Shayla's Double Brown Baby Blues

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Overview


Things are changing for thirteen-year-old Shayla Dubois, no matter how hard she tries to fight it. Her father and his new wife have a baby girl named Gift -- born on Shayla's own birthday. Gift has Shayla's special eyes (the eyes of a writer), her father's last name, and the love that should have been Shayla's. But jealousy is the least of Shayla's problems. Someone's been sending her best friend, Kambia Elaine, cruel packages that remind Kambia of her traumatic past. There is also Shayla's new friend Lemm who ...

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Overview


Things are changing for thirteen-year-old Shayla Dubois, no matter how hard she tries to fight it. Her father and his new wife have a baby girl named Gift -- born on Shayla's own birthday. Gift has Shayla's special eyes (the eyes of a writer), her father's last name, and the love that should have been Shayla's. But jealousy is the least of Shayla's problems. Someone's been sending her best friend, Kambia Elaine, cruel packages that remind Kambia of her traumatic past. There is also Shayla's new friend Lemm who makes her skin tingle in the weirdest way. He's handsome, smart, smooth talking, and has demons of his own to hide. But in order to help her friends, Shayla must first learn how to help herself.

Thirteen-year-old Shayla is upset when her estranged father's new baby is born on her birthday, but she learns that her problems are nothing compared to those faced by her friends Kambia and Lemm.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In the sequel to When Kambia Elaine Flew in from Neptune, "The 13-year-old smart, sensitive heroine must grapple with even more complicated feelings and again decide what it means to be a true friend," said PW. "Her strong sense of self and the poetic language she uses to pinpoint her feelings will keep readers enraptured." Ages 12-up. (Apr.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Publishers Weekly
Williams picks up where she left off in her stunning debut novel (When Kambia Elaine Flew in From Neptune), chronicling the complicated summer of 13-year-old Shayla. The smart, sensitive narrator is still trying to help Kambia recover from years of abuse but, as the story opens, Shayla's mostly absent father and his wife give birth to a new baby girlAon Shayla's birthday. When she befriends Lemm, a new classmate with an alcohol problem, the heroine must grapple with even more complicated feelings and again decide, as she did with Kambia, what it means to be a true friend. There are more subplots than in the previous novel (e.g., Kambia begins receiving mysterious packages containing painful fragments from her past; Lemm's family history grows complicated) and more characters to keep track of here (a cameo appearance by Shayla's ex-girlfriends and their new beaux), and so much tragedy that the story almost becomes surreal. Some readers may have difficulty keeping up (especially those who did not read the first book), but Shayla's strong sense of self and the poetic language she uses to pinpoint her feelings will keep readers enraptured. The chapters sometimes begin with the pieces written by Shayla, an aspiring writer; through them, and through the similes she pens in her journal ("Regret is flowing through me like dirty bathwater"), readers see her working through her problems. While the courtroom drama involving Lemm at the conclusion feels a little trite, Williams does not present easy answers. Readers will feel the undercurrent of authenticity in her characters and situations throughout the novel. Ages 12-up. (Sept.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Children's Literature
Shayla's father and new wife have a new baby named Gift Marie—a baby who had the nerve to be born on Shayla's thirteenth birthday. Shayla's father, whom she calls Mr. Anderson Fox, has never had much time for Shayla, but now he appears to be ready and willing to be the perfect father to baby Gift. Mr. Anderson Fox is a player, though, and can't seem to settle down with one woman. Shayla's feelings of envy eventually turn to those of commiseration with the new baby. Meanwhile, Shayla has severe trials on a different front. Her friends Kambia and Lemm each have terrifying demons from the past to deal with. Both friends are trying to survive abusive childhoods. Acting as Shayla's guidepost is her Grandma Augustine, a wizened woman whose advice often annoys Shayla, yet proves to be always on target. This novel is the companion book to the author's initial offering, When Kambia Elaine Flew in from Neptune. 2001, Simon & Schuster, $17.00. Ages 12 up. Reviewer: Christopher Moning
VOYA
"He promised her the earth, but all he gave her was a handful of dirt," is how Williams sums up thirteen-year-old Shayla Dubois's relationship with her heartbreaking father. Shayla has never had a good association with her father, Mr. Anderson Fox. By his own reckoning, he has fathered eight children and really did not want any of them. When Fox has a new baby girl named Gift, however, he becomes a loving, doting father almost overnight. Shayla is jealous, and it does not help that Gift shares her birthday and looks a lot like her. Jealousy, however, is the least of Shayla's problems. Although Shayla's best friend Kambia seems to be adjusting well after surviving a prolonged period of sexual abuse, menacing packages that arrive on Kambia's doorstep leave her fighting for her sanity. A smooth-talking boy named Lemm also complicates Shayla's life. Lemm is an excellent student and is genuinely sweet, but his problems with alcohol and his disturbing past put Shayla in the position of having to choose between her integrity and their friendship. A poetically written and powerful novel, this sequel to When Kambia Elaine Flew in from Neptune (Simon & Schuster, 2000/VOYA April 2000) has a lyrical quality and emotional honesty similar to Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Random House, 1969). Darker elements such as parental neglect, alcoholism, and sexual abuse are handled delicately yet candidly. Although Shayla seems almost too wise and mature for her age at times, this poignant novel works well both as a sequel and alone. VOYA CODES: 4Q 3P J S (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; Will appeal with pushing; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9; Senior High,defined as grades 10 to 12). 2001, Simon & Schuster, 300p, $17. Ages 12 to 18. Reviewer: Rebecca Van Dan
KLIATT
To quote KLIATT's July 2001 review of the hardcover edition: This is a sequel to the prize-winning When Kambia Elaine Flew in from Neptune, and it picks up the story just months after Kambia finds help in a loving foster family. Shayla is still narrating, and now at 13 she seems more like a teenager than a child, which puts this more firmly in the YA novel category. The problems with her older sister are now replaced by problems accepting a new sister, Gift, the child of her philandering father. Shayla is consumed by anger and jealousy, seeing the father's love that was never hers. Shayla's problems with accepting Gift are eclipsed by her confusion and concern about Kambia's relapse into madness and the desperate alcoholism of Shayla's new friend Lemm. Kambia starts receiving packages containing terribly disturbing items from her days as a child prostitute—each time one arrives she retreats into a trance-like state. This becomes a mystery to solve: who is torturing Kambia in this bizarre manner? YAs could easily begin with this book; it is not necessary to have read the first one. The cover, a photograph of an African American teenage girl, is definitely attractive. The characters and the plot are riveting; and Williams' writing, filled with colorful phrases and vivid images, makes these characters, their neighborhood, and their problems unforgettable to a wide readership, both those who are familiar with such neighborhoods and those who are not. KLIATT Codes: J*—Exceptional book, recommended for junior high school students. 2001, Simon & Schuster, Pulse, 300p.,
— Claire Rosser
School Library Journal
Gr 6-10-At thirteen, Shayla DuBois is having trouble dealing with the arrival of another half-sister, and her own emerging womanhood, but there are other challenges that contribute to Shayla's Double Brown Baby Blues (S&S, 2001.) Lori Aurelia Williams continues the story she began in When Kambia Elaine Flew in from Neptune (S&S, 2000; SLJ, June 2001, p. 76 ) as Shayla copes with the realities of alcohol abuse, guns, and prostitution. Both stories are set in a tough Houston neighborhood, where level-headed Shayla does well in school, and she's close to several strong women, including her religious grandmother. Still, it's hard to make good choices, and she finds herself in some potentially dangerous situations. Shayla is deeply affected by the mental illness that continues to haunt her best friend, Kambia, and the drinking problem of a new boy, Lemm. She is also trying to address her angry feelings toward her often-absent father. Both dramatic events and everyday worries are presented with lots of street savvy dialogue. Actress Heather Alicia Simms narrates the text with a laid-back, languorous style that fits the story's youthful characters and its Texas origins. The cover photograph conveys the inner struggles of the African-American protagonist, and the case and cassettes are sturdy and have good information. Young adult audiences in urban public and school libraries will relate to Shayla and her friends. Teens in all settings can learn from her determination to do what is right, rather than what is popular.-Barbara Wysocki, Cora J. Belden Library, Rocky Hill, CT Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
This sequel to When Kambia Elaine Flew in from Neptune (2000) stands firmly on its own merits. In the summer of Shayla's 13th birthday, she faces her painful relationship with her father, the nature of friendship, and her own developing identity. Through Shayla's eyes, readers watch her family and friends take on adventures in which they never leave their neighborhood but still solve mysteries and make discoveries about themselves and others. The reader is sucked into the lives of this family that nothing keeps down for long-not poverty, not personal betrayals, not their own frailties. Besides Shayla and her folks, Kambia Elaine is back, having loving parents now but still a victim, this time of a chain of cruel pranks. And Shayla reluctantly befriends Lemm, a boy with the gift of gab and a bag full of troubles, who makes Shayla's skin tingle in the weirdest way when their hands touch. In this character-driven book, there are occasional contrivances of plot and at least one big coincidence. And yes, the ending may be a little too happy to be totally believable. But these are minor faults in a wonderfully noteworthy effort. Characters are defined through descriptive language, pithy sayings, and artfully constructed dialog. The text is lushly descriptive, filled with eloquent, evocative similes and metaphors. Though many of the events in the book are serious, this is not a depressing read-there are touches of lightness and humor and an ending filled with hope. A fine second effort from a promising author. (Fiction. YA)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780689824692
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers
  • Publication date: 9/1/2001
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Pages: 304
  • Age range: 12 years
  • Lexile: 850L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 6.56 (w) x 9.58 (h) x 1.03 (d)

Meet the Author

Lori Aurelia Williams is the author of When Kambia Elaine Flew In from Neptune and Shayla's Double Brown Baby Blues. She holds a master's degree in English from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was awarded both a James A. Michener Fellowship and a scholarship in creative writing. Born in Houston, Lori Aurelia Williams lives in Austin.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

A daughter was born last Saturday night to Mr. Anderson Fox, my so-called father, and his new wife, Jada. She came into this world at 11:35 P.M. on the exact day that I was born thirteen years ago. Her mother named her Gift, Gift Marie. It was a name that popped into her head the day after she took a bad tumble down Peachtree Hill. She was on her way to Bobby's New Fish Shack to get his all-you-can-eat catfish platter. It was raining, and the heel of her leather pump just slipped right out from underneath her. Before she knew it, she had rolled headfirst down the slick hill and landed on her belly in a patch of soggy bluebonnets. She was pretty messed up. Two of the brothers that worked down at the shack had to pick her up. They drove her to the emergency room with Gift cramping something terrible in her stomach. In fact, Gift continued to cause her a lot of pain long after she was admitted to the hospital. The doctors said that Gift wasn't doing too well inside her stomach. All kinds of things were torn loose. Gift had to come out.

They took her out four weeks early. She was quiet and sickly, and refused to take her mother's breast. The doctors and nurses didn't expect her to make it through the night. They were pretty sure that before dawn broke the next morning, the Shadow of Death would be walking across her face.

But things didn't happen the way anyone expected. The next morning little Gift was lively and well. She had fought and kicked her way through the night with a determination that the hospital staff said they had never seen in a baby as beat up as she was.

"It's a miracle," one of the nurses told Jada. "She truly is a gift from God." Apparently Jada thought so too — that's why she named her Gift, but I don't think that she's a present.

This morning when Grandma made me go with her to visit Gift at the hospital, all I saw was a tiny bundle of wrinkled tan skin, short, curly black hair, and deep brown doe eyes. It was those eyes that made me shudder. Even from birth I could tell that they were special eyes. They were dissecting eyes, eyes that could take all the pieces of you apart, examine them, and put them back together to tell a story, your story. They were the eyes of a writer, my eyes.

As I stood there staring at them behind the nursery viewing window it occurred to me that Mr. Anderson Fox had found yet another slick-as-okra way to get over. He couldn't find a way to play me like he had played Mama, so he had just tossed me aside and created a new model. He wouldn't rebuild the fences that he had torn down with me. He would just put up new ones with Gift. I didn't want to, but I felt angrier than I had ever felt in my life watching him with his big toothy grin, sitting in an oversize rocker, holding her up high for all the world to see. He held her tenderly, his huge hands cradling the back of her head gently, as if she were as fragile as a baby sparrow. His searchlight eyes were beaming with pride, something that they had never beamed with for me. It was more than I could stand, and even though I knew that it would make Grandma madder than a bull in a rodeo, I backed away from the window and started to leave.

But as soon as I walked away from her side, Mr. Anderson Fox handed Gift to a friendly-looking nurse and raced out of the side door to meet me, still wearing his paper nursery-room gown. I sped up, but he caught up to me as I reached the double doors of the elevator. As usual, I didn't want him to know that he had any power over my feelings at all. I took a deep breath and pulled my mouth into my fake daughter smile.

ar

"Did you see her?" he asked excitedly. "Did you see her?"

I nodded my head. "Yes, Daddy, I saw her," I replied softly. "I saw her."

"She something else, ain't she?" he asked, his big toothy grin spreading wide across his smooth face in an earnest smile for maybe the first time in his life. "Ain't she special? Don't you think she the cutest baby you ever seen?"

"Aw, I don't know, Daddy. I guess she's all right for a baby. You know, at that age they all kinda look alike. It's not that much to see."

"You don't think so, really?" he asked. His smile fell for just a moment, but a second later it was right back up. He glanced back at the nursery. "Naw, she's special. She different from all them other babies in there. You can tell. Just look at her. They ain't got nothing on her." He turned back to me. "You'll see. Your sister gonna be something great. Before you know, she gonna rule the world, have everybody doing what she say."

"I guess, Daddy," I said, desperately reaching for the elevator button. "I guess."

"Yeah, she gonna rule the world," he repeated. "I tell you it's something. I was hoping for a boy, but I'm pretty glad I got me another baby girl. Ain't that nice? You having another sister, a little sister. Now you gonna be able to teach her stuff just like your sister, Tia, taught you." He broke into a fit of laughter. "You know what? You can even teach her about that writing stuff. Your mama say you real good at that. Maybe you can teach her about that. It'll be good, you and her doing the same thing."

"It would be great," I lied. I looked away for a moment and stared up at the glowing red light over the double elevator doors. I swallowed hard again. The elevator wasn't the only thing with buttons that were lighting up red. My buttons were lighting up too. I could feel Mr. Anger making his way into my eyes in his anger suit. "I gotta go, Daddy. I got some stuff I need to do today. I told Mama that I would help her out with some things."

"Are you sure?" he asked, actually looking disappointed. "The baby is doing real well. They not gonna hook her up to anything else. Maybe I can see if they'll let you hold her."

No, I don't want to hold her, not now or ever! I heard Mr. Anger shout, but I just looked away again.

I glanced down the hall past Grandma and several goofy-acting adults lined up in front of the glass windows waving and making funny faces at the mostly sleeping infants. I saw Jada, wearing a gown similar to Mr. Anderson Fox's, being wheeled toward the nursery by a heavyset nurse with a dingy white uniform that looked like it could use a dip or two in bleach. I felt like rolling my eyes and screaming at Jada that she had no right to create Gift, but there was no way that I would actually do it.

Even though I was still up against a rock on how I felt about Mr. Anderson Fox, I was pretty sure that I liked Jada. She was young, really young, barely twenty-four. She was a smart, petite sister with looks that any chick would be seriously envious of, but she wasn't stuck on herself or anything. She didn't dis other girls or act like she was better than them. She wasn't like that. She was really down-to-earth, kind to everyone. She even helped out twice a month at a new homeless food bank in her hood. She cooked vegetables, washed pans, and even mopped up after everyone else was gone. Everything about her was really cool. The few times that Grandma had dragged me over to her house to see Mr. Anderson Fox, she had been very polite and friendly. She had even asked me about myself and listened while I told her, something Mr. Anderson Fox had never done. "Anderson didn't tell me that you liked to write. He told me that he thought you wanted to be a nurse or something. Good for you. It's always great to have a dream. I'd love to hear some of your stories sometime," she said in a voice that sounded so sincere it immediately won both me and Grandma over. In fact, Jada has pretty much won all of us over, even Mama, who's still put out with Mr. Anderson Fox for playing her and pretending that he wanted to get back together with her.

"She's a good girl," Mama said the first time that she met her. "She's much better than your daddy deserves, and that's a fact, but according to your grandma, the Bible says that God smiles on the bad and the good alike."

I couldn't be mad at Jada. It wasn't her fault that she fell in love with Mr. Anderson Fox. I'm not sure whose fault it was. I pushed the elevator button again. A loud ding sounded and the door whooshed open. A serious-looking doctor with a coarse beard and stern, dark eyes stepped off. He muttered a low hello and pushed past me. I returned the greeting and stepped through the open doors.

"Good-bye, Daddy," I said. "I'll see ya later."

Mr. Anderson Fox opened his mouth to say something more, but Grandma hollered and cut him off. "Wait up, Shayla," she yelled, coming up the hall in her flowered duster, shaking her cane. "Don't you go nowhere without me." I placed my hand in the door to keep it from closing and waited for her to join me. She hobbled up shortly. "Anderson, your wife is asking for you," she said to Mr. Anderson Fox. "You better go see what she want."

"Okay," Mr. Anderson Fox said. "I'll be right there. How you doing?"

"Oh, I guess I ain't about to slip away. Ain't nothing on me completely broke down. So I figure I'm doing all right." She pointed her finger at him. "That's a fine baby your wife done give you. You treat her well. You treat her like a child ought to be treated."

"Don't you worry about that. Don't you worry about that at all. She'll be well looked after. I'll see y'all later. And don't forget, y'all come by and see the baby as much as you want." He took a few quick steps down the hallway and turned back. "Ain't it great? You and your little sister having the same birthday. Ain't that funny? Who woulda seen something like that coming. Life sure is strange sometimes." He winked one of his searchlight eyes at me. "Yeah, it's great," he said happily, starting to walk off down the hallway again. "Yeah, it really is great."

Grandma Augustine stepped into the elevator and the door slid closed. I pushed a button that said GROUND and the car started to descend.

"Yeah, it's freaking great," I said under my breath. "It's just freaking great."

"You be careful," Grandma said sternly. "I seen the way that you were looking at that baby. You ain't being right. That child is your sister, and I know that you don't like it, but she ain't going nowhere. It may not be fair, but she got as much right to life as you do. Don't let your feelings for your daddy get in the way of you having feelings for her. Do you understand me?"

I bit my tongue and looked down at my feet. Of course I understood her. I knew that Gift had a right to life. I just didn't think that she had a right to mine. She had no right to my birthday, no right to my eyes, and no right to the father that I wasn't even sure I wanted. I just couldn't believe it. I had never seen Mr. Anderson Fox so happy. Grandma was right. It wasn't fair. Gift should have been born into her own life, not mine. Because of Gift misery was spreading through me like a virus.

"Grandma, I don't want to talk about it," I mumbled. "Just leave it alone, okay? She may be his daughter, but she's no sister of mine."

Grandma shook her head. The elevator slowly eased to a stop on a street-level floor located beneath the hospital. The doors started to slide open, but she reached over and pushed the green Close Door button and they slid back together again. She placed her callused hand on my arm. I continued to stare at my feet.

"Baby, this is only a little rain," she whispered soothingly. "That's all it is. It's just a little rain, no more. Don't you turn it into a storm. Don't you let them dark clouds hover over you and block out all of the good in you. You knew this was coming. You had eight months to know that that child was gonna be here. Now she's here."

"On my birthday," I mumbled. "Why couldn't she have been born on her own day?"

Grandma started to rub my arm lightly. "I'm sorry, sugar," she said. "Like I said, I know this ain't fair. But trust me, baby. There ain't too much that is."

"Grandma, I said that I didn't want to talk about it," I repeated. I pushed the Open Door button. The doors slid aside to reveal a packed doctors' parking lot filled with shiny, new-looking cars. Nailed to a concrete pillar in the center of the lot was a metal sign with the words this way to bus stop. I stepped out of the elevator and started toward it, but Grandma caught me by the shoulder.

"You know," she said, starting one of her childhood stories, "when I was a little girl growing up back there in Deer County, Texas, I had the same kinds of dreams as other little girls. I wanted just what they wanted."

"Grandma," I whined loudly.

"I wanted just what the other girls wanted," she continued. "Even though I was a shy little thing, and not much interested in boys, I dreamed of growing up, getting me a fine man, and having me a big, beautiful wedding, like most of the girls in my town. On the day of my wedding I would be something really special, something great, like a princess or a queen."

"Grandma, what does this have to do with anything?" I snapped. "We're going to miss the bus."

"Wait just one minute, missy. You just let me say what I got to say first. Anyhow," she continued, "things went just like I wanted. I fell in love with your grandfather. He was a good man, and not too long after we starting courting, he asked me to go down the aisle with him. I couldn't wait. It was just what I wanted. I planned and planned and planned. I had it all — a lovely gown made from cloth taken from my own grandma's wedding dress, six pretty bridesmaids, a nice big three-layer cake, plenty of homemade decorations, and several beautiful flower arrangements. I was ready to be a wife. I had everything set, but then things fell apart."

"What happened?" I asked, trying to hurry things along.

"Well, there wasn't but one colored church in Deer County," she said. "It was the only place where black folks could exchange vows. It was a fine church, but it was tiny and hand-me-down poor, with just one room and an old outhouse in the back. It was barely big enough to turn around in, and because of it we couldn't get no steady preacher. There just wasn't enough money to pay him, and no place for him to sleep. Even a man of God got to eat and have some place to live. Only John the Baptist could get away with eating locusts and sleeping under the stars."

"Grandma," I whined again. "Hurry up."

"I'm getting there, baby. Well, since we didn't have no coins to toss at his feet, all we could get was a little preacher with hair about as gray as mine. He lived in another town miles away. He came every other month and stayed just as long as it took to make sure that folks knew what path they were supposed to be taking. He was a good man, a kind old fellow who did everything from marrying to burying to settling squabbles between folks, and he did it for absolutely nothing."

"That's good, Grandma. Thanks for the story, but I'm going."

She tightened her grip on my arm. "No, you ain't. You just let me finish. I'll pull things together for you directly," she said. "It was three days before my wedding when the tomatoes started to rot. Old Mr. Murdy, who lived down by Bluefish Creek, was on his way home from a coon hunt when he had a heart attack and fell plumb dead right out in the woods, in the middle of one of the worst floods we had ever had in Deer County. It was two long days before anybody could get to him, and by then he looked pretty bad. He had to be put in the ground, and soon. It just wasn't no two or three ways about it. His funeral had to be the next day. My wedding day."

"I'm sorry, Grandma," I said softly, and I genuinely started to feel sorry for her.

"You," she said, shaking her head. "Lord, I cried and cried and cried. I swear I cried more tears than the water that fell from that storm. Things went from perfect to just a big ole mess in such a short while — and it was too late too call it off. Mama and her sisters had cooked up a ton of wedding food, and Christian kinfolk had come from all over Texas to see a church wedding. Good grief, I called old Murdy everything that I could think of. I even wished that he would end up in hell, instead of heaven, but it didn't make no difference. On the day of my wedding your granddaddy and I stood in the center of the aisle and said our ?I do's' with Mr. Murdy's casket just a baby step away. I was pure broke down by the whole thing. I really wished that I was the one that was going into the ground instead of him.

"But here's the thing. On the way out of the church my mama took me aside and told me just what I'm about to tell you. 'No day belongs to you. They all belong to the Almighty. He decides what happens and what don't happen on his day, you don't. Now, you just remember that and be glad for what you got, 'cause you didn't have to have nothing.' Ain't nothing promised to you, baby," she said, rubbing my arm again. "I know that you still ain't got much for God and all, so let me just repeat: This is only a little rain in your life. Don't you make it into a storm. You deal with this like you deal with everything else — with a level head and common sense. You can get through this, sugar. It ain't the end of the world. It ain't the end of anything. Don't worry about the things that you can't change."

"All right, it's okay, Grandma," I lied, not wanting to hurt her after she had shared such a sad tale. "I see your point. Like you said, it's not the end of the world. I won't worry," I said, starting off through the parking lot. "I promise I won't."

But I did worry; in fact, on the humid, un-air-conditioned bus ride back to the neighborhood, worry is all I did. I sat quietly in my vinyl seat staring through the foggy bus windows at the blistering summer sun and thinking about Gift. Grandma didn't understand. It wasn't just that I was upset with Gift's birth. Gift had stirred up too many questions in me. What did it really mean that she was born on the same day as me? Who was I supposed to be now? I didn't know. Grandma hadn't thought about bringing it up, but yes, there had been other daughters born to Mr. Anderson Fox before Gift. I personally knew of at least three, all with Mr. Anderson Fox's smooth brown skin, sculpted cheekbones, and big toothy grin. They were the daughters that he had had with other unlucky women who had been foolish enough to fall for his baby-I'm-all-you-need charm, like Mama. But they weren't true Shaylas. They were all imitations — until now, until Gift, born with my eyes, on my day, to take my place. She was different from the others. Mr. Anderson Fox had never really claimed any of them, hardly even knew their names, but he knew Gift's. He was proud of her. She was his new Shayla, the one that he could shape and mold into anything that he wanted, the one that would be happy to call him Daddy.

I pulled up the tail of my cotton T-shirt and fanned it back and forth. For a moment I imagined myself burning up from the heat, my flesh melting, sliding from me like candle wax, my bones turning into ash and blowing away like Kambia used to say she could do when she had on her magic purple bracelet. Would I still be me afterward? Would there still be a Shayla? Up until this morning I would have said no, but I couldn't anymore. I wiped my sweaty brow with the back of my hand and tried to project myself to a nicer place; lately it would have been school. I had volunteered for a special summer-school program for smart kids, and I really liked it, but things were kind of a mess there, too.

The mess was Lemm Turley, the new boy in the Bottom, our hood. He was from a small town somewhere in Texas. He was my homeroom buddy, assigned by my teacher, Mrs. Luna, who thought that it would be a nice idea for me to show him around, since I was one of the best scholars at our school.

He was the same age as me, okay looking with a cleft chin, a small overbite, and intense chestnut eyes. He was totally smart, and he would have been cool, but he was an "always kid": always on time for school, always knew all the right answers to questions, always volunteering to help hand out materials, always eager to share his school supplies. He also had kind of a charm rap like Mr. Anderson Fox that he used on everyone, but it mostly worked on the girls and the female teachers, especially the older ones. He was forever complimenting them on their hair, makeup, and clothes, telling them how attractive they were, using really proper speech. "Oh, you look darling today, Ms. Sanders," he would say to our elderly music teacher. "Your gray hair reminds me of silvery moonlight." Or "Aren't you a dear," he would say to Ms. Edwards, our aging librarian. "Your face is more beautiful than a love poem." He laid it on as often and as thick as he could when he saw the senior ladies, sometimes even telling them that he just didn't understand why they had settled for being teachers when they could have been models, actresses, or even movie stars. My stomach hurt every time I heard one of the fake statements come out of his mouth. Sometimes I made gagging noises behind his back, but I would never have considered making them to his face.

The truth of the matter is I felt a little sorry for Lemm. According to the neighborhood, he had had a pretty crappy life. He was the only surviving child of three children, the other two kids having been a pair of younger twin girls. Lemm's mother ran off two years ago when the twins were born. Folks say that for some strange reason she just went stone crazy after their birth. She didn't want to breast-feed either one of them, refused to pick them up, and turned a deaf ear when they cried. She said that she just couldn't handle being a wife and a mother anymore, said she felt all tied up inside, like there was something holding her down, and no matter how hard she struggled, she couldn't get free. So she just up and left one Monday morning while Lemm was at school. She walked right out of the door, leaving her babies in their bassinets, wet and screaming.

After she left, Lemm's father took to drinking. He was messed up over his wife leaving, so Lemm got stuck taking care of the twins. He dropped them off at day care before he went to school, and picked them up when he got home. He was both father and mother, the only one that they could count on to bring them a bottle during the night.

But one afternoon things went from bad to worse. One of the babies at the twins' day care came down with something really nasty, and the rest of the kids had to be picked up immediately. Lemm's class was away on a field trip, so the school called his dad instead. Although he was smashed, Lemm's dad made it to the school just fine that afternoon, and the teachers were in such a hurry to get all of the kids out that they either just didn't notice the state that he was in or simply ignored it because he was only walking home a few blocks with the twins. However it went down, they thought that his taking the twins would be okay. They were wrong. One block from the school Lemm's dad thought that he saw his wife standing in front of a butcher shop across the street from him and stepped right out into the middle of traffic with the twins. A pickup truck plowed into all three of them. Lemm's dad made it, but the twins didn't.

Folks say that the judge wanted to give Lemm's dad a whole bunch of time, but there would have been nobody left to take care of Lemm, so he just gave him several years of probation and ordered him to get off of the drink. They say that he quit drinking the very afternoon of his sentence, but it didn't make much difference because a part of his mind died with the twins. He couldn't even hold down a job, and he and Lemm have been living off government checks since the day he left the courthouse.

I felt real bad for Lemm when I heard the story. I didn't want to be his friend, but I refused to be his enemy.

I leaned my head back against the seat and tried to come up with some place to be other than school. It didn't work, so instead I just thought up a few lines to jot down in my journal when I got home. Shaylas are being created like lizard tails, I would write. You can cut one off, and another will take her place.

A few blocks from my house Grandma Augustine decided to stop at a discount fabric store. We got off the bus and spent the next three hours browsing through sewing catalogs. By the time we stepped through my gate, Mr. Anger was strutting around in my eyes like a school-yard bully just waiting for someone to go off on. I didn't want it to be Grandma, so I skirted past her on the porch steps, yanked open the front door, and went straight to my room. Once inside I took my blue notebook out of the drawer and scrawled down my note. After that I took a cool bath, dressed in a fairly nice linen dress that Mama had bought me at the Goodwill, gave my hair a lick or two with one of Tia's Afro combs, and walked back through the house.

I stopped and peeked into the kitchen. Mama and Tia had gotten up late as usual and were now having their regular afternoon brunch. It's a new tradition for them, actually eating together on Saturdays, trying to mend fences that years of quarreling have trampled down. "It's good," Mama said. "Me and your sister having a meal together without setting each other off. It's the way a mother and daughter should be. I'm really glad that we are starting to get along."

I was glad too. Last year when Tia and Mama had a big fight, and Tia ran off with her boyfriend, Doo-witty, I didn't think I would ever see them sitting together at the breakfast table again. Mama was really pissed at Tia for taking up with Doo-witty, and not just because Doo-witty was twenty-three and Tia was only fifteen. The thing that really tied Mama's hair in a knot was the fact that the entire neighborhood thought Doo-witty was just a big, slow dope who wasn't worth any girl's time, especially not Tia's. Tia was like Jada. She had a great body and a great mind. Tia could choose. Why on earth would she have chosen Doo-witty? Nobody knew — except Tia. Tia knew that Doo-witty was special.

It turned out that Doo-witty was actually a promising artist on his way up. He wasn't the brightest street lamp on the block, but he had skills, and those skills got him into a nice college. When Mama found out about it, she had to ease up on Tia and Doo-witty a little. She didn't like doing it much, but she told Tia just to be careful and protect herself, then she stepped back and let Tia be responsible for whatever cards she pulled from the deck.

I watched the two of them. Mama was sitting at the table in her navy blue grocery stocker's uniform. Her huge hands were shoved into a large silver mixing bowl, busily mixing sticky clumps of white biscuit dough. Tia was standing next to Mama, her catlike eyes watching every move of Mama's hands closely, like an apprentice learning cooking tips from a master chef. Tia was dressed in her strapless Hawaiian-print wrap dress. Her long black braids were tied back with a matching kerchief, and a pair of plastic earrings with pineapples on them clung to each ear. She looked like she was going to have brunch on some tropical island, instead of in our tiny kitchen. She was filling Mama in on what she and Doo-witty had done the night before. I caught a bit of the conversation, something about an art show over on the south side of town and a couple of hot dogs at the downtown Coney Island. "We had a really cool time, Mama," I heard her say. She seemed really happy, and so did Mama — but I wasn't. I walked away from the door and left them to their good times.

I stomped down the steps and left the yard. It was around one o'clock, and nearly everyone in the neighborhood was out. Rusty old cars teeming with smiling faces were zipping down the narrow road, filling the air with smelly exhaust, and clusters of slim teenage girls were gathered on the concrete steps of the paintless shacks weaving strands of fake blond and red hair into their own short, kinky black locks. A few of them waved hello as I passed by. I didn't bother returning the greeting.

I was on my way to see the one person who I knew could make me feel better — Kambia. She simply had to be in a much better mood than I was in. She had something to be in a good mood about. She had gone to school this summer too, and today was her graduation from the Girl Help Center, a girls' school located on the outskirts of our hood. It was run by what Grandma called "fallen redeemed saints," street-smart and educated women who had been locked down for doing all sorts of bad things when they were teens, but who had somehow managed to pull it all together when they got to be adults. They did everything from professional counseling to helping the girls find jobs.

Kambia had gone to the Girl Help Center at the suggestion of her social worker, Miss Sayer, and the police about three weeks after she got out of the hospital. They thought that it would be a good place for her. According to Grandma Augustine, the center was a school for girls who had had the innocence snatched right out of them. It was a private school that usually took only girls whose parents had a pretty good amount of cash to sponsor them, but every once in a while it took in a special little girl like Kambia.

The police say that Kambia is indeed a special and unique girl. She's a girl who seems to have an ending but no beginning. After several months of searching, the police still don't know where she came from, even though they've gone so far as to put her face on TV.

When I first found out that Kambia was going to the center, I wasn't happy about it at all. It meant that we wouldn't be in school together, and I had promised her that I would always be where she was to protect her, but Grandma Augustine made me see the light.

"That girl been torn up every which way a girl can be torn," she said. "She been hurt inside and out by that trashy Jasmine Joiner woman who called herself her mother, and them no-account men. It ain't gonna be easy, but she got to learn how to sew herself back together. You let her go, and let them ladies at the Girl Help Center show her how to do it. You let them show her how to help herself." And that's exactly what I did. I placed Kambia's hands in their hands, and I hoped for the best.

The best is what I got. The ladies at the Girl Help Center were really great with Kambia. They were patient with her and didn't seem to mind at all when she broke into one of her baby games. They made her go to sessions where they taught her how to say how she was feeling inside, and not hold it in until she couldn't stand it anymore and had to get away from it by creating one of her stories. One of the counselors even made her take a trip back to her old house to gather up her things, after the landlord said that he had held her and Jasmine Joiner's belongings long enough and was going to toss them out on the streets. When Kambia was removed from Jasmine Joiner's, she was way too sick to make the trip back for quite a while, and when she did get better, she was too afraid to go and refused to let me or her parents go either. For her, evil was still marching all over Jasmine's house like red ants, and she wanted to make sure that none of us got bitten. But the counselors at the Girl Help Center said that Kambia had to claim her old life before she could throw it away.

"That's the nature of evil," her lead counselor, Mrs. Dreyfus, a plump, tenderhearted woman with three teen girls of her own, said. "You must first get a firm grasp on it before you can push it away. Kambia has to face her Wallpaper Wolves, the men that hurt her, or she will never be rid of them."

"That's true," Grandma Augustine echoed when I told her about what Mrs. Dreyfus had said. "You have to first let the devil know that he got you by the thighbone before you can shake his hands off."

I guess that's what ran through Kambia's mind the day that me and Mrs. Dreyfus waited for her on the front porch of her former house. I guess she was thinking about getting in her wolves' faces for the first time and letting the devil know that she knew that it was really him that had sent them after her, but when she came out of the house, I just couldn't tell. There was a part of her that looked really beat down, like her Wallpaper Wolves had gotten off the wall and jumped her again, and yet another part of her looked like she had finally gotten the best of them. Tears were jumping out of her olive eyes in all directions, sliding down her flushed cheeks and onto her knit blouse, but her thin pink lips were pulled up into a loose smile, a real smile. It was as if happiness and anguish were going toe-to-toe in her soul and she wasn't sure which one deserved to win out.

"Shayla?" she asked, reaching behind her with her free hand to close the screen door. "Do you know why we cry more bad tears than good ones?"

I shook my head. "I don't know. I guess it's because we usually only cry when we're sad. I guess many of us are pretty happy most of the time," I said, reaching around to catch her hand as it pulled away from the door. It suddenly occurred to me that there was nothing in it. There was nothing in either one of her hands. I guessed there wasn't anything she actually wanted to take from the house. She just wanted to get rid of stuff, like Grandma and Mrs. Dreyfus said.

"That's part of it, Shayla," she said, blinking hard to free her eyes from tears.

"It's okay, Kambia," Mrs. Dreyfus said. "There's no shame in crying your pain away. We've all done it plenty of times." She pulled a crumpled tissue out of her jean-skirt pocket and handed it to Kambia. "Just let it all spill out, Kambia. It's good for you. Don't keep anything bottled up on the inside. Do you hear me?"

Kambia nodded. "Did you know that we are born with all the tears we'll ever cry?" she asked me, softly dabbing at the corners of her eyes. "All the tears that will ever pour from our eyes."

"No, I didn't. I didn't know that at all."

"It's true. There are good tears and bad tears, and we are born with all that we will ever have of both. The good tears live in Good-Tear Land," she said, leading me by the hand down the steps. "It's located way back in your head, deep inside the folds of your brain. It's a beautiful, shady place filled with babbling brooks bubbling over with cool lemonade, and fruit trees weighed down with juicy candy apples and chocolate bananas."

"It sounds delicious."

"It is. It's really a very neat, special place for the good tears. They have a very nice life. They live in tiny little houses made of golden thimbles, lined up neatly in a straight line along a street composed of crystal fairy footprints."

"Wow," I said.

"Really wow!" she said, stopping on the last step. "There's no school or work. The tears just lie around all day under the shade of the trees and eat fruit."

"I could live with that," Mrs. Dreyfus said. "Me and my girls could get along just fine there. But what about the bad tears?" she asked, playing along with Kambia's story. She took another Kleenex from her pocket and handed it to her. Kambia wiped a couple of tears from her nose.

"The bad tears don't have it so nice. They live in a really gross place where trees don't bear fruit at all. They are rotted-out stumps filled with ants and funny-looking termites. The only thing that grows on them is mold, and here and there a cluster of black, poisonous mushrooms. You know why?" she asked. Mrs. Dreyfus and I both shook our head.

"Because there's no sun," she said. "The weather is lousy. There are always thunderstorms that shoot out big bolts of lightning and huge boulders of hail that burn and crush most everything up before it gets a chance to grow."

"That is horrible. Imagine a place where nothing is ever green," I said.

"I know," she said. "And to make matters worse, the bad tears don't have fine houses to live in either. They live in dented thimbles that were once dropped and stepped on by gnomes. Their walkways are made of the termite-eaten wood from the trees, and since there's no fruit to keep them from going hungry, they have to go to Good-Tear Land and pick their fruit every day, all day long."

"Why every day? Why can't they just store some fruit up?"

"They can't," she said. "There's something really strange about Bad-Tear Land. Not only can nothing grow there, but nothing can stay fresh there either. I guess because it stays so damp. As soon as the bad tears bring the fruit back into their land, it turns into a clear powder, clear and tasteless. It can't be used for anything."

"Oh, that's pretty awful too," I said.

"Yes, it is," Kambia said. "It sort of reminds you of the manna that God sent from heaven to the Israelites. They could only keep it a day before it went bad."

"Only, Grandma says that God was really being good to them," I said. "It doesn't sound like anything good ever happens to the bad tears."

"Nothing does," she said. "They work from sunup till sundown each day, and they still have nothing to show for it. Their bitter life never ends. So now do you see why we cry more bad tears?"

I nodded. "Because the bad tears are just dying to get out of the place that they live."

"Exactly," she said. "When the Tear King, who rules both worlds, calls on volunteers to make the long journey to the front of your face and jump from your eyes, only to be wiped away forever, the bad tears always volunteer. They just figure that there can't be any place worse than where they are now. So they raise their tiny little hands first. That's why we cry a lot more when bad things upset us, because the bad tears don't mind coming out."

"I'm sure that's true, Kambia," I said, leading her down the concrete steps, with Mrs. Dreyfus following.

"Kambia, it's a nice story," Mrs. Dreyfus said. "But remember what we said about allowing stories to take the place of our true feelings?"

"I remember," Kambia said. "But I don't have any feelings in me today. I don't feel anything."

"Okay," Mrs. Dreyfus said. "You don't have to talk about anything right now if you don't want to."

"There's nothing to talk about," Kambia said. "I don't feel anything."

We reached her rickety old gate, and she turned back to her house for just a second. "There was nothing in there for me to get," she said. "I kinda thought there might be, but there wasn't. There wasn't one thing that I wanted to bring home with me."

"I figured that out," I said. "I guess I wouldn't want anything out of there either."

Mrs. Dreyfus briefly took Kambia's hand. "That's fine, Kambia. It's all right. You weren't really here to bring anything out. You were here to leave something. You went in and faced your wolves, and that's enough. Small steps," she said. "You just need to take small steps." She caressed Kambia's hand gently. "I was wrong. Today you can be in whatever world you need to be in. We'll try and sort everything out tomorrow."

Kambia blinked at her a few times, like she was processing what was just said, then she took my hand again. "Let's go, Shayla," she said.

We took a couple of steps, but she stopped again. "Do you think that another little girl will come to live here?" she asked. "Do you think that the new family will have a little girl?"

"I don't know," I said. "The landlord can rent it out to anybody. Maybe there will be another girl."

"I hope not," she said. "I really hope not. No little girl should live there. I really hope that another little girl doesn't come."

"So do I, Kambia," I said, reaching for the latch on the gate. "So do I." I opened the gate, and me and Mrs. Dreyfus walked Kambia back to her new place.

But that was months ago, when Kambia was still shaky. Today she is much steadier, stronger. She's aced all of her classes at the Girl Help Center and pretty much pulled herself out of her fantasy world. She hardly ever tells stories now. She's learned how to deal with things, and right now that's what I need. I need to her to tell me how to cope with Mr. Anderson Fox and his new me.

I got to the auditorium of the Girl Help Center before most of the crowd. There was only a skinny, baby-faced teen girl, with a starched white blouse and a new-looking navy skirt, standing in the arched doorway of the small concrete and smoked-glass building. I took a seat on an iron bench across from her and watched as she pulled a plastic Afro comb from her skirt pocket and began raking it through her short 'fro.

I was waiting for Kambia to show up. She had phoned me the night before and told me that she would be there early. She was going to give the welcome at the program today, and she wanted to try it out on me before the rest of the auditorium heard it. She said her mom and dad thought it was really good, but that they would probably say anything she wrote was good, so she wanted to read it in front of someone who would be really honest with her. I told her that I would always tell her the truth.

"I know," she said. "That's why I want you to hear it."

"Okay," I told her. "I'll tell you exactly how I feel about it."

"Great, Shayla," she said, and hung up the phone.

When Kambia finally showed up, the girl was yanking the comb through her 'fro for about the hundredth time, and I was glad to see her, because even though the girl didn't seem to be anywhere near bored with combing out her kinky locks, I was tired of watching her do it. I walked swiftly down the brick walkway to meet Kambia.

Like the girl, Kambia was dressed in white on the top and navy on the bottom in an outfit that I had never seen before — a soft, V-necked blouse with delicate lace around the tail and a full pleated skirt. Her reddish tan hair was parted on the side and pulled up into a ball made of very thin intertwined braids. Her fingernails were sparkling from a fresh coating of pearl polish, and her eyelids were sporting just a hint of light blue eye shadow that made her olive eyes look sea green in the bright sunlight. She was grinning like a prom queen. I suddenly felt very guilty about wanting to dump my troubles off on her on such a special day. I tried to put on the happiest face that I could and stuffed everything inside of me.

"What's up, Kambia?" I asked, throwing my arms around her. I hugged her hard, hoping her good mood would somehow seep into me. "How's it going?"

"Everything's fine, Shayla," she said, hugging me back. "Everything is just perfect and fine."

I let her go, and she pushed away from me a bit and begin posing, placing her hand on her hip and twirling as if she were a model at a big shoot.

"Look at me, Shayla," she said. "Look at me. Do you like my new outfit? My mom got it last night. She said that I needed something extra special to say my speech in today."

"It's pretty," I said excitedly.

She beamed. "It is, isn't it. I picked it out myself." She stuck her nails out. "And look, my mom did my nails, too. Oh, and my hair," she said, reaching up to pat her ball. My mom braided it real fine and then made me a ball."

"I like it," I said.

"You do? Guess what?" she squealed, and started to blink her eyes rapidly. "I got on some shadow, too. It's called Baby Boy Blue. We picked it out at the cosmetics counter in Walgreens."

"You look great, Kambia," I said, feeling some of the rage starting to drain from me. It was funny how just being around Kambia could do that for me, how just being in her presence could make Mr. Anger take off his red anger suit and hang it back up on the rack.

"You really look great!" I repeated, taking her hand and leading her back down the walkway toward the iron bench. "You look fabulous!"

While we sat on the bench waiting for the program to start and her parents to show up, Kambia read me her welcome. It was just how I thought it would be, well written and sweet. She thanked everybody she could think of for coming, even the caterers that were going to be providing food at the end.

As she read I allowed my mind to slip into another place. I imagined that she wasn't Kambia at all. She was Mr. Anderson Fox's Gift at thirteen. I imagined how proud Mr. Anderson Fox would be, sitting out in the audience listening to his favorite daughter give a speech to the entire school. How pretty he would tell everyone that she looked. How great he would say that she sounded. It felt so wonderful to be sitting there listening to his best girl.

Would Mr. Anderson Fox have felt so wonderful sitting and listening to me? I don't know. I never had the pleasure of looking out in the audience and seeing his big toothy grin. Maybe the pride from seeing that grin would have chased my stage fright away, made my words come out crisp and clear, instead of all jumbled up like they always did whenever I had to stand up in front of a crowd. That's what seeing his face might have done. It meant nothing to me now, though. I had learned how to face my onstage fears. I didn't need to see Mr. Anderson Fox's face in the audience. I didn't need to see his face anywhere.

I grinned at Kambia the way that I had once wanted Mr. Anderson Fox to grin at me — honest and sincere. "Your speech is just terrific, Kambia," I said. "It's the best speech that I ever heard."

By the time Kambia's parents showed up, along with Grandma Augustine, both Kambia and I could say her speech without looking at the paper.

"It sounds real good," Kambia's dad said as he walked over to us in a superbly starched pin-striped suit. He was a tall man, slender with a head of cotton and a neatly trimmed mustache to match. He had large deep brown eyes like Mr. Anderson Fox's, but they both went in the right direction. His skin was smooth and wrinkle-free, which made him look a lot younger than his fifty or so years. His real name was Jimmy Major, but folks called him Ten Fingers because he had been a really good piano player during his younger years.

Unlike Ten Fingers, his wife did not have a nickname. Her real name was Honeysuckle Peach, and that's what everybody called her, because they said she was so sweet that if you cut her, nectar would run out of her instead of blood. She was a small, frail woman with tiny bones who sometimes had to get around on a cane like Grandma Augustine, but she got around everywhere. Folks say that you could always find her at neighborhood gatherings helping out wherever she could and passing out some of her smack-your-mama homemade fudge. She had all of the wrinkles that her husband didn't get, but she was still a handsome woman, sienna colored with high cheekbones, shiny black eyes, and coal black hair that hung in ringlets down to her waist. Some people said that she was more Native American than black, and that her great-grandmother was either a Sioux or a Cherokee, a kind healing woman who went from town to town curing poor folks for as little as a cup of meal and a slab of salt pork.

However, none of this matters a pan of biscuits to Kambia. She doesn't care how Ten Fingers and Honeysuckle Peach came to be who and what they are, just that they are. When she goes to bed at night, they sit at her bedside until she falls asleep, and their faces are usually the first things that she sees each morning. They call her "daughter," not "Kambia" or "girl," just "daughter," as if she were a child that had actually been created from their love.

"Yes, it sounds real good, Daughter," Ten Fingers repeated. "It sounds like you got it all covered. Nobody is gonna leave without being thanked today. Everybody is gonna feel appreciated."

"They sure are," Honeysuckle Peach said, coming up and hugging Kambia. She was dressed similar to Kambia in a white and navy suit, except in reverse, with the darker color on the top. "It sounds real nice the way you put your words together, Daughter. I can't wait to hear you read it on the stage."

"Me, too," Ten Fingers said, patting Kambia on the back. "I can't wait to see my little light shine."

"You gonna do real, real good, baby," Grandma Augustine said, hobbling up on her cane with a big smile. "Don't you get even the slightest bit nervous. You gonna do just fine."

"Thank you, ma'am," Kambia said, blushing.

"You welcome, sugar," Grandma Augustine said. Then she turned to me with her usual strict look.

"How come you didn't let me and your mama know that you were leaving the house?" she asked. "When we couldn't find you nowhere, we was worried to death."

I shrugged my shoulders. "I told Mama last night that I was coming early," I mumbled. "Kambia wanted me to listen to her read her speech."

"Well, your mama sure didn't know nothing about it," she said, shaking her finger at me. "She didn't know where you had scrambled off to."

I shrugged my shoulders again. "She just forgot," I said. "I know I told her."

"She didn't forget...," Grandma started out, but she stopped in midsentence, somehow seeing the sadness and anger in my face that I was desperately trying to hide from myself and Kambia. Pity poured into her watery eyes. "Oh, baby, Grandma Augustine's sorry. You know she didn't mean no harm." She pulled me to her huge bosom, burying my face in the folds of her red tent dress. "I'm sorry, baby. I'm so sorry. I know your morning was filled with blisters. I shoulda been cuddling you instead of blessing you out."

I pulled away from her quickly. "It's okay, Grandma. It's all right. I'm just fine," I said, determined not ruin Kambia's big day.

"Naw, no you ain't," she said, pulling me back to her. "You ain't at all, but you just remember what I said earlier today. It's just a little rain. Before you know it, the clouds will be all wrung out, and you won't even remember the drops that fell on your head."

"Okay, okay, Grandma. Everything is just fine," I mumbled into her chest, and pushed myself away from her once more. "I promise. I'm already over it. We don't have to talk about it anymore." I felt the bad tears lining up in the corners of my eyes like Kambia said they would, but I blinked real hard to hold them back. I wasn't much for bawling like a baby, and I sure didn't want to do it in front of Kambia. It wouldn't be right for my tears to stain her day.

"I wish everything were fine," Grandma said, shaking her silvery head. "It burns a hole clean through my soul when you're upset."

"What's she upset about?" Honeysuckle Peach asked Grandma. "What's wrong with the child?" She started to rub my back gently, her bony hands moving up and down my flesh. "Did somebody do you some harm, girl?"

"No. No, ma'am," I said, forcing my mouth into a smile. "I'm fine. There was just something that happened earlier, but I'm over it now."

"Are you sure?" Kambia asked in a troubled voice, placing her hand on my arm. "Shayla, I don't like it when you're sad." I looked at her. Worry was already scrunching her face into knots, caking her Baby Boy Blue shadow.

I forced a gleeful laugh out to go with the smile. "Don't be silly, Kambia. There's nothing wrong with me. I'd tell you if there was, wouldn't I?" I glanced at the doorway of the auditorium. A long line of snappily dressed people with polished shoes and fresh hairdos were filing through the arched doorway. "Look," I said. "It's almost time for things to start. Kambia, you better go in."

Kambia glanced at the auditorium and panicked. "Ooh, you're right," she squealed. "I'm going to be late." She bounded for the door, but her father caught her arm.

"Just one second, Daughter. Me and your mama got you a little something," he said, tapping Honeysuckle Peach on the shoulder.

"Oh, we sure do," Honeysuckle Peach said, smiling at Kambia. She opened a huge leather shoulder bag and took out a small, golden rectangular box. She handed it to Kambia with the biggest grin that I had ever seen, even bigger than Mr. Anderson Fox's. "It ain't much," she said. "It's just something that we thought you would like."

Kambia took the box timidly, mumbling something under her breath about not wanting them to spend good money on her, but they merely waved their hands at the complaint and told her that she deserved the present, and so much more. With that, she stopped fussing and opened the box. Me and Grandma gasped. The box contained a beautiful sterling-silver charm bracelet, made up of tiny puffy little hearts, plump teddy bears, and dancing kittens. It was puppy-dog cute, just the sort of thing that Kambia liked.

"Oh, it's wonderful," she said, grabbing both of her parents and hugging them. "Thank you, thank you, thank you so much."

"It was nothing," they both said, dabbing at the corners of their eyes. "We just thought that you would like it."

"It's really nice," me and Grandma both said. "But I think we better get inside," I added.

We all started for the door, but once again one of Kambia's parents stopped us. "Just one more thing," Honeysuckle Peach said. She opened her bag and produced another box. This one was square, and much larger, about half the size of a shoe box. "I noticed it shoved in the mailbox right before we left home," she said, handing it to Kambia. "It has a tag on it with your school's logo, but no name. I figure the school must have sent one to all of the graduates. I thought you might like to take a peek and see what it is before you give your speech. You might need to thank them for it, too."

"I just might," Kambia said. "It's really nice of them to send me a gift, isn't it, Shayla?" she asked.

I didn't answer. I was too busy looking at the package. The wrapping paper was gorgeous. It was a glittery gold with raised silver roses and carnations. I thought it must be the prettiest package in the world.

"Wow! Open it up, Kambia," I said.

Kambia carefully started peeling away sections of the paper, handing each large piece to Honeysuckle Peach, who folded them up and stuck them back in her purse. Underneath the fine covering was a plain white box with a matching top.

"I wonder what's in it?" Kambia said.

I shrugged my shoulders. "Something really good, I'll bet," I said.

Kambia nodded. She slowly yanked the top of the box off to reveal two or three layers of gold tissue.

"It sure is fancy wrapped," Grandma said.

This time we all nodded.

We leaned in closer to get a better look as Kambia started to tug the tissue back layer by layer, gently pushing each section to the side. Finally the layers were all off, and the four us pressed in even more to get a good look, but before we could see anything, Kambia screamed and dropped the box. She hollered so loud that we all must have jumped a foot in the air.

"What in the world!" Honeysuckle Peach cried, throwing up her hands. "What's wrong, Daughter?"

"I don't want it!" Kambia said, backing away from the present, shaking her head madly. "I don't want it! I don't want it!"

"What is it?!" Honeysuckle Peach cried. "Daughter, what's wrong?"

"I don't want it! I don't want it! Just please, please get them away from me. Take them away, Shayla!" Kambia screamed. "Take them away, please!"

"Take what away?" Honeysuckle Peach asked, frantically trying to grab Kambia's hands. Kambia was waving them around even more than her head, like she was trying to bat away something flying toward her. "What's wrong, Daughter? What is it that you don't want?"

"Them!" Kambia screamed, and started to jump up and down. "I don't want them. Please, please get them away!"

"What is it, Kambia?" I asked, trying to grab her myself. "What don't you want? Just calm down and tell us what's wrong."

"Them!" she cried in a terrified voice. "Please, Shayla, I don't want them! I don't want what's in the box!"

"What!" I said. I bent down to retrieve the box from the walkway, but Ten Fingers leaned over and scooped it up before I even got a chance.

"What in the world is in this thing? What in the world is scaring that child like this? Let me see what this mess is," he said, yanking the tissue paper away.

"It's okay, Daughter," Honeysuckle Peach cooed, still trying to get ahold of Kambia. "Whatever it is, it's gonna be all right. I swear it's gonna be just fine."

"Don't worry, Daughter," Ten Fingers added, tipping the box toward him. "Ain't nobody gonna let nothing happen to you. Everything is going to be all right." He pulled the tissue back, and I peeked under his arm, while Grandma and Honeysuckle Peach finally got ahold of Kambia.

Paper dolls, that's what was in it, just a bunch of half-crumpled paper dolls. They were cutouts from some coloring or tracing book, with thick black outlines. From what I could tell, they were all girls dressed in various outfits — plaid shifts, sailor jumpers, and full skirts. I would have said that they were completely different from one another, except for one thing. Someone had colored all of their hair with a brownish red crayon, and their colorless eyeballs had all been filled in with a green marker. I didn't know what to make of it. It made no sense to me at all. I looked at Ten Fingers, but he just shook his head.

"What in the world?" he cried. "What in the world is this mess?"

"Dear Lord, what is it, Ten Fingers?" Honeysuckle Peach cried also.

"It ain't nothing," Ten Fingers said, bewildered.

"Nothing?"

"Naw, nothing. I don't get it. It ain't nothing, Honey, just some paper dolls. Daughter, it ain't nothing to be afraid of," he said to Kambia. "Ain't nothing in here that can do you harm."

"Yes, it is!" Kambia shrieked, still shaking her head madly. "You don't understand! Please, please just take them away, Shayla! Please take them away from me!"

I looked at her face. She wasn't just frightened. Fear was swarming all over her like flies. It was the same fear she had had the day that we walked down the railroad tracks and I saw the bruises on her thighs, and the day that she hid out from Jasmine Joiner underneath my bed. It was fear that neither her parents nor Grandma Augustine had seen before, and I had hoped that I would never see again. I didn't understand why she was so upset about the dolls, and I didn't care. I grabbed the box from Ten Fingers and threw it as far as it would go. It landed in a clump of hedges on the side of the auditorium.

"It's gone, Kambia. I threw it away, okay? There are no more dolls. Okay?" I said. I caught her face with my hand and forced her to stop shaking her head.

"Did you hear me, Kam? They're gone," I said.

She took a deep breath, let it out, and got real still. Her face got calmer and calmer, until it was almost completely free of fear.

"Okay, okay, Shayla," she said. "I'm all right." She grabbed me and hugged me tight. I could feel her heart pumping away in her chest, like she had just gotten through running up a flight of stairs.

"It's okay, Kambia," I whispered softly. "There's nothing here that can harm you."

"I know," she said. "I knew that you would make it all right." She let me go, and Honeysuckle Peach grabbed her and held her to her breast.

"Are you okay, Daughter?" she asked. "I don't want anything to ever hurt you."

"Me neither," Ten Fingers said, throwing his arm around her shoulder. Kambia let go of her mother and hugged him, too.

"I'm okay," she said. She glanced back at the auditorium. The crowd had disappeared from the door.

"I better go," she said. "I better get in there. It's time to get started."

"Are you sure, baby?" Honeysuckle Peach asked. "You know that Mama don't want you to do anything that you ain't ready to do. It's okay if you just wanna go home. We'll understand. You won't hurt nobody's feelings."

"I want to do my speech," Kambia said. "I'm okay, I promise."

"All right, then, let's everybody go," Ten Fingers said, patting her back. "Let's go see my daughter steal the show."

Kambia broke into a nervous giggle, and the three of them locked arms and walked into the auditorium, with Grandma Augustine hobbling after them.

I remained where I was until they were out of sight. I ran over to the hedges, reached down in the scratchy bushes, and fished the present out. It was paper dolls, all right, nothing more. Even with the brownish red hair and green eyes I could see nothing that should have set Kambia off the way that it did. I didn't understand her reaction at all. I thought about what Grandma Augustine had said to me earlier about "only a little rain" and wondered if saying that would have worked on Kambia any better than it worked on me. I don't know why the dolls upset you, Kambia, but I'm sure that it's no big deal, I might have said. It's just a little rain. The clouds will go away soon. I wondered if the words would have calmed her down, but while I tossed it around in my mind, I remembered one of Grandma's African sayings that had to do with rain, and it gave me something else to think about. "To an elephant an afternoon shower may be nothing but a sprinkle," the saying said, "but to a beetle it most certainly will be a flood." I took the dolls out of the box and stuffed them into my skirt pocket. I would try to figure them out before we all got caught in the downpour.

Copyright © 2001 by Lori Aurelia Williams

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First Chapter

Chapter 1

A daughter was born last Saturday night to Mr. Anderson Fox, my so-called father, and his new wife, Jada. She came into this world at 11:35 P.M. on the exact day that I was born thirteen years ago. Her mother named her Gift, Gift Marie. It was a name that popped into her head the day after she took a bad tumble down Peachtree Hill. She was on her way to Bobby's New Fish Shack to get his all-you-can-eat catfish platter. It was raining, and the heel of her leather pump just slipped right out from underneath her. Before she knew it, she had rolled headfirst down the slick hill and landed on her belly in a patch of soggy bluebonnets. She was pretty messed up. Two of the brothers that worked down at the shack had to pick her up. They drove her to the emergency room with Gift cramping something terrible in her stomach. In fact, Gift continued to cause her a lot of pain long after she was admitted to the hospital. The doctors said that Gift wasn't doing too well inside her stomach. All kinds of things were torn loose. Gift had to come out.

They took her out four weeks early. She was quiet and sickly, and refused to take her mother's breast. The doctors and nurses didn't expect her to make it through the night. They were pretty sure that before dawn broke the next morning, the Shadow of Death would be walking across her face.

But things didn't happen the way anyone expected. The next morning little Gift was lively and well. She had fought and kicked her way through the night with a determination that the hospital staff said they had never seen in a baby as beat up as she was.

"It's a miracle," one of the nurses told Jada. "She truly is a gift from God." Apparently Jada thought so too -- that's why she named her Gift, but I don't think that she's a present.

This morning when Grandma made me go with her to visit Gift at the hospital, all I saw was a tiny bundle of wrinkled tan skin, short, curly black hair, and deep brown doe eyes. It was those eyes that made me shudder. Even from birth I could tell that they were special eyes. They were dissecting eyes, eyes that could take all the pieces of you apart, examine them, and put them back together to tell a story, your story. They were the eyes of a writer, my eyes.

As I stood there staring at them behind the nursery viewing window it occurred to me that Mr. Anderson Fox had found yet another slick-as-okra way to get over. He couldn't find a way to play me like he had played Mama, so he had just tossed me aside and created a new model. He wouldn't rebuild the fences that he had torn down with me. He would just put up new ones with Gift. I didn't want to, but I felt angrier than I had ever felt in my life watching him with his big toothy grin, sitting in an oversize rocker, holding her up high for all the world to see. He held her tenderly, his huge hands cradling the back of her head gently, as if she were as fragile as a baby sparrow. His searchlight eyes were beaming with pride, something that they had never beamed with for me. It was more than I could stand, and even though I knew that it would make Grandma madder than a bull in a rodeo, I backed away from the window and started to leave.

But as soon as I walked away from her side, Mr. Anderson Fox handed Gift to a friendly-looking nurse and raced out of the side door to meet me, still wearing his paper nursery-room gown. I sped up, but he caught up to me as I reached the double doors of the elevator. As usual, I didn't want him to know that he had any power over my feelings at all. I took a deep breath and pulled my mouth into my fake daughter smile.

"Did you see her?" he asked excitedly. "Did you see her?"

I nodded my head. "Yes, Daddy, I saw her," I replied softly. "I saw her."

"She something else, ain't she?" he asked, his big toothy grin spreading wide across his smooth face in an earnest smile for maybe the first time in his life. "Ain't she special? Don't you think she the cutest baby you ever seen?"

"Aw, I don't know, Daddy. I guess she's all right for a baby. You know, at that age they all kinda look alike. It's not that much to see."

"You don't think so, really?" he asked. His smile fell for just a moment, but a second later it was right back up. He glanced back at the nursery. "Naw, she's special. She different from all them other babies in there. You can tell. Just look at her. They ain't got nothing on her." He turned back to me. "You'll see. Your sister gonna be something great. Before you know, she gonna rule the world, have everybody doing what she say."

"I guess, Daddy," I said, desperately reaching for the elevator button. "I guess."

"Yeah, she gonna rule the world," he repeated. "I tell you it's something. I was hoping for a boy, but I'm pretty glad I got me another baby girl. Ain't that nice? You having another sister, a little sister. Now you gonna be able to teach her stuff just like your sister, Tia, taught you." He broke into a fit of laughter. "You know what? You can even teach her about that writing stuff. Your mama say you real good at that. Maybe you can teach her about that. It'll be good, you and her doing the same thing."

"It would be great," I lied. I looked away for a moment and stared up at the glowing red light over the double elevator doors. I swallowed hard again. The elevator wasn't the only thing with buttons that were lighting up red. My buttons were lighting up too. I could feel Mr. Anger making his way into my eyes in his anger suit. "I gotta go, Daddy. I got some stuff I need to do today. I told Mama that I would help her out with some things."

"Are you sure?" he asked, actually looking disappointed. "The baby is doing real well. They not gonna hook her up to anything else. Maybe I can see if they'll let you hold her."

No, I don't want to hold her, not now or ever! I heard Mr. Anger shout, but I just looked away again.

I glanced down the hall past Grandma and several goofy-acting adults lined up in front of the glass windows waving and making funny faces at the mostly sleeping infants. I saw Jada, wearing a gown similar to Mr. Anderson Fox's, being wheeled toward the nursery by a heavyset nurse with a dingy white uniform that looked like it could use a dip or two in bleach. I felt like rolling my eyes and screaming at Jada that she had no right to create Gift, but there was no way that I would actually do it.

Even though I was still up against a rock on how I felt about Mr. Anderson Fox, I was pretty sure that I liked Jada. She was young, really young, barely twenty-four. She was a smart, petite sister with looks that any chick would be seriously envious of, but she wasn't stuck on herself or anything. She didn't dis other girls or act like she was better than them. She wasn't like that. She was really down-to-earth, kind to everyone. She even helped out twice a month at a new homeless food bank in her hood. She cooked vegetables, washed pans, and even mopped up after everyone else was gone. Everything about her was really cool. The few times that Grandma had dragged me over to her house to see Mr. Anderson Fox, she had been very polite and friendly. She had even asked me about myself and listened while I told her, something Mr. Anderson Fox had never done. "Anderson didn't tell me that you liked to write. He told me that he thought you wanted to be a nurse or something. Good for you. It's always great to have a dream. I'd love to hear some of your stories sometime," she said in a voice that sounded so sincere it immediately won both me and Grandma over. In fact, Jada has pretty much won all of us over, even Mama, who's still put out with Mr. Anderson Fox for playing her and pretending that he wanted to get back together with her.

"She's a good girl," Mama said the first time that she met her. "She's much better than your daddy deserves, and that's a fact, but according to your grandma, the Bible says that God smiles on the bad and the good alike."

I couldn't be mad at Jada. It wasn't her fault that she fell in love with Mr. Anderson Fox. I'm not sure whose fault it was. I pushed the elevator button again. A loud ding sounded and the door whooshed open. A serious-looking doctor with a coarse beard and stern, dark eyes stepped off. He muttered a low hello and pushed past me. I returned the greeting and stepped through the open doors.

"Good-bye, Daddy," I said. "I'll see ya later."

Mr. Anderson Fox opened his mouth to say something more, but Grandma hollered and cut him off. "Wait up, Shayla," she yelled, coming up the hall in her flowered duster, shaking her cane. "Don't you go nowhere without me." I placed my hand in the door to keep it from closing and waited for her to join me. She hobbled up shortly. "Anderson, your wife is asking for you," she said to Mr. Anderson Fox. "You better go see what she want."

"Okay," Mr. Anderson Fox said. "I'll be right there. How you doing?"

"Oh, I guess I ain't about to slip away. Ain't nothing on me completely broke down. So I figure I'm doing all right." She pointed her finger at him. "That's a fine baby your wife done give you. You treat her well. You treat her like a child ought to be treated."

"Don't you worry about that. Don't you worry about that at all. She'll be well looked after. I'll see y'all later. And don't forget, y'all come by and see the baby as much as you want." He took a few quick steps down the hallway and turned back. "Ain't it great? You and your little sister having the same birthday. Ain't that funny? Who woulda seen something like that coming. Life sure is strange sometimes." He winked one of his searchlight eyes at me. "Yeah, it's great," he said happily, starting to walk off down the hallway again. "Yeah, it really is great."

Grandma Augustine stepped into the elevator and the door slid closed. I pushed a button that said GROUND and the car started to descend.

"Yeah, it's freaking great," I said under my breath. "It's just freaking great."

"You be careful," Grandma said sternly. "I seen the way that you were looking at that baby. You ain't being right. That child is your sister, and I know that you don't like it, but she ain't going nowhere. It may not be fair, but she got as much right to life as you do. Don't let your feelings for your daddy get in the way of you having feelings for her. Do you understand me?"

I bit my tongue and looked down at my feet. Of course I understood her. I knew that Gift had a right to life. I just didn't think that she had a right to mine. She had no right to my birthday, no right to my eyes, and no right to the father that I wasn't even sure I wanted. I just couldn't believe it. I had never seen Mr. Anderson Fox so happy. Grandma was right. It wasn't fair. Gift should have been born into her own life, not mine. Because of Gift misery was spreading through me like a virus.

"Grandma, I don't want to talk about it," I mumbled. "Just leave it alone, okay? She may be his daughter, but she's no sister of mine."

Grandma shook her head. The elevator slowly eased to a stop on a street-level floor located beneath the hospital. The doors started to slide open, but she reached over and pushed the green Close Door button and they slid back together again. She placed her callused hand on my arm. I continued to stare at my feet.

"Baby, this is only a little rain," she whispered soothingly. "That's all it is. It's just a little rain, no more. Don't you turn it into a storm. Don't you let them dark clouds hover over you and block out all of the good in you. You knew this was coming. You had eight months to know that that child was gonna be here. Now she's here."

"On my birthday," I mumbled. "Why couldn't she have been born on her own day?"

Grandma started to rub my arm lightly. "I'm sorry, sugar," she said. "Like I said, I know this ain't fair. But trust me, baby. There ain't too much that is."

"Grandma, I said that I didn't want to talk about it," I repeated. I pushed the Open Door button. The doors slid aside to reveal a packed doctors' parking lot filled with shiny, new-looking cars. Nailed to a concrete pillar in the center of the lot was a metal sign with the words this way to bus stop. I stepped out of the elevator and started toward it, but Grandma caught me by the shoulder.

"You know," she said, starting one of her childhood stories, "when I was a little girl growing up back there in Deer County, Texas, I had the same kinds of dreams as other little girls. I wanted just what they wanted."

"Grandma," I whined loudly.

"I wanted just what the other girls wanted," she continued. "Even though I was a shy little thing, and not much interested in boys, I dreamed of growing up, getting me a fine man, and having me a big, beautiful wedding, like most of the girls in my town. On the day of my wedding I would be something really special, something great, like a princess or a queen."

"Grandma, what does this have to do with anything?" I snapped. "We're going to miss the bus."

"Wait just one minute, missy. You just let me say what I got to say first. Anyhow," she continued, "things went just like I wanted. I fell in love with your grandfather. He was a good man, and not too long after we starting courting, he asked me to go down the aisle with him. I couldn't wait. It was just what I wanted. I planned and planned and planned. I had it all -- a lovely gown made from cloth taken from my own grandma's wedding dress, six pretty bridesmaids, a nice big three-layer cake, plenty of homemade decorations, and several beautiful flower arrangements. I was ready to be a wife. I had everything set, but then things fell apart."

"What happened?" I asked, trying to hurry things along.

"Well, there wasn't but one colored church in Deer County," she said. "It was the only place where black folks could exchange vows. It was a fine church, but it was tiny and hand-me-down poor, with just one room and an old outhouse in the back. It was barely big enough to turn around in, and because of it we couldn't get no steady preacher. There just wasn't enough money to pay him, and no place for him to sleep. Even a man of God got to eat and have some place to live. Only John the Baptist could get away with eating locusts and sleeping under the stars."

"Grandma," I whined again. "Hurry up."

"I'm getting there, baby. Well, since we didn't have no coins to toss at his feet, all we could get was a little preacher with hair about as gray as mine. He lived in another town miles away. He came every other month and stayed just as long as it took to make sure that folks knew what path they were supposed to be taking. He was a good man, a kind old fellow who did everything from marrying to burying to settling squabbles between folks, and he did it for absolutely nothing."

"That's good, Grandma. Thanks for the story, but I'm going."

She tightened her grip on my arm. "No, you ain't. You just let me finish. I'll pull things together for you directly," she said. "It was three days before my wedding when the tomatoes started to rot. Old Mr. Murdy, who lived down by Bluefish Creek, was on his way home from a coon hunt when he had a heart attack and fell plumb dead right out in the woods, in the middle of one of the worst floods we had ever had in Deer County. It was two long days before anybody could get to him, and by then he looked pretty bad. He had to be put in the ground, and soon. It just wasn't no two or three ways about it. His funeral had to be the next day. My wedding day."

"I'm sorry, Grandma," I said softly, and I genuinely started to feel sorry for her.

"You," she said, shaking her head. "Lord, I cried and cried and cried. I swear I cried more tears than the water that fell from that storm. Things went from perfect to just a big ole mess in such a short while -- and it was too late too call it off. Mama and her sisters had cooked up a ton of wedding food, and Christian kinfolk had come from all over Texas to see a church wedding. Good grief, I called old Murdy everything that I could think of. I even wished that he would end up in hell, instead of heaven, but it didn't make no difference. On the day of my wedding your granddaddy and I stood in the center of the aisle and said our ŒI do's' with Mr. Murdy's casket just a baby step away. I was pure broke down by the whole thing. I really wished that I was the one that was going into the ground instead of him.

"But here's the thing. On the way out of the church my mama took me aside and told me just what I'm about to tell you. 'No day belongs to you. They all belong to the Almighty. He decides what happens and what don't happen on his day, you don't. Now, you just remember that and be glad for what you got, 'cause you didn't have to have nothing.' Ain't nothing promised to you, baby," she said, rubbing my arm again. "I know that you still ain't got much for God and all, so let me just repeat: This is only a little rain in your life. Don't you make it into a storm. You deal with this like you deal with everything else -- with a level head and common sense. You can get through this, sugar. It ain't the end of the world. It ain't the end of anything. Don't worry about the things that you can't change."

"All right, it's okay, Grandma," I lied, not wanting to hurt her after she had shared such a sad tale. "I see your point. Like you said, it's not the end of the world. I won't worry," I said, starting off through the parking lot. "I promise I won't."

But I did worry; in fact, on the humid, un-air-conditioned bus ride back to the neighborhood, worry is all I did. I sat quietly in my vinyl seat staring through the foggy bus windows at the blistering summer sun and thinking about Gift. Grandma didn't understand. It wasn't just that I was upset with Gift's birth. Gift had stirred up too many questions in me. What did it really mean that she was born on the same day as me? Who was I supposed to be now? I didn't know. Grandma hadn't thought about bringing it up, but yes, there had been other daughters born to Mr. Anderson Fox before Gift. I personally knew of at least three, all with Mr. Anderson Fox's smooth brown skin, sculpted cheekbones, and big toothy grin. They were the daughters that he had had with other unlucky women who had been foolish enough to fall for his baby-I'm-all-you-need charm, like Mama. But they weren't true Shaylas. They were all imitations -- until now, until Gift, born with my eyes, on my day, to take my place. She was different from the others. Mr. Anderson Fox had never really claimed any of them, hardly even knew their names, but he knew Gift's. He was proud of her. She was his new Shayla, the one that he could shape and mold into anything that he wanted, the one that would be happy to call him Daddy.

I pulled up the tail of my cotton T-shirt and fanned it back and forth. For a moment I imagined myself burning up from the heat, my flesh melting, sliding from me like candle wax, my bones turning into ash and blowing away like Kambia used to say she could do when she had on her magic purple bracelet. Would I still be me afterward? Would there still be a Shayla? Up until this morning I would have said no, but I couldn't anymore. I wiped my sweaty brow with the back of my hand and tried to project myself to a nicer place; lately it would have been school. I had volunteered for a special summer-school program for smart kids, and I really liked it, but things were kind of a mess there, too.

The mess was Lemm Turley, the new boy in the Bottom, our hood. He was from a small town somewhere in Texas. He was my homeroom buddy, assigned by my teacher, Mrs. Luna, who thought that it would be a nice idea for me to show him around, since I was one of the best scholars at our school.

He was the same age as me, okay looking with a cleft chin, a small overbite, and intense chestnut eyes. He was totally smart, and he would have been cool, but he was an "always kid": always on time for school, always knew all the right answers to questions, always volunteering to help hand out materials, always eager to share his school supplies. He also had kind of a charm rap like Mr. Anderson Fox that he used on everyone, but it mostly worked on the girls and the female teachers, especially the older ones. He was forever complimenting them on their hair, makeup, and clothes, telling them how attractive they were, using really proper speech. "Oh, you look darling today, Ms. Sanders," he would say to our elderly music teacher. "Your gray hair reminds me of silvery moonlight." Or "Aren't you a dear," he would say to Ms. Edwards, our aging librarian. "Your face is more beautiful than a love poem." He laid it on as often and as thick as he could when he saw the senior ladies, sometimes even telling them that he just didn't understand why they had settled for being teachers when they could have been models, actresses, or even movie stars. My stomach hurt every time I heard one of the fake statements come out of his mouth. Sometimes I made gagging noises behind his back, but I would never have considered making them to his face.

The truth of the matter is I felt a little sorry for Lemm. According to the neighborhood, he had had a pretty crappy life. He was the only surviving child of three children, the other two kids having been a pair of younger twin girls. Lemm's mother ran off two years ago when the twins were born. Folks say that for some strange reason she just went stone crazy after their birth. She didn't want to breast-feed either one of them, refused to pick them up, and turned a deaf ear when they cried. She said that she just couldn't handle being a wife and a mother anymore, said she felt all tied up inside, like there was something holding her down, and no matter how hard she struggled, she couldn't get free. So she just up and left one Monday morning while Lemm was at school. She walked right out of the door, leaving her babies in their bassinets, wet and screaming.

After she left, Lemm's father took to drinking. He was messed up over his wife leaving, so Lemm got stuck taking care of the twins. He dropped them off at day care before he went to school, and picked them up when he got home. He was both father and mother, the only one that they could count on to bring them a bottle during the night.

But one afternoon things went from bad to worse. One of the babies at the twins' day care came down with something really nasty, and the rest of the kids had to be picked up immediately. Lemm's class was away on a field trip, so the school called his dad instead. Although he was smashed, Lemm's dad made it to the school just fine that afternoon, and the teachers were in such a hurry to get all of the kids out that they either just didn't notice the state that he was in or simply ignored it because he was only walking home a few blocks with the twins. However it went down, they thought that his taking the twins would be okay. They were wrong. One block from the school Lemm's dad thought that he saw his wife standing in front of a butcher shop across the street from him and stepped right out into the middle of traffic with the twins. A pickup truck plowed into all three of them. Lemm's dad made it, but the twins didn't.

Folks say that the judge wanted to give Lemm's dad a whole bunch of time, but there would have been nobody left to take care of Lemm, so he just gave him several years of probation and ordered him to get off of the drink. They say that he quit drinking the very afternoon of his sentence, but it didn't make much difference because a part of his mind died with the twins. He couldn't even hold down a job, and he and Lemm have been living off government checks since the day he left the courthouse.

I felt real bad for Lemm when I heard the story. I didn't want to be his friend, but I refused to be his enemy.

I leaned my head back against the seat and tried to come up with some place to be other than school. It didn't work, so instead I just thought up a few lines to jot down in my journal when I got home. Shaylas are being created like lizard tails, I would write. You can cut one off, and another will take her place.

A few blocks from my house Grandma Augustine decided to stop at a discount fabric store. We got off the bus and spent the next three hours browsing through sewing catalogs. By the time we stepped through my gate, Mr. Anger was strutting around in my eyes like a school-yard bully just waiting for someone to go off on. I didn't want it to be Grandma, so I skirted past her on the porch steps, yanked open the front door, and went straight to my room. Once inside I took my blue notebook out of the drawer and scrawled down my note. After that I took a cool bath, dressed in a fairly nice linen dress that Mama had bought me at the Goodwill, gave my hair a lick or two with one of Tia's Afro combs, and walked back through the house.

I stopped and peeked into the kitchen. Mama and Tia had gotten up late as usual and were now having their regular afternoon brunch. It's a new tradition for them, actually eating together on Saturdays, trying to mend fences that years of quarreling have trampled down. "It's good," Mama said. "Me and your sister having a meal together without setting each other off. It's the way a mother and daughter should be. I'm really glad that we are starting to get along."

I was glad too. Last year when Tia and Mama had a big fight, and Tia ran off with her boyfriend, Doo-witty, I didn't think I would ever see them sitting together at the breakfast table again. Mama was really pissed at Tia for taking up with Doo-witty, and not just because Doo-witty was twenty-three and Tia was only fifteen. The thing that really tied Mama's hair in a knot was the fact that the entire neighborhood thought Doo-witty was just a big, slow dope who wasn't worth any girl's time, especially not Tia's. Tia was like Jada. She had a great body and a great mind. Tia could choose. Why on earth would she have chosen Doo-witty? Nobody knew -- except Tia. Tia knew that Doo-witty was special.

It turned out that Doo-witty was actually a promising artist on his way up. He wasn't the brightest street lamp on the block, but he had skills, and those skills got him into a nice college. When Mama found out about it, she had to ease up on Tia and Doo-witty a little. She didn't like doing it much, but she told Tia just to be careful and protect herself, then she stepped back and let Tia be responsible for whatever cards she pulled from the deck.

I watched the two of them. Mama was sitting at the table in her navy blue grocery stocker's uniform. Her huge hands were shoved into a large silver mixing bowl, busily mixing sticky clumps of white biscuit dough. Tia was standing next to Mama, her catlike eyes watching every move of Mama's hands closely, like an apprentice learning cooking tips from a master chef. Tia was dressed in her strapless Hawaiian-print wrap dress. Her long black braids were tied back with a matching kerchief, and a pair of plastic earrings with pineapples on them clung to each ear. She looked like she was going to have brunch on some tropical island, instead of in our tiny kitchen. She was filling Mama in on what she and Doo-witty had done the night before. I caught a bit of the conversation, something about an art show over on the south side of town and a couple of hot dogs at the downtown Coney Island. "We had a really cool time, Mama," I heard her say. She seemed really happy, and so did Mama -- but I wasn't. I walked away from the door and left them to their good times.

I stomped down the steps and left the yard. It was around one o'clock, and nearly everyone in the neighborhood was out. Rusty old cars teeming with smiling faces were zipping down the narrow road, filling the air with smelly exhaust, and clusters of slim teenage girls were gathered on the concrete steps of the paintless shacks weaving strands of fake blond and red hair into their own short, kinky black locks. A few of them waved hello as I passed by. I didn't bother returning the greeting.

I was on my way to see the one person who I knew could make me feel better -- Kambia. She simply had to be in a much better mood than I was in. She had something to be in a good mood about. She had gone to school this summer too, and today was her graduation from the Girl Help Center, a girls' school located on the outskirts of our hood. It was run by what Grandma called "fallen redeemed saints," street-smart and educated women who had been locked down for doing all sorts of bad things when they were teens, but who had somehow managed to pull it all together when they got to be adults. They did everything from professional counseling to helping the girls find jobs.

Kambia had gone to the Girl Help Center at the suggestion of her social worker, Miss Sayer, and the police about three weeks after she got out of the hospital. They thought that it would be a good place for her. According to Grandma Augustine, the center was a school for girls who had had the innocence snatched right out of them. It was a private school that usually took only girls whose parents had a pretty good amount of cash to sponsor them, but every once in a while it took in a special little girl like Kambia.

The police say that Kambia is indeed a special and unique girl. She's a girl who seems to have an ending but no beginning. After several months of searching, the police still don't know where she came from, even though they've gone so far as to put her face on TV.

When I first found out that Kambia was going to the center, I wasn't happy about it at all. It meant that we wouldn't be in school together, and I had promised her that I would always be where she was to protect her, but Grandma Augustine made me see the light.

"That girl been torn up every which way a girl can be torn," she said. "She been hurt inside and out by that trashy Jasmine Joiner woman who called herself her mother, and them no-account men. It ain't gonna be easy, but she got to learn how to sew herself back together. You let her go, and let them ladies at the Girl Help Center show her how to do it. You let them show her how to help herself." And that's exactly what I did. I placed Kambia's hands in their hands, and I hoped for the best.

The best is what I got. The ladies at the Girl Help Center were really great with Kambia. They were patient with her and didn't seem to mind at all when she broke into one of her baby games. They made her go to sessions where they taught her how to say how she was feeling inside, and not hold it in until she couldn't stand it anymore and had to get away from it by creating one of her stories. One of the counselors even made her take a trip back to her old house to gather up her things, after the landlord said that he had held her and Jasmine Joiner's belongings long enough and was going to toss them out on the streets. When Kambia was removed from Jasmine Joiner's, she was way too sick to make the trip back for quite a while, and when she did get better, she was too afraid to go and refused to let me or her parents go either. For her, evil was still marching all over Jasmine's house like red ants, and she wanted to make sure that none of us got bitten. But the counselors at the Girl Help Center said that Kambia had to claim her old life before she could throw it away.

"That's the nature of evil," her lead counselor, Mrs. Dreyfus, a plump, tenderhearted woman with three teen girls of her own, said. "You must first get a firm grasp on it before you can push it away. Kambia has to face her Wallpaper Wolves, the men that hurt her, or she will never be rid of them."

"That's true," Grandma Augustine echoed when I told her about what Mrs. Dreyfus had said. "You have to first let the devil know that he got you by the thighbone before you can shake his hands off."

I guess that's what ran through Kambia's mind the day that me and Mrs. Dreyfus waited for her on the front porch of her former house. I guess she was thinking about getting in her wolves' faces for the first time and letting the devil know that she knew that it was really him that had sent them after her, but when she came out of the house, I just couldn't tell. There was a part of her that looked really beat down, like her Wallpaper Wolves had gotten off the wall and jumped her again, and yet another part of her looked like she had finally gotten the best of them. Tears were jumping out of her olive eyes in all directions, sliding down her flushed cheeks and onto her knit blouse, but her thin pink lips were pulled up into a loose smile, a real smile. It was as if happiness and anguish were going toe-to-toe in her soul and she wasn't sure which one deserved to win out.

"Shayla?" she asked, reaching behind her with her free hand to close the screen door. "Do you know why we cry more bad tears than good ones?"

I shook my head. "I don't know. I guess it's because we usually only cry when we're sad. I guess many of us are pretty happy most of the time," I said, reaching around to catch her hand as it pulled away from the door. It suddenly occurred to me that there was nothing in it. There was nothing in either one of her hands. I guessed there wasn't anything she actually wanted to take from the house. She just wanted to get rid of stuff, like Grandma and Mrs. Dreyfus said.

"That's part of it, Shayla," she said, blinking hard to free her eyes from tears.

"It's okay, Kambia," Mrs. Dreyfus said. "There's no shame in crying your pain away. We've all done it plenty of times." She pulled a crumpled tissue out of her jean-skirt pocket and handed it to Kambia. "Just let it all spill out, Kambia. It's good for you. Don't keep anything bottled up on the inside. Do you hear me?"

Kambia nodded. "Did you know that we are born with all the tears we'll ever cry?" she asked me, softly dabbing at the corners of her eyes. "All the tears that will ever pour from our eyes."

"No, I didn't. I didn't know that at all."

"It's true. There are good tears and bad tears, and we are born with all that we will ever have of both. The good tears live in Good-Tear Land," she said, leading me by the hand down the steps. "It's located way back in your head, deep inside the folds of your brain. It's a beautiful, shady place filled with babbling brooks bubbling over with cool lemonade, and fruit trees weighed down with juicy candy apples and chocolate bananas."

"It sounds delicious."

"It is. It's really a very neat, special place for the good tears. They have a very nice life. They live in tiny little houses made of golden thimbles, lined up neatly in a straight line along a street composed of crystal fairy footprints."

"Wow," I said.

"Really wow!" she said, stopping on the last step. "There's no school or work. The tears just lie around all day under the shade of the trees and eat fruit."

"I could live with that," Mrs. Dreyfus said. "Me and my girls could get along just fine there. But what about the bad tears?" she asked, playing along with Kambia's story. She took another Kleenex from her pocket and handed it to her. Kambia wiped a couple of tears from her nose.

"The bad tears don't have it so nice. They live in a really gross place where trees don't bear fruit at all. They are rotted-out stumps filled with ants and funny-looking termites. The only thing that grows on them is mold, and here and there a cluster of black, poisonous mushrooms. You know why?" she asked. Mrs. Dreyfus and I both shook our head.

"Because there's no sun," she said. "The weather is lousy. There are always thunderstorms that shoot out big bolts of lightning and huge boulders of hail that burn and crush most everything up before it gets a chance to grow."

"That is horrible. Imagine a place where nothing is ever green," I said.

"I know," she said. "And to make matters worse, the bad tears don't have fine houses to live in either. They live in dented thimbles that were once dropped and stepped on by gnomes. Their walkways are made of the termite-eaten wood from the trees, and since there's no fruit to keep them from going hungry, they have to go to Good-Tear Land and pick their fruit every day, all day long."

"Why every day? Why can't they just store some fruit up?"

"They can't," she said. "There's something really strange about Bad-Tear Land. Not only can nothing grow there, but nothing can stay fresh there either. I guess because it stays so damp. As soon as the bad tears bring the fruit back into their land, it turns into a clear powder, clear and tasteless. It can't be used for anything."

"Oh, that's pretty awful too," I said.

"Yes, it is," Kambia said. "It sort of reminds you of the manna that God sent from heaven to the Israelites. They could only keep it a day before it went bad."

"Only, Grandma says that God was really being good to them," I said. "It doesn't sound like anything good ever happens to the bad tears."

"Nothing does," she said. "They work from sunup till sundown each day, and they still have nothing to show for it. Their bitter life never ends. So now do you see why we cry more bad tears?"

I nodded. "Because the bad tears are just dying to get out of the place that they live."

"Exactly," she said. "When the Tear King, who rules both worlds, calls on volunteers to make the long journey to the front of your face and jump from your eyes, only to be wiped away forever, the bad tears always volunteer. They just figure that there can't be any place worse than where they are now. So they raise their tiny little hands first. That's why we cry a lot more when bad things upset us, because the bad tears don't mind coming out."

"I'm sure that's true, Kambia," I said, leading her down the concrete steps, with Mrs. Dreyfus following.

"Kambia, it's a nice story," Mrs. Dreyfus said. "But remember what we said about allowing stories to take the place of our true feelings?"

"I remember," Kambia said. "But I don't have any feelings in me today. I don't feel anything."

"Okay," Mrs. Dreyfus said. "You don't have to talk about anything right now if you don't want to."

"There's nothing to talk about," Kambia said. "I don't feel anything."

We reached her rickety old gate, and she turned back to her house for just a second. "There was nothing in there for me to get," she said. "I kinda thought there might be, but there wasn't. There wasn't one thing that I wanted to bring home with me."

"I figured that out," I said. "I guess I wouldn't want anything out of there either."

Mrs. Dreyfus briefly took Kambia's hand. "That's fine, Kambia. It's all right. You weren't really here to bring anything out. You were here to leave something. You went in and faced your wolves, and that's enough. Small steps," she said. "You just need to take small steps." She caressed Kambia's hand gently. "I was wrong. Today you can be in whatever world you need to be in. We'll try and sort everything out tomorrow."

Kambia blinked at her a few times, like she was processing what was just said, then she took my hand again. "Let's go, Shayla," she said.

We took a couple of steps, but she stopped again. "Do you think that another little girl will come to live here?" she asked. "Do you think that the new family will have a little girl?"

"I don't know," I said. "The landlord can rent it out to anybody. Maybe there will be another girl."

"I hope not," she said. "I really hope not. No little girl should live there. I really hope that another little girl doesn't come."

"So do I, Kambia," I said, reaching for the latch on the gate. "So do I." I opened the gate, and me and Mrs. Dreyfus walked Kambia back to her new place.

But that was months ago, when Kambia was still shaky. Today she is much steadier, stronger. She's aced all of her classes at the Girl Help Center and pretty much pulled herself out of her fantasy world. She hardly ever tells stories now. She's learned how to deal with things, and right now that's what I need. I need to her to tell me how to cope with Mr. Anderson Fox and his new me.

I got to the auditorium of the Girl Help Center before most of the crowd. There was only a skinny, baby-faced teen girl, with a starched white blouse and a new-looking navy skirt, standing in the arched doorway of the small concrete and smoked-glass building. I took a seat on an iron bench across from her and watched as she pulled a plastic Afro comb from her skirt pocket and began raking it through her short 'fro.

I was waiting for Kambia to show up. She had phoned me the night before and told me that she would be there early. She was going to give the welcome at the program today, and she wanted to try it out on me before the rest of the auditorium heard it. She said her mom and dad thought it was really good, but that they would probably say anything she wrote was good, so she wanted to read it in front of someone who would be really honest with her. I told her that I would always tell her the truth.

"I know," she said. "That's why I want you to hear it."

"Okay," I told her. "I'll tell you exactly how I feel about it."

"Great, Shayla," she said, and hung up the phone.

When Kambia finally showed up, the girl was yanking the comb through her 'fro for about the hundredth time, and I was glad to see her, because even though the girl didn't seem to be anywhere near bored with combing out her kinky locks, I was tired of watching her do it. I walked swiftly down the brick walkway to meet Kambia.

Like the girl, Kambia was dressed in white on the top and navy on the bottom in an outfit that I had never seen before -- a soft, V-necked blouse with delicate lace around the tail and a full pleated skirt. Her reddish tan hair was parted on the side and pulled up into a ball made of very thin intertwined braids. Her fingernails were sparkling from a fresh coating of pearl polish, and her eyelids were sporting just a hint of light blue eye shadow that made her olive eyes look sea green in the bright sunlight. She was grinning like a prom queen. I suddenly felt very guilty about wanting to dump my troubles off on her on such a special day. I tried to put on the happiest face that I could and stuffed everything inside of me.

"What's up, Kambia?" I asked, throwing my arms around her. I hugged her hard, hoping her good mood would somehow seep into me. "How's it going?"

"Everything's fine, Shayla," she said, hugging me back. "Everything is just perfect and fine."

I let her go, and she pushed away from me a bit and begin posing, placing her hand on her hip and twirling as if she were a model at a big shoot.

"Look at me, Shayla," she said. "Look at me. Do you like my new outfit? My mom got it last night. She said that I needed something extra special to say my speech in today."

"It's pretty," I said excitedly.

She beamed. "It is, isn't it. I picked it out myself." She stuck her nails out. "And look, my mom did my nails, too. Oh, and my hair," she said, reaching up to pat her ball. My mom braided it real fine and then made me a ball."

"I like it," I said.

"You do? Guess what?" she squealed, and started to blink her eyes rapidly. "I got on some shadow, too. It's called Baby Boy Blue. We picked it out at the cosmetics counter in Walgreens."

"You look great, Kambia," I said, feeling some of the rage starting to drain from me. It was funny how just being around Kambia could do that for me, how just being in her presence could make Mr. Anger take off his red anger suit and hang it back up on the rack.

"You really look great!" I repeated, taking her hand and leading her back down the walkway toward the iron bench. "You look fabulous!"

While we sat on the bench waiting for the program to start and her parents to show up, Kambia read me her welcome. It was just how I thought it would be, well written and sweet. She thanked everybody she could think of for coming, even the caterers that were going to be providing food at the end.

As she read I allowed my mind to slip into another place. I imagined that she wasn't Kambia at all. She was Mr. Anderson Fox's Gift at thirteen. I imagined how proud Mr. Anderson Fox would be, sitting out in the audience listening to his favorite daughter give a speech to the entire school. How pretty he would tell everyone that she looked. How great he would say that she sounded. It felt so wonderful to be sitting there listening to his best girl.

Would Mr. Anderson Fox have felt so wonderful sitting and listening to me? I don't know. I never had the pleasure of looking out in the audience and seeing his big toothy grin. Maybe the pride from seeing that grin would have chased my stage fright away, made my words come out crisp and clear, instead of all jumbled up like they always did whenever I had to stand up in front of a crowd. That's what seeing his face might have done. It meant nothing to me now, though. I had learned how to face my onstage fears. I didn't need to see Mr. Anderson Fox's face in the audience. I didn't need to see his face anywhere.

I grinned at Kambia the way that I had once wanted Mr. Anderson Fox to grin at me -- honest and sincere. "Your speech is just terrific, Kambia," I said. "It's the best speech that I ever heard."

By the time Kambia's parents showed up, along with Grandma Augustine, both Kambia and I could say her speech without looking at the paper.

"It sounds real good," Kambia's dad said as he walked over to us in a superbly starched pin-striped suit. He was a tall man, slender with a head of cotton and a neatly trimmed mustache to match. He had large deep brown eyes like Mr. Anderson Fox's, but they both went in the right direction. His skin was smooth and wrinkle-free, which made him look a lot younger than his fifty or so years. His real name was Jimmy Major, but folks called him Ten Fingers because he had been a really good piano player during his younger years.

Unlike Ten Fingers, his wife did not have a nickname. Her real name was Honeysuckle Peach, and that's what everybody called her, because they said she was so sweet that if you cut her, nectar would run out of her instead of blood. She was a small, frail woman with tiny bones who sometimes had to get around on a cane like Grandma Augustine, but she got around everywhere. Folks say that you could always find her at neighborhood gatherings helping out wherever she could and passing out some of her smack-your-mama homemade fudge. She had all of the wrinkles that her husband didn't get, but she was still a handsome woman, sienna colored with high cheekbones, shiny black eyes, and coal black hair that hung in ringlets down to her waist. Some people said that she was more Native American than black, and that her great-grandmother was either a Sioux or a Cherokee, a kind healing woman who went from town to town curing poor folks for as little as a cup of meal and a slab of salt pork.

However, none of this matters a pan of biscuits to Kambia. She doesn't care how Ten Fingers and Honeysuckle Peach came to be who and what they are, just that they are. When she goes to bed at night, they sit at her bedside until she falls asleep, and their faces are usually the first things that she sees each morning. They call her "daughter," not "Kambia" or "girl," just "daughter," as if she were a child that had actually been created from their love.

"Yes, it sounds real good, Daughter," Ten Fingers repeated. "It sounds like you got it all covered. Nobody is gonna leave without being thanked today. Everybody is gonna feel appreciated."

"They sure are," Honeysuckle Peach said, coming up and hugging Kambia. She was dressed similar to Kambia in a white and navy suit, except in reverse, with the darker color on the top. "It sounds real nice the way you put your words together, Daughter. I can't wait to hear you read it on the stage."

"Me, too," Ten Fingers said, patting Kambia on the back. "I can't wait to see my little light shine."

"You gonna do real, real good, baby," Grandma Augustine said, hobbling up on her cane with a big smile. "Don't you get even the slightest bit nervous. You gonna do just fine."

"Thank you, ma'am," Kambia said, blushing.

"You welcome, sugar," Grandma Augustine said. Then she turned to me with her usual strict look.

"How come you didn't let me and your mama know that you were leaving the house?" she asked. "When we couldn't find you nowhere, we was worried to death."

I shrugged my shoulders. "I told Mama last night that I was coming early," I mumbled. "Kambia wanted me to listen to her read her speech."

"Well, your mama sure didn't know nothing about it," she said, shaking her finger at me. "She didn't know where you had scrambled off to."

I shrugged my shoulders again. "She just forgot," I said. "I know I told her."

"She didn't forget...," Grandma started out, but she stopped in midsentence, somehow seeing the sadness and anger in my face that I was desperately trying to hide from myself and Kambia. Pity poured into her watery eyes. "Oh, baby, Grandma Augustine's sorry. You know she didn't mean no harm." She pulled me to her huge bosom, burying my face in the folds of her red tent dress. "I'm sorry, baby. I'm so sorry. I know your morning was filled with blisters. I shoulda been cuddling you instead of blessing you out."

I pulled away from her quickly. "It's okay, Grandma. It's all right. I'm just fine," I said, determined not ruin Kambia's big day.

"Naw, no you ain't," she said, pulling me back to her. "You ain't at all, but you just remember what I said earlier today. It's just a little rain. Before you know it, the clouds will be all wrung out, and you won't even remember the drops that fell on your head."

"Okay, okay, Grandma. Everything is just fine," I mumbled into her chest, and pushed myself away from her once more. "I promise. I'm already over it. We don't have to talk about it anymore." I felt the bad tears lining up in the corners of my eyes like Kambia said they would, but I blinked real hard to hold them back. I wasn't much for bawling like a baby, and I sure didn't want to do it in front of Kambia. It wouldn't be right for my tears to stain her day.

"I wish everything were fine," Grandma said, shaking her silvery head. "It burns a hole clean through my soul when you're upset."

"What's she upset about?" Honeysuckle Peach asked Grandma. "What's wrong with the child?" She started to rub my back gently, her bony hands moving up and down my flesh. "Did somebody do you some harm, girl?"

"No. No, ma'am," I said, forcing my mouth into a smile. "I'm fine. There was just something that happened earlier, but I'm over it now."

"Are you sure?" Kambia asked in a troubled voice, placing her hand on my arm. "Shayla, I don't like it when you're sad." I looked at her. Worry was already scrunching her face into knots, caking her Baby Boy Blue shadow.

I forced a gleeful laugh out to go with the smile. "Don't be silly, Kambia. There's nothing wrong with me. I'd tell you if there was, wouldn't I?" I glanced at the doorway of the auditorium. A long line of snappily dressed people with polished shoes and fresh hairdos were filing through the arched doorway. "Look," I said. "It's almost time for things to start. Kambia, you better go in."

Kambia glanced at the auditorium and panicked. "Ooh, you're right," she squealed. "I'm going to be late." She bounded for the door, but her father caught her arm.

"Just one second, Daughter. Me and your mama got you a little something," he said, tapping Honeysuckle Peach on the shoulder.

"Oh, we sure do," Honeysuckle Peach said, smiling at Kambia. She opened a huge leather shoulder bag and took out a small, golden rectangular box. She handed it to Kambia with the biggest grin that I had ever seen, even bigger than Mr. Anderson Fox's. "It ain't much," she said. "It's just something that we thought you would like."

Kambia took the box timidly, mumbling something under her breath about not wanting them to spend good money on her, but they merely waved their hands at the complaint and told her that she deserved the present, and so much more. With that, she stopped fussing and opened the box. Me and Grandma gasped. The box contained a beautiful sterling-silver charm bracelet, made up of tiny puffy little hearts, plump teddy bears, and dancing kittens. It was puppy-dog cute, just the sort of thing that Kambia liked.

"Oh, it's wonderful," she said, grabbing both of her parents and hugging them. "Thank you, thank you, thank you so much."

"It was nothing," they both said, dabbing at the corners of their eyes. "We just thought that you would like it."

"It's really nice," me and Grandma both said. "But I think we better get inside," I added.

We all started for the door, but once again one of Kambia's parents stopped us. "Just one more thing," Honeysuckle Peach said. She opened her bag and produced another box. This one was square, and much larger, about half the size of a shoe box. "I noticed it shoved in the mailbox right before we left home," she said, handing it to Kambia. "It has a tag on it with your school's logo, but no name. I figure the school must have sent one to all of the graduates. I thought you might like to take a peek and see what it is before you give your speech. You might need to thank them for it, too."

"I just might," Kambia said. "It's really nice of them to send me a gift, isn't it, Shayla?" she asked.

I didn't answer. I was too busy looking at the package. The wrapping paper was gorgeous. It was a glittery gold with raised silver roses and carnations. I thought it must be the prettiest package in the world.

"Wow! Open it up, Kambia," I said.

Kambia carefully started peeling away sections of the paper, handing each large piece to Honeysuckle Peach, who folded them up and stuck them back in her purse. Underneath the fine covering was a plain white box with a matching top.

"I wonder what's in it?" Kambia said.

I shrugged my shoulders. "Something really good, I'll bet," I said.

Kambia nodded. She slowly yanked the top of the box off to reveal two or three layers of gold tissue.

"It sure is fancy wrapped," Grandma said.

This time we all nodded.

We leaned in closer to get a better look as Kambia started to tug the tissue back layer by layer, gently pushing each section to the side. Finally the layers were all off, and the four us pressed in even more to get a good look, but before we could see anything, Kambia screamed and dropped the box. She hollered so loud that we all must have jumped a foot in the air.

"What in the world!" Honeysuckle Peach cried, throwing up her hands. "What's wrong, Daughter?"

"I don't want it!" Kambia said, backing away from the present, shaking her head madly. "I don't want it! I don't want it!"

"What is it?!" Honeysuckle Peach cried. "Daughter, what's wrong?"

"I don't want it! I don't want it! Just please, please get them away from me. Take them away, Shayla!" Kambia screamed. "Take them away, please!"

"Take what away?" Honeysuckle Peach asked, frantically trying to grab Kambia's hands. Kambia was waving them around even more than her head, like she was trying to bat away something flying toward her. "What's wrong, Daughter? What is it that you don't want?"

"Them!" Kambia screamed, and started to jump up and down. "I don't want them. Please, please get them away!"

"What is it, Kambia?" I asked, trying to grab her myself. "What don't you want? Just calm down and tell us what's wrong."

"Them!" she cried in a terrified voice. "Please, Shayla, I don't want them! I don't want what's in the box!"

"What!" I said. I bent down to retrieve the box from the walkway, but Ten Fingers leaned over and scooped it up before I even got a chance.

"What in the world is in this thing? What in the world is scaring that child like this? Let me see what this mess is," he said, yanking the tissue paper away.

"It's okay, Daughter," Honeysuckle Peach cooed, still trying to get ahold of Kambia. "Whatever it is, it's gonna be all right. I swear it's gonna be just fine."

"Don't worry, Daughter," Ten Fingers added, tipping the box toward him. "Ain't nobody gonna let nothing happen to you. Everything is going to be all right." He pulled the tissue back, and I peeked under his arm, while Grandma and Honeysuckle Peach finally got ahold of Kambia.

Paper dolls, that's what was in it, just a bunch of half-crumpled paper dolls. They were cutouts from some coloring or tracing book, with thick black outlines. From what I could tell, they were all girls dressed in various outfits -- plaid shifts, sailor jumpers, and full skirts. I would have said that they were completely different from one another, except for one thing. Someone had colored all of their hair with a brownish red crayon, and their colorless eyeballs had all been filled in with a green marker. I didn't know what to make of it. It made no sense to me at all. I looked at Ten Fingers, but he just shook his head.

"What in the world?" he cried. "What in the world is this mess?"

"Dear Lord, what is it, Ten Fingers?" Honeysuckle Peach cried also.

"It ain't nothing," Ten Fingers said, bewildered.

"Nothing?"

"Naw, nothing. I don't get it. It ain't nothing, Honey, just some paper dolls. Daughter, it ain't nothing to be afraid of," he said to Kambia. "Ain't nothing in here that can do you harm."

"Yes, it is!" Kambia shrieked, still shaking her head madly. "You don't understand! Please, please just take them away, Shayla! Please take them away from me!"

I looked at her face. She wasn't just frightened. Fear was swarming all over her like flies. It was the same fear she had had the day that we walked down the railroad tracks and I saw the bruises on her thighs, and the day that she hid out from Jasmine Joiner underneath my bed. It was fear that neither her parents nor Grandma Augustine had seen before, and I had hoped that I would never see again. I didn't understand why she was so upset about the dolls, and I didn't care. I grabbed the box from Ten Fingers and threw it as far as it would go. It landed in a clump of hedges on the side of the auditorium.

"It's gone, Kambia. I threw it away, okay? There are no more dolls. Okay?" I said. I caught her face with my hand and forced her to stop shaking her head.

"Did you hear me, Kam? They're gone," I said.

She took a deep breath, let it out, and got real still. Her face got calmer and calmer, until it was almost completely free of fear.

"Okay, okay, Shayla," she said. "I'm all right." She grabbed me and hugged me tight. I could feel her heart pumping away in her chest, like she had just gotten through running up a flight of stairs.

"It's okay, Kambia," I whispered softly. "There's nothing here that can harm you."

"I know," she said. "I knew that you would make it all right." She let me go, and Honeysuckle Peach grabbed her and held her to her breast.

"Are you okay, Daughter?" she asked. "I don't want anything to ever hurt you."

"Me neither," Ten Fingers said, throwing his arm around her shoulder. Kambia let go of her mother and hugged him, too.

"I'm okay," she said. She glanced back at the auditorium. The crowd had disappeared from the door.

"I better go," she said. "I better get in there. It's time to get started."

"Are you sure, baby?" Honeysuckle Peach asked. "You know that Mama don't want you to do anything that you ain't ready to do. It's okay if you just wanna go home. We'll understand. You won't hurt nobody's feelings."

"I want to do my speech," Kambia said. "I'm okay, I promise."

"All right, then, let's everybody go," Ten Fingers said, patting her back. "Let's go see my daughter steal the show."

Kambia broke into a nervous giggle, and the three of them locked arms and walked into the auditorium, with Grandma Augustine hobbling after them.

I remained where I was until they were out of sight. I ran over to the hedges, reached down in the scratchy bushes, and fished the present out. It was paper dolls, all right, nothing more. Even with the brownish red hair and green eyes I could see nothing that should have set Kambia off the way that it did. I didn't understand her reaction at all. I thought about what Grandma Augustine had said to me earlier about "only a little rain" and wondered if saying that would have worked on Kambia any better than it worked on me. I don't know why the dolls upset you, Kambia, but I'm sure that it's no big deal, I might have said. It's just a little rain. The clouds will go away soon. I wondered if the words would have calmed her down, but while I tossed it around in my mind, I remembered one of Grandma's African sayings that had to do with rain, and it gave me something else to think about. "To an elephant an afternoon shower may be nothing but a sprinkle," the saying said, "but to a beetle it most certainly will be a flood." I took the dolls out of the box and stuffed them into my skirt pocket. I would try to figure them out before we all got caught in the downpour.

Copyright © 2001 by Lori Aurelia Williams

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 9, 2007

    A reviewer

    I Loved this Book It Was So Gd :'

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 12, 2005

    AMAZING

    This book was incredible the characters the story lines everything was just great. I recommend this book to everyone!!!!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 25, 2002

    Amazing Story

    Shayla has a very tough life. Shayla is jeoulus that her dad having another kid on her birthday. Thinking that he replaced her with another baby girl named gift. Her best friend Kambia Elaine has major issues. Some strange person was sending Kambia nasty stuff of her past. Something kambia really wants to forget. But you'll be surprised when you find out who sended those things! Another issue Shayla has is with her new found friend Lemm. Lemm also has some major issues also. He started drinking when he was very young. His mother starting him off. He still drinks because his mother left him and his two baby twin sister dead all because of him. Shayla tries her best to help out everybody. But when she solves one problem, another one comes up. To see how this whole thing unfolds itself, you'll just have to read Shayla's Double Brown Baby Blues

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