Dolores’s daughter hollers in the backseat, pretty much the only reason she opens her mouth these days. Barely to talk, not to eat, not to drink. She was always a big girl, and this is the first time in her 7-year-old life that she’s losing weight. It’s been five days and one trip to the hospital. They’ve just come from seeing a therapist in Ann Arbor. He assured them both that it was just a phase.
“What do you think brought this on?” he asked as he observed Alisha coloring.
“It was her last visit to the dentist,” Dolores answered. “She had to get a tooth pulled. I guess it was a little traumatic.”
“Have you tried making her favorite meal for her? Even if it’s not good for her.”
“Of course,” she said. “That was my first idea.” Who wouldn’t have thought of that?
The therapist went on to more questions, keeping his eye on Alisha to show Dolores that her child was his main concern. “Is there anything else that may be contributing to this behavior?”
In the car, Alisha quiets down as they drive past the county prison, its sirens wailing from behind the stone walls. That means escape. Dolores rubs her scalp with one hand, feeling her roots all bumpy and kinked-up under her fingers. The last time she visited the beauty shop and sat in front of their huge mirror, below those blinding lights, she wanted to cry at the sight of her reflection. The mirrors at home never showed her like that, looking as if she had extra skin sliding off her face. Her lips were so dry they were white, flecked with lines of red where blood had oozed through.
The therapist conducted his practice in his house. Dolores didn’t understand that, why you’d want to bring so much crazy into your own home. She said, “Umm…” so the therapist wouldn’t repeat himself, and then considered how to answer. My husband—her father—passed away two years ago. Her father was killed two years ago. Her father was shot two years ago. Her father was gunned down at the Montgomery Ward Massacre.
She leaned in and whispered, “My husband was at that thing in Jackson a couple years ago. Where that guy randomly shot all those people at the mall?” She hated saying random. She knew there was a reason, that there was some sentiment in that man’s heart so hard and hopeless, that shooting people became the next logical step in the sequence of events that made up his life, which ended when a cop took him down. And she knew there were reasons why that sentiment was there, reasons for those reasons and reasons for those, all the way back to the moment of his birth, too many to peruse and categorize, so everybody just called it what it looked like when taken out of context: “a random act of violence.”
The therapist, at least a decade younger than Dolores, stopped his pen mid-word. His mouth opened and he tried to make eye contact, but could only look at Dolores’s chin.
“Well, given the circumstances? I don’t think this is so bad?” He asked Dolores for confirmation. “Why don’t we wrap up and schedule for next week?”
Dolores told him she’d call him.
By the time they approach Lawrence’s school, the sirens are out of earshot and Alisha sobs. They become screams, like they always do these days. Dolores drives the car into the side entrance, where he’ll come out after his SAT. She grips the steering wheel even though she’s in neutral. She tries to ground herself. Lately, her bones feel hollow, her insides evaporating.
* * *
The test was bullshit.
Lawrence makes himself a bread-and-butter sandwich and watches the kitchen TV while his mom tucks Alisha into her bed for a nap. All the local TV channels broadcast the same BREAKING NEWS: Darius Ferguson, schizophrenic and convicted murderer, escapes from Jackson County Prison during a riot in the courtyard. A guard’s nose broken, another’s gun stolen, assumed armed and dangerous. Do not approach if sighted. Contact authorities immediately. Scenes from the prison and interviews with the wardens are interspersed with stills of Darius’s mugshot. Only a year older than Lawrence, 17, convicted as an adult for murder. The anchorman describes his build: 5 foot 9, 145 pounds, around the same as Lawrence. In the photo, his brow bones protrude like an awning over his tiny eyes, too small to look into. Light-skinned like Lawrence, and both their noses have nostrils perpetually flared. His locs, like Lawrence’s, drop to his shoulders.
His mom, still in the sweatpants she fell asleep in, comes into the kitchen and sits at the table, scraping a spot of dried sauce off the old tablecloth. Lawrence keeps his back to her, and unloads the dishwasher.
The anchorman lists Darius’s crimes, dating back to the age of 12. Violent crimes brought on by seemingly small disturbances. He broke his younger cousin’s jaw with a joystick when the little boy beat him at a video game on Darius’s Xbox. That was his first offense. His last was on Christmas morning. He woke up before everyone else. Opened everyone’s presents, smashed the ornaments, and beat his little sister to death with the baseball bat his little brother had gotten.
The dishwasher is empty and Lawrence’s mother has swept all the crumbs off the tablecloth.
“There are five messages on my phone from the school,” she says and lets him take a few bites of his sandwich before saying anything else. “I don’t think I want to listen to them till I hear what you have to say.”
Lawrence rocks back and forth a little in the wobbly chair before he tucks his arms into his sweatshirt and starts talking.
The test was bullshit.
For months, rumors grew around the school that he would be one of those kids who scored 1600. He got a 34 on the ACT.
He sat in the cafeteria with fifty or so other juniors. The index finger of his left hand ran underneath each word in the answer booklet while his right hand filled in the little bubbles. His locs sat high on his head tied in a top knot, and the zipper on his sweatshirt was done all the way up. He chewed on the drawstring of his hood. He answered the questions like someone pressed his “ENTER” key. Not thinking: processing. He stopped his hands when he came across a question that did not compute, one that could be answered with two of the options. He made a note of it and continued. When he finished the rest of the test, he double-checked the problem in question and then brought it to the attention of the moderator, a bloated, balding old man with papery, red skin. After listening to Lawrence’s complaint, he just winked and said, “Go with the obvious answer.”
“But they’re both right,” Lawrence said.
He winked again. “Just give ’em what they want.” Then he flipped a page in his crossword puzzle book.
The old man held up his yellow-nailed hand. “I can’t help you anymore, son.”
Lawrence stood in the same spot, but felt like Mr. Jacoby was a football field away from him. He turned back to his fellow students as they compressed all the evidence of their education into tiny ovals with No. 2 pencils. He looked at them. He had looked just like them a moment ago. He stayed there long enough for Mr. Jacoby to say, “Back to your seat, son.” But his feet were rooted to the linoleum.
“Son, if you don’t take your seat, your test will be disqualified.”
Lawrence pried himself from his spot and headed back to the table. He waited till Mr. Jacoby dipped his nose back into his book, and then handed his answers to the kid next to him, some Latino guy he didn’t know. He whispered, “Pass this around.” Then he took a couple of silent steps toward and out the door. His mother and Alisha were waiting for him in the Camry. His sister moaned and his mom held a half-smoked Marlboro Light out the car window. He strapped into his seatbelt and put on his headphones.
* * *
He jumped, he ran, he took the butt of a gun to the chin. It hurts now. He touches his fingers to it and it is tender. He doesn’t remember the rest until just now, when he feels dirt under his shoes. In the woods behind his old high school. He used to disappear for days. Longer and longer each time, like his dad did. It was a day once. Then, it was two. A week. Then not for birthdays. Or Christmas. Like he was getting the kids used to the idea.
His dad took the ground out from under Darius when he left. Everywhere he was falling. The floor could change its mind any time. First at school, then church, then at home. Everywhere, the Earth could just give you up.
In the woods, he runs in place till he has to grip onto the cliff between sleeping and waking. He lets go and falls. Jolts awake before stepping into the river of sleep. Running again.
* * *
“We really believe in Lawrence. We understand the incredible amount of stress that he’s had to go through in the last couple years,” the guidance counselor says to Dolores, who is turning the heat down on her spaghetti sauce. She stirs it a bit and then bangs the edge of the spoon against the rim of the pot. “We think it’d be a good idea if you and Lawrence could come to the school so we can talk about the incident.”
Dolores walks over to her son, sitting on the couch with headphones blaring and watching TV. There’s that escaped convict’s mug shot again. “I don’t think he’s gonna come back to school for a while.” She nudges her son and makes him taste the sauce. She makes the “thumbs-up.” He shrugs and returns his attention to the TV screen.
“I understand,” the counselor says. “But unless we have documentation from a medical professional about Lawrence’s issues, he’s going to put his junior year in jeopardy.”
On the way back to the kitchen, Dolores hears Alisha, tucked away in bed at 6:00, sniffling. Before the sobs, come the sniffles. She goes into her daughter’s room and silently soothes her with kisses on her forehead and strokes through her hair. She rolls over onto her belly. Dolores bends over her and tickles her back with her free hand.
“It would be a shame for a student as bright as Lawrence to get held back,” the counselor says.
Dolores sighs into the phone. What does this bitch wanna hear?
The guidance counselor lowers the tone and volume of her voice and says, “I know your family has been through a lot recently.”
Dolores hangs up. When the news switches to a story about the schoolDolores hangs up. When the news switches to a story about the school millage, Lawrence turns off the TV and clamors upstairs. “I’ll eat in my room later,” he shouts, much more loudly than he needs to because his headphones are still on. Because he can’t hear, Dolores thinks about yelling, “Don’t leave me alone down here!” But Alisha has just started snoring and she doesn’t want to wake her up.
* * *
Lawrence has missed four days of school. He’s spent most of those days stuck to the couch, watching TV and doomscrolling on his phone.
On the fifth morning, Lawrence wakes up when the sun has hardly started brightening the sky. Over his head, a corner of his “map of the universe” poster hangs off the wall. He reaches up and smoothes it flat, then throws off his cobalt blue covers and evaluates his legs.
“I hope you still work,” he says.
Minutes later, Lawrence stands in the front doorway and worries about his decision to wear shorts. High in the sky, the sun will later warm this early spring day, but at six, there is still plenty of winter in the air. His toes tap the insides of his sneakers; his feet too anxious to let him go back and change. At first, his muscles beg to be back home, safe in his bed. But down the driveway, down the hill they go. By the time he reaches the bottom of the hill, they have surrendered to their duty, and Lawrence’s bones carry his muscles. Soon his body aligns itself with the dirt road, the ground, the earth below him.
It’s about fifteen minutes before he reaches the Franklin Street Party Store, just about a mile from his house, even though the economic distance spans miles more. His mother used to drive him to Franklin Street, past the party store for his karate lessons. She warned him every time not to go into that neighborhood by himself, especially when it was dark. But that was years ago, and it isn’t that dark anymore, so he crosses that border to see how the other side of town has changed. He takes a left on Simon Street and then a right on Dey, which is where Darius’s mother lives, his old house before he went to prison. Lawrence saw her on the eleven o’clock news denying that she knew where he was. She leaned against the railing of her porch wearing a wig that didn’t quite cover her hair.
“I’m praying he’ll turn himself in. When he’s in jail, least I know where he is.”
The neighborhood is almost a quarter abandoned buildings, condemned buildings boarded up and graffiti’d over and over. The lawns in the occupied houses wilt and weep, except for out-of-control weeds. Wooden steps, splintered and broken.
Darius’s old house is a short, two-story box covered in dented aluminum siding. It’s about to be overcome by the monstrous oak trees reaching out from the neighbors’ yard. The shades are drawn. Which one is Darius’s room?
Lawrence sees a few camera vans. He slows down in front of the house, but notices a cop car so he doesn’t stop. At the end of the block, he turns right on Euclid till he gets to Simon, making his way to Franklin and back to his own neighborhood.
His mother and sister are both snoring on the first floor when he returns. After showering, he reads the paper. On the front page, there’s a little map of the town showing the places Darius has been sighted since his escape. Lots of sightings in the nicer parts of town. Lawrence makes a joke to himself. The white people are just reporting any Negro they see.
He searches online for stories about Darius, and finds some articles where people can leave comments, places where the comments are unmoderated and people can feel free to write things like “I hope they shoot the nigger on sight.” Others begging for compassion: “He’s a victim of the system.” “He shouldn’t have been in jail in the first place. He needs psychiatric help.” “This is what happens when there’s no father figure in the home.”
When Lawrence’s family moved to Horton Road after Alisha was born, they were the only Black people. His dad refused to even acknowledge the difference.
“Content of character,” he always said. He smiled and greeted everyone good morning, good afternoon, made sure they saw him going to work earlier than they were, with a suit and a briefcase, coming home late, made BBQ the first warm weekend of the year. He never swore, never drank more than one beer around the neighbors, bragged about Lawrence’s grades, his wife’s bookstore. His dad would not have liked the joke he just made. But it was just a joke. Most of Lawrence’s friends are white. They never take him for anyone but him, right? Lawrence cuts out the map and tacks it to the bulletin board above his desk. He traces invisible lines between all the places the convict has supposedly been seen, and tries to find a pattern. Where are you going, Darius?
* * *
Mr. Geoffries. His store is solid ground for Darius. He can stand still here. He can stand still and tell that Mr. Geoffries is nervous even though he’s smiling. Mr. Geoffries wants to know what he needs. Clothes. Food.
Young kids, they’ve been up all night. Red eyes. Stumbling. Yo, gimme summa this. Gimme this. Gimme that. Yo, excuse me. Yo.
You that nigga from the news. Dawg, it’s that nigga from the news.
Back outside, faster. The earth threatens to fall out from under him. Probably any second.
* * *
Dolores is still wearing her bathrobe as she calls out to her son from the first floor. He doesn’t answer and she finds him in his room with his headphones on, surfing the web on his laptop. She sets down her pocketbook on his floor to search for a hair tie, and he presses a button on his laptop. She hopes he’s turning down the volume.
“I need you to take Alisha to her doctor’s appointment,” she says. “I have to go into the store. Someone’s out sick.”
Lawrence whines. “What? Mom? I don’t wanna go to the doctor’s.”
“You don’t have to go to the doctor,” she says. “You just have to take her there.”
“What’s the difference?” he asks.
“It’s not like they’re gonna poke and prod you,” she says, turning the doorknob in her hand. “You just have to be there for your sister.”
Lawrence rolls his eyes and swivels back to the keyboard.
“Lawrence!” she shouts.
“What?” he shouts back.
“Your sister’s sick,” she says, gesturing to the floor below.
His fingers run over the keyboard like he’s pretending to play piano. “Doctors don’t think she’s that sick.”
Dolores bites her tongue and holds her breath while the wave of tears in her dries up. When she can talk without crying, she slams her fist against Lawrence’s wall, disturbing his map of the
“What?” Lawrence says. “I didn’t hear you.”
She covers the distance between them in two ferocious steps and snatches Lawrence’s headphones. “That’s. Because. You’ve alwaysgot thesefuckingthingson!” Her face is so close to his she can feel his breath. She steps back and sees her stupefied son. She thinks he should look much older, but despite the mustache that grows in all at once now, everything about his face is round and unripe. Except the bags under his eyes, so puffed out all the time now that you can barely see the irises.
She sets his headphones down on his desk and exhales.
“Sorry. I know you’re going through a lot, too.” She makes a face as she hears the therapist-speak coming out of her mouth. She picks up her bag. “I’ll see if I can change the appointment. I could still use your help, though.”
He nods from his desk, looking at his headphones, but not daring to put them back on.
“Can you start to clean out the basement?”
He nods again.
“And check on your sister,” she says. “You’re right. She’s probably fine, but let her know you care, OK?”
He nods one more time. She starts to back out of the room, but then rushes toward him again, and hugs him. “I love you.”
“I love you, too,” he whispers.
She leaves his room and dials the doctor’s office to see about rescheduling.
* * *
Lawrence knocks on Alisha’s door. The sound of her sleeping breath doesn’t change so he steps inside. She doesn’t look that bad. Not that skinny. Her skin’s a little gray. He touches the back of his hand to her forehead. It’s a little sweaty, but not that warm. He goes into the kitchen and returns with a cut-up banana, a glass of water and a Pediasure. He nudges his sister and she opens her crusty eyelids. He points at the food that he put on her nightstand and says, “Mom wants you to eat.” She reaches out her floppy arms like she wants to be picked up, so he complies. He carries her and her blankets into the living room and sets her on the couch where it will be easier to look after her. After sticking a few stuffed animals around her head, he takes up his new post, in front of the TV with his computer on his lap. His friends are all announcing their scores on Snapchat. His inbox is filled with messages asking him if he’s ever coming back, lol. He doesn’t answer. Instead, he Googles “Darius Ferguson,” and a few hours later, he’s still in the same spot. His phone chimes. It’s one of his friends from history class.
– srsly, tho. ru coming back.
Lawrence answers with a shrug emoji.
– and yr mom doesn’t care?
Two shrug emojis this time.
– lmao. what ru even doing all day?
– chillin, been running a little. lowkey obsessed about that escaped prisoner.
– ? what escaped prisoner? what show is that?
– the fucking news. an actual escaped prisoner. do you even read, bro?
– u know I don’t y ru caring about an escaped convict?
Lawrence starts typing, but leaves his friend on read instead, and checks his email. He has set up a Google alert for any mention of Darius. Not much news. Maybe he got out of Jackson, Lawrence thinks.
Good for you, Darius.
It’s dark outside. Alisha hasn’t touched her food and he hasn’t yet ventured into the basement.
“I have to go downstairs,” he says. “You gonna be OK?”
She bobs her head up and down once and he switches the TV to Nickelodeon.
“Remember to eat,” he says.
His favorite memories of the basement all take place during that time of year when it was too hot to sleep upstairs and before his mother deemed it hot enough for air conditioning. On those in-between nights, she let him take his Indiana Jones sleeping bag, flashlight, and comic books down there, where he lay on concrete cooled by the cold soil far below him. But that was long ago. And they had run the A/C straight through from May to September and a week in October last year.
Now, Lawrence stands at the top of the basement stairs, wonders if he can trust them, and pulls the small ball chain attached to the lightbulb. The stairs prove themselves, but the railing is one weight-shift from collapsing. He leans his hand against the knobby concrete slab of a wall to steady his descent and inhales the moldy air that permeates all basements. One small window lights up a corner of the basement the lightbulb doesn’t reach. Lawrence sees insects scatter, so many that he can hear their feet.
“What the fuck?” he says. “Why am I even doing this?”
A spot check of the top layer of water-browned, moth-eaten, long-rotten boxes only reveals throwaway clothes. The last box he peers into has a photo album. Lawrence’s nostalgia stirs, but a coughing fit tamps it down. He hauls himself up to the tiny window, tries to jiggle it open, and fails. Defeated, he tries to return to his responsibilities, but is struck again, this time, sneezing and coughing, a fit loud enough to bring his mother to the top of the stairs.
“Hey, I’m back. You OK?”
Between coughs, he says, “It’s just the dust and stuff.” He walks to the foot of the stairs carrying three boxes. “Most of this shit’s ruined.”
“Be careful,” she says. “Maybe you shouldn’t carry so many at the same time.”
He puts one foot on the first step anyway. “I got it.”
“No, please, stop,” she says. “I don’t want you to strain yourself.”
“Mom, I’m fine,” he insists.
“Lawrence. I can’t have two broken kids at the same time.”
He relents, and walks up the stairs with one box.
“Thank you,” his mother said. “Sorry to use the guilt card.”
“There are photo albums down there, but that’s about it in terms of saving anything.”
His mother nods.
“God, I don’t even know what’s down there anymore.” She stands by the kitchen window and lights a cigarette. The wind blows the smoke back into the room anyway. “Well, then, I guess if we haven’t missed it, then we don’t need it. Let’s just toss it all.”
He says, “OK,” as his mother opens the door to the garage so he can dump the trash into the bin.
“Lemme get those paint masks so we don’t cough up a lung. We have some from when we did the bathroom.”
Lawrence and his mother, masked, haul the boxes—one at a time—up the stairs and past the kitchen and into the garage and down the trash. Lawrence finds their rhythm soothing. They say little things: “Careful.” “Here you go.” His mother’s eyes show that, despite the mess and the effort, she’s smiling under her mask. When they finish with the boxes, they stand in the kitchen and give each other a hearty handshake.
“Good job, soldier,” she says.
Alisha shuffles into the kitchen. They turn to her and say hello in unison. She freezes.
“What’s up, honey?” her mother says, approaching.
Alisha’s legs shake and a puddle of pee forms at her feet. She runs to her room. Her mother makes to run after her, but Lawrence stops her.
“What the fuck happened?” she says.
“It’s the masks,” he says. “We probably look like dentists.” He removes his mask. She takes off hers, too.
“It’s not your fault,” Lawrence says. They squeeze each other.
“Can you clean up the pee?” she says. “I’ll get Alisha. And I know the basement needs a good cleaning, too, but whatever’s rotting down there can keep rotting for a couple more days.”
* * *
The food’s almost gone, what Mr. Geoffries gave him and the little he bought. He’s decided to go without after it’s gone because somebody must have recognized him by now.
The sun is going down. Back there, he would be standing in line for meds. He would swallow it. They would check his mouth and let him go. He would throw up as soon as he got back to his cell. He saw things when he was on the meds. The floor was there, but he saw things and heard people and the doctors didn’t care as long as he was quiet and as long as he saw the floor.
The pills helped him sleep, though. They did do that.
He wants to sleep. But there’s only one bed he can do that in.
* * *
Dolores can just barely hear her daughter’s breath from the front seat. It comes out all torn. She’s speeding, grateful it’s early enough to miss morning traffic. “I know I don’t have an appointment. This is an emergency,” Dolores tries to explain to the receptionist, the one she just called yesterday to change Alisha’s appointment. “She couldn’t walk when she woke up this morning.”
“Then you should call 911,” the receptionist says, her voice calm, as if she’s demonstrating to Dolores the proper way to speak.
“I’m not waiting in the ER for hours and hours again,” she says. “I’m bringing her in now.” She presses the ‘end’ button and throws her ear bud on the passenger’s seat.
“How you doing, Alisha?” she asks, raising the pitch of her voice. “We’re almost there and we’re gonna get you all better.” Her daughter’s eyes open briefly and then fall like her lids are weighted down.
* * *
After his run, Lawrence returns to an empty house. A note on the fridge from his mother tells him to check his phone. A voicemail from his mother: “Where did you go at six in the morning? Oh, probably running, I don’t know why I didn’t think of that before. Whatever. I’m at the doctor’s office. I found Alisha on her floor this morning. She had to go to the bathroom, but she couldn’t walk.” There is a pause, shuffling, voices in the background. His mother’s voice squeaks through a tightened throat. “She was covered in piss.” A pause again, a phone ringing, beeping. When she speaks again, her voice is calmer, but also more hollow. “She’s got an IV.” Her voice steadies itself. “I don’t know if you should come. She hasn’t asked for you or anything. She’s pretty out of it. Just call me. I love you, bye.”
Lawrence cleans up the mess Alisha left behind and spends the rest of his day looking for things to put into order, watching the news, and falling asleep. He’s dozing in his room when the headlights from his mother’s car shine up to his window. They light up his bulletin board where the map of Darius’s sightings has been joined by newspaper clippings from most of the articles written about him and from online stories Lawrence found on nights he couldn’t sleep. Still half-dreaming, he gets out of bed to go downstairs to greet his mother and thinks that if he were in charge of the search, Darius would have been found by now. Alisha is walking again, carrying one of her dolls into her room. His mom kisses her on the forehead and says, “I’ll be in soon to tuck you in, sweet pea.”
Lawrence and his mom meet in the living room. He turns on the TV. “What happened?”
“They sent us to the hospital and they stuck her with an IV to hydrate her and sent us home,” she says, “But they’re only telling me what I want to hear. ‘She’ll be fine. She’ll be fine. She’ll be fine.’”
“Well, won’t she?”
“Lawrence, you have to eat to live.”
“But wouldn’t she, if she were really hungry?”
“It’s been ten days since she had solid food.”
Lawrence watches a commercial and keeps his thoughts to himself. She was kind of chubby. Shouldn’t that make a difference? He wonders if that’s what the doctors have been thinking. “A fat kid can’t starve herself to death in under a month. We’ve got time.”
His mom pats him on the thigh and asks, “What about you? Do you need dinner?”
“No, I ate.”
They watch a few prime-time sitcoms together, reflexively chuckling with the laugh tracks, even as Lawrence scrolls on his phone.
“Who are you texting?” Dolores asks.
“No one. I’m looking for news about Darius.”
“Is that one of your friends from school? I don’t remember that name,” she says.
“No,” Lawrence scoffs. “It’s that escaped convict.”
Dolores giggles. Lawrence hasn’t heard her real laugh in weeks. “So my dear son is just researching serial killers during the Thursday night lineup?”
Lawrence looks away from his phone for a moment so he can roll his eyes at his mother. “It’s interesting, Mom. And, like, it’s happening in real time which makes it even more exciting. Nothing exciting ever happens in Jackson.”
She turns her gaze back to the TV; the light from the screen emphasizes the lines around her mouth. “I think your dad might disagree.”
Lawrence refreshes the local newsfeed on his phone once more, and then sets it down on the coffee table. “Sorry. That’s not what I meant.”
“I know,” she says. “It’s just how you get.”
“What do you mean?”
Dolores shrugs and gestures at the air around her. “You get very intense and obsessed when you’re into something,” she says. “I showed you the Batman movie from the 80s, and I don’t think you watched anything else for an entire year. And that one summer when you read all those James Bond books. You get crazy. And a little oblivious.”
Lawrence leans his head back on the couch. He knows she’s right. Even now, his hands struggle to not reach out and grab his phone. “Sorry.”
She intertwines her fingers with his and kisses his hand. “No more apologizing tonight, OK?”
His mother’s eyes close before the news ends. Lawrence leaves her there with the TV on after they report the latest in the search for Darius: he hasn’t been sighted in the area in two days and the police are widening their net outside the county.
* * *
Darius travels, runs all night, waits for each light to go off, sneaks through the backyards of people who used to be neighbors, the ones who came out that morning—some with their brand new Christmas presents—and held their hands over their faces and cried and shook their heads. He sits on a strong branch of his next-door neighbor’s tree. It scrapes up against his bedroom window. He has sat on this branch before. Always deciding whether to go back in or not. Safer inside or out?
He can see a police car from the tree. It looks like a civilian car, but two figures have been inside the car all night, moving slowly, if at all, as if moving was too boring.
Each time there’s something solid—he’s lucky. He’s lucky when his feet find the ledge. He’s lucky that the window slides open. This window gets opened every now and again. He steps in, holds his breath so it won’t cloud his hearing. But there’s nothing to hear. No one gasping, “Who’s there?” He walks around with his hands held out in case anything’s been rearranged. It hasn’t. Pulls out a lighter. The small light shows him evidence of himself. Pictures of him on the wall over his bed, next to his desk. As a baby, a kid, a teenager starting to grow a mustache. With his mom, his Granny, his sister, his cousins, a couple faded ones with his dad. Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Christmas cards he made, decorated with pipe cleaners and glitter and uncooked macaroni.
There is a tiny newspaper clipping from when he was 11, at the end of fifth grade, the June before his father moved out. He was among a small group of students from his school who were going into middle school with perfect grade school attendance. Five of them stood in front of their teachers, the principal and their parents, grinning, and holding up their certificates.
Darius is tired, probably more tired than he’s ever been. He lies down in his old, solid bed. Sheets smell like laundry. He falls asleep.
* * *
Dolores wakes to the sound of a car commercial. She searches for the remote and turns off the TV. For the next few minutes, she lies awake in the dark, feeling like she could float away and no one would see her go. She turns the TV on, mutes the sound, and watches the early morning anchors mouth headlines and send it over to the weathermen, the traffic reporters who are there to warn you about what’s waiting outside
She closes her eyes, thinking, “I’ve gotta get up and check on Alisha soon,” but she sinks into slumber again instead.
* * *
It’s not even dawn when Lawrence wakes up, knowing he’s not going to get back to sleep.
He’s extra quiet when he goes downstairs, but stops in front of the TV. BREAKING NEWS. TV helicopters show a bird’s view of the bad part of town. A bunch of cop cars, police officers outside the cars, and ambulances surround a rectangular house. The crawl below the action is talking about weather. Then a graphic flashes—Darius Ferguson thought to be in his mother’s home—Franklin Street and Dey Street—LIVE. Lawrence whispers, “Shit,” but it wakes up his mother.
“What’s wrong?” she gasps.
“Darius is at his house.”
“The escaped convict.”
She closes her eyes, still dreaming a little, “That’s good, it means he wants to turn himself in.”
He turns up the volume.
“Can you please check on your sister?”
“Mom, this is happening now. It’s unedited. You have to let me watch this.”
Dolores sighs and gets up herself.
Lawrence’s heart beats like he’s been running, but the people on the news repeat the same thing for those in the viewing audience who have just tuned in, and because nothing’s changing yet. He hears his mother peeing in the bathroom. More of the same on the news. Alisha’s door opens and his mom says his sister’s name, bright like sunshine. Then again a few breaths later, and again, louder and more high-pitched, again and again, until it’s his name on her lips, ripping from her throat. “Call an ambulance!”
Her voice slices through the chains binding him to the breaking story. He snatches the phone from its cradle. His bladder is unbearably full all of a sudden and he has to rush to the toilet so he doesn’t piss himself. His voice echoes in the bathroom as he answers the 911 operator’s questions. She asks some of the questions loudly, with force, as if she’s repeating herself because he’s not listening. When he’s off the phone, he goes back to Alisha’s room, but his mother is pounding on Alisha’s chest, crying, screaming with snot running out of her nose, and he can’t take it. He waits in the living room, clutching the back of the couch. On the TV, the cops look like they’re getting bored, walky-talky-ing, touching guns, licking their lips, yawning. Lawrence hears sirens, and realizes they’re coming toward his house, not from the TV. He watches the EMTs carry their equipment into his sister’s room, and then sprints from his house.
Lawrence runs past the party store, helicopters flying overhead, recording the action he’s heading toward. TV vans pass him by on the street. A blockade of police and neighbors out in their rollers and mismatched pajamas prevents Lawrence from getting closer. He backs up and tries for a side street. There are people here who don’t want to get too close, listening on their front steps to the radio telling them what’s happening yards away. Lawrence thinks he’s going to be able to duck onto Dey, but at the last moment, he sees two police officers blocking the way to the view.
Lawrence goes back to join the people watching closer. From behind him, he hears, “Hey!” He keeps running. “Hey!” He slows down and turns around, running backwards. The two officers run at him with their guns drawn and scream, “Hands in the air, hands in the air.” Lawrence slows down, still moving, and holds his hands up. He bumps into a parked car, losing his footing. The cops explode toward him, slam his back against the car, then whip him around and shove his chest down. Lawrence’s head bounces on the hood. The world around him moves like it’s made of liquid. He hears one of the cops talking into his radio: “We’ve got him!”
* * *
With Mama now. Heavenly Father. Jesus Christ. Shadow of death. He stands near the front door. Just a few more minutes of solid ground. It feels so good under his feet. His mother turns on the TV:
Cops. Cameras. Ambulances. How many people are going to get hurt? The floor feels softer now. It could betray him.
He wishes they would let him stay here. He would promise to stay in his room. He would never come out.
TV again. Something is changing. Packs of police yell and run away from his house. Cameras follow. Maybe his wish has come true.
* * *
The ambulance left silently. Something about Alisha’s kidneys, probably.
The TV is too loud. Breaking news is too loud. She turns off the volume. There seems to be some confusion with the officers or with the cameras. They keep going back and forth from the house to another street in the same neighborhood where a blur of a Black boy is being released from handcuffs. He’s stumbling and the officers have to help him walk. Before she turns off the TV, it switches back to the house. Darius Ferguson opens the door.
* * *
Darius steps onto his front porch. A few cameramen who look surprised to see him.
“Holy shit,” one of them says. “We’re gonna scoop the police.”
A lens reflects the sun behind Darius’s head. He blinks. Comes into focus. Are you turning yourself in? Do you know why the police fled your home? Why did you escape? Has your mother forgiven you?
He walks. The floorboards on the porch creak. The cameras back up, make room for him. Police are approaching, guns drawn, trying to get past the cameras. Darius moves toward them, misses a step. Falls backwards.
You never know. Will the floor be there to meet you, to crack open your skull so all your blood can run from your body? Or will the Earth finally fall out from underneath you? You never know. You could fall and keep falling through the porch, through the ground, through the sewage, through the center of the Earth and all the way out the other side and into the rest of the universe.