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Abe in Arms
By Pegi Deitz Shea
PM Press Copyright © 2010 PM Press
All rights reserved.
What's your name, boy?
He stares into the mirrored sunglasses. Words don't come out.
I'll tell you mine, then you tell me yours.
What's behind those mirrors? All he can see is himself. What's inside that camouflage uniform?
My name is Grant. See, it's easy. Now tell me yours.
He finds a voice. It comes out: James.
"Earth to Abe!"
"I told you to say my name, Abe," Monica insisted. "I love how you say it, like we're in a café in Paris."
Abe parted her curtain of thin braids and found her ear. "Moan ee cah," he said and felt her shiver in his arms.
Monica yanked the car seat lever, and next thing he knew, he was lying on top of her. Giggling, she rubbed his shaved head as if it were a crystal ball.
"Whoa!" he said, doing a push-up. He rolled back onto the driver's seat and gripped the steering wheel.
"What's the matter?" Monica asked, still lying flat.
Abe glanced over. A mile of creamy nougat skin stretched from her low ride jeans up to her pastel yellow shirt. It was the first thing he'd noticed about her body at the indoor track meet. The girls' uniforms looked more like bikinis. It wasn't fair. How could a guy concentrate on hurdles with all these flashing belly buttons and flexing butts?
Monica sat up straight, the seat clanging upright. She straightened her clothes and asked, "Abe, don't you like me?"
"I do! A lot," he replied immediately.
"Then, how come you don't wanna ... hook up?"
Abe shrugged. "I just want to take things slow."
Monica muttered, "If we go any slower, we'll be in reverse."
Abe sighed then put his arm around her. He drew her close and kissed her on the forehead.
"Come on, Abe," she coaxed. "That's the way my little brother Jermaine kisses me. Gimme me some of that fur on your chin."
She threw her arms around his neck, pressed against him and sealed his mouth with her lips. He kissed back, but when her hand wandered south, he blurted, "I can't! I'm sorry. It's not you, Monica, really. It's me, I'm sorry."
Monica slipped away from him, and straightened her clothing. "I should be getting home," she said quietly.
"I thought you wanted to go get coffee or something."
"No, I don't think that's a good idea anymore."
Abe muttered, "I'm sorry."
In silence, they waited for the defroster to clear the windows. Abe then drove out of the park and headed toward the Vernon Heights section of town. Even though it was below freezing, it was still Friday night. Guys crowded the lit-up sports complex, basketballs slapping the tar and clanging on rims. Girls, all puffs of steamy gossip, huddled and bounced, trying to stay warm on the sidelines. Cars throbbed with cranked up bass.
"Abe, wait. Let me off here," Monica said.
When Abe threw the car in park, Monica got halfway out. She took a deep breath and asked, "Abe, are you gay?"
Abe's stomach clenched. "What?"
"'Cause, if you are, it would actually make me feel better. You know, like it's not personal, not about me."
"I'm not gay!"
"Well," Monica hesitated a moment, "I heard some things like you and Niko —"
"Niko's my brother!"
Monica shrugged. "Not by blood. Everybody knows you're from Africa."
"This is unreal! Monica,youcan't believe —" Abe banged his fist against the steering wheel, then punched the roof of the car.
Monica jumped away, her eyes wide, and ran off.
For a few moments, Abe watched her, now smiling with her friends. Suddenly, they glanced back at him and laughed. God, he hated being laughed at —
Laughter is stabbing them, ripping them apart, a pail over their heads, banging against a wall in a school. Steven cries, James clutches Steven's hand.
What had Dr. Carlson told him to do when the horrors of Liberia came flooding back? Quick! "Leave the scene, do something physical, productive, safe, go play soccer...."
Abe gunned the engine of the silver Camry and peeled off. "Screw Monica!"
He drove to the high school, hoping Niko was up for a game of pool. Good timing. Crowds were bubbling out of the basketball game. The girls' team must have won again. Everybody was jumping, screeching, waving their red and gold varsity jackets like lasso ropes. Vernon High had one of the best girls' basketball teams in Maryland. The crowd always contained at least one recruiter from a top college program like Tennessee, Texas, Duke or Connecticut.
Good — there was Niko. With Maria, damn it. This was beat — Niko hanging around with girls, leaving Abe to fend for himself. Niko was becoming a real player. Look at him, laughing. Why was everybody always laughing?
laughing, having a good time, messing with people before killing —
"Remove yourself from danger," Carlson had told him. "Think positive. You're in a race, you're winning." Abe drove to the south side of the school and got out. He climbed the fence and started running on the track. It was hard as cement in this weather. He didn't care. He needed to pound something. At home, he trudged into the shower, letting the near-scalding water wash down his neck and shoulders. The running had loosened the tension everywhere but there. What was he going to do about these flashbacks? He couldn't tell anybody about them. Hedefinitelydid not want to go back into group therapy. He couldn't handle hearing about other people's crap. He'd had enough of his own. Even if he did go back to group, what would he say? He didn't even understand what these new images and noises meant.
Anyway, he didn't need help. He didn't need Monica. He didn't need anything to distract him from his senior winter and spring track seasons which would pay his way to college. He had to make his own way forward.
After midnight, Niko strolled into the house. The two teenagers had shared a bedroom for four years now, since Dr. George Elders had brought Abe home from Africa. George had been serving with Doctors Without Borders in a refugee camp in Guinea. Abe had escaped the civil warring that had raged for decades in Liberia. After learning that Abe had no surviving family, George adopted him. He was thirteen.
Now Abe was living large — the so-called American dream — complete with a new adoptive mom, Vanessa. Two incomes, two kids, two cars, huge water-front property, etc. Their house on an inlet of the Chesapeake Bay had plenty of space for Abe and Niko to have separate bedrooms. After a rocky six months, Niko got used to having a big brother. The boys became inseparable. They knocked down the wall between their rooms and converted the space into "Club Elders." Futon couch-beds, a treadmill, free weights, a ping pong table, a couple of arcade games, a roaring sound system, and high def TV. Plus a small fridge, because club members got thirsty and hungry working out or watching football. And the kitchen was allllll the way downstairs on the other side of the house.
"Abe, you awake?" Niko whispered, close enough for Abe to smell the beer on his breath.
"Yeah," Abe said, leaning up on his elbows, "I bet the girls won tonight."
"Gimme some numbers," Abe said.
"Sixty-four to forty-one," Niko said with a laugh.
"Oh, a close one for a change."
"Leisha was a monster, another double double with twenty-eight points and ten rebounds, and she blocked six shots." Niko jumped and pretended to dunk a ball down Abe's throat.
Niko enjoyed embellishing his stories. So Abe played dumb and asked, "So, is that who you took out after the game, Leisha?"
"Hah!" Niko blurted, sitting on his bed and kicking off his shoes. "Can you believe Leisha's going out with some white bread from the prep school now? Well — her loss. I got my shorty point guard, Maria, out on the town tonight."
Abe deadpanned, "Out on the town? Which fine dining establishment, Burger King or KFC?"
"Ah, shut your face." Niko let loose a huge belch and threw a smelly sock at his brother. "So, what kind of big night did you have, bro?" Abe shook his head and sat up.
"Not so hot?"
Abe sighed hard. "Nah. Listen. I don't want to talk about it. I'm going back to sleep."
"Cool," said Niko, going to brush his teeth. But Abe was still sitting up when Niko got back. "Yo, spill it," Niko said, snapping his jersey at Abe.
After Abe told him about the gay rumor, Niko winced. "The down low? Man, I'm going find the kid who started this rumor and beat the shit out of him."
"What if it's a girl?"
"Well, I'm gonnaproveher rumor false, with her permission, of course."
Abe said, "Nobody's dissingyou.It's me. I mean, how can I blame them — eight dates in four years? This fifth date with Monica was a record! I don't think there will be a sixth."
"Yeah, I hear you." Niko plopped on his unmade bed. After a few moments, he asked, "Are you ...?"
"What? Gay? No! Nothing against gays, I mean, the guys next door, they're great and all ..."
"And Mom's friend, Brenda," Niko added. "And if you were like, gay, that would be cool with me, I mean, you're my bro and all. Hey," Niko laughed,
"We're sounding way too politically correct. Let's get back to being male pigs."
Abe couldn't help but smile. Niko always cheered him up. They were complete opposites who fit like a nut and a bolt. Niko — the nut of course — was light skinned because Vanessa had some Latina in her. Abe was black as an eight-ball. Niko was glad to get C's, while Abe was the braino. Niko didn't know the word "quiet." Abe was a monk. Niko — beefy, but agile — played fullback in soccer. Abe, tall and wiry, played midfield. In track and field, Niko threw the shot put, discus and javelin, and Abe ran hurdles and sprints.
"Seriously, dog, give me a day or two to circulate a new rumor." Niko fell to his knees and bowed before his brother. "Tribal Man-child, afraid to wound petite American sistuhs, keeps his African spear in its sheath."
"Hah!" Abe flung a weight ball at Niko's head and fell back howling.CHAPTER 2
The next morning, Abe leapt out of bed, and put his uniform on. He punched Niko lightly on the shoulder to wake him. When that didn't work, Abe punched harder.
"Owww, that hurts my head," Niko moaned. "Whassup?"
Ugh. Hangover breath. "Come on, you have to get some food in your stomach before the meet."
Niko rolled and folded the pillow over his head. "Get me some ibuprofen and a Gatorade."
"Yo!" Abe whacked him with a pillow. "Slavery is history. So get your fat ass out of bed and get it yourself."
Abe bounded into the kitchen. The low rising sun lit up the painted yellow cabinets and white walls. After Club Elders, the kitchen was the best room in the house — always full of light and good cooking. Abe smelled vanilla flavored-coffee.
Vanessa swooshed over in her thick plaid bathrobe and grizzly bear slippers. Her long, straightened hair was failing to stay in its bun. She was never awake this early on the weekend. What was the deal?
"A special pre-meet treat for my scholar athletes. Granola with bananas and blueberries," Vanessa said, placing glasses on the table, "and freshly squeezed orange juice."
Niko scuffed in sleepily. "Gee, is that really where orange juice comes from — squozen oranges?"
Vanessa placed her hands on Niko's head and squeezed it. "Let's see what comes out of this coconut."
"Ow!" Niko whined. "Everybody's hurting me this morning."
Abe chuckled. He liked Vanessa a lot. She had the same fun personality his own mother had had before the war in Liberia intensified. How many mothers would challenge the neighborhood kids to a soccer shoot-out, and win! Abe smiled at the memory. Like his mom, Vanessa was always game for anything.
George shuffled in and kissed the boys on top of their heads. Vanessa got a hug from behind. "Mmmmmm," George purred, nuzzling her hair completely out of the bun.
"Coming to our quad-meet, Dad?" Niko asked. "It starts at ten."
"Sorry, guys," George said, pouring a cup of coffee. "I'm on call this weekend, and you know what that's like."
"Yeah," Abe said, disappointed. "See you Monday."
And right on cue, George's beeper went off. Vanessa quickly made breakfast-to-go for him, smearing cream cheese over a bagel, and transferring his coffee into a travel cup.
"Nik, we gotta go, too," said Abe. He threw two sports drinks and a couple of PowerBars into his equipment bag.
"See you over there!" Vanessa called as they rushed out the back door.
At the huge gym, Abe stretched with the other sprinters and with Khalid, his closest hurdling competitor. The girls' team warmed up close by and Abe spied Monica. Should he nod at her or ignore her? He didn't know what to do or say. He'd never had a fight with a girlfriend before. He'd neverhada girlfriend before.
Abe's hamstrings felt tight as steel cable. Probably from those three miles on the track last night. Stupid! Before doing a hurdle stretch, he massaged the back of his thigh. A murmuring came from behind: "Abraham Elders?" It gave him goose bumps.
"Monica?" he choked out. He hated how her breath could make him feel dizzy.
"Can we talk — alone, over there," she said pointing to the high jump area.
Niko caught Abe's attention and mouthed, "Be cool."
Abe followed her over, willing himself, "stay in control."
They sank deeply into the landing mat under the bar.
She started fast. "Listen, I'm sorry for being so pushy on you last night, and asking, you know, that question. I hope you weren't too pissed at me."
Abe shrugged a shoulder. "Pissed" wasn't all he'd felt. Embarrassed, confused, weak, not that he'd admit all that.
Monica fiddled with the drawstring on her sweat-pants. "Late last night, I talked a while with my sister — she's home from college for the weekend — she's a psych major. She said you're probably too sensitive from, you know, the war and all, and losing your whole family."
Abe huffed. That wasn't it. Everybody thought they had the answers. Anyway, he was over that stuff. Meeting George had given him a new life. Getting therapy right after he'd gotten to America had helped him cope.
When Abe didn't reply, Monica continued, "My sister told me, 'If you really like him, you should give him more time.'"
Abe grinned, only on the inside. Thank God for sisters. "So," he said, giving up a mere fraction of control, "are we still going out or what?"
"If you still want to," she said.
"I'll think about it," he droned. Then his voice got deep. "One thing's for sure —"
"What?" Monica asked, with a coy smile.
Abe bounced up off the mat and faced her. "Don't you ever accuse me of being gay and don't be getting everybody laughing at me again."
Monica's mouth dropped in shock. As Abe headed to the track, he heard, "I'm sorry!"
"Moan ee cah," he said silently.
The 55-meter hurdles event always came first. The aluminum hurdles were so big and unwieldy, that the officials needed time to set them up precisely before the meet began. The first indoor meet last month was a fiasco. Abe was leading going over the fourth hurdle, then the fifth one came too soon after. The officials had lined up the hurdles a foot short! All the runners fell over them. The guy in last place ended up winning. He'd seen what happened and just jumped over the mess of hurdles and bodies on the track. Abe's coach argued for a re-race, but the meet went on. That loss ruined Abe's undefeated season before it even began.
Abe jogged over the hurdles, getting loose, keeping his knees high. Coach was talking to that guy from Temple again. Temple was one of the three schools Abe visited last summer. The recruiter lifted his chin and grinned. Abe curtly nodded back. Abe couldn't keep the NCAA rules straight — "contact period," "quiet period," "dead period," huh, nice term, "dead period."
Now, as he and his opponents set up in their starting blocks, Abe spied Monica near the finish line. She'd pulled off her warm-ups and was looking fine in her red and gold crop top. Wow, he recalled,sheapologized tome!Hey — snap back, he scolded himself. He'd have serious competition today, not only from Khalid. The guy racing in the other center lane had legs up to his ears. Last time they raced, the officials had to watch the slow motion video to announce that Abe did in fact take first place.
The official took his position at the starting line. He raised his gun straight up and said, "Runners, take your mark ... CLICK."
Excerpted from Abe in Arms by Pegi Deitz Shea. Copyright © 2010 PM Press. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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