I did make it to my aunt Susannah's place, eventually. It took a good hour or two to do it though, and the sun had sunk even lower in the sky, so there was a strip of inky blue along the very top.
I was standing at the garden gate, psycing myself up to go in. I know it was her place; nobody else in the whole city had bright Hibiscus flowers climbing around the windows and door, and I remember them from childhood. I pushed open the gate and went up the mosaic path to the front door, preparing to knock, with bright pink Hibiscus flowers dancing in my face, when the door opened.
I knew it was my aunt straight away, as she still had the same look about her, as she did 9-or-10 years ago. She also had the same tiger-lily clip in her hair that she always wore when I was little.
"May I help y'all with summat?" She asked, in her broad southern accent. As it had been so long, she clearly didn't recognise me.
"Aunt Susannah, it's me, Jess." I reply, as she breaks into a wide red-lipsticked smile.
"Lawd A-Mercy, I's didn't recognise y'all there. Y'all's grown so much over the years. Which birthday's comin' up dis year? 17th or 18th, I's can never remember which." I get pulled close as she gives me a welcoming hug; the scent of her spiced-peach perfume filling the air.
"I'm only 14, auntie. I don't turn 15 until mid-August." I reply, as she pinches my cheeks.
"Quit playin' games Jess. Y'all's far too tall to be just 14. Good Lawd, y'all's be 6 foot tall when y'all starts college if ya carrys on like dis." She exclaims.
"I'm serious auntie, I'm only 14."
"I's know you is silly, I's only playin' with ya. Gawd, listen to me rabbitin' on like some old parakeet. I's be bettin' y'all's cold and tired after comin' down here. Come on in an' warm you'self."
I was beckoned in to her large, bright home, and directed into her warm kitchen. The postcards on the red walls were arranged in a checkerboard design (if checkerboards had "Greetings from Tahiti" on them), and the warming smells coming from the huge black oven, made the place seem even more homely than first thought. I sank onto the brightly patterned cushion on the pine dining chair, as she bustled around the kitchen.
"Sure is mighty grand of y'all to come down here, but summat's botherin' me. Where's y'all's momma and Adele? Ma sister ain't da kind a momma to let her kid go crossin' borders on her own." My aunt looked straight at me, the colour draining from her face very rapidly, like someone had pulled a plug in the bottom of her stillettoes. "She ain't...the worst?" She asked, making a quick criss-cross design over her chest.
"No, she's fine. She's back in Philadelphia with Adele, stressing over my new school uniform." I explained, much to aunt Susannah's relief.
"Oh, thank the Lawd. Y'all was worryin' me there. So why is you's here then?" She breathed a sigh of relief, flicking back a loose strand of curly hair.
"Have you ever seen a show called 'United Dancers of America' before?" I asked, pulling the letter out of my bag.
"On NBC? Yeah, I's seen that before. First time I's seen it, I's thinkin' "Why ain't ma Jess on dat show. She'd bring sum glory to Pennsylvania"." She replied.
"Well, I would be bringing glory for this round. Only problem is that-"
"That ma sister won't let y'all go as she's carin' more 'bout runnin her school than 'bout y'all's future. I thought as much. She never did bother to go listenin' to goodfolks reasons. She just goes wid her first thinkings." My aunt interrupted me, guessing the whole story.
"Exactly, and I have to had a parent or guardian over 21. This could be my only chance of getting stardom." I explained, handing her the letter to read through.
"I's getting what y'all's sayin'. Y'all's wantin' me to go takin' you to Hollywood." She said, guessing correctly. My aunt always has been sharp as a tack.
"I hate to be so forceful, but you couldn't take me, please?" I asked, hoping that she'd say yes. If not, then it was back to square one for me.
"Well...it has been a long time since I's been able to have a break. I's always wantin' to go to California. So...ok, I's be takin' you to Hollywood." She gave her wide smile again; pulling a pen from her dress pocket and signing her name.
"Thankyou so much for this. I'll never be able to pay you back for doing this for me." I run round to her and hug her tightly.
"Pay me back? Y'all's not needin' to be doin' dat. Y'all's my family, Jess. I's glad to be doin' dis for y'all." My aunt signed her name on the letter and folded it tightly into the provided envelope. She took a stamp off the side and stuck it to the envelope. "Run on down to de mailbox on the corner and mail dis for me, Jess. Come straight back when y'all's done though. Dangerous to be out at night 'round here." She handed me the letter and I went on down to the mailbox.
On the way back, I began to worry about if Adele or Mom had spotted that I was missing. They probably have by now. I've been gone for about 2 or 3 hours. I don't think that I've been reported missing, but there's still a chance.
"Y'all were quick den, Jess. Must be from y'all's long legs." Aunt Susannah said, as I came back in to the kitchen. "Anyways, I's decided y'all's stayin' with me for de night. I's not lettin' y'all go crossin' borders alone at night. Dere's some bad people dat come out at night. Y'all can stay in de spare room." She had hold of my bag and was taking it upstairs.
The spare room was clearly African-inspired, what with the springbok photos on the walls, and the very fierce-looking china leopard in the corner. I draped the handle of my bag over the leopard as my aunt switches off the lights downstairs.
"G'night Jess." She said, turning off the hall light as I closed the curtains.
"Night, and thanks again for agreeing to take me." I replied, but she was already in her room.
I closed the door and stripped back the covers.I was so sleepy that I didn't care about getting my clothes crumpled, and I was out like a light.
I could sense something strange going on in the house; something prickling on the back of my neck. I could literally feel the hairs on the back of my neck standing to attention, as the feeling travelled down my spine. Through my closed eyelids, I could see a very faint red glow, like someone with a torch was standing at the end of the bed. I kept my eyes closed, and tried to make my breathing more regular, so I would look like I was asleep. I kept my ears sharp though, and could faintly hear someone breathing heavily. I first thought it was my aunt in the next room, but then they swore quietly under their breath.
"Shit, it's only a girl." They whispered. Another voice replied to them, but I couldn't quite make out what they were saying.
"Yeah, she is aswell. I think they're related." The voice whispered back. I think the other person must have asked something about me.
"Not yet. We'll take care of the other one first." I heard the other person, a woman, whisper clearly. She must have gotten closer to me. I didn't like the sound of it one bit though; I've caught ennough episodes of CSI to know what they meant by that. I forced myself to stay still and calm. I had a rough idea what would happen if I moved too suddenly, and it involved me leaving in a long wooden box.
I only dared open my eyes when I was sure that they had moved on. I snapped them open and slipped quietly over to the hallway, where I could listen in and intervene if nessescary. I crouched in the doorway, watching as my aunt's bedroom door hung half-open. Two dark shapes were standing in the doorway, talking in low voices. I crept across the hall, keeping very low and trying to make as little sound as possible. I rested one hand on the doorframe, never saying a word, just keeping an eye out for trouble. I couldn't see much in the dim light, but I did notice this subtle shine grow longer and longer in the dimness.
"What on earth is that, and why are they in here?" I thought, watching the shine grow, then taper off to a point. Good God, I could recognise it now. How'd they manage to get a frickin sword through state security.
I managed to keep control until I recognised the sword flash. I gasped, my eyes wide, before I saw a head jerk up and recognition dawn in their eyes. I jumped back quickly and swore as the vase next to me shattered from a bullet going wide. It didn't take a genius to work out where it was aimed at. I dashed backwards into the spare bedroom, diving to the floor as a stray bullet hit the doorframe. Splintered wood flew everywhere as I hit the deck. Tugging my bag off the leopard statue, I slipped it on and vaulted the bed in one go. The deadly zing of a bullet missing me by a hairs' breadth. Before the marksman could get a better shot at me, I instinctively forced my shoulder through the window pane and climbed out onto the moonlit porch.
Scraping my shin on the rough tiles, I tried stabling myself, but I slipped down the porch and fell onto the mosaic path. The cold air stung like a wasp, drilling into my skin. I picked myself up and ran, as fast as possible. The cold air was making it nearly impossible to breath, as I could feel the back of my throat getting scraped from the harsh chill in the air. How in hell can it get from boiling hot, to skin-pricklingly cold in one day? I still ran though, despite the intense stabbing pains shooting up my ankle. I hope I haven't done anything serious to it.
Refusing to stop running, I nearly reached the end of the street, when something small, metallic and deadly zipped through the air and gouged a deep trench in my arm. Clutching it, I felt the warm stickiness of the rapidly-clotting blood, and willed my legs to move. I took the sharp right-hand turn, then started planning ahead. After all, nobody can run forever. The spark of pain shooting up from my thigh confirmed that. I shot down an alley, veering right at the last second. An old phone booth, with blacked-out windows, stood against a wall to my left. I flattened myself against the wall, willing my heartbeat to be quiet; if it sounded as loud to everyone in the area, as it did to me, then I was screwed.
The steady clip and clop of high heels on tarmac echoed around the courtyard, as I forced my back into the wall even more. If this was a video game, right now I would be racking up the points, or throwing my controller at the screen. As this was brutal reality, I was getting stabbed in the back by the uneven brickwork, and biting my lip to stop myself from making a sound. As the high-heeled footsteps drew closer and closer, I saw a delicately-edged shadow of an elegant woman. Biting my lip even more, I tasted the salty sweetness of my blood running out of my punctured lips, as I watched her hand close around the door handle of the phone booth. A fresh droplet of blood leaked from my lips and dripped off my chin. The scarlet stain bloomed on my white tank-top, as the woman wrenched the glass door open and fired a dozen-or-so rounds into the phone booth. Blackened glass flew everywhere, as I sank down into a tight ball hidden in the gap between the phonebox and the wall. The tiny chunks rained down upon me, peppering my skin with tiny pink marks and exploding into a million lethal shards as they hit the floor.
The woman lowered her weapon and breathed out slowly, before slamming the glass door shut in rage. The last intact pane of glass shattered into tiny shards from her slamming it shut. My god, she must have been strong. I hunched up even smaller, waiting for her to go.
"Smart little bitch." She said breathlessly, watching the newly-broken light flicker and spit sparks. "Determined, and a bloody negro, but impressively smart. That'll run out one day though, and I hope I'll be the one to put that dog to sleep." She eventually turned and walked away after her mini-tyrade; the broken glass crunching and crackling under her heels as she walked away. I was left hunched in the corner, covered in broken glass, too terrified to move an inch.
It felt like a year later, but it was probably only about half an hour, before I was sure that she was gone. I slowly stood up from the corner, straightening my spine out as the broken glass slid off my nearly-bare back. I picked my way through the broken glass, just like a little kid playing Step-On-A-Crack-Break-Your-Mother's-Back in the playground. It seemed surreal, having just witnessed such an event. In the part of Philadelphia where I live, shootings, vandalism, and racial-hate crimes just never ever happen. You'd hear on the news about it happening, but not in Philadelphia. Crime was something that was only happening Over There. It was so scary, and so unreal, being involved in it. Even more when I realised my family had been targeted, and that I might have been the lucky one.
That thought was the most sickening one I've ever had. It brought acid up into the base of my chest, and forced me to my knees, as my body was rocked by strong spasms. It was then that I knew I was the lucky one. The strong smell of blood coming from the cuts in my hands and my punctured lips, combined with me surviving when my aunt did not, rocked and shook my body in a series of dry-retches.
Shaking uncontrollably, I dragged myself across the glass-coated floor, ripping my tank top even more, and pulled myself up into a standing position. Holding onto the phone, I willed my knees to stop shaking for long enough so I could make a phone call. I had a quarter in my pocket, so I slid it in the slot, picked up the handset, and dialled the number I remember the most.
"Whoever you are, you have exactly 5 seconds to give me a very good reason why you woke me at 3 AM." Penny sleepily said.
"Penny, it's Jess. I nee-"
"Jess! Where the bloody Hell are you! There's a Missing-Persons report out, and the police are combing the Delaware river for your body!" Penny shrieked, as I held the phone away from my ear.
"Calm down, Penn. I'm stuck in Atlanta, Georgia. I tried getting my aunt to take me to UDA, but things went a bit wrong. I need your help." I explained.
"Ok, just hang in there. We'll be there by morning. We'll bring you anything you need. I prom-"
The pips went halfway through Penny speaking, and I was left standing shakily, bleeding in shredded clothes and a pile of broken glass.