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“He’s gotta gun!” someone yelled. Pure pandemonium broke out as the crowd screamed and ran in all directions. Someone shot their weapon.
Brooke Coleman froze mid-song, clutching the mic, and looked frantically in all directions. The mood had definitely changed. She sang another line, but her voice broke as angry voices got louder. From her vantage point on the stage, all she saw was chaos. Her heart threatened to beat out of her chest. The music stopped as bright white flashlights lit up the area, showing a few police officers moving toward the scene of a fight.
“Hey, let’s not do this!” she screamed out into the microphone, her voice drowned out by the yelling, curses, and screams all around her. Opium, her trusty black and tan Rottweiler, stood at the edge of the stage, his fur raised, growling. Not normal behavior for the dog. Just moments earlier, he’d been resting peacefully out back. Something was wrong…very wrong. “We’re all here for a good time.”
More gunfire rang out and her heart practically jumped out of her chest. She took several steps back. People started to run all over the place, as fast as their legs could carry them.
Panic rose inside her and formed a lump in her throat as the fear of someone being hurt, trampled, or worse yet, killed, hit her. Opium barked, snarled, and growled some more, going berserk. He now stood by her side while the gunshots amplified, all over the place, turning everything into a living nightmare—a horror movie being played out right before her eyes. Some terrible, rotten seed had been planted, buried into the soil, and was growing some hideous monstrosity in a matter of seconds. Bloodcurdling screams rang out.
“Brooke,” Viktor, her close friend and right hand, yelled as he crawled across the stage toward her, his dark wash baggy jeans and black leather jacket gathering dust. She’d known Viktor for years, and his sharp skills at talent promoting had proved instrumental in launching her career as a jazz artist. His platinum-blond hair was the only thing in place, combed in an old-fashioned pompadour and gelled from roots to tips. The look of terror in his eyes broke her heart. “Brooke…get down.”
She dropped down onto her stomach and placed her hands over her head. Police car sirens blared as more of the vehicles approached, then she felt a tug around her waist as Minx grabbed her and helped her down the side steps of the stage.
“Opium? Where’s Opium?” she yelled out as they raced ahead, people swishing past them like streamers.
“He’s in back. We’ve got him,” James yelled, standing off to her side.
In the near distance she could see Viktor’s car, a white Ford Explorer. The back opened and two of her band members got Opium inside while they all began to pile in the SUV. A police officer was chasing someone on foot. They drew closer and closer. Suddenly, more gunfire rang out, and then once again, this time closer, much closer. Opium barked louder than she’d ever heard him do. He was going crazy, scratching and pacing in the back of the vehicle.
“I busted yo ass. I’ll die for this shit, mothafucka!” some man yelled, panting as he raced past.
The officer kept after him and yelled, “Stop running, you Black motherfucker,” while the sound of sirens burst through her eardrums. She got into the car, her chest heaving up and down—and then pain, a terrible ache flowed from her neck, then her chest.
Something’s not right…
How fast the world could change. One minute she was singing her heart out, swaying to the beat of the beautiful music played by her band. And the next…here she was. Running for her life. Terrified—for herself and her loved ones.
As she sat in the back of the car while it pulled away from the curb, she looked down at her sheer white peasant blouse. It was soaked in blood, all along the right side. James wrapped his arm around her, then his expression changed. His eyes grew big and he yelled in horror.
“Viktor, go to the hospital. NOW. Brooke’s been shot. Her neck. Shit.”
She began to shake, her temple going from hot to cold, over and over again. She fought the urge to vomit. Her head throbbed and she wasn’t certain she recalled how to breathe.
Everything became glassy, as though she was seeing through the windows of an old church. No, a Catholic cathedral. The kind with the gorgeous stained glass in vibrant colors depicting the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus. Pretty colors filled her mind, spreading out like stretched cotton candy in combinations she’d never seen before. She could taste them, hear them, smell them. Opium’s barking faded, like footprints in melting snow. Streetlights blended. The colors blurred…the red, yellow, and green transformed to cherry Astro Pop lollipops.
She placed her hand on the car window, then rested her forehead against it, smiling as she looked out. She could feel and hear her own heartbeat, practically touch it as it slowed down. So slow…like African drums. She saw the ancestors dancing around a fire, the flames wild. Their rich, dark skin glowed under the vibrant setting sun.
I want that warmth. Let me stand by that fire. Let me dance under the sun, too.
“Brooke. Stay with me,” Viktor yelled, but his voice sounded as if he were underwater, swimming beside her. Was she drowning?
“Make sure she doesn’t fall asleep,” someone shouted out.
More barking. Opium’s voice rang out like an alarm. Then came the whimpers.
I’m so sleepy…
“Brooke. Fuck. Brooke. Wake up.”
Someone grabbed her chin and shook it. Her eyes flickered, but then the ancestors’ flames competed with that pull and sparkled brighter, faster, hotter…Such a pretty white light.
Song lyrics sounded as if they were in 3-D, the musical notes forming into humans made of beautiful yellow flames. You told me, it was forever, but forever never came…
“Come to me, forever, forever, forever. Here’s your heart, here’s my soul, they’ll be together, forever.” The sweet song played in her own voice, but it sounded so foreign, like someone else was singing the melody she’d written. So lovely—angelic, really. The music was smooth and inviting, like nothing she’d ever heard.
She could feel moisture around her eyes, but she smiled as she gripped the limb of someone holding her. A masculine grasp. Strong. In need. Whoever it was held her tight; they didn’t want to let go. She could no longer hear the people around her, but she could feel their spirits…
They’re so sad, so angry, so hurt.
She began to slip out of herself, bit by bit, as if freeing herself from an all-familiar cocoon, a costume she’d worn for years.
The ancestors grabbed onto her light limbs, and she undressed from a gown made of bloodied and weak flesh, now completely free from the physical confines and pain. She floated away, but as she looked back down, she felt terrible sorrow. Something had happened that should not have, but she could not quite figure out what.
There, on that seat in the car, sat a young woman with smooth, milky-brown skin, her head of soft black curls looking like a halo of half-moons spun from the blackest love lyrics against the whitest of sheet music she’d ever seen. Her soul looked down at her core. Her spirit was coiled against the flames of Heaven and the dusky clouds of Hell.
What is she doing? What am I doing?
The woman’s face rested against a cold glass window. A man yelled at her, tears streaming down his face, his arm wrapped around her. He pressed his head against her shoulder and rocked against her. The driver of the car gripped the steering wheel so tightly, it might break in two any minute.
The woman with the halo of ebony curls didn’t move, didn’t speak. She was a mere shell, and as each second passed, her body grew colder and colder. They looked at one another one final time, and she watched as that shell released its very last tear. The bead of liquid spilled from her eye like overturned coffee and ran down her face like rain, staining the entire world around her as if her existence were nothing more than white fibers. That tear was leaving an imprint upon the canvas of life that would never dry. The pain would remain forever and a day…
As “Girls Like You” by Maroon 5 played through Emily’s earbuds, she bobbed her head to the music, drowning out the loud car honking and boisterous curses that burst from the bumper-to-bumper traffic in Manhattan’s morning rush hour. She gripped her iPhone in her right hand and her Starbucks vanilla latte in the other, keeping a keen eye on her surroundings.
“No. What are you doing? I told you not to get in this lane. Don’t you understand English? We’ve already been over this.”
“I was just—”
“I said, go over there.” She forcefully pointed across the street, her body jeering forward so her long blonde hair, which she’d just had cut in stylish long layers, fell out of place. Tucking it behind her ear, she continued to yell as her angst took over. “You people don’t listen.” She sneered at the deeply tanned man with a jet-black, wooly beard who smelled of turmeric and curry, a taupe turban piled atop his head.
Looks like a damn beehive. I hope he’s not another fucking terrorist.
The man stared at her through his rearview mirror, from under bushy brows set over black eyes so glossy, she could practically make herself out in them. His pockmarked cheeks seemed to have turned a shade darker as she snapped at him. She sighed in frustration. This was her third foreign Uber driver in one week.
“‘You people don’t listen’?” He repeated her words with a thick Indian accent. “I’m Sikh. You have a problem with me?” He pointed to himself as his forehead wrinkled in irritation, yet his tone remained calm. “I don’t understand what you—”
“Yeah, yeah. Look, listen up. Word to the wise. I was born and raised here, unlike some.” She sucked her teeth. “I know my way around. Never, and I mean never, get in this lane this time of morning trying to get to Fifth Avenue, okay? We’ll be stuck here forever and I can’t afford to be late today. Too late now, huh? What was the point of even telling you?”
Not expecting any answer except the loud huff he emitted, she flopped back down into the seat, happy to have made her point, and swiped a perfectly manicured thumbnail across her phone screen. Her anger melted like butter when she scrolled over an incredible table setting from one of her favorite designers posted on Instagram.
Nice. Chic. I think I’ll order it.
Next she read a hilarious joke posted by one of her favorite local comedians, which featured an illustration of a little Black boy wearing a kippa, speaking with a White man who looked like a rabbi: A Black Jewish boy runs home from school one day and asks his father, “Daddy, am I more Jewish or more Black?”
The dad replies, “Why do you want to know, son?”
“Because a kid at school is selling a bike for $50 and I want to know if I should talk him down to $40 or just steal it!”
Emily burst out laughing, slapping her knee as she fell back onto the seat. Damn, it felt good to chuckle after such a shitty morning. She kept scrolling, checking out political posts from her favorite channels and media outlets.
There’s no fucking collusion with the Russians. How pathetic. The snowflake liberals lost the election and still, after all of this time, they can’t deal with it. Trump has done more for Black people than Obama ever did, and he had two terms. Brainless sheep.
Several minutes later, before the vehicle had even come to a complete stop, she opened the back door, grabbed her computer bag and purse, and leapt out, her red Louboutin heels beating the pavement among a sea of people walking with purpose, a good number with their faces in their phones, or frantically hailing a taxi. Racing into Rockefeller Center, she made her way past several storefronts to Windsor Financial Group, a company started by her grandfather that she’d worked at for years.
“Hi, Danielle,” Emily called out.
“Hello, Ms. Windsor. Cathy wants you to—”
“Cathy’s issues can wait. Do you have my papers from Marconian International and Mr. Smith?” She snapped her fingers at the receptionist, who shoved a manila folder in her direction.
“Here it is.”
Emily snatched it off the front desk. “Thank you,” she muttered before disappearing down the short hall to her office. She walked inside, closing the door with a bump of her hip. Making her way to her desk, she navigated around a plant, then sat down in her chair at an angle that afforded her a wondrous city view of Fifth Avenue. It was eerily quiet that morning, just as she liked it.
She opened the folder and began to read through it to prepare for her appointment. Mr. Andrew Smith was an important client. She’d been wooing the wealthy YouTube influencer for weeks. He’d made millions creating gaming and exploration videos; a young twenty-four-year-old who’d moved from Iowa to New York in desperate need of someone to take his wet-behind-the-ears ass by the hand and lead him to money-green pastures. Finally, she was getting her chance to impress the young man.
Emily prided herself on the courting process she used to get clients, the way she made them feel special and wowed them with her expertise and charm. Her father, now CEO of the company since the death of her grandfather, had encouraged her to use her natural-born gifts to garner more business, and that’s what she excelled at. She was more than capable; after all, it was in her blood. She followed a perfect plan, and it worked like a charm.
Looking good was the first order of each and every day. Her personal stylist helped ensure she wore the most flattering and expensive suits paired with simple yet elegant jewelry. Her nails and hair were always professionally done, and she used red lipstick as a color enhancement on her porcelain face, framed by blonde tresses. The perfect pop of platinum highlights had taken her six months to fully achieve to her satisfaction.
Not only was she in control of her appearance, she had a steel grip on her own destiny and wouldn’t allow anything to stand in her way. She’d graduated at the top of her class from Fordham University, proving she could hold her own in a male-dominated field. She’d then worked her butt off in the family business, earning her way to becoming a top financial analyst. The Windsor Financial Group happened to be one of the best firms in the entire state of New York, and she had a high standard to attain to deserve her role in the company. She took great pride in her work, and she’d even appeared on NBC several times to discuss stock market news, investment advice, and the like.
Flipping to another page, she read for a while, then suddenly paused, wrinkling her nose.
Smells like an old, rotten banana in here. Where’s that coming from?
She grimaced as she looked about the place, left to right, ahead and behind herself, then took a peek below her desk to ensure the trash had been dumped from the day prior. It wouldn’t have been out of the question for the presumably Asian-run cleaning service to purposefully skip her office—trying to save time, get paid for nothing, and game the system. The plastic liner within the small, Pottery Barn can was intact and empty, clean as a whistle. After one more cursory look as she reached for her coffee and took a sip, she shrugged it off.
Must’ve been something stale in the air that has come and went. It looks good in here. Good thing I removed that whiteboard. Far more tasteful now.
Emily’s office was spotless, a minimalist haven much like her apartment in the coveted area of Gramercy Park.
“Great investments,” she whispered as she set her coffee down and flipped to another page.
Just then, her desk phone rang. She smiled when she looked at the number and recognized it immediately.
“Laura,” she squealed. “How was Prague?”
“Beautiful as always.” She could hear her best friend practically grinning through the phone. Just as Laura began to get into the small, at times less interesting, details of her two-week vacation with her latest fuck buddy, a throbbing pain began from Emily’s head and seemed to spread within seconds to her chest. She blinked several times, feeling a bit dizzy. Perhaps she’d moved too quickly, throwing off her equilibrium. “And then we visited St. Vitus Cathedral,” the woman continued.
“Mmm hmmm…that’s nice…” Emily ran her hand along her face. Her body felt loose, as if all the bones were melting, leaving behind only a pile of flesh. She attempted to rise from her seat, but her limbs failed her. Intense pain radiated in the core of her chest now. She grimaced and clutched her white silk blouse beneath her blazer. Blinking more times, she flailed her arms in a fit of panic, soon knocking the coffee onto the floor. She watched in a daze as the light-brown liquid seeped into the plush white carpeting.
“We always see Charles Bridge, but this time, we noticed far less people. Isn’t that wild?”
Emily’s vision began to blur and she could barely speak. Her tongue felt heavy, her mind a blur, like the watercolors of her best friend’s daughter’s picture depicting a sunset rising along the beach in Cancun.
“And then we—Huh? What did you say?”
“Emily? Help you what?”
She let the phone drop to the desk, and the sound seemed to echo through her entire body as she slid out of her chair, hitting her head on the way to the floor. Things soon grew fuzzy around the edges and darkness fell all around her. She pressed her fingers into the soft carpet, her eyes once again fixating on the brown coffee in the white fibers, soaking into it, merging…
She could now hear her friend screaming her name at the top of her lungs through the phone that rested on the desk above her.
“Emily? Are you there? EMILY?”
End of Excerpt