When Kambia Elaine Flew in from Neptune

( 10 )

Overview

So I just made another note to add to my blue notebook later, when the house had cooled off: Tia's nature is boiling out of her like hot soup out of a pot, and Kambia Elaine just flew in from Neptune.

Shayla Dubois lives in a Houston neighborhood known as the Bottom, where life is colorful but never easy. She wants only two things out of life: to become a writer and to have a nice, peaceful home. Instead, her life has been turned upside down. Shayla's mama kicked her sister, ...

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Overview

So I just made another note to add to my blue notebook later, when the house had cooled off: Tia's nature is boiling out of her like hot soup out of a pot, and Kambia Elaine just flew in from Neptune.

Shayla Dubois lives in a Houston neighborhood known as the Bottom, where life is colorful but never easy. She wants only two things out of life: to become a writer and to have a nice, peaceful home. Instead, her life has been turned upside down. Shayla's mama kicked her sister, Tia, out of the house for messing around with an older guy, and months later Tia still hasn't come home. Shayla's father, Mr. Anderson Fox, has rolled back into town and has been spending a lot of time at the house with Mama. And Shayla still doesn't know what to make of her strange new neighbor, Kambia Elaine.

Kambia tells Shayla the most fantastic stories: that the Lizard People turn into purple chewing gum when the sun comes up; that Memory Beetles gather up and store people's good memories; that she is a piece of driftwood from the Mississippi River. All Shayla knows for sure is that Kambia's mother has a lot of male visitors and that Kambia doesn't look too healthy. When Kambia tells Shayla about the vicious Wallpaper Wolves that hide in her walls to catch bad little girls, Shayla knows something is wrong. But she doesn't know how she can help Kambia when she can't get past her stories, and when Tia still hasn't come home.

Told lyrically and gracefully by debut author Lori Aurelia Williams, When Kambia Elaine Flew in from Neptune shows how complicated life can get when children are forced to grow up too quickly, while it also celebrates the bonds of a strong, loving family.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Things are unraveling at Shayla's house. Although her house is a house filled with love, things aren't perfect. Shayla's mother found condoms in older sister Tia's drawer. Tia is 15. An argument ensues, followed by another argument when the mother of the boy Tia is supposedly using the condoms with stops by the house -- even though the son is over 21. Shayla wants to be a writer, just like Lori Aurelia Williams, author of When Kambia Elaine Flew in from Neptune. In this strong-willed and provocative tale, Williams lends a warm voice to chilly issues like teen sex and sexual abuse.

At home Shayla spends most of her time writing in her notebook, "wondering who let the butterflies out of our house and replaced them with wasps." Thinking about what to write in her notebook gets her through rough times. After the condom fight she thinks, "Mama is all broken inside, and sorrow is hanging from our ceiling like icicles from Christmas trees."

Shayla's Grandma Augustine thinks a Foot Grabber got to Tia. A Foot Grabber is "slick as okra," "a little demon that pushes his way outta hell when girls get about Tia's age, grabs 'em by the foot, and makes 'em cut the fool with no account men when they ought to know better...." Shayla's mother dismisses this idea as "superstitious hogwash."

Meanwhile, Tia fights with both her mother and her grandmother, convinced she is truly in love. And a story Shayla worked really hard on gets rejected from a writing contest. Then Tia disappears for a while. And Shayla's good-for-nothing, long-lost father wanders back in, and eventually back out, of her life.

But none of Shayla's troubles can compare to her new next-door neighbor's problems. When Kambia Elaine moved in, they became best friends. People around her poor Houston neighborhood say Kambia's mother sells herself to pay the rent. Kambia won't talk about it. Instead, Kambia tells strange tales. She likes to pretend she is a tree, or a piece of driftwood. She often doesn't make it to school. And keeps getting sick. And skinnier and skinnier. Sometimes Kambia's pale thighs have bruises on them. Shayla presses her to find out what's wrong with her. When Kambia finally admits her problems to Shayla, she does so in code: There are wolves with poisonous spit that come out of her wallpaper and hurt her with their big sharp teeth, she explains, scared. Shayla thinks she knows what Kambia means. But she isn't sure. She can't ask her mother or her grandmother, because she promised Kambia she wouldn't.

One day on the way to school, Kambia, sick again, collapses. Shayla is forced to bring her to the hospital. Shayla's family, Tia included, gathers around Shayla to support her. Her grandmother helps her understand that sometimes betraying a friend's confidence is necessary. So Shayla tells police officers and hospital workers about Kambia's wolves. And in doing so, she pretty much saves Kambia's life.

Somehow, in Williams's capable hands, this disturbing story of abuse isn't overwhelmingly upsetting. Actually, it is almost uplifting. Love and family -- and not a typical nuclear one at that -- fuel the interactions in this book. Tia flees the family after the sex argument, but ultimately love guides her home, and love welcomes her back. When Shayla keeps secrets she shouldn't, love shows her where and when to speak up. There is an understanding between these four women -- Shayla, Tia, their mother, and grandmother -- that transcends anything that comes their way. It enables the four of them to make mistakes, to correct their mistakes, and to learn from them and from each other. Kambia Elaine is an instructive and highly readable story, and Williams's effortless prose helps the medicine go down.

—Alexandra Zissu

From the Publisher
Angela Johnson author of Heaven Intrigues, breaks hearts, then soars. Williams is superb.

Sharon M. Draper author of Forged by Fire Lori Aurelia Williams is a gifted writer whose words ring with both poetry and honesty. Her characters are real enough to invite to Sunday dinner, and the story is woven together like a fine patchwork quilt.

Eleanora E. Tate author of The Secret of Gumbo Grove The book's rich introductory language, the starkness of Kambia's experiences... and her journey toward healing with Shayla's commonsense assistance make Williams another welcomed author to the children's literature fold.

Rita Williams-Garcia author of Like Sisters on the Homefront Wrapped in secrecy and magic, When Kambia Elaine Flew in from Neptune is one of those stories that shoots straight to the heart and hits dead-on. Shayla and Kambia are such compelling, unforgettable characters. Lori Aurelia Williams truly brought me back to Rosa Guy's The Friends. I loved this novel and was very much captivated by the poetry and the bond between the two girls.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
From the opening strains of blues guitar on this recording, listeners will feel transported to some place southern, ready to hear a tale with its share of painful moments. They won't be disappointed. Twelve-year-old Shayla narrates this contemporary story of lives spun out of control by difficult circumstances. Shayla longs to be a writer, but lately her life is offering more drama than she ever imagined she would be getting down on paper. Her family is stretched to its breaking point when Tia, Shayla's older sister, becomes sexually active, sending her frightened mother into a rage. Things are tense and lonely for Shayla after Shayla is kicked out of the house. But soon a neighbor and classmate, Kambia Elaine, fills in all the gray spots with eerie color. Unfortunately, Kambia Elaine's fantastic stories, worn-out clothes and frail appearance hide a dark secret about serious problems that Shayla is not sure she can fix. And Shayla's not sure that Mama and Tia will ever see eye-to-eye, either. Simms nimbly becomes each vivid character here, capturing all the shades of Williams's lyrical text. Moving from Mama's fear and anger to Shayla's soulful tenderness and Kambia Elaine's otherworldly ways, this is a robust performance. Ages 12-up. (Jan) Copyright 2001Cahners Business Information.
From The Critics
Lori Aurelia Williams's first novel is a tour de force, a beautifully written story of two girls, their friendship, their hopes and dreams, and their wild imaginations. The author has a sensitive touch and writes with great candor. She throws open the doors into a world of deep, dark secrets. Tia, twelve-year old Shayla's sister, runs away from home after her mother gives her a hard time for discovering boys. (To be fair, it wasn't just that she'd discovered boys, but that she was "fooling with" Doo-witty, a boy who "wouldn't even know when his own birthday is if you didn't bake him a cake.") Shayla loses a sister (temporarily) but makes a new friend—Kambia, the new girl next door. Kambia always wears the "same dingy white dress," talks to fences, believes in magic, and has a mother who likes to entertain men at night (in order to pay the rent). She tells stories about Lizard People, a Lie Catcher, Wallpaper Wolves, and babies who fall out of morning glories. Shayla's life begins to unravel after Tia disappears. She signs up for a Saturday writing class and is turned away. Anderson Fox, the man who walked out on her mother, returns and tries to act fatherly—much to Shayla's chagrin. Meanwhile, her friend Kambia is getting so skinny Shayla thinks she must be ill. Kambia's legs are covered with bruises and the tales she tells get even weirder. Only at the end of the novel does Shayla realize that her friend is the victim of abuse. It is a powerful, emotional scene in which Kambia's secret past and the cruel treatment she received from her mother's boyfriends comes to light. Through it all Shayla remains a steadfast friend. Lori Aurelia Williams is an expert storyteller: WhenKambia Elaine Flew in from Neptune has elements of mystery, suspense, fear, joy, and tenderness, all masterfully arranged. Her heart-rending novel will give you pause. It will also give you an occasion to smile. Shayla's family is full of surprises and even Doo-Witty has more going for him than we were led to believe. 2000, Simon & Schuster, $17.00. Ages 9 to 12. Reviewer: Kem Knapp Sawyer — The Five Owls, January/February 2001 (Vol. 15 No. 3)
School Library Journal
Gr 8 Up-Actress Heather Alicia Simms renders a well-voiced reading of Lori Aurelia Williams' deservedly praised novel about innocence, friendship, poverty, family, and child abuse (S&S, 2000). Twelve-year-old Shayla Dubois, the narrator, lives with her mother and older sister in Houston's Bottom. Her grandmother is a second strong female caretaker in her life, and she sees clearly that the tensions between her mother and grandmother resemble those beginning to erupt between her sister and her mother. Shayla gains a mysterious new neighbor, Kambia Elaine, about the same time that Shayla's sister, Tia, takes up with an older guy and brings down Mama's censorious wrath. Tia leaves home and isn't available to Shayla, who has lots of questions about the weird tales of wolves Kambia tells. Shayla tries to make sense of Kambia's tales, and wonders how any girl could allow herself to be seen in the raggedy clothing Kambia always wears. A subplot about the appearance and leave-taking of Shayla's father offers listeners more insight into each generation of Dubois women, all of them strong, independent, and caring in spite of initial impressions. Shayla eventually figures out that Kambia is being sexually abused, not simply making up tales about wolves. Shayla's grandmother is there to help Shayla cope with her own near-failing of Kambia, and Kambia reaches out to Shayla. Told in the vernacular of a contemporary, poor, African American neighborhood, rough language here is offset by Shayla's poetic turns of phrase. Simms gives the characters tones well-suited to their emotional lives, from emotionally repressed Shayla, to dreamy Kambia, to the inflatedly self-important Mr. Fox, Shayla's father. This reading brings a well told and important story to teenagers.-Francisca Goldsmith, Berkeley Public Library, CA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780689845932
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers
  • Publication date: 9/1/2001
  • Edition description: REPRINT
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 1,115,898
  • Age range: 12 - 17 Years
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Mama and Tia got into a fight this morning. Mama found a package of red condoms in the back of Tia's drawer. Mama was really pissed off. She held the condoms up and shouted at Tia so loud the dead folks at Peaceful Rest Cemetery down the street could hear her.

"Tia, what are you doing with this mess?" Mama asked, slamming the drawer of the rickety dresser. She pressed her face real close to Tia's. You could barely see where Tia's began and hers ended. Tia didn't say nothing. She just stood there in her blue-jeans miniskirt, with her slanted eyes blazing fire, and her hands on her hips.

"Did you hear me, girl?" Mama asked, looking like she was about to explode; the little veins in her forehead had popped out so far they looked like huge earthworms underneath her coffee skin.

"I'm waiting, girl," Mama said. "You tell me what this mess is for!"

"Ain't nothing to tell!" Tia yelled. She brushed past Mama with her black ponytail whipping behind her back, stomped over to our bed, and flopped down in the middle of the sagging mattress. Then she folded her arms across her chest and glared at Mama like Mama had stolen her favorite tube of lipstick. Mama rushed over to the bed and pointed a finger at Tia's face.

"Didn't I tell you to come to me about this, Tia?" Mama asked. "I always told you to come to me. You know damn well that we talked about this."

Tia rolled her eyes.

"Let me tell you something, little girl!" Mama yelled. "You just better keep your dress down and your drawers up. Don't you be bringing home no babies for me to feed. Do you understand me, little girl?" Tia crossed her legs and stared out of the window over the bookshelf, like she wasn't particularly interested in what Mama had to say. Mama drew her hand back like she was going to slap her, like she was going to knock her all the way back to the middle of June. And Mama could do it too. She was a big woman, strong and solid-built. She stocked groceries at Miller's One-Stop weeknights. She could send Tia flying across the room with just one lick. But she didn't. She just shoved the condoms into the pocket of her blue terry robe, shook her head, and stormed out of our room, dropping pink curlers out of her slick black hair as she hurried through the doorway. After Mama left, Tia got up from the bed and ran into the bathroom. I heard her turn the rusty door lock and break into sobs, as if she had actually caught a whipping.

I sat down in her place on the bed and listened to her cry. Guys had been sniffing around Tia since she was my age, twelve. Unlike me, she was sort of a looker. She wasn't really pretty. Her forehead was a bit high, and her lips were just a little too thin for her broad nose. Her face was average, with only a touch here and there to give it a spark, and her cheekbones were just a little high.

To be honest, it was really Tia's body that kept the guys coming around. Below, everything fell into place with a lot extra on top. It was the "on top" that made the boys act all stupid and stuff. Grandma Augustine had always said that she didn't think Tia would last more than three winter seasons past her first period. She said that Tia would hear her womanhood calling her with a vengeance, and she would answer long before Mama was ready for her to stop wearing bows in her hair and lace dresses. She said that there was no way to keep it from happening, because Mama had done the same thing at her age. Mama had gotten pregnant with Tia when she was only fifteen. "Mistakes made in the dark always come to the light through your children," Grandma Augustine said.

I wasn't sure if Grandma was right, but I was sure that Tia was hurting. I wanted to knock on the bathroom door and tell her that it was all right, but I couldn't. I was a reader and a writer, but not much of a talker, at least when it came to feelings and stuff. I got up from the bed, pulled open the top dresser drawer, and took out my blue notebook and a pen. Everything's a mess, I scrawled. Anger is covering our house like pitch on a rooftop, and I'm gonna be late for school.

After things finally died down at the house, I ate a quick breakfast of Froot Loops and ran three blocks to the bus stop. When I arrived, there was the new girl standing in the street next to the black-and-white bus sign. I had seen her once or twice from my bedroom window. She and her mother had moved next door to us a couple days ago. She was about my age, but she was thin where I was fat, and short in the places that I was long. She was lighter than me too, kinda butter-colored, like the shortbread cookies Mama cooked every Easter. Her hair was coarse like mine, but it wasn't black. It was reddish tan, and in the early morning sunlight it looked almost blond. Her eyes weren't brown, either. They were olive. She wore a dingy white dress that had two deep clip marks on the shoulders, as if she had just yanked it off of the clothesline. There wasn't any traffic on the narrow neighborhood street, but she was just standing there staring into the filthy rain gutter, staring into the blackness, as if she expected something to crawl out. I was curious, so I hopped off the curb and stared into the gutter too.

"Whatcha looking at?" I asked in a friendly voice. She just kept staring into the gutter, as if she didn't even know I was there. I hunched my shoulders. Maybe she hadn't heard me. It was windy out. A hot breeze was rustling through the tall pecan trees in the vacant lot behind the bus stop, and a Naughty By Nature tune was blaring from the open window of Perry's 24-and-7 beer joint across the street. The small aluminum-sided building was vibrating from the beat.

"Whatcha looking at?" I asked, even friendlier than the first time.

"My bracelet," the girl said in a soft voice. "My bracelet, it slipped off and fell down there." I leaned in closely and peered into the rectangular-shaped hole, but all I could make out in the darkness was a white plastic cup and some pages of a crumpled old newspaper.

"I don't see nothing," I said.

"It's in there," she said. "I gotta have it. We gotta get it out."

I wasn't really sure who she meant by "we." It wasn't my bracelet that was down there. I looked in the hole again. I thought I saw something moving around. It's a rat, I told myself, a big, hairy rat with red eyes and yellow teeth. There were plenty of them in the Bottom — big, shaggy monsters that lived in the walls of our tiny rent shacks, underneath our porches, and, of course, in the rain gutters that lined our littered streets. "I ain't sticking my hands down in there, girl. You must be crazy!" I yelled.

The girl didn't even look my way. She got down on all fours and shoved her thin hand into the drain. As she leaned into the hole her dress hiked up, exposing her underwear. Her yellow panties were shabby and ripped in several places. The elastic was loose and hanging halfway down her bony thighs. She was wearing worse than hand-me-downs. She was wearing worn-outs.

"Let me get your bracelet," I said. "My arms are longer than yours."

I got down on all fours and she stood up. I stuck my hand into the gutter and fished around in the trash until I felt something round. It had to be the bracelet. I pulled it out and stood up. It was plastic, transparent, and purple. You could buy a dozen like it for a buck in any dime store on Main in downtown Houston. I handed it to her with a scowl on my face. She snatched it and held it up to her breast, like it was a new dress or something.

"Thanks," she said, with a big grin. "I woulda been really upset if I couldn't of got it."

"It's just an old plastic bracelet," I snapped. "You can buy 'em for nothing downtown."

"No! You can't buy this anywhere. It's a magic bracelet," the girl said. "When I hold it up in the moonlight, I become so tiny that only the ants can see me. When the wind blows real hard, I blow away like dust until I find a wonderful, beautiful place to land." With that, the girl slipped the bracelet over her wrist and stepped up on the curb.

"I gotta go. I'm gonna be late for school," she said, fingering the bracelet and starting to walk off quickly.

"You go to my school, Martin Middle, don't you?" I asked.

"Yeah," she said. "But my mama didn't give me money to ride the bus."

"I'm Shayla. What's your name?" I called after her.

"Kambia," her voice trailed. "I'm Kambia."

I stood there in the street and watched her skinny body stepping lightly over the dirty sidewalks. There was something that bothered me about that girl and her silly magic bracelet. I just couldn't imagine anybody showing underwear like that for a ten-cent toy. It was way too weird. She was way too weird. I stepped up on the curb to wait for my bus.

For the past three weeks there had been nothing but rain, buckets of it pouring out of the gray sky, overflowing our gutters, and flooding our streets. But last night the rain stopped, and this morning the sun was shining bright over our houses, reclaiming its place among the clouds. It looked like it was gonna be a nice day. That is, until Mama got a visit from Miss Earlene Jackson.

Miss Earlene lives in a large two-story shack a few blocks up the street. She is a mean-spirited, sour-faced woman with pop eyes and a huge belly that hangs over her thin legs like an oversized water balloon. The children in the neighborhood call her Frog.

Frog came raging up our porch steps around noon. She had a look that would have turned the devil into a Christian, and she was throwing hell all over the place with each step. Mama stopped sweeping the living-room floor. She opened the screen door and stepped outside with her broom in her hand. I followed her out so that I could check out what was going on.

"Can I help you, Miss Earlene?" Mama asked, tugging the front of her flowered dress with her free hand. Mama had been doing housework all morning, and her dress was drenched with sweat and clinging to her huge frame.

"You sho can!" Frog yelled, throwing bits of spit in all directions. "You can tell that fast-tail mare of yours to stay away from my Doo-witty!"

"Excuse me?" Mama said. She opened her eyes real wide, like she didn't believe what Frog had said.

"You heard me!" Frog yelled. "You keep that little fast-tail mare of yours away from my Doo-witty!"

Mama's eyes narrowed.

"What fast-tail mare of mine is you talking about?" she asked. Her voice was real calm and controlled, but you could see just a hint of red pushing up through the ebony of her cheekbones.

"That little butt-wiggling, leg-spreading gal of yours, Tia, that's who I'm talking about," Frog spat. "You keep that little heifer from slipping 'round my house with my Doo-witty."

"With Doo-witty? With Doo-witty? With Doo-witty?" Mama repeated over and over, like she was in some kind of trance. Tia with Doo-witty, the thought of it made you want to throw up. Doo-witty, whose real name was Donald Dwight, was Frog's only son. He was twenty-three. He was a slow, drop-jawed, long-headed dope. When the boys in the neighborhood played The Dozens, they always said that he was so stupid that he was once fired from the M&M's factory for throwing away all the Ws. Tia with Doo-witty, it wasn't possible. Tia was fine, and she made great grades in school, like me. She could choose.

"Tia fooling with Doo-witty," Mama said. "What would my Tia want with Doo-witty? Doo-witty so stupid he had to repeat the eighth grade three times. He wouldn't even know when his own birthday is if you didn't bake him a cake. What would my baby be doing messing 'round with that thing?"

"Well, how do you explain this?" Frog yelled. She pulled a lacy beige bra out of her pocket and shook it in Mama's face. Mama's jaw nearly fell onto the front porch. On the right cup of the bra, embroidered in gold floss, were the letters T. M. Mama had been sewing our initials on our underwear ever since Tia started middle school. In gym it was common for other girls to swipe your undies. Hard times made some kids do the craziest things. I leaned against the porch column and shook my head.

"I guess you can believe your own eyes, cain't you?" Frog said with a smirk on her bloated face. "Ain't you gal named Tia Marie?"

Mama didn't answer. She just kept staring at the right cup of Tia's bra, like it was gonna do a dance or something.

"Now," Frog continued. "Like I said before, you keep that slut of a gal of yours away from my Doo-witty. I got plans for Doo-witty. It ain't too late for him. I been putting a little aside each week. Pretty soon I'm gone have enough to send Doo-witty to a decent college. I don't want no little gal throwing her legs over her head and messing up his chances."

Mama took a deep breath and let it out. Her eyes snapped away from Tia's bra and fixed on Frog. They were now just little slits in her face, and right in the middle of those slits you could see Mr. Anger jumping up and down in his red anger suit. Mama's hands started to tremble, then that tremble traveled on up her arms until her whole body was shaking.

"Ain't no college in they right mind gone let in Doo-witty," Mama said through clenched teeth. "And even if they did, the only thing that he could major in is Fool, and he already passed that course."

Mama lifted her broom up and pointed the handle at Frog.

"Now, I ain't no fighting woman," Mama said. "But if you don't get yo' frog-looking behind off my porch, I truly believe that I can make an exception in your case. You got two seconds to get outta my face, or I'm gone swat your fat ass with this broom, like you was a fly at a church picnic."

Frog got off our porch — and fast. She ran down the steps and rushed out of the wooden gate. She hit the pavement and sprinted off down the street with that big double-size belly jiggling left and right over her skinny legs. Mama ran down to the gate behind her.

"If I catch you or Doo-witty 'round my baby, I'm gone see what the law got to say about it!" Mama yelled. "Do you hear me? I better not catch you or that sorry-ass Doo-witty 'round my Tia." She watched from the gate until Frog disappeared between a row of beat-up old cars lined up in front of the red-brick project down the street; after that she came back up on the porch and swept Tia's bra into the pink rose bushes that were still growing wild on the side of the porch.

Mama sat down in the old wicker rocker beside the screen door and sighed. Her eyes looked heavy, like they were ready to drop tears. But Mama didn't cry. She always said that even from a little girl, she couldn't make water come to her eyes. So she just sat there rocking in the chair while she turned on the shower in her soul and let her tears run all over her insides. I walked over and took one of her hands in mine. While I ran my fingers over her rough skin, I made a note in my head to jot down in my blue notebook later: Mama is all broken inside, and sorrow is hanging from our ceiling like icicles from Christmas trees.

After a few moments Mama got up and went in the house. I didn't follow her this time. I knew what she was going to do. She was going to go into the kitchen and fix herself a pan of hot-water corn bread. Mama always fixed the bread when she was upset. She said that there was something about the sound of the cornmeal patties sizzling in the hot grease that calmed her nerves. She said that it was soothing, like listening to the blues or jazz. I decided to leave Mama to her comfort. Besides, I knew that after Mama's nerves calmed a bit she was going to go find Tia and drag her home.

Tia was at her best friend Maxi's house. Maxi was a short, dumpy, chatty girl who lived on Divine Street, three blocks away from Frog. Tia went to Maxi's house every Saturday morning to watch rap videos on the black cable channel. Mama was going to go snatch Tia away from Maxi's house as soon as she had eaten the last crumb of her bread. It wasn't gonna be pleasant in an hour or so. I could see 'em now, fussing and arguing down the street, putting on a real show. That was the way it always was with Mama and Tia. They were like lemonade and hot chocolate. They were good by themselves, but when you put them together all you got was one big mess. This was one fight I figured I could miss. I didn't want any of those sparks that were gonna be flying off of Mama to burn me up along with Tia. I hopped down from the porch.

"Mama, I'm going down the street a bit," I hollered as I strolled up the walkway.

"Don't go too far," Mama hollered back through the screen door. I went through the gate and banged it shut behind me. The neighborhood was in heat shock. It was almost ninety-eight degrees. Here and there a fuzzy-haired kid could be seen throwing a plastic ball against the concrete porch steps, or drawing his name on the sidewalk with buckets of neon-colored chalk, but that was the extent of the activities going on in front of the rows of paintless, run-down houses. Most people were inside sitting next to their window fans. As I passed by the open windows I could see tips of dark heads flashing between the twirling blades, and hear the soft whisper of voices floating over the whir of the fan motors. When it was this hot, it was common for most of the adults to stay inside until the cooler hours of the evening, with two exceptions:

Perry's 24-and-7 was hopping as usual. The stereo was blasting a Marvin Gaye tune, and groups of stylishly dressed, sweaty brothers and sisters were standing in the open double doors gossiping, their dark brown hands wrapped around open cans of Coors beer.

The other group of people out in mass were the women of the Tabernacle of the Blessed Redeemer. On the third Saturday of each month the women put their men out of the church and held a women-only cleansing revival. Arm in arm they filed by twos into the one-story, dome-shaped sanctuary, their shiny hair covered with satin scarves, their smooth black legs sticking out from underneath their knee-length ivory robes. Once inside the church, the ladies would sing spirituals until they felt the spirit hit them. Then they would hop up and dance down the aisles, shaking tambourines and chanting. When this was over, they would hear a sermon on the role of women in and out of the church by their leader, Sister Ashada, the tabernacle's female soul-saving minister. Finally, they would take part in the sprinkling ceremony, where they were sprinkled with sand from Jesus' footprints that was supposed to take away all their sins.

Mama had taken me and Tia there for a service once. It was right after my daddy, Mr. Anderson Fox, took off on her and moved in with another woman. Mama had just been laid off from her job at Walgreens. The bills were stacking up and the food was low. Mama said that we needed the hand of God to help us quick. Even though she wasn't especially religious, she took us to one of the cleansing revivals. She said that Grandma Augustine always told her that God liked a clean soul. When the spirit hit, Mama got up and danced in the aisles like the rest of the ladies, but Tia and I just sat there. The whole thing seemed really odd to me, and I wanted no part of it. I wasn't too big on church, and I hadn't yet made up my mind about how I felt about Grandma Augustine's God. But Tia really liked the revival and the friendly way that the ladies treated us and one another. She said that she would have gladly got up and danced too, if she hadn't had a runner in her panty hose. Tia is very particular about her looks. It generally takes her more than an hour each morning to fix her face for school.

Since I didn't see any kids my age hanging out in front of the houses, I decided to head on down to the bayou, just a little ways from the house. It was a regular meeting place for the teenagers in my neighborhood. When there was nothing better to do, you could always find a few of them chillin' and knocking back a few sodas along the bank or listening to some tapes. That sounded great to me. Any place was better than home, at least for now.

The roar of the bayou hit me as I stepped through a prickly cluster of blackberry shrubs that guarded the entrance to the dirt path running along both sides of the bayou. The runoff from our streets had drained into the murky green waters, and they were much higher than normal. The current was moving swiftly, rippling and churning as it pushed forward downstream, splashing against the tall weeds growing on the side of the black dirt cliffs.

I walked over to the edge of the cliff, took a deep breath, and let it out. The bayou was the place where the people in the neighborhood dumped all the old stuff from their houses that they didn't want: broken furniture, old clothes, used-up toys, worn-out tires. Mama said that it was filled with little chunks of other people's lives, the parts of their lives that they wanted to forget. I leaned in and listened to the water carry those chunks away. It was peaceful, calming. The bayou was to me like hot-water corn bread was to Mama.

When I was through enjoying the sound of the water, I turned back and continued on up the path. It was nice and cool as I strolled underneath the tall trees that lined the right side of the path, their spacious branches stretching toward the warm blue sky like huge upside-down feather dusters. It was turning fall, and the pecan trees were loaded down with hard green pecans, while the spindly branches of the pine trees were thick with large, scaly cones. The once muddy ground had already started to dry up, etching deep lines into patches of the smooth gray soil, and I took my sandals off so that I could feel the tiny cracks with my bare feet.

I was a few yards up the path when I spotted something, no, someone, lying in the middle of it. I didn't have to get too close to know that it was Kambia. She was lying in the center of the path on her back with her legs together and her arms straight at her sides. I could see that she was wearing the same dingy dress. In fact, I had seen Kambia in that dress at least a half a dozen times.

Kambia and I had the same fourth-period biology class at school, that is, when she came to school. Since she moved here Kambia had missed more than half of the classes. She hardly ever showed up. When she did come, she said the craziest things, and the other children laughed at her. When Mrs. Feely, our teacher, asked Kambia where babies come from, Kambia said that they were born in morning glories. She said that they dropped out of the violet, dew-drenched flowers early in the morning when everyone was asleep and crawled to the homes of their new mothers. She said that sometimes the babies fell out of the morning glories before their time, and that they turned into a sweet-smelling mist and rose high up into the heavens. When it rained, it was God sprinkling the bodies of those babies all over the earth. The other kids all thought that it was the funniest thing they had ever heard. They laughed long and loud, until Mrs. Feely slammed her bio book down on the counter and told Kambia to go stand outside where she couldn't disrupt the rest of the class. Kambia didn't seem to mind at all. She just got up and calmly walked out.

After Kambia was gone, Mrs. Feely told us that she had never heard such foolishness in her life. She told us that we were there to learn science, not fantasize, and that there was no place for clowns in her room.

I hurried over to Kambia. To tell the truth, I was more curious than concerned. Mama had made me go over to her house a couple of times and knock on the door to see if she wanted to do some stuff, but she always came to the door and said no. Kambia's mom didn't let her come out on Saturdays or even after school. Her mother, a tall, light-skinned woman with red eyes and heavy ankles, didn't allow Kambia out much, unless she was sending her to the corner store for cigarettes or wine coolers. Allen's Pick-and-Carry would sell anything to anybody, no matter how young, as long as they had the cash.

I walked up to Kambia and stopped by her head.

"Are you all right?" I asked, looking down at her face. Her eyes were closed, but I could see the soft flutter of her eyeballs underneath the lids, as if she were dreaming.

"Are you all right?" I repeated. She didn't respond. I started to panic. I bent down and tugged her arm.

"Hey, are you okay?" I asked again. She opened her eyes and looked at me with a dreamy expression.

"I'm a piece of driftwood," she said. "I've just floated down from the Mississippi River and washed up here on the bank."

"You're a space cadet," I said, and dropped her arm.

"No. I'm an old, hollow piece of driftwood who has lived its time and come here to rot. I'll turn into rich fertilizer and nourish the earth, then years from now people will grow flowers or vege-tables in me and I'll be reborn and made fresh."

"You're a crazo," I said. "I don't have time for baby games. I'm gonna go find some other kids to do something with. Besides, if you were a piece of driftwood, you would be in the water. That's what driftwood means, a piece of wood drifting on the water."

"I am a piece of driftwood," she whined, in a voice that sounded like my three-year-old cousin, Lisa.

"You're too babyish," I said. "I gotta go."

"I tell you I am a piece of driftwood," she repeated. "I just floated down from the Mississippi and washed up here on the bank," she said, pushing her small pink lips into a pout.

"There's no way a piece of driftwood could make it all the way here from Mississippi," I said. "I'm going." I started back up the path, but she grabbed my ankle. She scrambled to her feet and ran over to the edge of the water.

"I'll show you," she said, sitting down on the bank and throwing her skinny legs over the side. "I am a piece of driftwood. Watch how I float on top of the water."

I ran over to her. "Are you crazy or something, girl?" I asked. "That water is really deep. You can't float on it. You'll drown."

She took off one of her white sandals and flung it underneath a pecan tree. "Driftwood don't wear shoes," she said.

"Girl, you are really nuts!" I cried. "I don't want to play this game. I'm leaving." I turned around and walked a piece from the cliff, thinking that she would follow me, but she didn't. She started humming loud, a nursery rhyme, "Three Blind Mice." I turned around. She took off her other sandal and flung it in the direction of the first one. She started sliding on her butt through the thick weeds toward the water, moving up and down with her knees, like an inchworm or something.

"You're gonna drown," I said. "The water is too fast. You can't swim in it." She just kept sliding, sliding and humming, sliding and humming. I didn't know what to do. I ran over and tried to grab her arm, but she was outta my reach. I looked downstream. On the left side of the bank. I could see a group of boys in cut-off jeans dragging on cigarettes and throwing rocks in the water. I thought about running and getting them, but by the time I got down there Kambia would be in that bayou, for sure. What in the world was wrong with her? She had to be a slice short of a full pound cake. I leaned in over the cliff.

"Kambia!" I yelled. "This isn't funny. You can get really hurt. Stop being so stupid." She didn't even turn around.

The water was splashing something fierce against the base of the cliff. She just kept sliding and humming. Should I go down after her? I couldn't really swim. All I could do was dog-paddle, which was usually okay when the bayou water was calm. Everybody knew not to get into the water after a rainstorm. Even the youngest kids in the neighborhood knew that the water was really dangerous after we had had a flash flood. I looked down. She was still sliding, getting nearer to the water. Some of it had splashed up on her white dress, and the tail of it was covered with little pieces of black leaves and twigs.

"I believe you!" I shouted. "You are a piece of driftwood!"

"And where did I come from?" she shouted back, over the roar of the water.

"You just washed up here from the Mississippi!" I yelled. "Where you'll rot and nourish the earth!"

"Fine," she said. She started to inch her way back up the cliff the same way that she had got down, scooting that bony butt of hers backward instead of forward, grasping hunks of weeds to help pull herself up. When she finally reached the top, I grabbed her arm and tugged her up.

"I told you," she said. "Now do you believe me?" she asked with a satisfied look in her olive eyes. I wanted to wring her neck, break her in half like she was a peppermint stick or something, but I just cut her a look that woulda stopped a charging dog and marched back over to the path.

"You make me sick," I said.

"Wait, don't go, hold up," she cried. I kept walking. She ran up beside me.

"Go away," I said. "I don't want to hang out with you."

"Come on," she said. "I just wanted you to play with me."

"I don't like the way you play," I snapped.

She tugged my arm. "If you let me hang out with you, I'll tell you my deepest secret," she said. I stopped.

"What is it?" I asked.

"Wait," she said. "I gotta get my shoes."

By the time Kambia and I returned home I still hadn't quite forgiven her for making me afraid of the bayou for the first time in my life. She was kind of spooky and I wasn't too cool with spooky. But she had, at least, kept her promise to me and told me her secret, though I wasn't sure if it was really a secret or just something that her mother had told her not to tell.

According to Kambia, she and her mother had moved to Houston from Dallas because some woman was after her mother. She said that her mother was stepping out with some guy who owned a fish shack, and his wife found out about it and told her mother that she would slice her up like a sweet potato pie if she caught her on the streets, so Kambia and her mom caught a Greyhound to Houston. Kambia's secret was a little bit believable. Her mother had lots of boyfriends. Tall dudes, short dudes, bearded dudes, there was always some guy coming outta her house, especially at night. I wasn't sure where her mom had found a job, but wherever it was, she sure did meet a lot of guys.

Besides Kambia's secret the only other thing that I learned about her was that she was a reader, like me. Her favorite books were Linda James mystery novels. The one that she liked the best was about Linda James and her family moving one summer into an old house that was built at the turn of the century. The house is filled with trapdoors, secret passageways, and stuff like that. In the book Linda James spends the entire summer exploring all of the magical new things that the house has to offer.

"I wish I could do that," Kambia said as we headed up her walkway. "I wish that I could do nothing but explore all day and all night. I would find all the wonderful things that the world had to hide, then I would take them, put them in an empty mayonnaise jar, and look at them every morning when I woke up," she said, twirling down the brick walkway like a leaf caught in a whirlwind. When she reached the porch steps, she suddenly stopped twirling and ran up them so fast that I barely saw her feet moving.

"I gotta go," she said, standing in the middle of the porch.

"Bye," I said. I turned and started off down the walkway, but something made me turn back. I wasn't sure what.

"If my mama says that it's okay, I can walk to school with you sometimes," a little voice inside me blurted out.

"Cool," she said. "I don't really like walking alone."

"Okay, I'll ask my mama tonight," the voice said. I continued on down the walkway. As I stepped onto the sidewalk I heard the creak of the screen door, then a loud, shrill voice that I knew from experience was her mother's.

"Kambia Elaine. What the hell are you doing outside of this house? I told you to keep your ass in here, didn't I?" her mother yelled. The screen door slammed.

Tia was sitting on the front porch of our house when I got home. Her eyes were puffy and swollen and her nose was red. She was licking her wounds. Tia's way of doing this was braiding her hair. She was sitting in her plaid short shorts and her demi-top, separating long strands of it with a plastic comb and weaving it into thin twists. I walked up the steps and slid in behind her. Taking the comb, I started to braid her hair in the opposite direction, over where she had gone under.

"What's up, Tia the Chia Pet?" I asked.

"Where you been, Shayla?" she asked.

"As far away from you and Mama as I could get," I said.

"Mama is seriously trippin'," Tia said. "What am I gonna do? Mama treats me like I ain't more than two years outta my diapers. She always going on at me about stuff everybody else is doing. Why cain't she see that I don't eat peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches no more?"

"I don't know, Tia Chia," I said, "but if I was you, the next time I went somewhere I wasn't suppose to be, I would make sure that I brought home everything that I took with me."

"I know," Tia said, turning in the direction of the rose bushes. Her bra was still there, blanketing the soft petals. I guess neither she nor Mama was brave enough to claim it.

"I really messed up this time," she said. "I really messed up."

"Messed up" was an understatement of what Tia had done. Mama loved hard, but she didn't forget easy. Tia had drilled a hole in Mama's heart and all Mama's trust of her had run out of it. It was gonna be a long time before Mama forgot what she done. "Stuff everybody else is doing," Tia had said. I couldn't imagine anybody else messing with Doo-witty. But then, after hearing why Kambia said she and her mom had moved from Dallas, I figured Tia wasn't the only one getting herself into trouble over some worthless guy. I decided that I was gonna leave guys alone until I was about forty.

Poor Tia. I stopped combing her hair, put my arms around her neck, and gave her a big hug. I wanted her to tell me what was going on with her and Doo-witty, but I didn't know the words to make her feelings flow. I also wanted to tell her about the stunt that Kambia had pulled, tell her that I thought that Kambia was really spaced-out, and that she mighta jumped into that bayou for sure, but nothing came out of my mouth. So I just made another note to add to my blue notebook later, when the house had cooled off: Tia's nature is boiling out of her like hot soup out of a pot, and Kambia Elaine just flew in from Neptune.

Copyright © 2000 by Lori Aurelia Williams

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First Chapter

Chapter 1 Mama and Tia got into a fight this morning. Mama found a package of red condoms in the back of Tia's drawer. Mama was really pissed off. She held the condoms up and shouted at Tia so loud the dead folks at Peaceful Rest Cemetery down the street could hear her.

"Tia, what are you doing with this mess?" Mama asked, slamming the drawer of the rickety dresser. She pressed her face real close to Tia's. You could barely see where Tia's began and hers ended. Tia didn't say nothing. She just stood there in her blue-jeans miniskirt, with her slanted eyes blazing fire, and her hands on her hips.

"Did you hear me, girl?" Mama asked, looking like she was about to explode; the little veins in her forehead had popped out so far they looked like huge earthworms underneath her coffee skin.

"I'm waiting, girl," Mama said. "You tell me what this mess is for!"

"Ain't nothing to tell!" Tia yelled. She brushed past Mama with her black ponytail whipping behind her back, stomped over to our bed, and flopped down in the middle of the sagging mattress. Then she folded her arms across her chest and glared at Mama like Mama had stolen her favorite tube of lipstick. Mama rushed over to the bed and pointed a finger at Tia's face.

"Didn't I tell you to come to me about this, Tia?" Mama asked. "I always told you to come to me. You know damn well that we talked about this."

Tia rolled her eyes.

"Let me tell you something, little girl!" Mama yelled. "You just better keep your dress down and your drawers up. Don't you be bringing home no babies for me to feed. Do you understand me, little girl?" Tia crossed her legs and stared out of the windowover the bookshelf, like she wasn't particularly interested in what Mama had to say. Mama drew her hand back like she was going to slap her, like she was going to knock her all the way back to the middle of June. And Mama could do it too. She was a big woman, strong and solid-built. She stocked groceries at Miller's One-Stop weeknights. She could send Tia flying across the room with just one lick. But she didn't. She just shoved the condoms into the pocket of her blue terry robe, shook her head, and stormed out of our room, dropping pink curlers out of her slick black hair as she hurried through the doorway. After Mama left, Tia got up from the bed and ran into the bathroom. I heard her turn the rusty door lock and break into sobs, as if she had actually caught a whipping.

I sat down in her place on the bed and listened to her cry. Guys had been sniffing around Tia since she was my age, twelve. Unlike me, she was sort of a looker. She wasn't really pretty. Her forehead was a bit high, and her lips were just a little too thin for her broad nose. Her face was average, with only a touch here and there to give it a spark, and her cheekbones were just a little high.

To be honest, it was really Tia's body that kept the guys coming around. Below, everything fell into place with a lot extra on top. It was the "on top" that made the boys act all stupid and stuff. Grandma Augustine had always said that she didn't think Tia would last more than three winter seasons past her first period. She said that Tia would hear her womanhood calling her with a vengeance, and she would answer long before Mama was ready for her to stop wearing bows in her hair and lace dresses. She said that there was no way to keep it from happening, because Mama had done the same thing at her age. Mama had gotten pregnant with Tia when she was only fifteen. "Mistakes made in the dark always come to the light through your children," Grandma Augustine said.

I wasn't sure if Grandma was right, but I was sure that Tia was hurting. I wanted to knock on the bathroom door and tell her that it was all right, but I couldn't. I was a reader and a writer, but not much of a talker, at least when it came to feelings and stuff. I got up from the bed, pulled open the top dresser drawer, and took out my blue notebook and a pen. Everything's a mess, I scrawled. Anger is covering our house like pitch on a rooftop, and I'm gonna be late for school.

After things finally died down at the house, I ate a quick breakfast of Froot Loops and ran three blocks to the bus stop. When I arrived, there was the new girl standing in the street next to the black-and-white bus sign. I had seen her once or twice from my bedroom window. She and her mother had moved next door to us a couple days ago. She was about my age, but she was thin where I was fat, and short in the places that I was long. She was lighter than me too, kinda butter-colored, like the shortbread cookies Mama cooked every Easter. Her hair was coarse like mine, but it wasn't black. It was reddish tan, and in the early morning sunlight it looked almost blond. Her eyes weren't brown, either. They were olive. She wore a dingy white dress that had two deep clip marks on the shoulders, as if she had just yanked it off of the clothesline. There wasn't any traffic on the narrow neighborhood street, but she was just standing there staring into the filthy rain gutter, staring into the blackness, as if she expected something to crawl out. I was curious, so I hopped off the curb and stared into the gutter too.

"Whatcha looking at?" I asked in a friendly voice. She just kept staring into the gutter, as if she didn't even know I was there. I hunched my shoulders. Maybe she hadn't heard me. It was windy out. A hot breeze was rustling through the tall pecan trees in the vacant lot behind the bus stop, and a Naughty By Nature tune was blaring from the open window of Perry's 24-and-7 beer joint across the street. The small aluminum-sided building was vibrating from the beat.

"Whatcha looking at?" I asked, even friendlier than the first time.

"My bracelet," the girl said in a soft voice. "My bracelet, it slipped off and fell down there." I leaned in closely and peered into the rectangular-shaped hole, but all I could make out in the darkness was a white plastic cup and some pages of a crumpled old newspaper.

"I don't see nothing," I said.

"It's in there," she said. "I gotta have it. We gotta get it out."

I wasn't really sure who she meant by "we." It wasn't my bracelet that was down there. I looked in the hole again. I thought I saw something moving around. It's a rat, I told myself, a big, hairy rat with red eyes and yellow teeth. There were plenty of them in the Bottom -- big, shaggy monsters that lived in the walls of our tiny rent shacks, underneath our porches, and, of course, in the rain gutters that lined our littered streets. "I ain't sticking my hands down in there, girl. You must be crazy!" I yelled.

The girl didn't even look my way. She got down on all fours and shoved her thin hand into the drain. As she leaned into the hole her dress hiked up, exposing her underwear. Her yellow panties were shabby and ripped in several places. The elastic was loose and hanging halfway down her bony thighs. She was wearing worse than hand-me-downs. She was wearing worn-outs.

"Let me get your bracelet," I said. "My arms are longer than yours."

I got down on all fours and she stood up. I stuck my hand into the gutter and fished around in the trash until I felt something round. It had to be the bracelet. I pulled it out and stood up. It was plastic, transparent, and purple. You could buy a dozen like it for a buck in any dime store on Main in downtown Houston. I handed it to her with a scowl on my face. She snatched it and held it up to her breast, like it was a new dress or something.

"Thanks," she said, with a big grin. "I woulda been really upset if I couldn't of got it."

"It's just an old plastic bracelet," I snapped. "You can buy 'em for nothing downtown."

"No! You can't buy this anywhere. It's a magic bracelet," the girl said. "When I hold it up in the moonlight, I become so tiny that only the ants can see me. When the wind blows real hard, I blow away like dust until I find a wonderful, beautiful place to land." With that, the girl slipped the bracelet over her wrist and stepped up on the curb.

"I gotta go. I'm gonna be late for school," she said, fingering the bracelet and starting to walk off quickly.

"You go to my school, Martin Middle, don't you?" I asked.

"Yeah," she said. "But my mama didn't give me money to ride the bus."

"I'm Shayla. What's your name?" I called after her.

"Kambia," her voice trailed. "I'm Kambia."

I stood there in the street and watched her skinny body stepping lightly over the dirty sidewalks. There was something that bothered me about that girl and her silly magic bracelet. I just couldn't imagine anybody showing underwear like that for a ten-cent toy. It was way too weird. She was way too weird. I stepped up on the curb to wait for my bus.


For the past three weeks there had been nothing but rain, buckets of it pouring out of the gray sky, overflowing our gutters, and flooding our streets. But last night the rain stopped, and this morning the sun was shining bright over our houses, reclaiming its place among the clouds. It looked like it was gonna be a nice day. That is, until Mama got a visit from Miss Earlene Jackson.

Miss Earlene lives in a large two-story shack a few blocks up the street. She is a mean-spirited, sour-faced woman with pop eyes and a huge belly that hangs over her thin legs like an oversized water balloon. The children in the neighborhood call her Frog.

Frog came raging up our porch steps around noon. She had a look that would have turned the devil into a Christian, and she was throwing hell all over the place with each step. Mama stopped sweeping the living-room floor. She opened the screen door and stepped outside with her broom in her hand. I followed her out so that I could check out what was going on.

"Can I help you, Miss Earlene?" Mama asked, tugging the front of her flowered dress with her free hand. Mama had been doing housework all morning, and her dress was drenched with sweat and clinging to her huge frame.

"You sho can!" Frog yelled, throwing bits of spit in all directions. "You can tell that fast-tail mare of yours to stay away from my Doo-witty!"

"Excuse me?" Mama said. She opened her eyes real wide, like she didn't believe what Frog had said.

"You heard me!" Frog yelled. "You keep that little fast-tail mare of yours away from my Doo-witty!"

Mama's eyes narrowed.

"What fast-tail mare of mine is you talking about?" she asked. Her voice was real calm and controlled, but you could see just a hint of red pushing up through the ebony of her cheekbones.

"That little butt-wiggling, leg-spreading gal of yours, Tia, that's who I'm talking about," Frog spat. "You keep that little heifer from slipping 'round my house with my Doo-witty."

"With Doo-witty? With Doo-witty? With Doo-witty?" Mama repeated over and over, like she was in some kind of trance. Tia with Doo-witty, the thought of it made you want to throw up. Doo-witty, whose real name was Donald Dwight, was Frog's only son. He was twenty-three. He was a slow, drop-jawed, long-headed dope. When the boys in the neighborhood played The Dozens, they always said that he was so stupid that he was once fired from the M&M's factory for throwing away all the Ws. Tia with Doo-witty, it wasn't possible. Tia was fine, and she made great grades in school, like me. She could choose.

"Tia fooling with Doo-witty," Mama said. "What would my Tia want with Doo-witty? Doo-witty so stupid he had to repeat the eighth grade three times. He wouldn't even know when his own birthday is if you didn't bake him a cake. What would my baby be doing messing 'round with that thing?"

"Well, how do you explain this?" Frog yelled. She pulled a lacy beige bra out of her pocket and shook it in Mama's face. Mama's jaw nearly fell onto the front porch. On the right cup of the bra, embroidered in gold floss, were the letters T. M. Mama had been sewing our initials on our underwear ever since Tia started middle school. In gym it was common for other girls to swipe your undies. Hard times made some kids do the craziest things. I leaned against the porch column and shook my head.

"I guess you can believe your own eyes, cain't you?" Frog said with a smirk on her bloated face. "Ain't you gal named Tia Marie?"

Mama didn't answer. She just kept staring at the right cup of Tia's bra, like it was gonna do a dance or something.

"Now," Frog continued. "Like I said before, you keep that slut of a gal of yours away from my Doo-witty. I got plans for Doo-witty. It ain't too late for him. I been putting a little aside each week. Pretty soon I'm gone have enough to send Doo-witty to a decent college. I don't want no little gal throwing her legs over her head and messing up his chances."

Mama took a deep breath and let it out. Her eyes snapped away from Tia's bra and fixed on Frog. They were now just little slits in her face, and right in the middle of those slits you could see Mr. Anger jumping up and down in his red anger suit. Mama's hands started to tremble, then that tremble traveled on up her arms until her whole body was shaking.

"Ain't no college in they right mind gone let in Doo-witty," Mama said through clenched teeth. "And even if they did, the only thing that he could major in is Fool, and he already passed that course."

Mama lifted her broom up and pointed the handle at Frog.

"Now, I ain't no fighting woman," Mama said. "But if you don't get yo' frog-looking behind off my porch, I truly believe that I can make an exception in your case. You got two seconds to get outta my face, or I'm gone swat your fat ass with this broom, like you was a fly at a church picnic."

Frog got off our porch -- and fast. She ran down the steps and rushed out of the wooden gate. She hit the pavement and sprinted off down the street with that big double-size belly jiggling left and right over her skinny legs. Mama ran down to the gate behind her.

"If I catch you or Doo-witty 'round my baby, I'm gone see what the law got to say about it!" Mama yelled. "Do you hear me? I better not catch you or that sorry-ass Doo-witty 'round my Tia." She watched from the gate until Frog disappeared between a row of beat-up old cars lined up in front of the red-brick project down the street; after that she came back up on the porch and swept Tia's bra into the pink rose bushes that were still growing wild on the side of the porch.

Mama sat down in the old wicker rocker beside the screen door and sighed. Her eyes looked heavy, like they were ready to drop tears. But Mama didn't cry. She always said that even from a little girl, she couldn't make water come to her eyes. So she just sat there rocking in the chair while she turned on the shower in her soul and let her tears run all over her insides. I walked over and took one of her hands in mine. While I ran my fingers over her rough skin, I made a note in my head to jot down in my blue notebook later: Mama is all broken inside, and sorrow is hanging from our ceiling like icicles from Christmas trees.

After a few moments Mama got up and went in the house. I didn't follow her this time. I knew what she was going to do. She was going to go into the kitchen and fix herself a pan of hot-water corn bread. Mama always fixed the bread when she was upset. She said that there was something about the sound of the cornmeal patties sizzling in the hot grease that calmed her nerves. She said that it was soothing, like listening to the blues or jazz. I decided to leave Mama to her comfort. Besides, I knew that after Mama's nerves calmed a bit she was going to go find Tia and drag her home.

Tia was at her best friend Maxi's house. Maxi was a short, dumpy, chatty girl who lived on Divine Street, three blocks away from Frog. Tia went to Maxi's house every Saturday morning to watch rap videos on the black cable channel. Mama was going to go snatch Tia away from Maxi's house as soon as she had eaten the last crumb of her bread. It wasn't gonna be pleasant in an hour or so. I could see 'em now, fussing and arguing down the street, putting on a real show. That was the way it always was with Mama and Tia. They were like lemonade and hot chocolate. They were good by themselves, but when you put them together all you got was one big mess. This was one fight I figured I could miss. I didn't want any of those sparks that were gonna be flying off of Mama to burn me up along with Tia. I hopped down from the porch.

"Mama, I'm going down the street a bit," I hollered as I strolled up the walkway.

"Don't go too far," Mama hollered back through the screen door. I went through the gate and banged it shut behind me. The neighborhood was in heat shock. It was almost ninety-eight degrees. Here and there a fuzzy-haired kid could be seen throwing a plastic ball against the concrete porch steps, or drawing his name on the sidewalk with buckets of neon-colored chalk, but that was the extent of the activities going on in front of the rows of paintless, run-down houses. Most people were inside sitting next to their window fans. As I passed by the open windows I could see tips of dark heads flashing between the twirling blades, and hear the soft whisper of voices floating over the whir of the fan motors. When it was this hot, it was common for most of the adults to stay inside until the cooler hours of the evening, with two exceptions:

Perry's 24-and-7 was hopping as usual. The stereo was blasting a Marvin Gaye tune, and groups of stylishly dressed, sweaty brothers and sisters were standing in the open double doors gossiping, their dark brown hands wrapped around open cans of Coors beer.

The other group of people out in mass were the women of the Tabernacle of the Blessed Redeemer. On the third Saturday of each month the women put their men out of the church and held a women-only cleansing revival. Arm in arm they filed by twos into the one-story, dome-shaped sanctuary, their shiny hair covered with satin scarves, their smooth black legs sticking out from underneath their knee-length ivory robes. Once inside the church, the ladies would sing spirituals until they felt the spirit hit them. Then they would hop up and dance down the aisles, shaking tambourines and chanting. When this was over, they would hear a sermon on the role of women in and out of the church by their leader, Sister Ashada, the tabernacle's female soul-saving minister. Finally, they would take part in the sprinkling ceremony, where they were sprinkled with sand from Jesus' footprints that was supposed to take away all their sins.

Mama had taken me and Tia there for a service once. It was right after my daddy, Mr. Anderson Fox, took off on her and moved in with another woman. Mama had just been laid off from her job at Walgreens. The bills were stacking up and the food was low. Mama said that we needed the hand of God to help us quick. Even though she wasn't especially religious, she took us to one of the cleansing revivals. She said that Grandma Augustine always told her that God liked a clean soul. When the spirit hit, Mama got up and danced in the aisles like the rest of the ladies, but Tia and I just sat there. The whole thing seemed really odd to me, and I wanted no part of it. I wasn't too big on church, and I hadn't yet made up my mind about how I felt about Grandma Augustine's God. But Tia really liked the revival and the friendly way that the ladies treated us and one another. She said that she would have gladly got up and danced too, if she hadn't had a runner in her panty hose. Tia is very particular about her looks. It generally takes her more than an hour each morning to fix her face for school.

Since I didn't see any kids my age hanging out in front of the houses, I decided to head on down to the bayou, just a little ways from the house. It was a regular meeting place for the teenagers in my neighborhood. When there was nothing better to do, you could always find a few of them chillin' and knocking back a few sodas along the bank or listening to some tapes. That sounded great to me. Any place was better than home, at least for now.

The roar of the bayou hit me as I stepped through a prickly cluster of blackberry shrubs that guarded the entrance to the dirt path running along both sides of the bayou. The runoff from our streets had drained into the murky green waters, and they were much higher than normal. The current was moving swiftly, rippling and churning as it pushed forward downstream, splashing against the tall weeds growing on the side of the black dirt cliffs.

I walked over to the edge of the cliff, took a deep breath, and let it out. The bayou was the place where the people in the neighborhood dumped all the old stuff from their houses that they didn't want: broken furniture, old clothes, used-up toys, worn-out tires. Mama said that it was filled with little chunks of other people's lives, the parts of their lives that they wanted to forget. I leaned in and listened to the water carry those chunks away. It was peaceful, calming. The bayou was to me like hot-water corn bread was to Mama.

When I was through enjoying the sound of the water, I turned back and continued on up the path. It was nice and cool as I strolled underneath the tall trees that lined the right side of the path, their spacious branches stretching toward the warm blue sky like huge upside-down feather dusters. It was turning fall, and the pecan trees were loaded down with hard green pecans, while the spindly branches of the pine trees were thick with large, scaly cones. The once muddy ground had already started to dry up, etching deep lines into patches of the smooth gray soil, and I took my sandals off so that I could feel the tiny cracks with my bare feet.

I was a few yards up the path when I spotted something, no, someone, lying in the middle of it. I didn't have to get too close to know that it was Kambia. She was lying in the center of the path on her back with her legs together and her arms straight at her sides. I could see that she was wearing the same dingy dress. In fact, I had seen Kambia in that dress at least a half a dozen times.

Kambia and I had the same fourth-period biology class at school, that is, when she came to school. Since she moved here Kambia had missed more than half of the classes. She hardly ever showed up. When she did come, she said the craziest things, and the other children laughed at her. When Mrs. Feely, our teacher, asked Kambia where babies come from, Kambia said that they were born in morning glories. She said that they dropped out of the violet, dew-drenched flowers early in the morning when everyone was asleep and crawled to the homes of their new mothers. She said that sometimes the babies fell out of the morning glories before their time, and that they turned into a sweet-smelling mist and rose high up into the heavens. When it rained, it was God sprinkling the bodies of those babies all over the earth. The other kids all thought that it was the funniest thing they had ever heard. They laughed long and loud, until Mrs. Feely slammed her bio book down on the counter and told Kambia to go stand outside where she couldn't disrupt the rest of the class. Kambia didn't seem to mind at all. She just got up and calmly walked out.

After Kambia was gone, Mrs. Feely told us that she had never heard such foolishness in her life. She told us that we were there to learn science, not fantasize, and that there was no place for clowns in her room.

I hurried over to Kambia. To tell the truth, I was more curious than concerned. Mama had made me go over to her house a couple of times and knock on the door to see if she wanted to do some stuff, but she always came to the door and said no. Kambia's mom didn't let her come out on Saturdays or even after school. Her mother, a tall, light-skinned woman with red eyes and heavy ankles, didn't allow Kambia out much, unless she was sending her to the corner store for cigarettes or wine coolers. Allen's Pick-and-Carry would sell anything to anybody, no matter how young, as long as they had the cash.

I walked up to Kambia and stopped by her head.

"Are you all right?" I asked, looking down at her face. Her eyes were closed, but I could see the soft flutter of her eyeballs underneath the lids, as if she were dreaming.

"Are you all right?" I repeated. She didn't respond. I started to panic. I bent down and tugged her arm.

"Hey, are you okay?" I asked again. She opened her eyes and looked at me with a dreamy expression.

"I'm a piece of driftwood," she said. "I've just floated down from the Mississippi River and washed up here on the bank."

"You're a space cadet," I said, and dropped her arm.

"No. I'm an old, hollow piece of driftwood who has lived its time and come here to rot. I'll turn into rich fertilizer and nourish the earth, then years from now people will grow flowers or vege-tables in me and I'll be reborn and made fresh."

"You're a crazo," I said. "I don't have time for baby games. I'm gonna go find some other kids to do something with. Besides, if you were a piece of driftwood, you would be in the water. That's what driftwood means, a piece of wood drifting on the water."

"I am a piece of driftwood," she whined, in a voice that sounded like my three-year-old cousin, Lisa.

"You're too babyish," I said. "I gotta go."

"I tell you I am a piece of driftwood," she repeated. "I just floated down from the Mississippi and washed up here on the bank," she said, pushing her small pink lips into a pout.

"There's no way a piece of driftwood could make it all the way here from Mississippi," I said. "I'm going." I started back up the path, but she grabbed my ankle. She scrambled to her feet and ran over to the edge of the water.

"I'll show you," she said, sitting down on the bank and throwing her skinny legs over the side. "I am a piece of driftwood. Watch how I float on top of the water."

I ran over to her. "Are you crazy or something, girl?" I asked. "That water is really deep. You can't float on it. You'll drown."

She took off one of her white sandals and flung it underneath a pecan tree. "Driftwood don't wear shoes," she said.

"Girl, you are really nuts!" I cried. "I don't want to play this game. I'm leaving." I turned around and walked a piece from the cliff, thinking that she would follow me, but she didn't. She started humming loud, a nursery rhyme, "Three Blind Mice." I turned around. She took off her other sandal and flung it in the direction of the first one. She started sliding on her butt through the thick weeds toward the water, moving up and down with her knees, like an inchworm or something.

"You're gonna drown," I said. "The water is too fast. You can't swim in it." She just kept sliding, sliding and humming, sliding and humming. I didn't know what to do. I ran over and tried to grab her arm, but she was outta my reach. I looked downstream. On the left side of the bank. I could see a group of boys in cut-off jeans dragging on cigarettes and throwing rocks in the water. I thought about running and getting them, but by the time I got down there Kambia would be in that bayou, for sure. What in the world was wrong with her? She had to be a slice short of a full pound cake. I leaned in over the cliff.

"Kambia!" I yelled. "This isn't funny. You can get really hurt. Stop being so stupid." She didn't even turn around.

The water was splashing something fierce against the base of the cliff. She just kept sliding and humming. Should I go down after her? I couldn't really swim. All I could do was dog-paddle, which was usually okay when the bayou water was calm. Everybody knew not to get into the water after a rainstorm. Even the youngest kids in the neighborhood knew that the water was really dangerous after we had had a flash flood. I looked down. She was still sliding, getting nearer to the water. Some of it had splashed up on her white dress, and the tail of it was covered with little pieces of black leaves and twigs.

"I believe you!" I shouted. "You are a piece of driftwood!"

"And where did I come from?" she shouted back, over the roar of the water.

"You just washed up here from the Mississippi!" I yelled. "Where you'll rot and nourish the earth!"

"Fine," she said. She started to inch her way back up the cliff the same way that she had got down, scooting that bony butt of hers backward instead of forward, grasping hunks of weeds to help pull herself up. When she finally reached the top, I grabbed her arm and tugged her up.

"I told you," she said. "Now do you believe me?" she asked with a satisfied look in her olive eyes. I wanted to wring her neck, break her in half like she was a peppermint stick or something, but I just cut her a look that woulda stopped a charging dog and marched back over to the path.

"You make me sick," I said.

"Wait, don't go, hold up," she cried. I kept walking. She ran up beside me.

"Go away," I said. "I don't want to hang out with you."

"Come on," she said. "I just wanted you to play with me."

"I don't like the way you play," I snapped.

She tugged my arm. "If you let me hang out with you, I'll tell you my deepest secret," she said. I stopped.

"What is it?" I asked.

"Wait," she said. "I gotta get my shoes."

By the time Kambia and I returned home I still hadn't quite forgiven her for making me afraid of the bayou for the first time in my life. She was kind of spooky and I wasn't too cool with spooky. But she had, at least, kept her promise to me and told me her secret, though I wasn't sure if it was really a secret or just something that her mother had told her not to tell.

According to Kambia, she and her mother had moved to Houston from Dallas because some woman was after her mother. She said that her mother was stepping out with some guy who owned a fish shack, and his wife found out about it and told her mother that she would slice her up like a sweet potato pie if she caught her on the streets, so Kambia and her mom caught a Greyhound to Houston. Kambia's secret was a little bit believable. Her mother had lots of boyfriends. Tall dudes, short dudes, bearded dudes, there was always some guy coming outta her house, especially at night. I wasn't sure where her mom had found a job, but wherever it was, she sure did meet a lot of guys.

Besides Kambia's secret the only other thing that I learned about her was that she was a reader, like me. Her favorite books were Linda James mystery novels. The one that she liked the best was about Linda James and her family moving one summer into an old house that was built at the turn of the century. The house is filled with trapdoors, secret passageways, and stuff like that. In the book Linda James spends the entire summer exploring all of the magical new things that the house has to offer.

"I wish I could do that," Kambia said as we headed up her walkway. "I wish that I could do nothing but explore all day and all night. I would find all the wonderful things that the world had to hide, then I would take them, put them in an empty mayonnaise jar, and look at them every morning when I woke up," she said, twirling down the brick walkway like a leaf caught in a whirlwind. When she reached the porch steps, she suddenly stopped twirling and ran up them so fast that I barely saw her feet moving.

"I gotta go," she said, standing in the middle of the porch.

"Bye," I said. I turned and started off down the walkway, but something made me turn back. I wasn't sure what.

"If my mama says that it's okay, I can walk to school with you sometimes," a little voice inside me blurted out.

"Cool," she said. "I don't really like walking alone."

"Okay, I'll ask my mama tonight," the voice said. I continued on down the walkway. As I stepped onto the sidewalk I heard the creak of the screen door, then a loud, shrill voice that I knew from experience was her mother's.

"Kambia Elaine. What the hell are you doing outside of this house? I told you to keep your ass in here, didn't I?" her mother yelled. The screen door slammed.

Tia was sitting on the front porch of our house when I got home. Her eyes were puffy and swollen and her nose was red. She was licking her wounds. Tia's way of doing this was braiding her hair. She was sitting in her plaid short shorts and her demi-top, separating long strands of it with a plastic comb and weaving it into thin twists. I walked up the steps and slid in behind her. Taking the comb, I started to braid her hair in the opposite direction, over where she had gone under.

"What's up, Tia the Chia Pet?" I asked.

"Where you been, Shayla?" she asked.

"As far away from you and Mama as I could get," I said.

"Mama is seriously trippin'," Tia said. "What am I gonna do? Mama treats me like I ain't more than two years outta my diapers. She always going on at me about stuff everybody else is doing. Why cain't she see that I don't eat peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches no more?"

"I don't know, Tia Chia," I said, "but if I was you, the next time I went somewhere I wasn't suppose to be, I would make sure that I brought home everything that I took with me."

"I know," Tia said, turning in the direction of the rose bushes. Her bra was still there, blanketing the soft petals. I guess neither she nor Mama was brave enough to claim it.

"I really messed up this time," she said. "I really messed up."

"Messed up" was an understatement of what Tia had done. Mama loved hard, but she didn't forget easy. Tia had drilled a hole in Mama's heart and all Mama's trust of her had run out of it. It was gonna be a long time before Mama forgot what she done. "Stuff everybody else is doing," Tia had said. I couldn't imagine anybody else messing with Doo-witty. But then, after hearing why Kambia said she and her mom had moved from Dallas, I figured Tia wasn't the only one getting herself into trouble over some worthless guy. I decided that I was gonna leave guys alone until I was about forty.

Poor Tia. I stopped combing her hair, put my arms around her neck, and gave her a big hug. I wanted her to tell me what was going on with her and Doo-witty, but I didn't know the words to make her feelings flow. I also wanted to tell her about the stunt that Kambia had pulled, tell her that I thought that Kambia was really spaced-out, and that she mighta jumped into that bayou for sure, but nothing came out of my mouth. So I just made another note to add to my blue notebook later, when the house had cooled off: Tia's nature is boiling out of her like hot soup out of a pot, and Kambia Elaine just flew in from Neptune.

Copyright © 2000 by Lori Aurelia Williams

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Sort by: Showing all of 10 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 21, 2008

    What i thought about this book

    When i first picked up this book i thought it was going to be hard. But when i started reading it i thought that this book is pretty easy and good. I liked the character Kambia because she was a real life character. Even though she was a little wierd i still liked her. I liked when she got her foster parents because i didnt want her to have to go back and live with her mom. It was sad when she was bleeding i thought she was going to die. But overall i really like this book. You are a good writer to and i hope you continue to write GREAT story's like this. Thank you for writing this book i really liked it

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 26, 2008

    Good

    I love this book it was very sad. It's one of those books that you'll still be thinking about weeks after you read it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 2, 2004

    Absolutely touching and unbelievably well-written

    This is a touching story of love and hate. Lori Aurelia Williams is a tremendously talented author who captures everything that teenagers and adults would and do feel in that whole situation. WONDERFUL!!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 1, 2002

    Superb

    I think that this book is the best Ive read in a while I typically g for realistic fiction and this had that and lots of metaphors I enjoyed.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 21, 2001

    I couldn't put it down

    From the minute I picked up this book I knew I wouldn't be able to put it down. The characters were so real and I felt like I was with them as this was going on. The words were so vivid!! i loved the metophors and I want to go back through the book just to write them down!! This is a must read!! It made me laugh, then think, then cry and then rejoice with the characters~I LOVED IT.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 8, 2001

    Well-read MATURE! African-American Story

    As an adult, I found this audio book fabulous (and fabulously read). It is a touching and sometimes-funny story of a young girl in a strong family and a strong urban community. Altho this is a 'Children's Book' I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect. Caution to less-than-High-School age audience, in my opinion, it deals with mature issues and lifestyles. I anxiously await more from this author AND READER!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 16, 2001

    AN AFFECTING READING

    It's seldom that a story bridges the ever widening generation gap, but 'When Kambia Elaine Flew In From Neptune' surely does. This chronicle of love and friendship will appeal to both teenagers and adults, especially in its unabridged audio form affectingly read by Heather Alicia Simms. The author has said that she grew up poor in a neighborhood where children were 'seen but not heard,' so does her protagonist, Shayla Dubois who lives with her fractured family in other side of the tracks Houston, Texas. Shayla's sister has been ousted for carrying on with an older man, and her absent father has suddenly returned to town. To complicate matters further, Shayla has a unique new neighbor - Kambia who tells absurd tales about Lizard People who turn into purple chewing gum, reports that she is a piece of driftwood from the Mississippi River, and more. Shayla well knows that something is amiss, but what can she possibly do? Heather Alicia Simms's performance is in perfect harmony with the author's use of African-American lore and street patois.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 3, 2000

    Cute

    This is a cute book, but also a bit heartbreaking at times. There are such neat metaphors in it. I think Lori is an excellent author, and Shayla, the main charactor is a great heroine. This book is a nice read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 14, 2000

    An intensely emotional first novel

    Shayla has alot to deal with. Her sister has run away and now her new friend Kambia is telling her all sorts of 'crazy' stories about werewolves that live in the wallpaper. Shayla doesn't completely understand the violent situation Kambia is in, but knows she needs to figure out a way to help her before it is too late. This is an intense novel that is written beautifully. Shyla is extremely insightful and offers alot to the story. Molestation and rape are hard topics to read about no matter what age you are, but these are topics that need to be discussed. The important message here is that Kambia and Shayla are both survivors, although in extremely different ways. I would recommend this book to 9th graders and up.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 18, 2010

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