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aTonya had already tried to wake Darrell up three times — the gentle calling-up-the-stairs time, the louder calling-up-the-stairs time, and the shoulder-shaking firm-voiced time — and three was her limit. She had class tonight, which meant she had to get to work ten minutes early so she could take off ten minutes early, and she knew from unfortunate experience that she couldn’t leave that boy in bed or he’d never make it to school.

“Come on, sleepyhead,” she said, yanking off the covers, averting her eyes because having raised three sons she knew that a young boy in the morning most likely had a stiffy. It was something she saw often enough on the massage table, but on her own baby, uh uh, she didn’t need to know.

“Oooooh,” he groaned.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw that he seemed to be strangely dressed for sleep, in some kind of dark, bulky clothes, and couldn’t help but look down.

Not some kind of dark, bulky clothes, she saw, but his clothes, his real clothes, hooded sweatshirt and jeans and even, yes, it was true, his fucking sneakers.

“What the hell is going on?” she cried.

“What?” He opened his eyes and looked around as if he had no clue where he was.

“Darrell Antonio Jones, you get out of that bed right this instant and tell me why you are wearing your clothes!”

She jerked on his arm and he sat up but then just kept sitting there, his head in his hands.

“I musta fallen asleep with my clothes on.”

She wanted to believe him, she really did. God knew she had enough to think about, with the layoffs at the bath house and exams coming up and her MCat lessons with George. And Darrell had been a good enough boy, until recently, not goody-good like his brother Dwayne but nowhere near bad like DaShawn. But something told her the balance was shifting.

“Don’t lie to me,” she said, trying to grip his shoulder, though he shook her away. He was a good six inches taller than her now, and twenty pounds heavier, all muscle. What control did she have over him, except his love and respect for her? She’d always sworn she would never lay a finger on her children the way her father had hit and slapped and beaten her, though she’d been sorely tempted with DaShawn. But she’d always resisted.

Darrell, her baby, the child she’d had by choice as a fully consenting adult and not because she was too young and stupid to say no to some sweet-talking boy, looked straight at her then, his deep brown eyes with their curled lashes locking straight on hers.

“I was out,” he said.

“Out.” She crossed her arms tight over her stomach, nodding fast and trying to think what that meant. “Where were you out? You weren’t at the Go Go, were you? Because I told your brother and I told you too, if I caught you hanging out at that nasty place…”

“No, Ma,” he said wearily. “I wasn’t at the Go Go.”

“Well then where? I was up till midnight. There’s no place else to go out after that in Hot Springs at this time of year.”

“I just went to the park,” he said, looking at her again. “With my banjo. I sat in the gazebo. I just wanted to play some music, be on my own.”

She wanted to believe him, she really did. She looked around the room.

“Where is your banjo?” she said.

“My banjo?”

“Yes, child! Your banjo! The banjo I bought you for Christmas! The banjo that you were so bent on playing that you were compelled to leave your warm house and sit outside in the middle of a cold winter night!”

Darrell looked, eyes wild, distress contorting his features, around the room. “My banjo,” he moaned. “Oh, no.”

“Don’t tell me you lost that banjo,” said LaTonya, anger welling up inside her. It had cost her all her holiday tips, collected for an entire year of rubbing white people’s backs, to buy that banjo, new, top of the line, nothing too good for her little boy. “Or that somebody stole it. If somebody took that from you, you better tell me, cause I will go out and get it back from them right now.”

“No, Ma, nobody stole it. I musta left it….oh, Jesus. I met this girl and — oh, Ma, you’re going to be mad — we went to the Futureama, just fooling around, you know. I had my banjo, but then she, I mean it was an accident, but…”

“What girl? Who are you talking about?”

“Julie something. She doesn’t go to my school. I think she’s a college girl, she talked kind of weird and…”

“But what happened, Darrell? What in blazes are you saying?”

“We burned down the Futureama, Ma. I mean she did, I mean we didn’t mean to, but it caught fire and then it spread so fast, we just couldn’t stop it, and my banjo was there….”

It happened before she knew it. Her arm flew out and her hand smacked loudly against his cheek. The feel of his flesh against her hand like that, the resistance of his cheekbone, the sting on her palm: She had never felt anything so painful. He cried out and brought his finger to his face, his eyes still on her. He stopped talking.

“Did anybody see you?” LaTonya asked in a rush, jamming her right hand, the hand that had hit her child, under her other arm, against her body. “Ms. Fallon, was she there? Is she all right? Did you just run away?”

“Ms. Fallon, I think maybe she saw me, us I mean, but I’m not sure, nobody stopped us, and I just took off. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to wake you….”

“Go back to bed,” LaTonya said, trying to think fast. “I’ll call in sick for you today. Don’t say anything to anybody, not even your brothers, especially not your brothers, you understand? Stay away from that girl, whoever she is. As long as Ms. Fallon is okay, you’re to lay low and see what happens. Don’t answer the phone, don’t let anybody in the house. I need time to figure out what to do next.”

Read LaTonya’s Big Old To Do List.

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