The bathroom was tiny, cramped and dank-smelling. No tiles on the walls, a rag rug on the floor. The toilet, a squat, cracked thing half-hidden in the gathering gloom. This was a space meant for perfunctory ablutions. Pleasant thoughts did not linger here.
At the sink stood a girl, hunched over, washing blood from her uniform. She paused to swipe at a falling tear with a wet and shaking hand. Tall and sturdy limbed, she looked older than her years but the unguarded moment showed her youth and fragility.
Odara’s eyes continued to sting as she thought of the reason for the fight that had gotten her sent home from school. Momma was in jail again. She’d knifed a man who’d tried to take what Momma often traded for. Served the bastard right of course. Shoulda listened when Momma said she wasn’t in the mood. Damn fool knew about her mother’s volcanic temper and quickness with a blade to boot.
But men were always trying to get with Jessa Beauford whether she wanted them to or not. Seemed no man could resist the sweat-making roll of her hips or her white-lightning smile.
Hey darkie, I hear you mother gone jail again. Now, who going pay the rent? Pity you flatfoot and ugly or she friend dem coulda tek a turn with you too.
Whispers, taunts—it never stopped. Well today she’d had enough.
That Kenroy. Always the instigator. Talking ’bout ugly with his rotten teeth and weasely face. She’d smashed her fist into his nose then smiled as he cussed and wailed, his nose gushing blood. Her triumph was brief. His sister and another friend, just as nasty as he was, had jumped into the fray. She’d fought them all, held her own until a teacher broke up the fight. She hadn't even noticed the bleeding gash on her chin until that same teacher pointed it out.
Finished with the tunic, Odara hung it over the shower curtain rod to dry then wandered into the bedroom that she and Jessa shared. As she lay on the bed, the skin at the edges of the plaster on her chin started to itch. She cracked her knuckles to keep from picking at it.
Was Momma a whore? What was so wrong about being sexually free? What Jessa gave, she gave on her own terms and she never took nothing from nobody, wasn’t given willingly. Odara was tired of everybody trying to make her feel shame for a woman who’d never been anything but good to her. Didn’t matter that Jessa wasn’t her real momma, whatever that meant. Her real momma had passed on when she was two. Jessa, just turned sixteen at the time, had raised the baby on her own with no help but the occasional money sent from relatives overseas.
Feeling restless and headachy, Odara went to the kitchen to fix something to eat. There was stale bread, hard enough to stone somebody with, as well as milk and oats and a container full of sugar. In the old, rusted fridge was a bottle of mauby. She made porridge and soaked the bread in it. The mauby was strong, just the way she liked it. The buzz it gave cushioned her painful thoughts, made them not hurt so much.
Momma’s court date was two months away. She’d be stuck in jail ’til then. Since this was her second felony assault, the judge had said no bail. And the man who’d tried to rape her? That mutha hadn’t even gotten a slap on the wrist. Odara thought that if she ever saw him again, she’d finish the job herself.
There was a sharp rap on the door. It echoed through the tiny apartment and Odara at first thought (it had happened before) that someone had thrown a stone. Then the rap repeated―the sound impatient. She got up to see who it was.
Shit. Odara took one look at the man standing outside and tried to slam the door. The man’s brawny frame prevented her. He scowled and said, “Damn girl, why you treating me like a stranger? I come all this way to see how you do.”
“I’m fine. What you want? I didn’t ask for you to come.”
Ignoring the question, the man looked her up and down and tried for his most charming smile. “What Jessa feeding you, growena? Come like every time I see you, you done grow another inch or two.”
Odara waited, arms folded, her glare intensifying. The rhythmic slap of palms accompanied by children’s voices singing ‘Chichi Chichi Bam Bam’ echoed from the stoop below.
He sighed. “You letting me in or what? I need to talk to you serious.”
“So talk but you ain’t coming inside. You know I don’t want nothing to do with you.”
Anger prickled the man’s skin. Girl had too much sass. His hand itched to teach her some respect. But something about the set of the girl’s features, those wide, expressive eyes, made him look past her defiance and keep his anger in check. “You know, you look like your real momma, God rest her soul, when you pissed off like that.”
Odara cracked her knuckles to keep from slapping his face. He was trying to manipulate her. Just like before. No account asshole had shown up two years ago talking ’bout parental rights. Momma had asked her if she wanted a relationship with him and she had said, 'hell no.'
“What you want Dennis?”
“All right, all right, you want you neighbors to hear our conversation that’s up to you.”
Odara shrugged then cracked a bitter smile. “Whatever. Let them talk if they want. Ain’t nothing new.”
Dennis smoothed a hand over his head. His hands were large but soft, the nails buffed to a glossy shine. He sported a fresh haircut. His polo shirt and dress slacks new. A slick-man; a sweet man, he always made sure he looked spruce. “I know Jessa in real trouble this time. I want you to come live with me.”
“What for? I can look after myself. Get a job if I need to. I already done told you I don’t need you.”
Watching his daughter’s face sour even further, Dennis felt the prick to his pride. “Look, I know I didn’t do right by your mother but I'm trying to do right by you. If Jessa goes to prison, who going to look after you? You only fourteen Odara. Young girl like you, living all by herself? That’s asking for trouble. Look what almost happen to Jessa. Think I want that happen to you?”
Odara sucked her teeth. A quick, loud strupes that encapsulated how she felt. “You more’n a day late and plenty dollars short. Go look for your other children and leave me alone.”
Dennis pinched his nose bridge. Stubborn, bullheaded, little… but then again the whole damn Beauford family was like that. Never listened or cared for anybody opinion but they own. He exhaled to release his frustration. After a moment he said, “Don’t know why you have to get on so. I'm only trying to make things right 'fore Welfare get involved.”
“Just go.” Odara nudged the door with her foot. One inch closer to getting it shut. “And Momma’s not going to prison. She was acting in self-defense.”
Dennis heard it then—the fear behind the bravado and hostility. “Cool out child, I ain't going to force you. I really do hope Jessa get off for your sake.”
Odara wasn’t sure but he actually sounded sincere. He was looking at her, studying her, a kind of softness in his face that hadn’t been there before. It made her uncomfortable. She didn’t want kindness from him. She didn’t want anything. She’d be fine, damn him. Hadn’t she done well at school despite it all? Solid grades and everybody knew she was the best junior batsman the school team had. Momma would come home and everything would be like it was before. Far from perfect but it was the only life she knew.
“All right, I’m going,” Dennis said. Catching her off guard, he pressed some money into her hand. “You know how to reach me if you change your mind.”
Odara stood frozen, confused by the sudden need to call out 'Daddy' as she watched him walk away.