Courage Excerpt

From Courage –  by Barbara Binns

The door opens, and my big brother Lamont steps inside the apartment door, holding a gray duffel bag.

Come on, God. How about a bolt of lightning right between my eyes? Maybe eight feet of snow centered over my head.

Nothing happens.

“You grew, Short-stack,” Lamont says and part of my brain wiggles at the sound of the nickname I haven’t heard in forever. I hated that stupid name even before his arrest, and now he uses his first words to remind me that I’m little, unimportant, someone he can order around.

I swallow a bitter taste in my mouth. My heart thumps painfully as I tilt my head to look up into his nearly black eyes. The top of my head now reaches his shoulder. I had forgotten how tall he is, or how much he looks like Dad. He’s grown an ugly tuft of hair under his lip and above his chin, a Stevie Wonder style soul patch that doesn’t work for either of them. He looks sharp standing in the middle of the living room wearing the new jacket, shirt and slacks Mom bought for him. New dress shoes too, not the high tops he always preferred. He’s put on some muscle. He’s huge and menacing in an “I can think of all sorts of creative ways to make you sorry” kind of way. There is a scar over his left eye that wasn’t there when he left. But his smile is the same sunshine grin that attracted almost everyone, even his enemies.

“My name is T’Shawn,” I remind him. It’s not old times and I no longer do hero worship. I won’t believe anything that comes out of his mouth. I know how easily his expression can change to the sneer that made people back away.

“I missed you,” Lamont continues.

Yeah, sure you did. I barely keep from rolling my eyes. Maybe he missed being out, doing whatever he wanted when he wanted. But he didn’t miss me enough to put my name on his list of allowed visitors, which made refusing to go and visit him easy.

Mom pats her hair, a sign she’s nervous. She touches his arm, her face glowing. She dressed up too, and put on jewelry. A golden butterfly broach shines on one shoulder of her pink blouse.

“Let T show you around. I’ll be back soon,” Mom says before starting out the door.

“But we just got here. Where are you going?” he asks, sounding confused.

“I need to return the car,” she says and hurries out the door.

Lamont turns back to me. “What does she mean return? That’s one sweet ride.” He and I walk to the front window.

“It’s a rental,” I explain as we watch Mom climb behind the wheel of the metallic blue Chevrolet and drive off.

“Pretty fancy car for a rental.” Lamont frowns, apparently finding it hard to believe me. He should have realized that was a rental. Both our parents always said a car in the city is a crazy expense. The rental fee for one day would have paid for a week at swimming camp. We’ve never had a car, even when Dad was alive, and we don’t need one now. Dad used to praise  Chicago’s transportation system. We can get wherever we need by walking or renting a bike, with the CTA or the nearby Metra Electric line, and, in a pinch, a cab, ride share, or just phone a friend. Many people in this part of Chicago don’t bother owning a car.

“Mom’s gotta return the rental before she has to pay a late penalty. You’ll have to learn to walk again now that you’re back.”

He gives me a slit-eyed stare so intense my stomach ties itself into a hangman’s noose. “Good thing I’ve done a lot of walking the prison yard and on the sub-minimum wage career-choice I was assigned to in the prison laundry. If you need shirts washed and pressed, I’m your guy.” He turns away from the window and rubs a hand over his head. Lamont used to be an imitation Pitbull, Mr. Worldwide; keeping his head shaved completely bald. His hair has grown several inches, dark and thick, hiding the skull tattoos he was so proud of.

“She spent a lot of money for the care packages she sent you.”

That makes him grin, when I was hoping he would feel guilt. “It was nice to get mail and treats. The cigs came in handy too.”

“When did you start smoking?”

“I don’t. But they made good bribes. And even the guards loved her cookies.”

“I love cookies,” Rochelle says from behind him.

Lamont jumps and turns, crouching slightly. Rochelle stands in a corner, staring from him to me with her mouth open. He’s a stranger, and she’s worried. He slowly stands, unclenching his fist. After several deep breaths he takes a step toward her.

“Hey,” I say, moving quickly. But all he does is kneel in front of our sister.

“Do you remember me?” he asks.

She shakes her head no. A finger slips into her mouth.

“I’m your brother.”

“Nuh-uh. T is my brother.” She runs around him and comes to me. I pick her up and hold her against my chest.

“You can have more than one brother,” Lamont says, still on one knee.

“Not you; I don’t like you,” Rochelle says, because my sister is a smart girl.

“How is she supposed to know who you are?” I ask. “She was barely a year old when you decided to leave our family.”

“I didn’t decide. The Wiggins Witch kicked me out of the shelter. And my mother let her.”

The fury and hate in his voice makes me take a step backward. I’m glad Mom isn’t here right now, I wish Rochelle and I were gone too. Constance Wiggins is the director of the homeless shelter we moved into after Dad died and we lost our home. He’s the one who wouldn’t obey rules. He scared other residents, even staff. That’s why he had to leave. I think he enjoys scaring people. Especially me.

He laughs, his voice a little raw as if he’s no longer used to making that sound. He stands and removes his jacket, letting it fall over one lean, muscled arm. Beneath is a black T-shirt. “You’re all going to have to get used to me now. Lead the way, Short-stack. Show me where I’m bunking.”

My name is T’Shawn.