Hatter’s artful, moving novel looks closely at the murder of a young black woman and her family’s devastation. Oldand newquestions about race and civil rights in 21st Century America arise alongside the unfolding story of Malawi and those who live in the wake of her loss.
About the Author
Melanie S. Hatter is the author of Malawi's Sisters, winner of the inaugural Kimbilio National Fiction Prize, selected by Edwidge Danticat (Four Way Books, 2019), The Color of My Soul, winner of the 2011 Washington Writers’ Publishing House Fiction Prize, and Let No One Weep for Me, Stories of Love and Loss. Her short stories have appeared in The Whistling Fire, Defying Gravity, TimBookTu, and Diverse Voices Quarterly. She was a runner-up winner in the Fiction category of the 2015 and 2016 Montgomery Writes contests sponsored by the Maryland Writers’ Association. She is a regular participant in the PEN/Faulkner Foundation’s Writers in Schools program in Washington, D.C., and serves on the board of the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation.
Read an Excerpt
The trilling of the phone stirred Bet from sleep, but it was the thudding of her heart that opened her eyes. An inexplicable dread rising in her chest before she looked at the clock to see the time — three in the morning. She glanced at Malcolm, who had pushed the covers to the bottom of the bed as he often did in his sleep, especially in the summer. He lay on his side, his face turned away from her, his snore chugging into the air. She offered a silent prayer that the call would be nothing bad. Leaning on her right elbow, she reached with her left for the phone on the bedside table, another prayer for a wrong number, that she could snuggle into her husband's back and savor the memory of last night's kisses.
She grabbed the phone just before it rang a third time, her heartbeat erratic in her chest. "Hello?"
"This is Sheriff Wheeler of the Palm Beach County Sheriff 's Office. Do you have —"
His words faded and Bet pressed the phone closer to her ear. The voice was low and deep. She reached over and turned on the lamp, the light pinching her eyes.
"What? What did you say?"
"Do you have a daughter named Malawi Walker?"
"Malawi? What happened? Is she all right?"
"Mrs. Walker, there's been an incident. Your daughter has been shot."
"What?" Bet swung her legs off the bed and sat on the edge of the mattress pressing the phone into her ear. "What?"
She couldn't breathe, yet a scream burst from her throat. Malcolm jumped up, his arm automatically reaching out to her. "It's Malawi," she yelled. "She's been shot."
Malcolm took the phone from her hand. "Hello? This is Judge Walker, Malawi's father." He listened and stared at Bet for what seemed an age, before responding. "Thank you, Sheriff. Yes, we'll get on the first flight we can." He touched her arm and the pressure of his hand was reassuring. "She's at the Palm Beach Hospital. The sheriff said it's a shoulder injury. You pack a bag. I'll call the hospital. Maybe they can give us an update. I'll find a flight."
Malcolm rushed downstairs to his office while Bet remained seated on the bed, struggling to bring into focus what he'd said. She had to pack. They were going to Florida. They were going to see Malawi. Pushing herself to move, she ransacked closets and drawers for necessities. She stumbled over the cat as Kitty silently appeared from one of her hiding spots, meowing at the sudden disturbance in the house. In a moment, Malcolm advanced back up the stairs, shouting that he'd booked an early flight leaving National in a few hours. He handed her the phone. "I'm on hold with the hospital." He gestured for her to take over listening to the tinny elevator music and stepped into the adjoining bathroom, closing the door behind him. She tried to picture her daughter being shot in the shoulder — over-dramatized scenes from movies clouded her mind; not images of Malawi. Bet took a deep breath.
She padded downstairs and put on a pot of coffee. Kitty followed and sprang from the floor to the chair, then up onto the counter and daintily pranced across to Bet, who tut-tutted and dumped the cat back on the floor with unnecessary force. She switched the phone from her right to her left and adjusted the salt-and-pepper shakers, aligning them just so. Her fingers were shaking. A voice came on the line and Bet threw out her daughter's name, stumbling through an explanation that her daughter had been admitted a few hours ago, a gunshot wound. The voice couldn't find Malawi's name and suggested Bet call again in an hour. Bet huffed and glowered at the phone as if the voice could see her irritation, but the line was dead. She dialed Kenya's number and her oldest answered after the third ring, her voice muffled and sleepy.
She tried to explain, but her words got tangled around her tongue as if fighting against her mouth.
"Mama, slow down. What happened?"
Bet's head felt like it was in a tumble dryer and she was about to vomit. "We don't know yet. I'll call you when we know. I just — just wanted to let you know we're going down there."
"Do you need me to do anything?"
"Call Ghana for me. I can't — I just —" Tears blurred her vision. Before hanging up, she repeated her promise to call when they got to Florida. "Oh, and stop in and feed Kitty, will you?"
The room was thick with shadow, only a glow of light came from the bulb above the stove. When the coffee was done, she poured a large mug and sat at the breakfast table trying to stay calm.CHAPTER 2
Kenya poured a second cup of coffee knowing she would be wired all day, but what do you do at four in the morning after your mother calls to say your sister has been shot? She had tried to go back to sleep but had lain with the weight of her thoughts pressing on her, closing her eyes just to have them open again. So she got up quietly, trying not to disturb Sidney, put on her robe and tiptoed downstairs, her head wrapped in a silk scarf to keep her hair smooth. She left a message for Ghana, emptied the dishwasher, took out chicken pieces to thaw, and sat at the breakfast bar nibbling at a hangnail as daylight gradually filled the kitchen.
As she gazed through the window at the bushes in the yard, irritation nipped the back of her neck at having to postpone the surprise party. And what to do with the huge sheet cake decorated with her parents' smiling faces and the words "Happy Anniversary" in purple icing? Kenya bit harder at the skin around her nails. She wanted to be magnanimous toward her sister, and yet this feeling that Malawi always ruined everything kept shoving its way into her thoughts. She didn't want to think this. Malawi was in pain, suffering a gunshot wound, for God's sake. It's not that she wasn't worried about her baby sister — of course she was — it was just that Malawi had always been a drama queen.
Always had to be the center of everyone's attention. This was just another stupid cry to be noticed. Probably not even a shooting, but something else entirely.
She remembered missing her first-ever girls-and-boys party because Mama went into labor with Malawi. Instead of wearing her new dress and kissing her first crush, Kenya spent the night at Grandma's house with Ghana. She had imagined dancing the night away in her crush's arms, but instead, when she got to school the next day she heard he'd danced with Bethany Gilbert and kissed her goodnight. The kiss should have been Kenya's. From that night on Malawi became the center of their lives — and the bane of Kenya's.
Mama and Daddy always ran to her rescue, even now that she lived in Florida, off they went. They'd find she hadn't been shot. Just Drama Queen creating a crisis. Malawi moved south claiming a desire to be free of the family. As if the family was some kind of mafia she needed to escape. But Malawi wasn't the good girl their parents thought she was. For one thing, she was no stranger to smoking weed, and Kenya wondered if her sister had been experimenting with something stronger. Had fallen in with a bad crowd. Didn't seem that long ago Malawi had called their parents in the middle of the night from West Baltimore because she'd hit a stop sign, apparently trying to reach her phone on the floor. So she said. She couldn't start the car and needed money to get it towed and repaired. When asked what she was doing in West Baltimore in the early hours of the morning, all she said was, "just visiting friends." Of course, Daddy immediately drove in the middle of the night from D.C. to save her, as if she couldn't have called Triple-A.
Kenya's coffee was cold now and she frowned at her thoughts. Everything would be fine. This was just Malawi being ridiculous, as usual.
Sidney came into the kitchen and murmured, "Good morning." She could tell he was tired from his slow gait and low voice. His hair had grown into a short afro and she wished he would get it cut, yet couldn't find words to say anything. She shifted her gaze to the window as he settled on a stool next to her, wearing white shorts and a striped Polo shirt, his skin tanned to almost black. He slurped his coffee — a sound she hated — and read the Post while waiting for a bagel to pop out of the toaster. He had returned yesterday from a business trip to South Africa. She knew that much to be true. As far as she could tell, he had never lied about where he had been, just who he'd been with.
The bagel popped up and Sidney remained still, reading. She wouldn't spread the cream cheese for him. She knew that's what he wanted, because that's what she usually did. The cheese should be spread as soon as the bagel popped up so it melted. She hated for anything toasted to sit and get cold. But she refused to do it today. Not anymore.
He glanced at her. "You okay, Babe?"
She took a sip of cold coffee, aware of his eyes on her, then he got up and spread the bagel himself. Between bites, he said, "I'll be heading out soon. Meeting Jon for a round of tennis."
Flooded with a combination of thoughts and emotions she didn't know what to do with, Kenya said nothing. This morning, everything was irritating her. She decided not to mention her mother's call until she heard more. She acknowledged his comment with a nod, her teeth still nibbling at the skin around her nails, her mind on having to call everyone on the invite list to cancel the surprise party — surprise! — and thinking about her parents rushing off to Florida to rescue her sister. She listened but didn't hear the crackling pages of the newspaper, Sidney crunching the bagel, the hum of the refrigerator.
After a while, Sidney said, "Okay, then," and placed his mug on the empty plate, the clink bashing her ears. "I'll see you later." He left her with a kiss on her forehead.CHAPTER 3
Malawi has been shot. The words rolled and collided like marbles on a wooden floor; Ghana could make no sense of them. She deleted Kenya's rambling message then called Malawi's number but it went straight to voice-mail.
She sat on the couch in the dim morning light, her locs tied up with a scarf into a loose pile on top of her head, her latest tattoo, a vine of flowers curling over her shoulder and along the back of her neck, peeking around just below her right ear. She had wandered, naked, into the living room in search of her phone. The dull ache of a hangover squeezing her brain as she listened to her sister's message. Grabbing Ryan's T-shirt from the cushion next to her, she covered herself then pulled her feet up onto the couch, straining the cell phone's charging cord. She leaned her arm on her knees and listened to the phone ring so many times, Ghana expected to get voice-mail, but her mother finally answered.
"Mama. What's going on?"
"We're in Florida. Me and your father." Her mother sounded weary. "Malawi's in the hospital. We've just landed at the airport. Once your father gets a car we'll go straight there."
Ghana tightened her knees into her chest. "Is she okay?"
"They said it was a shoulder wound. Look, I need to go. We'll call when we know for sure what's going on, okay."
Ghana ran back to the bedroom and jumped on the bed. Ryan lay on his stomach and shifted his head from left to right, but didn't open his eyes. He'd worked well past his regular evening shift and hadn't gotten home until after two a.m. She hesitated to wake him, but needed to talk. As a cop, he might have some perspective to help her understand what was happening with her sister.
She touched the milky-white skin right below his hairline, skin that gradually darkened to a golden brown along his shoulders and down his back. For a white boy, during the summer, he got as dark as she was. "Baby." She nudged his shoulder. "Wake up!"
He made a grunting noise, rolled onto his side and reached out for her, wrapping his arms around her waist and snuggling his face into her thigh. "Come back to bed," he said, his words muffled. She pushed him back so she could see his face.
"Malawi's been ..." She paused thinking maybe she was dreaming.
Malawi's been shot. The phrase seemed absurd to say out loud.
Ryan's eyes flickered open; he squinted at her, his face soft and sleepy. "Huh?"
Clutching his forearm, her mind began to race, a barrage of questions filling her head: Should she fly down there, too? Was it a driveby shooting? Could a shoulder injury be fatal? Was she overreacting?
Daddy would be there soon to make sure Malawi was okay. And they'd call. Everything would be okay.
Ryan's eyelids slowly closed and his face fell into the pillow. She stared at him, feeling her throat tight, her pulse throbbing in her head. His arm made one more attempt to pull her back to bed; she shoved him away and went to the bathroom to shower. Maybe she would fly down there.
Waiting for the water to warm, she thought about calling Kenya to see if she knew anything more, but decided against it. Ghana hadn't talked to her older sister in months. Not since Christmas when everyone was home.
"You're not living up to your potential," Kenya had said. The family was gathered, as always, at their parents' home in Crestwood.
Kenya loved that they grew up in the bourgie neighborhood, nicknamed the Gold Coast. That her daddy was a prominent judge, that she'd married a successful businessman, and that she went to law school and lived in a swanky house in Potomac, Maryland.
"Is that what you're doing?" Ghana had asked. "Living up to your potential with your two perfect kids and your big house and Louboutin shoes."
"I don't wear Louboutins." Kenya had looked at her feet, and with a straight face said, "These are Fendi."
Ghana looked to the ceiling. "Whatever."
"I'm serious, Ghana. Look at your life. You do massage. You do graphic design. You're all over the place. You live in a pitiful apartment in Anacostia."
"Yeah, and you wouldn't set foot on that side of town, right?"
"That's not what I mean."
"You don't know anything about the people who live there, so shut up."
"I'm not talking about the people who live there. I'm talking about you and your lack of focus. You need to go back to school. Finish your degree."
"Go to hell, Kenya. My business is my business. Besides, I'm moving in with my boyfriend next month."
Before Kenya could say anything more, Li'l Sis had stepped in, as she often did. "Jesus, you two. Knock it off."
Malawi was the peacemaker. The one who wanted everyone to get along. And Ghana loved her desperately. They had talked yesterday evening. Malawi seemed happy to be in Florida, though she had confessed she missed everyone. She had met a guy and said they'd been dating for a few months. Last night, she was headed to a colleague's house for dinner, a woman who also taught Math at the same high school. Ghana couldn't remember the woman's name, but she had become somewhat of a mentor to Malawi. At least that's how Li'l Sis had described her. Malawi had called from her car, on her way to the woman's house. She'd been in good spirits and they'd laughed about her maybe stopping by her guy's house after dinner for a booty call on her way home. Ghana wondered if her sister had visited him and he'd gotten angry and hurt her somehow.
She turned off the water and stepped out of the shower, wrapping a large green towel around her. In the steamy bathroom, the blood left her head and she sat on the edge of the tub.
"Good god, I hope not."CHAPTER 4
It was just after eleven in the morning and the air was muggy and hot. Malcolm drove the rental straight to Palm Beach Hospital. The Taurus handled well enough but the GPS seemed to lack an accurate image of the terrain and they made several wrong turns causing Bet to fuss about taking too long. Malcolm kept quiet — anything he said would result in an argument. The flight had lasted just over two and a half hours, but had seemed to take forever. He hated flying, but Bet was worse so he feigned indifference to keep her calm. As the plane's wheels hit the tarmac, she gripped his hand so tightly the tips of his fingers turned white.
The massive parking garage had no open spaces until the fifth level, and all the while Bet fussed. "It's too hot. Why are so many people at the hospital already? Are these spaces for both staff and visitors?
Shouldn't they separate them and have them marked? Visitors should get priority."
He knew she was anxious but he needed her to stop talking. He couldn't think. "Bet, just give it a rest for a minute. Please!" He backed the car into the space, exited and walked around the front to open her door. He took her hand and she huffed, but fell quiet.
He looked for directions to the emergency room. After an agonizingly slow ride down on the elevator and a short walk, they found the ER crowded with a long line leading to the intake desk. Bet exclaimed, "Oh, Jesus Lord."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Malawi's Sisters"
Copyright © 2019 Melanie S. Hatter.
Excerpted by permission of Four Way Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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