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    Adelle Smith has lived her entire life for the betterment of mankind. A Civil Rights Activist in the Sixties and Seventies, she has spent most of her adult life attending marches, giving speeches, and lending a hand to anyone in need.
    But on the very evening she is to be acknowledged with a Lifetime Achievement Award for her humanitarian efforts, a stroke leaves her partially paralyzed and unable to speak. Now Adelle’s in the care of a ruthless hospice nurse, who sees not a hero before her, but the cause of her many hardships growing up as a child of interracial parents, someone who decides to give Adelle her very own brand of “Physical Therapy” consisting of pain and suffering, mental cruelty and torture.
    And now, after a lifetime of helping others, Adelle needs help, quickly, before another round of brutal treatment snuffs out her life.

J. F. Gonzalez & Wrath James White HERO


    The nurse stood above the young boy watching his heart beat and his lungs expand and contract through a large surgical incision that went from his upper chest to his abdomen. All the critical veins and arteries had already been cauterized, stapled and sutured. The surgeon had left just minutes after finishing his last cut to attend to other patients, leaving her to close the incision.
    There had been a drive-by shooting on Columbia Avenue. Five teenagers had been shot not including her patient. Two of them were already in the morgue. DOA. The other three were in the adjoining operating rooms. She could hear them screaming. There had been seven other shootings that night. A typical Saturday night. She’d barely had time to wash the blood of one victim from her hands before the next was wheeled in. It was like being a battlefield nurse. West Philadelphia, like South Philly, and North Philly, had become a warzone.
     Only when the ER was busy like this did the doctors leave the nurses to close up their patients for them. Plus, they trusted her. She was one of the best ER nurses on the staff, next in line to be head nurse. She had never lost her cool, never been overwhelmed by all the blood and death and gotten emotional like some of the other nurses. She had always remained in control, professional, calm and efficient, if somewhat aloof.
    She stood above the boy holding the needle, the cat gut and surgical staples. The anesthesiologist had already packed up and left as well. There was only one other nurse in the room, counting sponges and towels to make sure that none of them had been left inside the patient.
    The boy could not have been much older than sixteen. Already he had gang tattoos covering much of his upper torso like a Yakuza body suit. Only these were not of ornate dragons, samurais, or koi, these were a confusion of tombstones, guns, biblical passages, crucifixes, quotes from hip hop songs, and names and pictures of dead friends and past lovers. He was a walking billboard for the thug lifestyle.
    Interspersed between the tattoos or directly in the center of some crudely drawn skin art, were bullet and knife wounds, and surgical scars, some weeks old, some years old, and three that were brand new, newly stitched, along with the latest incision still gaping wide where the surgeon had gone in to remove several bullets and stitch his intestines back together.
    The boy’s arm was in a cast from where a bullet had shattered both the radius and ulna in his forearm. The nurse had seen him before. She had helped put the plate in his arm that was now holding his shattered bones together as they healed. She could even recognize her own stitches among his many surgical scars. He was a frequent flyer, a regular customer.
    Just weeks ago he’d been on this exact same table, the victim of a drive-by shooting. She’d done her duty then and helped put him back together. Now he was back. Only this time, he was the shooter. He’d been shot by the police as he’d tried to flee the scene. The other teenaged criminals and innocent bystanders she could hear crying out in pain from the next room and those who had ceased their crying and now lay cooling to room temperature in the post mortem room, were all his victims. She had helped give him life so that he could take the lives of others.
    The nurse picked up a scalpel from the tray beside the table. She looked to see where the other nurse was… back turned, still counting sponges… then she dropped the scalpel into the open incision. She began to hum as she slowly stitched the wound closed, wondering how long it would take before the scalpel in the boy’s gut cut him open again. All it would take was for him to move the wrong way and he could puncture or lacerate some internal organ or artery. She wondered how long it would take him to die from internal bleeding. Or whether he would die of infection first. She hoped it would happen far from the hospital. She hoped it would happen before he could pick up a gun again.
    The nurse finished stitching up her patient. She turned to the other nurse who had now completed her inventory and was mopping blood from the floor and throwing away all the bloody gauze.
    “He’s all done now. You can take him to his room.”
    She walked out of the room and into the hallway.
    “Nurse! Nurse! We need you over here! We’ve got a hemo pneumo. He’s drowning in his own blood!”
    The nurse turned to look at the patient, another gangbanger as heavily tattooed as her last patient, same cornrowed braids, same gold teeth, no older than seventeen; they could have been brothers. He was convulsing on the gurney as two EMTs attempted, unsuccessfully, to apply pressure to the wound in his chest and staunch the flow of blood. She could hear the boy’s lungs sucking air into his thoracic cavity. She could hear the bubbling sound as his chest cavity filled with blood and air, slowly collapsing the lungs. She turned and walked away.
    “Nurse! Where are you going? He’s dying!”
    She turned and smiled at the two EMTs.
    “Good. One less to worry about. I quit.”

Chapter One

    Adelle Smith watched quietly as North Philadelphia whizzed by the limousine window as if her life were flashing by. These were the same streets she was born on, the same streets where she’d lived her entire life. She watched the landscape morph from one of emaciated crackwhores and teenaged murderers and drug pushers strutting brazenly along the sidewalk, glaring defiantly into her window, to one of quaint shops and cafes and businessmen and women in wrinkled suits scurrying home after a long day at the office. Young couples dressed up for an early dinner and a night on the town. Many of the professionals dashing about in suits and ties were the same age and color as the ones she’d passed further up Broad Street in sagging jeans with pistols in their waistbands. The world had changed so much since she was young.
    Even the couples walking arm and arm with ear to ear smiles and love sparkling in their eyes were a mixed bag of White, Black, Asian, and Puerto Rican, in various combinations. She saw as many Black men, young and old, with White women on their arms as she did with their own kind, and that was certainly a change. In her day a mixed couple couldn’t go anywhere without being harassed by both Blacks and Whites. Lynchings may have been before her time, but beatings, stabbings, and even shootings were still pretty common. No one would have said a thing about killing a Black man for corrupting the virtues of a young White girl. She’d seen many brothers killed for less. A Black man’s life wasn’t worth an ounce of spit back when she was a young girl.
    A Black police officer drove by laughing out loud with his Italian partner. Adelle smiled.
    I guess this is progress, she thought.
    There were Black police officers here and there back when she was young too. But only in the ghettoes, and they were never that comfortable with their White partners. They were most often quicker to crack a Black skull to impress their buddies in blue than the White cops were. They overdid it trying to fit in, which made them an even bigger menace.
     She watched a mixed couple cross the street, the overweight White girl dressed as if she’d stepped right out of one of those hip-hop videos, cornrows, baggy jeans, FUBU shirt and all, with her African American boyfriend clinging to her as if he were afraid someone would try to steal her from him.
    “I guess.” She sighed, shaking her head. She wasn’t sure this was exactly what Dr. King had in mind. Then again, she was never a huge fan of King. She always thought he was too soft. She preferred Malcolm X and, later, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and Stokely Carmicheal, men who didn’t wait around begging for their freedom and equality but were prepared to take it at any cost. There weren’t any men like that around any more. Even Farrakhan was soft in her opinion. A whole lot of talk, but not one bill passed or law ratified by anything he’d done or inspired. In her day they made changes. They made laws and changed laws. There weren’t any Black leaders like that nowadays.
    They approached City Hall and Adelle remembered when she’d gone on field trips there when she was a kid. One of the boys in her class had told her that you could walk all the way up to the top of William Penn’s hat just like the statue of liberty and she’d been disappointed when she hadn’t been allowed up there. Even back then she was sure it had something to do with her being Black. To this day she still wasn’t sure whether or not you could really walk all the way up there. One day she’d have to find out.
    The driver rolled the partition down that separated the passenger seats from the front seat and smiled back at her.
    “We’re almost there. I have to tell you it is an honor to have you in my car. You have always been one of my heroes.”
    “Why thank you, young man.”
    She was still not used to being looked at as a hero. Back in the sixties when she was out there marching and protesting for her rights she was called a great many names and hero was definitely not one of them.
    “Let me ask you something, did you really try to kidnap a judge?”
    “That was a long time ago,” Adelle said. The memories flashed by, both good and bad. Reliving them, talking about them with this young White man who was so obviously interested in hearing about it was certainly something she never thought would happen. “You know how stories get exaggerated, ‘specially when they’s that old. We were young and crazy and desperate for our freedom back then. As I recall, we were just staging a sit-in, but a few of the brothers had pistols so things got a little misinterpreted. It wound up being one of the longest police stand-offs in Philadelphia history. All because we wanted someone to listen to our complaints about the way police were beating up and killing everybody.”
    “Were you scared?”
    “I tell you, I was scared to death! I was only twenty-two years old. I hadn’t even graduated from college yet. All I could think about was that if the police didn’t kill me, my daddy would. It’s hard to believe that was over forty-five years ago.”
    “Is that how you got started with the Civil Rights movement?”
    “That was my first protest. I didn’t think then that it would be the start of a lifelong crusade. Just between you and I, I was really just going along to get out of classes for a day. I never really was fond of schooling. I only went to college to make my daddy happy. I was going for a Business degree. I never graduated, though. After spending two years in jail fighting those kidnapping charges I sort of lost interest in becoming anybody’s typist or secretary. I was too pissed off.”
    The driver laughed. Adelle smiled. The driver hadn’t even been born when all of that took place, yet he still considered her his hero. But that didn’t surprise her nearly as much as the fact that he was White. She had to admit, this was definitely a better world. She made a note to add a little comment about what it felt like to be driven here in a limousine by a White chauffer to her acceptance speech. She thought it might be best to leave out anything about all the Black men she saw with White girls on their arms. White people might still be a little upset about that, as well as a few Black women.
    “Congratulations on receiving the NAACP award tonight. It’s about time.”
    “Well, there were a lot of people who did a lot more than I did. I knew they’d get around to me eventually.”
    They rounded City Hall and cruised down the parkway. The sun was setting and the city lights looked to Adelle like Christmas lights. It had been so long since she’d been in Center City. She couldn’t remember it having so many tall buildings and so many lights. She felt like a kid as she pressed her face against the car window and craned her neck to see to the top of the buildings. Last time she’d been in Center City, City Hall had been the tallest building and you could see the top of Bill Penn’s hat no matter where you were. Now the Rouse towers completely blotted old Bill from view.
    The limousine pulled up outside the Four Seasons Hotel. As it slowed to a stop, Adelle gathered her purse and coat. The limousine driver exited the vehicle and opened the door for her. As Adelle stepped out she was greeted by a sea of eager faces. Cameras flashed. She was a little taken aback at first, and for a moment the headache she started experiencing earlier that afternoon came back full force, then dwindled back to a dull ache. A familiar face and voice was at her side instantly. “Come on, momma, this way.”
    “Tonya,” Adelle smiled as she grasped her daughter’s hand. “I didn’t think you’d be able to get off work.”
    “And miss this? You gotta be kidding?” Tonya Brown smiled at her mother as she led her through the crowd. One of those smiling faces belonged to Ernie Grover, an old friend from the days she’d just been talking about to that young limo driver. Ernie had been involved with the NAACP for over thirty years now.
    He stepped forward and took her elbow. “Let’s get you through this crowd,” he said.
    As Ernie and Tonya ushered Adelle through the crowd and into the lobby of the Four Seasons she asked her daughter how things were going. “Oh, you know. Same ‘ol same ‘ol. I’m overworked and underpaid, same as everybody else.”
    “Least you have a job,” Adelle said. Tonya worked as an administrator for a banking firm and held a degree in finance.
    “Oh, I know,” Tonya said as they escorted Adelle down the hall. “And I’m not complaining…it’s just tough to get away from the office sometimes.”
    The hallway in the lower floor of the hotel was filled with people. They were all dressed to the nines in smoothly tailored suits and dresses. The men looked handsome, the women were beautiful. Some of them began applauding her as she was led past. Ernie nodded at some of the people they passed by, his grip on her elbow protective yet loving. “CNN sent a crew to tape the awards ceremony,” he murmured softly. “Local news is here, too.”
    Tonya gave her a quick hug. “This is so exciting! I’m so proud of you, momma!”
    They were at the double doors to the banquet hall now. Adelle felt a slight flutter in her stomach as Ernie opened the door. She’d given dozens—no, hundreds—of speeches since the 1960’s, and she still got a little nervous before facing an audience. It was something that would probably never completely go away.
    As Ernie led Adelle and Tonya to their table he said, “We’ve got twenty minutes before the ceremony starts. You doing okay, Adelle?”
    “I’m as good as I’ll ever be,” Adelle answered.
    Ernie held her chair out for her like the gentleman he was and sat down beside her. Brian Swanson, head of the local NAACP chapter in Philadelphia was already seated at their table and he flashed Adelle a warm smile. “So good to see you, Adelle!”
    Adelle smiled.
    The rest of the evening flew by in a whirlwind.
* * *
    It was very late when Adelle Smith arrived home.
    She let herself in her simple two-bedroom apartment, locked the door behind her, threw the deadbolt in place, set the award she’d received a few hours ago down on the end table and took her coat off. She sighed as she slipped out of her shoes. She’d left the living room light on as she always did to give the appearance she was home, but in this neighborhood that no longer mattered. She’d heard of a few home invasions occurring in this area and she’d taken the necessary steps to protect herself. She kept a loaded Bulldog .45 semi-automatic handgun in the upper drawer of her nightstand and a Sig Sauer 9 millimeter handgun in the magazine rack in the living room. The firearms were a necessity. Thirty years ago she wouldn’t have dreamed of using them. Back then, she had the physical capability for self defense and had done so when put in the situation. Now she was old and tired, but she was still a crack shot. Thankfully, she never had to use the weapons. Besides, she was very well known in the neighborhood. Even the gangbangers who hung out on the corner of Broad Street and Columbia Avenue showed her respect.
    Still, these days, you could never be too sure.
    Adelle crossed the living room and sank down into the couch, groaning softly. Damn, but she was tired. The ceremony was both nerve-wracking and exhilarating. She hated being the center of attention, always had, but tonight she’d cast those feelings aside and listened as various speakers stood at the podium and praised Adelle for her work. It was mind-boggling—there were politicians, high-ranking businessmen, celebrities, current Civil Rights activists, many of them people she admired. When Brian gave his introductory speech Adelle listened, trying to put her mind around why she was here. She recalled the young limo driver’s words to her on the drive over. You’re my hero, he’d said. And as Brian recounted the long list of accomplishments she’d achieved, the great sacrifices she’d made to the cause, she put the entire Civil Rights movement in perspective and finally saw why people looked at her in that way. Yes, to them she was a hero. But to her she’d never had a choice. She’d had no other option but to fight for her rights and those of her people. It wasn’t in her to sit by and let people walk all over her and mistreat her. She and others who marched and protested with her and staged that sit in at City Hall (which resulted in those bullshit kidnapping charges) were sending a simple message: they were human beings and they were no longer going to stand by and watch their brothers and sisters be beaten, killed, made to feel like second class citizens. They were no longer going to stand for it. They demanded their rights—they weren’t begging for it. In her mind, she couldn’t have done any differently if she’d wanted to. This was simply the way God had made her—a fighter.
    Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the early sixties wasn’t the Jim Crow South, but it was too close for comfort with the Mason Dixon line a mere sixty miles away. There’d been segregation in her neighborhood growing up; there’d been police killings and back in the fifties, when she was just a child, there had even been a few lynchings. It wasn’t as prevalent as it was down South, but it existed nonetheless. Hatred like that still existed, although thankfully today it was rare. You still had the occasional idiot like that Michael Richards asshole who went off on some racist tirade that would then spin everything back thirty years, bringing the awful memories of those days back like it was still happening and she sometimes wondered if all she’d fought for was still worth it. But when she saw her daughter, Tonya, and her son-in-law Gerald and granddaughter Tess, she realized that, yes, her struggle had been worth it.
    Tonya and Gerald lived in a good neighborhood, had good, professional jobs and sent Tess to a good school. They had friends of all races—Black, Latino, Asian, White—and Adelle liked them; they were good kids. She loved the fact that the younger generations had learned something from the struggles of the past. Maybe that was the result of her work.
    Adelle picked up the remote control and turned on the TV. She turned on the news, hoping to get a replay of the ceremony tonight. Tonya told her Gerald was going to tape it and would send her a copy, but Adelle wanted to see if she could catch a glimpse of herself on TV. It’s not everyday one got their fifteen minutes of fame broadcast on CNN!
    Sure enough, the segment on the NAACP awards ceremony was just starting and Adelle sat on the edge of the sofa, watching with a smile on her face. She thought she looked pretty good on TV. Maybe a little too heavy, but photos always made her look that way. And she looked nowhere near as old as she felt. Hell, she was only sixty-seven. By today’s standards, that was young.
    Adelle sighed and stood up. She looked at the award she’d received that evening. She smiled and walked over to pick it up. She held it reverently in her hands, admiring its beauty. Yes, she was proud alright. She’d made a difference. Of that, she was certain.
    She set the award down and headed down the hallway to her bedroom. She was just crossing the room when the headache she’d experienced earlier in the evening came back full force. She stopped in the entryway and blinked several times. Her vision blurred. She reached inside the room and turned on the light.
    The room swam.
    Adelle took a step toward the bed and it felt like she was walking on a boat in a roiling sea. She almost fell over. She reached for the doorway for support. Her stomach lurched in her belly, her headache worsened. What’s going on? she thought as her vision went blurry.
    She waited for it to pass.
    She took a step toward her four-poster bed.
    And fell onto the floor, her right side already numb and not registering the pain as she hit the floor and blacked out.
* * *
    Tears blurred Tonya Brown’s vision as she raced through the parking lot of Philadelphia Memorial Hospital. She’d received the phone call on her morning commute to work and had almost gotten into an accident getting to the hospital. She hadn’t even called her husband yet; the phone call had come fifteen minutes ago, and what she heard had shattered her.
    Your mother has been admitted to Philadelphia General in critical condition, the voice on the other end of the phone said. It looks like she’s suffered either a heart attack or a stroke.
    That single phone call had sent Tonya racing in the opposite direction, speeding toward Center City. And now, as she entered the hospital lobby, she searched for the directions that would tell her where Intensive Care was.
    “Can I help you?”
    The young African-American nurse behind the check-in counter was looking at Tonya with concern.
    “My mother was just brought here,” Tonya said. “Adelle Smith…they told me she was…”
    “She’s on four,” the nurse said. “Intensive care. I’ll have somebody escort you.” And with that another nurse, a middle-aged White woman, came around the check-in counter and escorted Tonya to the elevator.
    When Tonya reached the room her mother was in she had to hold back the tears.
    Momma was in bed, IVs attached to her, machines monitoring her breathing and heart rate. She looked like she was asleep except for her ashen complexion, which had gone from chocolate to a waxy gray. Tonya approached the side of the bed and looked down at her mother, wanting to cry but knowing she had to be strong.
    A doctor entered the room. He was in his fifties, White, with thinning black hair. He was holding a medical chart.
    “Ms. Smith?” He asked Tonya politely.
    “I’m her daughter, yes,” Tonya said. “How is she? What happened, is she—”
    “Your mother’s suffered a stroke,” the doctor said. “Several, in fact. She underwent a CAT scan very early this morning and it was discerned that the first one was very small. She probably wasn’t aware of it.”
    “When? How?” Tonya was confused and scared. Momma had been fine last night!
    “The first one occurred yesterday afternoon,” the doctor said. “The second one very early that evening, and the third one shortly after she arrived home last night. That was the one that caused her first blackout. When she regained consciousness she was able to crawl to her phone and dial 911. She was experiencing a fourth stroke when rescue units arrived.”
    “Oh my God!” Tonya buried her face in her hands and sobbed.
    The doctor was genuine, caring, sympathetic. He led her gently toward a chair and she sat down. “Your mother suffered what is called an ischemic stroke, when a blockage occurs in the blood vessels supplying blood to the brain. We immediately put her through Acute Stroke Therapy to dissolve the clots.”
    “Will she be okay?”
    “Your mother will live through this, yes. We won’t know what kind of neurological damage might have been done until we run some more tests.”
    A wave of emotion threatened to overwhelm Tonya, but she fought it down. If there was one thing momma taught her, it was to be strong in the face of adversity. Now was not the time to cry.
    She drew herself up, composed herself. “Okay,” she said. She glanced at the clock on the wall; it was eight-thirty. “How long was she unconscious last night?”
    “Approximately three hours,” the doctor said. “Paramedics brought her in just before four this morning.”
    “And it took four hours for you to call me?”
    “When she arrived she came without identification. The police didn’t get that to us until an hour ago.”
    “My God,” Tonya said. Now she was growing angry. “What the hell took them so long? What, did they think they were just packing up another poor black woman in an ambulance and sending her on her way to the hospital so she could die?”
    “I couldn’t guess, Miss. I can’t presume to understand why the police acted the way they did,” the doctor said. “Needless to say, your mother has received the very best treatment since arriving here and our administrators worked diligently with the police to obtain her identity. I’m sorry we didn’t learn who she was until just a little while ago, but I assure you we treated your mother with the same high level of care we strive to maintain for all of our patients.”
    His words sounded as if he were reading from a script. They did nothing to assuage Tonya’s growing concern.
    “I appreciate that,” Tonya said. Yes, she was getting slowly pissed off now. She looked at her mother across the room, who slept on. “What’s her prognosis?”
    “We’ll find out when she regains consciousness,” the doctor said. “From the preliminary CAT scans, we were able to ascertain that there was minimal neurological damage. It’s possible that her speech may be affected.”
    “What about her vision? Her mind?”
    “Again, we won’t know until she comes out of it.”
    “How long will that be?”
    The doctor shrugged. “Later today, perhaps.”
    Tonya stood up and approached her mother’s bedside. The doctor accompanied her, noted momma’s heart rate and pulse. His tone was so matter-of-fact that Tonya could feel her anger vibrating through her again like a revving engine. She tried to remind herself that she couldn’t expect everyone to be as emotional about her mother’s health as she was. Still, it bothered her that he didn’t at least make eye contact with her when he was talking about her mother’s health. He acted as if she were an annoyance keeping him from more important things.
    “Don’t worry. Your mother is receiving the very best care possible.”
    His back was to her when he spoke, writing notes on her mother’s charts as he checked her vitals. Despite his over-rehearsed words of assurance, his mannerisms and expression were more that of a mechanic checking engine oil than someone with her mother’s life in his hands. It took a great effort for her to dispel the impression that he would have shown greater concern had his patient been White. She didn’t want to start thinking that way. That was how her mother thought and she wasn’t like her mother.
    Adelle Smith was still stuck in the past. She saw racism in every shadow. Tonya considered herself open-minded. She’d even dated a few White men before she’d met her husband. She reached out and took her mother’s hand. Tonya gasped and choked back tears, startled by how cold and delicate it was for such a large, robust woman. The skin was as thin as parchment and she could feel the tiny bones beneath. Her mother had always been such a force of nature that it was heartbreaking to see her look so helpless.
    Tonya dabbed at the corner of her eyes with her coat sleeve and looked back at the doctor for some type of reassurance. He was whistling to himself as he continued filling out the chart.
    Tonya told herself that she should take confidence from the doctor’s lack of alarm. She watched as he opened her mother’s eyelids with his fingers and shined a light on her pupils. They remained fully dilated. The doctor’s expression was impassive.
    It couldn’t be that serious or else he wouldn’t look so nonchalant, she hoped.
    He smiled at her and patted her on her shoulder as he exited the room. Tonya looked back over at her mother, laboring to breathe despite the oxygen tubes in her nose, her complexion turning grayer by the second. She sat down on the edge of the hospital bed still holding her mother’s tiny hand.
    Tonya adjusted her mother’s pillow and bent over and kissed her on the forehead. When the tears finally came they didn’t stop until she fell asleep, curled up beside her mother, listening to her labored breathing.

Chapter Two

    The Hospice Nurses of Greater Philadelphia was located in the Historic Germantown section of Philadelphia directly adjacent to Wissahickon and Mount Airy. Natsinet had never been to this part of the city before. The houses were old but beautiful. Colonial mansions stood mere blocks from old brick row homes that once housed soldiers from the Revolutionary War. Even the buildings that had been allowed to deteriorate still held the vestiges of their former beauty. Not like the hastily-built cookie-cutter houses covered in aluminum siding they manufactured today. She could not imagine any of them still standing in a hundred years.
    Sugar Maples, River Birch, White Oak and Northern Red Oaks filled with foraging squirrels gathering acorns lined every street, their leaves already turning fire and gold with the season. When she inhaled, Natsinet could smell the leaves and the grass from the freshly cut lawns. It reminded her of the vision she’d had of America before she’d come here. A far cry from the reality she’d discovered.
    The building that housed the Hospice Nurses was an old plantation that now served as a nursing home. It was three stories high with fancy cornices and columns, a combination of Georgian architecture and a sort of Italianette country Palazzo complete with a grand arch doorway. The stone veneer was old and crumbling in places. The front of the building was covered in ivy all the way up to the second floor windows. Natsinet paused a moment to marvel at the beauty of the place.
    It was quiet and even a bit stern and austere owing to its undoubtedly Quaker heritage; still, it had amazing charm. It was sad to her that such a wonderfully charming building had now been converted into a home where the unwanted came to die.
    Natsinet walked up the long driveway to the front porch and rang the doorbell. A woman in an old-fashioned nursing uniform opened the door, white skirt, white stockings, thick heavy-looking white shoes, complete with one of those old nurse’s hats with the black stripe and little wings. The woman looked as old as the building she stood in and just as sturdy. She fit the old plantation as naturally as if she had been installed right along with the oak doors and lead glass windows.
    Her hair was white with streaks of blonde still running through it here and there. Her eyes had deep crow’s feet in the corners that had grown over the years and merged with the rest of the wrinkles and hard lines radiating out like spider webs across her face. A pair of wire rimmed spectacles perched precariously on the end of her nose. She looked impossibly ancient, as if she should have been one of the patients rather than a care-giver. She was surely older than many of those she cared for.
    “Yes, may I help you?”
    Her smile was surprisingly vibrant and friendly. Her eyes smiled with her. Natsinet had not met many friendly people since she’d come to America. Most of the people she’d met in Philadelphia were hostile and guarded at first, as if they were afraid she was going to try to take something from them. Natsinet had learned over the years the knack of getting the distrustful to trust in her, which was difficult since she was not a very warm person herself. She was capable and intelligent, and she’d found that people respected her for that.
    “I saw an ad in the Enquirer that said you were looking for hospice nurses?
    I brought my resume and references.”
    “Oh. Well, come in. Come in.”
    The nurse led Natsinet into the vestibule and then down a long hallway. The floors were all maple hardwood shined to a high gloss. The walls were painted antique white and were accented by ornate hand-carved crown molding and chair railing the same color as the floors. All of the woodwork appeared to be part of the original architecture. Natsinet couldn’t imagine where you would find that kind of craftsmanship in America these days.
    “My name is Doris. I run this place. I’ve worked here for over fifty years. I was about your age when I started here, fresh out of nursing school.”
    “Very pleased to meet you, Doris. My name is Natsinet.”
    She shook Doris’s hand and was surprised by the firmness of the handshake. The old nurse peered over her glasses at Natsinet as she returned the handshake.
    Natsinet was tall and slender like a supermodel. Her eyes were large and almond shaped, almost slanted, and green as emeralds. Her nose was long and narrow, but her lips were full and her hair was the color of wheat though still thick and wooly. Her skin, however, was as white as buttermilk. Natsinet knew that Doris was trying to figure out what nationality she was.
    “That’s an unusual name. What kind of accent is that? I don’t think I’ve ever heard it before.”
    “I was born in Eritrea but my mother is American.”
    “Eritrea? You mean Ethiopia? I used to send money to Ethiopia years ago.”
    “No. Not Ethiopia. Different country. My father was Eritrean. He was a physician. He met my mother while she was in the Peace Corp.”
    Natsinet tried to hide the irritation in her voice but she hated when people called her Ethiopian. She knew what most Americans thought of when they imagined Ethiopians; emaciated scarecrows with flies on their faces, starving to death and living in filth. Either that or they lumped them in with American Blacks who were little more than beggars and thieves in Natsinet’s view, barely more than the slaves they descended from. She had grown up among the privileged class. Her father was a respected physician in Eritrea and her mother came from an upper-middle class family in America. She’d been educated in European schools and spoke eight different languages. She hated being compared to lower-class American Blacks.
    “Your mother was a White woman?”
    The old nurse stared at Natsinet as if trying to solve a complicated puzzle.
    “So what do you consider yourself? White or Black?”
    “I consider myself Eritrean.”
    Natsinet tilted her head up and glared at the old nurse, challenging her to disagree.
    “And that’s to say not African American?”
    The old nurse peered over her tiny spectacles, smirking at Natsinet, clearly enjoying the exchange.
    “No. Not African American. I am bi-racial. My mother was White and my father was Eritrean.”
    “Sounds like an African American to me, but you certainly don’t look or talk like any of the ones I know of.”
    “Nor would I ever. There is very little African in what you call an African American. My people were never conquered, never enslaved. My mother is from right here in Philadelphia. Her family lives in Chestnut Hill. Her father was a lawyer and a politician, not a crack dealer or a pimp. I am the descendent of doctors and businessmen, not slaves.”
    There was a pause as Natsinet continued staring down her nose at the old nurse, her brilliant green eyes hard as chips of glass, waiting for a response. She knew she had said too much, but she also knew that when it came to her feelings about African Americans she could often count on a sympathetic ear among elderly Caucasians. They may not be as vocal as she was, but she knew that most of them felt the same as she. Often they were relieved by the fact that she did not consider herself one.
    “Fair enough. So let’s go have a seat so we can take a look at your resume.”
    The old nurse led them into a library. The walls were lined with bookshelves made of dark oak. The floors and molding were likewise a deep dark brown that was almost black. Books filled every shelf from floor to ceiling. There were medical books going back two centuries, bibles, almanacs, and works of classic literature; Twain, Dickens, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy.
    In the center of the room were several large brown leather chairs. Doris gestured for Natsinet to have a seat in one as she took a seat across from her in another, already leafing through her resume.
    “So, you were an ER nurse?”
    “Yes, for four…almost five years.”
    “This would be quite a change from the emergency room. I’m afraid you might get bored. What made you decide to want to become a hospice nurse and why did you leave the hospital?”
    Because of the filth and vermin I had to deal with. Gangbangers coming in every day with stab-wounds and gunshots. We’d patch them up only for them to go out and get shot again or to shoot someone else. Drug addicts having seizures and cardiac arrests. Drunk-drivers killing themselves and anyone else unlucky enough to be on the road with them. Whores with all manner of diseases. Kids neglected by their parents, nearly killing themselves by drinking bleach, or sticking forks in lightsockets, or falling down stairs or in bathtubs after being left alone for hours. We dealt with the scum of the earth in ER and I just got sick of it.
    “The ER can be rather intense. These days it’s like being a battlefield nurse. It starts to drain you after a while. I just needed a change…something a little less…intense.”
    Doris was scrutinizing her again, staring from her eyes to her mouth as she spoke, looking for the lie in either of them. The old nurse relaxed and looked back at the papers in her lap, apparently satisfied with Natsinet’s explanation.
    “You worked as an au-pair for a few years also?”
    “Yes. I worked for Dr. and Mrs. Lewzinsky in their home, caring for their three children for four years while I was in nursing school. There’s a letter of recommendation from them in there.”
    “I see. You graduated from University of Penn?”
    “Yes, I graduated in ninety-nine.”
    “So, you went right into the ER after college?”
    “I worked in the terminal ward for a few years but then I was transferred down to ER. They were short-staffed down there and I had the educational background for it so I wasn’t given much of a choice.”
    This time Doris didn’t even look up at her. She scanned quickly through the recommendations from her teachers and a few of the doctors she worked under in the ER, along with the one from the Lewzinsky’s, then she placed the resume aside on a nearby end table.
    “So you’ve never done elderly care before?”
    “Not really. Not unless the terminal ward counts. Most of the patients in there were elderly except the ones who had cancer or AIDS.”
    “Well, this won’t be very much different than that except here you will have only one patient at a time that you will be assigned to anywhere from two or three hours a day, to twenty-four hours around the clock, depending on your assignment. We will, of course, teach you everything you need to know before we send you out on an assignment, but with your credentials you should have no problem with any of it.”
    “So, when do I start?”
    “You just did. We’ll get you a locker for your things and start you right here caring for our patients in the nursing home. We have people coming in every day looking for nurses, so the sooner we can get you into the swing of things, the better.”
    Doris stood and led the way down the hall.
    “Do you mind if I call you Natty? Natsinet is quite a mouthful.”
    Natsinet grimaced but said nothing. There were very few things she minded more than having her name butchered, but she had learned over the years that Americans were fond of abbreviations. It was pointless to fight it. “No problem,” she said.
    “Wonderful,” Doris replied. She offered Natsinet what appeared to be her first genuine smile. “Why don’t I show you the rest of the facility then?”

Chapter Three

    Adelle knew something horribly wrong had occurred, knew she’d suffered some debilitating illness, but did not know the extent of her condition until after she regained full consciousness a full five days later.
    She’d come awake slowly, in fits and starts. She recognized that she was in a hospital immediately, and when the night duty nurse came in and saw that she was awake, a doctor was summoned.
    “How do you feel, Ms. Smith?” the doctor asked as he stood over her bed, checking her vitals.
    Adelle could only make out a hazy image, enough to tell her he was a young doctor, of Middle-Eastern descent perhaps. She tried to tell him, tried to convey how she was feeling and perhaps ask how she wound up here, but she couldn’t speak. Her mouth was dry and as if the medical team had second sight, one of the nurses brought her a cup of water.
    “Easy does it,” the nurse murmured as Adelle sipped.
    That helped quench her thirst and calm her parched throat, but it did nothing to help further her speech. By then another team of doctors had entered the room, and it was the older one—white, graying hair, over six feet tall—who seemed to be in charge.
    “Ms. Smith, I want you to listen to me very carefully. You’ve suffered a stroke.”
    Somehow, the news didn’t affect her the way she thought it would. Her first reaction was one of courage.
    Okay, I’ve suffered a stroke. But I’m alive. And I’m going to get better.
    She listened as the doctor told her that they would run a series of tests—among them a CT Scan and various MRIs—to determine the extent of damage. Some of those tests were conducted while they were attending to her and it was quickly discovered that she’d not only lost the ability for speech, her left side was completely paralyzed. Tears of frustration welled out of Adelle’s eyes as she tried to make a fist with her left hand at the doctor’s urging.
    “It’s okay,” he said, patting her arm gently. “Now we know, and we’re going to do what we can to see that you regain use of your left side again.”
    As frustrated as she was by being unable to communicate verbally, she still had full use of her right side and that was at least something she could be thankful for. She was able to answer simple yes and no questions by tapping her finger on the bed’s guardrail. She could also write.
    Through writing down questions, Adelle was able to learn that she’d been out of it for five days, that she was at Philadelphia General Hospital in Center City, and that the blood clot that triggered her stroke had been treated and that she would likely undergo a long course of post stroke therapy. But first, they had to learn how much damage the stroke had caused.
    At some point somebody must have called Tonya because while Adelle was in Radiology getting prepped for the first of a series of MRIs, her daughter was at her side. Tonya hugged her.
    “Oh momma, I was so worried!”
    And with her daughter at her side, in the midst of all those machines and computers, her worry and emotion gave way and Adelle allowed herself to cry in her daughter’s arms. It was a cry of relief. She was still alive.

Chapter Four

    Three days later Tonya Brown sat at the nursing station’s front desk filling out the paperwork and making the final preparations for her mother’s discharge, ignoring the disapproving look from the Patient Admissions nurse.
    “Are you sure you’d rather not have your mother admitted directly into a Hospice Nursing Facility?” the woman asked.
    The nameplate on her desk identified her as Georgina Spaulding and she was a large woman with an olive complexion and coal black hair going gray in spots.
    “I mean…I understand why your mother would feel a bit apprehensive about entering a nursing home, but I assure you Hospice Nursing is the best in the state.”
    “I’ve tried convincing my mother to just stay there but she won’t hear of it,” Tonya said. She was filling out the last of the paperwork. “Trust me, I told her there was no use going back home when she could simply get all the care she could ever want at a full-fledged hospice and rehabilitation center, but she made it clear that she wasn’t going to an old folks home.”
    Georgina rolled her eyes.
    “Big difference between a hospice and a nursing home for old folks. Besides, there are resident physicians on staff twenty-four seven. The nurses are board certified, too. They aren’t just nursing assistants.”
    “I know,” Tonya said. She met Georgina’s gaze over the cluttered desk. “But she wants to be home. In a way, I don’t blame her.”
    Georgina sighed. “Believe me, I understand but…well, that neighborhood your mother lives in isn’t the ideal situation for someone of her age and…well, her condition.”
    Tonya nodded. She agreed with the woman, but debating it wasn’t going to change her mother’s mind. Nothing would.
    “Are you sure about this?” Georgina asked again.
    Tonya looked up from the forms. “I’m sure. They’ve already arranged for a home-care nurse for my mother.”
    “And they had no problem with…the neighborhood?”
    Tonya resumed filling out the paperwork. Was that a hint of disapproval in the Admissions Nurse’s voice? “They had no problem at all.”
    Tonya had been worried that Hospice Nursing would balk at sending home care nurses to her mother’s apartment for her care, but they hadn’t. She originally wanted to put her mother up in her basement, in nearby Lansdale. Had talked about it with her husband, in fact, and he was supportive of the idea. Their basement opened out onto the backyard and was completely finished, with a full bathroom. Currently they used it as an extra family room and a rumpus room for the kids. Turning it into a temporary apartment for momma would have been a snap, but she wouldn’t have it. I’m going to my home! Momma wrote in the spiral bound notebook she now kept beside her bed. No amount of arguing or persuasion would change her mind. She was going home and that was final.
    “I’m surprised,” Georgina continued. “Last time we had a patient discharged to that area who required home care, a nurse was mugged on her way home. Was almost beaten to death.”
    “My mother’s very well known in the neighborhood,” Tonya said quickly. “I don’t think we’ll have that problem.” She met Georgina’s gaze, daring the woman to continue. Georgina nodded and averted her eyes, suddenly becoming busy with her own paperwork.
    “Very well,” Georgina said. She reached into a file beside her desk and pulled out a series of pamphlets. “I have some information here on ischemic strokes, as well as a guideline sheet on diet and exercise for your mother. Hospice Nursing will be more than happy to help you if you need any more information.”
    And with that, the subject of Adelle Smith returning to her neighborhood in her now disabled condition was finished.

Chapter Five

    Doris had been watching Natsinet all day as she’d gone about her rounds, changing bed pans and sheets, giving sponge baths and exercising the less ambulatory patients, checking vital signs, doling out medications and making notations in their charts. The woman was careful and meticulous and, despite her comments about African-Americans, showed no favoritism as she went from patient to patient.
    “Can you cook?”
    “Excuse me?”
    “Do you know how to cook? Many of our patients are on specialized diets and sometimes our nurses are asked to prepare meals for them.”
    “Yes. I can cook.”
    “Good. Come into my office when you’re done with your rounds.”
    The old nurse walked away and Natsinet followed her with her eyes until the old woman reached the end of the hall and exited the ward.
    “Nurse? Nurse? Can I have my meds now please? My arthritis is starting to hurt.”
    An old Black man, one of the few patients who was actually older than Doris, was tugging at the sleeve of her nursing jacket. Natsinet jerked her arm away, scowling in contempt.
    “Don’t touch me! Don’t you ever put your filthy hands on me!” She glared at him murderously as she cradled her arm, sheltering it from his touch.
    The old man recoiled, startled by Natsinet’s sudden inexplicable fury. “I-I just wanted my medication.”
    Natsinet checked his chart, still scowling at him. His name was Thomas Adamson, and he’d been in the care of the nursing home for four years. He had both osteo and rheumatoid arthritis and was scheduled for a shot of Remicade, the brand name for infliximab, a tumor-necrosis factor inhibitor. He was also recovering from his sixth heart attack and was taking an angiotensin receptor blocker called Diovan to open up his blood vessels, Eplerenone, a diuretic to remove excess fluid from his body (which would explain why she had to change his bed pan so frequently), and Carvedilol, a beta blocker to lower the adrenaline levels in his blood stream. An expensive arthritis drug and three different kinds of heart medications for an eighty-nine year old man with no hope of ever getting out of his bed. That is just ridiculous, Natsinet thought. She looked further down Mr. Adamson’s chart. He was a smoker. She chuckled to herself and shook her head.
    I bet tobacco isn’t the only thing this old coon has smoked in his day.
    It seemed silly to waste so much expensive medication on someone who was clearly on his deathbed. She wondered how many purses he had snatched in his youth? How many other Black men he’d stabbed over card games, crap shoots, and drug deals? How many illegitimate children he’d fathered? How many welfare dollars had been spent over the years keeping Mr. Adamson’s worthless heart pumping after he’d spent most of his life smoking and drinking, eating fried greasy food, no doubt taking drugs, and not exercising? How much money was his family spending now to keep him in this place?
    His grandkids are probably out there selling drugs right now to pay for his care. Natsinet thought.
    She could read his story in every wrinkle of his face. She’d heard it time and time again. Now that they were old they looked so sweet and innocent, they were so full of remorse and regret and old cautionary tales of misspent youth, but when they were young they raised all kinds of hell. She wasn’t buying it. Too much money had been spent on this one already.
    She handed the old man an aspirin and walked away without even giving him a glass of water to wash it down with. Before going to meet Doris in her office, she returned all of the old man’s heart medication to the bottles she had retrieved them from.
    Natsinet walked down the hall to Doris’ office cautiously. She wasn’t sure what the old nurse thought about her. Natsinet knew that she was more than capable, in fact, overqualified for her job. But she was a smart woman and extremely self-aware. She knew that she was missing something inside and that some people were able to sense the void in her, the lack of empathy and compassion. Most of them excused it as some type of cultural difference, a result of her African heritage, and she could fake these emotions well enough to fool all the others. Still, every once in a while, she ran across someone she could not fool, someone who saw through her mask of normalcy to the dark emptiness inside of her. That’s all she could think about when she walked into Doris’ office.
    Did the old woman know about the pills? Had she seen her give that old man aspirin instead of his prescribed medication? Had someone else seen her and told on her?
    She knocked on the door to Doris’ office.
    “Come in.”
    Natsinet crept tentatively inside the tiny office.
    “You wanted to see me? Is there anything wrong?”
    “Wrong? Oh no, no.”
    Natsinet visibly relaxed. She hadn’t been found out after all. Her mask was still intact.
    “Actually I called you in here to tell you what a great job you are doing and to tell you that I’ve decided to waive the normal probation period and send you out on your first full-time assignment.”
    Natsinet’s face lit up. She imagined moving into one of the large mansions she’d passed on her way to this home, or maybe even one of the huge estates like the one her mother had grown up in, in Chestnut Hill. She wondered what her room would look like, whether she would be caring for a man or a woman. Maybe it would be some geriatric millionaire who would fall in love with her and leave her all of his money when he passed. Maybe Natsinet would be caring for some businessman’s dying wife and he’d fall in love with her after seeing how well she cared for his family then ask her to marry him after his wife died.
    “Have you ever heard of Adelle Smith?”
    “Who?” The name sounded familiar. She remembered reading something about a woman by that name in the paper. She’d had a heart attack or a stroke or something.
    “Adelle Smith. She was a Civil Rights activist back in the sixties, went to jail for holding a judge hostage in some sort of police brutality protest or something. She just received an NAACP lifetime achievement award. Not for kidnapping judges. She did a lot of work with inner-city kids, welfare reform, equal opportunity and affirmative action programs, stuff like that. Got a lot of the big companies in town to start hiring Black employees. She’s a real hero to many of the people who grew up here. Well, she had a stroke right after she received the award and now she’s practically bed-ridden. She can get around a little with her walker, but she’s partially paralyzed on her left side. She’s coming home from the hospital tomorrow and she’s going to need full-time nursing care.”
    Natsinet felt all of her hopes and fantasies come crashing back down to reality. She would be caring for an old Black woman, an activist at that. One of those American Blacks that still blames everything that happens to them on the White man instead of their own laziness and stupidity, waiting around for someone to give them for free what everybody else on the planet has to earn.
    “The neighborhood she lives in isn’t the best in the world, but her daughter assures me that you’ll be safe. Apparently, Mrs. Smith is well respected there.”
    “What neighborhood is it exactly?” Natsinet was trying her best to hold it together but she could feel her mask slipping as her anger rose. They were sending her into some sort of ghetto to care for some woman who once went to jail for kidnapping. This had to be a joke of some kind, a trick they played on all the new-hires. But there was no humor in the old nurse’s eyes. She was completely serious.
     “Mrs. Smith lives in North Philadelphia, right off of Columbia Avenue.”
    Natsinet sprang from her seat, startling the old nurse who instinctively raised her arms in front of her face to ward off a blow. “You have got to be kidding me!”
    “Natty! Calm down! There is no need for this.”
    Natsinet paced back and forth like a caged animal, clearly distraught.
    “I thought this would be perfect for you. This family would feel more comfortable with someone their own color and I thought for your first assignment you might feel more comfortable as well.”
    “Their own color?” Obviously the woman had not listened to a thing she’d said during their interview or else this was her way of bringing Natsinet down a peg, taking her off her high horse. When she was back in the ER, the head nurse would often make her take care of all the gangbangers that came in, to try to force her to get over her prejudice. It’d had the opposite effect. She’d grown more and more disgusted by them until she’d eventually quit. She’d done other things, too; things that had led to three deaths that she’d never been blamed for. If this woman was trying to force her to confront her biases or prove to her that all people were the same or something, she was wasting her time.
    “Look, I’ve already told them about you and they’re excited to meet you. Besides, you’re new and none of my other nurses will set foot in that neighborhood, which means that if you want to work here you will take this assignment. There will be others. We have people coming in here all the time looking for nurses. When you’ve got a little more seniority you’ll get some of the better jobs too, maybe even working for one of those millionaires in Chestnut Hill or Society Hill. We’re the most prestigious hospice in the city, as I’m sure you know. There will be other opportunities.”
    Natsinet stopped pacing and plopped back down into the chair in front of the old nurse’s tiny desk. She was still breathing hard, still angry, and she refused to make eye contact with Doris at all, turning her head to stare out the window instead.
    “I’ll take the assignment.”
    “Good. They will be very pleased. This packet has all of the details of the type of care she will need including her medications and the dates and times for her physical therapy. The daughter’s phone number is in there too. She’s paying for all of this, along with donations from the NAACP and a few charitable foundations, many of whom her mother helped to found.”
    Natsinet wasn’t listening to anything the old nurse was saying. All she was thinking about was how to make this assignment as short as possible.
    When the phone rang on Doris’ desk and one of the other nurses frantically announced that a patient just had a massive myocardial infarction, Natsinet didn’t even have to hear the name to know that they wouldn’t be spending any more unnecessary dollars on heart medication and arthritis pills.

Chapter Six

    The ambulance had dropped Adelle off at the apartment thirty minutes ago and Tonya was going over the living room tidying things up when the doorbell rang.
    She gave a quick sigh, her eyes sweeping the room. The room looked about the same as it did the night after her mother’s stroke when she’d showed up to retrieve some of her mother’s belongings for the hospital stay. She’d had to babysit the locksmith who’d shown up to change the locks on the busted-down door and do some minor repair work—the police busted it down to allow the EMTs to gain entry. She’d also retrieved the handgun mom kept stowed in the magazine rack by the sofa and moved it to a more secure location, in a shoebox at the bottom of her closet. She did the same with the .45 in the dresser drawer by momma’s bed. Momma had told her about the weapons a few years ago, and as Tonya unloaded them she thought about Mike Simmons, a guy she’d grown up with in this neighborhood. On her way to the apartment she’d seen Big Mike hanging out with his friends in front of a burnt-out rowhouse around the corner. A crackhouse no doubt.
    Mike was one of about a dozen kids she used to play with when she was growing up, and even though he’d gone in a clearly opposite direction in life than she did as an adult, he still treated her like the childhood friend she’d always been. She knew he led a crew of some bad asses, and she made a mental note to try to talk to him on her way home.
    The doorbell rang again and Tonya answered it. Standing outside was a tall, slim, light-skinned woman dressed in a dark overcoat carrying a bag. Her eyes were green and her skin was almost White but her features were unmistakably Black.
    “Ms. Smith?”
    “I’m Tonya Brown, Adelle Smith’s daughter,” Tonya said. “You’re from Hospice Nursing?”
    The woman nodded.
    “I’m Natsinet Zenawi. Hospice Nursing sent me.”
    “Come in.” Tonya held the door open and Natsinet entered. Tonya had been expecting her, and as she led Natsinet into the apartment she quickly pointed everything out to the nurse.
    “Momma’s asleep now, but I’ve made you up a bed on the futon in the second bedroom.” Adelle Smith had the nicest apartment in the neighborhood—a two bedroom. “And I’ve cleared out space for you in the bathroom and kitchen.”
    “Thank you.” Natsinet set her overnight bag and a heavy black leather satchel down on the floor, her eyes surveying the apartment.
    “I’ve stocked up on groceries, so you should be good for the next five days,” Tonya continued. She quickly showed the nurse the layout of the kitchen, pointed out where the linens were stored and the medicine cabinet in the kitchen. Natsinet was quiet and nodded with approval as Tonya made the rounds. The last stop was the master bedroom where momma was sleeping. The overhead light was off but Tonya had installed a nightlight in the wall socket and it gave off a bluish glow. She stood at the doorway and watched as Natsinet approached her mother’s bedside and took her pulse.
    “How long has she been asleep?” Natsinet murmured.
    “About two hours.”
    Natsinet exited the bedroom and brushed past Tonya. The woman seemed a little aloof, and as Tonya followed her into the living room she told herself to stop being paranoid. The woman barely knew momma; to her, she was simply another patient. And besides, Hospice Nurses of Greater Philadelphia was the most reputable nursing facility in town. This nurse had just showed up, the first of two nurses who would take five day shifts, staying at her mother’s apartment day and night to provide round the clock care. If it hadn’t been for the generous donations solicited by the NAACP in the wake of momma’s stroke, her mother would have been confined to a state-run hospice center. God knows what would have happened to her there.
    Natsinet retrieved a file from her satchel and was reading through it.
    “I see that a bed has been provided for me?”
    “Yes,” Tonya said, nodding. Tonya had sprung for the hospital bed with her own money and had hired movers to haul momma’s bed away where it was now in storage. She felt it would be better for her mother’s physical rehabilitation to have a semi-electric hospital bed for bed height adjustment and upper body positioning to help momma sit up.
    “Wonderful. And Dr. Albright is her physician?”
    Tonya nodded.
    Natsinet seemed pleased with this. “Albright is a good doctor. How much damage was done to your mother’s nervous system? It says here she’s partially paralyzed on her left side?”
    “Her left side is completely paralyzed,” Tonya said. “She has limited movement in her right arm and leg, and she can turn her head slightly.”
    Natsinet frowned.
    “Is there something wrong?”
    She ignored her and continued reading from Adelle Smith’s medical records.
    “And her speech? She’s lost it, correct?”
    Natsinet seemed to consider this as she read through the medical records. Her brow was furrowed in concentration. “What kind of physical rehabilitation have you decided on?”
    Tonya was confused. “I thought…well, I thought Hospice Nursing was to provide in-home care and rehabilitation.”
    “Ahh.” Natsinet nodded, eyes still on the medical record. The tone of her voice and the slight change in body language spoke volumes to Tonya. In her world—the one of the professional corporation—that tone of voice while saying “ahhh” meant nobody told me jack shit I was going to be involved in providing twenty-four hour care nursing and physical rehabilitation.
    “Is there a problem?” Tonya asked, keeping her voice neutral, friendly.
    “No, no problem,” Natsinet replied. She looked at Tonya and smiled. “Many times there is miscommunication between the nursing facilities and the providers.”
    “So, you’re only here to provide nursing care? You aren’t providing physical therapy as well?”
    “No no no,” Natsinet said, her voice soothing. “I can do all that. I’m a board certified physical therapist as well as a Registered Nurse. Hospice Nursing gave me the impression that you’d hired your own physical therapist.”
    “Oh.” How could that be possible? Tonya was very specific in her wishes when talking to Hospice Nursing. Despite that, she supposed it was possible that her instructions could have been misinterpreted. “This isn’t going to be a problem, is it?”
    “Not at all.” Natsinet’s voice was warm, friendly, and she seemed more relaxed now, more in control. “Everything will be fine. Is there anything else I need to know?”
    Tonya provided Natsinet with her cell, office, and home phone number, gave her a card that contained her home email address and told her to call her immediately if she was needed. As she picked up her purse and headed to the front door, she felt a slight pang of guilt; in a perfect world she’d be staying home with momma to nurse her back to heath, but she couldn’t afford it. Thank God for the generous donations provided by the NAACP. Leaving momma behind in her apartment, in the old neighborhood, wasn’t the ideal situation, but if being home helped momma emotionally perhaps that would help speed up her physical recovery. “I’m only a forty minute drive away,” she said, pausing at the front door. “I can stop in Friday after work.”
    “That will be good,” Natsinet said.
    “Okay. Call me if you need anything.”
    “I will.”
    Tonya closed the door behind her and paused for a moment on the front stoop of the apartment, which overlooked the street below. Everything’s going to be okay, she thought. Then, taking a deep breath, she headed down the stairs to her car.

Chapter Seven

    She was lucky enough to find a parking space in front of the rowhouse Mike Simmons and his buddies were hanging out in front of, and as Tonya turned the car off she felt the heavy glares of dozens of eyes light on her. Appraising her.
    She got out of the car, not in the least bit scared. Any other woman who hadn’t grown up in the neighborhood would have felt very nervous at this point and probably would not have even ventured out of the car. Not so with Tonya. Her current home might be in a middle-class suburb surrounded by White neighbors, but she still felt right at home in the old neighborhood.
    ‘Big’ Mike Simmons called out to her. “Hey Tonya, what’s good wit’ you, girl?”
    “Big Mike!”
    Tonya smiled as she approached the worn concrete steps of the row house. Mike was standing up, already heading down the stairs with a smile on his face. His homeboys took his lead and eased up on their menacing bad ass postures. A couple of them recognized Tonya and nodded to her, said, “”Sup, Tonya? You lookin’ fine as ever.”
    “Yeah, girl. That suburban life is treatin’ you well.”
    “What’s your fine ass doin’ ‘round here?”
    “You best not be down here tryin’ to buy no rocks!” Big Mike asked.
    She acknowledged the others, then turned to Mike, grinning. “Hell, no! My momma would kill me. Besides, you know I got better sense then that. I’m looking for you!” she chuckled.
    Mike laughed and they embraced. “You lookin’ for me huh? So, how you doin? I heard you was livin’ lavish up in the suburbs wit’ all ‘dem White folks?” Mike asked.
    “I’m doin’ okay.”
    “Looks like you doin’ more than okay to me. I bet I make just as much bank as that bourgie nigga you got. If I moved up to the suburbs you think I’d have a chance wit’ you?”
    “Pleeease. See, now why wasn’t you comin’ at me like that when I was livin’ down here? Back then all you wanted was them triflin’ ass hoochies.” Tonya surprised herself by how easy it was to slip back into her neighborhood dialect. Momma had taught her long ago that Black people had to live in two worlds: the business world, the world of proper diction and proper clothes, the world of White people; and the streets, the world where Big Mike and his buddies and all the people she’d grown up with, including Tonya herself, were from. Her mother had told her never to talk above her own people. “Talkin’ ain’t good for nothing but communicatin’. What good are a bunch of fancy words that nobody can’t understand? I didn’t send you off to college so you can come back talkin’ like you better than everybody else. When you with your people, you talk like your people.”
    Tonya never forgot that.
    “I must’ve been crazy if I wasn’t checkin’ for you back then. I must have been blind too.”
    “Well, it’s too late now. I got a good man.”
    “That right? He treat you good too? He keepin’ you satisfied? You know I’m sayin’?”
    Tonya smiled and looked down at her feet bashfully, shifting her weight nervously from one foot to the other. Mike could see the way she lit up just thinking about her husband. Even a hardened thug like him couldn’t help but be touched by it.
    “Yeah, he does.”
    “Damn, that nigga must be doin’ somethin’ right ‘cause he got you completely sprung on his ass!” Mike laughed and it was such a warm friendly sound that it was hard to imagine that this man was responsible for every drug deal in the neighborhood and nearly every drug-related murder as well.
    “Come on, don’t make me blush.”
    “It’s good to see you though, Tonya. I’m glad to hear you’re happy. But, seriously though, what brings you ‘round here?”
    She grasped his hands, looking up at him. Big Mike had been a handsome boy and he hadn’t lost those good looks. Unfortunately, his years on the streets and the hard living had etched their way into his face, creating age lines that made him look easily ten years older than his thirty-one years despite a body armored in prison muscle and a wardrobe and platinum jewelry straight out of a hip-hop video. “You heard about Momma, right?”
    “Yeah, I did,” Mike said. Despite his intimidating size and his reputation on the streets, his tenderness, when it came out, was sincere. “I’m real sorry to hear about it. We all were. Your moms is a good woman. How she doin’?”
    Tonya glanced at his gathered crew; a few faces were recognizable, others weren’t. Some of them nodded at her and uttered words of encouragement. She nodded back at them and turned back to Mike. “Not too good, but she’s goin’ to be alright. I got a big favor to ask you, though. It would really mean a lot to me.”
    “What’s that, baby girl? You know I got your back.”
    “Will you guys keep an eye on my momma’s place for me?”
    “No thang. You ain’t even have to ask that. Wouldn’t nobody mess with her no way. Everybody around here got mad respect for your moms.”
    “I know that. I know, and I appreciate that, but she’s gonna have in-home nursing care. She ain’t movin’ around so good after the stroke. There’s a nurse there now, light-skinned sista named Natsinet. I don’t know who else the nursing home will send, but—”
    “Nobody will touch ‘em,” Mike said, “That’s my word.”
    “No thang. Give your moms my love.”
    “I will. You take care of yourself, Mike. I hope to see you up in the suburbs pretty soon.”
    Mike laughed. “You might just.”
    Tonya gave him a big hug and almost found herself choking up. She was pretty sure that the next time she saw Big Mike was more likely to be at his funeral than at a neighborhood association meeting. She hated what this neighborhood did to people. She thanked her mother everyday for making sure she escaped it. Tonya only wished she had been as successful at getting her mother out of here as well. For some reason the old woman just refused to leave, along with all the other old folks in the neighborhood. Almost everyone her mom had gone to high school with, gone to college with, attended Civil Rights marches and protests with, got arrested with, were all still right there in the same houses they’d grown up in. Tonya didn’t understand it. As many fond childhood memories as she had growing up in North Philly, she’d sooner move to the Deep South than back to that drug-infested war zone.
    Tonya turned and walked back to her car.

Chapter Eight

    Natsinet had stood by the living room window, watching through the curtains as Tonya got into her car and drove away.
    She surveyed the neighborhood below her quickly, frowning as she did so. What a hellhole. To have accomplished so much in life—setting aside this woman’s criminal past—and to live in such squalor! Natsinet did not understand why somebody of Adelle’s supposed stature would want to live here. It was people like her that made the whole so-called Civil Rights thing a farce. They complained about being mistreated a hundred and forty years after slavery ended, whined about not getting the jobs they felt they deserved, yet they remained in these crime-infested hovels and preyed on each other. If Adelle Smith had really spent so much time helping inner-city youth, not to mention inspiring other Black people to do the same, why was there still so much rampant crime in the older sections of major cities like Philadelphia? Why didn’t these people get off their asses and do something with their lives instead of whining and complaining about not being treated fairly?
    Thinking about it, knowing she had to spend the next five days caring for this old, worthless woman was not a good thing.
    It was infuriating. These were the same people she’d had to deal with everyday in the ER. They were the same people who’d…
    Natsinet stormed away from the windows and paced the living room. Her eyes swept the room, taking in the sofa and easy chair, the TV, the end table with framed photographs and what looked like a trophy. Natsinet picked up the trophy and read the inscription. For significant contributions toward the Civil Rights Movement. The NAACP award.
    A police siren warbled from outside, soon joined by another. Probably another homicide. So many goddamn animals in the inner-city, they were like rats crammed in a cage. And when too many rats were in a cage together, they fought and eliminated the weaker. Survival of the fittest.
    Good riddance, Natsinet thought as she headed to the master bedroom.
* * *
    Adelle had been coming to a slow sense of wakefulness the past few minutes and now she opened her eyes. She knew she was in her bedroom, knew Tonya wasn’t here. The last thing Adelle remembered was her conversation with Tonya at the hospital when her daughter told her that she would try to hang around the apartment until she woke up, that she would try to drop in later in the week.
    “They’ve got me at these board meetings every day this week and Gerald is teaching class in the evenings,” she’d told her. “I’ll try to bring Tess over some night, but I know the earliest I can get away will probably be Friday.”
    Today was, what? Monday? Adelle and Tonya had had that conversation this morning, a nurse had given her something to help her sleep, and the next thing she remembered was Tonya telling her that she would follow the ambulance on the ride to the apartment.
    And now she was home.
    Somebody was here though, and Adelle tried turning her head to see who it was. Her left side felt completely numb, and it took considerable strain to lift her right arm into a more comfortable position across her abdomen. She was able to shift her head slightly on the pillow and for a minute her vision swam as her eyes adjusted to the dim lighting of the room. A light-skinned Black woman dressed in a nurse’s uniform entered the room and approached her bedside. The home care nurse.
    The nurse wouldn’t look at her as she checked her pulse and heartbeat and made notations in a chart. “You had a nice nap?” the nurse asked. “How do you feel?”
    Adelle struggled to speak. “…’kay…”
    The nurse continued writing in her chart. “Good. I’ll be preparing your dinner in about an hour. Chicken Soup.”
    “Pay… per…” Adelle managed to say. The nurse looked at her and Adelle motioned to a notepad and a pen lying on the bureau. “Pen.”
    The nurse retrieved the pen and paper and set them on Adelle’s stomach. Adelle gripped the pen and began to write. “I’m sorry my speech is limited. What’s your name?”
    “My name is Natsinet Zenawi,” the nurse said.
    Adelle smiled. Or tried to, at least. “What a beautiful name,” she wrote. “Let me guess… Ethiopian?”
    There was the faintest hint of a frown on the nurse’s face. “No. I am Eritrean. Two separate countries.”
    Now it was Adelle’s turn to frown. She wrote again. “I’m sorry. My mistake. So much tragedy has occurred in that country… so many changes—”
    “Actually, it doesn’t matter to me where I come from,” the nurse said, overriding Adelle’s train of thought. “I’m here to care for you for the next five days. Is there anything you need?”
    Adelle thought about it, trying not to let her dismay show. This woman had a curt edge to her she found disconcerting. She flipped a page up to a new sheet, then wrote, “When does my physical therapy start?”
    There was no mistaking that frown now. “Uh uh,” Natsinet said, shaking her head. Her irritation turned swiftly to anger that seemed to come from nowhere. “No, I’m not doing that. It’s not what I signed up for.”
    Adelle gave a startled gasp. The doctors and nurses at the hospital told her she would have in-home nursing and physical rehabilitation. Tonya had brought in a combined nurse and physical therapist from Hospice Nursing in Philadelphia—the best in the state. She didn’t understand. “I thought —” She started writing.
    “You thought nothing,” Natsinet said, and there was no mistaking the venom in that voice now. “If you’d had an original thought in your wrinkled head, you would have moved out of this hell-hole years ago. I am not providing you with physical therapy. Fuck that and fuck you!”
    Adelle gasped again. She couldn’t believe this woman had cursed her. Quickly gaining her composure, she scribbled on the paper. “Fine. Please bring me the phone. I need to make a phone call.”
    “And report me? Fuck you again.” And with that Natsinet leaned over the bed, grabbed Adelle beneath her armpits and hauled her out of bed. Adelle gave a mangled yell; her right arm flopped uselessly as she tried to maneuver it to strike at the younger woman, but she was too weak.
    “You want physical therapy?” And before she knew it, Natsinet dragged her out of the bed and threw her to the floor. She hit the hardwood floor hard, coming down on her right forearm, hip, and shoulder. A flare of agony stabbed into her right side, and as she tried to struggle into a position to hoist herself up she flopped over on her stomach in a truly helpless position. Help me, she thought, not even aware of the pain that wracked her right side and her wrist.
    “There you go.” Natsinet said above her. “Now climb back into bed yourself! How’s that for physical therapy?”
    Adelle was certain she blacked out at that point. Her next memory was lying in bed—how she got there she had no recollection of, but Natsinet had obviously gotten her back in somehow. The nurse was standing beside her, a smirk on her face.
    Please, Adelle thought.
    Natsinet leaned over her. “You are not going to spread false rumors about me…correct?”
    Adelle could only look at the nurse, her eyes growing wide with terror. There was no sense of compassion in the younger woman’s face. No sense that she’d done anything wrong.
    “Did you hear what I just said?”
    Trembling, Adelle moved her head slightly. A nod. Yes.
    “Good. Nobody will believe you anyway. The medication you are on has a possible side effect of hallucinations.”
    For the first time Adelle realized her pad of paper and pen were gone. Tears of frustration and rage welled from her eyes. She felt trapped in this body that was now broken and useless. Her right side and wrist ached with a dull throb.
    “You are going to lie here and do nothing,” Natsinet continued. “You will eat when I feed you, urinate and shit when I take you to the bathroom, and sleep when I tell you to. And that’s about all you are going to get from me. If I can find a way to avoid touching you at all I will. Furthermore, when my five days are up you will say nothing to nobody. Remember, you will be so doped up that nobody will believe you. And I’m only off for two days so I’ll be back and I’ll know if you’ve been talking.”
    They’ll believe me alright you hateful woman! Adelle thought.
    “Remember… you’re under my care now.” Natsinet’s face was pure evil. “You can complain all you want, but this time complaining and bitching won’t do shit for you.”
    What the hell is she trying to say? Adelle thought.
    Natsinet continued her rant, as if she knew what Adelle was thinking. “Oh yes, I know all about you. Big Civil Rights leader. Bitch and complain about how the White man is holding you down, the White man won’t let you po’ Black folks get ahead!” Natsinet’s voice adopted a mocking ghetto-speak. “Well guess what, sister? That’s your damn fault! You had all the chances in the world and here you are still stuck in the ghetto with the animals. And they’re still animals. Out there killing each other every night. Rutting like pigs and creating more little bastards for the welfare system. This is what your little Civil Rights movement left behind. You took away all of their excuses and they still haven’t done shit with their lives. All people like you ever did was cry and moan and complain about equality and yet you never assimilated into society. You still live and act like savages. And don’t tell me about how you haven’t had the same opportunities or how the legacy of slavery destroyed the Black man’s sense of identity and self-worth or destroyed the Black family structure. You fools did this to yourselves! You stayed in these slums and fed off your own people. Your men killed each other, sold their women. Black men didn’t protect their women during slavery. They let the White man rape and abuse them. They didn’t protect their children, and they don’t now. They—”
    Adelle was so angry at the nurse’s rant that she lashed out. Her right arm flew out and she grasped Natsinet’s left wrist. If she’d had the ability for speech she would have let loose with a hearty, “Fuckin’ bitch, I’m gonna kick your ass!” What came out instead was a muffled “Fffff—”
    Natsinet jerked her wrist away. “What the fuck? You think you can hit me?” And then before she knew what was happening Natsinet punched her in the face with her bony fist, driving her head down into the pillows.
    If it hadn’t been for the stroke Adelle was sure she would have felt greater pain from the blow, but she didn’t. She was more surprised by the ferocity of the blow, by the fact she’d been punched in the face by her home care nurse at all. Barely aware of the thin trickle of blood leaking from her nose, Adelle glared at Natsinet, who loomed over her, fists clenched. “I oughta beat the fuck out of you, old bitch!”
    Adelle glared at her defiantly. Go on. Hit an old disabled woman. I dare you!
    Something in Natsinet’s features changed. Her look of fierce anger once again changed to cunning evil. She grinned. “I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking you’re gonna wait out the five days I’m here with you and then you’re gonna complain to somebody and I’ll be dealt with. That ain’t gonna happen. I’m not gonna give you that chance even if I have to keep you drugged out of your mind the entire time.”
    She leaned closer to Adelle. She reminded Adelle of a deadly snake about to devour its prey. “I’m the only person you’re going to see until the other nurse comes to relieve me in five days. You are entirely dependent on me now, to eat, to go to the bathroom, to get your medications, to wash your stinking Black ass. Your life depends on me. You piss me off and by tomorrow you’re gonna wish I was dead. By the end of the week, you’re gonna wish you were dead.”
    Oh my goodness, she’s going to torture me! Adelle thought. She couldn’t help herself. Pure panic flooded her system. She felt her bladder give way. She was too terrified to even be embarrassed.
    Adelle noticed the growing stain of urine on the bedsheets. Her upper lip turned up in a snarl of disgust.
    “You’re just going to have to lie in it. I’ll be damned if I’m changing those sheets. You people are like a bunch of animals!”
    You people? Obviously the woman has not looked in the mirror lately, Adelle thought.
    Despite her “high yella” complexion and her green eyes, her lips and nose were unmistakably Black as was her thick wooly hair. The woman had some serious self-hatred going on and she was going to take it all out on Adelle.
    Why is she doing this to me?
    Adelle remembered something she’d heard one of the Pastors at her church say before one of the many marches she’d attended in her youth.
    “Everyone is the hero of their own story. No one is just evil. Even the most hateful, most racist redneck in the South believes in his heart that he is doing what is right. You have to find out why he believes that way before you can change his mind.”
    Back then Adelle had no desire to understand racist rednecks. She hadn’t believed in desegregation. She tended to side with the Black Nationalists of the era who believed the White man to be a devil whose sole purpose was to oppress and ultimately destroy the Black race. She was wiser now. Now she knew that old preacher had been right. Everyone thinks their opinion is the right one. Their actions justified. But for the life of her she could not figure out what justification this woman could possibly have for striking an old paralyzed woman. It made no sense to her. Her mind kept going back to the simple solution: she’s just evil. But that thinking left nothing to appeal to. It left no hope at all. If Natsinet was just evil or crazy, then Adelle was a dead woman.
    Maybe her Black daddy walked out on her when she was a child or her mother left him for someone her own color? Maybe her mother was Black and her daddy was some rich White guy out for a one night stand who won’t have anything to do with his illegitimate Black baby? Whatever her issues, it doesn’t excuse her behavior. She’s going to pay for this.
    Then Adelle had another thought that halted her breath and chilled the blood in her veins: Unless she kills me before I can tell anyone. Who would know if she made it look like an accident or natural causes?
    Adelle looked at the woman’s soulless eyes and there was nothing in them that gave any indication of compassion or humanity. She might as well have been looking into the eyes of a shark or some predatory reptile.
    She’s going to kill me.
    Adelle was as sure of it now as she’d ever been about anything in her life. This woman was going to murder her and Adelle had no idea why.
    The nurse stomped out of the room leaving Adelle alone with her fear.
    Oh my God. What do I do?
    The realization of what had just happened and what was likely to happen during the next five days left Adelle stunned. She stared straight ahead at the open bedroom door that might as well have been locked and guarded for all the use it was to her, at the window less than six feet away from where she was lying, also no use to her. Even if she could get to it she would not be able to call for help. Her words were still all garbled and she could barely speak above a whisper.
    Adelle looked frantically around the room, for some type of weapon or something she could use to call for help. There was a framed picture of her standing on the steps of the Washington Monument with Huey P. Newton on one side of her and Eldridge Cleaver and Bobby Seale on the other. She was dressed in a black beret, a black leather jacket, and dark sunglasses, her afro spanning from shoulder to shoulder. She was raising one black gloved fist into the air in the “Power to The People” salute while Bobby Seale gave one of his fiery speeches. What the picture didn’t show were the battalions of police in riot gear directly across from them preparing to bust their heads. Adelle had been young and fearless then. The frame was made out of pewter. If she could somehow get to it she was confident that even in her weakened state, she could brain that psychotic nurse with it.
    On another wall was a picture of her with her late husband, Walt. He was in a business suit and they were at a conference in New York hosted by Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X’s widow. He had been such a handsome man then. Tall and strong with a big barrel chest and thick arms. She’d always felt so safe in his arms. She wished that he were here now to protect her, but he’d long ago fallen victim to the streets. He’d gotten hooked on heroin during his tour in Vietnam like so many of the young men from her generation. He’d OD’d not long after Tonya was born. Now Adelle was alone except for her daughter and she would not be back to see her for at least another twenty-four hours, maybe even a few days. She doubted Tonya would be calling anytime soon either, because she knew that Adelle was having difficulty speaking and even if she did, Adelle was sure the nurse would intercept it. That meant that at least for the next twenty-four hours she was all on her own.
    Adelle pulled a bobby pin out of her hair. It wasn’t much of a weapon, but it was something. She bent it and then raised it to her lips and began trying to gnaw off the little rubber bulbs on the ends of the metal pin. Her jaw muscles wouldn’t work right so it took her almost twenty minutes to finally get the rubber off. She was sweating and tired by the time she’d managed to chew off the ends and straighten it out. She hid it back in her hair and felt only slightly safer. She continued looking around the room for something else she could use. Everything was too far away from her, impossible to get to. She remembered Tonya telling her she’d moved her guns and wished now she hadn’t done so.
    Five days until the next nurse came. Adelle wasn’t sure she could make it. Her only hope was that her daughter would check on her soon. Adelle wasn’t afraid of the nurse’s threat of retaliation. Once Tonya got wind of what was going on, this woman would be in jail, if not in the hospital herself. Tonya had grown up on these streets as well, and no matter how much she’d gotten used to her cushy life in the suburbs, when she got mad all the street came right back to the surface. Adelle smiled as she thought of what Tonya could do to Natsinet. It was her only comfort in what she knew would be a long night.
    Natsinet came back into the room with a syringe and Adelle’s eyes widened as the nurse grabbed her left arm, jerked it out straight and jabbed the needle into the vein on the inside of her elbow in one swift move.
    “Naaaaa! Naaarrrgh!” Adelle tried to grab the woman’s wrist with her good hand but it too felt weak and helpless. She tried to swing her fist at her and received a hard smack across the face for her efforts that made her vision cloud and her pulse race dangerously high. She was suddenly afraid of having another stroke.
    The nurse swatted Adelle’s hand away and pushed the plunger down on the syringe. Moments later Adelle felt a warmth spreading up her arm, then she began to feel dizzy. She pulled the straightened bobby pin out of her hair and jabbed it at Natsinet but the woman was no longer sitting on her bed and the pin stabbed into thin air then tumbled from her fingers onto the floor. There was a satisfied look on the nurse’s face that convinced Adelle that she would probably not be waking up. She said a silent prayer for her daughter as she drifted away. And a wish that Natsinet would be made to pay for her death.
* * *
    Sunlight pierced between the blinds on the windows, illuminating the bits of dust in the air, making them look almost beautiful. Adelle could tell by the angle the sun struck her windowsill that it was past eight o’clock in the morning. She normally woke up no later than six am. She’d overslept.
    Adelle tried to rise and was momentarily confused when her left arm refused to cooperate; it felt as if it weren’t even attached to her, as if she’d fallen asleep on it and squashed all the blood out of it. Only there wasn’t that pins and needles sensation she normally got when she slept wrong, this was just numbness and weakness as if there were no strength at all in her muscles. She tried to push herself up with her right arm and pain shot through her shoulder, collapsing her back down to the bed.
    What the hell is wrong with me?
    Then she slowly remembered where she was, what had happened to her. The hospital, the ambulance, and then waking up with that psychotic nurse. Her cheek hurt where the nurse had struck her and her right shoulder cried out in pain. She was in danger. More danger than she had ever been in on the streets, or even back during the civil rights marches confronting police officers with attack dogs, clubs, and guns. This woman was in her own home and for the first time in her life, Adelle was practically helpless. There was nowhere for her to go, nothing she could do.
    At least I’m still alive.
    When the nurse injected her last night Adelle had been sure she’d been poisoned.
    She looked over on the nightstand and instinctively reached for the phone to call her daughter. The phone was gone. Ripped out of the wall. Adelle vaguely remembered the nurse throwing the phone across the room last night in her rage. It would be no use to her anyway. Her tongue still lolled uselessly in her mouth and her jaw on the left side hung down, the muscles unresponsive. She wasn’t sure how she’d even manage to chew her food without it spilling out of her mouth, let alone tell anyone what was going on, even if she had a phone.
    Natsinet bounded into the room bubbling with enthusiasm as she brought Adelle her breakfast. “Good morning, Mrs. Smith. How are we this morning?”
    Adelle’s eyes narrowed in suspicion as she looked from Natsinet to the plate of warm oatmeal she held. The Nurse’s demeanor had completely changed. The woman she met yesterday had been sullen and dangerous like a viper coiled and waiting to strike. There’d been no warmth in her at all. Seeing the woman flitting about opening the drapes and smiling ear to ear was disconcerting. It made Adelle even more convinced that the woman was crazy.
    “I know I came down a bit hard on you yesterday and I apologize. It seems I’m going to be with you for quite a while. The doctor says that it could be six weeks, six months, or even six years before you regain your strength. Something else my agency forgot to tell me about, like the fact that your speech was impaired and that you were more than just slightly paralyzed on your left side. They said you can use a walker to get around. Can you?’
    Adelle shook her head slowly, still staring at the woman perplexed, trying to figure out if she was serious.
    “That’s what I thought.”
    Adelle noticed just the slightest glimmer of anger flash in the nurse’s eyes before she pulled her mask back into place.
    “We might as well learn to get along, then. I’ll help you get back up on your feet, because the sooner I do that, the sooner I can get out of this hell-hole. You wanted physical therapy? Well, you’re going to get it. I warn you, though. I’m not going to take it easy on you. The doctor said that you’ll be able to walk using a walker in six to eight weeks with intensive physical therapy. He gave me a whole series of exercises he wants me to put you through three times a week, but I’m thinking more like twice a day. I don’t have time to waste while you lie around in bed all day. And I’m adding a few exercises of my own as well.”
    Adelle didn’t like the sound of that at all. She motioned for a pen and paper. Natsinet reached into a drawer by the nightstand and handed them to her.
    “When did the doctor come?” she wrote.
    “While you were sleeping. I gave you a mild sedative after you passed out so that you could get a good rest, and then I called the doctor. I told him about how you’d fallen out of bed. That old bastard had the nerve to look at me like it was my fault. It isn’t my fault that you’re so clumsy. I know it isn’t your fault, either. You’re paralyzed. Not your fault, is it?”
    Adelle shook her head.
    “Or maybe it is. Maybe your stroke was the result of poor circulation, arteries clogged with fat from not exercising and eating fried chicken and pork. In which case your clumsiness is your fault, now isn’t it?”
    Adelle shook her head vehemently and scribbled furiously in her pad. “Your fault! I didn’t fall. You pushed me! You hit me!!!”
    Natsinet snatched the pad out of Adelle’s hand and tore it to shreds. Adelle winced, afraid the woman would strike her again.
    “I told you not to spread lies! How are we going to get along if you keep lying like that?”
    Adelle stared at the woman, trying to figure out if she was really crazy, if she really didn’t remember punching her in the face and yanking her out of her bed onto the floor. There was a smirk on the nurse’s face. That told Adelle all she needed to know. The woman wasn’t crazy, at least not that way. She remembered everything she’d done to her. She was just playing with her, enjoying the power she held over her, trying to mess with Adelle’s mind. No, not crazy. Evil.
    Not evil either. Adelle reminded herself. People aren’t evil. They may be misguided, confused, hurting, mentally or emotionally impaired, but not evil. There’s a reason she’s doing this, a reason that makes sense only to her.
    “Oh, your daughter stopped by also, but you were sleeping and I told her it was best not to disturb you. Too bad you missed her. She said she’ll be back to visit again this weekend. She’s got some big project she’s working on at her job. But she promised to call every day to check on your progress. I’ll make sure to keep her well informed.”
    When the nurse smiled it looked to Adelle like one of those vampires in the horror movies baring her fangs. Natsinet dipped a spoon into the oatmeal and shoved it into Adelle’s mouth, pushing it all the way to the back of her mouth. The warm lump clogged her throat. Adelle almost suffocated as she tried to force her partially paralyzed mouth to chew before she gagged on the food. As soon as she swallowed and sucked in a big lungful of air another thick spoonful was jammed into her mouth.
    Oh Jesus, give me strength. Help me, Lord.
    Adelle gagged and choked several times as Natsinet continued to shovel the tasteless gruel into her mouth. When Adelle wretched and regurgitated most of what she had eaten, the nurse stormed angrily out of the room. It was several hours before she returned and by then the room smelled rancid, sickening sweet from the putrefying vomit.
    “It smells like a pigsty in here!” Natsinet announced, curling up her nose and covering it with her sleeve. “I guess I’d better clean you up a bit before we begin physical therapy.”
    Natsinet grabbed the soiled sheets and jerked hard, dumping Adelle onto the floor again. Ignoring Adelle as the old woman rolled back and forth on the floor moaning in pain, Natsinet stripped the bed and left the room to toss the bedding into the washing machine down the hall.
    Adelle tried to crawl. Her shoulder was screaming in pain but she ignored it. Her right leg felt strong but, with her left arm useless and her right shoulder injured, she couldn’t even manage to push herself up to all fours. She fell over onto her back, letting out another hoarse yelp as her head struck the thinly-carpeted floor. She’d never felt so helpless in her life. She began to weep silently, hating herself for it, feeling even more miserable and useless with each tear. When she looked up, Natsinet was standing in the doorway staring down at her.
    “You’re pathetic. Is there any wonder why the White man has been kicking your people in the ass for the last four hundred years?”
    There she goes with that “Your people” thing again. Distancing herself from me. Trying to dehumanize me. Marking me as something other than herself, something she won’t feel guilty about torturing or even killing.
    “Well, let’s get you cleaned up.”
    The nurse reached down and grabbed a handful of Adelle’s hair, which was still long and thick despite being almost completely grey. She began dragging Adelle across the room into the adjoining bathroom. Adelle had to use her right arm with the injured shoulder and her good leg to scramble as best she could to keep from getting her hair pulled out by the roots. Several times she fell flat onto her face. Blood trickled from her nostrils and she was panting heavily when she finally made it into the bathroom and Natsinet dumped her into the tub.
    “Sorry about that, but your hair was the only thing on you that wasn’t filthy.”
    Adelle had no more energy to fight back as she was manhandled out of her nightgown. When Natsinet turned the showerhead on full blast and the cold water struck her, Adelle’s breath once again caught in her throat. The nurse tossed her from one humiliating position to the next as she scrubbed her skin raw with a coarse brush like the kind Adelle’s mother had once scrubbed floors with in the White folk’s houses she cleaned for a living, using it even in areas so tender that they swelled and bled as the rough bristles scoured the delicate flesh and Adelle cried out in anguish. The water quickly went from cold to scalding hot and Natsinet made sure that she exposed every inch of Adelle’s skin to the searing spray.
    Finally, after what seemed like hours, the water stopped. Adelle could sense Natsinet looking down at her. “There. All clean now. So, can you manage to crawl your lazy ass out of that tub and over to your bed or do I have to drag you again?”
    The nurse was standing above her, tapping her orthopedic white shoes impatiently as Adelle pulled herself out of the tub and then inched across the floor on her belly using only one arm and leg to propel herself forward, adding rug burns to the abrasions caused by the scrub brush. By the time she’d made it back to the bed she was sure that she was going to have another stroke or a heart attack. She was also sure that this was exactly what Natsinet was hoping for. No one would question it if an old woman, who had already suffered a stroke, died of another. There would be no coroner’s inquest, no autopsy at all. Adelle closed her eyes and fought like hell to get her breathing and heart rate back under control. She refused to go out that easily.
    “I don’t suppose you can make it back into your bed now, can you? That’s okay, we’ll work on that soon. Now go ahead and catch your breath. I’ll be right back.”
    Natsinet left, once again leaving Adelle huddled on the floor in misery. This time Adelle had no strength within her to attempt any type of escape. She was so tired and sore. She just wanted to sleep. Her eyes closed and her head began to nod against her chest. She was fast asleep when the nurse returned.
    “Wake up! Time for your physical therapy.”
    Natsinet knelt down and gathered Adelle in her arms. Adelle’s mouth was inches from the nurse’s neck and she was calculating whether she had the strength to rip out the woman’s carotid artery with her jaw partially paralyzed. She doubted it. In all likelihood it would do nothing but earn her another beating, or worse. Natsinet tossed Adelle down roughly on the bed and eyed her suspiciously, as if she were somehow aware of what Adelle had been thinking.
    Natsinet began with some light physiotherapy, lifting Adelle’s limbs and rotating the joints through their full range of motion. Taking her time, and with surprising patience, she guided each limb through several repetitive movements and stretches. She then asked Adelle to wiggle her fingers and toes while she pressed against them providing a counterforce to intensify each muscle contraction.
    “These are the therapy techniques your doctor recommended. Conductive Education, a type of physiotherapy where we use repetitive movements to help reeducate your brain on how to use the muscles, hopefully creating new neuropathways in the brain to replace the ones blocked by the stroke. And Muscle Energy techniques utilizing a voluntary contraction of the patient’s muscles, like the one you use to wiggle your fingers and toes, against a controlled counterforce like the resistance of my hand on your fingers. These are all great techniques, and if they work you can expect to see results in as little as two weeks. They say that pretty much whatever movement you recover in the first thirty days is all you will ever recover. That’s why I’ve decided to try a new technique.”
    Natsinet reached into her purse and pulled out a small black plastic box with prongs sticking out of the top of it. Adelle recognized it almost immediately. It was one of those stun guns they sold at Army surplus stores and gun shops for self-defense. She’d carried one herself once. Natsinet tapped the trigger on the side of the little box and an arc of electricity crackled between the prongs.
    “It’s called electromyographic triggered Neuro-muscular Electrical Stimulation. It’s like Electro Convulsive therapy for the muscles. Usually it’s done with a Stem device and low grade electricity, not the 700,000 volts that this little thing is capable of. But I figure the more electricity the better and quicker the results.
    “See, electromyographic signals are electrical impulses originating in the brain and transported via nerve cells to the muscles. These signals cause the muscles to contract. When you have a stroke, the parts of the brain that send and receive these signals no longer function properly, resulting in paralysis of the muscles. During Neuromuscular Electrical Stimulation, an electrical impulse is passed from a device such as this little stun gun placed on the skin over a targeted muscle or muscle group. The stimulation causes the muscles to contract. This type of stroke treatment is used to re-learn which part of the brain to activate and to re-develop spontaneous muscle control. It’s actually quite effective, though undoubtedly painful.”
    Adelle shook her head, panicked at the idea of being shocked with a taser gun. Natsinet pressed the trigger on the stun gun again and the blue-white burst of electricity cracked between the electrodes, leaving a burning scent in the air. Adelle tried to scramble away. Adrenalin dumped into her bloodstream, giving her a momentary burst of energy that she quickly wasted trying to scamper away on her two good limbs, leaving her once again exhausted. The nurse smiled at her, watching Adelle’s pathetic attempt to save herself with perverse amusement.
    “Now where do you think you’re going? Believe me, this is for your own good.”
    Adelle was nearly blind with panic, heart thundering in her chest, short shallow breaths bursting from her lungs as she hyperventilated. She threw her good arm over her head to protect it from any electroshocks.
    Natsinet smiled.
    “Oh, don’t worry. I won’t be sending any shocks through your skull. That’s not how it works. At least, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.” Then she shoved the two electrodes against the naked skin of the old woman’s left leg, and pulled the trigger.
    Perhaps it was worse because she was still wet from the bath. Perhaps it would have felt the same had she been dry. Adelle wasn’t sure. All she knew was that all the muscles in her body suddenly felt as if they had a will of their own.
    She began to convulse almost immediately as pain tore through her nervous system, every muscle contracting involuntarily, causing her to thrash and flail like a fish on a hook. It was like having some type of painful orgasm. It felt as if her nerves were on fire.
    Adelle’s left leg where Natsinet held the stun gun kicked straight out. Her right leg did the same. Her arms went rigid and her fingers clenched. Her teeth ground against each other and her bowels released a flood of excrement. The pain was too great for Adelle to care.
    The nurse was staring at Adelle’s legs. Watching with clinical detachment as the muscles contracted and her legs kicked.
    “So, I guess you can move those legs after all.”
    Natsinet held the trigger for a mere ten seconds but it felt like a lifetime. When she released the trigger, Adelle was breathing like she’d just run a marathon. Her eyes rolled up in her head and her tongue lolled stupidly from her open mouth, drool running down her chin. It took almost another five minutes for Adelle to regain control of her senses.
    “Here’s the good news. Both of your legs moved when the electrical current went through you, which means that there’s nothing wrong with the muscles, but I think we already knew that. It’s the signal from your brain that just isn’t getting to them. But we can retrain the other parts of your brain to take over the job of the parts that are damaged. I know a great technique for that. Here’s the bad news.”
    She touched the stun gun to Adelle’s left arm and pulled the trigger.
    This time Adelle let out a scream. Nothing long or protracted. It was short, truncated by the electricity, which quickly immobilized her larynx. Her arms shot into the air as the muscles contracted. Her legs kicked out again and once more her bowels voided onto the carpet. Adelle passed out. Each time she awoke, Natsinet was still standing above her with the stun gun to shock her again. Adelle wasn’t certain how long the treatment continued, but when she awoke the last time it was dark and Natsinet was gone.
    The nurse must have lifted her when she was unconscious because she was once again in her bed, but the treatment had continued after she’d been lifted. Her sheets were saturated with urine and sweat. The room stank of excrement. Adelle knew that it was her own feces she smelled. She felt utterly humiliated. Her muscles ached as if she’d just been put through some vigorous weight-training program. Still, she was alive. The bitch hadn’t killed her. Not yet.
    Adelle’s stomach growled and she realized she hadn’t eaten anything since the oatmeal early that morning. She was thirsty as well. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been given anything to drink and knew that with all she’d perspired, and with the urine she’d lost, there was a real danger of dehydration. But she certainly didn’t want to call for any food or water. She didn’t want Natsinet to know she was awake. Instead she sat quietly in the dark trying to find a comfortable position in her urine-soaked bed.
    Her skin ached from rug burns and abrasions from the scrub brush and her own piss was now stinging her skin. She was afraid that she would get some kind of infection from it, then remembered that her husband Walt had once told her that urine was often used as an antibiotic in the jungles of Vietnam to fight off jungle rot. Still, it felt to her like she was getting the equivalent of a diaper rash, which increased her humiliation. She prayed that her daughter would be there in the morning and have this woman locked up. She fell asleep dreaming of Natsinet strapped to a gurney receiving a lethal injection while she and her daughter watched from the gallery. She had a smile on her face as she slept.

Chapter Nine

    The first thing Adelle was aware of when she came awake was the pins and needles feeling in her right arm and shoulder.
    Then, the pain.
    She came awake suddenly, the sunlight streaming in through the blinds in her bedroom stabbing into her eyes. She tried to move and felt the rough texture of the restraints that bound her right arm to the bed’s armrest. With that came the sensation of dampness settling beneath her buttocks, her lower back, and the back of her upper thighs.
    She’d wet herself again.
    Natsinet breezed in the room, her features all business.
    “Up and at ‘em. We’ve gotta get you out of this bed and get those sheets changed.”
    Natsinet released the belts she’d used to bind Adelle’s right arm to the guardrail and set them on a chair. As the nurse helped Adelle out of the bed and into the wheelchair, she felt a flare of burning pain at the small of her back.
    “When I’m finished changing the sheets I’ll give you a sponge bath and get you into a fresh gown.”
    Adelle allowed herself to be helped into a sitting position in the wheelchair and wheeled out of the room. Now that she had the unrestricted use of her right arm again, she began thinking of a way to use it to get out of here.
    Natsinet hummed a tune to herself as she stripped the bed. Adelle cast her eyes around the living room, looking for a heavy, solid object she could use to bash the nurse in the head with. The past five days had been an exercise in physical and mental torture. After using the stun gun, Natsinet had followed up on the so-called physical therapy the following morning by binding Adelle’s right arm to the guard rail and tying both her legs down to the bed to inhibit movement in her right side, which had been relatively unaffected by the stroke. This was called constraint-induced movement therapy, Natsinet said. The key was to limit movement of the unaffected part of a stroke patient’s body, restraining it if necessary, and encourage the patient to move those limbs affected in the stroke. This form of exercise rewired the brain, and Natsinet told her that it was a common therapy to help stroke patients regain the use of the parts of the body rendered partially paralyzed. For the first few hours of the therapy Adelle believed her. Natsinet sat on the edge of the bed and moved her left arm for her through a series of rotations and exercises. Then she encouraged Adelle to lift her arm. Adelle tried; she summoned all her strength, all her energy, and thought she detected a tiny hint of movement in her fingers, but that was it.
    When Natsinet pulled out the cigarette lighter and ignited it, making a nice flame with a spin of the wheel, she had that look in her face again. The look she wore that first day. That look of evil.
    “How about you move that arm now?” Natsinet asked as she moved the flame close to Adelle’s forearm.
    Adelle had felt the heat of the flame as it grew close to her skin and she felt herself panic. Get that thing away from me!
    Despite the fact that she’d lost the power to move her left side, her nerves were still functioning. She could still feel pain.
    “Come on, Mrs. Smith,” Natsinet said, bringing the flame of the lighter within kissing distance of her arm. “Move your arm away from the flame.”
    Adelle tried to. And as she summoned the strength to move her arm she thought, you wouldn’t dare burn me, you bitch!
    But Natsinet did.
    She’d burned Adelle several times throughout the course of the past five days. She also utilized the stun gun. There were faint first-degree burns along her left arm, torso, and down her left leg, each in various stages of healing. Her muscles ached from the electricity that had been pumped into her nervous system from the stun gun. Each time Natsinet came in to her room to begin therapy, Adelle would try to yell for help and get away but she couldn’t. With her right side firmly secured, she couldn’t fight back. All she could do was try to move the stroke-affected part of her body away from the pain. Trying to do so in her condition was physically exhausting. At the end of these so-called therapy sessions she was drenched in sweat and urine, her heart racing with panic.
    Natsinet always left her to lie in her sweat and urine sodden clothes. Today was the first day in almost a week she was able to get out of them and get cleaned up.
    The burns itched more than hurt now and she refrained from scratching them. She also felt an itching pain along her lower back and buttocks, primarily where her urine had pooled on the bed. Please God, I hope I’m not getting bedsores, Adelle thought. In her condition, infected bedsores could be lethal.
    Natsinet gathered the sheets and placed them on the floor. Then she wheeled Adelle into the bathroom, helped her out of her clothes, and gently assisted her out of the wheelchair. Her touch was sensitive, caring; the way a nurse’s touch should be. She guided Adelle to the closed toilet seat and helped her sit down on it. Adelle didn’t feel the least bit embarrassed by her nakedness around the Natsinet. All of her humility had been beaten out of her over the past five days and modesty at this point would have been meaningless.
    Natsinet turned the water in the bathtub on and let it run warm.
    “I have a fresh change of bed clothes for you,” she said. “First I’ll give you a sponge bath, okay?”
    Adelle nodded.
    As Natsinet bathed her Adelle listened to the woman talk. She had no idea what was going on in her mind, but she realized the best course of action was to observe her quietly. Let her think she was being submissive, convince her that she had accepted her fate.
    Adelle had read about kidnap victims who were held in long periods of captivity that came down with something known as ‘Stockholm Syndrome’, in which the victim came to see the kidnapper as their guardian, somebody they could trust. The kidnapper usually let their guard down around this time. That’s how Patty Hearst had finally escaped from the Symbionese Liberation Army. If Adelle could get Natsinet to let down her guard, maybe she’d be strong enough to do something like knock the bitch upside her head and get the hell out of there.
    “You’ll have a nurse come in this weekend, starting this afternoon,” Natsinet said, rubbing the warm sponge down her back. The bathroom floor was damp with soapy water.
    “Once we have you cleaned up and refreshed you’ll have your meds and I’ll straighten up around here. I’ll only be gone two days, so—”
    Adelle looked at Natsinet, a questioning look in her eye. Two days? I thought you were going to be gone a whole week?
    “Oh yes, only two days,” Natsinet said, smiling. “I arranged it with Hospice Nursing. I don’t want anyone else interfering with our program. We’ve been making such great progress together don’t you think?”
    Are you out of your mind?
    Adelle could only look at Natsinet with a sense of mind-numbing horror.
    Natsinet continued washing Adelle, pausing every so often to rinse out the sponge.
    “Do you know what it’s like to grow up as the child of a so-called mixed race marriage, Mrs. Smith? It can be a blessing and a curse, depending on how you deal with it. I admit, sometimes I didn’t deal with it very well. I let those…feelings…that anger…simmer for a long time. My father was a physician in Eritrea. My mother was a missionary, from Philadelphia. Her family came to this country from Scotland two hundred years ago. She met my father while she was in Eritrea and she was enchanted with him. They conceived me before they married, and my father emigrated here. Despite his medical training, he was unable to practice medicine in this country. He found work as a…in a less prestigious position. I was raised in the suburbs and I still remember the look people gave us when we were anywhere in public—the mall, a grocery store, the movie theater. They were subtle, disapproving glances. Even though they didn’t outright say it, I could feel what they were thinking: what was that Black man, that African, doing with a White woman?”
    Adelle was stunned. She didn’t know how to react. Of course, she’d heard similar stories from mixed race couples and had always had an answer for them; you followed Malcolm X’s advice: be polite, be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone lays their hand on you, send them to the cemetery. She’d always empathized with the struggles of mixed-race children. But things were different now. She was incapacitated. And she was at the mercy of a woman who was obviously very disturbed. She didn’t care what this bitch had gone through as a child. She just wanted her dead.
    “Some of the White kids at school called me nigger and my mother taught me to never take that kind of shit,” Natsinet continued. “I had my share of fights in school. In time, they left me alone.”
    Adelle could see herself saying, good for you if she had her speech. Instead she could only nod.
    “Needless to say, the adult world is no better. Sometimes, I think it’s worse.”
    Natsinet finished with Adelle’s sponge bath. She draped a fresh towel over her, drying her off.
    “I figured that my mind and my education would help me reach my goals. That the color of my skin would never be a burden to achieving my dreams. I learned the hard way that even a woman with my mixed heritage will still have problems assimilating in society. Hard to believe that this kind of mentality persists in this day and age, doesn’t it? But it does, and I suppose it isn’t as prevalent as it was maybe twenty or thirty years ago, but it’s still there. I was determined that nothing was going to hold me back. And you know what?” She crouched down in front of Adelle, gently drying her arms. The nurse’s demeanor was almost sunny, friendly. “Nothing did because I didn’t let it. Yes, I faced discrimination a few times, but I never let that stop me. I can’t change the mind of the willfully ignorant. But I can change my world, and choose to associate with those of like minds. I could choose to make something of myself and fight for my rights no matter what. And that’s what I did. I didn’t let anybody stop me. I went to college and got my nursing degree. And then the first job I got was at an inner city hospital, as an ER nurse watching the dregs of society come in after they’d mangled each other in fights and robberies and getting messed up on drugs and then…it just became…all…too…much.”
    She leaned toward Adelle and there was that fire in her eyes now. That spark that told her the crazy part of Natsinet was about to come out.
    “So many great things have taken place because of leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King. So much advancement has been undertaken in race relations. Hell, look at the Asians in this country? They were slaves during and after the Civil War, Mrs. Smith. Now look at them; they own half the businesses in this country. They’re all computer scientists and doctors. Hispanics are the largest growing minority group in this country, and one of them is the Attorney General of this country while another one wants to run for president. Even Black people are doing better. There are more Black-owned business now, more Black people are getting advanced degrees and making something of themselves. Yet some people,” she emphasized the word some by glaring at Adelle, “will say we’re selling out to the White man. Some people give those that still may hold a tiny spark of racism and ignorant prejudice in their minds excuse to believe that we never should’ve been given the same rights as everyone else. I mean, look at the shit hole you’re living in? You think this is the White man’s fault? You think the White man is keeping these people in this shitty section of town? You think the White man created these living conditions? Bullshit! But that’s all I hear on the news whenever something fucked up happens down here. You yell and scream the loudest, blame it all on the White man. I don’t hear Native Americans complain about the shit holes they live in. You ever been on an Indian reservation, Mrs. Smith? You should sometime. It’s like driving through this neighborhood. No, I take that back. It’s worse.”
    Adelle didn’t know what point Natsinet was trying to make, but she’d been through Indian reservations before. And yes, some of the living conditions were deplorable. That, she agreed with Natsinet on. As to the rest of it, the woman was on some kind of ramble that Adelle could not make heads or tails out of.
    “I guess what I’m trying to say is you spend all that time fighting for your rights, downright demanding them, going to jail for them, and then things in society change and what happens? You’re still here, in this filthy neighborhood. The police still run through here kicking down doors and cracking heads. There’s still drugs and prostitution on every corner. And these people,” She gestured around the bathroom, as if indicating the area and the apartments outside, “they choose to stay here. Yeah, some of them can’t afford to leave, but those that can…they stay! Why do they stay? It’s like they like living this way. It’s like they enjoy the crime and the filth. And why do they steal from each other, and sell each other drugs and sell the bodies of their women and daughters to each other? Tell me that? That’s why I get those looks from White people. They are looking at me and seeing you! That’s why my childhood was so fucked up. Because they thought I was just another crying, begging, stealing, lazy-ass nigger like the rest of you.”
    If Adelle were on top of herself in mind and body, she would have shot to her feet with an angry retort. Now she could only run her reply over in her head as she sat mute.
     You think they have a choice? Most of these people are struggling just to afford the places they have now! You think they can just up and move to a nicer neighborhood? How the hell are they going to afford the rents? You try scrounging up first, last, and a deposit on minimum wage! These people are trapped! Trapped in the welfare system, trapped in low paying jobs, trapped by inadequate educations. Where the hell are they going to go? Goddammit, the reason I stay here is to provide an inspiration for those that do have a chance to leave! I stay here because I want to help them get out! And I do help them get out! For every goddamn drug dealer out selling crack, I steer five other kids on to college and a life out of the streets. That’s why I stay!
    “You don’t have an answer for that do you?”
    Adelle could only grunt, trying to force the words out. “Grrrrr…”
    “No, that’s okay.” Natsinet silenced her by placing a finger over Adelle’s lips. “Come on, let’s get some fresh clothes on you.”
    Natsinet helped Adelle into the living room and dressed her in a fresh pair of clothes. It was the first time in more than a week that Adelle had sat in her own living room. Her mind was racing again with a plan of escape as Natsinet quickly put fresh sheets on her bed. She was still trying to figure out what kind of trauma the nurse might have gone through as a child to make her bottle up all that hostility and anger, all of that self-loathing. Natsinet had definitely suffered some sort of blow against her racial identity while growing up, something that affected her self-image drastically but that she’d kept hidden, buried for all these years. And it had started to come bubbling to the surface while she was working in the ER.
    It was obvious she’d had a good life in her formative years. It sounded like she never made the attempt to know other Black people, especially those of lower income. Natsinet’s racial hatred was even worse than some of the White people she’d met during her Civil Rights marches thirty years ago, the ones who had thrown eggs and rocks and bottles at her and hurled disgusting and degrading racial epithets at her. It seemed Natsinet identified more with her mother’s side, her White side, than her Black side, though she seemed to have no problem with Black people who were successful in assimilating with White society.
    But there was something else…something Adelle couldn’t quite put her finger on, something that was deeply wrong about the nurse, something that convinced Adelle that if she didn’t somehow escape from this woman her life would be in serious jeopardy.
    Natsinet came to collect Adelle just as she was gathering up the willpower and the strength to hobble over to the end table to pick up a picture frame—it was heavy enough to crack a skull with. Instead, Natsinet helped her up and got her back into bed. Adelle felt better being in bed with fresh sheets, a fresh pillowcase supporting her head.
    “Now remember,” Natsinet said, standing at Adelle’s left side. The nurse took her arm and with one swift move pushed her sleeve up and gave her an injection with a syringe she’d had hidden below her line of sight. “If you say anything about what happened, they won’t believe you. The sleeves of your gown will hide the worst of the burns. Besides, they’ll likely be gone by tomorrow.”
    No, Adelle thought, already feeling her consciousness slip away.
    “I’ll see you when you wake up,” Natsinet said, smiling.
    Wake up?
    And then, darkness.

Chapter Ten

    “So, you’re saying she has an infection?”
    “It’s nothing serious,” Rachael Williams said. She was the backup nurse Hospice Nursing had sent and she was standing in the kitchen with Tonya going over her mother’s chart. It was Saturday afternoon, nearly one week after mother had come home. Tonya had dropped by last night and this afternoon to see mother, but both times Adelle had been asleep.
    “She has a fever of a hundred and one. Natsinet said she started coming down with it yesterday morning.”
    “Yeah, but…she’s been sleeping an awful lot.”
    “Your mother needs her rest,” Rachael said. Unlike Natsinet, Tonya felt good about Rachael the minute she’d met her. Tonya had stopped by last night with her daughter Tess and she’d immediately gotten a warm feeling from the woman. Rachael was in her mid-thirties, with a full figure that could only be termed voluptuous. She wore her hair straight. Her skin tone was a rich dark chocolate.
    “She was up briefly last night around two-thirty and asked for a drink of water, then went back to sleep.”
    “Was she up this morning?”
    “For a moment. She asked for a pen and paper and tried writing something down, but her penmanship…the medication Dr. Albright prescribed will make her sleepy.”
    “What medication is this?”
    Rachael told her and Tonya could only shake her head. Her mother was on so many medications now it was hard to keep them straight. She would have to talk to Dr. Albright herself.
    “So…when do you think she’ll come around?” Tonya asked.
    “Probably later this evening. Just in time for her next dose.”
    “My God!”
    “I know. But the infection should be gone by Monday morning. After that, Natsinet can resume your mother’s physical therapy.”
    “How did that go, by the way?”
    “According to Natsinet’s notes, very well.” Rachael gave Tonya a rundown of the physical therapy and her mother’s progress, telling her to keep in mind that it could be another six weeks before they saw any real progress. “That’s probably part of the reason why I couldn’t make out your mother’s handwriting. Natsinet said the physical therapy would make her tired.”
    “I hope she isn’t over-exerting my mother,” Tonya said.
    Rachael smiled. “Not at all, Mrs. Brown. I see no signs of that. Your mother’s doing really quite well.”
    Tonya relaxed. Yes, her mother was doing well. Both times she’d gone into her room to see her, momma had been fast asleep. She didn’t look as sick or as wasted away or old as she did when she was in the hospital. She wondered if the physical therapy was having an affect on her mother’s overall physical appearance. Still, she wished she could talk to her mother, to spend even a few minutes with her, to hear from momma herself.
    “You know, I think I’m going to spend the night. I want to be here when my mother wakes up.” She walked back into her mother’s room and pulled a chair over to her bedside. Rachael followed her. “I just think I should be here for her. I feel like she needs me.” She stroked her mother’s hair and rubbed her palm against the smooth skin of her forehead. It was hot to the touch. Her mother stirred in her sleep but remained unconscious.
    “Oh, that’s fine of course. You can stay in my room if you like and I can sleep on the couch.”
    “No, that’s alright. You keep your room. I want to be right here beside my mother in case she wakes up in the middle of the night or something.”
    Rachael nodded.
    “Well, how about I gather up some blankets and pillows and make you a nice bed here on the floor?”
    “I’d appreciate that.”
    Rachael turned to leave.
    “What do you think of Natsinet? I mean…she seem kinda cold to you? You know…sort of unfriendly?”
    “I think that’s just how they are where she’s from. I don’t really know her that well. She’s new to the agency. But she’s one of the most qualified nurses we have. Overqualified actually. I don’t know why anyone with a Bachelor’s degree in Medicine and four years in the ER would want to do this for a living. I mean, I love my job, but it seems like she should want to go to medical school or something, get her MD and start practicing. Her family has the money to send her, or so I hear. I did hear that she got burnt out working in the ER. Maybe she’s just taking a little break. I know I couldn’t do that job. All that blood and screaming and little kids dying in your arms. I couldn’t do it.” She shook her head, “I mean, when people die in our care it’s after they’ve lived long lives. Not unexpectedly when they’re still young with their lives ahead of them. Most of the people in hospice care just go quietly in their sleep and it’s no real surprise to anyone. Oh…I didn’t mean…”
    “That’s okay. I know what you meant.”
    “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be talking about dying with your mother. She’s fine though. She’s got plenty of good years ahead of her. Uh…I’ll go get those sheets.”
    “Thank you, Rachael.”
    Tonya knew the woman meant no harm. Still, the last thing she needed to be reminded of was her mother’s mortality. She adjusted the covers around her mother to make sure she was comfortable. She had to admit, her mother did look rather peaceful and relaxed. She even seemed to be losing weight. Not so much that it was alarming, but just enough to make her look a little younger and healthier. Everyone she spoke to about Natsinet assured her that the woman knew what she was doing. Maybe she was just worrying for nothing. Just to be certain, Tonya wanted to make sure she was here when her mother awoke. It might be next weekend before she could make it out to see her again and she wanted to make sure she was okay.
    “Mrs. Brown?”
    Rachael had poked her head back into the room and was looking sheepishly at the floor.
    “Yes, Rachael?”
    Rachael looked away from the floor, as if she was finally summoning up the courage to say what she wanted to say. “I just wanted to say how proud I am to be taking care of your mother. I met her once, you know? She came to my high school the year I graduated. She gave a speech on how we should all continue our educations and go to college. How we could be anything we wanted to be, have everything we ever dreamed of if we were just willing to work hard for it and carry ourselves like respectable young men and women and not get involved in drugs or start dropping out of school and having babies. She told us that we had a duty to our ancestors to better ourselves. We owed it to all of those who struggled and died so that we could be free and have all the rights we now took for granted. I still think about what she said sometimes. When I was going through nursing school and trying to raise my two sons by myself at the same time and it was so hard I just wanted to quit, I kept thinking about what your mother said about us having a duty to all those who died in the struggle. It kept me going. I-I just wanted to say that.”
    The nurse ducked back out of the room and Tonya turned back to stare at her mother. The woman had touched so many lives. Tonya didn’t know what she would do without her. She wished that Rachael could be there with her all the time. There was something about that other nurse, Natsinet, she just did not trust.

Chapter Eleven

    Adelle could not tell whether she was awake or still dreaming. She couldn’t seem to focus. She felt delirious, dizzy. Everything seemed blurry as if she were looking at the room through a pair of glasses with the wrong prescription. Adelle felt like she was drunk or high, neither of which she’d been since the seventies. Her eyelids were heavy and all she wanted to do was close them again.
    There was someone in the room with her and Adelle tried to focus on the person, hoping it was the doctor, or the new nurse, or maybe even Tonya, her torment finally over.
    “Momma? Momma, are you awake? It’s me, Tonya. Can you hear me Momma?”
    Adelle nodded her head and gestured for a pen and paper. Then her head dropped and her eyes closed and she had to force herself to wake back up.
    What the hell is wrong with me? Why am I so tired? Why can’t I focus on anything?
    Somehow, Natsinet was still keeping her drugged even when she wasn’t there. She must have switched the pills in her prescription bottles, substituting some kind of narcotic for her normal medication. Adelle’s eyes closed again.
    “Momma? You still awake? Here’s your pen and paper.”
    Adelle snapped awake again but the fog was still in her head, clouding her thoughts. Her eyes remained closed when Tonya slipped the pen into her hand. Keeping her eyes open was beginning to seem almost impossible but Adelle knew she had to tell Tonya what was going on, had to let her know what Natsinet had done to her. She was thinking of what to write when she found herself dreaming of her and Walt in the hospital as the nurse brought out their new baby girl and placed her in Adelle’s arms. It had been Walt’s idea to name her Tonya. Adelle woke up again. Tonya was standing above her looking concerned.
    “It’s okay Momma. I know you’re tired. You just get your rest. We can talk in the morning.”
    Tonya reached for the pen and Adelle snatched it away. This could be her last chance. She had to write something before she passed out again. But what?
    How can I tell her what’s going on when I can’t even keep my eyes open? Maybe I’ll tell her not to give me any more drugs? Then once my head clears I can tell her everything that’s been going on.
    But she didn’t know what Natsinet had given her or how long the effects might last. The next time she woke up it could be Monday morning and Tonya might be gone.
    Besides, Tonya would probably just think I was being stubborn and not wanting to take my medication.
    “You need to sleep Momma. You look so tired.”
    Adelle nodded again and her eyes closed and she found herself with Tonya on her lap in a little black dress with white stockings and a veil. Tonya was less than a year old. Directly in front of them was a casket. Her husband was inside. Adelle started to weep, then realized she was dreaming again and shook it off. She had to stay awake. She tried to concentrate but it was getting harder and harder. Whatever drugs they’d given her seemed to be intensifying as if she’d just recently received a dosage. She had to write something quick before she fell asleep again.
    But what? What should I write? I could just write “Help” but Tonya might not interpret that properly either. She might think I was just complaining about my condition and if I wrote “Natsinet” she might think I was calling for the crazy bitch.
    Adelle’s eyes began to close once again as she quickly scribbled something onto her notepad. She was fast asleep when Tonya removed the pad and pen from her lap and looked at what her mother had written, trying to figure out what she could possibly have meant by it.
    There were just two little words scrawled across the pad. My Guns.
    “Yes, Mrs. Brown?”
    “You’re certain my mother hasn’t said anything to you?”
    “Not at all, ma’am.” Rachael was in the kitchen unloading the dishwasher. “Medication she’s on has made her really groggy even when she’s awake. She’s mostly been watching TV.”
    “But you have been trying to engage her in some kind of mental activity, correct?”
    “Oh, of course, Mrs. Brown. In fact, Dr. Albright prescribed a new medication called Parlodel. It’s usually prescribed for Parkinson’s patients, but it’s been known to help stroke patients regain their speech. Your mother seemed happy to hear that.”
    “I’m happy to hear that too. But…my mother hasn’t…expressed to you that anything could be wrong?”
    Rachael paused from her duties. “No ma’am. Why?”
    Tonya looked at the notepad she held in her hands. Those words, My Guns, leaped out at her. What could momma have meant by it? Was she concerned that Natsinet would find the handgun she normally kept in the magazine rack? That was a valid concern, one Tonya had tried to eliminate by moving the weapons to a more secure location. She knew that the medications her mother was taking for the stroke as well as the infection she had might muddle her mind, make her confused, hallucinate even. She wondered if this was the result of some subconscious part of her mother’s brain worrying about things and it manifested itself in this hastily scrawled note.
    “Is everything okay, Mrs. Brown?”
    Tonya looked over at Rachael.
    “Yes, everything’s fine.”
    She turned and headed back to her mother’s room and went directly to the closet. She knelt down and picked up the shoebox on the floor, opened it up. The .45 lay inside, where she’d left it. She reached further into the closet for the second shoebox and checked it; ditto the Sig Sauer. She sighed, relieved. Momma was probably just dreaming. She was worried about things at home and it manifested itself in her heavily medicated mind and—
    “Mrs. Brown?” Rachael was standing at the threshold of momma’s room.
    “Everything’s okay,” Tonya said. She hurriedly closed the lids of the shoeboxes and put them back in their place. “I’ll be out in a minute.”
    She waited until Rachael retreated to the kitchen, then she rummaged around in the closet. There was a pile of old blankets on the top shelf. She moved the shoeboxes that contained the guns and nestled them between the blankets, making sure they were secure and well-hidden. That should take care of that, she thought.
    “Mrs. Brown, I have a shopping list I’m drawing up,” Rachael called out from the kitchen. “Can you pick up a few things for me?”
    “Sure.” Rachael shut the closet doors, set the notepad down on the bureau and exited her mother’s room. “What do you need?”
    And for the time being the thought of what her mother could have possibly meant by those two words was gone from Tonya’s mind.

Chapter Twelve

    Adelle awoke slowly, becoming aware that it was morning in gradual stages: the position of the sun as it shone through the open blinds of her room; the sound of cars outside; of the morning talk shows coming from the television in the living room. Other things slowly filtered in as she wove in and out of slowly dawning consciousness; the woozy, stoned feeling she felt throughout much of the past two days was wearing off; she was feeling more aware of herself and her surroundings.
    And she was focused.
    Adelle looked at the clock on the bureau by her bed. It read ten thirty-five. Some talk show was on the TV and Adelle tried to remember what day it was. Talk shows only came on weekdays, which meant…
    The sound of purposeful footsteps coming toward her room brought a feeling of impending doom as time seemed to slow down for her.
    Natsinet emerged in her doorway, that evil look on her face. Dressed in a clean white nurse’s uniform, she looked like something out of a nightmare. She was carrying a metal tray, which she set down on the edge of the bed.
    “Good morning, Mrs. Smith! So good to see you again!”
    The nightmare of the past week still fresh on her mind, Natsinet tried to move away from the nurse and only succeeded in rocking back a few inches into her pillow.
    Natsinet laughed.
    “Well, looky you! You moved three whole inches! See, we are making progress!”
    Stacked on the tray was the stun gun, what looked to be a cattle prod, and a butane grill lighter. Natsinet ran her fingers along the instruments, as if debating which one to choose.
    “So…” Her face had a look that Adelle usually associated with cats who were anticipating playing with the field mouse they’d just caught, “Ready to get back into your therapy again?”
    No, not this, not this, I was supposed to see Tonya this weekend, please not this
    Her therapy session that day was the longest by far.
    Or so it felt.
* * *
    It didn’t take much to reduce the old woman to a quivering lump of flesh.
    Time seemed to spring forward quickly for Natsinet the first few days of that week. She didn’t think it would be that way, but then she supposed the saying “Time flies when you’re having fun” had some validity to it. It certainly flew by for her. Of course, it was probably agonizingly long for Adelle Smith as it should be. Worthless sack of shit wasn’t worth anything anyway, so why bother even working at trying to maintain the old woman’s quality of life. Natsinet had spent the weekend trying to convince herself to feel some guilt over what she was doing to the old woman, and as much as she tried she honestly couldn’t find it in herself to feel guilty. She knew that most people would think she was a monster for abusing the woman, but Natsinet didn’t care. For the first time in her life, Natsinet didn’t care about what people thought of her. She was doing what she wanted, what made her feel good. No one else would understand. They were incapable of understanding. They hadn’t lived her life. She knew that from her interview with her supervisor at Hospice Nursing. Racist old cracker woman. If it weren’t for the fact that she needed this job, Natsinet would have bitch-slapped that old fossil the day of her interview. Unfortunately, she couldn’t lose the chance at this job and she was fortunate to have it now. She couldn’t lose it, and she wasn’t going to lose it. In fact, her abuse of Adelle Smith would go unrecorded. Natsinet had it all figured out.
    The fact that Rachael didn’t suspect a thing was heavily in her favor. Natsinet had things set up so that if Rachael discovered that she was abusing Adelle, it would be easy to dismiss as simple accidents. Were those marks on Adelle’s arms and legs burns? Not at all, she just got a little too much sun when I left the drapes open one afternoon—it was such a nice day! Were those rug burns? Scrapes? Well, yes, but Natsinet was trying to help Adelle regain use of her legs again. She fell, yes, but it was an accident. And what about Adelle’s accusation that you beat her, shot her multiple times with a stun gun, and dragged her across the floor? I would never cause deliberate harm to one of my charges. My record is impeccable. See for yourself.
    And they would do so and see that, yes, her record was impeccable. Her superiors at Philadelphia General had put in a high recommendation for her to Hospice Nursing, and her teachers all had kind words for her. She had a spotless record.
    So what had caused her to not only humiliate, but treat this woman—this patient—like something less than human?
    Because she was less than human.
    Natsinet was in the kitchen making herself a light lunch, a sandwich and a small salad, as these thoughts flew through her mind. She had to admit to herself what was becoming obvious. As a whole, she didn’t care for Black people. Yes, her father was from an African nation, and yes she was often forced to check off the box marked “African American” in employment and government forms when the disbelieving clerk raised an eyebrow at her first choice, which was always Caucasian. She would get that look. You don’t look White to me. Then she would be forced to explain her mixed heritage, after which the clerk or whoever it was she’d handed the form to would say, You can’t check that box if you’re of mixed race. You’re going to have to check the African American box. And then Natsinet would be forced to check that box, regretting that she was being forced to relegate herself to those who were responsible for the majority of crime in this country, who whined and complained the loudest, who demanded they be handed every damn thing and not work for it, who’d ruined her life. She didn’t like the fact that the last time she tried to buy a car she saw a chunky White salesman whisper something to a colleague, who quickly raced into the rear of the showroom; moments later the classic rock music that was playing over the showroom’s speakers changed to rap and the chunky White salesman was going out of his way to speak a sort of fake street argot to her. She was so mad she made him work at trying to get a sale out of her for three hours before she finally said, “Thanks, but no thanks,” and walked out.
    So yes, she didn’t care much for Black people because of the bad impression they left on her. Even Black comedians made a career out of exploiting the stereotypes. Sure, there were Black people who had risen above those stereotypes, who had made something of themselves. But in her experience she could count all those she’d known personally on both hands. Most of the Black people she’d had to deal with in school were lazy and not interested in learning anything, and most of the ones she’d dealt with as patients in the ER were even worse.
    Natsinet ate her lunch quickly, watching the Jerry Springer show. Sure enough, the guests on the show illustrated her point. A pair of skinny Black guys in baggy clothes talking trash about their women who were as wide as houses, bragging about how much hooch they got on the side and, no Jerry, that ain’t my baby because she’s just whoring around on the side too, you know I’m sayin’? It was really hard to follow the argument that followed due to the yelling and screaming, the accusations flying back and forth. Natsinet shook her head. It was bad enough for corporate America to exploit the ignorant and downtrodden like that, but it was even worse as a so-called African American to buy into it and allow yourself to be exploited, made fun of, jeered at, to prove to the world that, yes, you are just another ignorant, dumb nigger. And worse, those ignorant dumb niggers clung to the heels of Black leaders like her charge, Adelle Smith, and continued to stay dumb and ignorant and talk like they had not ventured beyond the fifth grade. With that kind of progress what good were people like Adelle Smith?
    Martin Luther King, Jr. had proclaimed that he had a dream that one day society would not judge his children by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Judging by the content of the characters of most Black people, they were judged accordingly. They were worthless then, they are worthless now. She wished she could drain every ounce of Black blood out of her body. She’d have to settle for draining it from Adelle Smith.
    When she was finished with her lunch Natsinet carried her dishes to the kitchen, placed them in the sink, and went into the bedroom to check on her charge.
    The smell hit her immediately. Three days of not airing out the room had made the smell of feces and urine settle in like it owned the place. She’d have to air the room out soon if she didn’t want it settling into the bedsheets and carpet. Natsinet glanced in disgust at her unconscious patient lying amid a pool of filth and checked her pulse. It was steady. She glanced at the clock on the bureau and her eyes passed over a notepad left there. She almost looked away but was drawn to two words scrawled on the top sheet.
    My guns.
    Natsinet picked up the pad. No doubt, the shaky handwriting was Adelle’s.
    According to Rachael’s notes, Tonya Brown had dropped by Saturday and Sunday and spent a considerable amount of time at the apartment. Rachael indicated that the few times Adelle was conscious she was very groggy and tried to communicate with Tonya but had been unable to. Tonya had been a little upset at that. Natsinet’s rage flared as she realized that the tranquilizers she’d slipped into Adelle’s prescription bottle hadn’t been a high enough dose to knock her out for most of the time. It was quickly apparent to her that Adelle had been trying to tell her daughter that she had weapons in the house, that she needed to have access to them.
    Did Tonya understand the meaning of this message?
    Natsinet set the notepad down and began her search. She rummaged through the dresser drawers, rooting under clothing, coming up with nothing. She checked in and around Adelle’s bed then turned her attention to the closet and quickly found what she was looking for.
    The shoebox she brought down was heavy. She opened it and lifted a black handgun from where it lay nestled in a towel. Natsinet didn’t know much about guns, only that you pointed them and pulled the trigger and if you hit your target a hole was put in it. She set the box down and turned the gun over. She had no idea what caliber it might be, but correctly guessed it was some kind of semi-automatic. With some fumbling, making sure she kept the barrel pointed away from her, she got the clip ejected. It was full. The chamber was empty. With some experimenting she was able to figure out that the safety was engaged.
    Natsinet flicked the safety off and pointed the gun at Adelle Smith’s sleeping form, sighting down the barrel of the gun. She lined up the sites on the top of the gun until they were level, the site at the end of the barrel lined up perfectly with Adelle’s head. She pulled the trigger and the hammer fell on an empty chamber with a loud “Click!”
    Natsinet glared at Adelle’s still sleeping form. And as her anger ebbed a plan began to formulate.

Chapter Thirteen

    Adelle Smith awoke with a start. Her hand flew to her throat. She’d had a dream that she was being strangled. She looked around her room, reassuring herself that it was just a dream while taking in deep breaths to calm her heart rate.
    The room smelled horrible, and there was a burning itch centered in the small of her back now. Definitely a bedsore. Maybe several. Her left side ached and her entire body throbbed from the contortions her muscles had been put through while the stun gun and the cattle prod had dumped agonizing currents of electricity into her body.
    She was relaxed now, the dream forgotten, reality once again impressing itself upon her with far more urgency and intensity than any nightmare ever could. And for the first time she realized she was naked.
    Naked and lying in her own filth.
    And Natsinet was standing at the foot of the bed, that evil look on her face again.
    Please, no, Adelle thought, not even knowing why she silently begged the nurse to not torture her anymore. She was just going to do it anyway.
    “We’re going to start a new therapy technique,” Natsinet said. She was leaning forward, her features impassive. No emotion in her eyes. “It’s very similar to the therapy we’ve been engaging in but this one is…well, not only less painful but a little more…how shall I say? Invasive.”
    Natsinet held up her right hand and Adelle saw with mind numbing horror that she was holding a black pistol. Adelle recognized it immediately. It was her Sig Sauer nine millimeter, the one she kept stashed in her magazine rack. Tonya was supposed to have—
    “Did you know that gun crimes in this country, in this part of the city, stem from criminals that break into homes only to use weapons like this against their owners? Ironic isn’t it?” Natsinet raised the Sig. “Most of the guns used in the commission of a crime are stolen from people like you.”
    She wouldn’t dare shoot me, Adelle thought, her mind racing. She wouldn’t dare!
    “Let’s get you tied down.” Setting the gun down on the bureau, Natsinet tied Adelle’s right side to the bed rest and then bound both legs to the lower part of the bed. Adelle struggled and was able to muster a loud “Waaahhhh!” sound.
    “Shut up!” A hard slap to the face cut off her feeble attempt at a cry for help.
    When Natsinet was finished she resumed her position at the foot of the bed.
     “Once again, this is very similar to the therapy we’ve worked on before. Only there’s a big difference this time.”
    As she spoke, Natsinet pulled Adelle’s right leg away from her prone and lame left leg. With her groin exposed, Adelle felt more vulnerable than ever.
    “As you can see, I didn’t tie you down that tight. You have room to move. In fact, you have room to scrunch yourself back a good five, maybe ten inches. If you do that, you can use your right leg to maneuver yourself out of this rope I’ve got strapping you down and if you get that far, we can call it a day. How’s that sound?”
    Adelle’s heart was racing. Somehow, she knew that what Natsinet had in store was going to be worse than all of her other so-called therapies combined.
    Natsinet retrieved the Sig from the bureau, brandishing it coyly.
    “I found this and the other gun in the closet. You’re one mean old lady, Mrs. Smith. How many times you ever had to use one of these?”
    If I could get my hands on my nine now I’d empty the thing in your head!
    “Of course, if I lived in this shithole you call a home, I’d be armed with one of these too. In fact, I’d carry it everywhere I went in this neighborhood. You got some mean-looking motherfuckers that live in this neighborhood, Mrs. Smith. A bunch of them have been hanging out across the street from your building. Oh, I got them pegged, just like I got you pegged first time I saw you. Bunch of grown men wasting the day hanging around doing nothing when they should be out there doing something with their lives. They’re probably the local pimps and drug dealers, aren’t they Mrs. Smith?”
    She’s talking about Mike Simmons and his crew, Adelle thought. She knew the streets had claimed Mike but whenever she saw him she still tried to steer him in the right direction. She had the feeling Mike appreciated and respected that gesture; for as long as she’d lived in this neighborhood she’d never been the victim of a crime, nor had her apartment been broken into. She tried to look after Mike and his crew and they looked after her.
    “I bet you know exactly what they do and you don’t do shit about it,” Natsinet continued. Adelle realized that Natsinet was on one of her psychotic rants again. The thought of how this was going to end up made her heart race faster. “So much for being a community activist and being a big ‘ol Civil Rights leader, trying to save your people from the streets. You didn’t save those thugs from shit!”
    There you go generalizing again, Adelle thought. What if they weren’t thugs and were just guys from the neighborhood hanging out? You’d still brush them under the same rug because that’s how you see all of us. As thugs.
    “Anyway, you shouldn’t have guns in your house, Mrs. Smith, because low-lifes like the guys outside are liable to break in here, beat, rob and rape you and then kill you with this thing and then use it to commit other crimes.” Natsinet’s left hand began massaging her clitoris and Adelle recoiled from the touch.
    My God! What the hell is she doin’ now?
    “So we’re going to up our therapy a bit so we can get you back in shape again. That way you’ll be physically fit to deal with the lowlifes outside. So here’s how we’re going to do it.” Natsinet’s index and middle finger worked their way into her dry vagina. “I’m going to slowly insert the barrel of this gun up your old shriveled up vagina and you have to get away. If you can get away—”
    “Naaaaaaooooohhhhhh!” Adelle yelled, the muscles of her neck straining as she exerted all her strength in trying to get away. Her right side felt the straps and rope give way slightly, but her left side was still sluggish to respond.
    “—then you’ll be able avoid me pulling the trigger. Now if— ”
    “Aaaaaaaauuuuuughhhh!” The sore at the small of her lower back screamed in pain along with the various brush burns along various parts of her body as she tried to avoid Natsinet’s fingers.
    Natsinet moved the barrel of the gun forward, close to the lips of her clitoris. “—I do pull the trigger, well then I’m willing to bet the police will believe me when I tell them those guys across the street broke in here, knocked me out and did this to you. I bet they got police records a mile long.”
    “Naaaaoooghhhhh!” Adelle was yelling no and it was being articulated the best way she could under the circumstances. Her heart was beating so fast, her breathing was coming on so quick, that she felt light-headed.
    No, no, please don’t do this, oh God, I can’t breathe
    “So just try to keep this gun from invading your vagina by moving your body back five, maybe ten inches and you’ll be fine.”
    A sudden burst of adrenaline poured into Adelle’s system and she pushed herself back, momentarily avoiding Natsinet’s probing fingers. She felt herself swoon. Her breath was coming in harsh, heavy pants. Once again, she felt Natsinet’s fingers probe at her clitoris and she felt the cold steel of the Sig Sauer’s barrel begin to force its way inside her.
    “Naaaaaaooooohhhhhhh!” Adelle yelled, her throat searing in pain at the intensity of the scream. She felt hot, feverish, like she was going to pass out.
    Natsinet was on the bed, working the barrel of the gun further inside her. Adelle saw that the nurse’s finger was on the trigger.
    Then there was a sudden hot burst of pain exploding inside her as the barrel tore into the soft, dry tissue of her vagina. Adelle’s muscles, already overworked and still sore from the past two weeks, refused to move. Adelle screamed again, her vision clouding in darkness as she fought to catch her breath.
    And then Natsinet grinned and pulled the trigger.
    And the darkness consumed Adelle and took her down.
* * *
    The pain woke her up.
    She came to suddenly, taking in a great lungful of air, eyes flying open. Natsinet was still at the foot of the bed, grinning that evil grin of hers. Her private parts were on fire.
    She saw that in her panic she’d soiled the bed again.
    The suddenness of everything, the over-exertion of her muscles, her nervous system, her emotions, sent her stomach roiling. She leaned forward and threw up, the vomit spattering in her lap and pooling at the sides of her thighs, stinging the healing burns along her flesh.
    “Oh, you didn’t throw up!” Natsinet said.
    Adelle’s stomach clenched in on itself. She threw up again, unable to control herself.
    “You fucking bitch!” Natsinet was standing at the side of her bed now, on her left side. “The goddamn gun wasn’t even loaded!”
    Adelle struggled to catch her breath. Her head was still swooning and she could feel her heart racing. Please don’t let this send me into another stroke orGod forbida heart attack!
    Adelle caught a glimpse of Natsinet out the corner of her eye as she raised her hand over her head and brought it down. Time seemed to slow to a crawl for a brief moment as Adelle realized the nurse was holding the gun by the barrel. She tried to throw herself forward, tried to get out of the way, but the grip of the gun caught her hard on the back of the head, this time sending her into a much deeper pool of darkness.
    But not so deep that she was unable to hear the sound of keys unlocking the front door to her apartment, nor hear the door open and a voice call out, “Natsinet, you there?”

Chapter Fourteen

    The sight that greeted Rachael Williams as she let herself into the apartment was one she could have never imagined she’d see.
    She stood in the living room directly in front of the doorway that led to Adelle Smith’s bedroom. Adelle was lying slumped forward, obviously unconscious.
    “What the hell’s going on here?”
    Natsinet jumped, startled. She turned quickly and pointed the gun in Rachael’s face. She almost pulled the trigger before remembering that she hadn’t loaded the pistol and the click of the hammer on the empty chamber would have told the heavyset nurse that the gun was no threat. “What the fuck are you doing back here?”
    “I-I was passing through the area and I thought I’d drop in and see h-how Mrs. Smith was. What the hell are you doing? What did you do to Mrs. Smith? Why do you have that gun?”
    “Just shut up and sit down.”
    Natsinet was trying her best not to panic. She had the gun, which meant she was still in control of the situation, but things were going wrong quickly. Rachael shouldn’t have been there. Now the woman had seen her abusing Adelle Smith. If she called the cops the media would have a frenzy. There would be a riot. She might not make it out of the neighborhood alive and if she did, her life would be ruined by the scandal. She couldn’t let that happen.
    “What are you doing with that gun? What did you do to Mrs. Smith? I’m calling the police.” Rachael looked scared. Her eyes darted from Adelle’s unconscious body bent double on the bed to the gun in Natsinet’s hand and then to Natsinet’s eyes, trying to read them, trying to understand what she’d walked into. Scared was good. Natsinet could work with scared.
    “Shut up and sit the fuck down or I’m going to shoot you right in the face!”
    That threat seemed to get through. Rachael’s hands flew to her face as she choked back a scream. She looked around the room for something to sit on but Natsinet stood between her and the chair by Adelle’s bedside. Rachael started towards the chair and Natsinet cocked the hammer back on the Sig. The big nurse sat down on the floor, plopping down on her wide ass like a kindergartener.
    “You should not have seen this. You have put me in a very bad position here.”
    “Why’s she naked? What you been doing to her?”
    “I’ve been torturing the shit out of the old bitch.”
    “Because she’s a slave. Just like you. And that’s what you do to slaves. You torture them, beat them, rape them, do whatever the fuck you want to them, because in the end they don’t really matter. They are less than three fifths of a person. They are property.”
    “What the hell are you talkin’ about, Natty? We ain’t no slaves.”
    “We ain’t no? Is that supposed to be English? You’ve lived in America all your life and you speak English worse than I do. You ain’t no slave, huh? Bullshit! You’re a victim just like all the other niggers in this country. You let the White man kick you in your ass every day of your lives. You scrub his floors, serve his meals, and eat his leftovers. You take whatever bullshit job he’ll give you and then you cry about it and beg him to make your lives better instead of getting up and taking what you want. You drop out of school and then blame him for not handing you an education. You get drunk and use drugs and commit all kinds of crimes against one another and then hold your little marches when the cops kick your nappy heads in. Oh, you’ll take from each other. It’s easy to rob and kill and rape and sell drugs to another nigger. But you won’t stand up to the White man. You won’t do shit to really improve your position in society. You’d rather kill each other over drug turf.”
    Rachael’s eyes grew angry. Natsinet held the gun steady.
    “Well, she stood up! She stood up to the White man. She stood up for all of us!”
    Natsinet looked back at the old woman slumped over in the bed behind her.
    “She didn’t do shit but get her dumb ass arrested and wind up right back in the shithole that spawned her. She fought for you alright, but what good did it do? You have the right to vote, to get an education, to own property, to do any job White people can but what do you do? You rob from each other, sell drugs, work for minimum wage or else get on welfare and sit around making more illegitimate crackbabies. So what good did she do?”
    Adelle moaned and slumped over on her side. A trickle of blood dripped from a cut on her lip and dribbled down her chin.
    Rachael was looking into the master bedroom in anguish. “Oh Lord! What did you do to her?”
    “Nothing White folks haven’t been doing to you ignorant bastards for centuries.”
    Rachael turned to Natsinet. She looked scared and confused. “What are you talking about?”
    “It doesn’t really matter now does it? Pull your stockings down.”
    “I said pull your fucking stockings down or I’ll blow your nappy ass head all over the room!”
    Rachael hesitated only a second before doing as she was told and pulling her stocking down to her knees.
    “Now lie on your belly.”
    “What are you going to do?”
    “I’m going to stick this gun up your fat ass and pull the trigger! Now lie on your belly!”
    Rachael again complied.
    “Put your hands behind your head. I’m pretty sure you know the position.”
    Rachael laced her fingers behind her head.
    Natsinet pulled a couple rolls of surgical tape from the drawer in the nightstand and began taping Rachael’s wrists together. She sat on the woman’s back as she wrapped her wrists and was satisfied to hear the wind burst out of Rachael’s lungs as her weight came down on her. After she was done with the wrists she spun around, still seated on the woman’s back, and wrapped her ankles.
    “Now just lie there while I figure out what to do with you.”
    She knew she had to kill the woman. She had no other choice. She just had to figure out how she would get rid of the body. The woman was far too heavy for her to carry down the steps herself. And there was nowhere in the tiny apartment to hide a body. At the very least she’d have to chop it up and carry it out piece by piece.
    “I need a hacksaw.” She said out loud and Rachael began to squirm, trying hard to get her hands and legs free.
    “Don’t kill me! I ain’t done nuthin’ to you! I don’t even know you! Please, don’t cut me up!”
    “You ain’t done nothin’ to me huh?”
    “No, I ain’t done nuthin’ to you. What have I ever done to hurt you?”
     “Well, it was a Black bitch like you that took my daddy away! That’s right, a fat, stinking, nappy-headed Black bitch just like you who sweet talked him, seduced him, and then got him killed.”
    “But it wasn’t me! I didn’t do it! I didn’t even know your daddy!”
    Natsinet stood up and kicked Rachael hard in the gut. She kicked her over and over again relishing the feel of her shoe sinking into the nurse’s soft flesh. Then she began to stomp on her, jumping up and down on her face and chest, smashing her nose into a bloody smear across her cheeks. Rachael moaned and screamed as Natsinet struck her over and over again.
    “But it was you!” Natsinet yelled. “It was all of you! It was your whole twisted fucked-up culture. You killed him! All of you!”
    Natsinet calmed herself, realizing that she was making too much noise. The walls in this place were paper thin and there were still those hooligans hanging out across the street. She walked over to the window and peeked through the blinds. They had rap music blaring and there were now a few young girls mingling amongst them. They were all preoccupied. All except one, the big one, the one who seemed to be in charge. He was staring directly at the house, right up at the window, right at Natsinet. She quickly backed away from the window and rushed back over to Rachael who was still lying on the floor moaning. Her lip and nose were busted and she was bleeding onto the carpet. Natsinet tore off another piece of surgical tape and slapped it over her mouth.
    “You really want to know what you people did to him? How you killed him? Why I hate you worthless motherfuckers so much? When my father came to America with my mom they wouldn’t accept his medical license, wouldn’t let him practice medicine without an American degree. They made him go back to medical school at almost forty years old. My mother’s family didn’t like the fact that she was with this African anyway and then when they found out that he wasn’t even a doctor anymore, that he was unemployed, they started making life really hard for him. See, in their minds he was one of you. They looked at him and saw your people. They didn’t see an Eritrean. They saw an African American.” Natsinet slurred the word as she spoke as if it were something distasteful she was trying to wipe from her tongue. “They threatened to disown my mother if she didn’t get rid of him. See, in their minds he was less than a nigger. He was African. For her to have married him was a disgrace to them. Oh, they talked real liberal around their friends, but they were secretly ashamed. My mother stayed with him until the money ran out. Then she took me, packed up all her things and left him. She moved back to Chestnut Hill with her family and he moved to Mount Airy.
    “Mount Airy wasn’t a bad neighborhood. Not like this warzone. It was middle-class, decent. My father worked as a security guard at night and went to school during the day, trying to get his license to practice medicine. I went to see him on holidays and during the summer. He used to talk about my mother a lot, talk about winning her back and us being a family again. Then he started dating this Black social worker named Lisa who lived down the street and it was like he forgot all about my mother.”
    “Just let me go and I won’t say nothing. You don’t have to kill me. Just let me go. Please, let me go.” The tape had fallen away from Rachael’s mouth.
    Natsinet squatted down next to Rachael and tapped her on the head lightly with the butt of the pistol. “You asked me a question. I suggest you let me finish my answer. Because when I’m done talking, I’m probably going to kill you. At least as long as I’m talking, you’re still breathing.” She smoothed the tape back over Rachael’s mouth.
    Rachael began to weep. She looked around the room just as Adelle had been doing for the past two weeks, looking for anything that she might use to save her life, and just as Adelle had before, she came up empty. She turned back to look at Natsinet who was still kneeling beside her with the gun. Natsinet’s eyes were no longer hard and cold; now they looked wild as emotions from her childhood flooded back in like reopened wounds bleeding once again. Rachael sobbed louder, realizing that she was at the mercy of a madwoman, a madwoman with a gun.
    “Now, where was I? Oh, yeah…Lisa had two daughters about my age. They hated me because I was half-White and I spoke with an accent. They teased me constantly. They’d even beat me up when no one was looking and threatened to beat me up worse if I told anyone. I never understood why they hated me so much. My father kept going to medical school and was just about to graduate when he was murdered. I kept thinking that momma would take him back once he was a doctor again and he’d leave that Black bitch and her little hellions and we’d be a family again. Then Lisa’s drug-dealin’ ex-boyfriend got out of prison and started coming around. He would come by to see his daughters and then he’d try to talk Lisa into leavin’ my daddy and coming back to live with him. One day he was in the house when my father got home from school. He’d beaten up Lisa and was trying to take the kids. Daddy confronted him, told him to get out, and that bastard shot him. He shot my father right in the chest, killed him instantly.”
    Natsinet stood up and walked over to Adelle’s bed. She checked Adelle’s pulse to make sure the old woman was still alive and then removed a syringe from her pocket and shot her up with Demerol to make sure she’d stay unconscious. Then she walked into the next room to get a pillow for the gun. Rachael’s eyes followed her as she came back with the pillow and then walked over and closed the curtains. Rachael began to thrash and scream until the tape came off her mouth again.
    “Heeeelp! Heeeelp!
    Natsinet was looking out the window again at the big Black thug across the street when Rachael started screaming. His head snapped back up to the window and he started walking across the street. Natsinet quickly leaned down and smacked the woman with the gun much harder than she’d hit Adelle. The woman stopped screaming. Natsinet struck her again anyway, then again and again and again. Each impact harder than the last. Rachael’s head began to crack and bleed as Natsinet bludgeoned her skull into a misshapen blob. The dull crack of the gun impacting with Rachael’s skull was soon replaced by a sound like a meat tenderizer striking raw steak. Blood splattered the walls and floor as the butt of the pistol continued to rise and fall, occasionally getting stuck as it lodged in Rachael’s ruptured skull, requiring Natsinet to muscle it free so that she could bring it down again. Perspiration beaded on Natsinet’s brow as she put all her weight behind each blow.
    Rachael’s ragged breathing continued even after bits of skull and brain matter began to mingle with the blood splattering the walls. Natsinet hammered the woman’s brain into a bloody pudding until Rachael’s lungs finally ceased their wheezing inhalations and her body’s corybantic convulsions came to an end. Rachael let out one last long ragged breath before falling silent forever.
    Then the doorbell rang.
    Natsinet was covered in Rachael’s blood. Sweat was pouring down her face and she was breathing hard from the exertion. There was no way she was going to answer the door looking like that. She ripped off her shirt and wrapped Rachael’s pulverized skull in it to absorb some of the blood. There were bits of blood and brain matter on her skirt as well. She removed that too.
    The doorbell rang again.
    Natsinet ran to the bathroom and washed the blood from her hands, arms, and face. She was shrugging into a new skirt when someone began pounding on the door. Natsinet grabbed her shirt and hurried to the door. When she looked out the peephole she saw the big drug dealer from across the street standing outside the door. He was enormous. His body completely filled the doorframe and the peephole only came to his shoulders. He had to bend down so she could see his face.
    “Who is it?”
    “It’s Mike. I’m here to check on Mrs. Smith. She awight? I heard someone scream in there.”
    “She’s fine. She just has nightmares because of the medication.”
    “Then let me come in to check on her.”
    “I can’t let you in. I don’t know you and Mrs. Smith’s daughter left me strict instructions not to open the door for anyone.”
    “Tonya knows me. She told me to keep an eye on the place. It’s okay if I come in.”
    “I’ll have to check.”
    “Fuck that! Let me the fuck in! Something’s wrong with Mrs. Smith.”
    He began pounding on the door again.
    “She’s fine and I’m not letting you in, now go away before I call the police!”
    Mike hesitated.
    “All right, but I’ll be back. And nothing had better be wrong with Mrs. Smith.”
    Natsinet continued looking out the peephole as Big Mike turned and walked away. There was no way she could leave the apartment now to get a hacksaw. She was sure that big Black guy and his crew would break into the house while she was gone and find Adelle doped up and Rachael beaten to death on the floor. Then they’d call the police and she’d wind up in the gas chamber. She couldn’t let that happen.
    Removing her clothes once again so as not to get them dirty as well, Natsinet went into the kitchen to look for a knife. She walked back into the living room carrying a butcher knife, a serrated carving knife, and a cleaver. Between the three implements she was fairly confident she could chop Rachael up into small enough pieces to dispose of easily. She rounded up some heavy duty trashbags and some duct tape and began dragging Rachael’s lifeless body over to the bathtub, leaving long streaks of blood on the carpet.
    “Those are going to be a bitch to clean. I didn’t sign up to be a cleaning lady.”
    She looked over at Adelle. She didn’t know why she hated the woman so much. Rachael had been right about one thing, neither of them was directly responsible for her father’s death, or her getting beaten up as a kid, or her mother’s family rejecting her father, or the kids at school calling her a nigger, or her own family treating her differently than they treated all the other grandkids who weren’t half-Black. Now she’d tortured an innocent woman and committed murder, and for what? She didn’t know. All she knew was that the more pain she caused this woman, the better she felt about herself and her family. The more days had gone by, the more she’d wanted to hurt the old lady. It had become like an obsession. Now she had to find a way to end it.
    She knew she had to kill the old lady. If Adelle spoke to anyone they’d figure out what she’d done. But she had to make the old woman’s death look like an accident. If only she could get her to have a heart attack or another stroke. But the old woman’s heart had resisted the shock treatments, the beating and the burns. It was unlikely that anything else she did to her would cause a heart attack. But there were medications. She just needed to find something that wouldn’t be traceable.
    Natsinet looked down at Rachael’s lifeless corpse. “And as for you, well, bad things happen to women who walk alone through neighborhoods like this. I doubt anyone will even miss you.” She smacked Rachael on her rotund buttocks, picked up the carving knife and began sawing through the layers of fat and meat at her hip joint. When she hit bone she picked up the cleaver and began hacking away at it, working up a sweat again.
    “Shit! This is going to take forever.”
    A few more whacks and Rachael’s right leg fell away from her torso and tumbled down into the tub.
     “That’s one down.”
    She turned to the other leg and picked up the carving knife again.

Chapter Fifteen

    Big Mike stood across the street from Adelle’s apartment complex staring up at her window. He remembered when Tonya used to lean out that window and call down to him whenever he would ring the doorbell for her to come out and play. Most of the time, she couldn’t come out. Mrs. Smith had her studying all the time. But sometimes she’d come trotting out dragging that rusted old red bike with the yellow banana seat behind her. Then they’d go riding together through the neighborhood, not coming home until the streetlights came on. He’d been in love with Tonya even then.
    He was debating whether or not he should call her. The nurse had said Adelle was all right and Tonya might get pissed at him for scaring her. He hadn’t meant to lose his temper and curse at her, but something about her tone of voice rubbed him the wrong way. That other nurse was in there too, so he guessed that if there was anything wrong the two of them could probably handle it and he hadn’t seen anyone else enter the house. He was probably just over-reacting. He looked down at his cell phone. Tonya’s number was still cued up. Then he looked back up at the apartment. Something just felt wrong.
    “What’s goin’ on, Big Mike?” That was his right hand man, Tracy. Tracy had retreated from the impromptu gathering on the street and was reclining against one of the cars parked at the curb. “You look like you seen a ghost or somethin’.”
    “No ghosts here. But I heard some screamin’. You hear anything?”
    “’Zat why you went up to Mrs. Smith’s place?”
    “You sure she didn’t just have the TV on too loud?”
    “Fuck if I know. That didn’t sound like no TV though.”
    “So what was it?”
    Mike told him quickly, leaving nothing out. Tracy’s features turned grim. Now he was looking up at the apartment window, which had suddenly gone dark.
     “So what time is it, like nine o’clock or something?”
    Mike checked the time on his cell phone.
    “Nine forty-seven.”
    “I remember seeing that other nurse show up,” Tracy said. “She hasn’t left, either.”
    “I know.”
    “You think it takes two nurses to take care of Mrs. Smith? That don’t sound right to me.”
    “No shit.”
    “And it took awhile for the one nurse to show up at the door?”
    “Yeah. And during the time I was knockin’ I didn’t hear shit until she asked who it was.”
    “Well shit, maybe she was asleep or somethin’.”
    “Yo, Mike, maybe that other nurse is that other one’s girlfriend or somethin’.” This came from Reggie White, one of the other crew members who was now joining in on the conversation. Reggie was the joker of the group, but Mike wasn’t in the mood for jokes this evening.
    “Fuck that shit, I know what I saw, and I know what I heard. Somethin’s fucked up in there.”
    Tracy appeared to understand the seriousness of the situation.
    “Maybe you should call Tonya.”
    That settled it. Mike pressed the speed dial for Tonya’s number and put the phone to his ear.
    “Hi, this is Tonya Brown and I can’t get to the phone, please leave me a message and I’ll call you back.”
    Shit. “’Sup baby girl, Big Mike here. It’s Thursday night, ‘bout ten till ten, and I think you need to get over to your mom’s as soon as you can to check on her. I heard some weird noises comin’ out of her apartment, but the nurse said your moms was just havin’ nightmares. It didn’t feel right to me, and the nurse—that African mommy—wouldn’t answer the door at first. When she finally did, she told me she was gonna call the police. Anyway, you should probably get over here as soon as you can.”
    Mike folded the phone up and placed it back in the front pockets of his baggy jeans. His gaze was still directed at the dark window of Mrs. Smith’s apartment.
    “Maybe we should call the police?” Reggie suggested.
    “Man, you stuck on stupid. You out of your damn mind?” Mike said. “It’ll take them all night just to get over here and when they do the first thing they’re going to do is put us face down on the sidewalk and search us for drugs. By the time they finally got around to checking on Mrs. Smith she could be dead and who do you think they’d try to pin it on?”
    “True dat. It’s fucked up. Fuckin’ bitch ass cops. So then what do we do?”
    “We can go up to the apartment and check,” Tracy said. “You know, listen at the front door?”
    That was a good idea. Mike moved away from the car he was leaning against.
    “Let’s do it.”
    The three of them headed across the street and silently ascended the steps to the building. When they reached the apartment, Mike motioned for silence. They padded across the front walkway to the front door like cats stalking prey. Mike positioned himself at one side of the door, Tracy on the other. Reggie stood by the wall, near the window.
    Mike leaned his ear towards the front door.
    Silence on the other end.
    He locked eyes with Tracy for a moment.
    They both heard the sound at the same time. Mike almost reached for his gun, as did Tracy. Behind them, at the window, Reggie whispered, “Somebody’s movin’ around in there.”
    Mike motioned for Reggie to keep silent and strained to hear the sound coming from the apartment. It was hard to tell what it was, but he could tell Tracy heard it too. It almost sounded like running water from the bathroom.
    “Maybe that nurse is just takin’ a shower,” Tracy whispered.
    Mike nodded. That was a possibility, and he had to admit that the more he listened, the more he could discern the sound. It was definitely the sound of running water. Probably the shower. Faint, but unmistakable.
    They remained on the stoop of the apartment for nearly fifteen minutes, silently listening for any unusual sounds. After ten minutes the shower turned off. There was silence for a minute, then what sounded like movement from deep inside the apartment. Probably the bathroom, Mike thought. Maybe the nurse is taking a shower.
    Mike motioned for Reggie and Tracy to follow him and they stole quietly back down the stairs.
    Once they were on the street Mike saw that the informal party was breaking up. Reggie’s girl Britney was waiting for him and Mike nodded. “Make sure she gets home.” Reggie nodded and darted off to join Britney.
    “Whatcha wanna do?” Tracy asked.
    Mike looked up at the apartment.
    “I’m gonna wait out here for awhile and keep my cell phone on.”
    “You think Tonya will call you back?”
    “I hope so.”
    “You still worried?”
    “I don’t know.” That was the honest truth. Mike didn’t know whether he should be worried now. When he was talking to Natsinet through the door he’d had a bad feeling in his gut, but after being away from the problem and listening to what was going on inside…well, that changed everything. He hadn’t heard anything unusual, and they hadn’t seen that other nurse come back out. Maybe Reggie was right and the two nurses had a thing going on. Maybe she was simply at the apartment to help out. He hadn’t seen anybody exit the building, although he supposed it was possible that she’d exited the building from the rear and walked around the end of the block to her car if she’d parked it around the corner—parking spaces along the curb on this end of the street were slim. If that was the case, he wouldn’t have seen the second nurse leave.
    “You want me to stay?”
    “Nah, go on. You got some rounds to make anyway.”
    “You got that, right. See you back at your crib ‘round two?”
    “Alright.” They tapped fists and Tracy melted away into the night.
    “That nurse was kinda fine. We should have busted in there and pulled a train on her ass.”
    “Go home, Tracy.”
    “I’m just sayin’. She was kinda fine though, better than these crackwhores.”
    Tracy’s voice trailed off as he disappeared around the corner.
    Big Mike remained on the street, leaning against his parked car, watching Adelle Smith’s apartment. He remained there long after everybody else had left.

Chapter Sixteen

    It took some time, but Natsinet was eventually able to completely dismember Rachael Williams’s body in the bathtub.
    She got most of the messy part done with the shower running. She worked in the nude. Her small pear-shaped breasts were covered in blood. It dripped from each nipple as if she were preparing to give suck to some vampiric infant. She had laid plastic garbage bags along the floor and around the base of the toilet and worked as quickly as she could, putting all her strength into the job and relying on her medical training to get her through it, cutting through tendons and cartilage where she would find the least resistance.
    Thanks to her medical background, she was able to slice through the joints at the shoulders and hips pretty quickly. Likewise, when she decapitated Rachael, she felt along the back of the dead woman’s neck first to locate the vertebrae. Then she started between the sixth and seventh vertebrae, cutting expertly between the disks to sever the spinal cord and cutting through the cartilage. A third stroke went through the rest of the neck easy. There wasn’t much blood; some leaked out into the tub, but most of it remained in the body due to the stopping of the heart.
    Natsinet picked up Rachael’s severed head by the hair and looked at it in disgust.
     “Fuckin’ nosy ass bitch comin’ in here.” She tossed the head aside toward the end of the tub where it hit the porcelain with a thud.
    With the running water from the shower she was able to wash any excess blood down the drain, but she knew she’d have a bigger problem with the woman’s torso. Rachael Williams had been a big woman. Natsinet realized this as she was cutting through the hip joints to separate the legs. The woman was big boned. Probably part of her natural body chemistry. Which meant she was going to have to divide her torso in half to make carrying her out of here easier.
    Natsinet paused in her work, suddenly realizing she had nowhere to store the body, and headed through the darkened living room to the kitchen. She opened the refrigerator. A staff assistant at Hospice Nursing had made sure there was food for the nursing staff who would be providing onsite care. There was a jug of milk, some half and half, a couple of Tupperware containers that held leftovers, and a carton of eggs. She opened the vegetable drawer and was surprised and rather pleased to see that Rachael had put a serious dent in what had been a well-stocked supply of broccoli, carrots, and lettuce. Not that eating healthy would do her good now; the bitch was dead. Natsinet opened the freezer. There was a frozen pack of chicken legs, a couple of boxes of pre-prepared frozen meals (Weight Watchers), and a carton of ice cream. Natsinet stood in front of the refrigerator, thinking. Didn’t Jeffrey Dahmer store one of his disarticulated victims in his refrigerator and freezer? If she moved some things around, she might be able to fit Rachael’s body parts in both compartments. It would be a stretch, but she had to try.
    She turned her attention to the sink and flipped on the overhead light. After some poking and prodding she found a switch that turned on the garbage disposal. Natsinet grinned. With a combination of the refrigerator/freezer and the garbage disposal, she had a way out of this. Pour the blood and organs like the lungs, liver, and pancreas down the garbage disposal, store the limbs, head, and as much of the torso in the refrigerator/freezer tonight. She could probably even flush smaller organs down the toilet. Then she would have to clean the carpet, get the blood out of it. She would be working all night, but she was pretty sure she could pull this off. She would also wait until the early dawn to see if that thug was still hanging around outside. He’d have to go home sometime, and once the coast was clear she would carry body parts out of the house wrapped in plastic trash bags and dispose of them in the dumpster at the back of the building, making sure they were well buried within the rest of the garbage.
    With a new sense of purpose, Natsinet started rooting around under the sink for some cleaning material. She had to clean the carpets as much as possible before the blood dried and set in permanently (of course, if that happened she could play it by ear and pay somebody to come in to rip up the old carpet and install a new one—she’d pay for that out of her own pocket and keep Mrs. Smith nice and doped up while the job was being done). She quickly found carpet cleaner, a plastic bucket, and some rags. She went into the living room and turned on the light. Blood spattered the living room wall, the front door, and one of the chairs and an end table. There was a huge blood stain on the living room floor, a big gob of it actually, right where Rachael’s head had once lain. For the first time Natsinet cursed herself for losing her temper so quickly. It was going to take a minor miracle to remove all this blood so it would appear nothing happened.
    Natsinet got to work, still nude. No sense getting dressed now since I still have that bitch’s body to deal with when I’m done, she thought. Four hours later the walls, the door, and the furniture were free of blood and the carpet was scrubbed clean. Natsinet stood in the kitchen, her chest and face sweating from the exertion of scrubbing the blood out of the carpet with hot water, carpet cleaner, and chemicals. She’d made so many trips to the kitchen sink to pour dirty, bloody water down the drain that she couldn’t count them. She glanced at the digital clock on the counter. It was two-thirty a.m.
    After checking Adelle’s vital signs and noting them in her chart, she headed back into the living room, pondering her next move.
    If only that nosy bitch hadn’t shown up, Natsinet could have gotten out of this situation in a less precarious way. She would have found the right drug combinations that would have triggered another stroke, maybe a heart attack, and the old lady would be no more. She was pretty sure the nurse had not told anybody she was coming by here, but she couldn’t take that chance. She wondered if any of those hoods across the street had seen Rachael enter the apartment. She had to assume they had. She also had to assume that some of them had police records and couldn’t be trusted.
    Rachael approached the closed curtain that covered the window overlooking the street below and peered outside. The street was empty. Those gangbangers were gone now.
    An idea was forming in Natsinet’s mind. She crossed the apartment to the bathroom. Rachael’s clothes were piled in the sink where she’d put them after Natsinet took them off her prior to dismembering her. Her purse lay on the floor. Natsinet picked up the purse and rifled through it, finding a set of keys. Her fingers ran across the black surface of a car alarm key fob.
    Keys in hand, Natsinet went into the second bedroom where she was sleeping while taking care of her charge. She dressed quickly, pulled on a pair of tennis shoes and, as an afterthought, picked up the gun, which she’d left in the room. She’d wiped Rachael’s blood and strands of hair off it earlier in the evening. She slapped a full clip in and made sure the safety was on, then jammed it in the front pocket of her hooded sweatshirt. Then, with Rachael’s keys in one hand, her own keys in her front jeans pocket that contained the key to the apartment, she stepped outside, locking the door behind her.
    She knew she would have to make this quick if she wanted to avoid detection. She darted out of the building and, holding the key fob in front of her, began pressing the disarm button. She turned left, heading east, walking down the sidewalk, key fob pointed at the cars parked along the curb as she pressed the button, trying to see which vehicle might be Rachael’s.
    Come on, come on, you had to have parked somewhere, Natsinet thought. She made it to the end of the block, looked both ways. The coast was clear. Making a random guess, she turned left again and headed up the street, depressing the disarm key and five houses later she got a reply: a blink of headlights.
    Sighing in relief, Natsinet ran up to the car, pressed the key fob again. This time she heard the disengaging of the car’s locks. She took a quick look around and was surprised to see nobody out. She approached the driver’s side door and got it open quickly. The vehicle was a Toyota Camry, a nice one. If it wasn’t brand new, it was well cared for. Somebody would appreciate this car once they saw it. Moving quickly, Natsinet leaned inside, inserted the keys in the ignition and turned the key one notch to power on the electrical system. That not only confirmed these keys belonged to Rachael’s car, it would allow her to roll down the driver’s side window to make the bait more enticing.
    She pressed the button of the power windows, let them go down halfway and stopped. Then she pulled the keys out, shut the door without locking it, and headed back toward the apartment.
    Her nerves were on fire when she let herself back into the apartment. She leaned against the locked door, trying to catch her breath. Natsinet was positive that Rachael’s car would be stolen by eight o’clock. Probably by one of the punks that was hanging out in front of the house last night. Next step was to work on getting the rest of her body out of the apartment.
    Natsinet glanced at the clock. Two fifty a.m. Only a few more hours until daybreak.
    Figuring she’d better make the best of it, Natsinet stripped her clothes off in her room, and headed back to the bathroom to resume her work on Rachael.
    By four o’clock, Rachael’s blood and most of her soft tissue organs except for the stomach and intestines had been poured down the sink, ground up in the garbage disposal, and flushed down the toilet.
    By five o’clock Rachael’s torso was cleanly bisected below the fifteenth lumbar vertebrae, and the limbs themselves were wrapped up in newspaper and ready to be stored in the freezer. Fifteen minutes later, the bisected torso was wrapped in plastic garbage bags; the head now sat in the kitchen sink, ready to be bundled up for storage.
    Natsinet stood in the kitchen, her muscles screaming in agony. She’d never been put through such a heavy workout in her life. She knew that most of her exhaustion probably had to do with the stress. She was looking out the kitchen window, trying to track what had to be done next when it suddenly came to her. No sense taking the body out now. People are already out and leaving for work. They’ll see you take a bunch of garbage bags out to the dumpster. No, your best bet is to wait until tomorrow night real late, two or three in the morning. Get rid of her then. Besides, waste management will show up six hours later to pick it up. Then you’ll be free and clear of her.
    Free and clear.
    Natsinet ran her fingers through her dirty, sweaty hair. She was beat. And she needed a shower.
    She stepped into the bathroom, which was more or less spotless even after all the work she’d done to take apart another human being, and took a long, hot shower. Then she checked on Adelle Smith, gave her another shot of Demerol, and went into her room to lay down on the unmade bed. She was asleep the moment her head hit the pillow.

Chapter Seventeen

    Tonya didn’t realize she had a message on her cell until she was at work, getting ready for the first of a series of meetings with the firm of Deloitte & Touche for a surprise audit of their accounting system.
     As usual the past few weeks, it had been hectic getting Tess out of the house. The little girl was at the age where she was trying to test her limits with her parents. She and Gerald were always quick to correct Tess, but lately she’d been trying both their patience. This morning had been worse. Tonya had lost her temper and swatted Tess’s rump, something she swore she’d never do. Not that she had anything against a good swat on the rump, just that she believed it should never be done in anger. She’d apologized to a crying Tess in the car and told her that even though she was sorry, she wanted Tess to understand why she’d gotten swatted. Tess had nodded, tears streaming down her cheeks.
    “Yes momma, you swatted my butt because I wasn’t listening to you and daddy…I wasn’t getting ready for school.”
    So they’d talked about it on the drive to school, and after dropping Tess off with a hug and a kiss, she’d driven to work and started stressing out about her job. She’d forgotten about the surprise audit, and normally she would have used the morning commute to prepare herself mentally for it. Instead she’d been distracted by the family havoc. God, she wished she didn’t have to work. Gerald was working two jobs—his day job as an administrator for an insurance company and his night job, his dream job, as a professor of History at Penn State. That was what Gerald Brown really wanted to do; be a teacher. His specialty was American History, including pre-Columbus history, and a course in African American History, a course he’d laid out the syllabus for himself. The drawback was the teaching gigs were part-time, and Gerald was working his ass off to impress the Department Chair. One of the tenured professors was retiring this year and Gerald was up for the job. If he could get it, Tonya could either quit her job or take a less demanding position elsewhere. And when Gerald gained tenure…
    In short, they were overworked and overextended and Tonya knew it. If they could only have more time for themselves…for family…
    Tonya quickly dialed her voice mail as her colleagues filed into the conference room. When Mike’s voice came through she didn’t recognize it at first, then a spike of alarm went through her. She quickly rose to her feet and left the conference room.
    She listened to the message a second time to confirm what she’d just heard.
    “Tonya, you ready?” Her boss, Chad Duncan, was entering the conference room with her co-worker Bernie Hill. Chad’s tone suggested that he was waiting for her.
    “In a minute,” she said, dismissing him by turning her back to him. She quickly speed-dialed Mike’s number and waited for it to ring through.
    It rang three times.
    “Mike, it’s Tonya. I just got your message.”
    “Tonya! Man, I was worried as hell last night when you didn’t call me back.”
    “What’s goin’ on?”
    Mike quickly told her. He saw one of the nurses enter momma’s house. Ten, maybe fifteen minutes later there was a lot of noise coming from the apartment, what sounded like yelling, then a scream. Mike had stormed upstairs and pounded on the door but nobody answered. Then Natsinet answered the door—well, she spoke to him from the other side of the door. Said everything was okay, that momma just had a bad nightmare.
     “She wouldn’t let me in to check, told me she was gonna call the police.”
    “Then what?”
    She needed to get out there as soon as possible.
    Mike told her the rest and Tonya relaxed a little. Chad poked his head out into the hall, watching her, but Tonya ignored him. Fuck his skinny ass white-collar bullshit.
    “I hung out ‘til about two but everything seemed okay. Light came back on and I didn’t hear anything. Went upstairs and even listened. Didn’t sound unusual. Like she was maybe cleaning or something.”
    “Cleaning, washing dishes, somethin’ like that.”
    “You go over there again?”
    “Not yet. I wasn’t sure if maybe I was over-reacting.”
    Tonya thought quickly. Natsinet wouldn’t let Mike in to the apartment. No arguing that. She could call and tell her Mike could go in, that might help. She was about to suggest this to Mike when Chad interrupted her.
    “Tonya? We’re waiting!”
    “Listen, Mike, I gotta go, but I’m gonna call the apartment and tell Natsinet you can go in. Wait for my call, okay?”
    “Okay. I’ll be here.”
    “And Mike?”
    “Thanks. I’ll call—”
    Chad again. Impatient.
    Tonya lost her temper again and shot her boss a smoldering glare; part of her instantly regretted it.
    That fucking asshole, she thought as Chad stormed back into the room. This is fucking great, now that fucking asshole’s gonna get on my ass for giving him an attitude. Christ, I wish he’d just fire me and get it over with!
    Mike must have heard the exchange.
    “You okay?”
    “I’m fine. I gotta take care of something first real quick and then I’ll call you back.”
    “Give me an hour.”
    They hung up. With a feeling of apprehension, Tonya entered the conference room, already coming up with a plan to worm her way out of today’s meeting and get out of here. Chad could fuck himself if he didn’t like it. If Big Mike called, she knew something was wrong. He wouldn’t just call her like that if he didn’t think it was serious.

Chapter Eighteen

    Natsinet awoke to the doorbell ringing frantically and a fist pounding on the door as if someone were trying to knock it out of the frame. She looked at the clock on the nightstand. It was mid-afternoon. She’d slept more than twelve hours. The excitement from the previous evening had exhausted her more than she’d realized.
    Groggily, Natsinet pulled herself from the mattress and stumbled towards the door. She seized the doorknob and was about to open it when she remembered Rachael’s dismembered body, still in the apartment. She turned and looked around the room. There were limbs wrapped in trashbags and duct tape lying on the living room floor. Rachael’s head was still sitting in the kitchen sink and her torso was on the kitchen floor, one half wrapped neatly and ready for storage, the other half only partially tucked inside a Hefty bag, slowly exsanguinating onto the linoleum.
    Shit, I forgot to put them in the freezer! Goddamn!
    Natsinet ran and snatched up the wrapped arms and shoved them into the freezer. The banging on the front door continued as she went back to scoop up the legs. She heard tendons pop and tear as she shattered Rachael’s kneecaps, forcing the woman’s huge legs into the freezer as well.
    Fuck, I should’ve cut them in half. Why didn’t I think of that?
    She then picked up the head from the sink and the half of Rachael’s torso that was still bleeding on the floor and stored them in the refrigerator.
    Rachael’s eyes had begun to sink into her face, with very little brain matter behind them to hold them in place. Natsinet paused a second to regard the dead woman’s expression. It was obvious she’d died in pain and fear; in fear of Natsinet. Something about that made Natsinet feel really good, powerful, in control, the way she’d felt pointing the gun at Rachael’s face, the way she’d felt the last two weeks abusing Adelle Smith, the way she’d felt every time she’d purposely left a surgical instrument or a sponge inside a gang banger after sewing up his guts for the third or fourth time.
    Natsinet was smart enough to recognize what she was becoming. She’d always known that she was a clinical sociopath but she’d been able to control it in the past, or at least hide it. Now she’d crossed the line into what criminal psychologists would refer to as an anger excitation killer: basically, a serial killer.
    There was no room for the other half of Rachael’s torso. Both the refrigerator and the freezer were full to bursting with her other various parts and she couldn’t leave it there lying on the floor. One of Rachael’s enormous breasts, the nipple as long and rigid as a child’s thumb, was clearly visible, pressing against the plastic. One look and there would be no doubt of what the trash bag contained. Natsinet picked it up and ran it into her room, shoving it under her bed. The banging on the door stopped and then the phone started ringing.
    Natsinet was panting hard as she rushed to retrieve the phone.
    “Natsinet? This is Tonya, Adelle’s daughter. I’ve been trying to call you for the last hour. Why didn’t you answer the phone? Is my mother okay? Why are you breathing so hard? Is there something wrong over there?”
    Natsinet knew right away who’d been banging on the door. It was that big Black thug from across the street. Evidently he really was a friend of the family.
    He must have called Tonya and told her that I wouldn’t let him in.
    “I-I was taking a nap and someone started banging on the front door,” Natsinet said, the lie springing to her lips instantly. “It scared me to death. I think they might be trying to break in. There was this hoodlum at the door last night trying to get in. I was so scared. I was going to call the cops, but he went away.”
    “That’s just my friend Big Mike. I told him to check on Momma for me. You can let him in.”
    The last thing Natsinet wanted to do was let that big thug into the apartment so he could poke around. She could tell he was suspicious. If he found Rachael’s body she wasn’t sure she could handle him, even with the gun.
    “Are you sure? This guy was really big and he looked kind of dangerous. He was dressed like he’d just gotten out of prison or something.”
    “It’s okay. He’s a friend of mine. Now, please let him in.” Tonya’s voice was cold and emotionless. She was obviously suspicious as well. Natsinet couldn’t help but notice that Tonya hadn’t asked about her mother again, as if she didn’t trust her to give her the correct information. She was waiting on Big Mike to check things out for her instead.
    Natsinet paused, thinking, trying to find a way to get out of letting Mike into the apartment.
    “Yeah, I’ll let him in. Just let me get dressed first. I’m in my robe.”
    Natsinet hung up the phone and rushed into Adelle’s room to clean her up. The old woman was still lying slumped on her side with drool coming from her mouth and blood caked on her chin. Natsinet grabbed a sponge and wiped her face, then she straightened her up and posed her in what she imagined was a restful position. When she was finished, she changed into a fresh pair of clothes—jeans and a blouse, no bra. She paused at the bathroom, both to make sure it looked okay and to briefly inspect herself in the mirror. Satisfied, she walked back to the door, knowing that Big Mike was still on the other side even though he’d stopped ringing the bell. He wouldn’t go away unless she made him. She opened the door.
    “About damn time!”
    Big Mike shouldered past Natsinet, glaring murderously down at her as he stepped into the apartment. He walked into the middle of the living room, standing directly in the spot where Rachael’s blood and brains had leaked onto the carpet, then he turned to face her as Natsinet closed the front door.
    “You’re Natty right?”
    “Natsinet Zenawi.”
    “Yeah, they told me you was a stuck up half-White African bitch. Where’s Mrs. Smith?”
    Mike leaned down until his nose almost touched Natsinet’s. Natsinet wanted to put the big man in his place for speaking so disrespectfully to her, but something about him seemed too dangerous to fool with. His physical presence was overpowering. Natsinet felt as if she were being attacked just by him standing in such close proximity to her. She backed up and Big Mike stepped forward until her back hit the wall adjacent to the door. His breath reeked of Marijuana and alcohol, yet his eyes were still clear and alert, intense.
    “Well, where is she?”
    “She’s in her room…sleeping. She’s had a hard day of physical therapy so please don’t disturb her. She needs her rest.”
    “I ain’t gonna disturb her. I just want to make sure she’s being properly taken care of.”
    He started towards Natsinet’s room and she stepped in front of him, barring his way.
    “That’s my room. Adelle is in there.”
    Big Mike turned away from her door, narrowing his eyes at her as he did so. Natsinet led the way to Adelle’s room.
    She looked back over her shoulder and saw Mike’s eyes crawling over her ass. Her eyes met his and he winked at her and adjusted himself through his pants. She was appalled when she noticed that he was erect. At first she was outraged. She nearly turned to confront him. Then Natsinet recognized an opportunity to neutralize him as a threat.
    Holding her index finger up to her lips as she opened the door, Natsinet led Mike into the room, taking his hand in hers. The curtains and blinds were drawn, shutting out the sun. The room was darkened and stank heavily of the cleansers and disinfectants Natsinet had used to clean Rachael’s blood from the tub in the adjoining master bathroom. Natsinet led Mike inside without turning on the lights.
    “Mrs. Smith?” Big Mike said.
    “Shhhh! You’ll wake her. I told you she’s had a hard day. She needs to rest.”
    Mike jerked his hand free of hers and walked over to Adelle Smith, taking her hand in his as delicately as he was able.
    “Mrs. Smith? It’s me, Big Mike, Nancy Edward’s son. Tonya sent me to check on you.”
    He was about to check for a pulse when the sound of her soft snoring came to him. He let her hand drop, kissed her gently, reverently, on the forehead, and then backed quietly out of the room. Natsinet shut the door behind him.
    “Is she going to be okay?” Mike’s voice was low, concern in his features. “I’m sayin’…she means a lot to a lot of folks around here.”
    “She looks like she’s progressing but there are a lot of things that can go wrong with a stroke victim. Blood clots in the legs or in the lungs, pneumonia, infection, heart failure. There’s just no way of knowing when she’ll be completely out of the woods.”
    Mike dropped his head. He looked almost heartbroken.
    “Damn, I had no idea it was this bad.”
    Natsinet placed a hand on his shoulder. It was hard as iron and nearly as big and round as a basketball. She patted him on the back and guided him back into the living room.
    “Is that other nurse still here?”
    “No, she’s off today.”
    “But I saw her come in earlier, last night. I didn’t see her leave and I was out there most of the night.”
    “She’d forgotten some personal items here from the weekend and she came to retrieve them. Her car was parked in back of the apartment complex. You probably just didn’t see her leave.”
    Mike nodded solemnly.
    “Would you like something to drink?”
    “Naw, I’m straight. Maybe some water.”
    Natsinet went into the kitchen and nearly fell as she skidded in a small puddle of blood on the vinyl floor where she’d been wrapping the two halves of Rachael’s torso. Mike went into the living room and sat down heavily on the couch, sinking deep into the cushions, oblivious to Natsinet, deep in his own thoughts.
    Natsinet looked down at the blood congealing on the floor and then back at Big Mike to make sure he wasn’t watching. She grabbed a sponge from beneath the sink, dampened it with water from the faucet, and quickly scrubbed the dark reddish brown stain from the floor. Then she removed a glass from the cabinet and opened the freezer to get some ice. She reached through the tangle of plastic-wrapped limbs and withdrew two ice cubes from the tray in the back, then slammed the freezer door, checking once again to make sure Mike wasn’t looking over her shoulder and hadn’t seen Rachael’s large thighs crammed in next to the ice cream and frozen peas. She dropped the cubes into the glass and turned towards Mike, summoning as warm an expression as she could muster as if she were a kid making faces in a mirror with only a vague concept of what the expression was meant to convey or the emotions generally attached to it. She’d long come to understand that her emotions were not like others.
    Before walking back into the living room Natsinet removed a small steak knife from the drawer by the oven and slid it into her pants pocket. She had forgotten to load the gun and besides, the knife would be a lot quieter. Big Mike was watching her now as she stepped back into the living room holding the glass of water.
    “I’m glad Mrs. Smith has someone taking care of her,” Big Mike said. He seemed like a different guy now. “If she needs anything—if you need anything, you just let me know.”
    Natsinet smiled.
    “Thank you. I appreciate that.”
    She handed Big Mike the glass of water and sat down next to him. Mike raised one eyebrow as she scooted closer to him on the couch. As he drank, she rested a hand on his thigh.
    “If you need anything, you be sure to let me know also.”
    Mike was obviously a man who was used to women coming on to him. In high school he’d probably been a star athlete. Basketball or football or maybe both, and on the streets he was a ghetto superstar who could have his pick of any of the neighborhood women. Still, Natsinet’s uncharacteristically bold advance caught him off guard. His eyes went from her hand to her eyes as he gulped down the rest of the ice water. She could tell he had a hard time reading her expression.
    “Yeah? Okay, so what do you want wit’ me?”
    Natsinet was still smiling at him.
    “I just think you’re handsome, that’s all.”
    Big Mike’s eyes narrowed in suspicion.
    “Uh huh. Well, you’re fine as hell but still, something ain’t right wit’ you. I just get this fucked up vibe from you like you tryin’a play me and I’ve been out there livin’ reckless long enough to know to trust my instincts.”
    Natsinet laughed.
    “You sound like you’re scared of me. As big as you are? I bet you could snap my neck with one hand.”
    Big Mike reached out quickly and grabbed her by the throat in one of his tremendous paws, squeezing just enough so that Natsinet could feel his strength, how easily he could end her life. Her pulse sped up as fear shot adrenalin through her bloodstream.
    “Believe that,” he muttered. Gone was the easy-going expression he’d slipped into after seeing Mrs. Smith. “I could kill you before you could blink.”
    “Then I won’t.”
    She slid the knife out of her pocket and into his gut. Mike’s eyes went wild and he tightened his grip on her throat, pinching her windpipe shut. She withdrew the knife and stabbed him again. His grip tightened. She was starting to see spots. She pulled the knife out again and this time Mike caught the blade before it could descend once more.
    “You fuckin’ bitch!” Mike roared. “You tryin’ to kill me? I’m gonna rip your fucking head off!”
    His grip was incredibly strong. Natsinet felt herself beginning to lose consciousness. She fought to free her hand from his grip, struggled to wrest her neck from his other hand. She was successful at neither. She could see Mike’s eyes beginning to glaze just as her own vision went black.

Chapter Nineteen

    Tonya rushed straight from the conference room to the parking lot, ignoring the look of disapproval on the face of her boss. She had to go see her mother. Something just felt wrong.
    She’d spent an hour in the meeting that morning, then excused herself and tried calling the apartment. When nobody picked up she was gripped by a sudden dread. Something was wrong over there. She folded her cellphone up and went back into the conference room to get her things.
    Chad looked at her in annoyance as she scooped up her briefcase and purse.
    “Tonya? You’re leaving?”
    “I have to go,” Tonya explained quickly, ignoring the curious looks from her co-workers. Bernie had been in the middle of a presentation; he looked on in concern. Most of the people in the room looked concerned, but not Chad. “My mother’s sick. I’ve got to go.”
    Ignoring him, she left the conference room and hurried through the maze of cubicles to the hallway and out the building.
    She tried calling the apartment several times as she walked out to the parking lot and made her way to her car. The phone rang and rang. She hung up and called back three more times and then tried Big Mike’s cell phone. No answer there either. She continued trying to call both phones as she hopped onto I-95 and made her way toward the city. By the time she reached Philadelphia she still had not reached either of them and was starting to panic. Tonya knew what Mike did for a living and a drug dealer not answering his cell phone was bad business. If anything, Big Mike was an excellent businessman.
    Tonya hit Lincoln Drive doing sixty through the nerve-jarring turns, not caring for her own safety but only that of her mother.
    Something is wrong. Why won’t someone answer? Where the hell is Natsinet?
    Tonya was afraid that perhaps Natsinet had walked off the job and left her mother alone or worse. Maybe someone had broken into the house or attacked Natsinet on the way to the house. A dozen different possibilities went through her head including one she didn’t want to even consider; that perhaps she didn’t know Big Mike as well as she thought she did and he’d done something to Natsinet and momma. That would explain why he wasn’t answering his cell phone. He would know it was her calling to check on momma, and if he’d done something to them—but that was impossible. She’d known Big Mike her entire life. Yet she knew that Natsinet had a way of rubbing people the wrong way. She could imagine her getting under Mike’s skin, and if he was drunk or high…plus they’d already gotten off on the wrong foot when he’d gone over there last night. Still, there was no way he would hurt her mother no matter how pissed off or intoxicated he was. He had too much respect for Tonya’s mother to do anything to hurt her. Even if he beat Natsinet to death he would have stayed there to look after her mother until Tonya could get there. He would have called her and told her to come home quickly. He wouldn’t just leave her in the dark.
    So what the hell is going on?
    A car pulled out in front of her and Tonya stomped on her brakes. The front of her car collided with the other car’s driver side door, pushing it in and bending the other car in half. Tonya’s head shattered the windshield, opening a gash on her forehead.
    The rear of the vehicle skidded and Tonya fought to control the skid. Her car came to rest at the side of the road, facing oncoming traffic. A sports car narrowly missed her, the driver honking in irritation. She felt a spurt of adrenaline surge through her as she stepped on the gas after coming to a stop—she had to get back on the road. Had to get to her mother’s apartment but the car stalled, then died.
    Tonya pounded her fist on the steering wheel. She was only four or five miles from her mother’s home, but by the time she got done with the police it could be another two hours.
    “Damnit! Damnit! Damnit!” Tonya buried her face in her hands and cried in frustration.
    Around her, traffic continued as cars drove around the accident. A couple of good Samaritans ventured out of their vehicles and headed toward the accident. A young White guy in blue jeans and a white t-shirt leaned toward Tonya’s side of the car.
    “Ma’am, you okay?”
    Tonya risked a glance at the car she’d hit. A crowd of people were gathered around it. Somebody was leaning inside, talking to the driver. She wondered how badly they were hurt.
    “Ma’am?” The man tried to get her door open. It was stuck. “You hurt anywhere else besides your head?”
    Tonya shook her head. Her head didn’t hurt at all. She touched her fingers to her forehead and felt blood.
    “Don’t worry, we’re gonna get you out of there,” The man outside her car said. He was already joined by an older White guy and a young guy who looked Puerto Rican. Off in the distance she heard sirens.
    Tonya Brown’s day had just gotten worse.

Chapter Twenty

    The EMT insisted Tonya be taken to the hospital and was having none of her protests. He listened with a fake look of concern on his face that just barely masked his annoyance as his partner, a big guy with an olive complexion, made sure she was secure on the back brace.
    “I’m telling you, I can’t go to the hospital! My mother’s in trouble! I have to get to her!”
    “Uh huh, that’s what they all say,” the EMT said. He was a young White guy with a mop of black hair. “My mother’s in trouble, or I’m late to work or band practice or whatever. I’ve heard it a million times lady, and if I were you I’d count yourself damn lucky you made it out of this accident with your brain still in your brain pan.”
    “Listen to me you little shit!”
    “Wanna hear something?” The EMT didn’t seem fazed by Tonya’s anger. He leaned closer to her as his partner secured her to the gurney. “One time we had an accident victim like you. Guy was doing a hundred in a fifty mile an hour zone. He hit a tree head on. Dude wasn’t drunk or under the influence, he was just a really bad driver, know what I mean? He put on the same song and dance you’re putting on now and my supervisor, who showed up at the site, made the call for the guy to sign himself out. Turns out the guy had broken his back and didn’t know it. He got maybe ten feet before one of his discs collapsed and one of his vertebrae slipped down at just the right angle and—bam! It severed his spinal cord. I’ve never seen a guy drop so fast in my life.”
    If I was out of this gurney I’d drop kick you right in the face you little punk! Tonya thought, her rage seething. She glared at the EMT, who held her gaze. He wasn’t intimidated by her at all.
    “Long story short, guy sued the county for negligence. Claimed we should’ve insisted we take him to the hospital. Of course, if we did he could’ve pulled that same shit on the Emergency Room docs and it’s possible he would’ve walked out of there too and the same thing would’ve happened.”
    “But I’m not hurt bad!” Tonya yelled. “Can’t you get that through your thick skull! The other driver isn’t even hurt at all!”
    That much was true. The driver of the other vehicle—a middle-aged Caucasian woman who’d been on her way to work—was perfectly fine. In fact, she’d asked Tonya if she was okay.
    “True enough,” the EMT said. “But you’re gonna need a couple of stitches to close that wound in your forehead up, and you were complaining of back pain. So why don’t you relax and let us take you to the hospital. You’ll be out by one o’clock.”
    “But you don’t understand! I’ve got to—”
    A uniformed police officer stepped into the fray.
    “Mrs. Brown, I think it would be a good idea to listen to George, here. I’m going to need to get a statement from you anyway.”
    Tonya almost pleaded with the officer to send a squad car to her mother’s house, but then stopped herself. If she told the police what she suspected, she was afraid her fears wouldn’t be taken seriously. Of course that was the logical thing to do—explain to the police why she was driving so fast, so she could make sure the home care nurse that had been hired to provide for her invalid mother wasn’t hurt or dead or hadn’t abandoned her, or wasn’t just ignoring her calls for some reason she couldn’t imagine. But she was afraid that if she mentioned that she’d asked her friend, a known felon, to look after the apartment, they might grow suspicious and insist that they accompany her to the apartment. That might get Big Mike into trouble even if he was innocent, especially if he had drugs or a gun on him. No, it might be better to not mention anything now. In fact, better yet, if she could get her hands on a phone and call her husband, maybe he could get over to her momma’s apartment.
    The EMT helped his partner load Tonya Brown into the waiting ambulance as the officer followed them.
    “I’ll see you at the hospital, Mrs. Brown.”
    I can hardly wait, Tonya thought as the doors shut behind her.

Chapter Twenty-One

    Adelle struggled to wake, trying desperately to clear the fog from her mind left over from the Demerol. Her head was pounding. She looked around for Natsinet but the room was empty. She had at least a few minutes to herself.
    She’d been awake through most of Natsinet’s confrontation with Rachael last night, feigning unconsciousness while listening to the nurse rage about her childhood growing up bi-racial. She’d luckily been spared Rachael’s murder by the shot of Demerol the nurse had given her. But she of all people knew what Natsinet was capable of, so she did not expect that Rachael had survived the encounter. That meant it was once again up to her to somehow save herself.
    There was moaning coming from the other room. It sounded as if someone were in pain. Heavy footfalls approached Adelle’s bedroom. The rhythm was halting and uncertain, like someone staggering or limping. The door to Adelle’s bedroom opened and Mike Simmons, Nancy Edward’s boy from down the street who Tonya used to play with when she was little, stepped into her room, one hand clutching his stomach, which was saturated in blood. A steady stream of red dripped from between his fingers as more blood pumped from the wound.
    “You’ve got to get out of here, Mrs. Smith. We’ve got to get you out of here. That nurse is crazy. She tried to kill me.”
    He walked over to Adelle’s bed and tried to lift her before almost collapsing.
    “I’m sorry,” He panted, his huge form leaning its entire weight on her bed. His heavily muscled arms held onto the bed rails for support.
    Adelle shuddered at the thought of what Big Mike had been through. She had no idea he was even in the apartment. She assumed that Tonya must have asked him to watch out for her. Obviously, he’d witnessed what was going on and tried to save her, only to be attacked by Natsinet instead.
    Where is she? Did he kill her?
    Adelle tried to look around Mike into the living room but his tremendous girth blocked her view. She hoped that he had managed to kill Natsinet. She no longer had any desire to understand the woman. She only wanted her dead.
    Mike’s breathing was labored, raspy.
    “I’m sorry. I feel so weak. I’m bleeding like a damn stuck pig. That crazy bitch stabbed me. I can’t believe she stabbed me.”
    He stood up again and scooped his huge arms beneath Adelle’s legs and shoulders. This time he did manage to lift her. He carried her to the bedroom door, teetering as if he were about to pass out any minute. Adelle was afraid he would drop her and fall right on top of her. Then she saw Natsinet, rising from the living room floor. She looked weak and unsteady, tiny next to Mike’s massive form, but when her eyes fixed on Adelle’s there was a rage in them that made her look ten times more dangerous than her rescuer.
    “Stay the fuck away from me you crazy bitch!” Mike’s voice sounded weak, far off. He was fading quickly.
    “You’re not taking her anywhere.”
    Natsinet knelt and picked up a knife from the floor and stepped in front of Mike, blocking his path to the front door. Still holding Adelle with his left arm, Big Mike reached his right hand into his waistband and pulled out a gun, something bigger than Adelle’s .45 caliber. Natsinet paused and backed away. Mike’s hand wavered and the gun swung back and forth as he tried to hold Adelle with one hand and aim the gun with the other. He seemed disoriented from the loss of blood and was having a hard time aiming the gun. Natsinet smiled and stepped back into his path as he took a step forward.
    “Don’t do this, Natty,” Adelle said.
    “My fucking name is Natsinet!” Natsinet roared and then paused, looking at Adelle curiously, eyes wide in astonishment. “You just spoke.”
    “Parlodel. Rachael gave it to me. It’s for Parkinson’s patients. It helps improve speech. She said it would work for stroke patients too.” Adelle’s words came out slow and slightly slurred but they were still understandable. She could talk again.
    “I know what the fuck it does! How the hell did you get it?” Natsinet looked furious. Rachael had gotten something over on her and she clearly did not like it.
    “She gave it to me when she was working.”
    “Did you speak to her? Did you fucking tell her about me?”
    “No. This is the first time I’ve spoken. But it doesn’t matter now does it? I know you killed her.”
    Natsinet smiled.
    “I cut her fat ass up and put her in the freezer next to your leftovers.”
    “I know what you’re trying to do and it won’t work.”
    Natsinet put one hand on her hip, still holding the knife in the other. She raised one eyebrow, that devilish grin still scarring her face.
    “Oh yeah, and what is it I’m trying to do?”
    “You’re Black, at least half Black, and no matter what you do to me or how many other Black people you kill, you’ll still be Black. You can’t kill that. My blood isn’t going to wash that away and neither is Mike’s.”
    “Are you trying to do some kind of psychoanalysis on me now? You think you know me?”
    She took a step forward. Adelle was hoping she could get the woman to move even closer so that Mike could shoot her without missing. The way his gun hand kept dropping and waving around she wasn’t sure he could even see anymore. At least if Natsinet was two feet in front of him he wouldn’t have to aim. All he’d have to do is pull the trigger.
    “I heard what you told Rachael about your father.”
    Natsinet paused.
    “You don’t know shit about my father.”
    “I know he was a proud Black man who worked hard trying to give you a good life and that he died senselessly and that it wasn’t your fault or anyone else’s except the guy who pulled the trigger. I know you can’t bring him back. I know how much it hurt you when he and your mother split up.”
    “You’d better shut up now. Just stop it right now!”
    Natsinet pointed the knife at Adelle, itching to cut the old woman’s throat with it, but Mike still held the gun between them.
    “Get out of our way or I swear I’ll put a cap in you.”
    Big Mike could barely keep the gun steady and he was starting to wobble, slowly teetering back and forth. The wounds in his gut continued to pump a dark viscous red, soaking his shirt and jeans. Adelle was pretty sure he had only a few more minutes of consciousness left and if he didn’t get to a hospital he’d be dead in less than an hour. She had to try to talk Natsinet down, get her to let them pass.
     “I know how you felt growing up, always feeling different. Feeling like you were somehow inferior when you were around White kids because of the Black blood in your veins. Feeling inferior when you were around Black kids because of the White blood in your veins.”
    “I said shut the fuck up!”
    “Get the fuck out of our way!” Mike yelled back at Natsinet. He seemed to regain a little of his strength. His grip on Adelle tightened.
    Adelle ignored them both and kept talking. Tears began to roll from Natsinet’s eyes, the first genuine emotion Adelle had ever seen the woman display other than anger. She looked as if she were on the verge of a breakdown. Adelle wasn’t sure what would happen when the woman snapped, but she couldn’t see how it could be any worse than the position they were in now.
    “Once your dad was dead you chose to identify with the White side of your family because you blamed all of us for your daddy’s death, anyone with a Black face, but the White side of your family didn’t accept you either because they know exactly what you’re trying to deny… that you’re Black too. You’re one of us. We’re your people.”
    “I’m not Black! You people aren’t anything like me! I’m not one of you!”
    Natsinet started forward, raising the knife when the front door opened and Tonya stepped into the apartment.
    Natsinet stopped and looked back, the knife still raised over her head. Tonya looked stunned. She had a freshly bandaged wound on her forehead and she was looking from the bloody knife in Natsinet’s hand to Mike’s blood-soaked shirt, to the gun in his hand, to Adelle cradled in Mike’s arms, slowly slipping from his weakening grasp.
     “What the hell is going on here?”
    As Natsinet turned towards Tonya, Mike teetered and started to fall, dropping Adelle onto the carpet and dropping the gun, a Desert Eagle .50 caliber semi-automatic, next to her. Adelle hit the ground on her right side, facing the bedroom, and immediately tried to roll over to push herself back up. She lay there on her belly as Tonya tackled Natsinet and the two women hit the ground on the other side of the sofa.
    She heard Tonya yell, heard a grunt of pain as a blow was struck. Natsinet screamed. There was a thud as one of them struck the floor.
    Adelle didn’t hear the knife clatter to the floor, but she heard the fight that followed. She couldn’t see what was going on because her view was blocked by the sofa in front of her, but she could hear it. She heard a crash and one of her picture frames landed beside her, its edge coated with blood. It was the same one she’d been planning on braining Natsinet with for the past two weeks. She only hoped that the blood on it was from Natsinet and not Tonya.
    She tried to hoist herself up, wished she weren’t so helpless now. Amid the struggle, punctuated by yells and the sound of fists striking flesh, Tonya’s voice was clearly audible.
    “You fucking bitch, I’m gonna fuck you up!”
    “No!” Natsinet yelled.
    Frenzied struggle.
    Adelle gathered her remaining ounce of strength. If she could only move an arm, pick something up, she could lend her hand in this battle over her life and the life of her daughter and end this once and for all.
    Adelle’s fingers trembled as they closed around the Desert Eagle. Her arm was too weak to raise the weapon so she slid it along the carpet until it was pointing underneath the sofa on the other side of which Natsinet and Tonya continued to battle. She squinted through the dust bunnies and misplaced cups and knickknacks beneath the old couch, trying to see the two women on the other side. All she could make out was a tangle of arms and legs. She could hear the sound of flesh smacking against flesh. Hear the grunts, curses, and heavy breaths as they struggled. She knew that Natsinet was wearing a white shirt and Tonya had been wearing something yellow, so she tried to distinguish the two colors and aim at the first flash of white she saw.
    “Goddamn bitch!”
    It was hard to tell if that was Natsinet or Tonya.
    Then, “Noooo!”
    Adelle fired.

Chapter Twenty-Two

    The first thing she was aware of was the pain.
    She hurt everywhere. Her mind felt cloudy again, this time from soreness and fatigue, swimming to the surface in a sea of pain that enveloped her from head to toe. The worst of it was in her head, which rang as if it were a bell that had been clanged in a church tower. She didn’t even try opening her eyes. To do so would let the light in, causing more sparks of pain to shoot inside her head.
    She remained lying down, becoming gradually aware of her surroundings as her body and mind slowly woke up.
    Voices from close by. Male. “…lucky she’s alive…”
    She felt herself sink into unconsciousness again, slipping back into that black sea. She stared at the IV hooked to her arm, watching it drip slowly as her vision blurred and fell asleep once again.
    When she came back up again, not knowing she’d even gone under, the voices were still conversing. “…has been convicted of aggravated assault and robbery…served five years of a twenty year sentence and…”
    “…just don’t believe that he’d…”
    “…I know… I know…”
    “…I’ve been trying to pin him to something for awhile now… I have it on good authority that he’s killed…”
    “…on life support now…”
    “…well, she’s a hero for what she did…”
    “…the family’s been contacted… didn’t tell them how she was killed…”
    She slipped back into unconsciousness.
* * *
    She didn’t realize she was talking until she heard her voice. How long she’d been carrying on a conversation with whoever was talking to her, she had no idea. She blinked, the room becoming more focused and she saw she was in a hospital. A middle-aged Black man in a suit was sitting in a chair by the bed. Two other men, both White and dressed in suits, were standing near the doorway to the room, looking at her.
    “…I just… reacted… and I… I…” She blinked, suddenly aware of where she was.
    The men were silent, waiting for her to continue. The man sitting beside her bed nodded at her.
    “Go on, ma’am.”
     She took a deep breath. Collected her thoughts. What had she told them?
    A tear slipped down her cheek.
    “Mrs. Smith…is she okay? Is she alive?”
    “Adelle Smith?” The man by her bed asked. “You mean…”
    “She’s alive,” the White man standing by the door said. “She’s in ICU.”
    She wet her lips; her mouth was suddenly very dry. Her heart pounded.
    “And… the others?”
    They said nothing. The man by her bed traded a glance with the other two standing by the door. It was obvious to her now that they were cops. Detectives.
    “You need your rest,” the detective sitting beside her said. He stood up. “We’ll come back later.”
    “No… please!”
    The three detectives left the hospital room and closed the door behind them.
    Leaving her wondering…
* * *
    “Something doesn’t seem right,” Detective Carl Hendrix said. The three of them were standing together near the nurses’ station in the ICU wing of Philadelphia General Hospital.
    “I agree,” Detective Robert Lennon said. He traded a glance with his partner, Brian Swinson. Robert and Brian had observed the interrogation from the doorway and Robert could tell from his partner’s troubled features that what they’d heard just didn’t add up.
    It should have been open and shut. Noted civil rights activist and a hero to many of the people in the North Philadelphia neighborhood she lived in suffered a stroke. Her daughter, Tonya Brown, arranges for home care nursing. Hospice Nursing in Philadelphia sends two of their best, Natsinet Zenawi and Rachael Williams. At some point during the two plus weeks Mrs. Smith is receiving in-home care and rehabilitation Mike Simmons, a notorious crime figure in the neighborhood who’d once served time for aggravated assault and was a known drug dealer and criminal, broke into the apartment and repeatedly raped Rachael Williams and Adelle Smith, carrying on a three day session of torture and abuse towards both women before finally killing the nurse and dismembering her. When Natsinet arrived at her scheduled time she walked into a house of horrors; during the ensuing fight with Mike Simmons, she suffered serious injuries and managed to wound Mike with several stab wounds. Tonya Brown arrived soon after and that’s when all hell broke loose.
    “Any word on Tonya’s condition?” Detective Swinson asked one of the nurses manning the ICU desk.
    “She’s in a coma. Critical condition,” the nurse answered.
    “And Mike Simmons?”
    “Still unconscious.”
    “So what about her?” Detective Swinson asked, jerking a thumb back in the direction of the room they’d just exited.
    “She took a fifty caliber bullet in the hip. It looks like she’d been strangled as well. There were large contusions around her neck. Someone beat her up pretty good. She’s lost a lot of blood. She may not walk again if the doctor can’t reconstruct her hip bone. Even then it’s going to require months of physical therapy.”
    “Damn, that’s terrible. Thank you, nurse.” Detective Swinson turned back to his partner and Detective Hendrix.
    “So let’s get this mess straight for the report.”
    Swinson pulled out a small spiral notepad and flipped to a blank page as he removed a pen from his shirt pocket. He began flipping back and forth between the notes he’d written down earlier while jotting down more notes, trying to fill in the blanks.
    “According to the first officers on the scene, Mrs. Smith had the pistol in her hand when they arrived. They think she may have shot Ms. Zenawi accidentally while trying to protect her daughter. Simmons must have dropped the gun during his fight with the nurse and Mrs. Smith was trying to pick it up when the gun went off.” Hendrix began, while flipping through his own notes.
    “Damn. She must feel terrible. I mean, if that’s really how it happened.”
    “Yeah, if.”
    “So Michael Simmons was the one who killed Rachael Williams, cut her up, and stuck her in the refrigerator?” Swinson asked.
    “And the freezer.”
    “Then he beats the hell out of that African nurse, Zenawi or whatever her name is, and tries to strangle her to death?”
    “That’s how it appears.”
    “He’d also been abusing Adelle Smith for two or three days?”
    “As far as we can tell.”
    “But yet she has bruises on her that look like they’re at least a week old as well as burn marks that have almost entirely healed?”
    “I’m still trying to figure that out myself. Maybe Simmons had been sneaking into the apartment and torturing her for a couple of weeks and no one noticed? Maybe that’s why he started torturing Rachael Williams? Maybe she caught him in the act?”
    “Uh-huh. So then Tonya comes home and he starts beating her up too, but somehow the nurse manages to wake up after being choked unconscious and beaten half to death by a guy who outweighs her by more than a hundred and fifty pounds, stabs him twice in the abdomen and in the process accidentally stabs Tonya Brown in the chest, then gets shot accidentally by Adelle Smith who is lying on the floor and can barely move? Yeah, something definitely does not sound right about that story. Too much accidental shit going on there. I suggest you wait until one of the other victims wakes up before putting that garbage in a report.”
    “That nurse, Natsinet Zenawi, has already corroborated most of the story.”
    Detective Swinson rubbed his balding scalp and shook his head, squinting an eye at his partner before turning to look back at Detective Hendrix.
    “I’d wait to hear what Mrs. Smith has to say about it before turning that report in. You’re right. Something just doesn’t fit. When Tonya Brown wakes up from surgery she might be able to piece together a little more of the story.”
    “You don’t buy any of this shit do you?” Detective Carl Hendrix asked.
    “Not a single word.”
    “I hate to say this after all she’s gone through, getting beaten and choked unconscious, then getting shot and waking up in the hospital with a permanent limp if she’s lucky and isn’t stuck in a wheelchair for the rest of her life.”
    “What are you thinking, Carl?”
    “I think Miss Zenawi is hiding something. Either she’s the victim she appears to be and she’s just in shock so her story isn’t making sense, or she’s somehow involved. I wouldn’t be surprised if she was fucking that drug dealer and they tortured Rachael Williams and Adelle Smith together.”
    “It wouldn’t be the first time something like that has happened,” Detective Swinson added, “You know…a boyfriend and girlfriend team torturing and killing, even raping. There’ve been serial killers whose wives and girlfriends were in on it with them. This could be one of those deals.”
    “But then why would she stab him?” Detective Lennon asked.
    “Maybe she didn’t. Maybe it was Tonya Brown who stabbed him and then Natsinet took the knife from her and stabbed her in retaliation. Maybe she got jealous. Maybe Tonya Brown and Big Mike were having some kind of affair and so she stabbed them both in a jealous rage.”
    “That would explain why Mrs. Smith shot her.”
    “It makes a lot more sense than her story, actually.”
    “We’ll have to see what the lab comes back with on the fingerprints.”
    “Do you know what will happen to that neighborhood if we don’t get this all figured out and soon?”
    Brian huffed. “Riots and lawsuits and protesters marching on City Hall, Civil Rights leaders giving speeches about how the Philly P.D. is dragging its feet on the case because she’s Black. Conspiracy theorists will claim that we beat her up ourselves because of her protests against police brutality thirty-five years ago and are trying to cover it up and frame an innocent drug dealer.”
    “Don’t kid yourself, Brian,” Hendrix said. ”They’ll blame it all on us even if we do solve the case.”
    The nurse came back into the room.
    “Mike Simmons is awake. He’s still pretty out of it. He just had a pretty large blood transfusion, but he asked to speak to you.”
    The detectives all turned to look at one another, stunned.
    “He asked to speak to the police?” Lennon asked.
    “He insisted, actually. Adelle Smith is awake as well.”
    “Can she talk?”
    “Her speech is still impaired from the stroke. She speaks really slowly and her words are a little slurred…but yeah, she can talk.”
    Detective Hendrix turned to the other two detectives.
    “You two take Simmons. I want to hear what Mrs. Smith has to say before I join you. We might just get out of this okay after all.”

Chapter Twenty-Three

    Adelle shook her head in exasperation. She was once again in a hospital. Yet, despite her ordeal, she felt better this time than she had the last time she’d been here after suffering that stroke. At least now she could talk again.
    “What’s your name young man?”
    Her voice was weak. Her speech sluggish. The detective had to lean in close to hear her.
    “Detective Hendrix, Carl Hendrix.”
    “Are you Black?”
    “My mother was Italian, but yes, I’m Black.”
    “That’s good to hear. I was afraid you were going to say no.”
    Adelle looked away from the detective and out the window at the sun dappling through the sheer curtains.
    “I didn’t think I was going to see the sun too many more times.”
    Adelle turned back to the detective.
    “Did I get her?”
    “Is Tonya okay? Did I shoot the right one?”
    “You mean you were trying to shoot your nurse?”
    “Who the hell else do you think I was aiming at? Did I get her?”
    Detective Hendrix’s eyebrows raised. He pulled out his notepad and pen and leaned forward.
    “I think maybe you should tell me exactly what happened in that apartment.”
* * *
    “You’re saying it was the nurse who did all this? That pretty skinny little thing in there that you tried to strangle to death?”
    Detectives Swinson and Lennon looked at each other and almost laughed, shaking their heads as if sharing a private joke.
    “She stabbed me twice. She killed that other nurse and chopped her up. She admitted it to me when I was trying to get Mrs. Smith out of the house. She’d been abusing Mrs. Smith too. Is she alright? Did I save her?”
    Lennon replied. “Who? Mrs. Smith? She’s fine. One of the other detectives is in her room with her right now. She’s telling him all about how it was you who killed that nurse. It was you who tortured her for weeks and it was you who beat and then stabbed her daughter!”
    “Tonya got stabbed? Is she okay?”
    Mike tried to sit up in bed, but he was still too weak. He winced as pain lanced through his abdomen then collapsed back onto the bed. The two detectives looked at each other. His reactions were all wrong. He wasn’t acting at all like a guilty man.
    “Relax before you bust your stitches,” Detective Swinson said. “Tonya Brown is in surgery right now, but the doctors think she’s going to be okay. The knife punctured a lung but it missed her heart.”
    “Good. That’s good. I don’t know what I’d do if she didn’t make it.”
    Detective Swinson rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Do you really think we’re buying this act of yours? This bullshit about that nurse being some kind of psycho when we both know what you are, a criminal, a drug pusher and a murderer? Just because you ain’t never been convicted for it doesn’t mean we don’t know all about the people you’ve killed. You’ve got one of the worst reputations on the street.”
    “You know what I think?” Detective Lennon spoke up as he sat down on the bed next to Mike Simmons. “I think maybe you were trying to sneak Mrs. Smith out of the house and Ms Zenawi stabbed you to try to protect her employer.”
    “Or did it go down differently?” Swinson said. “Were you and Ms. Zenawi hooked up? You two have some kind of thing going on? Maybe you were torturing Mrs. Smith together to add a little spice to your sex life? Is that how you get it up? By taking a cattleprod to a sixty-seven year old woman? I think you both murdered Rachael Williams and then you attacked Tonya when she got suspicious. The only thing I can’t understand is why Natsinet would stab you.”
    “You guys are a bunch of idiots. What the hell you been smokin’? That nurse did this shit all by herself. I’d never do anything to hurt Mrs. Smith. The only reason I was even up in there was because I thought something about that half-White African bitch wasn’t right. Bitch acted creepy as hell from the first time I met her. Tonya asked me to check on her moms and when I went up in there the bitch stabbed me.”
    Detective Swinson smiled wide. He’d been trying to find a murder he could pin on the big ex-con for half a decade. Now, he was pretty sure he had him.
    “You go ahead and tell that story to a jury. With your record, they’ll have you on death row before you finish your last sentence.”
    “Man, fuck you! I don’t give a damn what you think. Just ask Mrs. Smith. I ain’t have shit to do with this. I tried to save her from that crazy bitch! Mrs. Smith is one of the only people in that neighborhood that gives a damn about me.”
    “We’re listening.”
     “True shit, man. When I was a kid she came over to my house once, when she heard that my Pops had beaten the hell out of my mom. See, he used to get real mean when he drank. He’d hit me and my moms with just about anything he could get his hands on. He’d put my mom in the hospital with a broken rib earlier that week and word had gotten back to Mrs. Smith about it. She walked right into my house and sat down at my kitchen table. She was pissed off. You could see it in her face. She pointed at my Dad and told him that it was his responsibility to raise me into a man, the kind of man that would help elevate our race, that would help eradicate the negative stereotypes the world has of Black men, that would ensure that our people continued to prosper and succeed. Then she asked him if he thought that his drinking, and runnin’ the streets with all kinds of different women, and beating up on his wife was going to set the kind of example I needed to become that type of man. My Pops looked like he was at school being chastised by the teacher. He broke down in tears and started apologizing and shit. He hugged me and my moms and told us both that he loved us. He never hit either one of us again. That’s the kind of woman Mrs. Smith is. Ain’t no way I would have hurt her. I’d give my life for that old woman.” He ran a hand over his bandaged stomach. “Shit, I damn near did.”
    “He’s right.”
    Detectives Swinson and Lennon turned as Carl Hendrix walked into the room.
    “I just got finished talking to Mrs. Smith. He tried to save her. It was the nurse. She’d been torturing Mrs. Smith since the day she took the job. She used cattleprods and lighters and stunguns on her. Some real sick shit. And I think she may have done some worse stuff to her that she won’t talk about. I didn’t press her for details.”
    “Awww shit. She did all that shit to Mrs. Smith?” Mike said, his face displaying every bit of his revulsion. “Now, I really wish I had capped that crazy bitch!”
    “Damn. So he’s innocent?” Detective Lennon asked, that confident self-satisfied smirk slipping from his face, shoulders sagging, clearly disappointed not to be the one to put Big Mike Simmons on death row.
    “Hell, he’s a hero and so is she. She shot the right woman apparently. Saved all of their lives.”
    “What made her do it? What, is she just crazy or somethin’?”
    “Let’s go ask her. See if we can get a confession.”
* * *
    Natsinet knew the minute the three detectives walked into her room that they’d figured it out. They stared at her as they entered, without speaking, their minds working overtime, trying to reconcile what they now knew about her with the fragile-looking woman before them. They circled her bed, keeping their distance as if they were afraid she would strike.
    “So, what did that old bitch tell you about me?”
    “She told us quite a bit, but we’re more interested in hearing what you have to say,” Detective Hendrix said.
    “Are you White?”
    “No.” Detective Hendrix replied, “I’m Black.”
    “But you’re half White aren’t you?”
    “My mother is Italian. I grew up in South Philly.”
    “Do you speak Italian?”
    “You should just tell people that you’re Sicilian. They tend to be a bit darker than Italians and your skin is pretty light, almost White. You could pass.”
    “Why would I want to do that?”
    “Because you know. You see it everyday. You know what it means to be one of them. You see the welfare mothers and the crack whores and the gangbangers and the illegitimate kids and the deadbeat fathers. You see how people look at you when they realize that you’re not really White. How the position that was open just an hour ago when you called for directions on the phone is suddenly filled when they see your Black ass walk through the door. How they suddenly don’t have anymore apartments for rent in that building, or houses for sale in that neighborhood. How all the tables at that nice restaurant you’ve always wanted to try are now reserved except maybe for the one in the back by the kitchen, or next to the bathroom that nobody else wants. How they want to make sure you know how much that outfit or that jewelry or that purse or those sunglasses cost before you try it on, or how security makes it a point to be right behind you no matter where you go in the store or how many other customers there are. How that patrol car follows you for blocks wondering what the hell you’re doing in such a nice car or in such a nice neighborhood, just waiting for an excuse to stop you and search your car. You know all about that don’t you? You know what it’s like to be a nigger. So why the fuck would you want to be one?”
    Detective Hendrix could feel his temper rising. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. The hatred in the woman’s voice was staggering, even more so because she was talking about her own people. The detective felt embarrassed in front of his two White colleagues though he tried his best not to show it, wishing he was darker so that they wouldn’t be able to see him blush. He knew he must have been bright red from both anger and embarrassment. He stepped closer to the bed until he was standing directly above Natsinet. He leaned down to look her directly in her eyes. His jaws muscles clenched and veins stood out prominently in his neck as he struggled to speak in a calm measured voice.
    “Yeah, I know what all of that feels like. But I also know what it feels like to be part of the proud heritage that helped to build this country. To be part of the culture that gave the world Blues and Jazz and Rock & Roll and R&B and Soul and Funk and even Hip Hop. I know what it’s like to be part of a people that came to this country in chains and now sits in all levels of government and business, lecturing about freedom and democracy all over the globe, dominating sports, and even carving out a place in the entertainment world. We have become one of the most emulated cultures on earth. I know what it’s like to be part of a people that came from nothing, with the entire world against us and fought our way up against all manner of adversity to become heroes to some of the same people that owned our ancestors. I know that pride. Let me ask you something Ms Zenawi, do you know how you tell which members of a species have the strongest genes?”
    Natsinet glared at the Detective without speaking.
    “You find the ones who have the greatest handicaps but are functioning at the same level as the ones who are not handicapped. The wolf with one leg that still runs and hunts with the pack. The blind bird that can still fly. The monkey with one arm that can still climb. Well, that’s us. That’s our people. We’ve been handicapped for generations, denied adequate education, adequate housing, equal opportunity for employment and advancement, yet we’re still here and we’re prospering. I know that pride. Adelle Smith knows that pride. But you don’t, do you?”
    “No. Because I’m not Black. I’m not one of you. I am Eritrean. My people were never slaves. They were never conquered. My family are businessmen, politicians, doctors, lawyers…”
    “And security guards?”
    “Security guards. That’s what your father did for a living right? He worked security at a construction site at night. He sat in a trailer all night watching out for any crackheads that might want to sneak onto the construction site to steal the copper wire and piping out of the buildings before they were framed and sheet-rocked. Real prestigious job, there. I mean, I know he was a doctor back in his own country, but in America, he was just a rent-a-cop. Adelle told me all about it. That’s why you went crazy, because you were ashamed of him. Because your mother’s family rejected him… and you.”
    Natsinet lunged for the detective, digging her nails into his face, trying to claw his eyes out. Detective Hendrix screamed as her nails dug rivulets in his forehead and eyelids that immediately welled with blood. He grabbed her wrists and struggled to wrench her hands free from his face. Detectives Swinson and Lennon raced to his side and tried to pull her hands free as well.
    “I’ll fucking kill you! You don’t know me! You don’t know my father! You fucking nigger!”
    “Arrrhhh! Get her the fuck off of me! My eyes! She trying to scratch out my eyes!”
    She disappeared beneath the detectives who were now punching at her to try to get her to let go of Detective Hendrix. One of his eyelids had been nearly torn off and the white of his cheekbone was visible through one of the deep avulsions she had carved in his cheek, the skin raked back, peeled away in jagged strips the way one would peel an orange.
    When she finally let go, she had much of the detective’s eyelids beneath her bloodied fingernails and his gun clenched in her hands, her finger on the trigger aiming it at the three Detectives.
    Detective Carl Hendrix fell to the floor, clutching his vandalized face, blood spurting out between his fingers. The other two detectives backed away slowly, reaching for their weapons.
    “Now just calm down and nobody has to get hurt here,” Detective Lennon said.
    “That’s where you’re fucking wrong.”
    She pointed the gun at Detective Hendrix and pulled the trigger, putting a hole in his chest before her own body began to dance and spasm. Blossoming with holes like roses blooming in sudden explosions of red as Swinson and Lennon emptied their guns into her.


    Tonya looked up at the sky. The wind caressed her face as it came rustling through the trees. Sunlight warmed her skin. She looked over at Big Mike. She was proud of the way he’d cleaned himself up. He now owned his own barbershop and, to her knowledge, it was totally legit, no drugs, no guns, just hair care products. He looked good in his dark suit and tie, like a regular businessman.
    Tonya’s husband Gerald stood beside her as he had the entire time she’d been in the hospital, never leaving her side, rushing from her room to her mother’s room to pass information back and forth, keeping her apprised of her mother’s condition and her mother apprised of hers. Even after her mother had had another stroke and Tonya herself had come down with an infection after the surgery, he’d never left either of their sides until they’d had to literally force him out of the door to go home and get some rest. Then he’d be back the very next day. She loved him more than she ever felt she’d be able to tell him.
    Her cousin Jerome was there too. Her Aunt Betty. Her Uncle Jake. Members of her family she hadn’t seen since she was a young girl. Members of the local church, community leaders and activists, and of course the news media, though they were careful to keep a respectful distance.
    Tonya smiled up at the sun again. The weather was perfect. Eighty degrees with a breeze. If it were like this all year none of them could have afforded to live there. The pastor was preaching but she could hardly hear a word he said. She didn’t want to hear. It didn’t matter. She knew all she needed to know about her mother. She had saved her life.
    All her life she’d heard people tell her what a hero her mother was, how she’d changed their lives. They’d quote to her from speeches her mother had given or articles she’d written. They’d give examples from episodes in her mother’s life when she’d stood up for freedom, stood up for all of them, examples they’d tried to emulate in their own lives. She’d grown tired of hearing it. When she’d awakened in the hospital, alive, and learned that her mother had saved her, she’d finally understood why all those people had been so affected by her mother. It was because Adelle Smith never laid down. She was a fighter. She never quit. It didn’t matter what was against her. She always kept fighting. And even when that crazy ass nurse had stabbed Tonya in the chest, she’d somehow known that her mother would save her. As Tonya had begun to lose consciousness, bleeding out on the living room floor, she’d never once doubted that she’d be okay. In her entire life she’d never had any reason to doubt that her mother would always be there for her. And when she woke up and heard that her mother had shot Natsinet, she hadn’t been surprised.
    The only surprise had come after she’d gotten out of surgery and her mother had come to her bedside and held her hand and whispered to her.
    “Thank you for saving my life. You’re my hero.”
     “But Mom…you saved me.”
    “I just pulled a trigger. You put yourself between that knife and me. You almost died for me. Thank you.”
    That had been the most startling thing to her. That she could be her mother’s hero. That she could be anyone’s hero.
    “We all have a bit of the heroic in us, Tonya. That’s all our people really need. You be my hero and I’ll be yours. We don’t need some Black Messiah to come and lead us all to freedom. There ain’t never gonna be another Malcolm X or another Martin Luther King. We’ve got to do it ourselves, together. No one of us can do it alone. Not even your poor old mother. We just have to find that bit of the heroic in ourselves. That’s all it takes.”
    The next day her mother went into cardiac arrest. Blood clots in her legs had traveled to her brain and caused another stroke which, in turn, had led to a massive myocardial infarction. It was the first time in Tonya’s life that she had known her mother would no longer be there to protect her. She only hoped that she would be strong enough to do her mother’s memory proud.
    Soon after she left the hospital Tonya quit her job and started her own non-profit organization. She went back to her neighborhood to teach teenagers and young adults about business and finance, show them how to apply for grants and loans for college and how to start their own businesses. It wasn’t terribly profitable, but it fulfilled her. It was something she knew her mother would have been proud of. Her first project had been to help turn Big Mike around. It was her influence that helped to get him a business loan and Big Mike’s influence had pushed most of the drugs out of the neighborhood. Only a few blocks away, but enough to drastically reduce the amount of violence in the neighborhood. She only wished her mother had been there to see it all.
    Tonya looked over at the small headstone.
Adelle Smith
1939 to 2008
    A tear weeped from the corner of her eye as she read the last line on the headstone.
    Our Hero.
    Tonya walked back to the waiting limousine before the preacher had finished his eulogy. She didn’t want to remember her mother through anyone else’s eyes but her own. And she already knew the memory she wanted to hold of her mother. Our Hero. That was all anyone really needed to say about Adelle Smith. That said it all.


    First Digital Edition
    December 2009
    Published by
    Bloodletting Press
    3732 Havenhurst Ct.
    Modesto, CA 95355
    Hero © 2009, 2008 by J. F. Gonzalez & Wrath James White
    Cover Artwork © 2009, 2008 by Alan M. Clark
    All Rights Reserved.
    This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

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