The Little Prince

Elijah had curly hair that was slumber-pressed flat in the back but loose in the front. He would often absentmindedly squeeze between his fingers the fat, sandy-brown curls that hung over his moonstone eyes. He knew from Grandma Nell, his mother’s mother, that he was mulatto. He’d heard her say so when she introduced him to acquaintances in the frozen foods aisle at SuperValu, the Laundromat, or church whenever he visited his grandparents in Faribault, Minnesota. To most of the people in his world—like his friends Red and Boogy—he was simply “mixed.” That, to him, seemed more to the point.

It was the last day of spring break. Elijah was holding court with Red, who bounced a basketball between his legs, and Boogy. The thonk-thonk-thonk of the ball metered their silence, and the graffitied high-rise that was Elijah’s home hulked behind them. The only signs of nature were the wooden light poles. A girl in a striped miniskirt and immaculately-finger-waved hair pushed a squalling baby in a stroller. Some old-timers parked in aluminum chairs on the sidewalk near the corner bodega gawked as she passed. Elijah caught the reflection of the midday sun in the limo-tint window of a tricked-out Mercedes pumping past them down the wide avenue. A heavy bass line thumped from enormous speakers in the car’s open trunk.

Leaning back on ashy elbows, Elijah heaved a sigh and dropped his head back. “Dang, man. I wish I still had my bike.” It had been a gift—a consolation prize, really—from Elijah’s mother the last time they’d gone to the mall.

His real, deep-down wish was that his mom would reappear that day. His deep-deep-down wish was that she’d come back her old laughing, Wonder Woman self. She hadn’t been home in days. His across-the-hall neighbor, Mrs. Haskins, had been shooting him sidelong glances and pressing him about her whereabouts as he nibbled on the freshly-baked cookie she’d given him. If his mom wasn’t back by dinner, he’d have to call Grandma Nell again.

“Dog,” interjected Red. “You need to forget you ever even owned a bike. Know what I’m sayin’?” Boogy looked up from his X-Men comic book and bobbed his head like a novelty Chihuahua perched on a dashboard. A few cars grumbled past.

“And you, dog—X-Men is played! Ain’t nobody tryin’ to read that madness no more,” Red said.

“You’re just mad ’cause alls you got is those old Green Hornets your gramma gave you in kindygartin,” laughed Boogy.

Red seemed unfazed. “Y’all just don’t know nothin ’bout classics, man. Classics. I’m gonna cash mine in for some real bank one day, while y’all tryin’ to trade yours in for some Archies.”

“I gotta buncha Supermans—now tell me you got jack that can top that at the bank!”

“Boogy, ain’t nobody tryin’ to hear ’bout your Saturday morning bullshit. Why don’t you shut your ninety-nine-cent-Whopper-eatin’ ass up?” snapped Red. “Whatta y’all know anyway—buncha fourth graders…”

Red was short for Redmond but was additionally fitting because of his hot temper, rust-colored Afro, and freckles. Elijah knew some of the other kids called him Dirty Red behind his back. The fact that he was a second-time fifth grader made no matter. As the oldest, Elijah accepted him as the self-anointed ringleader. Boogy dwarfed Elijah and Red, having outgrown the Husky Boy’s department a couple of years back. He had dark, velvety skin. His nickname came from a nurse in the hospital where he was born who had remarked that he looked like that character in To Kill a Mockingbird—Boogy Radley. And somehow, it stuck.

Elijah finally lifted his gaze from his unlaced high-tops and stared off down the street. “Red, man, he was just jokin’. Why you always gotta cap on people like that?” he asked meekly.

“I’m just sayin’…And forget about your bike. For reals,” Red said. He formed a fist over the basketball, stuttering its bouncing to a stop.

“It’s just…” Elijah’s voice squeaked. “Never mind.”

5 bicycles: purple, black, yellow, purple and green

His mom had bought the bike the day that he’d found himself waiting on her for hours in the food court. She had said she’d only be gone a minute. A salesclerk on her break had taken notice of him. Soon, he was moored in the mall security office while uniformed, walkie-talkie-toting security officers filed in and out with Styrofoam cups of coffee and soda cans and snacks from the vending machine in the hall by the restroom. Most of the mall cops had ignored the hefty woman in a fake fur coat handcuffed to the bench across from Elijah. She cracked her chewing gum nonstop and answered questions solely by rolling her eyes sharply in one direction or the other. Occasionally, the head of security rose to peep over his desk at Elijah. He would say, “Hang in there, now—I bet your mama’s more scared than you.” Then he’d force a smile. Eventually, the smile became a mere twitch of the mouth before he’d duck his head back down. Three-and-a-half hours had passed before his mother appeared—fifteen minutes before the mall closed. Her hair was pasted to her head with sweat, eyes wild as if she had been chased there at gunpoint. When she saw Elijah, she flew to him. She knelt before him and kissed him all over his face and hugged him so tightly he couldn’t move.

“You all right? You okay, baby?” his mother had asked. Elijah had just nodded. Her clammy arms had clenched him tighter. “Okay…okay,” she heaved. He felt her heart hammering in her chest. All eyes were upon them as she wiped her damp, dishwater blonde hair from her face. She took Elijah’s hand as they stood, squeezing it so hard he had to pry himself loose. The head security officer rose from his desk as they turned to leave.
“Thank you, officers,” his mother said with exaggerated formality as they left.

A lanky guard had stood stiffly in the doorway and regarded them with slight disdain. The handcuffed woman in the fake fur had let out a loud snort. Elijah turned to glance at her and caught the gaze of the security officer behind the counter, who looked upon him with a resigned softness.
“Take care now, son—I told you it’d be all right,” he’d said, nodding reassuringly at Elijah just before they slipped away.
His mother dragged him through the mall toward the parking lot, walking as if she were on hot coals. Then she stopped, pale-faced and panting, just inside the exit between two aisles of bicycles in Sears’s sporting goods department.

“Go on, baby,” she’d told him, pushing him forth by the shoulders. “Pick out any one you want. Absolutely any one. Any one at all.”

He chose a sparkly blue one with a banana seat and high handlebars.
That had been a year and a half ago.

a set of headphones, not connected to anything

A weathered man layered in tattered clothes, with a sleeping bag draped over his shoulders, rolled a rusted Weber grill past Elijah, Boogy, and Red. The man stopped in the center of the intersection and began cursing in disgust. A wheel had been hobbled. The boys watched the man circle the grill, surveying it from all sides as if he’d been in a car crash.

Boogy was the first to notice the sight pedaling towards them. “Damn, man—here comes your bike.”

A teenage boy, way too big for the sparkly bike, called out as he rode up to the trio. “What up, Superfriends?” The boy, Lollipop, began riding in tight circles in front of them, wagging his tongue in mockery.

“Nothin’ up ’round here,” said Red. “What’s up with you?”

“Awww, you know man, same ol’ same ol’—I’m ’bout to go to work though.”
Elijah hugged his shins tight to his chest and rested his chin on his knees, letting stray curls fall forward to hide his face.

“Go to work?” scoffed Red. “Since when you got a job?”

“Man, what you know? I got me a jobby-job down at SuperValu bagging shit up. So, there.”

“Then why you gotta go ’round taking folks’ spokes if you got a job?”

“Maaaan, I ain’t taken shit. I’m owed, and I’m just making sure I get paid,” Lollipop added, steadily riding in circles. “Ain’t that right, ’Lijah?”

Elijah stole a timid glance at Lollipop out of the corner of one eye. The teenager was right. Elijah had borrowed ten dollars from him a couple of days earlier to buy comic books. He thought he’d get the money later from his mom when she got home. Except she never did.

Lollipop backpedaled to a stop in front of the curb. He lifted the baseball cap off his hooded head and set it back with the brim twisted to the opposite side. “What’s up wit’ your moms, anyway, man?” he asked Elijah. “I just seened her over there by Hunan Palace, and she was trippin’, man. Triii–ppin’. Anyway, man, you need to straighten out your boys here ’bout callin’ people stealers.” The older boy pedaled off lopingly, knees jutting out in wide arcs. He called back as he went, “Nobody wants your stank-ass Huffy no how!”

Elijah’s head drooped, but his stomach fluttered as he gazed hypnotically again at the tops of his Converses. Red rolled the basketball back and forth on the ground between his feet for a while. Boogy strummed his thumbs on his knees. When the silence had gone on long enough, Red tapped Elijah on the arm. “Dog, forget this madness, let’s go shoot some hoops or somethin’.”

“I’m sayin’,” added Boogy. “Let’s check it.”

They climbed to their feet. Red dribbled the ball ahead of them as they ambled toward the basketball court on the next block. To avoid being asked if he was going to find his mom, Elijah let himself fall farther and farther behind. When the other two boys were a safe shouting distance ahead, he called out to them.

“Hey! I’m gonna catch up with you guys later, awright?” He began his trek to Hunan Palace. If he had wings like his favorite X-Men character, Angel, he could fly there. But he wasn’t sure he wanted to get there any faster.

A walkman with headphones wire but no headphones

The overhead sky was bright and sharp. A dejected Elijah wound his way through dust-gray tenement apartment buildings, roll-gate-shuttered and boarded-up storefronts, vacant lots. He strode in an irregular gait, careful to avoid the sidewalk’s cracks. Then, the glint from a plate-glass window broke the spell. Snapping his head forward, he saw that he’d reached Hunan Palace. It was overly-lit, like a laboratory. Elijah didn’t want to see her here, but there she was—seated alone at a table in the middle of the half-empty restaurant. Her mussy head was resting on the Formica table. His heart sank.

Pulling open the stiff metal-framed door took all of his strength. Its weight hastily ushered him inside, and nearly caught his arm in the jamb. He wove his way toward her, his legs feeling weak. Still some tables away, he saw that the blue dress she had on was a hospital gown. A stuffed plastic bag was in the aisle by her seat. Elijah spotted a small, broom-wielding man approaching her from the other direction. The man reached her first and whacked the broom’s handle sharply against the leg of her chair. His mother jumped in her seat. She righted herself, awake but disoriented. A smattering of rice grains stuck to her forehead.

“No sleeping in the restaurant thank you!” barked the man. Elijah was cemented in place, gape-mouthed until the man retreated behind the counter. Then, he went to his mother. Her head lolled slightly to one side, and she rubbed spittle from the corner of her mouth with the palm of her hand. Elijah patted her softly on the arm. When he finally came into focus for her, a smile wavered across her face.

“Hey, baby,” she sighed with longing and relief. She scrubbed her hand through his hair adoringly, and the end of her plastic hospital ID bracelet lightly scratched his cheek. “Look who’s here. My little man. My little prince…”

She was babbling, pulling Elijah closer when the man emerged with the broom from behind the counter and intoned, “You done, you go on now. Okay, bye-bye.” He caught Elijah’s wide-eyed gaze, and added, “You must go—I keep the door open for you, okay?” And he went to do just that. Elijah tried to rally his gangly mother to her feet, but she was dazed, and faltered. He picked up her bag of belongings.

“C’mon, Mom. We gotta go,” he said, brushing the rice grains from her face with his fingers.

“All right, baby, where you want to go?” she murmured as she clambered to stand. “Hmmm, baby?”

“Let’s just go, Mom. C’mon,” Elijah coaxed. The owner had posted himself at the entrance, leaning his back against the door to keep it open wide. Elijah raised a bent arm, like a gentleman escorting his date. His mother held on to it to keep herself steady as they wended their way through diners paused over their chop suey and fried rice and chicken chow fun.

The owner snarled, “Go. Go quickly! QUICKLY!

Reaching the door, Elijah’s mother hesitated and gave the steely-faced owner a wobbly grin. The man grimaced. With a few quick snaps of his head, he signaled for them to move on. As she stepped over the threshold, his mother quickly leaned in and licked the man from chin to cheek.

As Elijah unlocked the last deadbolt to their apartment, he could hear Mrs. Haskins turning the locks to her door. Not wanting to deal with her prying, he hurried his mother inside. Slats of hazy afternoon light sliced through beat-up aluminum blinds and across the thrift-store furniture in their tumbledown apartment. Elijah watched as she settled herself, and his stomach grumbled. He wondered if he’d missed his chance for some food from Mrs. Haskins. His mother sank onto the sofa and fumbled to pull the hospital gown’s string ties loose.

“Be a prince and turn the television on for me, won’t you, baby?” she asked. Elijah ran to snap on the old floor-cabinet set as his mother shook her way out of the gown. He rooted through empty soda and beer cans, dirty dishes, and other clutter for the clicker, then patiently held it out to her as she sat bare-breasted, pawing through a heap of dirty clothes on the floor by her feet.

“Thanks, little man,” she said, taking the remote. “See if you can find Mama’s cigarettes, will you, baby?” She pulled on a faded T-shirt with “World’s Best Grandma” silk-screened on the front. Elijah found some Newports in the garbage on the scorch-mark-riddled walnut coffee table and handed them to her. She thanked him, flicked a cigarette from the crumpled, near-empty pack, and stuck it in her mouth.

Elijah studied his mother as she fished through the junk next to the sofa for a lighter.

“I sure missed you, baby,” she mumbled, cigarette quivering between her chapped, pursed lips. “I tried to tell them damn people I needed to get home, but they kept hassling me. Assholes. A bunch of assholes.” Her eyebrows creased in emphatic disbelief. “I can’t stand those hospital people,” she continued, bringing the Bic’s flame up to the cigarette with an unsteady hand. “You know, if it was up to me, I’d been home. But, you know, they had me all hooked up to this stuff—tubes and stuff. I could barely figure out how to get loose.” Drawing deeply on the Newport, she stretched out her bruise-splotched legs on the sofa, rested her head on the threadbare arm, then let smoke drift like a rolling fog out of her slightly parted mouth. Elijah shuffled past without looking at her. She reached out a skinny, needle-pocked arm to grab him, but barely caught the hem of his shirt. Instead of breaking loose, Elijah let her stop him.

“Where you think you rushing off to? Huh?” she asked him.

“Nowhere,” he huffed, stuffing his hands in his pockets. Rhythmically kicking the sofa leg, he cast her a timid glance.

“You can’t go nowhere with your shoes untied like that—come here.” She pulled him closer by his shirt.

“Mom, they’re not supposed to be tied.”

“What do you mean? They’re shoelaces. Laces are supposed to get tied.”

“But that’s not how you wear ’em.”

She leaned forward, and wrapped an arm around him, pulling him down to sit on the edge of the sofa. “You’ll trip and bust your lip,” his mother said. She took a long drag off the cigarette, which was already burned halfway to the filter. Elijah took the cigarette from her and tapped the colossal ash off into a dirty saucer on the floor. She was leaned back with her eyes closed when he stuck it back in her hand.

Elijah said, “You shouldn’t smoke. You promised. When Grandma was here, you said you were gonna quit.”

She let a small, choked laugh escape before her eyes opened to see the disappointment clouding Elijah’s face. “You’re right, baby. Mama’s gonna quit. Mama’s gonna quit, and you’re gonna tie your shoes.”

“That’s not even,” Elijah objected. “Besides, you already promised. So there.”

Her eyes closed again as she spoke. “You know what? I’m gonna promise you right now we’re gonna have fun tonight. Okay? What do you want to do?”

Elijah thought about it, giving the decision the kind of care usually reserved for Christmas lists and birthday wishes. At last, he said, “I want to order pizza and read comics.” Then he anxiously added, “And wait! After, I wanna go down to the arcade where we went that one time, remember? That time I got my hair cut and you got yours cut at the same time and after we played video games in the mall? Remember, Mom? Remember?”

“If that’s what you want, my darling little prince, that’s what we’ll do,” his mother said, eyes still closed. “I’m gonna take my little prince out on the town.”

He watched her lying there for a moment, trying to determine if she was asleep. He decided to wake her if she was. “Mom? Can I go down to Shinder’s and get the new X-Factor?”

She let her head flop toward him. “Course you can, baby.”

His mouth contorted a bit as he tried to form his next words. He wasn’t sure he wanted to mention that he’d hocked his bike to Lollipop. So, he just said, “Do you have some money so I can go?”

Her eyes opened just a slit. “Uh huh. I got some with my stuff. Where’s my stuff?”

Elijah leaped to his feet when she began to point randomly about, and he bolted for the plastic bag of belongings he’d carried home earlier.

“Here you go,” he said, holding the bag out for her.

She gave him a limp wave of the hand. “You go in it. I know I got money in there somewheres.”

Elijah knelt on the ground and pried loose the bag handles. He dumped the contents out onto the floor and sifted through them: red shoes so worn in the heel the chipboard stacking was exposed, a satiny green leopard print bra, two dollars and eighty-four cents in coins, a pink velour halter dress, a smashed pack of Newports—and five twenty-dollar bills wadded into a clump. He peeled the twenties apart. Elijah pondered taking them all for a moment. But, the thought of pizza and the video arcade guided his hand to release all but one. He’d save ten of it to get his bike back from Lollipop.

“I’m leaving. Don’t let anybody in while I’m gone,” he said. But his mother’s mouth had dropped open, signaling her submission to sleep. She had no friends or acquaintances that he liked coming around. When they did—always the same shady few—Elijah would shut himself in his room, put on his Walkman, and read comics.

Shooting a quick glance at Mrs. Haskins’ door, he wondered if she was watching for him through her peephole. With no sign of her, he slipped freely and purposefully out of the apartment, the door locking itself behind him. He had places to go and people to see.

Elijah’s head was buried deep in his brand-new X-Men spinoff—X-Factor: Issue #14, in which Warren Worthington, aka Angel, is hospitalized and trying to avoid federal fraud charges. No more than three steps out of the store, he bumped into an elderly man in a yellow seersucker suit and leather house slippers. He was pushing an oxygen tank—air trickling through plastic cannulas tucked into his nostrils. Elijah issued a wide-eyed apology. The old man smiled at him with watery eyes and gave him a labored, shaky pat on the head. Elijah waited for the man to shuffle on, but snapped to at the sight of Lollipop riding his bike on the sidewalk across the street, a McDonald’s bag dangling in one hand by his side. The whole way to Shinder’s he’d been scoping the streets for the older boy.

“Hey,” Elijah shouted. “Lollipop!” Car horns honked and brakes squealed as he darted through the sparse traffic across the street.

“What’s goin’ on, li’l dad?” asked Lollipop, as he wound the bike to a stop.

“Hey. I got your ten dollars,” Elijah offered. “Can I get my bike back now?”

“You mean can you buy your bike back,” he smirked. “Man, that was yesterday’s price—yesterday.”

“What do you mean?”

“What do I mean? I mean, there’s interest involved, man. Don’t you know nothin’ ’bout business? Man, I loaned you that ten spot two days ago. It’d be bad business not to incorporate the, you know, appropriate financial additives…”

Elijah stared at Lollipop, the back of his neck heating, unable to speak.

“You know what I mean, things have, you know, compounded since then,” Lollipop continued.

“So, what does that mean?” Elijah said, his mind reeling at this turn of events.

“It means, you wants your Huffy back, you need to, you know, come up offa ten more bones is what it means, man.”

Elijah screwed his face in defeat. The phantom tingling of the other crumpled twenties he’d held earlier prickled his palm.

“Come on, man, I ain’t got all day to play wit’ you. I’m on my break. That’s the deal, man. Take it—or take the bus!” Lollipop threw his head back laughing at his own joke, and his baseball cap tumbled to the ground. He scooped it up and perched it back on top of his cornrowed noggin. Leaning back on the bike seat, he addressed Elijah with newfound seriousness.

“Look, li’l dad, I gots to get back to my jobby-job, know what I’m sayin’. You wants your bike, come by SuperValu with twenty bones when I get off, like at six, and we’ll call it even. I’ll give you your bike.”

“Yeah,” he conceded, knowing the offer would get no better. “Deal. I’ll catch you later.”

“Cool.”

They scattered. Those other crumpled twenty-dollar bills flashed through Elijah’s mind. He realized he could get his bike back and broke into a skip.

Elijah pounced on the landing to his apartment’s floor and thrust his arms above his head like Rocky Balboa. A gaunt, oily-haired man in a nylon running suit with a flimsy black leather jacket slung over one shoulder floated past him in a cloud of menthol smoke and sweet cologne. Elijah looked up at the man, who flashed the boy a snaggletoothed smile so sneering it punched him in the stomach. Walking toward his door, he turned to get another glimpse of the man. But his toe caught on a gash in the hallway’s stained, scarred linoleum, and he stumbled. When he found his footing and looked back, the man was vapor.

In front of his apartment, he searched around his neck for his beaded keychain, staring back down the hall at nothing, no one. He was about to unlock the door when he heard the slide of a security bolt and the brassy creak of door hinges.

“Elijah,” a craggy, hushed voice called to him from the open sliver of door across the hall.

He turned and gave the woman a meek smile. “Hey, Mrs. Haskins.” As he started to turn back, the woman cracked the door wide enough to come fully into view.

“Come here, chil’, I got somethin’ for ya,” she summoned him with a crooked, wrinkly finger. “Come on over here.”

Elijah took two reluctant steps closer, then stopped. The older lady had grandchildren who she never saw, so she spilled her grandmotherly love on him. Cookies, homemade fudge on holidays, small gifts on his birthday, a couple of dollars here and there to buy himself a comic or play at the arcade. She even gave him a goldfish once—where she got it he did not know—but it died within a week. He couldn’t bring himself to tell her. Subsequently, he received a neon-colored ceramic stalagmite for the fishbowl and the occasional canister of flaked fish food. He was warily fond of her. But now, Elijah stood before her as if she were a complete stranger.

“Come here, I got some supper for ya,” she said, opening the door wide enough for him to pass her. Elijah remained unmoved.

“That’s awright, Mrs. Haskins. My mom’s gonna hook us up with dinner. But thanks…” His lips were moving, but he spoke so softly that even he wasn’t sure words were coming out.

“What ya say, chil’? Come on over here quick. You know I don’t like playin’ with my door wide open,” Mrs. Haskins said impatiently. Elijah finally went to her. She closed the door behind him, securing the locks and sliding the bolt before she doddered past him.

“Come on in.” She wiped her hands on her apron as she made her way to the kitchen. Elijah followed her, just far enough to hover in the doorway next to the stove. “Myself, I done ate already. Y’know I eat early. But, I’ll fix a plate for ya…How ’bout I fix two plates. One for you, one for your mama. Ya say she home?”

Elijah nodded.

Mrs. Haskins said, “Well, I guess that’s something. I was beginning to wonder…” She grimaced.

“You don’t have to, you know, fix us dinner. My mom is gonna take us out. She promised. She promised me.”

The old woman tsked. “If she want it, fine. Otherwise, both plates for you.”

He fell against the doorframe with his hands jammed in his pockets, sack of comic books tucked under his arm. He frowned at the way she seemed to disapprove of his mom. She asked him how school was going. He shrugged. She said that she knew he’d do fine, just fine, and began humming strains of gospel as she piled two chipped dinner plates full of baked beans, boiled hot dogs, and hunks of cornbread. Elijah watched his neighbor shuffle around her kitchen in gold wedge slippers and thick hose. Her thin hair was pulled back at the nape into a tiny, dusty, periwinkle bun. She pulled two swathes of tin foil from a roll and covered the heaping plates.

He sometimes wished she were his father’s mother, whom he’d never met. Never so much as seen a picture. But she’d be kin.

“Here ya go,” Mrs. Haskins said, presenting the plates to a reluctant Elijah.

“And, ya know you can always come back for some more. I got plenty. Don’t forget, you can always come back…”

Elijah leaned back against the apartment door, shutting it with a dense sigh. The only real light was coming from the television, the volume up so loud it was at odds with the dimness. The dusty, early afternoon sunlight had been edged out, and the living room was shrouded with the swift coming of night.

She was there.

The only sign that his mother had moved since he left was that her head was now at the other end of the sofa. And a couple of empty fifths he hadn’t noticed earlier were lying beside her. Whiskey fumes hung sourly in the air, along with the same cologne of the man he’d seen in the hallway. Elijah balanced the stacked plates unsteadily with one hand and removed the bag of comics from beneath his arm with the other. As he bent to rest the plates on the floor, the top one slid off and teetered to a stop.

“Mom?” he called to his mother as he set the other dish down. He was unable to see her face, but he could tell she didn’t stir. He shouted loudly, clearly, over the sound of the television. “Mom!” When she still made no move, he bit his lip, let out a grunt, and dismissed himself to the kitchen.
Returning with a fork, he sat down with his comics in front of the television. With a mouthful of pasty lukewarm beans, he peeped around for the remote control. He didn’t see it. Setting the plate aside, he leaned closer to the television and lowered the volume. Elijah stretched for the heap of items from his mother’s hospital bag and rummaged through it, looking for the wadded twenties.

They were gone.

He bent his head down, squashed a curl near his forehead in his fist, then settled back with his dinner.

“Mom!” Contempt invaded the pitch of his voice. “Mrs. Haskins sent food over.” He glimpsed over his shoulder, trying to detect any motion on the sofa. Seeing there was none, he retrained his gaze upon the television. “You better hurry up and get up if you want to eat it, ’cause I might eat it myself.”

He sulked, then shoved a mound of cornbread into his mouth. His eyebrows furrowed as he chewed. Pulling X-Factor #14 out of its sleeve, he began to reread it. Even the saturated frames of Angel having his wings clipped were unable to keep his attention, and Elijah found himself peeking over his shoulder again. His mother’s dirty feet were dangling over the edge of the sofa. The remnants of candy-apple-red nail polish blotched her toenails. Elijah turned back to his comic book and stretched out on his stomach, lifting himself up on his elbows to eat the remaining cornbread and hot dog with his fingers.

Elijah blinked his eyes open. Crumbs clung to the moist corners of his mouth. A few absentmindedly twisted tendrils decorated his forehead. He was surprised that he had fallen asleep lying on the floor. The sun had completely set, leaving the uneven flickering from the television the sole light in the apartment. He sat up and rubbed his eyes with the backs of his hands, a huge sigh echoing from his small, lanky body in the darkness. He walked on his knees to the edge of the sofa. His mother was still lying there, unmoved, and he leaned closer to her face. Sitting back on his heels, the boy grasped the edge of the sofa cushion in his hands. He studied his mother. Fringes of hair clumped limply over her face, covering her eyes.

“Mom?” Elijah squeaked, kneeling over her now. He pushed the hair from his mother’s face behind her ears. The cold moistness of her skin startled him. His hand hovered just above her face for a heartbeat before he touched her again, smoothing the stray hairs clinging to her forehead. He bit his lower lip and gestured with his fingers as if to touch her cheek, but stopped short.

Instead, Elijah pulled himself slowly to his feet and quivered down the dark hallway to his bedroom. The walls were plastered with posters of comic book characters, the ceiling dotted with plastic decals of the solar system that had once glowed in the dark. He went to his bed and slunk backward to sit with his eyes shut while hugging his shins. A minute later, he was dragging an electric blue comforter emblazoned with X-Men characters back down the hall and into the living room. He paused at the edge of the sofa, then looked down at his mother.

Elijah draped the comforter over her, taking care to tuck it behind her shoulders and cover her feet, gently patting it smooth in places. He backed away from the sofa, enveloped in the television’s emanations before eventually bumping into it. Unable to look away from her, he reached behind himself and blindly felt around. He didn’t know what he was doing—increasing the volume, changing the station, then finally finding the power button and shutting off the TV. The room fell slowly into a deep shadow.

He crawled nearer to his mother through the dimness. Laying himself down across the jumble on the floor, he pressed his back against the sofa and pulled the dangling edge of the comforter over himself just enough to cover his narrow shoulders. Elijah drew his knees tight to his chest. He tucked his hands under his head with the new X-Factor sandwiched between them.

How would Angel survive without wings?

The blue ghost of the television finally evaporated into nothingness. He couldn’t hear the sound of the blood thrumming in his head, feel the scratchiness of the nylon carpet beneath him, or smell the liquor, cologne, and smoke that scented the room—odors so unlike the powder and mothballs of Grandma Nell’s, where he was bound to be sent. For good this time.

All Elijah could do was squeeze his eyes ever tighter to the sharp, deep silence and pray for a miracle.

T. E. Wilderson

T.E. Wilderson is a New Orleans-born writer currently living in the Midwest. By day, she is an editor and graphic designer. Her short stories have appeared in Crack the Spine Anthology XVII, the Tishman Review, The Louisville Review, and The Notre Dame Review, among others. She holds an MFA in writing from Spalding University, and is a 2019 McKnight Foundation Fellowship in Writing recipient.

Elliot Lang

Elliot Lang is a Denver-based illustrator and gallery artist working in advertising, packaging, and editorial and book illustration. As an illustrator, he creates posters for bands and events, packaging for food and beverage, and interior artwork and cover illustrations for books. When he is not creating art, Elliot spends his time swimming, hiking, and exploring the outdoors. A client list and more can be found at www.elliotlang.com.


First Featured In: No. 15, spring 2020

The Identity Issue

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