First Place Winner of Voyage’s Best Chapters Contest judged by NYT Bestselling Author Soman Chainani
It started at the incense shop, or before then, or after. I forget.
School let out for winter break the week before. Atlanta was frost-bitten like the alley strays Ms. Angie fed after closing time, like I was—or my brain was, at least. Beneath my knotty, black curls, I had been chilled to the point of sedation. Time was a butt like that. It didn’t erase. It numbed. It had been two years since my dad was shot, and two years was more than enough. A day was Tylenol. A year was Novocain.
Inside Incense and Incensibility, the air felt and smelled like the layer between cakes, like warmth and vanilla.
Ms. Angie swooped into the hall as I closed the back door. She wore her locs in a high bun, bangles up her wrists, and a long skirt more suited for a beach than a city in wintertime.
“Was that all?” she asked. I had left the last of the boxes in the recycling dumpster.
“That’s the last of it,” I said, skirting some old chairs. “I can go home now, right?”
“Oy, the day has not yet passed, and already you’re begging for time off? What happened to dedication? What happened to dependability? What happened to—?”
“We discussed it already,” I reminded her. “Have to get home early for the kids.”
I had spent the last four hours emptying the store basement, and she promised. It was the only benefit of working for a neighbor, negotiations.
“Oh, yes.” She wiggled her giant hips toward the basement. “The children, how could I forget? The big-haired one is seven now?”
Her back went stiff. “Good gracious. Then how old are you?”
I crossed my arms and waited. My patience usually had a longer shelf life, but my Mom needed me home within the hour.
Ms. Angie grinned and disappeared into the basement.
“You’re free to leave, Amira,” called her disembodied voice. “Just make sure you clock out on the new system, and take some ginger cookies home to the little ones.”
“They like the vanilla ones better,” I said.
“Because they don’t have good taste. Lord Heavens, it’s spotless down here.”
I shot a glance at the photo of Madame C.J. Walker. She’d been watching me from a rusted shelf since I started working here three years ago, twelve and in need of extra income. I threw half a curtsy her way. We both knew the value of hard work. Her hot combs and hair care products, and my shifts behind Ms. Angie’s register. Madame Walker had made a nice million. I made enough to keep shoes on Travis’s and Marley’s feet.
Incense and Incensibility had a living room style décor, a welcome-all for the lonely heads drifting through the south side of Atlanta on any given day. Beaded curtains lined the front windows. Two Victorian-style chairs faced each other in the used books section. Pictures of Sojourner Truth, Toni Morrison, and Mary McLeod Bethune hid on side tables and shelves as if the women were part of our store family.
At the register, Maude leaned on her elbow. She wore a Santa Claus hat and a bright red frown.
“I need you to cover my shift,” she said. “Skid asked me to see a new superhero movie with him. Which superhero? I have no idea, but you know how I feel about dark theaters.”
“Easier to hide from your momma and the butt whopping you so rightfully deserve?”
She pouted. “Are you taking my shift or not?”
“Not happening.” I hit the touch screen on Ms. Angie’s new computer. “I have to watch the kids tonight.”
“Why can’t Marley do it? She’s nine, right?”
“The nine-year-old cannot watch the five-year-old.”
“Why not?” Maude, who had no brothers and sisters, tightened her frown and counted off on her fingers. “The girl is tall enough to reach the microwave, the deadbolt, and the freezer. That’s everything.”
“You know nothing at all about children.”
“Technically, I know nothing at all about anything.” She faced me with her elbows on the counter behind her. “But I need to get out. My parents are gone for three days. Then it’s back to grandma skirts and prayer breakfasts. Please, best friend.”
I bit my lip. The words “Clock out” blinked on and off on the computer screen.
Maude’s parents were strict. That whopping thing was no joke. Mrs. McGregor only wore Italian leather belts for a reason. But a date was just a date, and I had responsibilities.
“If the five-year-old decides to run with scissors, it’s because the nine-year-old is chasing him.” I smiled like I felt bad. “We have had that discussion about priorities before.”
The bell above the door chimed, another customer.
“Still best friends?” I hit “Clock out” and then held my fist out for her.
“I guess.” She touched her fist to mine and shook out her fingers. “But can you take care of him?” she asked in reference to the new customer. “I have to message Skid and let him know he’ll be watching men in capes and panties without me.”
The him in question was a guy, youngish with thick black hair, a nice faded cut. He’d weaved between some of the shelves. Now, he stood beside the candles and incense, staring at the register like he needed help.
He had a sharp face, like a mix between a wolf and a model. His clothing looked new, though his sweater had rips at the chest and torso. I never did understand hipster fashion.
“Fine,” I said, squeezing around the register. “But I am officially off the clock, which means that I am not getting paid, which means you owe me.”
Maude flashed a sweetish smile and settled back onto her elbow, this time with her cell phone in hand.
Helping customers was my least favorite aspect of working at Incense and Incensibility. My most favorite aspects being the name, the smell, and the couch on aisle three, in that order.
“Can I help you find something special?” I asked the guy.
As I waited for his response, his face went from one of wonder to disgust. He scrunched his nose like the smell in here suddenly irritated him.
“No, thank you,” he said, clipped and robotic. Then he pushed back out into the cold. A gust of air marked his absence. Beyond the windows, he clutched his jacket against the wind.
And there it was again, the nausea.
In recent weeks, I hadn’t been able to go a day without wanting to stick my head in a trash can and heave.
I swallowed nothing and approached the register.
“That was weird.”
“What?” Maude asked.
She chewed her thumbnail and tapped her phone screen. She devoted most of her brainpower to texting guys, her ultra-straight hair, and well-matched skirt and sweater combinations. We used to be similar in that way. Now, my worries began and ended with making it across town before my mom had to leave for work.
“Nothing,” I said as I packed a bag full of Ms. Angie’s cookies, promised to work Maude’s shift Friday night, and zipped my coat up to my chin on my way out.
The Heights, as this block of stores was now known, had undergone a transformation in recent years. The sidewalks were bright white, even in winter. A stoplight blinked from green to red at the end of the street. The shops were all trendy boutiques, a couple of which had been robbed recently. Patrol cars idled at either end of the street.
Blank-faced mannequins watched from the window across with their hands covering eyes, nose, and mouth: See no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil. While two wore outfits of varying Christmas greens, Speak-No-Evil wore a russet suede skirt and fringed booties. Very cute and very expensive. All of my money had to go to presents, not that my mom had even bothered to clear a spot in our apartment for a tree. Not that I even cared.
“You’re standing too still.”
Someone bumped me from behind. A messy-haired guy in a torn sweater continued down the sidewalk in the opposite direction.
The nausea returned.
“Hey,” I called.
He did not look back.
I knew better than to expect an apology. Even if the guy was sorry. This time of year, people moved with blinders from one destination to the next, all in the name of yuletide cheer, and I was a girl in army fatigue with hair too big for her head and the opposite of gravity churning inside of her stomach. Sort of invisible, easy to forget, like my dad in the end.
I clutched my midsection and breathed icy air through my nose. I walked in the direction of the train station, trying not to hurl.
Atlanta did not suffer from insomnia, not like New York or Vegas or whatever. At seven on a random evening, the streets could be really quiet or really loud, depending on whether or not there was an event scheduled at Mercedes Benz.
I lived in a second-floor walkup on Metropolitan Square, a place that sounded fancier than it looked. Half of the buildings had boarded windows, and the convenience store at the corner sold paper towels on the shelf above the X-rated DVDs.
In front of my building, tree roots bubbled up above the sidewalk, cracking it to pieces. The leaves had all fallen at the end of last season. Now, the oak stood smooth and bare, minus the remnants of flyers that had been stapled to its trunk and ripped away again. Ages ago, someone had scalped the letters A-T into the bark. I ran Popsicle-frozen fingers over the carving and let my arm drop. I used to think that the letters meant something, that everything in the world began and ended right here, in the city. Now, I wasn’t so certain that anything ever began at all.
Welsh, Ms. Angie’s son, rolled up on his bicycle. He wore a camera around his neck, same as always. His wild, gravity-defying hair made him even taller than he would have been otherwise, and I was pretty sure I loved it more than his actual personality.
“What’s up, Amira?” he asked, smiling.
“Hopefully, the economy with the amount of customers your mom’s been getting.”
“Incense is a growing enterprise.” He laughed. “You have a second to talk?”
“Not really.” I shrugged. “Babysitting duty.”
He nodded that he understood, but promised that it would only take one actual second. It was a clear and obvious lie. I was already fifteen minutes late. I figured one more minute couldn’t hurt.
“I wanted to give you something.” He chained his bike to the tree, ignoring the letter carving as if it wasn’t even there. His expression was expectant, open, and sweet like my little brother’s face whenever he felt like telling everyone he loved them, like he knew that people would say it back, no question. Welsh had the same chubby cheeks he’d had when we’d played around as kids. I could still picture them smeared with applesauce. It was easy to imagine him that way forever.
He handed me a picture frame and waited.
“Thank you, for this,” I said, “but I don’t really care for interior decorating.” Then, I caught sight of the picture inside it. “This is my dad.”
“Mr. Baine should have been famous, I think, given his body of work,” Welsh said in a rush. “I hate the way he….”
He didn’t finish the thought, didn’t seem to have any intentions of finishing it. I was glad.
In the picture, my dad stood in front of a giant upside-down crab, its bronze pinchers snapped shut and held in the air of some art gallery. He wore basketball shorts and a backward cap. He didn’t smile, never did, somehow, not even when he laughed.
“Anyway,” Welsh continued, “I had this idea that I could put together a collection of photographs in honor of your dad and try and get featured at this new art studio. It’s opening next month, and it’ll be showing some of the locals’ work, mine included.”
Having announced the achievement, he rocked forward onto his toes, still expectant, still stuck somewhere between five and seventeen.
“That’s—” Now was the moment to congratulate him. We hadn’t spoken in a while, but I knew he loved photography. “That’s—”
The nausea hit harder. This time, a dry heave. I jerked forward, a hand to my mouth.
Welsh flinched and stumbled back. “Are you okay?”
He and I had lived in the same building all of our lives, but we hadn’t engaged in much more than the occasional bout of small talk since elementary. I hugged my coat tighter. The porch light on our building flickered to life. Though the cloud cover remained, the stifling gray of the evening indicated that the sun would soon set. Mom’s bosses would be expecting her with their files.
“Just—” Another heave, and I knew it was for real this time. The countdown until puke had begun.
I bolted inside our building, made it up the steps, and through my front door. Mom was at the kitchen sink. Marley and Travis were watching TV on the couch. I dropped the frame and my bag somewhere in the hall and fell to my knees at the toilet. I finished emptying my stomach and settled back onto the plush rug.
My mom knocked before she entered.
“You look terrible.” She turned the faucet and grabbed a rag from the rack. “And you’re late, Amira. I told you seven o’clock.”
“Mass transit,” I grumbled, swallowing acid. “So unreliable.”
I watched her wedding ring as she squeezed the rag and passed it to me. She had smoothed her curls into a bun. Her high-buttoned blouse had wrinkles.
“I have to run.” She turned to check her reflection. “Literally run. Thank the lord for deodorant.”
“And forgiving mothers.” I scrubbed my lips and chin.
She found my reflection in the mirror and smiled.
“Of course,” she said. “Always and forever.”
Then she left. Her footsteps faded into the living room and out of the door.
I pulled my knees to my chest. A lone siren sounded beyond the window above the tub. Dad had always said that if streets could cry their sobs would sound like squad cars. If that were the case, then the streets outside of our tiny apartment never stopped weeping.
No, nothing began, not here.
Travis bounced into the doorway in Mom’s reading glasses, a legal pad in hand.
“Finished it.” He spiked the pad like a football and wiggled his knees with his stubby arms in the air.
Marley appeared beside him in leggings and sequined ballet flats. Her glasses were prescribed.
“It’s his letter to Santa,” she said like a scientist presenting facts. “I helped him with the big words, but I still think this whole thing would be easier if Santa accepted Christmas lists online. Why are you sitting on the floor?”
I eyed the mess in the toilet. “Technical difficulties.”
She nodded once and anchored Travis to her side.
“Come on, Travie,” she said, pinching her nose. “Let’s go find the envelopes.”
She started to pull the door closed but then paused.
“There are cookies in the hallway,” I said and then added, “Eat them all.
The door slammed shut.
It took a moment before I could stand, another to clean the mess, and yet another to stop staring at myself in the mirror. I hadn’t really seen my reflection at all in recent months. The more I stared, the more I blurred. I was not my mom and dad’s daughter—dad’s wide nose and hard brown eyes, mom’s curved chin, and sharp eyebrows. I was not Marley and Travis’s big sister—Marley’s out-of-control hair, and Travis’s chubby cheeks. I was like the mannequins across from Incense and Incensibility, faceless and, with yet another day between me and my dad’s death, completely anesthetized.