easy.
Maybe Dwayne was just having a bad moment.
Happened to everyone. Right?
Next morning’s sermon at chapel was all about the Book of Job. I half listened to the visiting priest’s lesson concerning God’s all-time most faithful servant while I wondered if Mr. Wysocki down at the bakery might offer me a part-time weekend job. Maybe if I made enough dough, it would be me sleeping in Gammy’s bedroom and not Big Dwayne. Though the way Dwyane had looked that morning when he staggered into the kitchen and demanded a cup of coffee—him wearing nothin’ but a pair of saggy pee-stained underwear, his eyes all puffy and bloodshot, skin ashy, hair like a flock of blackbird in flight—it were obvious he and sleep hadn’t seen eye-to-eye much during the night.
Ha! Poor, big baby. Too bad, so sad. Don’t like Gammy’s bed—move on out.
Then I thought maybe what spooked Ami yesterday, got under Dwayne’s skin too.
Gooseflesh tickled my skin while I craned my neck this way and that, but I didn’t spy Marci or Ami among the assembly.
Yesterday, after Ami had flown out of Garden Heights screaming her fool head off, Mr. Kapoor thought someone had to have been murdered. The two policemen who showed up soon after didn’t come in with guns blazing, but they sure was suspicious about Marci’s twisted ankle. Thank God, Jamie’s fit had been over by then. Otherwise, Social Services might’ve come knocking after the police left.
I looked to the front of the chapel where, above the altar and the droning priest, Jesus hung from his cross. Arms stretched wide, nails stuck through his palms and feet, thorn-crowned head bowed, bleeding. I wondered if it was worth it.
All that suffering.
His ribs stuck out much like Jamie’s do.
Then I noticed the black god’s eye hanging mid-air right over where the Roman soldier pierced Jesus’s side and fainted clear away.
Nothing much happened the rest of the school day. Marci and Ami never showed. And I became the girl who fainted during morning chapel. My chance of landing a date for the dance was now zero, zilch, nada. I might as well have signed up for a convent.
Thank God, the black god’s eye didn’t make another appearance.
Not that it had ever really been there in the first place.
A trick of the eye, I tried to convince myself each hour. Brought about by stress. Nothing more. Only place that particular god’s eye be was six feet underground sharing coffin space atop a rotting store mannequin with Gammy McHenry’s face.
By the time two-thirty arrived—and Sister Mary Teresa assigned us some lame essay to write over the weekend followed by the loud groans and moans of my classmates going to Homecoming—I almost believed my own lies.
I hadn’t even set my backpack down beside the sofa when Dwayne grumbled, “‘Bout time, lil’ sister.”
The blinds across the room were closed so I didn’t see Dwayne sitting in the shadows on Gammy’s rocker. He was wearing dark mechanic coveralls and heavy-looking workboots with the soles worn thin. Gammy had always called them type of shoes shitkickers. ‘Course never when Mama could hear. Dwayne’s hair was the same tangled mess as that morning, though his eye sockets looked deeper and blacker than I remembered.
“Brat’s in the tub,” he said and stopped my thinking train.
He held what looked like a vanilla milkshake, but when he rocked forward, I spotted a liquor bottle on the floor in easy reach.
“Left the pile of piss clothes in the hall. Special de-liv-ry, just for you.”
I nodded my head but didn’t say nothing.
Jamie’s quiet singing voice came from the bathroom. He must have made a mess of himself. I heard a splash and then, “Ayeeeeee.”
Dwyane rocked backward, stopping his movement before he raised the glass and swallowed. Sighing loudly afterwards, he offered the glass to me. “Want some? It’s an old Fitzpatrick family recipe. An Irish milkshake.”
I shook my head.
“You sure?” Dwayne said. He cocked an eyebrow while he looked all serious. “It’ll put hair on your chest.”
He laughed again. That time it sounded more like a cackle. Like a hyena calling from the dark.
Gathering my courage, I said, “Mama don’t like to leave Jamie alone in the tub.”
Dwayne gazed fondly at the Irish milkshake afore he set those black eyes onto me. “What? You want a full grown man to watch a little boy take a bath? Do that, you call me a diaper sniper next.”
I didn’t know what he meant, and I didn’t really care.
“Think I don’t know what you up to, little sister?” He talked all smooth and slow and with a slight slur, but with an edge in his voice. “Think you so smart cause you going to that uppity Jesus school? Huh? Think you can trick me, scare me, messing with my sleep and such. Get me laid off, maybe. Get your mama to kick me out onto the street. Let me tell you, them whispering voices don’t fool no one. Least of all me.”
I pictured Ami running from the hallway and felt dizzy.
I saw the black god’s eye on Gammy McHenry’s chest and started to shiver.
What light that was left inside East 4C poured away like Jamie’s dirty bathwater down the tub’s yawning drainpipe. I wanted to ask Dwyane to turn on Gammy’s lamp, but suddenly I was Lot’s wife turned to salt gazing into the heart of Sodom.
“Not gonna happen,” Dwayne said. “I’m here now, girl. This is my place. You try to pull another fast one over Dwayne, the last train, Fitzpatrick, you gonna end up getting run over. You hear me?”
You mean Dwayne, the Royal Pain, I thought, before I finally pried my lips apart and said, “You can’t talk to me that way. You aren’t my daddy.”
He took a sip from the milkshake and grimaced. Then he grinned. His skin stretched so tight I could make out the skull beneath.
“You sure ’bout that?” he said.
Meantime, Jamie kept singing away in the bath.
Mama should’ve named me Delphi. I was a true oracle.
By mid-day Friday, not only had no boy asked me to Saturday night’s dance, but by lunch hour what few friends I’d made the last month shunned me like I was one of them New Testament lepers, pre-miracle. Now I ain’t needing a Jesus to tell me why they’d done this neither. Surprise, surprise, Marci and Ami returned to school that day and Marci—or both her and Ami—been spreading gossip ’bout Wednesday’s friendly visit to Garden Heights.
I was late to lunch on account my uterus had decided it was menses week a full ten days early. And I had to make a quick detour to the nurse’s office, beg a sanitary pad, dash into the girls restroom, and staunch the blood flow before I showed signs of the stigmata in my nether regions.
So of course, I thought the worst when I took my food-filled tray, turned to my usual seat, and saw everyone staring at me.
Immediately, I glanced down beyond my blue and gold plaid Pius dress’s hem. I didn’t spy any red dripping down my bare legs, but I was unsettled as if the air I breathed had gone heavier than normal. A darkness crept along the edge of my vision while the fluorescent lights overhead buzzed like resurrected February windowsill flies. And I wondered if I was gonna faint again.
Then I pictured the black eye lying upon Gammy McHenry’s chest and my body shook.
Somebody walk over your grave, Tabby dear? Gammy’s voice said inside my head.
I managed an unsteady step. Then two.
Must be anemia, I thought.
The Brussels sprouts drowning in cheese sauce on my tray would do me good.
Whispers started soon as I neared the table where Marci, Ami, and the other cheerleaders sat. A crutch leaned against the table beside Marci.
I winced with guilt even though I wasn’t to blame for her injury.
“Hey, Marci,” I said. “Feeling better?”
Marci scowled before she leaned over to the girl next to her. I distinctly heard her say, “jealous rage,” followed by, “shoved.”
A bad cramp squeezed my womb, and I felt a warm trickle on my inner thigh. I barely noticed the sensation. The darkness had seeped in further.
Ami sat on Marci’s other side. She stared at her plate, pushing a sprout with a fork. Her face still looked pale. I was afraid to ask her what she thought she saw in Gammy McHenry’s room.
I tried to get her attention but kept it light. “Hey, Ami. Ha-ha ’bout other day.”
Ami didn’t look up. Just kept moving them green sprouts round her tray like they was the only thing in her world.
Marci on the other hand no longer denied my existence. Her face all flushed, she said, “What’s wrong with you people? Is everything a big joke to you?”
“You people?” I stammered.
Marci’s flush deepened. She must’ve realized what she’d said. But that didn’t stop her from digging that hole a little bit deeper.
“You. Your family. Your father. Laughing about Ami. She could’ve been killed running down them stairs!”
I said, “He’s not my pa!”
“Typical,” Marci said.
My face burned. “Better watch what you say, Marci Hillenbrand.”
“Or what?” She looked scared, but she had the rest of the table and half of the cafeteria behind her. “You going to push me again. Break my other leg.”
Ami’s fork stopped. Her eyes flickered from me to Marci and back to her tray. Her lips parted and she whispered, “Ghost. Demon.”
I never had been sure about Marci, but I really believed Ami was my friend. I prayed for her to come to my defense, but then I remembered she hadn’t been in the room when Marci fell.
“What’s the matter, Tabby?” Marci said. “Don’t have your posse around to back you up this time?”
Marci had watched too many music videos.
Yet her words only made me angrier.
I didn’t have to look to know that by then the entire cafeteria stared, every student from Pius X High School watching expectantly, their blood lust as fervid as any Roman citizen enjoying the gladiator games within the Coliseum.
We are the Lord’s, I thought and laughed.
Clinging onto my lunch tray with a death grip, I turned my back to Marci and walked away.
I’d only made a few steps when she said, “Almost as pathetic as her retarded brother.”
Before the tray clattered to the floor, I was yanking out clumps of Marci’s long blonde hair.
A little over an hour later, I was thinking this must be the worst birthday week in human history, when the tarnished brass 4C on the familiar scratched up apartment door greeted me home.
I’d never seen nothing lovelier.
Garden Heights was my world. Not Pius X High School. Here was where I belonged.
A pile of flattened cardboard boxes sat next to the door. I remembered Dwayne and my moment’s happiness was yanked right out of me like a dentist pulling a tooth.
Mama hadn’t been happy to get the call from the principal.
Is what that man say true, Tabitha Lynn? Shame, child! You head right home.
This was my first ever suspension. Mama had left work early just so to meet me when I got home.
I moved to insert the key into the lock, but then noticed the door was slightly ajar.
“Mama?” I pushed the door the rest of the way open. “I’m really sorry—”
Something was wrong.
My eyes kept moving to the far blank wall.
Then all of the walls.
Jamie’s god’s eyes were missing. Every single one.
But that wasn’t entirely true. Here and there, plopped down like piles of dog poop on the floor were mounds of different colored yarn.
Someone had unraveled every one of Jamie’s creations.
It wasn’t Jamie who’d done it, that was for sure. He’d never destroy one of his precious god’s eyes.
Then I saw an empty bottle lying next to a yarn pile.
No milkshake that day I guessed. Looked like he went straight up Irish.
From the down the hallway came angry voices. The loudest was Dwayne’s. The other might’ve been Mama’s though hers sounded strange—muted as if she was talking in slow motion and from underwater.
A shrilling cry rang out. “Ayeeeee!”
I hurriedly tiptoed into the apartment but left the door open. Who knew, I might have to leave like Ami did?
Thinking of Ami’s frightened face and witnessing up close all the ruined gods’ eyes, I pictured again the black eye and suddenly felt deep down in my bones—no, my very soul—that it was somehow behind all of this. The unraveled god’s eyes. Ami’s fear. Dwayne’s talk of whispering voices. Marci’s cruelty. Maybe even Gammy McHenry’s death.
By the sound of Dwayne’s voice and the mess he’d made, he was drunk as a skunk. Instantly, I regretted not telling Mama about Dwayne’s drunkenness from the night afore, praying at the time it was only a one-time thing.
That and not wanting to ask her if Big Dwayne really was my daddy.
Jamie’s cries continued. “Ayeeeee! Ayeeeee!”
A sharp slap rang out like a thunderclap and Jamie stopped screaming.
Then it didn’t matter if Dwayne was my daddy or not. I ran to the kitchen counting out loud to calm my nerves. “One, two, three—”
Jamie’s cries started afresh. More shrill than before. “Ayeeeeeeee!”
Snatching a butcher knife from the drying rack, I headed toward the hallway avoiding the piles of yarn and more empty bottles. On the way, I heard Mama’s strange monotone voice and wondered why she wasn’t doing nothing to stop Dwayne.
I couldn’t make out her words, but Dwayne’s were as clear as day.
“Piss on me again, will you. I’ll teach you a lesson you’ll never forget.”
Shadows filled most of the hallway. The only light was at the far end where a yellow sliver spilled onto the floor through the crack beneath Gammy McHenry’s bedroom door. The slice was broken up by movements from within the bedroom.
“Get over here, you little worthless piece of shit.”
“Gam. Gam.” The heartbeat-thuds of small bare feet. “Ma. Ma. Mawwww!”
More screaming from Jamie.
I was at the door in an eyeblink, knife in hand. Crouching I peered through the keyhole, moving my head side to side until I made out Dwayne and Jamie.
“Shut up, retard,” Dwayne rumbled. He was holding a naked Jamie up in the air by one arm. While I watched, he shook Jamie’s thin body. “Shut. The. Fuck. Up.”
Jamie’s wails broke up. “Ayeeee-ee-ee-eeee!”
Frantically, I searched for Mama. I finally spotted her sitting sprawled in a corner, partially concealed by Gammy’s bed. Her head rested against the wall. Her skin looked ashen. Blood dribbled down her nose and from her lips, which were twice their normal size. One of her eyelids was swollen shut. But the other—
My heart skipped a beat.
The other eye was an opaque black pool.
Suddenly, her head twisted sideways, toward the door, and me kneeling outside it.
She can see me through its wood!
She sniffed the air before a bloody-toothed grin cracked her face. Her mouth stretched wide then and words spilled out like boulders falling in a landslide.
“You serve us, Man. Do our bidding.”
An icy finger brushed my spine. I dropped the knife.
Dwayne, paused his shaking of Jamie long enough to glance over at Mama. “Got that right, bitch. You do my bidding next.”
When he laughed hysterically, I realized he was more than drunk. He had gone insane.
Mama’s body started to shake and thrash about as if in a fit, her torso hitting the floor while her head slammed against the wall. During the course of her seizure, the eye slowly closed. When it reopened, there was a change. No longer black, nor Mama’s normal warm caramel, it was now grey.
This grey eye—like the black one afore—stared right at me through the keyhole.
“Find the God Eye beneath.”
It was Gammy McHenry’s voice, but it wasn’t.
The eye closed again.
I didn’t wait for it to reopen.
Cracking the door a hand’s breadth wide, I slipped inside. All of the god’s eyes had been stripped from these walls too. Mounds of yarn lay strewn across the floor as if a rainbow had puked itself up. Near to Mama’s splayed feet, I spotted the large grey god’s eye Jamie made the day before. It looked like Dwayne had only gotten halfway through unraveling it before he forgot about it or lost interest.
Dwayne’s back was still to me. Gripping Jamie by the throat, he raised Jamie until his small skull smacked the ceiling.
Jamie’s cries abruptly ceased.
My heart was beating so loudly inside my chest, I was surprised Dwayne couldn’t hear it. Before he could, I skirted by the bed to Mama where Gammy’s half-unraveled god’s eye rested on the floor nearby. I lifted it. Below was the black god’s eye just like Mama said it’d be—though it weren’t Mama speaking. It had been the Grey speaking through Mama.
I didn’t want to touch the black god’s eye. I couldn’t touch it. It was evil. It was death.
I didn’t know what to do.
Then I heard a whisper. Tab-i-tha.
It was Gammy McHenry’s voice coming from the grey god’s eye. I put it up to my face, breathed in Gammy’s familiar smell.
Oh, how I missed her.
Help your brother, Tabby dear. Go on now. You know what to do.
And then I did know what to do.
Using one of the grey eye’s exposed Popsicle sticks, I picked up the black god’s eye from the floor. It weighed more than it should. The taped-together sticks bent and creaked. I struggled to keep the black god’s eye up, while it tugged like a hooked fish at the end of a fishing pole.
That’s a girl. Keep going.
I staggered toward Dwayne and Jamie with the black god’s eye in front of me. It sucked the light and heat from the air, leaving behind a blackness darker than black. In seconds my hands were freezing, numb. I struggled just to hold onto my wooden sword—that’s what the Grey was, my secret weapon.
Jamie finally saw me. With drool dripping down his chin onto Dwayne’s upraised hand and arm, he mouthed, Ta-ee.
Without thinking, I said, “I’m coming, Captain Jamie.”
Stupid me. Dwayne heard and swung about. When he did, he released Jamie. Jamie landed on Gammy’s bed.
“Lookee here,” Dwayne said. He crossed his arms across his broad chest. “Little sister come to join us. How’s ’bout that? Got us a real family re-yune-yon going on.”
My teeth chattered, and I could see my breath when I replied. “You. Ain’t. F-f-family. You. A nobody. You gonna leave here.” Using all my strength, I jabbed the black god’s eye toward him. “Now!”
Seeing what I held, Dwayne laughed, although his eyes betrayed him. The pupils were dilated, the whites shot through with blood. He uncrossed his arms, flexed his hands. The veins at his temples throbbed. “Or what? You gonna shank me with a Popsicle stick?”
I tried not to look at what I held, but the black god’s eye drew my gaze just as a kid’s missing tooth socket does her tongue. But it were the god’s eye that probed me. By then I was cold clear through to the bone. To the soul. I could barely breathe.
I wished Jamie had never made the damned thing. Cause that was what it was. Damned.
But then an epiphany struck. What if Jamie didn’t make it?
What if it had been me? What if I had summoned the Black into existence? Called it up like a demon from hell. Even though I hadn’t done it on purpose.
The black god’s eye hissed inside my head, Yesssss.
I would’ve dropped both god’s eyes right then if my hands weren’t already frozen.
Don’t you listen, Tabby dear, the Grey said in Gammy’s voice. He the Prince of Lies. Don’t you dare listen. Don’t believe.
But I did.
I couldn’t help it.
The black god’s eye was Satan tempting me in the wilderness. It was my devil at the crossroads granting me three wishes.
I saw it all then. It made perfect sense.
First, I hadn’t wanted Dwayne to move in with us. And then I’d been so scared he might be my daddy that I’d do anything to get rid of him. But even before then when Marci and Ami had come over . . . maybe I’d wanted Marci to get hurt and for Ami to be scared. Might’ve been I was jealous cause they’re pretty and rich and had friends and I didn’t.
But the black god’s eye showed up way before all that . . .
And that meant . . .
My cold heart turned to ice.
The black god eye had shown up days before them. Back when Gammy McHenry died.
Which meant . . . I had wished she were dead.
I killed my Gammy McHenry.
Her death had been my first of three wishes.
That couldn’t be true. I saw the lie. Felt it in my marrow.
No! There was no way I’d ever harm Gammy McHenry. Weren’t no one in my life I loved more than her and Mama and—
Suddenly, I remembered that day a few days before my birthday. And the yellow cashmere sweater. And how mad I was at Jamie for ruining it when he was only doing what he always did. And how if I wanted anyone dead back that day it’d been him.
My life would’ve been so much easier without Jamie in it. No more little naked boy running round, throwing fits, stressing Mama. No more expensive school or emergency room visits when he hurt himself. No more having to explain to complete strangers why he acted the way he did.
No more embarrassment.
This wasn’t no lie. This was how I felt. This was the truth.
It was Jamie I wanted dead.
I had summoned the Black by wishing Jamie dead and it had appeared.
But Gammy McHenry must have seen it first. And had known what it was.
Suddenly, I saw it clearly in my mind.
Gammy McHenry sees Jamie with the black god’s eye, snatches it from his hands before it can harm him, brings it up to her chest, clings with it wrapped round her praying fingers next to her heart.
Dear lord, she’d sacrificed herself for Jamie!
And it had been all my fault.
It was me who deserved to die that day.
Right then I was tempted to reach out and touch the black god’s eye. But the Grey stopped me. Gammy McHenry’s lingering love stopped me.
Tabitha Lynn McHenry, don’t you dare. Shame, child. You are not to blame. You did not do this. Sometime bad things happen. Terrible things. Unspeakable things. Ain’t no cause, nor reason. Just is, Tabby. Only thing we do is cope with the bad best way we can.
Do not let it get to you. Live, Tabby. Fight this monster.
I was blinking my eyes at the black god’s eye when I realized only a second had passed since Dwayne last laughed at me.
“Huh?” Dwayne said, not knowing what had just taken place right in front of him. “You gonna stab me with a stupid Popsicle stick? Get real girl.”
Without any warning, he slapped me across the face. At the same time, he snatched the black god’s eye off the Grey.
Along with the sudden pain in my cheek, I felt a tremendous weight lifted. I staggered back a step. I still held the Grey before me. Its power was waning. It was used up.
So was I.
Dwayne glanced down at the black god’s eye then up at me. “You can’t do nothin’ to me. This is a man’s world, and I’m the man.” He tossed the small black god’s eye into the air and then caught it. “Got it? The Man.”
I thought of what the Black had said through Mama not that long before, but what certainly felt like an eternity.
You do our bidding, Man.
We do our own bidding. We follow our own hearts.
My cheeks itched as if stung from a thousand bees, but I managed to say, “Don’t, Dwayne. Let it go.”
Dwayne laughed some more but there was a catch in his throat as if he’d bitten off more than he could chew. This hesitation became even more pronounced when he did try to throw the black god’s eye away and it stuck to his hand. Then his laughter died completely. And for good.
“Hey, what’s this?” he said as if he’d finally realized what he held wasn’t natural. That it was possessed.
Tiny tendrils had unraveled from the black god’s eye. They quickly wrapped themselves round Dwayne’s hand.
“This not funny,” he said. There was a look of terror in his eyes. He shook his hand but the tendrils continued to expand, reaching up his forearm. “Hey, lemme go!”
I backed away from him until I bumped into the bed. On the way, I dropped the grey god’s eye. Anything of what remained of Great Gammy McHenry inside it was a fading ember.
Jamie, meanwhile, slid off the bed onto the floor between the bed and the wall. While he did, he said, “Geh down, Ta-hee.”
I looked to him shocked—shocked by both the terrible scene that took place in front of me as well as by his command.
These were the most words Jamie had ever spoken. To me. Or anyone.
A flood of tears burst from my eyes, but I did as he said.
Dropping to my knees, then onto my stomach, I crawled under the bed until I reached him. He reeked of pee, dirt, and sunshine. Face to face, I wrapped him in my arms and didn’t him let go.
I’d never let him go. He’s my brother and I loved him no matter what.
From above the bed a million miles away, Dwayne said, “Why’s it so cold?”
Then he shrieked.
“What ’bout Mama?” I whispered to Jamie.
Jamie’s eyes shone with miniature stars. He blinked rapidly before he said, “Ma sleep. Gam. Say. Kay.”
“Oh, God,” Dwayne cried. “My arms. My arms. They’re ice. I can’t. Feel them.”
Dwayne’s feet danced from across the room. He stomped back and forth, back and forth as if he couldn’t figure out which way to run to escape his fate.
“I. Can’t. Feel.”
When Dwayne’s screamed again—an animal cry of unbearable pain—I covered Jamie’s eyes and ears and clenched my own eyes tightly.
Not that there was much left to see.
The blackness had taken what light there was in the room and consumed it, leaving Jaime and me in the dark.
Strangely, at that moment I wondered why the police hadn’t pounded down the door to East 4C. Then I remember leaving the door wide open. Not one of our neighbors had called the authorities. I don’t believe it was because they were used to the violence in our neighborhood and didn’t care. No, I don’t think anyone had heard a single sound come from 4C all that day. The god’s eye’s reach had extended beyond the wall of our home. It had manipulated Garden Heights much as it had Mama and Dwayne.
Much like it had me.
Dwayne’s screams eventually tapered off and he breathed heavily. He wasn’t moving around anymore. I imagined his body covered by black tendrils.
“Oh, dear God! Someone. Help me, pu-please.”
Along with the dark came the cold I’d experienced before. It crept under the bed stealing my heat. Gammy McHenry would’ve said, It was as cold as the north side of a January tombstone. I say it was as cold as an empty universe. As cold as a world without family. As cold as a heart without forgiveness. As cold as a life without love.
I clung even tighter to Jamie while he sang his god’s eye making song. “Aye-eeeee. Aye, aye-eeeeee.”
Sure, I felt terrible for Dwayne. No one deserved what was happening to him. But there was nothing I could do to help. The Black had laid claim to Dwayne as surely as death takes everyone eventually. That day had just been Dwayne’s day is all. It was his train wreck. One of his own making.
Dwayne’s words cut off suddenly, his final plea unfinished and unanswered. “Pu-pu-p—”
When Jamie and I crawled out a few minutes later—the light in the room restored, if dimmed somewhat, and the cold still marking our breaths—we found Mama curled up against the wall. She was sleeping soundly with a pile of grey yarn as her blanket.
He was gone.
So was the god’s eye.