Feeling alone in a room full of people, even with her best friend by her side was a new one for Amari. When she’d had to travel by herself for work, it wasn’t fine per say, but doable. Half a year in a depressing hellhole where the only person she knew treated her like a burden left Amari preferring her own company. She knew how to exist on her own.
Long stretches of Malik being the only person she spoke to for longer than it took to get takeout left her out of practice. She stopped hearing Ricky’s band, couldn’t describe what they had been playing. No one was looking at her, either focused on their drinks or the music. But she couldn’t shake the feeling she was doing everything all wrong. She knew she wasn’t because there was nothing to do wrong; how could you mess up standing and listening to music? But if anyone could bungle such a simple task, Amari knew she could. The only option now was to try and save face at the first break in the set.
“Watch my drink,” she passed her glass to Malik, ignoring the “Where you going?” that followed, and went down the stairs as quickly as her ankle would allow.
Amari took the long way around the pier, the one with a view of the pitch black horizon, only broken up by buoys and the occasional boat. She sat on one of the concrete picnic tables, a chill making its way through her pants.
This “being a person”—she wasn’t ready for it. She just wasn’t. Maybe she could go back to–
“I thought that was you in there.”
Khadijah. Why her, why now?
Malik knew how to deal with this: they’d meet back at the car. Amari would sleep it off while Malik crashed on the couch and then made her breakfast the next morning. Maybe they’d talk, maybe not.
On her own, Amari was lost.
“…is now not a good time?”
“No.” She’d done it again, slipped back into the one-word answers, the ones that kept people at bay whether she meant for them to or not. But she had to speak for herself; no one else would.
“Here then,” Khadijah held out a single-use hand warmer. Amari kept at least two on her most days, as she often couldn’t sleep without holding on to one when she was in Tamaki and had never dropped the habit. Except for today. And her hands were already ice cold.
Amari ripped off the plastic and waited for it to heat up. If her hands weren’t cold, maybe she would feel just a smidgen less miserable.
Khadijah sat on the table, several inches away but still close enough that Amari couldn’t feel alone.
“I lived in another town by the ocean for a while,” she said, just loud enough to hear over the waves.
“Don’t even know if there were places like this…I was cooped up in what passed for a city almost the entire time. The one time I did go by the water, it was beautiful. Clean sand; even the jagged rocks looked nicer, like even the water wanted them to look good. You could see another island off in the distance. Real picturesque.
“It was missing something though. There were people there, and I was there with somebody, but it was still…empty.”
Amari squeezed the hand warmer, waiting for Khadijah to finish speaking. She didn’t know where this was going.
“There was no…life,” she finished. “At least, not one that would make me happy. Not one worth living. You look like…you know how that feel.”
Amari didn’t know how to respond, mostly because she was right. What parts of her were even left at this point? Which ones and how much, she couldn’t say.
But the least she could do was pull herself together in front of Khadijah as thanks for giving her something outside of herself to think about, something she almost felt she could reach out and touch.
“Somebody looking for you,” she said, pointing towards the figure moving slowly up the pier. “I’mma head out; you get home safe.”
She left so abruptly Amari couldn’t get out any thanks.
Her gaze was fixed on Khadijah and she didn’t even flip Malik off when it finally registered what she said.
“I ain’t seen you with nobody in…” Malik let out a half laugh, “a few years, at least.”
“That’s not just anybody; that’s my new editor.”
“And you didn’t run her off for hitting you up outside work?”
“Don’t give me none of that one word bullshit,” came Malik’s response, a sudden edge to his voice. Amari knew that edge; Malik had missed his chance in the elevator but he wasn’t going to let another slip by.
Amari sighed and shook her head.
“I don’t know. That’s why I stay my ass in the house.”
“I’m ‘bout to take my ass back in the house.”
How much longer Amari had before Malik stopped letting her off the hook, she couldn’t say. They were back at Amari’s apartment, their outer clothes changed. Something was playing on the living room TV and though she was looking right at it, Amari couldn’t say what.
“You know Ricky noticed you left. The bar ain’t that big.”
She glanced at the clock; not quite two in the morning. Two hours was all Malik was giving up this evening.
“I know. What’d you tell him?”
“We got dinner and something didn’t agree with you.”
A realistic lie if nothing else, but Malik shouldn’t have had to.
“Mari, what happened while you were gone?”
“Nah, you about to tell me something. You been messed up since you got back and you wasn’t even gone that long. Why?”
Amari let her head fall against the back of the couch and she stared up at the ceiling. What was she supposed to say?
“Would you believe me if I said I don’t know?” she tried.
So she sat, wracking her brain for something she could say, something that wouldn’t give away how bad it had gotten. Difficult, given that after a while she just wanted to sleep until it was time to board the plane home and that point had come far sooner than she expected. But one of the few episodes that didn’t make her ill to think about came to mind.
“’member my birthday?” Amari started, aware of the light waver to her voice. Malik noticed it too and his response was far more gentle.
“I had a test that morning. It wasn’t hard just…pointless. Didn’t help me get better at anything. And then I had cramps. Not bad enough for painkillers, just uncomfortable. Shit way to start the day. And it got worse when–” Amari caught herself. No names. Names meant you knew someone and she hadn’t actually known them the entire time she knew them. She certainly didn’t years after the fact.
“They baked me this cake. Vanilla, even though they knew I like chocolate more. It was dry, flavorless, and had this nasty ass frosting just tasted like salted butter with some sugar in it. Couldn’t spend any time with me but they left me with that.”
She laughed, a short, acerbic, and ugly sound that she usually tried to hold at bay. But sometimes, it slipped out.
“That’s what every day felt like after a while. My birthday.”
Sound from the TV seemed to engulf the room while she waited for Malik to say something.
“Why you didn’t tell me what was wrong when I asked?”
Amari thought back to the video calls, where she kept everything brief since she could only play at being a person in short bursts but Malik always knew. He didn’t push, but he knew.
“Because you couldn’t know. Not back then.”
“I don’t have to be ‘fine’ all the time.”
Sleep refused to find Amari. Three, four, five in the morning all passed. She didn’t dream but every time she opened her eyes, for a moment she wasn’t sure where she was. Who she was, where she has, who was on the other side of her L-shaped couch all came to her quickly though. She was Amari, she was at home, Malik was on the couch.
She didn’t try to go back to sleep that last time, though it was because she felt sick. Heat had enveloped herand taking off all her clothes sans her boxers and bra didn’t seem to help. She lay on her side, holding her stomach; that was where the heat seemed to be centered and she just wanted it to stop. Pain soon followed, at which point Amari knew she had to get to the bathroom. She banged her ankle against the coffee table as she struggled to get on her feet. Then there were hands on her.
When the feverish haze cleared Amari was hunched over the toilet, face to face with a bowl stained by red dye number 40 that still vaguely smelled of fruit punch and acidic bile, her throat burning, not sure how her got there. Her glasses were neatly folded on the counter and her braids tied back, not one loose.
“Is that all of it?” Malik. Shit.
“I think–” the second she tried to push herself up, her stomach seized and the last of the nothing that was in there forced its way out. How long she sat there spitting up bile and saliva, she didn’t know. When her breaths evened, Malik spoke.
“Here,” Malik passed her two glasses, one of warm water and the other of mouthwash and she rinsed her mouth out with them both. Then came a cold towel that she dragged down her face a few times.
“I’m fine, Malik,” she cut her friend off, knowing she had to keep this from going any further. Not tonight, at least.
“…I thought you didn’t have to always be ‘fine’.”
Amari let out a hoarse laugh, rubbing at her throat afterwards.
“Well this time I am. For real. This ain’t nothing new.”
She pretended not to see the anger flit across Malik’s face.
“Go back to bed. I’ll be fine.”
The only person Amari could lie to reliably was herself. But sometimes, she couldn’t even manage that.
Amari knew there was no way to avoid looking haggard before her tutoring session with McKayla Maynard and she was dreading it. The actual tutoring would be fine. She’d go over some essays, comment on them, and give McKayla a chance to start on revisions before directing her through the rest.
Sometimes that meant half an hour or more wherein one of the Maynards would drag a conversation out of her. But worse than the talking, they noticed everything. All of them, and she could never decide who was the worst.
It wasn’t McKayla, who regarded her with the same trepidation all teenagers seemed to regard adults with, especially the ones just old enough to no longer ‘get it’. She was nearly fourteen, her birthday falling in late December. The novelty of being the oldest in her class had worn off after a few days and she was ready for something new.
“Is high school any better?” she’d asked the last time they met.
“Hm…” Amari had paused to cross a few words out of the essay she was marking while she thought. “I’ve done worse things,” she settled on saying.
“But you gotta go to the DMV and file taxes. Most of what you do is prolly worse.”
“You not wrong,” she agreed, “but it won’t be that bad. Your mom told me where she tryna send you. I’d have loved to go somewhere like that.”
“Are the people gon’ be weird…?”
“You about to be what, fourteen? Most people you meet gon’ be weird. But don’t let that stop you from talking to folks.” Sound advice and when Amari had said it, it sounded believable, like she was speaking from experience and not like she wanted to tell the girl to spend months vetting people before even sharing phone numbers.
There was also Mrs. Maynard and the way she wouldn’t rush McKayla’s friends out when Amari arrived. Though Mrs. Maynard had given up trying to feed her, she would pull Amari aside to take in a shirt or jacket before she set about working, never prying, just knowing. All older people just seemed to take one look at her and know. And it was even worse when Mrs. Maynard would call her over to the sewing table to put the finishing touches on a fitting. Tailors were easy; they didn’t know her, didn’t send her greeting cards she had to figure out how to respond to in kind, didn’t force her to reconcile the fact that people she met might actually grow to care about her.
But no, Mr. Maynard unnerved her the most. Amari hated being alone with him. Not because he was particularly intimidating or stony faced or mean. But much like his wife, he just…knew.
How the questioning would play out today, Amari didn’t know. She’d given McKayla forty-five minutes to dig up some existential suffering she’d experienced in her brief time alive to prove how interesting she was to her prospective high school. Meanwhile, Amari sat at the kitchen table making a few minute edits to her book. And it was when she’d nearly banged her head on the table in frustration that Richard Maynard finally made his presence known. The hell could a man that big be so quiet?
“You alright, honey? Because I have–”
“No, no. I’m fine,” she said quietly, not wanting to disturb McKayla. She rubbed at her eyes though it wouldn’t help. Nothing but two straight days of sleep would be enough to help her bounce back from last night but she still had to do rewrites and meet Khadijah again and–
“Is it a boy?” Mr. Maynard asked.
“Huh? No sir. It was just the kind of night a shower couldn’t wash off.” A shower may have gotten rid of the sweat but it hadn’t changed the fact that she still had to talk to Malik. Didn’t do anything about the book she had to fix either. She wasn’t musty though. There was that at least.
“You gotta be careful with those,” Mr. Maynard said. “Catch too many nights like that and you’ll never be clean. But…you already feel that way, don’t you?”
Amari wanted to bolt, would have had McKayla not come from the living room.
“Daddy, leave her alone. I’m done.” She slid over a few sheets of paper, and Amari had to concentrate on keeping her hands still as she picked them up. She wondered when she’d regained the ability to decipher the barely legible penmanship of school-aged children; at least something had changed for the better.
“How’d it go?” Amari asked, her voice as steady as she could keep it with Mr. Maynard still at the table. He was thumbing through a ledger of some sort, not at all concerned with the way he’d left Amari feeling exposed.
She looked at the sheets. Every other word was crossed out and there were several short paragraphs on each page, none of which had any connection to each other. Still brainstorming it seemed.
Looks like my story drafts. That was something she could work with.