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Twelve years later
"If you could change one thing about your life, what would it be?" Aja read the question in Cosmo magazine out loud as she sat waiting for her sister.
"Well, that's easy," she answered. "I'd take the gun from my daddy and shoot him instead. Maybe my life would've turned out a whole lot different." Aja didn't realize she was talking to herself. The puzzled look from the elderly lady passing by made her snap out of her vengeful thoughts. She managed a slight smile at the woman as she imagined how she looked, sitting there talking to herself. Probably like I belong here.
Aja closed the magazine and glanced around the lobby of Memorial Greens. She hated coming to this place. It was heartbreaking to watch the people wander aimlessly about, some muttering to themselves, some in their own world, and others with no idea who they were or why they were even here.
If only I could get Jada out of here. If only things could be different.
But they couldn't. Aja had come to terms with that fact years ago. It had been six years since her sister was committed, and Aja knew it was for the best.
"Good morning, Miss Ah-jah. Your sister will be out shortly." Aja hated the commanding, bullish tone of Jada's primary nurse, Mrs. Overton. The fifty-nine-year-old, 220-pound woman looked like a prison warden. Her beady eyes seemed buried in her head and her thick, bushy eyebrows met just above the bridge of her nose, forming a V. She wore her long, stringy gray hair tied back in a bun. Her nostrils were permanently flared.
"It's A-ja, like the country, Asia, with a J." Why must they go through this every time? It's like that woman was doing this on purpose. The nurse shot a fake smile before spinning around to go back to her station.
Aja sat near the window that overlooked the large courtyard, where she and Jada had spent many evenings. They both loved the shade the sycamore tree provided from the hot summer sun. With the high humidity, it could get unbearable sometimes. But for the most part, it was always extremely soothing to sit outside.
Even though Jada seemed to be improving, it hurt Aja's heart to see her sister here. After their mother died, their father was sent to prison and Aja and her siblings were shipped off to different relatives. Aja stayed in Houston and finished high school, living with her father's sister. Jada was sent to Alabama to live with another aunt and Eric was sent to Chicago with an uncle. Their mother was an only child, so Aja, Eric, and Jada had to grow up with their father's family, which wasn't easy because all of his relatives thought he should be forgiven. And for Aja, that simply wasn't happening.
At first, everyone thought Jada was simply traumatized. After the shooting, she barely talked for months. At their mother's funeral, she sat emotionless and didn't shed a tear or say a word. It was a silence that had stayed with her, even through her horrible nightmares when the only sounds she made were screams in the middle of the night. She was withdrawn at school, speaking only when absolutely necessary. They even placed her in a special school after she refused to do her work. After a year, relatives started suggesting to Aunt Millicent that Jada get help.
"That child don't need to see no head doctor," Aunt Millicent would always say. "Ain't nothing wrong with her that time can't heal."
But time didn't heal her. In fact, as more time passed, the more Jada withdrew. Eventually, she just stopped talking altogether. When she tried to slit her wrists at the age of twelve, Aunt Millicent knew there was no other choice.
Luckily, Aja managed to convince her aunt to let Jada come back to Houston, where the mental health facilities were among the best in the world not to mention that Aja could be close to her sister. In actuality, Aja thought Aunt Millicent was relieved. She didn't know how to handle Jada. Plus, she had already raised eight children and wasn't too happy about having to take Jada in the first place.
"You have exactly two hours." Nurse Overton's deep voice jolted Aja out of her thoughts. The nurse was gone before Aja could even say thanks.
Aja saw her sister, Jada, standing in the entrance of the hospital lobby. She looked like an angel in the white sundress Aja had recently bought her for her eighteenth birthday. Jada's long, golden brown hair was pulled back and tied with a matching white ribbon. Her caramel complexion was free of the acne that had plagued her early teen years. Had it not been for her eyes, Jada would have looked like a normal, pretty teenager blossoming into a woman. But her eyes revealed the real story they were sunken and dark, like they were being swallowed by her face. The light that was there as a child had burned out long ago.
"Hi there." Aja walked over to hug and kiss her sister on the cheek. "You look great. Let's go to our favorite spot."
Aja took Jada's hand and the two of them walked outside to the bench under the tree. It was the same thing every Saturday afternoon Aja seldom missed a week. Coming here was important to her and she felt to Jada as well. During their visits, Aja would recount her week, all the while trying to remain upbeat and as if nothing was wrong. Today, as usual, Jada said nothing and Aja continued talking. She knew she was rambling but she knew that sooner or later her weekly conversations would get through to her sister, so she never let up.
"...and Mrs. Atkins, you remember her she used to live across the street. She up and got married. Seventy-nine years old and she gets married to a fifty-six-year-old man. I can't buy a date and here she is getting married." Aja laughed. While she tried to joke about being dateless, it did bother her. She wanted a family of her own one day, but at the rate she was going, it would never happen.
Aja continued talking, stroking Jada's thick hair as she made conversation. People always used to tell them they had "good hair" because it was long and wavy something they inherited from their father's Indian ancestors. Her great-grandmother was Cherokee, and although she never met her, Aja was sure that's where her butterscotch color and reddish brown hair came from.
Aja had taken pride in her hair when she was a teenager, until one day her mother got angry because Aja kept telling a friend she had "bad hair" because it was short and kinky. Her mother told her there was no such thing as "good hair" that was just something society used to unfairly label people. Since then, Aja had worn her hair shoulder length and kept it dyed dark brown.
"Jada, did I tell you I got a cat?" Aja stopped rubbing her sister's hair and they were now face-to-face. "This guy at work gave her to me because he moved someplace they can't have pets. I named her Simba. She's a beautiful, gray-colored calico. I never in a million years thought I would own a cat. I'm a dog person myself. Remember that dog we used to have? The Labrador, Cooter?"
Aja looked at her sister to see if there was some sign that she was taking it all in. There was none. Aja continued her stories, telling Jada about her plans for the weekend and the leak in her kitchen sink. Through each anecdote, Jada sat with a blank stare on her face.
It was difficult for Aja to keep up her enthusiasm. As a child, Jada had been very talkative. She'd constantly gotten on Aja's nerves. Jada's response to everything had been "Why?" Aja smiled as she recalled how absolutely crazy it had driven her. Now what she wouldn't give to hear her sister say that one little word.
After another hour of talking, Aja got up to go. "Well, I hate to run, but I've got to stop by the office and check on some clients." Aja reached into her big DKNY tote bag and pulled out a plastic shopping bag. "But you know I brought you something." She pulled a long, light pink silk dress out of the plastic bag and held it up. "I got it on sale at this boutique when I went to New York last week. I'm so glad they let you wear your own clothes here. I know how you like to look pretty."
Jada slowly reached up to touch the dress. She gently ran her hand over the fabric. For a moment, Aja thought she saw a twinkle in her sister's eyes, but it passed so quickly, Aja wasn't sure if she had imagined the whole thing.
"Yeah, see how nice and soft it is. That's what sold me on it. I bet it'll feel good on you. Will you wear it for me next Saturday?"
Please God, let her say something. Jada just kept gently rubbing the dress.
"Okay, then," Aja said, trying not to let her disappointment show. "We'd better go. Nurse Overton will be calling out the dogs in a minute."
Aja put the dress back in the plastic bag and helped her sister up. Together they walked back up the path to Memorial Greens.
As Aja waved good-bye she yelled, "Next time, I'll bring Eric."
She knew that was a long shot. The last time he'd come, Jada had sat in a trance and Eric had left in tears. That was more than a year ago. He hadn't been back, saying he couldn't stand it. Aja had been working to convince him to come again, but he had problems of his own. Problems that were another story entirely.
Copyright © 2003 by ReShonda Tate Billingsley