“Where are you going?” my ten year old sister asked.
“Out. I’m tired of babysitting you two. You’re old enough to take care of yourselves.”
A horn tooted three short beeps.
I stomped into the kitchen and yanked open doors and drawers, grabbed plates, peanut butter, bread and a knife and slammed them on the table.
“I had peanut butter for lunch,” my eight year old sister protested.
The horn blared a long, impatient blast.
“Eat it, don’t eat it, I don’t care,” I said and ran out of the house.
“Mama, I’m sorry,” I said, tears streaming down my face.
Twirling red and white lights on fire engines bounced off my mother’s paralyzed face. Her mouth hung slightly open and her eyes were fixed in a deadened stare. The smell of smoke and burnt wood from the smoldering ruins of our house engulfed me as I watched the firemen reverently place my sisters in black bags and slowly draw the zippers over their charred bodies, their arms cocked in a boxer’s stance, looking like they had tried to fight off the flames. When their faces, frozen in an expression of perpetual pain, disappeared under the heavy plastic, Mama turned her head slowly to me, and, as if awakening from a coma calmly asked, “Where were you, Eileen?" “Mama, I’m sorry,” I repeated.
Fighting to catch her breath, she screamed, “You’re sorry? You’re sorry? You’re sorry if you spill milk! You’re sorry if you break a glass! Then you clean it up and try to do better the next time. You can’t clean this up, Eileen!” With each gasp of breath her anguish grew and her voice became louder until she fell to her knees and pounded the dirt with her fists. “You killed your sisters! Get away from me! I never want to see you again!”
Before Daddy was murdered, an innocent victim in a drive by shooting, my life was a Disney fairy tale, only with a black princess. That’s what Daddy called me, his African-American princess. Daddy had a good job as an assistant postmaster. He rarely missed a dinner with us. He helped me with my homework. He snuck out of the post office to attend all my gymnastic events. We went to church almost every Sunday, and that’s where I ran.
Sitting in a pew staring at the big cross behind the altar, I tried to rationalize what I’d done. If Daddy hadn’t been killed... if Mama hadn’t had to go to work at night cleaning offices to support us… if I wasn’t selfish, wanting to hang with my friends at the mall and hadn’t run out on my sisters… if they hadn’t tried to cook something and die in the fire…
If―such a little word that bore such huge consequences. I could say if for the rest of my life, but it wouldn’t change a thing. My sisters were dead and it was my fault.
I missed Daddy so much. I knew Mama loved me, even if she had little time for me lately. My sisters needed her more. I was fifteen, and they were only ten and eight. Was I jealous of them getting all of what little attention Mama had left for us? I never thought I was until this very moment. Had I run out on them because my jealousy seethed in back of my mind?
I tried to pray, but the words forgive me rang hollow. How could the Lord forgive me? There was no forgiveness for what I did. Instead, I asked for retribution. “Kill me, Lord! Send me to hell, to burn for eternity like my sisters burned!” Of course the Lord would never do that, so I would have to do it myself.
Leaving the church, I wandered the streets trying to decide how to end my life. With no place to sleep I drifted down under the freeway overpass by the railroad tracks where drug dealers, whores and homeless people hang out, where Daddy had warned us never to go. “Those people are the scum of the earth,” he had said. “They’ll kill you as soon as look at you.” That’s exactly what I deserved. Maybe one of those crazies would beat me to death.
Approaching the forbidden area, I watched a car creep up to a highway pillar. Its tires crunching the gravel sounded like a page of newspaper being crumpled. Its headlights reflected off hundreds of shards from broken bottles, making the ground look like it was covered in crystal. Discarded fast food wrappers littered the area. I gagged from the heavy smell of urine. When the car stopped and a window rolled down, a man slipped out from behind an abutment. The buyer and seller talked for a second. Then the seller shoved his closed fist inside the car, exchanged a little packet of drugs for cash and skulked back into the shadows.
Out in the open, two white girls and four black girls sauntered around three idling cars. They teased the drivers, arching their backs to thrust out their breasts uplifted by halter tops, the fabric barely wide enough to cover their nipples. A couple of them hooted, “You know you goin’ like this!” and “You try this you never goin’ go nowheres else!” When a hand poked out the window at a particular girl, she would hustle to the driver, make her deal and hop in.
I looked down at my body and wondered whether anybody would want to buy me. When I did gymnastics I was five feet two and as flat chested as a balance beam. Most of my friends were taller than me and had already developed breasts. I was told the harsh training regimen had stunted my growth. After Daddy was killed, I quit gymnastics. That was two years ago. Now I had shot up to five seven, my breasts had popped out and I had developed a nice booty. But compared to those girls’ bulging chests I felt like a developing grade schooler.
I tied my T-shirt with the pictures of Jay-Z above my belly button. It was my favorite shirt. I made it myself by cutting pictures out of magazines, scanning them into my computer, flipping them around and printing them on iron-on decals.
I approached the girls. All at once, like they were in a chorus line, they put their hands on their hips and looked down their noses at me. “Look what we got here,” the tall one said. “What you doin’ here, girl? You have a fight wit’ your mama?”
“Wait ‘til Leroy see this one,” one of the white girls said.
“Umm umm, can’t wait,” another said.
Flicking her head toward an approaching black car, the fat one said, “You ain’t got to wait too long.”
The car with the black out windows stopped right next to me. The door swung open and a guy with three gold chains around his neck and diamond rings on four fingers stepped out. He was coal black, and he wore cowboy boots and a silk shirt unbuttoned to his belt buckle. Before I knew what was happening he grabbed me by the arm and dragged me behind a pillar.
“What you think you doin’? I owns this spot! Ain’t no freelance bitches allowed here!”
I lifted my chin. “Kill me. Please.”
He stared at me. “What are you, one of them fucked up bitches lives in a box?”
“Then get your scrawny ass out of here. Next time I see you I will kill you.”
“Are you their pimp?”
He slapped me hard across the face. I yelped in pain and almost fell down.
“I don’ like that word.” He shoved me. “Go on. Get!”
“Can I work for you?” If he wouldn’t kill me, maybe a sadistic John would. Or I could get enough money to buy an overdose of drugs.
He scanned me up and down. “What I do with a skinny ass bitch like you?”
I had no answer.
He started to walk away then turned back. “Say somthin’ to me again.”
“What do you want me to say?”
“Where you come from? What your name?”
“Sunnyside. My name is Eileen.”
He bellowed a deep laugh. “Eileen. That a funny name for a black bitch.” He glanced at his girls then back at me. “I like the way you talk. Maybe you class up this place. Get me some of that uptown money likes sweet young bitches that talks nice.”
Daddy and Mama had pounded proper English into my brain from the time I could speak, but once in a while I’d slip into street slang like Leroy talked. When I did, they came down on me hard. “You’ll get no where in life with that kind of talk,” Daddy had said.
Yeah, Daddy, look where all that proper English got me. I’m a murderer and now I’m going to be a whore.
“Let me see what you got. Take them clothes off.”
I started to untie the knot in my T-shirt, but I didn’t move fast enough for him. He grabbed a handful of fabric and my bra and ripped them off.
“Ow!” My arms flew up to cover my bare breasts.
“We goin’ get you some implants for them pimples you got. Get them jeans off.”
I’d started to work the button when a voice said, “Yo’, Leroy, let her go.”
Leroy looked around to see who was talking. “This ain’t none your bidness, Thomas.”
“How much you want for her?”
Thomas was the drug dealer who controlled the trade in Sunnyside and other areas of south Houston, except for South Park which was the Mexican area. Everyone knew him, but this was the first time I’d seen him up close. Mama and Daddy had lectured us incessantly about not using drugs. What difference did it make now? Daddy was gone, and I was dead to Mama. My sisters were dead because of me. Nothing mattered anymore. I’d seen drug addicts in their dream world. If there was anything I needed right now it was an escape from my nightmare.
“She a fine bitch. She worth a hunert.”
Thomas peeled a bill off a fat roll.
Before he released me, Leroy said, “Thomas done with you, you come back here.”
I gulped and nodded like a bobble head doll.
Leroy swaggered off to his girls. I watched them hand him money and heard one say, “What you mean class this place up?”
“Shut up, bitch.”
Thomas poked me, drawing my attention back to him. “Take these,” he said, holding out my ripped clothes.
With one arm still over my breasts, I took the destroyed T-shirt and fought not to cry. It had taken me a couple of hours fiddling with Jay-Z’s and Kanye West’s pictures in my computer to get them just right. Then it hit me. Here I was upset about a stupid torn T-shirt, when less than an hour ago I had killed my sisters. What a self-centered, worthless piece of trash I was. I deserved everything that was going to happen to me.
“Cover yourself,” Thomas said, snapping me out of my self-loathing. “Don’t want no cop seeing you riding in my car with your titties showing.”
The hooks on my bra were broken so I tied my T-shirt around me like a tube top. He directed me to his car, a big silver Mercedes, and we drove to a house. His crib was a small ranch. Peeling paint rippled the clapboard siding. Tufts of grass poked through the dirt in a few places in the front yard. The wooden steps squeaked and buckled a bit under our weight even though together we couldn’t have weighed more than two-eighty. Thomas was a wiry guy, only a few inches taller than me. He unlocked the two dead bolts on the rust-speckled steel front door and walked in ahead of me.
After seeing the outside, I was a bit stunned at the lavish inside. A semi-circular black leather couch flanked by chrome and glass tables faced a huge TV. A bar, its doors open, stood behind the couch. African paintings covered the walls.
Thomas walked to the bar and poured two tall drinks. Handing me one, he said, “I seen you around. Didn’t know you was one of Leroy’s whores.”
“This is my first night.”
I never had alcohol before and gulped the drink down like I would a glass of milk. It tasted horrible, burned my throat and forced me to squinch my eyes closed. But it spread a warm glow over me and calmed my anxiety a little.
“Easy, girl,” he said. “I want you awake. Why you want to be a whore, an uptown girl like you?”
“I need money,” I said, leaving out the part about wanting to die. Maybe after he did it to me, if he fell asleep, I could find his drug stash and OD.
“You ain’t goin’ get it from Leroy. He keeps all the money his girls make.” He took my hand and led me to his bedroom. He threw the leopard print bedspread onto the floor, revealing soiled, gray-white sheets. Mama would never let us sleep on filthy sheets like these, I thought, trying to force my mind to think about anything other than what was coming. When I saw Thomas naked, I flinched. How was that thing going to fit inside me?
“What you waitin’ for, girl?”
I pulled off the torn T-shirt, slid down my jeans and panties and fell back lying stiff, like I was dead. He climbed on top of me, spread my legs and jammed himself in. I screamed in pain.
He leaped off me. “You is a virgin? That what you meant by your first night?”
I nodded, washing tears across my cheeks. This was not how I dreamed my first night would be. I was a princess. Daddy said so. My first time was supposed to be in the arms of a loving prince. But I was no longer a princess. I was a murderer. Having my virginity ravaged from me by someone as far away from a prince as I could get had to be only the beginning of the Lord’s punishment. Maybe he would give me AIDS. That’s more like what His justice would be, me dying a horrible, painful death.
“Leroy ain’t knowed you a virgin, did he?”
“ ’Cause if he did, he’d not given you to me for a hundred.” He broke into a big grin. “Virgins is worth a thousand!”
He scrambled out of bed, went back to the living room and returned with the bottle of liquor. As I forced down a long swallow he said, “Girl, you is lucky I come along. Leroy about to deflower you hard and painful. Then when he realized you a virgin he would a been so mad he lost out on that thousand he’d a probably beat you to shit.”
If only you hadn’t come along.
He didn’t jump on me again right away, but stroked me, fiddled me with his fingers, nibbled and suckled me all over and whispered things in my ear like how good looking I was. Between the liquor and his playing, my body got so hot I thought I was on fire. Bodies on fire! Oh my God! “No. No! I can’t do this! Stop.”
“Relax, girl” he whispered through a nibble on my ear.
A second later he pushed into me again. It still hurt, but not as bad as the first time. The liquor had dulled the pain.
When it was over, I lay there, my eyes closed as I thought about how he had made me feel, how there had been a strange twang of pleasure through the pain. A siren wailed going by the house and my mind suddenly flooded with a vision of flames licking at my screaming sisters. My eyelids sprang open, but the vision continued to pound through my head. Sobs wracked my body. How could I feel even that brief moment of pleasure after what I had done only hours ago?
“What?” he asked. “I ain’t hurtin’ you?”
He pushed himself up on his elbow and looked down on me. “Then what?”
When I didn’t answer, he asked, “How old is you?”
He leaped off the bed. “Shit!” he screamed and paced the floor. “What my goin’ do wit’ you?”
“I’m not going to the cops. It has nothing to do with you.”
He stopped his pacing. “So, zup wit’ the rain?”
How could I talk about it? He wasn’t my daddy, although he looked old enough to be. I couldn’t tell him. But I didn’t want him to send me away. I needed the comfort he gave me to keep me from falling into a black abyss of hopelessness. I opened my arms. “Please hold me.”
He came back into bed. Before he took me again, he asked, “Where you live?”
“No-where. I have no home.”
“You want to stay here wit’ me for a while? I think we be good for each other.”
I nodded. Yeah, being a drug dealer’s bitch is exactly what I deserve.
“You have to know what I did first. Maybe you won’t want me around.” But after I told him, he still did.
Two months later I found myself pregnant. With my expanding stomach, my desire to kill myself slowly slipped away, but the nightmares continued to jar me awake many nights, drenching my body in sweat. I begged Thomas for something to drive them away.
“The mother of my child don’t take no drugs,” he said. Then he’d hold me until my shaking subsided.
When our son Calvin came along, Thomas thumped his chest, the proudest drug dealer in Houston. Two years later, Tamika came and Thomas thumped his chest again. He never denied me and the kids anything. With hundred dollar bills stuffed in my wallet, I bought clothes in Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdales. Thomas bought expensive toys for the kids and beautiful bling for me.
Thomas was a good man. I couldn’t understand why the Lord had let my life turn out so well―until they sent Thomas to prison for twenty-five years.