When He Calls

It’s just five in the morning—the sun’s made no plans to rise—but Sharon’s shift at the 24-hour McDonald’s two blocks away ended early, and all evidence of my presence has to disappear before she gets back… including me.

I shouldn’t have come. I’m not the one to console him while he cries about his unlovable wife. And I should have told him enough after his third shot. Better yet, I was supposed to be gone before his homeboy arrived with the weed. Instead we three hotboxed in his car parked on the street, and I got so high I couldn’t feel the ground beneath me. Or his lips when he kissed my neck once back inside the apartment. When he slipped his cool fingers under my shirt, looped his belt around my ankles.

“This isn’t right,” he said, but pressed inside me anyway, and I cried into his oversize shirt while still grappling for his hips, needing to feel him closer, telling myself again and again, This is wrong. You’ll never get over him if you keep fucking him… 

Photo by @IAMCONNORRM from nappy.co

He sits at the end of the bed, fully dressed, his back turned to me. He lights a cigarette, blows smoke toward the spinning ceiling fan overhead. I wish he’d just look at me, assure me that we’re still good, that we can at least remain friends.

You know that will never work, that nagging voice of reason tells me.

I shake into my too-tight skinny jeans, denim scratching against dry skin. I try to ignore the images that arise when my breasts slap against my chest as I bounce to pull the jeans over my hips. His teeth, his tongue, the urgent ins and outs of his strokes. Last night never happened, I tell myself, if we want it to remain a secret.

Only, I can’t find my bra. I pat my hair for loose ties, hanging Bobbi pins. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I look like a fucking slut with no shame, and it’s how he treats me.

“Will you walk me out?” I cross my arms over my chest, tuck my hands under my armpit, try to conceal my sagging breasts, scrapping at my last bit of dignity.

He takes another drag, blows, nods, still avoids eye contact. I follow him down the hall to the front room, where he checks the window before twisting the deadbolt.

“I’ll call you,” he says with a shrug. He leans against the open door and drapes his arm over the top.

Don’t answer. All he has to offer is drunk, lonely sex, that voices says again, but in my heart, I want to stand on my tiptoes and stretch for his lips.

He dips his head, pecks me like birdseed, so quick it’s easily swallowed and forgotten. He scans the parking lot for his wife’s car, then pushes me along. The door is slammed shut and locked before I can take the first step off the stoop.

Part of me wants to stay here. Part of me wants to be caught, so I can stop living this lie. I’m drained of dreaming a fantasy that my love whom I’ve loved since high school will finally love me back.

© Nortina Simmons 


Originally published September 22, 2017

Stockholm

Detective Maye has seen it dozens of times before. Stockholm syndrome. When the victim develops an affection for her captor.

He holds his hand out for the feral child hiding under the kitchen sink. If not for her wide marble eyes, glowing like orbs in the darkness, he would think no one is there.

He shines his flashlight inside. Compared to the photo he keeps in his chest pocket, she is unrecognizable. Gone is the fair-skinned angel with the free-flowing blond hair. Her skin is caked in dirt, hair a dingy orange collected in one unkempt knot atop her head. The t-shirt she wears barely covers her. She folds herself like an accordion amongst the kitchen chemicals, no bigger than a bottle of bleach.

Maye curls his fingers into his palm to draw her out. “Come on. He can’t hurt you anymore.” But then he wonders how many times this man has promised not to hurt her.

He stuffs his hands in his pockets, and child psychologist, Dr. Pridget, steps in front of him, opens her arms like a doting mother.

“You’re safe now.”

Maye thinks it’s working. The child emerges. All skin and bones, falling hair and ripped fabric. She shields her eyes to the flashing of CSI cameras. Pridget moves to hug her, but the girl drops her shoulder. On hands and knees, she crawls across the floor, between Maye and Pridget’s feet, exposing everything the shirt doesn’t conceal to everyone in the room.

A sickness in Maye’s gut tells him she’s used to being naked around men, she’s used to the heaviness of their hands, the tightness of their beer guts pressed hard against her fragile body.

They watch as she does what she’s had to do to survive for the last six months—curl herself underneath the sinking chest of the now dead man who killed her childhood, t-shirt soaked in both of their bloods.

© Nortina Simmons


This flash piece was originally published September 15, 2017, and features Detective Frank Maye, a character from my Lost Boy work in progress.

Foundling

Today she would find out if her entire life was a lie…

Maya took a deep breath, opened the door, and with a giant, dramatic first step, entered the bookstore as the bell chimed overhead.

She saw no one at first but was greeted by the smell of freshly brewed coffee drifting from the back of the store and wafting among the bookcases. The woman she’d come to meet was likely back there. But, suddenly feeling weighed down at the ankles by cement blocks, she stayed up front and browsed the books in the window display instead.

This was harder than she thought. It was easier when she was screaming at her mom and calling her a liar. It was easier when she spent the two-hour flight from Houston to Tampa, the five-hour layover, and then the additional two hours to her final destination believing that she would finally get the answer to the question she’d been asking since she was old enough to recognize her reflection in the mirror, that the missing pieces of her life’s story would finally be found, and her puzzle made whole. But then she stood in front of that door and reality set in. What if this wasn’t the life she was meant to have?

You didn’t come all this way just to turn back now, she tried to encourage herself, but as her heart fluttered in her chest, she thought about the last words her mom texted her as she boarded the plane.

“Remember, I am your mother, and nothing you learn from this trip will change that.”

In a way, she was right. Sheila Adams, life-long resident of Houston, Texas, would always be her mom, as she had been for the last seventeen and a half years. But Maya couldn’t ignore the betrayal she felt at not being told the truth. To take the DNA test, along with everyone else at the family reunion, and discover that her roots are not grounded in Texas—like her mom’s, cousins’, uncles’, and aunts’—but were transplanted over 1,000 miles away from North Carolina.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

She picked up one of the books in the display and immediately recognized the name on the cover. It was the same name on the Ancestry DNA match, the same name on the Facebook page she found, where she was able to get the address to this store. The page did say she was an author. It made sense that she would sell her books in her own store—make all the profits and avoid having to rely only on royalties.

“Can I help you with something?” someone said from behind.

Maya froze momentarily, but the voice sounded considerably younger than she expected. She turned around and met the smiling face of a young employee who looked to be the same age as her.

“No, I’m just browsing.”

“Are you a fan?” She pointed to the book in Maya’s hand.

“Well, actually, um—” Maya quickly dropped the book back onto the table. “Is she here?”

The girl shook her head. “Maternity leave.”

“Oh.” Her voice cracked. She swallowed back the twinge of jealousy rising up in her chest. Seventeen and a half years ago, Maya had to remind herself, and she would’ve been the same age—a senior in high school, looking at colleges, trying to leave behind bad decisions and even worse boyfriends in the rearview as she plowed ahead on this dirt road called life.

This little one would undoubtedly come up under different circumstances, a healthier environment, one could only hope. She—Maya decided for herself that it was a girl too—wouldn’t grow up abandoned. She wouldn’t be denied the opportunity to know her real mom.

“You know, you could be her daughter.”

“I’m not.” Maya said quickly.

“No, seriously. You look exactly like her.”

All her life, Maya had been told she resembled her mom. It was just something people said to be nice, to make small talk, but anyone with eyes that could see knew it was a bald-faced lie. Her tan skin, her kinky hair, her broad nose and full lips didn’t favor a single feature on Sheila’s paler-than-a-paper-plate white skin.

But Sheila would always say, “That’s because your father is Black.”

Maya guessed that could still be true. Ancestry wasn’t as clear on paternity. He apparently hadn’t taken the test, wasn’t in the database. He could’ve been Black, but there was also that 25% of her DNA that lit up the small nation of Taiwan on the map.

It left her with more questions than answers.

One thing was for sure, though—even Maya had to admit—when she found that Facebook page, it was like looking into a mirror.

Lost in her own thoughts, Maya didn’t realize she was once again alone until the employee reemerged from behind a bookcase holding a small pamphlet that looked more like a brochure than a book.

“Here, I think you would like this.”

“What is it?”

“It’s chapbook of poems. It’s not really her bestseller. She says it’s because only one person was ever meant to read it.”

“Who?”

“See for yourself.” She flipped the book open to the first page: a poem titled “To the one I had to give up.”

In a season of graduation caps,
Mother's Day flowers,
I kissed your tiny little feet,
nibbled on your toes,
prayed the doctor would
find you a happy home.
From a distance, I yearned for you—
It was my deepest regret—
but take comfort in knowing that 
I have always loved you,
and I will never forget.

Tears filled Maya’s eyes as she read the lines of verse. “How did you know?” she said.

The girl shrugged. “Like I said. You could be her daughter.”

“I am,” Maya announced proudly.

And she couldn’t wait to meet her.

© Nortina Simmons


A late entry for Fandango’s Story Starter. Click the link to read more stories inspired by the teaser “Today she would find out if her entire life was a lie…”

Hurricane Season

All I see for miles are fishing lines. End of the season, most of the vacationers have gone back to school and work. The only people left on the beach are fishers, those who live here, and those who are drawn.

Me being the latter.

I grab a sandwich in plastic wrap from my tote bag just as a sudden gust of wind blows the sand around me in a swirl. When I bite into the sandwich, just underneath the crunch of the lettuce, the sand grains roll across the grooves of my teeth.

Hurricane season. Just over 100 miles off shore, a storm is churning the waters. The clouds from the outer bands have started to roll in, and the stifling humidity is a warning that the storm is getting closer, growing stronger.

Wherever the path turns in the next 24 hours will determine whether this area will be under a mandatory evacuation. By this time tomorrow, the beach may be complete deserted, save for one body.

Mine.

I honestly don’t know how I got here—willing and ready to be swept away by the storm—only that I needed to get away from Brian and the kids.

Brian and the kids.

I know what you’re thinking. And honestly, I don’t think I’m a bad mom or wife. But I’ve made mistakes. The latest was leaving Cam alone at Wal-Mart for two hours.

It wasn’t intentional, I just . . . forgot. One minute, I was sending her back to the store to return the shopping cart, and the next, I was driving back home, as if she were never with me in the first place.

And even as I was unloading the trunk, I still didn’t realize that I was alone, that the child I had taken with me was now missing. I only noticed that the house was empty, quiet. I savored that, immediately made myself comfortable on the couch in front of a good Netflix rom-com to snooze to, and began to dream about the violent calm of the waves crashing onto shore repeatedly, one after the other, until a rapped knocking startled me out of my sleep.

When I opened the door, I found the cop and my daughter, her face red and swollen from crying, and Brian, pulling up with the boys behind the police cruiser, getting out of the car, furious.

“How could you leave her! How could you be so stupid! Goddammit! Do you know what could have happened to her! Do you have any idea how dangerous that was!”

And the officer saying, “Ma’am, are you suffering from any type of stress or depression?”

“You can’t use postpartum anymore, Susan. Jared is four!” He spat it out with pure disgust, as if he couldn’t stomach the taste of my name on his tongue.

I could tell the cop was becoming uncomfortable, he rested his hand on the baton in his belt and looked anywhere but at me and my husband, finally settling on the top of Cam’s head. “This could have been a lot worse. I could be here for different reasons.”

“Thank you, officer, for bringing her home. I promise you this will never happen again. Susan’s not leaving this house ever, with any of our children.” He cut me a glare that could have pierced the thickest of rhinoceros skin.

“Let’s hope not.” The chagrin in his face. Did he even know what he was saying? I saw his wedding ring. Did he treat his wife like this? How could he turn a blind eye? But that’s exactly what he did. He said, “Y’all have a nice rest of the day,” and left without looking back. Part of me wanted to call his department later that night to complain about him willfully ignoring an ensuing domestic dispute. The moment he left, I was on the floor, barely able to see out of my left eye, the blurry images of my husband and children hovering over me. The word “stupid” heard over and over.

If my kids ever had sympathy for me through the years of Brian’s hatred and abuse, that ended the day I left Cam.

And now I’ve left them all.

I dig my feet deeper into the sand, plant myself to bear the brunt of the storm soon to come. Can I do this? Give up so easily? Is this my only option?

A man with a cooler approaches. “Best time of the year to catch the good ones, amiright? ” he says excitedly and tosses me a Ziploc bag containing a trout as big as my forearm that slaps against my thighs.

“Uh, sure, thanks.” I can’t remember the last time I’ve had fish. Brian hates seafood, won’t even let me cook it for the children. So many times I’ve caved for him, his preferences, his wants and demands.

The man waves and continues on, donating the morning’s catch to anyone by themselves on the beach.

I stuff the Ziploc bag into my tote. Scaling and gutting it will be messy, but I’ll rent an Extended Stay for the night, cook it with maybe some grits and gravy, or cheese, or stop by the local fish market and add some shrimp or scallops to go with it. Make it my last supper meal before taking the three-hour drive back to face the reality of the hell I live in. I will have three hours to decide how I will tell Brian I’m leaving him, finally, for good.

© Nortina Simmons

One Last Time

Originally published September 1, 2015

Finish the story that begins with: The cemetery spread along the area known as Devils Abode...

The cab stopped in front of the sign, DEAD ZONE AHEAD. Jessie glanced at the meter as it began to glitch. She handed the man two 20s. “You don’t have to wait.” She gathered the bouquet of flowers and slid out onto the curb.

The driver made a sharp U-turn, the tires screeching, and sped back down the mountain.

There’s nothing evil about a place where the dead go to rest, she thought as she hiked toward the cast-iron gate. She looked down at the black screen of her cellphone. So electronics tend to fail here. She pulled her jacket over her shoulders. And the wind has a frozen lick to it.

Her husband’s grave was the first to the left of the entrance. She lay on the freshly shoveled dirt, placed the flowers above her head, waited for his arms to reach up and hold her one last time.

Evening news

Leslie turned on the evening news only to see one of the biggest fears of her life playing out before her eyes.

She snatched up her phone from the arm of the couch and frantically dialed Tony’s number.

“Are you watching the news?”

“Yeah, Greg got arrested.”

“Bank robbery!”

“I know.”

“So—” She hesitated. She hadn’t told Tony about her trip to the police station yesterday and considered keeping that a secret, knowing that his reaction would only upset her. But if Gregory was in jail, there was no reason for her to keep the case open, right?

“Should I call Detective Maye?”

“Who?”

“The missing persons officer.”

“Missing per— Ma.” On the other end, he took a deep breath in, held it, but she couldn’t hear if he let it out. Finally, he said, “You filed a missing person’s report on this dude? We know where he is!”

“I don’t!” And what else was she supposed to do when she hadn’t heard from her youngest son in over two months?

She didn’t have to see Tony to know that he was rubbing his right temple just above his eyebrow with his middle finger as he always did whenever he was annoyed at her being the overwrought and worked up mother she couldn’t help but to be. It was something that always offended her. She didn’t like the idea of her son, whether discreetly or unintentionally, giving her the finger.

“Well, you do now. And you better not bail his dumb ass out.” He hung up before she could respond, and it was all she could do not to sling the phone across the room.

Why did she call him anyway? She needed someone to comfort her, not criticize her. Someone who would tell her what she needed to hear and layer it with Godly wisdom. She needed to be assured that she didn’t fail as a mom in raising her sons on her own after the death of their dad. She needed her mother.

She dialed Stella’s number and put the phone to her ear.

Stella answered after the first ring. “I saw, baby. How you doing?”

As if on command, the floodgates holding back her tears burst open.


Written for Fandango’s Story Starter. This starter inspired me to revisit a work in progress I’ve been ignoring for far too long. I switched out some words—I hope that’s okay.

The Breakup

It would be easy enough to come away from that encounter thinking that it was over, that it simply wasn’t meant to be. But when I returned home from the gym the next day, every single window in my house was busted. Immediately I called the police.

“Any idea who could have done this?” asked the officer with the nameplate “Tate” on his chest.

“Yeah.” I inhaled deeply and let out a long, exasperated sigh. “My ex. We just broke up.”

“Does she have a key to your place?”

I shook my head. “I took it back.”

“Could she have made a copy?”

“I don’t think so.”

“So how did she get to the windows on the second floor?” He pointed, and my eyes followed the direction of his finger to my bedroom window, where the curtain—pulled outside by the draft—flapped in the wind, grazing the leaves on the ends of the branches of the tree planted inches away.

“I—I always intended to cut that tree down.”

Officer Tate grimaced then turned to his female partner, Morales, who exchanged worried glances between me and the upstairs windows.

“Look, we’ll swing by her place and talk to her, but—”

“Won’t you arrest her?”

“All you have right now is a hunch.”

I shrugged my shoulders. “So what should I do?”

She bit her lip and looked at her partner, as if to ask for permission.

He nodded and then said, “Might I suggest staying at a hotel for the night?”

“We’ll be in touch,” she chimed in.

After CSI left, I did as they instructed and checked in to the Holiday Inn in the next town over rather than the place where we spent our one-year anniversary, just in case she suspected I would go there next. But I wasn’t in that hotel room 30 minutes before I quickly grew restless thinking about what she could possibly do next, what she was capable of, how far she was willing to go.

All of this because I told her I wasn’t feeling it anymore. Did she want me to string her along for another year? My mom always told me not to play with girls’ hearts. I thought I was doing right by her. I thought I was making it easy for her to move on.

I tossed and turned until I couldn’t take it anymore and ripped the covers off, kicked my legs off the bed, and slid my feet into my sneakers on the floor. I walked outside for some fresh air, then thought to get myself a snack from the Sheetz across the street. Maybe that would help me sleep. I dug my hands into my pockets, looked both ways for oncoming traffic, then quickly jogged over.

As soon as I put my hand on the door handle, I spotted the familiar Honda Accord parked at pump four. Never in my entire 26 years of life had I felt fear run through my body—like a cold shot spreading down my limbs to the tips of my fingers and toes. I stood frozen, not knowing whether to call the police, go inside, or run back to my hotel room. She was obviously resourceful. And determined. I mean who would go through the trouble of busting second floor windows from outside? And she didn’t use a rock or brick because I didn’t find any in the house. She used her bare fucking hands. By levitating? Balancing on two-inch tree branches? Was my hotel room even safe?

“Just go back, get in your car, and drive,” I urged myself. But me feet wouldn’t budge.

Suddenly the door pushed open nearly knocking me over. I saw the bag of gummy bears first, then the chipped fingernails, the cubic zirconia ring I’d given her, the mole on her left wrist. Before I could make it to her face, her voice said, “Hello, John.”

Exchange

It seems a little too public, but I go to meet him by the banks of the Mississippi at Riverfront Plaza anyway. He is the professional after all; he’s done this before, but I try not to remind myself how many times.

The rain and wind whip up under my umbrella and flip it inside out. I shift it in the direction of the oncoming gusts and peer from underneath the brim. There he stands by a light post farther up the bank, motionless and staring at me. I make my way toward him, but he holds up his hand and points to the trashcan three feet away from me, closer to the rising, lapping water. Does he want me to put the envelope there? Will he dig it out when I leave? Won’t that look more suspicious? Besides, I have questions. When will he do it? And how? Is it selfish of me to not want her to suffer? She is the mother of my children after all. 

I glance over my shoulder. The only people out in this approaching hurricane are me and him. I head for the trashcan and try to inconspicuously take the envelope from my briefcase while pinching the umbrella’s handle under my arm between my elbow and side. But the envelope is in deeper than I remember, and a sudden panic overcomes me, causing me to drop everything on the ground, the packed envelope gliding across the rain-soaked brick sidewalk toward the river.

I feel his piercing glare. I’m sorry. I’ve never done this before. Can he blame me for being a little nervous? I rush to scoop it up. Already the manilla paper is soaked through. Instinctively I want to check the cash inside, but a flash of light catches my attention. At first I think it may be lightning, but then I see the camera directly ahead and the reporter in a reflective jacket bracing himself against the wind. Did they catch everything? Is this exchange being broadcast to millions of Baton Rouge viewers across Channel 9’s viewing area?

I turn in his direction to see what I should do, but he is long gone. I don’t know when he disappeared or if I just imagined him there to begin with. I should go too. This plan was doomed from the start. I gather my things and close the umbrella. What’s the use anyway? I’m soaked down to my socks. It was a dumb idea to wear loafers in a rainstorm. All of it was a bad idea. But even as I trek to the parking lot, part of me wants to look back. Will he be standing behind me? Will he be waiting for the money? Will he still kill my wife?


Red Sky, Ghost Cries

Originally published August 18, 2017

I glance out the window at the red sky. It’s just the way the setting sun hits the cumulonimbus clouds, I tell myself. But when a sudden clap of thunder rattles the legs of my bed against the hardwood floor, I wait for it to rain blood.

Befitting for the time we live in. A live-action horror film. When cars speed through crowds and crush the skulls of babies, when antebellum monuments are brought down upon the heads of their worshipers.

I plug in my ear buds and play a track from my deceased father’s rock band. Lately I’ve had the desire to listen to his ghost. Sing to me about the power of love overcoming political corruption, separation by race, pointless fighting in streets. When the world will know peace.

I raise the volume over the thunder, nearly deaf after three replays. When the song ends, I turn everything off. The house is silent; the storm has passed. I hide under the covers, knowing I’m alone. But my bedroom door is slightly ajar, and after lying still for over an hour, unable to fall asleep, I hear a light tapping on the other side.

Now I know the dead have done more than turn over in their graves. Our callousness has brought them back, absorbing energy from the uncanny storm to manifest.

I only pray this one sings to me.

It’s been a minute

“It’s been a minute,” he starts after we’ve sat in silence in this busy cafe for nearly half an hour.

“It’s been two.” I pretend to wince at the coffee I sip from my mug. It’s long past scalding—not even lukewarm—but if that corny line wasn’t clear enough, the coffee solidifies it. I shouldn’t be here.

“How’ve you been?”

Well, I’d like to say I’ve been thriving since the divorce, but the truth is our daughter hates me and blames me for all her problems, I’m about to lose the house, and I haven’t been to work since Tuesday after rage emailing my micromanaging bitch boss, Sarah.

“Fine.”

“Mya says—”

“Mya doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

“Helen.”

“Rick”

“Look.” He swallows hard, juts his jaw, and makes a chewing motion, though his scone sits untouched on the saucer in front of him. “I know what I did—”

“Just like a man.”

The shift in his demeanor is immediate. I’ve struck a nerve. “What does that mean?” he says, a little more bass in his voice now.

“To assume that you’re the reason. That it revolves around you. No matter what happens to me, good or bad, it’s all because I once loved you.”

“I never said that.”

“You didn’t have to.”

The idle chatter around us invades our atmosphere again. Despite what he might think, I have no desire to sit and stare at him in silence for another thirty minutes. I reach across that table and snatch up the blueberry scone, ignoring his protests as I shove as much as I can into my mouth in one giant bite without gagging. He curls his upper lip in disgust, which amuses me given that the last time I saw him he was balls deep in another woman’s mouth still wearing the tux from our anniversary dinner.

“I know you need money.”

“I told you I’m fine.”

“That’s not what Mya says.”

“Why don’t you let your daughter stay with you since you two are so close.”

“You know we don’t have room with the baby.”

“No. I don’t know that.” Because no one tells me anything, like when the new Mrs. apparently stopped swallowing. Good for her, I guess. God only knows who the hell else his dick’s been in. I’d hate to taste that every night.

“I’m willing to cover the mortgage for you this month. But we agreed, you should have sole custody.”

“I wish Mya could see how great a father you are when she’s not around.”

I can feel his hot breath touch my bottom lip as he sighs heavily, and instantly I want to vomit.

“It’s impossible talking to you.”

I shoulder my purse. “The bank appreciates you finally paying a bill for the house you chose and then willingly left.” Who’da thought he’d downsize in more than just women. I slide the unfinished scone across the table. The saucer screeches to a stop just as the edge grazes his shirt. I stand and turn for the exit. I don’t bother looking back to see if he’s willing to swap saliva with me one last time, pandemic be damned. I don’t care.

I really don’t.