Chapter 2

After only half a year in Tamaki, Amari had grown sick of rain. It once inspired hope the wildfires wouldn’t burn out of control and rain down ash over half of California, hope the drought that had been on her entire life would finally end. If nothing else, rain broke up the monotony of months on end of “okay” and “too hot”. It was different. Fun, even. Social media feeds were alight with videos, as though water falling from the sky was brand new, and exaggerated elation, as though everyone was seeing it for the first time when really only a year had passed since the last storm. During the few days the sky threatened to burst open, most often just enough water came down to cause chaos on the roads, maybe catch a few people off guard and clear up by afternoon.

     Not so today; Amari could smell rain underneath the smog and smoke and piss of downtown, and it finally let loose when she was only a few blocks from home. Wind picked up the moment she reached Olive and at that point Amari just closed her umbrella and pushed on up the hill, jogging home.

     Amari knew she should have taken off her wet clothes right away but instead, she sat behind the front door, trying to catch her breath and figure out how long she could stay indoors. Nobody in Los Angeles knew how to drive and rain made it worse so she was going to stay in if she could. Granted, that wouldn’t be much different from usual. If it wasn’t groceries or the bank, what did Amari go out for anymore?

     She ignored the blinking answering machine, turned on the heat, and went to the bathroom, wishing she hadn’t gone out in so many layers. Most of her clothes were off before she plopped down on the toilet. Her ankle throbbed; of course the first time in months she needed the brace was the day she had to run home. The sound of Velcro coming undone echoed in the room as she pulled off the brace and flexed her left ankle. She’d need to take it easy for a few days.

     Amari finished stripping and turned on the shower, shifting her weight while she waited for steam to fill the room. She didn’t turn on any music; it was only three in the afternoon but she just wanted a quick shower to warm up and then sleep.

     What was left to do…bills were paid, she’d met with Khadijah. Her last tutoring session before winter break was in a few days. When she could stand to stare at a screen, she’d see if there was anything else she was missing.

     She took her time getting out of the shower, still careful of her ankle though it did feel a bit better. Shaving could wait but she did grease her hair, the only bit of vanity she still held on to.

     The house was warm by the time she left the bathroom, her damp clothes under her arm. She spread them on the drying rack in her room before laying across the bed in only a towel and pulling up a blanket.

    How many more days would pass this way? Amari didn’t know. Maybe they’d never end.

Being startled awake was among Amari’s least favorite ways to be woken up. Not five seconds later a flash of lightning turned her black curtains dark gray, and she braced herself for more thunder, soon confirming the noise was what had woken her. She stood and stretched, glancing at the window where the trees outside were whipping in the wind and branches slapping against the glass.

     Fear she couldn’t quite place was a common occurrence and trying to assuage it never worked. Dark curtains might prevent eerie silhouettes from being cast on the windows, but not the scraping noises that made her second-guess herself.

     Her hands shook while she looked through the dresser for underwear, thinking, “I know that’s a tree, not a person,” much in the same way she once thought, “I’m just over thinking it.” Except she hadn’t been over thinking back then and if she’d just—

     Enough, she scolded herself. Just..enough.

     After draping a towel on her head to catch the last of the dampness, she turned on the TV and the PlayStation. As usual, her slew of cousins were on some form of football or basketball game and she was glad she signed on invisibly by default. The jeering and heckling and countering racial slurs that she would be expected to partake in during online matches just wasn’t appealing at the moment.

     One of those ancient fighting games, that kind that had been ported to everything they could run on? That caught her attention. Those sorts of games never changed. Always made sense. Provided a few minutes of clarity when barring a few hours, most of her days blurred together.

     But…was this really it? Going out, looking like she had it together, sometimes not even remembering how she got from place to place, then coming home and seeking distraction after distraction? And it seemed after only an hour, she needed a new one. She shook her hands and flexed them, ineffective against the way her fingers were already beginning to stiffen.

     Bad ankle, weak hands…sooner or later, she would be alone with her own thoughts and no reprieve.

     She set the controller aside after turning on a movie and cracked open her laptop, and started going through emails. She would respond when she could manage typing but a bit of tapping could work for the moment.

     Nothing interesting. A few essay drafts from her tutoring clients, a lengthy note from Mrs. Maynard about McKayla’s upcoming…high school entrance exams? Where was she sending the poor girl? That email was marked unread and she kept scrolling. Maybe later she’d write to people she’d been putting off, mostly other writers and old classmates she always meant to hit up, but when she typed the letter “H”, the drop down menu of suggestions came up. Before Reeve Hastings, who she’d been meaning to talk to for several months, was them. After closing the tab, she slammed the laptop closed and tried to breathe. Later she could go clean her contacts, steel herself for that brief brush with a line of direct contact. Until then, she set the computer aside and curled up on the bed.

     It’s that kind of day, huh?  

     She was too old for this, too old for a mere phantom to be causing this much distress.

     Yet here I am, alone in the rain. Just like back then.

Hail pounded against the windows and roof for most of the night and Amari was awake through it all. There hadn’t been a storm like this since she was in elementary school. She lived in a house then, at least a century old yet there’d never been one leak. Her mother’s father (whom she’d never met) had fixed the roof not long after buying the house. The storm took place some ten years after he’d passed, longer still since he actually patched the leaky roof, and his work needed no changes or altering. Amari had yet to craft anything that solid, not with her hands nor her words.

     She was eight or nine that winter but she hadn’t been scared, at least not once she’d hugged her mom when she finally got in from work, not even giving her a chance to set down her umbrella. Then Amari could take turns kneeling on the couch with whichever cousin had been staying with them at the time, staring out at the storm and catching the occasional flash of lightning. Her mom and aunt took turns standing on the porch, watching the palm tree in the front yard sway back and forth, leaning far more than it usually did.

     It wasn’t one of the pencil thin ones that covered the beaches and would go almost parallel to the ground in high winds, but rather an astonishingly stout tree that almost brushed the power lines. In the summer months, it provided much needed shade. In winter, it loomed over the house, swaying, but always begging the question of where it could fall. Out into the street, like the one it had spawned from had done years before? Take out a power line, or even cause a fire? Or-

     “It’s not gon’ fall on the house, is it?” her mom and aunt asked each other in hushed whispers, as far away from the children as they could get in a house that small.

     At just over nine hundred square feet and only two bedrooms, it was tiny, often overcrowded with family that was dealing with something or another. She liked it though, drafty autumn days, hot summer nights, and precarious palm tree aside. Said tree survived the storm, though not long after it was finally cut down, and Amari had to admit, she rested easier afterwards.

     It took months for all the ice that fell that evening to melt, and sometimes Amari would dig in the brush underneath the clothesline to see how much was left until one day, there was none, not even mud.

More than a day of not having to deal with people face to face and Amari forgot it all, how not to come off…strange. But then again, maybe she always came off that way and no one had the decency to tell her.

Amari knew better than to sit around in silence and try to figure out why they never told her about any problems until it was too late. She reached around for the game controller and pressed buttons until she heard a beep and the TV cut back on. She put in the lock code (why did she still have one on when he lived alone?) and nearly threw the controller when she realized what she’d done. Again.

     She took her time putting in the code again, making sure to put in her birthday, all while ignoring her stomach growling.

    At some point, Amari knew she would have to eat something, mostly since she couldn’t remember the last time she had. These days it didn’t much matter if she did or didn’t. No one was around to comment on her lack of appetite like they had and she didn’t feel particularly compelled to fix it.

     There was no good reason to avoid kitchens anymore. She was out of that hellish flat, where eventually she was glad she never shook her habit of drinking unfiltered tap water. Just like at the house she’d grown up in, where she often eschewed going back in the house for water on summer days, she would make use of the tap in the laundry room behind the flat to fill her water bottles. The water tasted okay enough, not as good as what she’d grown up with, but the most important thing was how far away from the kitchen it was.

     Everyone seemed to congregate there and she didn’t want to make small talk or regale her local classmates with faux shock and surprise at the professors they all knew to avoid while she was trying to make lunch, but she didn’t like being rude. So, she just quit going in there altogether. If Amari had to be miserable, she didn’t want to hear all the tipsy whooping and hollering from people who weren’t. Or, if they were, they could fake it better than she could and that made her sick.

     Most things did back then, and if she thought about them for too long, they still did. Like now.

Sometimes, when Amari felt more like a person and less like a ghastly impersonator, she thought about the sorts of kisses she would have liked to experience. Maybe they’d be sitting on a rock on the Malibu coast, just far enough from the water that the spray barely reached their shoes, watching the sunrise. Or they’d be just inside the door to her apartment, sorting out how far things would go before clothes started coming off, breathless. But just as often as she dreamed of the kisses that would leave her light-headed in a good way, she dreamed of teeth and tongue, and sore lips and slobber.

     Her flat was barely half the size of her room at home but she expected nothing more from a dorm. It was there, however, that she found herself alone with them. The meetings (she couldn’t describe them as “hanging out”; that required fully having enjoyed herself) were…strange. Not one foot away yet she couldn’t tell if they even wanted to be there. Then one day, not long after they’d first kissed, she found her back pinned to the wall, their weight holding her in place.

     Neither of them were quite sure what to do with their limbs, but she supposed it was just a part of how kissing went until you knew what you were doing. Her mind often wandered and that she knew for sure wasn’t quite right. There hadn’t been time to think about it though, because not a minute after she tried to lead with gentle touches, tongue was being forced into her mouth.

     It was rough and unpleasant but Amari didn’t know how to simply ask what the hell they were doing. Then the teeth joined in and she regretted ever asking to kiss them that first time. With saliva slightly dripping from the corner of her mouth (…whose was it?) she wondered exactly what she was supposed to be getting out of the experience. But she was certain she wasn’t supposed to feel so…used in a way she hadn’t been before or since. Why had she let herself be…used? What had she gained beyond a check mark or two on her mental checklist of “firsts”, where all she wanted to do now was uncheck them? Nothing, as far as she could tell.

     Amari lay in bed a while longer, taking deep breaths until the nausea subsided enough that she could go to the kitchen. She walked out with a cola and half a roll of Oreos. For whatever reason, she could keep those down and since she didn’t have to go out for a while, she didn’t have to force down anything more substantial. What luck.

     A different window caught her attention, the one in the hallway. The building’s exterior lights were on and water rattled the roof drains, one of which was just outside. If it was too dark for the hour, she couldn’t say; to know something like that, she’d have to know what time it was. An alarm was set to go off when it was time to go back outside; right now she didn’t need to know boring shit like the current hour. Even still, she tried not to linger too long, but not before she caught sight of her reflection in the window and let out an ugly laugh.

     Twenty six, alone, Oreo crumbs around her mouth, and absolutely no timeline for getting out of this particular rut.

     Is there any way out of it at all, she wondered.

     Amari wiped her mouth with the tail of her shirt. She hated how loose all her clothes had gotten; she couldn’t keep any weight on and everyday was glad she’d moved across town a few times. She didn’t want to run into anyone who’d tell her they’d never realized how fine she was back in school because of course they hadn’t realized. They wouldn’t be interested in knowing no, she hadn’t taken up a sport or lost the last of her baby fat.

No, they wouldn’t want to hear the truth. They never did.