“I want to know what the fuck you goin do bout it, Spot.”
The crunch of Rayquan Jackson’s knuckles was a fairly old song to Jerome Potts. This was also true of the not-so affectionate nickname of Spot. What made this day, more than any other spent beneath the elongated, Cheeto dusted thumb of Rayquan so bearable was the finality of it all.
After the circle of googly eyed observers dispersed, after his best friend, Nate, had unwound from fetal floundering behind him, and of course after Jerome finished catching Rayquan’s hands to his face, he’d finally say goodbye to Dean Walters High.
Nate, goddamned Nate Walker. Not twenty-three minutes earlier, Jerome was slinking his skateboard from his backpack, pounding fists for the last time with Dr. Yates, who, dropped the Joe Clark act completely to say goodbye to his favorite student, and readied to ride off into his happy ending. Nate “The One Niggas Gotta Hate” Walker didn’t see this as a substantial end for his best friend’s tenure as a nobody for three and a half years, however.
Nah, that nigga called you Spot for the laaast fuckin time. Nate said, after lunch, where Rayquan gave his usual call of Spot check! Before shoving Jerome over from behind. No one ever laughed, but Rayquan never called for their laughter, just their ball-snapping, quaked fear. Jerome’s vitiligo ran nearly symmetrical down his face, save for one squiggled spot above his right eyebrow, resembling a hastily weaved storm cloud. Because of this, children he’d spent years with in the hallways, from elementary to middle to high school, knew more about his skin condition than his name. It’d just been easier for them, he eventually realized, to pay no mind at all, instead of risk the contagion of pariah syndrome.
Rayquan, however, was a specific sort. One day, during their sophomore year, Rayquan was in a heated cipher, his tongue tangling words like thorns over a vine. He’d been in the midst of a freestyle, when Jerome made the mistake of existing in his line of sight.
Raining lyrics that keep yo head hot, let it rot, let itbreakdownyoskinlikethatweirdniggasSPOT. Rayquan fired out before wagging his thumb toward Jerome. Everyone looked, nearly all of their stomachs tight at the crossroads of moral dissonance. This was Rayquan however, who held their social carrot and stick, all Wonka inspired golden tickets to popularity were his, and his alone to distribute. The moment began to linger too long for his liking, and as he glared at those who’d circled to see his rhymes during lunch. One by one the dove into a caucus of hooting, hollering laughter.
Everyone, except Nate.
So standing there on his last day, bookbag strap tightly coiled around his left hand, ribs still aching from the last time he’d stood on the losing side of Ray’s hands, he knew that while Nate was the one who’d thought it hilarious to dump a pint of white milk over Ray’s head, that he’d have no real choice but to take a beating for his friend.
Call it a going away present.
“I wouldn’t say I have to do much about it.” Jerome said, and let his hand free from the strap of the bookbag. When it slunk lazily to the ground Nate’s eyes stretched open, ready to take in the sight of Jerome Pacifist Potts actually readying to throw down.
“Oh really?” Ray said, like the cartoon villain he’d spent his life so desperately trying to be.
“Yeah, really.” Jerome huffed out, and gave a nod behind him. When Ray’s eyes followed the nod, he noticed there was a force approaching from behind like a lackluster wind storm in the form of Principal Jefferies. Jerome, while never one to negate the path to the least amount of beatdown, found himself a bit disappointed to see the gray afroed adult trot over, making the children depart as if the professor was more of a pistol pop. He wanted them to know, before the end, before they would never see his multicolored face ever again, that he didn’t fear them. Oh well.
“And what’s going on here?” Principal Jefferies asked sternly, huffing a bit before tugging his belt upward. Jerome didn’t turn, and only smiled sweetly while staring as deep as he could into Ray’s own eyes.
“No problem at all, right?” Jerome said. Ray sucked at his lip, before rolling his look to the principal.
“Nah, no problem at all.” He spat, and jogged to catch up to his friends, peons, and sheepish social slaves. After Jerome helped his friend to his feet, when the principal tried to purge what information he could from Jerome, he kept his lips tight. It was one thing to be a nerd, but another entirely to be a goddamned snitch.
No, he instead explained they were only rapping, throwing out some freestyles and Nate fell over his own feet. Principal Jefferies may not have believed it, but Jerome knew how little that mattered, that the stout scholar wanted as little as he could to do with them as they to him, and he took the story for what it was. A calming. A, this is one less thing you’ll have to worry about.
When they began the long trek home, Jerome and Nate didn’t say much to one another. Like most young black boys who tossed notes in the hallways, who talked about getting to the suburbs if only to blast music on their lawns which stirred them to visibility, they stayed in their heads, but it was more times the not the safest place to be.
“So, that didn’t go like I thought it would.” Nate finally said, they were somewhere between Finley Ave and Finally Away From Those That Suck Balls Street before he did though. Jerome tensed his jaw, to hold back the smiles tumbling upward but couldn’t, and let them slip free.
“You’re a dumb motha fucka you know that?” He told Nate, who only placed his arm atop Jerome’s jagged ‘fro and messed it a bit.
“Yeah, you’re the one who still kicks it wit me. Who’s the dumb one?” Jerome couldn’t debate such flawless logic. It would also be true to say, in the traditional sense, the quantifiable sense that at least on paper, Jerome really was the dumb one of their dynamic duo. Of the two of them, which one could really point a thumb at themselves when asked who has AP Calculous, AP Chem? AP English, AP Anything But Home Economics Because It’s Not A Thing?
Jerome, while filled with the myopic and morose dread of individuality that comes with being a teenager had little to credit himself as special. He’d been a C student more quarters than not, and the only time the nigh untouchable A would rear its head was in history.
He wasn’t (to the contrary of my own attempts to say otherwise herein) a stupid kid, however. There was never a plan to promenade throughout the globe, using each of his factoids for something other than the bragging rights of saying he could. The list of substantial scholarship opportunities for the young, black, and actually achieving were slim enough, so he hadn’t thought of reaching out to the NAACP with an essay to discuss how his 2.8 GPA would benefit mankind.
No, he would enroll at a two-year college following graduation, before transferring to a reasonably priced four-year institution. Maybe one of those cushy PWI’s if he played his cards right. He’d skate in if he sold that story of the woman who was, that loved him like a crook, stealing all the moments she could that he wished, those days more than any, he’d given freely.
Before the bouquets.
before the sight of her there, husked and hollowed of life.
Maybe, if he worked enough angles and appealed to some angels, he could end up kinda sorta slightly better off than the father that he, sad stereotype he’d been, had never known. He sucked at variables, so he hadn’t spent much time dwelling on them, just enough to figure out anything to get him away from that place. Away, from auntie Yvette.
“Aight J, I’ll see you later.” Nate said, before pounding fists with Jerome at the front of his porch. Jerome did the same and skipped up the steps, lightly creaking the door open, ready to brave the beast of 676 Mount East once more.
The house had been in the family for years, first his Grandpa Parsons, before it moved along to his mother, and now, the four-bedroom bastion had only been occupied by Jerome and Yvette. At the funeral, she held Jerome with firm, work worn hands. The grip tightening in parallel with the eyes that happened to be over them in the moment. He didn’t mind, as much as she smelled like menthol and mayhem, she also smelled like the family, like her. We’re gonna be alright. She’d whispered to him, and, not much else that day. Fast forward two years, and one fist bump with Nate, as he carefully crossed across the worn wood paneled floor, trying not to
“JEROOOMMME!!!” Yvette’s standard call to his action rippled through the house, latching tight over his ears and simmering the seed of a migraine between them. Jerome mouthed a curse without breath, and made slow ascent to Yvette’s bedroom upstairs. He tip toed over loose trash, reeking clothes, and scurrying roaches in the dim hallway to her bedroom.
He shoved hard against the door to push it open across the clothes littered throughout the bedroom. As usual, it stabbed at his everything to see her there, raccoon splotches of makeup over her eyes, messed crown of curly weave, and wafts of cigarillo smoke permeating the same room that his mother used to sleep in. This wouldn’t be such a tragedy of course, if she wasn’t wearing the same exact face of his mother, every single day.
This much, at least, couldn’t be blamed on Yvette. When she and her sister were born, one immediately after another, neither asked to be an identical twin, neither could have possibly known that after Yvette was done chasing a nightmare in New York, she’d return home, to her nephew. She’d never asked to take on Jerome, to take on that god forsaken house with its stench of mediocrity, its whispering walls, its secrets.
So, after a long shift as a receptionist at Gorman’s Auto, after clinking and clanking her heels up to the room, adhering to her smoky, sweaty sheets, what was the big deal with letting the kid go his own way? As much as she’d given up, to be back here, to waste away what few, dwindling years of beauty and belly flatness she’d had left on a city which hadn’t deserved a voice like hers, Yvonne’s two toned brat could suck it up, and follow her demands for a few more months until he was eighteen.
“I need you to run to the store.” She said. Jerome had only the one nickname that he’d been aware of from Rayquan, but I need you to run to the store was becoming a close second, courtesy of auntie Yvette. If it wasn’t a run to the store, it was a tune up of her car, or a cleaning of the gutters, or a making of her meal, or a washing of her draws, or a mixing of her whiskey, or a rolling of her blunt. He tried to remember that woman at the funeral, the one who promised, we’re gonna be alright, in front of the eyes of family he’d barely known while she’d wrapped arms around him so tightly. Where the hell did she go?
It didn’t matter all that much, because in six more hours, Jerome would be on a train, and away from all of it.
He’d been saving for a few months at that point. During lunch period, he’d worked as a dishwasher, at best he’d earned ninety bucks every two weeks, but when you’re hoarding for a year it’s enough to pay for a one way bus ticket, with some survival stash to spare. He’d make his way to Tennessee, not much there but the history nerd in him couldn’t think of a better place to start anew. He’d told his teachers that he was moving with his aunt, and he’d be finishing his degree via self study. Spending what time that wasn’t taken by Nate or his aunt researching what it would take to afford a shitty hotel room, pilfer his aunt’s information and enroll himself into an online school. He was finally going to find a hole in the world, and fall into it.
So, for the first time in a very long time, Jerome smiled, though plainly, to his aunt.
“Sure. I’ll head out in a sec, I just need to grab my coat.” Jerome said slyly. Auntie Yvette opened her mouth, but the words she’d had ready for another round of Jerome V. Yvette, were apparently not required. She leaned over to the side of her bed, pulling a black wallet from beneath the frame and snatching a twenty from inside.
“Here, go get me some Grippos and an iced tea. I want my change, Jerome.” She snapped that last part, in some small way wanting it to rattle him, to make it just another Tuesday evening.
“Yes mam.” He said, making his way to his bedroom. What the fuck am I gonna do about it, Rayquan? I’mma get the hell outta this city is what I’mma do. Jerome thought while sifting through his closet and yanking the overt, 60’s style suitcase he’d nabbed from the Salvation Army a few months back.
You’ve probably surmised that our worn, two toned hero will never complete his expedition to Tennessee, and more over that something fantastic and undoubtedly fucked will occur setting him on a path which keeps the promise of this tales title.
What you, and Jerome weren’t counting on of course, was the cross legged, lanky figure no so much sitting, but floating above his mattress. It was draped in a deep, black fabric that ran down from its neck to its seemingly endless legs. There were only two instances of color visible at all to Jerome, its arms, a deep claret red, and enveloping its face entirely was a blackened mask. The mask wasn’t made of fabric, but some kind of wood perhaps? What was most detracting about it however were the two amber lines, as if pointing on a clock toward midnight.
When Jerome turned to find them, it wasn’t with the expected shudder he’d seen in the myriad of horror films his mother would make him sit through on their Saturday night movie dates. It was with a nothing, a nothing that he couldn’t perceive or predict, and most haunting, control.
“Hello.” The man, or woman, or something of the sort said. By all accounts, Jerome knew that he should have been passing a boulder of anxiety through his rectum, but nothing so dramatic occurred. Instead, he only blinked, before nodding in response. He’d thought that the only thing worth noting that day was Rayquan nearly pummeling his face into cookie dough, (well, that and the whole running away thing) it was a refreshing terror to be wrong for once.
“You’ll probably notice by now that nothing you say comes from those thick lips of yours, Jerome, you’ll only speak if I weaken my ward, do you understand?” The person said. Jerome muddled through a head shake. No, I don’t understand, what the fucking fuck is happening?
He couldn’t say that however, and hoped his disagreeing shake of the head somehow relayed this.
“No, you probably don’t understand, I suppose that’s the point of all this.” It crooned its neck back, staring to the ceiling, and uncrossing its legs beneath the shawl hanging to its ankles. There was a long silence then, the kind that smeared over any noxious air between them, the kind that marinated every sickening cramp in Jerome’s intestines. He’d tried, unsuccessfully to speak again. When he had, his tongue tightened to the bottom of his mouth, and the space between felt heavy, sharply filled with something like banana chips. Nothing was there, he immediately realized, but something also entirely was.
Whenever he and his mother sat through another blood curdling classic, Jerome criticized each one of the death hungry halfwits. He would never be the one to read Latin from skin bound books, watch movies that promised to kill you in seven days, or poke at demons through Ouija boards. Knowing this, and that he’d definitely stumbled into one himself (most likely a Lovecraft inspired haunt from the jab at his lips), he resigned his struggle and kicked back. If he would die, he would die. That was it, but he sure as shit wouldn’t ask for it.
The figure popped its body from the mattress, and landed to its feet. Jerome nearly fell over when he took a step back, but found himself steadied. He thought of his aunt, two doors away, blaring the TV and unaware that she would possibly be dying soon. As unbearable as she was, she hadn’t deserved that.
“Annief, Houlamer…” The figured spoke with a wave of the hand, and Jerome felt the empty chunks of nothing in his mouth dissipate, he could speak again.
“So, let’s talk Jerome.” The figure strode forward until it was a few inches away from Jerome. He stared it up and down, waiting for it to strike.
“W…what is this…? Why are you here?” Jerome stammered out.
“Why am I here…? Well, I was expecting something more, I don’t know, passionate from The Vassal of Detroit. I’m here Jerome because I’m on something of a victory tour. I just won, or… I will win? Time travel is a pain in the ass.” The figure said before hurling out a sigh. Jerome started to raise a finger, an I’ve never been to Detroit finger, or a did you just say time travel? finger, but before he could mouth anything from the tumbleweed of words trying to become coherent, he was cut off.
“I am here because in…oh, twenty-three minutes, your life is going to be changed forever. You’re going to meet that lard-full lump of Colt 45 and Cosby reruns, Isaiah. He will whisk you away, opening your mind to the impossible possibilities of magic… The adventures Jerome, oh, they would have been grand. You will speak death, and save millions in a swallow of flame. You will find yourself with the childless, and teach them the one charm you know. You will be great, I will not dispute that, Jerome, you and your silly school for Magical Negro Janitors.”
“The hell are you-” Jerome started to speak, and before he could feel the deadened hollow, the cold beneath his belly, he’d been lifted from the ground by the creature’s hand.
“I am here…because like the stain you have been on my life, I felt it prudent to return the favor. All of the things you’ll do, the people you’ll love, the minds you’ll play with… All of those wonderful times spent just wondering, but what about tomorrow? Well, it doesn’t matter. None of it will matter. Because, I kill you.” It dropped Jerome, snapping its hand open and letting his body fall against the hard wood floor.
“So, while you’re off gallivanting, becoming the legend your father never was, every damsel you save, every poor unfortunate soul you teach the power of friendship and love and cookies to, well, you should know that I eventually kill them too, took the long road getting here you see.”
This person of indistinguishable everything, who began, as if on cue, a maniacal and shuffled laughter, crouched to its knees to take in the beautiful horror of Jerome Potts. Magic, time travel, the complete theological reckoning of everything he’d believed. None of these things oddly enough rattled the boy, but the mention of his father, J.J. Potts? Of his death? Of the fact that his destined destination was this man, killing him in what Jerome could only imagine was an endless list of ways? That may have turned his stomach a bit.
“Well, this was so worth it. Little nigger boy. Little magic malcontent. Little Je. Rome. Potts. OH! I almost forgot, the answer? Phobos’s first year class in Defense for Darkies? The peanut gallery. Don’t say I never did anything for you, kiddo.” The figure stood then, before Jerome could think to ask it the stacks on stacks of questions bottled up and exploding. It readied its hand, another spell? Shit, a spell? What a few brief moments make on the possibilities this world can give and take in tandem.
“Be seeing you, lo-”
“What…is your name?” Jerome snapped, he’d regretted it before it poured out of him but it was too late, it hung there in the air like a farted dud of a firecracker before fizzling away. The figure became something of a statue then, before erupting in a fit of laughter. It nearly doubled over on its side, but caught itself mid fall and slapped its knee ceremoniously.
“Sorry, I just…time travel, full circle, fate, all that. I Jerome, am named by bastards and dickfiddles, Reagan. Now! I really must be going, I’m glad to see that little sizzle of you already exists though, for a moment I thought I’d have to check my time mapping. Goodbye, looking forward to the whole… killing you thing.”
When Jerome found it in himself to stand the figure had already gone. With a wave of the hand it had speckled into ash and then a thin vapor and then, nothing. Suffice to say, Tennessee seemed…less important to Jerome in those twenty minutes it took to come to his feet. Everything seemed less important, except the promise from his would-be murderer, of course. He was shuddering, ready to melt down and spill across the floor. Nothing it said could have been true though could it? This like all things, like all life things was utter horsecock. It had to be. He would leave for Tennessee, he would cut out his place in the world, he would
He would hear the front door, and auntie Yvette scream through her room, over the hallway, for him to answer it.