by Chinelo Onwualu
The first time they met, Mark Rutland was having a bad day. It was finals week at Glenville State University and his piece-of-shit car had conked out two days before. Last night, he had gotten a call from some stoner named Reggie who claimed he had copies of the Biology final. They turned out to be bad copies of last semester’s midterms, but by the time Mark found this out, he had missed the last bus back to town. He ended up spending the night on Reggie’s moth-eaten couch, which smelled of beer and vomit. Luckily, he always carried an emergency kit in his backpack with a toothbrush, shaving kit and extra clothes.
Now, on the morning shuttle from the campus apartments to the library, he was trying to memorize what he could. Serves you right for not studying, he told himself sourly.
She was the last person on the bus; skidding in just as the doors swooshed close. It was obvious she lived on campus. She didn’t have that harried look off-campers had—the barely combed hair, the rumpled clothes, the anxious frown you got when you had just battled a hectic morning commute only to still arrive 10 minutes late for your first class. Nah, this was a trust fund baby. Like everyone else, he spared a glance for her afro hairdo, noting the bangle-sized hoops in her ears, the black Batman t-shirt, the flamboyant bell-bottomed trousers and the pristine converse hitops. Everything about her screamed art geek.
He spared her no more than a glance. Art freaks were a dime a dozen, all in such a frenzy to try and prove how individual they were that they became like clever forgeries, indistinguishable from each other except for the details. What caught his attention was the way she moved. Or rather, the way she didn’t move.
The bus lurched forward, but she did not. Her feet were planted as firmly as if she was a general on some ancient battlefield. The single strap backpack could have housed a sword. He looked up from his notes and watched as she wandered to the back of the bus looking for an empty seat. But this was 9:00 am in the morning and the shuttle was full. The only free seat was next to him by the window. She soon spotted the space and came over.
“Excuse me, is that seat taken?” She spoke with a slight accent. Her gaze was direct. She had an earphone in one hand, and gestured with it to the empty seat.
“Nah,” he mumbled as he made way for her to pass. He always sat by the aisle, just in case he needed to get out of his seat quickly. For the same reason, he drove with the doors unlocked. He caught her scent as she sidled by him: vanilla. Funny, he had pinned her to wear some designer label.
“Thanks,” she sighed as she plopped into her seat. He nodded and went back to his notes. That should have ended it, but it didn’t.
Mark could feel her studying him. He was well aware that with his shaved head, the white t-shirt that showed the tattoos on his arms, the camouflage hunting pants, and the military-style boots, he did not look like a typical college student. Much less the on-campus kind. He was tempted to turn sharply and tell her to mind her own damn business. A lifetime ago, hanging with Danny Boy, he might have. But Mark was different now.
“So what’s your major?” she asked suddenly. The question caught him by surprise and he looked up. She was wearing those stupid plastic square-framed glasses that every pseudo-intellectual-computer programmer seemed to be wearing these days. Behind them, her eyes were sharp, curious.
“What makes you think I go here?” He regretted his harshness immediately. Instead of being offended, she smiled. No, it wasn’t a smile exactly, it was the way she leaned back — one eyebrow raised — and curled a corner of her mouth. As if asking: what have we here?
“The notebook,” she pointed, earphone still in hand, “If you don’t go here, why the hell are you reading biology notes?” Only then did Mark smile. Until then he had held himself still, waiting for her to prove herself just another rich snob, like so many girls he’d met at this place.
“That’s Rammstein, right?” he asked. He could hear the music coming faintly from the earphones in her hand. He could think of no other way to continue the conversation. She nodded.
“Their ‘Mutter’ album. It’s really good.”
“Not as good as their earlier stuff.”
“Yeah I know. Once, I wanted to learn German to figure out what the hell they were saying,” she chuckled richly and they fell into easy conversation. Though her look suggested Neo-Soul—Common, India.Arie, and Angie Stone—they actually shared a similar love for hard rock and classic punk.
By the time the bus stopped, they were talking as if they’d known each other for years. It was only much later, in the middle of his exam, did Mark realize he had not gotten her name.
After class, he headed back to the apartments. That stoner kid owed him money. This morning Mark had left him unconscious on the bathroom floor and was not surprised to find the apartment door unlocked and Reggie still lying where he left him.
He checked the kid’s pulse and, satisfied that he was still breathing, went through his pockets. He took what change he found there. It was a little more than what he was owed but he kept the extra anyway. Bus fare.
Reggie had missed the final and would most likely fail the course, but Mark was sure that it wouldn’t matter in the long run. Kids like Reggie always had rich daddies who would bail them out if things got too tough. And after graduation, there was always the family business. He fought the urge to kick the prone figure, taking the kid’s unopened pack of Marlboros instead. Picking his way through the empty pizza boxes and beer cans that littered every surface, he left the place.
Coming off the bus, Mark tore open the Marlboros and lit one, inhaling deeply. May in West Michigan meant wildly unpredictable weather – clear skies with light breezes one moment and cold rain showers the next. But the summer humidity had yet to set in so the days were still mild. Mark hated walking but reasoned that if he had to, this was the best time to do it.
As he came into town, he had watched through the bus window as the landscape transformed. Slowly, the buildings lost their suburban charm moving from cultured lawns and trim storied houses, to the older, more rustic Victorian-style houses on College Row—populated by hungry students and starving artists—to the boarded-up windows and overgrown lawns of abandoned houses in the decaying heart of the city. Here, rust and peeling paint declared their ownership louder than any piece of paper could.
Garish signs, many in Spanish, proclaimed liquor stores, payday advance offices, pawn shops and X-rated movie theaters. And it was not unusual to see a wino huddled in the shadows of an abandoned storefront, for sale sign fading above him, or a hobo raving against an unseen enemy on the corner. The only places that seemed to flourish were the ones that catered to the college kids; the nightclubs and glittery shopping malls which the locals could not afford. The city was dying; it was being sucked dry by the college community. A great parasite on its outskirts.
Mark smoked slowly as he walked, bemused, as he always seemed to be these days, at how much things had changed. The places that had been landmarks in his childhood were gone now. The ancient tree that had given Elm Park its name, Green’s Candy Store, the movie house on 4th street, all gone. Even the faces he passed were no longer familiar; Latinos, blacks and Vietnamese. It was like watching a foreign movie without the subtitles. Nothing made sense anymore.
Arriving at the rundown house he shared with his friends: Dan “Danny Boy” Schiller, Dan’s cousin, Steve, Ben Dorsey, and Eddie Beerbaum, he was relieved to find it empty. It wasn’t that he didn’t like them—hell, he had known Danny Boy since the sixth grade—it was just that…things had changed. To be precise, he had changed.
The jokes weren’t funny anymore, the places they hung out bored him and he could no longer join them at their minimum wage jobs clerking at the gas station and or loading freight in the backrooms of big-box stores, bitching about the government, taxes and the immigrants who were driving the country to hell, getting high every night and getting drunk on the weekends. He often wondered how he could have lived that way even though, until a few years ago, it was all he had known of life. Guess that is what war does, he mused, unlocking the front door, it changes you.
The house belonged to the Schiller boys’ mother and had once been an elegant Victorian. Since her death ten years ago, it had slowly fallen into disrepair. Now, it was an eyesore. Cracked paint, sagging roof and a front yard so choked with rusted junk that the weeds and wild grass seemed to be hiding what they could for decorum’s sake.
Inside the story was no better; all peeling wallpaper, moldy carpeting and cracked, splintering woodwork. The front door opened to a dank narrow hallway. It was half swallowed by a dangerously creaky set of stairs, which disappeared into the gloomy upper reaches of the house. To the left of the hall, a spacious kitchen with a cracked, ancient sink and warped, wooden cupboards. There was a small guest bathroom under the stairs that no one ever used because it no longer flushed properly. Ahead the hall opened to the living room. It boasted a small black-and-white television and faded, mismatched furniture. Its only decoration was a huge red banner with a black swastika on the back wall.
Upstairs, there were three bedrooms and a bathroom that was a plumber’s nightmare. Danny Boy and Steve shared the master suite, Ben and Little Eddie shared the larger second bedroom and he had the closet-sized “guest room.”
A sloping ceiling gave the room a cramped feeling. Electrical tape plugged the drafty spaces around the room's single window. The mattress was lumpy, precariously balanced on a bed frame likely as old as the house, and he had no closet—not that he had that many clothes. His few possessions were stacked on a bookshelf in a corner: a boombox circa 1995, his collection of used books, and a second-hand computer he'd bought from a guy he'd known in boot camp. He didn’t mind, though; it beat living with his mom.
Just thinking about her brought it all back.
He could not remember ever seeing her completely sober. Once he had thought all mothers were like that. He once believed that everyone needed a little “nip in the morning to wake the system”—as she would say. That the best cure for the blues was some “liquid medicinal” in a coffee mug. As a child, it had almost been fun. Almost. There were the times when, giggling unsteadily, she would let him watch cartoons till he fell asleep on the couch, or go for days without taking a bath, or have cookies and soda for breakfast. But then the screaming would start, harsh beatings for the smallest infractions, and the nights would be filled with her slow desolate wailing.
He might have forgiven her, Mark knew, but she didn't come to pick him up from the airport. Four years in a land sucked dry by heat, fear and hatred, four years of fire, wind and disease, of bitter, aching loneliness and it had came to this: standing alone at the baggage claim waiting for his mother. He had forgiven her many things, but that he could not forgive.
Impatiently, he pushed the memories away. There was no time for this; he had work to do. His World Civ final was tomorrow morning and he had the Intro to Botany exam the day after that. He wrenched a heavy anthology from its place on the bookshelf in a single, savage movement. Danny Boy and the others would be back in a couple of hours, and after that there would be precious little time for studying. He'd be damned if he got caught with his pants down again.
The next time he saw her, he was sitting on the far side of the cafeteria, his back to a windowless wall, where he could watch anyone who came into the room. The meeting with his poli-sci group was over and he was considering leaving when she entered. She was wearing a red flash t-shirt and long black duster jacket, her afro hair tied back in a huge bun. Same oversize earrings, jeans and shoes as before. She was in an animated conversation with a pale redhead, who was wearing one of those long flowing skirt-and-tunic numbers modern hippies liked, and a very thin Asian girl dressed all in black.
From his table he watched her get a tray and move into the cafeteria line. There was something about the way she moved that reminded him of the Marines he'd known in service. He couldn't pin it down, but it was an assurance, as if she knew the limits of her body and trusted that it was enough. She scanned the room and saw him immediately.
She excused herself from her friends and made her way over. Yeah, she had definitely been a soldier, there was too much decision in her steps. For a brief moment, Mark contemplated getting up and slipping out the back way, but the thought died before he could think it through.
“Hey there,” she greeted. “How did the exam go?”
“I don't think I ever got your name. I'm Eniola,” she reached out and shook his hand in a single, firm pump, “but everyone calls me Eni.”
“Mark.” He would have left it at that but curiosity got the better of him. “So how long have you been serving?” he asked.
“In the military, how long?”
“I'm not in the military.”
“But you've had training, boot camp or something, right?”
“No,” she was looking at him strangely.
He could feel his ears growing hot with embarrassment. Just then, the two girls joined them. Eni made introductions. Nina, the redheaded hippie; Tabitha, the Asian goth chick. It was a strained, awkward conversation so Mark quickly made his excuses and left.
He headed straight for the gym. Luckily, it was on campus, so he could walk. Though he'd been honorably discharged six months ago, he still maintained his military exercise habits. He ran four miles a day and pumped iron two hours each night. He would never admit it, but Mark had liked the discipline of the army. Every morning he woke up with something concrete to do. Every hour of every day was planned, structured with a meaningful activity. If you failed at your job, someone could get hurt or even killed. It was incredible incentive.
Adjusting to civilian life was proving harder than he expected. In the army everyone had a rank, a place. It was clear who was who. Out here, he didn't know what to say to people. The coarse banter which had smoothed out conversations in the Army was useless out here.
In the first few weeks, Mark had hung out exclusively with other veterans in the VA hospital downtown. One of the options of the medical discharge was a free group therapy session once a week. Mark went a couple of times then dropped out; all those old soldiers wanted to do was talk about the war. He'd had enough of that.
He could have joined Danny Boy at the bookstore – the one that sold self-published screeds on maintaining the purity of the master race and always had Mein Kampf on sale – but he'd had enough of that too. He’d always liked the outdoors. In the summers as a kid, he would sometimes go sleep in the park when his mom got too bad. One day, Mark saw a flier at the hospital about a Forestry course at the University – and the army was paying. What the hell, he wasn't doing anything else with his time.
Inside, the gym smelled of old sweat and machine grease, a familiar comfort. For the next two hours, Mark tried to clear his mind as he put himself through his sets. Concentrating on his body, he did not have to think of anything else. Or at least he didn't usually. Today, he could not get the girl, Eni, out of his mind. The more he thought about it, the more certain that she'd been through some sort of armed forces training. Maybe she'd gone to military school. What if she was an undercover cop? And what was that look she'd given him?
It turned out to be a pretty bad workout. He just couldn't get into the zone. Mark left the gym feeling worse. Coming up the street, he saw Eddie's old VW Rabbit in the driveway. Even from the street he could hear strains of the type of hard rock his friends liked. Once they had all gotten high listening to Metallica and Black Sabbath, now, they preferred bands with names like RaHoWa – which stood for Racial Holy War. He groaned inwardly. It would be a long night.
It was four in the morning when he stepped out on the rotting porch for a smoke. As usual, he couldn’t sleep. He scanned the deserted road, savoring the rare silence on his street. It had just finished raining and the streetlights reflected off the slick sidewalk, like the back of some clammy beast. The sudden vibration of his cell phone in his front pocket startled him. He had gotten the thing because he didn’t want any of his professors calling the house and getting Danny Boy or any of the others, but he needn’t have worried. He never got any calls.
She spoke without greeting.
“How did you know I was in the military?” Though it was her voice, he knew he wasn’t speaking to the same girl he’d met on the bus. She had the guarded tone he’d heard a hundred times in the army, the kind soldiers used when they spoke to civilians. Whatever she might say, this woman had seen war.
“But you asked. Why?”
He took a drag and exhaled before answering.
“I dunno. Something about the way you move, I guess.”
Silence. Then, just as he thought she had dropped the call: “Do you want to get something to eat?”
They met at an all-night diner that had seen better days. The linoleum floors and counter were scuffed and faded. The booths were dingy, warped tables enclosed by aging chairs whose stuffing leaked out of their faux-leather seats. Mark knew the food was just as bad, but that was not why he was here. She sat in a booth at the back, where she could see anyone who came in the door. It was exactly where he would have chosen.
She was wearing still wearing her black duster coat, but she’d changed into a plain black t-shirt, khaki cargo pants and black Doc Martens boots. Gone were the silly glasses and her hair was pulled back into a short braid. Somehow, Mark knew he was seeing the true woman and it put him strangely at ease.
“Want to tell me what this is about?” he asked when he slipped into the booth in the seat opposite her. He didn’t like having his back to the door, but he fought the urge to turn around. Besides, he had a pretty good view from the reflections in the window behind her head.
“You were right, I am a soldier.”
“Yeah? What are you? Marines, Special Ops? What?” She sighed and bit her lips.
“It’s a long story.” Her face took on a faraway look. “Have you ever woken up in a strange place, with no memory of how you got there?”
Mark thought about how many mornings he had jumped out of bed reaching for a rifle that was no longer there, because the sound of a slamming door was too much like the crack of a gunshot.
“Every single day.”
She smiled at that. It was a slow smile that seemed work itself onto her face. She leaned forward and he noticed that in this light, her eyes were a lovely shade of honey brown.
“Will you come home with me?” she asked.
“I’ll go wherever you want me to go,” he said. They were the truest words Mark had ever spoken.
He awoke with a start, instantly alert and tense. He stared into the darkness for a time, letting the last remnants of the dream leave him. It took him a few minutes to realize where he was. Her apartment was palatial compared to his place. It was an appropriately chic one-bedroom affair filled with tasteful second-hand furniture. African masks vied with posters of superheroes and rock stars on the walls. The living room and bedroom were crammed with bookshelves of everything from the classics to trashy comic books. No photos, though.
She was still asleep. Sometime during the night she must have awoken because she now wore an oversize t-shirt and a colorful scarf hung crookedly off her head. She slept on her stomach, cheek squashed against the pillow. He resisted the urge to touch her skin. Instead, he slipped out of bed and fished out the pack of Malboros from his pants on the floor. He sat on the edge of the bed and smoked thoughtfully.
“You’ll set off the smoke alarms if you keep doing that,” her voice held no trace of sleep.
“Helps me think.”
“What are you thinking about?” Usually, he hated when girls asked him that, but this was different. It was not a thinly veiled plea for an empty compliment. She had a strange tenderness to her, as if she could hear his every heartbeat, as if she was truly listening. She reminded him of Danny Boy before he had gone off to juvie. Before he had grown callused and every word was iron in his mouth.
He considered the question, but he did not know how to answer it. What could he tell her of the fears that tormented him as he slept? What could this woman understand of a mother whose wails were a garble of incomprehensible Arabic, but whose anguish was clear?
“I was just thinking that I wouldn’t want to hurt you.” It was all he could think to say. He felt her sit up and circle her arms around his torso. He stiffened, fighting the urge not to turn around. He could feel her lay her head on the back of his neck, her breasts pressing into his back; it aroused and soothed him all at once.
“Why would you hurt me?”
“I don’t know. I’ve done some pretty awful things, Eni. I’ve hurt a lot of people.”
She slid round to straddle his lap. She cupped his face in with hands too smooth to have ever known a hard day’s work. Yet her grip was firm and her face was creased into a look he had not seen outside of the grizzled vets at the VA center: understanding.
“It was war,” she said simply. “You did what you had to do, or you would have never made it back.”
To hide his tears, he held her close. Gently, careful not to break her.
The last time he saw her she was sitting at the table in her tiny kitchenette with another man.
He was slim, olive-skinned, with a thin moustache and jet-black hair slicked back to reveal a sharp widow’s peak. He looked like money in a black silk shirt unbuttoned to show a gold necklace. His khaki pants were neatly pressed and his black loafers buffed to a shine. Mark had seen his kind before. They buzzed about the bases like flies, with their bad English and slick smiles. They were always eager to sell you something – cigarettes, booze, women.
She wore a pair of loose jeans and t-shirt with the Punisher logo on it. Her hair lay across her shoulders in two stiff braids. She wasn’t wearing a bra and her nipples budded beneath the thin cotton.
“What the fuck is this?” At the Mark’s voice, the man stood quickly, but Eni remained seated.
“Mark, this is Saeed,” she said. Her voice was a warning, but Mark ignored it.
“A pleasure to meet you,” said the man in a clipped British accent. He stretched his hand for a shake. Mark ignored that too.
Mark had not heard from her for nearly a month. Not since that night. He managed to stumble his way through the rest of his finals and even found a summer job with a local landscaping outfit. It had him hauling sod for eight hours a day in 90-degree weather, but it was good money. The crew was a decent bunch and having a few beers with them at the end of the day kept him from having to go back to the house to face Danny Boy. But late at night, when all there was to do was sleep, Mark found himself longing for his phone to ring.
“I got your call, Eni. Said you wanted to tell me something. Is this it?” Mark swept his hands in the other man’s direction. “I don’t hear from you for weeks and you call me up for this? What the fuck is going on, and who the fuck is he?” he didn’t realize he was shouting. It had only been one night, why was he so upset? His heart hammered in his chest and he could barely breathe. He couldn’t concentrate on what they were saying; all he could see was her face. But it was closed and hard, like a war mask.
“Listen Eni, I must be off,” said the man, talking fast. “I forgot I have to meet some friends at the club.” He slipped into a leather jacket he’d hung over the back of the chair. Eni stood and called to him as he headed for the door.
“Will you do it, Saeed? For the love you once bore me.”
The young man hesitated at the doorway.
“I’ll do my best, habibi,” he said somberly. “Though I still think you’re completely mad,” he smiled briefly, but caught the look on Mark’s face and left.
“What the fuck, Eni!” Mark exploded. “You don’t need anything that fucking hajji’s selling. Those goddamn towel-heads are the reason we’re over there in the first place!”
“Saeed was my guest,” she spoke through clenched teeth, biting off each word. “You have no right to talk about him that way, you have no right give me orders,” she advanced towards him, her voice rising. “You do not own me!”
He would have left then, but as suddenly as her anger had built, it was gone. Her shoulders sagged like a deflated balloon. She sank to the couch and put her head in her hands. He had never seen anyone so sad, not even his mother in the depths of her alcohol-fueled depressions. Mark would have like it better if she’d continued to rage. Anger he could handle. This, he had no defense for; this scared him.
“Saeed is not the enemy, Mark,” she finally said. “Hell, if it wasn’t for him, I would be locked in some mental home right now.”
She held him with a frank gaze but he could see tears in her eyes. “I was wrong, Mark. I cannot save you.” Her voice was hollow, but gentle. “And I am so sorry.”
Mark didn’t know what to say. A part of him wanted to go and bring back the Arab, to sob at her feet and beg her forgiveness – anything. Instead he stood helpless, clenching and unclenching his fists. He reached for anger. Who the hell did she think she was, talking to him like that? He stoked it, but it would not kindle.
The silence stretched between them, a yawning maw, a chasm that seemed bigger than the sky itself. The longer it lasted, the more certain Mark was that it was over between them. His anger had robbed him of the best thing that had happened to him since the war ended.
“You should go,” she finally said.
He left her sitting on her kitchen floor, gazing out of the window above his head.
He was late for work, but he didn’t care. Instead, he lit up a Marlboro and began walking the streets. He wandered through the neighborhood for nearly an hour before he found himself stopping. He looked up. He was here. He had avoided this place ever since he’d got back. It was a Vietnamese nail salon now, but when he was growing up, it had been a candy store run by a man everyone called “Doc.”
Mark had no idea if the old man who owned the place had been a doctor or not, but he remembered that it was the one place where he and Danny Boy never felt like street kids. At Doc’s, they could read as many comics as they liked – as long as they didn’t crease or tear them, he never asked them to put them back – and there was always a free piece of candy. By unspoken consent, it was the one place they would never shoplift from.
Then, years ago Doc sold the place and retired and it was turned into a grocery store owned by one of the few black families in the town.
Then, Danny Boy got caught trying to break into a car and shipped off to Juvie for nine months. It would turn out to be the first of many stints.
The world changed for Mark after that. While Danny Boy was serving time upstate, Mark went back to school. He had no one to cut classes with any more and he found he kind of liked the place. The kids were all assholes, but he was pretty good at most of the subjects. Then there was that sub he met, the former marine who’d volunteered to tutor him after school. They would meet at the library for an hour or so and afterwards, he’d buy Mark a sandwich at the deli down the street. Mark never admitted it, but often it was the only other meal he’d have in the day after the free school breakfast.
When Danny Boy came back he had a tattoo. A small swastika on his chest. He began hanging out with Eddie and the others and carrying a copy of Mein Kampf – though Mark doubted he ever read it. They never talked about it, though. It was as if they had an unspoken agreement. Whenever they met, they carefully kept to subjects like video games, girls and television.
The more time Danny Boy spent on his new interests, the more time Mark spent at school. His grades went up and, though it made no difference to his mother, it made Mark proud. So it wasn’t a surprise to learn, when graduation came around, that Mark had passed all his classes. Danny Boy hadn’t and would have to attend summer classes and sit for the GED in order to get a high school diploma. Mark wasn’t surprised by this either.
On that day, Mark had decided to skip the graduation ceremony. It wasn’t like they could take his diploma back if he didn’t show up. Besides, his mother wasn’t going to be there. Instead, he spent the day hanging out with Danny Boy, Eddie and the rest of them in the parking lot across the street from the shop that used to be Doc’s.
Steve’s older sister had scored them some booze and they sat in a loose circle passing around a bottle of tequila wrapped in a brown paper bag. As the evening wore on, they got drunker and Danny began a familiar lament.
“God damned niggers,” he muttered balefully eyeing the shop across the street. “You know, everything was better when they knew their place.”
There was a chorus of agreement.
“You guys want to get some more booze?” Mark had asked quickly, trying to distract, but it was too late. Danny had lurched to his feet and began moving unsteadily towards the shop. Mark had followed, a heavy feeling in the pit of his stomach.
He remembered walking through the aisles of the store, brushing his fingers over unfamiliar goods with exotic names like garri, pounded yam, and palm oil. The place which had always smelled like maraschino cherries now had a sharp, fishy smell. The girl behind the counter was about their age; heavy-set with smooth ebony skin that seemed to glow in the shop’s murky light. She wore an old-fashioned skirt and blouse combination and her face was as closed as a carved mask.
The others headed towards the beer fridge in the back – they had come in for more smokes and booze. Mark needed to take a leak, though. He asked the girl for the bathroom and she waved vaguely to somewhere in the back of the shop. She hadn’t smiled or spoken since they entered.
He found the unmarked door at the far end of the shop and went in. He was taking a piss his mind blissfully blank, when he heard the shout. He quickly zipped up and hurried out.
Steve and Eddie had the girl pinned to the counter, her arms behind her back, while Danny gripped her neck. Danny was pouring a carton of milk over her head. They had already doused her with flour – her hair and clothes were covered in it. The girl was gasping for breath.
“You think if you talk like us, dress like us, it’s going to make you human?” Danny hissed into the girl’s ear. “You’ll never be like me, you hear me!”
“What the fuck, Dan?” Mark yelled and pulled the carton from his grasp. “Jesus, what’re you doing? You want to go back to juvie?”
But Danny Boy only laughed. The others joined him. Their laughter echoed harshly through the shop.
Mark pushed Dan out towards the entrance and the others followed. They had stolen more beer and intended to keep drinking through the night at the house of some guy Mark had never met. Probably one of their rally buddies. He knew they would spend the evening retelling this incident, boasting about it.
He had begged off and gone home that night. The next day he had headed for the Army recruitment office in the mall and joined up.
Now, standing in front of the shop where it had all happened, Mark suddenly felt exhausted. Looking back, he realized that they must have been African – that’s probably why the girl had never called the cops. Immigrants rarely did; they didn’t trust the authorities. Now they were gone.
Mark had forgotten the cigarette in his hand. It had burned to ash. He flicked it away. In that moment, Mark knew what he had to do. He jammed his hand into his pockets and began walking back to her place. He was ready to fight again.
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Nigerian writer Chinelo Onwualu is an editor at Cassava Republic Press. She recieved a BA in English from Calvin College and a Master's Degree in Journalism from Syracuse University. Her work has appeared in Saraba Magazine, Sentinel Nigeria Magazine, the 2010 Dugwe Anthology of New Writing and the AfroSF Anthology of African Science Fiction. You can find more of her work on her blog.