Authors: Keisha Orphey
“A drug charge ain’t no joke, man,” Dolores added.
“But, ninety-nine years?” Cassandra asked. “You’d think she killed somebody.”
“I been in and out’a this damn system since I was a kid, yo. Them crackers believe that your intent is to kill everybody. Drug charges carry a longer prison sentence than murder, ya dig? I know that shit for a fact. My lil’ brother is serving twenty years in Huntsville right now for killing his girlfriend and my uncle is in Angola for distribution and he got life. If they find your ass guilty of that drug charge, you can kiss all you know goodbye, chica. You ain’t never going home.”
Dawn and Philip were starting to hate one another.
The turmoil was thriving between them like a raging beast with razor sharp teeth. Fierce as a saber tooth tiger. Its foul breath emanated in their marriage like a demon. Its glowering eyes sought Dawn out in the darkest of night, eager to pounce and tear her to shreds with those powerful jaws of steel. No matter how minor the argument may have been, she kept her thoughts to herself, refraining from fueling the blaze, remained prayerful the monster would spare her, and that its hunger would quench another instead.
But Philip remained eager to nourish it. And she was the main course. He added fury to the fires that burned between them, raising his voice, even when she asked a simple question – obviously he didn't care to discuss her woes. Leave, may would say. But where would she go? She'd been running all of her life. Besides, their three young children depended on them. Together. Until death do us part, they'd promised.
But she already felt dead.
Dawn met Philip fifteen years ago when he was eighteen and a freshman at the local university in her hometown. He was instantly attracted to her good looks, long hair and shapely body, but most of all, her determination to succeed despite the obstacles she’d overcome. She was a very popular girl in the college town, but not many made her look twice including Philip. He was just another guy eager to find his way between her legs. But little did he know, she was still a virgin and would be until she was nineteen.
Dawn and Philip lost contact for years. It was Friday, November 29, 1997 (Bayou Classic weekend) in New Orleans, Louisiana. Southern University beat Grambling State University for a fifth consecutive year in the annual college football game. On Bourbon Street, Dawn and Philip crossed paths again and exchanged numbers. Two years later, Dawn was pregnant with their oldest son Christopher when they married. His roofing business was booming. Life couldn't be better. Eighteen months later, they welcomed their second son Mason and their baby girl Sierra two years later.
Lying on her back with her arms behind her head, Dawn stared at the ceiling watching shadowy headlights refract off the smooth white surface like prancing wraiths in the darkness. The two-inch wood slat blinds projected their own grim shadows – the reflection stretched the length of the room like cell bars taking her back ten years when she felt her life was no longer worth living.
And tonight, she felt jolted back in time to that awful place. To the pit of despair and loneliness, night after night in a cramp 6x8 metal cell with its steel toilet corroded with algae. She thought about Ruthie and wondered if she was still locked up in that same cell. No, she’s probably been in and out ten times since they shared Cellblock D. Hell, she was probably dead. Propositioned the wrong narc for crack and he’d shoved a gun in her face. Blew her brains out in broad day light. Time to clean the streets, he’d said. Another drug head’s death unnoticed. Unpunished. Just another black woman removed from the system.
Philip grunted in his sleep as he flipped onto his side turning his back to Dawn. She knew he wanted out of their marriage as much as she did, but with three young children counting on them, they were bound to one another for at least another decade. Furthermore, finances were tight. Dawn worked late nights at the world-renowned Ritz All-Suite Hotel & Casino and Philip’s work as a roofing contractor grew farther apart and few between due to increasing foreclosures in the Las Vegas area. Looking for creative ways to increase profits, lenders discovered the more liberal they were about whom they approved for a mortgage, the more people bought homes -- including high-risk buyers at the same terms reserved to creditworthy borrowers.
Do you remember when you told me I was the answer to your prayers? He’d asked.
And she did remember, but she also remembered when he’d said she was nothing without him. Nothing. Zilch. Zero. He had said it often. Every time they argued. So much, she started feeling as if she
nothing and all she wanted to do was stay away from him. He wasn’t the same positive, uplifting person she married just five years ago and neither was she. They’d changed. Their desire for one another had withered away and died. The love they’d once shared mutated to resentment and umbrage.
It was Christmas Day when Dawn first realized her marriage was in trouble and that her husband’s family truly cared nothing for her. Christmas is supposed to be a time of laughter, family gatherings, friendly reunions, eating a variety of foods prepared by family members who’d spent all night cooking while wrapping gifts and drinking eggnog, but most of all … love.
That’s what God is, right? Love?
Then why wasn’t she feeling loved? Had God found her not worthy? Had Philip broken her so much and found reason-after-reason not to involve her in family gatherings that she’d grown to feel unwanted? By everyone? Not that she had anything to laugh about with his family anyway. It was pretty damn obvious his family didn’t approve of their marriage. They’d simply dealt with his decision. And with every pregnancy, their attitude grew colder. More distant.
, he’d said. Wasn’t
his family? Her and the kids? Hadn’t his church-going mother taught him the word of the Bible? That man is supposed to leave his parents, cleave to his wife, and be head of his own household?
That’s when she thought of her mother.
She’d never forget the tears that poured from her mother’s eyes, as Dawn (only three-years old then) and her older brother Xavier fled their paternal grandmother’s house.
A barrage of scarring words was exchanged between grandma, her mother, and her father’s sisters (her father’s sisters had taken grandma’s side, of course. That much Dawn remembered). She wished she could travel back in time and console her mother as she, herself, now needed consoling.
Dawn dreaded the summer as a child. For as long as she could remember, her father would bring her and Xavier to their grandparents in the country. The same home Edward Miles grew up in with his parents and four siblings. Sylvia avoided the trip. The house was hot; just a window unit blew room temperature air in the kitchen. The property was situated on about five acres of land with dozens of heads of cattle and horses, but the animals were off limits. An electric fence ran the length of the lot like a decorative fixture. The shock felt like a bee sting, but nothing in comparison to the pain she experienced at the hands of her cousins.
Frank and Oscar lived about an eighth of a mile down the uneven road from their grandparents with their parents and three siblings. The yard of the shabby wood-frame home was littered with broken lawn mowers, but Xavier much preferred spending time there than at his grandparents. At least they had air conditioning. Dawn wondered now if Xavier remembered Frank and Oscar’s disgusting behavior. Or did he even know they’d take turns pulling her into the dim lit bathroom to show her their erect penises. Where was Xavier when this was happening? Had Frank and Oscar found reason to send Xavier out of the house while they took his five-year old sister in the bathroom? Where was
sister Tabitha? Dawn remembered how much Tabitha enjoyed eating raw margarine and how Frank and Oscar fondled her on a riding lawn mower.
What had become of the life she dreamed of as a child? She felt raped by her own family. And the man lying beside her now felt like a stranger. An intruder in her bed. Maybe they’d never known one another. Two people swept in a moment of possible forever. A forever not even his family approved of.
The house was quiet. The kids were asleep. For a moment longer, she lay in the darkness. Even the street lay silent. She barely remembered crawling in bed; it must have been around seven that evening after dinner and time with the kids. She remembered Christopher’s detailed account of his love of archery and how one day he hoped to be a sniper in the military. I’m gonna shoot those bad men right in the head and save our country! He’d said. And I’m gonna run’em over with big tanks! Mason had added in his adorable three-year old voice, falling onto his brother’s back playfully. She’d read
Cat in the Hat
to Sierra on the sofa, as the one-year old fell asleep in her arms.
This was the part of her life she’d loved. Cherished. Treasured.
Dawn smiled and turned on her side facing Philip’s back. The wall between them. What happened to us? She thought, extending her hand to caress his warm skin. He shifted and mumbled inaudibly, as if disgruntled. As if her touch disgusted him, even in slumber.
“Hey,” she whispered and gave his shoulder a tug.
Philip flipped over and wrapped her snug in his embrace. But she knew it was only natural for a husband to want his wife near, the sexual needs of a man’s body for a woman’s. Or just maybe, it was his way of expressing the love he still had for her; a woman who’d meant the world to him. She’d missed him too and allowed him to cherish those memories.
Dawn burrowed herself into that embrace, reclaiming her place as his wife, his lover, and his best friend. Fuck his family. This was
marriage. How complete she felt, how safe and loved. From the smell of fresh linen body wash to the whiff of Philip’s late-night breath, it was where she belonged.
Philip pressed his lips to her cheek, then against hers in a kiss so passionate it rekindled desire she hadn’t felt in years. Her response was instinctive and filled with desire. His fingers traced the length of her arm and before she knew it, he’d stripped away the little clothing she wore and cupped her naked breast in his mouth.
She caressed his bare chest and stroked her way to his boxers, slipping them off, then pulled him on top of her.
“I miss you,” she mumbled beneath him.
“I miss you, too,” he panted, easing himself into her, deep as he could, then he kissed her, passionately, like a starved man and her mouth was nourishing and satisfying
They moaned with ecstasy as his pelvis thrusted, soaking in every bit of her from the inside-out, taking them to the height of forgiveness. Their bodies rocked harmoniously, sweaty and passionate to a vociferous orgasm.
Bittersweet fatigue consumed them.
But in her heart, she knew it would take more than great sex to make them whole again.
She needed more. She wanted things to be the way they used to be. She yearned for the way they used to laugh together, the way he used to look at her, smile at her, touch her, and tell her how beautiful she was to him. But she didn’t feel beautiful anymore. Was it because she bore three children? Had the excess weight caused her to look different? Unattractive? Of course, she thought. Out with the old and in with the new. She was old news. A has been. And Philip never made her feel any better about herself.
She heard footsteps pattering across the loft, then one set shuffled into the bathroom and another down the steps. Faintly they heard the toilet flush and a kitchen cabinet open and close. Porcelain dishes tinkered. The boys were fixing bowls of cereal.
Dawn sat up in bed and reached for her clothes. "Are you hungry? I can put a pizza in the oven or some hot wings and fries." Philip didn't respond. She looked over her shoulder. He'd fallen sound asleep.
She slipped back into her clothes and headed downstairs. It was the perfect opportunity to spend quality time with the kids – the boys at least (Sierra was definitely asleep in her bed for the rest of the night) – even if they were just eating cereal and racing to the finish. She’d enjoy just watching the laughter on their faces. Making memories.
Dawn’s joy was her children.
One hundred and five degrees of dry desert heat. Zero humidity. The scorching heat swelled from the Nevada mountains in stifling hot surges. Philip’s
tee-shirt was soaked with perspiration and riddled with droplets of blood – his sinuses were taking a beating. It would be months before his body grew accustomed. If, at all.
He wasn’t too keen with the one-man manual labor team, either; however, the eleven boxes in the back of the U-Haul truck contained his family’s necessities, including Christopher’s skate shoes and Mason’s Spider Man costume. And four hours later, as h
e retrieved the last container, he let out a frustrated sigh heaving the door shut and sliding the latch in the locked position. His sneakered feet crunched against the rock bedded landscaping and the nonstop toil ached in his arms as he lumbered back inside their new home.
The cross-country move had been tedious and exhausting. They'd packed boxes upon boxes of clothes, toys, and household items into the twenty-foot moving truck. Many items Philip said they could have discarded. Four days of driving, and randomly stopping along the way to sleep in various hotels with three young children in tow, made it more draining. Philip clamored on the side of hope that this move would be good for the family. Good for their marriage. The kids would grow up and make life-long friends.
Las Vegas would be home.
At least, for now.
There’d been years of laughter and tears (good and bad) in the old house, and although they’d painted and changed the carpet before putting the house on the market themselves, the permanent artistry Christopher and Mason had left on the wainscoting remained. The blemishes enhanced the house’s quality, like stretch marks on Dawn’s belly.
Philip and Dawn had agreed to sell the home and start anew in Sin City. They’d even joked about the irony. How does a family start over in a city named for its sinful behaviors? Dawn’s transfer promotion had come as a surprise. There had been a quick sale on the house. The buyer even wanted the furniture.
Philip was still upset by the conversation he’d shared with his mother earlier that day. Her words were harsh and the worst he’d ever heard from her lips: I know about Dawn’s arrest…the drugs…you married a whore! How could you even think to bring a woman like that into this family?
But how much better was he? And did his parents once consider how much he truly loved Dawn? They’d never bothered to help with the kids, even when they were newborn. Did they despise Dawn
much? She’d argued the point several times, but he had simply taken his parents’ side.
They have nothing against you, he’d lied.
Soaking wet with perspiration, his fading red tee-shirt clung to his body. Philip huffed and sauntered back outside to retrieve the keys from the truck’s ignition. He opened the door and stuck his hand around the steering wheel, droplets of sweat dripped onto the black vinyl seat. The interior of the vehicle seared like an oven. Realizing he’d left his wallet on the seat, he grabbed the leathery billfold, shoved it in his back pocket, pressed the lock, and shut the door closed.
Then, a young girl pedaled out of nowhere opposite the door on her bicycle and stopped at the end of the driveway behind him, “Where you move from, mister?” The girl, who wasn’t more than ten-years old, cupped a hand above her brow and squinted against the bright sunshine as he sauntered pass her. Her freckled face, bright red hair and crooked front teeth reminded him of a cartoon character he’d watched once with the kids. “Got any children?”
“We’re from Louisiana,” he started up the driveway toward the house. “And yes, we have kids, but they are younger than you are,” he gave her a good look. “Didn’t your parents teach you not to talk to strangers?” he kept moving as if attempting to distance himself from the child.
“You’re not a stranger, mister. We’re neighbors. I live in that house right over there on the corner.” She shot a finger, pointing aimlessly.
“What happened to your arm?” he gestured at the cast on her left arm.
Resignedly she responded, “I fell down the stairs.” Everything about her response said she’d been told to tell that story.
Philip took a quick glance at the houses along the other side of the street. He knew there were only three two story homes on this block; his and the two on the opposite end, but those were brand new construction and still on the market. “But there’s no stairs in any of those houses.”
She paused a moment, then said innocently: “Can you keep a secret, mister?”
“Sure,” he responded guilessly.
Tell me the truth, so I can beat the sonofabitch’s ass that did this to you.
On the verge of tears now, her little face was blushed and perspiring from the heat, she said, “They’re coming, ya’ know. Comin’ like bats outta hell -- ” With her free hand, she swiped at fly away strands of hair.
Philip’s eyebrows furrowed, “Who’s coming? The man who hurt you?”
“Alisa!” a woman’s voice called, echoing in the near distance.
Startled, she gasped a quick wisp of breath. Philip wanted to yank the little girl from the bike to safety. Alisa was her name. And what a beautiful name it was. He thought of Sierra and how vulnerable she was at just two-years old. The idea of someone hurting her made his skin crawl. How could anyone hurt a defenseless child? Allowing Alisa to heed to her mother’s calling was the last thing Philip wanted to do, but he had no choice and it was nearly two o’clock. Christopher would be out of school soon. Clark County was on a track system; students attended classes year-round. He wondered now what track Alisa was on because all five tracks were in class this entire week.
Before he could ask, Alisa’d hopped back on her pink Baja and pivoted the bicycle toward the voice. The cast didn’t falter her agility. Pink and white streamers flapped in the desert wind. He watched her peddle quickly up the street, around the bend in the road, and onto the driveway of the first house on the block. He could see the glittering iridescent streamers dangling carelessly in the wind and held onto the sight of them as she and her bicycle disappeared inside.
That was the first time he saw Alisa and knew it wouldn’t be the last.
Back inside, Philip cased the tucked off area that would serve as the dining room. He’d stacked the U-Haul branded boxes filled with nonessential items they’d collected over the last seven years. He had promised to unpack a few after feeding Mason and Sierra their lunch, pick Christopher up from school and take all three kids to the park while Dawn slept, then return home and start dinner. Later, he’d sit back with a beer on their uncomfortable sofa, download 50 Cent’s newest CD and read Lake Charles’
to find out if anyone he’d known had passed away or been arrested, and read about the plans for the new casino breaking ground, as if Lake Charles needed another casino.
Philip noted several in his path in the small room: Kitchen, Boys Room…Dawn’s Stuff. Why’d she have such a big box all her own? He knew he’d have to start with this one. It was just as packed as any other, but it had been taped to keep prying eyes out…especially his eyes. She’d held on to all of her memories. Photo albums of past boyfriends and the cars she’d owned over the years. He thought of a youthful Dawn, with her fire-red Mitsubishi 3000GT and her long flowing auburn hair and tiny waist, qualities that made her more appealing when they first met. But those were only immature thoughts of an inexperienced lover -- to adore the exterior of a young lady --ignore the inner beauty, cut straight to what society deemed as beautiful. Over the last decade, and three children later, Philip grew to know the real woman he’d googled over for years. He adored her more than that young ignorant Philip, or any other man for that matter, ever could.
Philip pictured their wedding day; he and Dawn standing at the altar before two priests, their hands gripping one another’s under the watchful eyes of his family. Dawn’s wedding dress seemed to liquefy on the floor around her. He imagined the tears of anxiety in her eyes as her father’d walked her down the aisle. And when the ceremony was over, he and Dawn, with hands still joined, turned to the crowd as everyone applauded at the pastor’s announcement: I present to you for the first time, Mr. and Mrs. Philip Barron!
Then they’d daisied over to the reception hall, bright-eyed and happily married. Dawn’s belly protruded just enough for the attendees to know she was with child, but she was still beautiful just as she’d always been in his eyes.
“Didn’t expect all three hundred we invited would show. Looks like all three hundred brought a friend.” Dawn had said to Philip, glancing over the crowded reception hall watching children dance in the middle of floor while the adults stood in line for a plate of catered food.
Philip leaned against the stuccoed wall, folded his arms and cross his legs at the ankle. The memories in that box were just as secretive as his wife. He knew there were many things she hadn’t shared with him about her life and all she’d been through. They had known one another since they were teenagers, but had gone their separate ways many moons ago only to rekindle and vow to share the rest of their lives together. He had never kept anything worth sharing away from her. That’s why he had to investigate the truth about the little girl. She had never left his mind.
Dawn and the kids were still asleep upstairs. It would only take a minute to walk across the street and introduce himself to the girl’s mother. Hopefully her stepfather was home, too. He needed to know the truth about her broken arm. And as he strolled down the sidewalk about a block and crossed the street, he glanced at the red and white yard sign:
HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS
. Its metal stand shoved deep into the rock bed.
Peeking inside the half-moon shaped window above the entry door, Philip desperately searched for any sign of life inside the vacant home as if refusing to believe his own eyes. She’s not here. You dreamed it all. Had the heat been so brutal it caused him to hallucinate? No way! He’d spoken to her. She’d spoken to him. He remembered the sweat on her face. The cast on her arm. And those glittering silver streamers. He glanced down and there was one, just one strand on the ground near his foot. And just as he picked it up …
“She’s a real beauty.”
Philip whipped around, startled.
The woman smiled big and held out her hand. “Didn’t mean to scare you.” She shook Philip’s proffered hand. “Sarah Marshall. Desert Realty. This one’s just three twenty-five. Three bedrooms, two baths and a –“
“I – I’m not – I just moved in down the street.” His voice broke as if he were terrified to speak.
“Oh, Louisiana, right?” she swooned, picking up on his anxiety.
Ignoring her fatuous charm, Philip asked, “Where’s the family that lives here? There was a little girl. Alisa –“
“This is a brand new build, sir. No one’s ever inhabited this property.” Her eyebrows furrowed. “Are you alright?”
Philip glanced down at his empty hand and stumbled past Sarah Marshall with the red lips and gaudy hair. Where was the streamer he held only a moment ago? Where was the little girl with the broken arm he’d spoken to just thirty minutes prior?
Walking away from the property, he looked over his shoulder several times at Sarah Marshall and at the house. The same house he saw Alisa disappear inside. Sarah Marshall was still looking at him as he crossed the street.
Philip needed to take a cold shower. Feel the water rush over his head, down his face, and cool his body. He had worked too hard in the desert heat. So hard, he was starting to see things that weren’t there. Even people.
And her name was Alisa.
¤ ¤ ¤
Once you go to jail, you always go back.
The moon’s pale glow shone on Dawn through the barred window of the cellblock. A clamor of steel against steel as a jail door closed, locking her inside.
All of sudden, she was swept into total darkness.
A nightmarish cackle reverberated, “They’re going to laugh at you! They’re going to laugh at you! You stupid, stupid girl!” A whining ghastly tune played as the blinding lights of a carousel lit up the space with colorful illumination. A white fiberglass horse, in galloping stance, snarled exposing large stained teeth. Its glassy eyes came to life, drawing near…closer now…its steamy breath at the nape of her neck, its teeth chomping to bite, “I am going to eat you alive and spit you out in pieces, you stupid girl! “It hissed, as its fiberglass legs ran full force toward her, its teeth sharp daggers gunning for her face. The brass pole piercing through the back of the beast turned into ten-foot sawing knife blades, shimmering brilliantly in the foggy night like ice and diamonds. And as the animal snarled and raised its hooves defensively, blood and entrails gushing from its wound…
The exploding beast floated above her and disappeared into the night...
“Help me!” a girl’s voice wavered and seemed far away. Dawn desperately pursued it, her heart pounding like a drum in her chest. She panted as she glanced around the scowling beasts, their mouths dripping with bloody saliva.
“I can’t … see you!” she yelled, desperation choking her words, her chest tightening with anxiety.