Chapter 1

 

“Where the hell have you been?”

The angry voice startled ten-year-old Jalen out of a sound sleep. His heart slammed against his chest, his eyes shot open, and his mouth went dry. His mother was raging at his father, Terrence. Jalen pulled the pillow over his head, trying to block out the sound. Still, something in the tone of her voice signaled a bad ending to this outburst.

“It’s almost three in the morning!” she screamed. “And you can’t call to let me know if you’re okay, or dead somewhere?”

Jalen could tell that his thirty-three year old, ex-convict father was pushing her last nerve again. He shook inside, not able to understand how they had stayed together for ten years. In all those years, he rarely heard them speak a civil word to each other, let alone stay in the same bedroom long enough to give him a sister or brother. If not for his looks, Jalen could have sworn he was adopted. He had his mother’s caramel complexion, bright smile, and naturally straight hair. His father’s long slender build, brown eyes, stubby hands, and long feet were the biggest part of his appearance, causing the neighborhood kids to call him “Slim.”

“Bitch, how the hell I’ma call you if I’m dead?” his father shot back. “I swear, you don’t make a damn bit of sense!”

Furniture screeched against the hardwood floor. Jalen knew his father must have stumbled and bumped into a chair. The argument was their usual for a Friday, but not this early—it was only about three in the morning. His father was the kind that stayed out all night and faced his woman after the sun came up.

“Bitch?” Michelle shrieked.

 

Jalen grimaced, because usually at the sound of that word, windows shattered, hot grease was thrown, and baseball bats swung. That word, to his mom, was a call to arms.

“That’s right! I said bitch. I told you before not to be asking where I’m at and what I’m doing. That shit’s my business. We ain’t married, so I don’t answer to you. I go wherever I damn well please, and see whoever I want.”

Jalen’s throat tightened until it hurt. It wasn’t the first time he had heard his father yell those words, and he never seemed to care that she would go crazy on him. Even knowing how she sulked for days after he threw Cynthia, Leslie, Cheryl, or Mia up in  her  face,  he  would  do  it  anyhow.  Jalen  and  his  mother couldn’t go to the supermarket or laundromat without running into one of his father’s “beck and calls.” And he defended his right to do it. Those women always acted like they had the upper hand. Jalen would stand to the side and watch his mother pass them up with only a smirk, like they were low-life jokes.

“That’s right, you didn’t marry me. So maybe it’s about time I start going out and testing the waters. Since you don’t see any- thing wrong with running after those chicken head, river rats you like so much.”

Jalen balled his body in his arms and tightened the blanket, hoping she would just stop talking. What is she doing?

“I don’t have to put up with your shit!” she yelled. “I’m doing your ass a favor, ‘cause staying here is the only thing keeping you out of the pen—”

“What? Doing me a favor? You got it twisted, sweetheart. If it wasn’t for me, you and that li’l bastard upstairs woulda been on the street a long time ago. I wasn’t trying to be no daddy. You the one that started this family thing.”

“Bastard upstairs? Don’t you talk about my son like that! And since you ain’t trying to be no daddy, maybe I’ll call your parole officer and have you tested for drugs, and your sorry ass’ll never have to worry ‘bout being a daddy again!”

Jalen sprang up and glared at the closed door. Then the sound of glass shattering and a blood-curdling scream jerked him out of bed like he’d been stung by a bee. His feet barely touched the carpet as he tore down the stairs. He froze at the sight.

 

His father had her pinned into the corner, his six-foot-two,

220 lb body towered above her significantly shorter and slender frame. Only a chair separated them. Terrence grabbed the chair and hurled it across the room without taking his eyes off her.

Hoping that neither of them saw him, Jalen inched from the base of the stairs toward them, closer, not sure what he should or could do. Then he remembered his mother’s words.

Call 9-1-1. Call 9-1-1 if daddy hurts me.

Jalen ran into the living room, grabbed the phone, and punched the keypad with shaking fingers. Terrence stomped across the floor toward him.

“9-1-1, what is your emergency?”

“Help! My mom . . . ” formed inside his throat and the rest tried to come out of his mouth. It just balled up and turned around and around. Finally, the words shot out, but Terrence had already ripped the phone out of the wall. Then Jalen saw his father’s hand come down like in slow motion. It landed on the side of his head and hurled his thin body across the room. Jalen bounced against the wall and slid to the floor. Pain exploded in his skull, then shot to his temples and straight down his spine. His entire little body hurt.

A warrior-like scream spewed out of his mother as she jumped onto his father’s back and beat him with clenched fists. Jalen scurried to the kitchen. Just as he glanced back, his father slammed her to the floor. He clamped his hands around her throat. She clawed at his arms and face, squirming like a lion’s captured prey.

Daddy’s killing mommy.

“I’ma end you tonight,” Terrence growled, his eyes blazing. “Don’t you ever put your hands on me, woman!” Keeping one hand  pressed  into  her  neck,  he  reached  into  his  pocket  and pulled out a knife.

Daddy’s killing mommy.

“So you and that li’l bastard was gonna call the police to take me away, huh?” He pressed his full weight on Michelle as she kicked and kneed his back. “Gonna have them haul me back off to prison for another stretch, huh? Leave me there while you find another man?”

 

Daddy’s killing Mommy.

Terrence jabbed the knife toward Michelle’s cheek. “I’ma cut a hole in ya face. Then nobody’ll want you. Even the kid‘ll hate to look at you after I’m through wit’ you.”

Michelle’s eyes grew wide as Terrence placed the blade on her cheek. Jalen darted toward his father, yelling, “Stop it! Stop hurting her!”

Terrence eased his stranglehold on Michelle, and she gasped for air. His brown eyes were vacant. Shock gripped his face. He slumped forward and collapsed at Michelle’s side. A trail of blood inched across the floor.

Jalen stood over his parents, tears in his eyes and a blank expression on his face. Then the red, white, and blue lights flashed through the windows. Michelle composed herself long enough to ask, “Baby, are you okay?”

Before Jalen could answer, something hit the door. Both of them jumped. A coppery smell filled the air and the trail of blood grew longer. Michelle reached over and shook Terrence hard. His limp body moved willingly to her hand, but he said nothing. His eyes stared at her. Then, she saw it. At the small of his back a black knife handle stuck out. She glanced at Jalen, scrambled on her hands and knees, took the edge of her nightgown and wiped the handle, up and down, down and up.

Bang! Bang! Bang!

Michelle turned to Jalen. “That’s the police. If they ask what happened, tell them I did this to daddy, okay?”

This wasn’t the first time Michelle had played hostess to the police. In the past when she had fights with Terrence, she told her son, “Calls to 9-1-1 are instantly traced and police are sent if the call is suddenly interrupted.”

Jalen stared up at her, shaking. What did I do? What did I do! Bang! Bang! Bang!

Michelle shook him. “Say it, Jalen! It’s okay. Say mommy stabbed daddy.”

Jalen swallowed, staring blankly at his mother’s tear-stained face, then he allowed his eyes to find the form stretched out on the brown hardwood floors like he had seen on so many drunken nights before. But this time, he knew his dad wouldn’t wake up.

 

Bang! Bang! Bang! “Open up! It’s the police!”

“Jalen! Baby, you have to say what I told you, or the police’ll take you away from me. You hear me? Say, Mommy stabbed daddy.”

“Mommy stabbed daddy,” Jalen said to her, expressionless. He  closed  his  eyes  and  hoped  the  world  would  fade  away.

Mommy stabbed daddy? No, I stabbed daddy.

The police broke down the front door and Jalen could feel them coming toward him. Michelle held onto him.

“Ma’am, are you all right? Is there anyone else in the house?” Michelle didn’t answer. She just held Jalen in her arms and rocked him like a newborn as he sobbed. All the while, she

whispered directly in his ear, “Mommy stabbed daddy.”

The officer inched closer to Jalen, keeping one hand on his holster as he surveyed the room and the motionless body on the floor. “Hey, son, are you all right?”

Jalen looked up at the officer, blinked, and opened his mouth. He muttered three simple words.