I woke to the sound of knocking, but I wasn't sure if it was someone at our door. People pounded on the walls in this apartment building at all times of the day or night. The knocking grew sharper, more frenzied, and then I heard my uncle Reuben's voice.
"Raven, damn it, wake up. Raven!"
He hit the door so hard I thought his fist had gone through. I reached for my robe and got up quickly.
"Mama!" I called.
I ground the sleep from my eyes and listened. I thought I remembered hearing her come home, but the nights were so mixed up and confused in my memory, I wasn't sure. "Mama?"
Uncle Reuben pounded on the door again, shaking the whole frame. I hurried to Mama's bedroom and gazed in. She wasn't there."Raven! Wake up!"
"Coming," I cried, and hurried to the door. When I unlocked it, he shoved it open so fast he almost knocked me over.
"What's wrong?" I demanded.
We had a small naked bulb in the hallway which turned the dirty, shadowy walls into a brown the color of a wet paper bag. There was just enough light behind Uncle Reuben to silhouette his six-foot-three-inch, stocky body. He hovered in the doorway like some bird of prey, and the silence that followed his urgency frightened me even more. He seemed to be gasping for breath as if he had run up the stairs.
"What do you want?" I cried.
"Get some things together," he ordered. "You got to come with me."
"What? Why?" I stepped back and embraced myself. I would have hated going anywhere with him in broad daylight, much less late at night.
"Put on some light," he commanded.
I found the switch and lit up the kitchen. The illumination revealed his swollen, sweaty red face, the crests of his cheeks as red as a rash. His dark eyes looked about frantically. He wore only a soiled T-shirt and a pair of oily-looking jeans. Even though he had an administrative job now with the highway department, he still had the bulky muscular frame he had built working on the road crew. His dark brown hair was cut military short, which made his ears look like the wings on Mercury's head. I used to wonder how Mama and Uncle Reuben could be siblings. His facial features were large and pronounced, the only real resemblance being in their eyes.
"What is it?" I asked. "Why are you here?"
"Not because I want to be, believe me," he replied, and went to the sink to pour himself a glass of water. "Your mother's in jail," he added.
I had to wait for him to take long gulps of water. He put the glass in the sink as if he expected the maid would clean up after him and turned to me. For a moment, he just drank me in. His gaze made me feel as if a cold wind had slipped under my robe. I actually shivered.
"Why is Mama in jail?"
"She got picked up with some drug dealer. She's in big-time, real trouble this time," he said. "You got to come live with us in the meantime, maybe forever," he added, and spit into the sink.
"Live with you?" My heart stopped.
"Believe me, I'm not happy about it. She called me to come fetch you," he continued with obvious reluctance. It was as if his mouth fought opening and closing to produce the words. He gazed around our small apartment. "What a pig sty! How does anyone live here?"
Before I could respond, he spun on me. "Get your things together. I don't want to stay here a moment longer than I have to."
"How long is she going to be in jail?" I asked, the tears beginning to burn under my eyelids.
"I don't know. Years, maybe," he said without emotion. "She was still on probation from that last thing. It's late. I have to get up in a few hours and go to work. Get a move on," he ordered.
"Why can't I just stay here?" I moaned.
"For the simple reason that the court won't permit it. I thought you were a smart kid. If you don't come with me, they'll put you in a foster home," he added.
For a long moment, I considered the option. I'd be better off with complete strangers than with him.
"And for another reason, I promised your mother." He studied my face a moment and smiled coldly. "I know what you're thinking. I was surprised she gave a damn, too," he said.
My breath caught, and I couldn't swallow. I had to turn away so he wouldn't see the tears escaping and streaming down my cheeks. I hurried into the bedroom and opened the dresser drawers to take out my clothes. The only suitcase I had was small and had to be tied together with belts to close. I found it in the back of my closet and started to pack it.
Uncle Reuben stepped in and looked at the bedroom. "It stinks in here," he said.
I kept packing. I didn't know how long I would really live with him and Aunt Clara, but I didn't want to run out of socks and panties. "You don't need all that," he said when I reached into the closet for more clothes. "I don't want roaches in my house. Just take the basics."
"All I have is basics, some shirts and jeans and two dresses. And I don't have roaches in my clothes."
He grunted. I never liked Uncle Reuben. He was full of prejudice, often telling Mama that her problems began when she got herself involved with a Cuban. He liked to hold himself higher than us because he had been promoted and wore a suit to work.
I had two cousins, William, who was nine, and Jennifer, who was fourteen. William was a meek, quiet boy who, like me, enjoyed being by himself. He said very little, and once I heard Aunt Clara say the school thought he was nearly autistic. Jennifer was stuck-up. She had a way of holding her head back and talking down her nose that made everyone feel she thought she was superior. Once, when I was five, I got so frustrated with her I stomped on her foot and nearly broke one of her toes.
I finished packing and scooped up a pair of jeans and a sweater. Uncle Reuben stood there watching me as I walked past him to the bathroom to change. When I came out, he had my suitcase in his hand and was waiting in the doorway.
"Let's go," he urged. "I feel like I could catch some disease in here."
He, Aunt Clara, and my cousins lived in a nice A-frame two-story house. Mama and I didn't visit that often, but I was always envious of their yard, their nice furniture and clean bathrooms. William had his own room, and Jennifer had hers. The house was in a smaller village far enough away from the city so that I would have to go to a different school.
"Where am I going to stay?" I asked Uncle Reuben as I slipped on my sneakers.
"Clara's fixing up her sewing room for you. She has a pullout in it. Then we'll see," he said. "Come on."
"Should I just leave everything?" I asked, gazing about the apartment.
"What's there to leave? Old dishes, hand-me-down furniture, and rats? I wouldn't even bother locking the door," he muttered, and started down the stairs.
I paused in the doorway. He was right. It was a hole in the wall, drab and worn, even rotten in places and full of apologies, but it had been home for me. For so long, these walls were my little world. I always dreamed of leaving it, but now that I actually was, I couldn't help feeling afraid and sad.
"Raven!" Uncle Reuben shouted from the bottom of the stairway.
"Shut up out there!" someone cried. "People's trying to sleep."
I closed the door quickly and hurried down after him. We burst into the empty streets. It was still dark. The rest of the world was asleep. He threw my suitcase into the trunk of his car and got in quickly. I followed and gazed sleepily out the window at the apartment house. Only one of the three bulbs over the entryway worked. Shadows hid the chipped and faded paint and broken basement windows.
"It's lucky for you I live close enough to come and get you," he said, "or tonight you'd be on your way to some orphanage."
"I'm not an orphan," I shot back.
"No. You're worse," he said. "Orphans don't have mothers like yours."
"How can you talk about your sister like that?" I demanded. No matter how bad Mama was, I couldn't just sit there and listen to him tear her down.
"Easy," he said. "This isn't the first time I've had to come rescue her or bail her out, is it? This time, she's really gone and done it, though, and I say that's good. Let it come to an end. She's a lost cause." He turned to me. "And I'm warning you from the start," he fired, pointing his long, thick right forefinger into my face as he drove, "I don't want you corrupting my children, hear? The first time you bring disgrace into my home, that will be the last. I can assure you of that."
I curled up as far away from him as I could squeeze my body and closed my eyes. This is a nightmare, I thought, just a bad dream. In a moment, I'll wake up and be on the pullout in our living room. Maybe I'll hear Mama stumbling into the apartment. Suddenly, that didn't seem so bad.
We drove mostly in silence the rest of the way. Occasionally, Uncle Reuben muttered some obscenity or complained about being woken out of a deep sleep by his drunken, worthless sister.
"There oughta be a way to disown your relatives, to walk into a courtroom and declare yourself an independent soul so they can't come after you or ruin your life," he grumbled. I tried to ignore him, to go back to sleep.
I opened my eyes when we pulled into the driveway. The lights were on downstairs. He got out and opened the trunk, nearly ripping my suitcase apart when he took it out. I trailed behind him to the front door. Aunt Clara opened the door before we got there.
Aunt Clara was a mystery to me. No two people seemed more unalike than she and Uncle Reuben. She was small, fragile, dainty, and soft-spoken. Her face was usually full of sympathy and concern, and as far as I could ever tell, she never looked down on us or said bad things about us, no matter what Mama did. Mama liked her and, ironically, often told me she felt sorrier for her than she did for herself.
"It's a bigger burden living with my brother," she declared.
Aunt Clara had light brown hair that was always neatly styled about her ears. She wore little makeup, but her face was usually bright and cheery, especially because of the deep blue in her warm eyes and the soft smile on her small lips. She was only a few inches taller than I was, and when she stood next to Uncle Reuben, she looked as if she could be another one of his children.
She waited for us with her hands clasped and pressed between her small breasts.
"You poor dear," she said. "Come right in."
"Poor dear is right," Uncle Reuben said. "You should see that place. How could a grown woman want to live there and let her child live there?"
"Well, she's out of there now, Reuben."
"Yeah, right," he said. "I'm going back to bed. Some people have to work for a living," he muttered, and charged through the house and up the small stairway. The banister shook under his grip as he pulled himself up the stairs. He had dropped my suitcase in the middle of the floor.
"Would you like a cup of warm milk, Raven?" Aunt Clara asked.
"No, thank you," I said.
"You're tired, too, I imagine. This is all a bad business for everyone. Come with me. I have the sewing room all ready for you."
The sewing room was downstairs, just off the living room. It wasn't a big room, but it was sweet with flowery wallpaper, a light gray rug, a table with a sewing machine, a soft-backed wooden chair, and the pullout. There was one big window with white cotton curtains that faced the east side of the house, so the sunlight would light it up in the morning. On the walls were some needlework pictures in frames that Aunt Clara had done. They were scenes with farmhouses and animals and one with a woman and a young girl sitting by a brook.
"You know where the bathroom is, right down the hall," she said. "I wish we had another bedroom, but..."
"This is fine, Aunt Clara. I hate to take away your sewing room."
"Oh, it's nothing. I could do the same work someplace else. Don't you give it another thought, child. Tomorrow, you'll just rest, and maybe, before the day is out, we'll go over to the school and get you enrolled. We don't want you falling behind."
I hated to tell her how behind I already had fallen.
"Here's a new toothbrush," she said, indicating it on the desk. "I had one from the last time I went to the dentist."
"Thank you, Aunt Clara."
She gazed at me a moment and then shook her head and stroked my hair.
"The things we do to our children," she muttered, kissed me on the forehead, and left to go upstairs.
I stood there for a moment. To Aunt Clara, this room wasn't much, but to me, it was better than a luxury hotel. Her house smelled fresh and clean, and it was so quiet, no creaks, no voices coming through the walls, no footsteps pounding on the ceiling.
I got undressed and slipped under the fresh comforter. The pullout was firmer than ours, and the pillows were fluffy. I was so comfortable and so tired that I forgot for the moment that Mama was in jail. I was too tired, too frightened, and too confused to think anymore. I closed my eyes.
I opened them again when I felt someone was looking at me. It was morning. Sunlight poured through the window. I had forgotten where I was and sat up quickly. William was standing there gaping at me.
"Mama says you're going to live with us now," he said slowly.
I scrubbed my face with my palms and took a deep breath as it all came rushing back over me.
"William, get your rear end back in here right now and finish your breakfast," I heard Uncle Reuben shout.
William hesitated and then hurried out. I lay back on my pillow and stared up at the ceiling.
"Your mother's in jail," I heard Jennifer say from the doorway.
I just turned and gazed at her. She had her light brown hair tied back with a ribbon. She was a tall girl with a large bone structure that made her look heavier than she was. Aunt Clara's features were overpowered by Uncle Reuben's, so that Jennifer's nose was wider and longer, as was her mouth. She had Aunt Clara's eyes, but they seemed out of place in so large a face. She was wide in the waist, too. Whenever I saw Uncle Reuben with her, however, he always treated her as if she were some raving beauty. There was never any question in my mind that he favored her over William. William was too small and fragile, too much like Aunt Clara.
"That's what your father says," I replied.
"Well, he wouldn't lie about it, would he? Jesus, what an embarrassment. And now you're going to be in my school, too," she complained.
"Well, I don't want to be," I said.
"Just don't tell anyone about your mother. We'll make up some story," she decided.
"Like what?" I asked dubiously.
She stood there, staring in at me and thinking. "I know," she said with a smile. "We'll say she's dead."
Copyright © 1998 by the Vanda General Partnership
Her Mama made it painfully clear that she wished Raven had never been born. But even after she was sent to live with her kindly aunt and domineering uncle, humiliating secrets lurked -- and threatened to dash forever Raven's dream of a true home....