It was Shona’s idea that they meet at Cherries, a bar in Boston made popular by a violent shooting that had claimed the lives of six black people last August. Cherries had closed business for a long time, healing and hibernating, and now they were open with a brand-new exterior, all red brick and sturdy…
It was Shona’s idea that they meet at Cherries, a bar in Boston made popular by a violent shooting that had claimed the lives of six black people last August. Cherries had closed business for a long time, healing and hibernating, and now they were open with a brand-new exterior, all red brick and sturdy doors.
“Can’t we meet anywhere else?” Nkem typed on her phone, then sent the message into her draft folder. No point sending it because she was already at Cherries, and certainly Shona would be inside drinking, her thick swingy dreadlocks easy to spot. If drunk enough, she would turn to anyone nearby and pontificate about race and feminism and settler colonialism, then she would finish by recommending her blog: “I’m not saying you should read it like the Bible. I just need you to check out my shit.”
Black queer culture, feminist politics, and dismantling white supremacy were only a few of the things she covered on her blog, and on the evening of the Cherries shooting, she cried a hot flood of tears. In Shona’s apartment, Nkem did her best to console her, then they proceeded to making love, but all through Shona was stiff with grief, inhaling too sharply, reaching clumsily for tissues. At 4:17a.m., Nkem woke to see her at her desk, slump-shouldered, her face ghostly from the light that came from her computer. She knew right away that Shona was struggling to find the words to put down on her blog, struggling to make sense of the Cherries incident.
It saddened Nkem that she didn’t feel as much grief as she would love to. Shona, although from Zimbabwe, had lived in America since her teens, and her worldview was steeped in black survival. Nkem, however, was in America to study sociology, and was only now understanding the complexities of being black. She pushed through the doors and ignored the cold knot in her stomach. She didn’t want to be here, if she was honest, this place with its horrific past. She decided she would focus on the fact that it was Valentine’s Day, and what do couples do on Valentine’s Day? She realised she wasn’t sure. Back on campus, some group involved with HIV/AIDS awareness had given her a condom and a love-shaped pamphlet, and on the short drive to Cherries, she had seen red Valentine cards pressed against shop fronts and stores. Red teddy bears, red chocolate boxes, red paper bags, so much red that it made Nkem feel dizzy.
Her relationship with Shona was her first real relationship, even if unorthodox, and the reason she hadn’t made any plans for Valentine was because Shona had been missing for two days. They had been in contact through text messages, but in those messages she wouldn’t reveal where she was and why she was gone in the first place. Each message always ended with vague lines like “I’ve been chosen for this. Don’t panic, babe” and Nkem would do the opposite by panicking. Shona’s African American friend Marcus, who was a vegan and took great pride in telling everyone this, had no idea about Shona’s whereabouts. Same response had come from Ama, the Ghanaian, who fondly called Nkem “Sister” in the spirit of their shared Africanness.
And as she went about contacting other friends, Nkem felt as though she were living in a version of Gone Girl, only that she wasn’t cheating and Shona wasn’t leaving any clues. So it was a relief to see her, perched on a too-high stool at the bar, her deadlocks wrapped in a huge bun. She wasn’t drinking, oddly enough, and even odder was the perspiring tall glass of ice water in front of her, untouched. When Nkem was in her full view, she spun herself down and walked a few agile paces to meet her. They hugged, kissed lightly, separated and then hugged again without any exchange of words. It suddenly occurred to Nkem how much she had missed Shona, the fullness of her breasts, the smell of her. Nkem withdrew slightly. The smell had been tampered with. Whiff of a strange-smelling soap and a foreignness. Not foreign at all, Nkem corrected. A smell that was too embarrassing to think about. Semen.
The bartender, pale and slight, served them tequila with slices of lemon and said it was on the house. Mid-morning, and the bar was nearly filled, the whole place humming back into existence. Reporters and photographers lingered by the entrance, interviewing people, occasional flash shots from cameras slashing through the dimness of the bar.
“I have been tracking the white fucker,” Shona said.
Nkem almost choked on her tequila.
“The Cherries shooter. That’s who I’m referring to.”
Nkem was relieved. Shona had not been raped, so there was no need for her to go on a I-Spit-On-Your-Grave-style revenge on her rapist. But it still did not solve the mystery of that smell.
“How did you find him?” Nkem remembered that the Cherries shooter was never caught, and going by eye witness reports, the shooter was white, which made sense given the nature of the hate crime. Almost a year later with the shooter still on the loose, Shona had articulated her anger and disappointment by writing a piece for a new online organisation. In it, she highlighted how pervasive whiteness had corrupted the police system. If the victims of the Cherries shooting had been white, she wrote, no doubt that the shooter would have since been arrested.
“He is the one and I am sure of it,” Shona sidestepped the question.
Nkem didn’t push it.
“Is he in Boston?”
“Was that why you were gone?”
Shona eyed her drink.
“I can’t remember what I was doing out of the house at night, but I remember hearing this…voice…in my head and I went with it and I kept walking and then I found myself in the woods. It knew my name…this creature… It looked me in the eye and the next thing I know, I woke up lying down on the grass, alone. I tried to find my way back but I couldn’t. I kept going in circles and then I saw this white guy by a small trailer house, he was fixing something on the roof, and so I thought he must know which way leads out of the woods,” Shona picked her glass of water and stared briefly at the ringlets of condensation, “I approached him and as he was giving me directions on how to get back, I was getting this vibe from him, and then I saw an image in my mind putting him here at Cherries, shooting all those people, blowing their brains out.”
Nkem sat motionless, shocked out of her mind. That Shona was all by herself in the woods made her gasp in short seizing breaths. She reached out a hand to comfort her, but accidently knocked down her half-empty glass of tequila. Expecting it to shatter, Shona caught the glass with an unexpected reflex, her hand blurred by the swiftness of the move. Slowly, she pulled up the glass and settled it on the counter, the tequila intact, no drop spilled.
Nkem stared, stunned.
“Can we leave?” Shona got off the stool, as if nothing had happened.
Nkem didn’t blink.
“Yes,” Nkem recovered, packing her things, “Certainly.”
At a restaurant close to the bar, they bought Chinese take-outs and a cold six-pack of Tsingtao and, in honour of Valentine’s Day, went to the pastry corner and bought Valentine-themed cupcakes. In Shona’s apartment, they showered together, which was Nkem’s idea because she wanted Shona to be scrubbed clean of that semen-like smell. But it didn’t go away; it trailed into the room where they sat cuddled on the bed watching the latest season of Orange Is The New Black.
There was a guardedness about Shona that Nkem didn’t like, a withdrawing of herself, and she wondered if it had to do with the “creature” she saw in the woods. Complete nonsense, Nkem was sure, but some things didn’t add up. Shona’s reflex, for example, catching that glass even though it was doomed to shatter. I’ve been chosen for this, Nkem recalled Shona’s text message from days ago. That was complete nonsense too.
Nkem’s theory was that Shona had gotten drunk, as was her habit, and wandered into the woods and stumbled on the residence of some poor white guy who didn’t have the means to get decent accommodation. But she couldn’t bring herself to tell Shona this for fear that it might ruin the evening. They didn’t have sex. Shona let Nkem spoon her, her body tucked against Nkem’s, and after a while Shona slipped away and said she had to use the bathroom.
Twenty minutes elapsed and she didn’t return.
“Shona?” Nkem went over to the bathroom door and put her ear against it. There was a shuffling-slipping sound, something wet, slippery. It was all too much at once.
“Shona,” Nkem held the handle, “Are you OK?
More sounds — shifting, gliding, then a squeezing through and this propelled Nkem into the bathroom. She had thought she would find Shona, but she was nowhere. In her place was a form, almost reptilian, its slender but strong hands curled round the edges of the window, halfway out. It had wings and they were pulled close in a stretch of bone and tendons, its muscular legs at an incline to the water system on which it stood. Just before it forced its way out in a determined flight, it turned its face towards Nkem with a yellow eye shine, and she shuffled back, watching this thing disappear into the inky blackness of night.
All around was a shedding of skin, like sawdust chippings, and Nkem went back into the room in a trance and stayed up all night. In the morning, she made coffee and took a few scalding sips that burned her tongue but she felt no pain. She was in some kind of haze, her mind frozen. It was when she got to school — her clothes were criminally mismatched from head to toe — and heard the news of the vicious death of the Cherries shooter that she came back to life. The news reports identified the shooter as Shawn Glyson, a 24-year-old electrician eviscerated in the grimy restroom of a disused gas station.
“The Boston Police Department,” Nkem heard over the radio along the cafeteria, “are currently investigating Shawn Glyson’s death but some are seeing it as justice truly served. Latest forensic reports are suggesting that the claw marks found on Glyson’s body could only have come from a rare wild animal. Even more puzzling in respect to the crime scene is the abundance of a substance that experts believe to be semen…”
Nkem hurried along and threw up in a flower vase. She wiped her mouth and stood awkwardly, watching students come and go, books stacked on their arms. She knew, now, that Shona had killed Shawn Glyson, and that all what she said to Nkem at the bar yesterday was true. She suppressed another wave of nausea. She ached to see Shona, to hear her say anything, to be with her if only to tell her how much she loved her. An hour later, Nkem made it to the roof of the tallest building in the school and stepped to the very edge. Up here, the air was clean and fresh. Below, a crowd was growing, full of anxious, worried faces. Someone she couldn’t see held up a “Black Lives Matter” placard. An ambulance with blaring sirens arrived, and while paramedics slithered through the thicket of bodies, Nkem stepped off the roof and hoped that Shona, wherever she was, would swoop in to break her fall.