Charlie

His face be pale white, like after all this time, he just didn’t realise it before now. I smooth down my white uniform, as is habit. “Black children ain’t meant to play with white children.”
“And that’s law, is it?”
“I don’t know ‘bout no laws, suh.”
“All I’m saying is, there are laws about black children in white schools, white diners, white libraries, white water fountains… Where are the laws about black children playing with white children?”
“Them kinda laws don’t be in no law book, Charlie. Them kinda laws just be Mississippi laws.”

Lila is a thirteen year old maid, working for a family in Coldwater, Mississippi. Charlie is a sixteen year old boy, living in that family.
Life is fiercely divided: especially amongst the children of the state.
But charlie isn't like any other boy.
The two of them embark on an unforgettable journey: to Washington, to march with Dr. King to save their Mississippi.

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6. Chapter Five

I remember the first time Charlie came home with a bruise on his face. It was round, the size of a baseball but smaller; tinged with and green and purple all mixed up together.

He didn’t look at me when he came through the front door. Charlie didn’t look at anything or anyone but the ground. The bowl I be dryin’ clatter down into the sink I be so shocked. Lawrence put down his paper, lower his readin’ glasses. He be shocked too. Charlie look up, as if he feel us staring. “It’s nothing.”

He be up them stairs before either of us could blink. I wanted to say something, but Miss Lucinda be next door, and she don’t permit me speakin’ ‘bout her family unless I answering a question. Lawrence look like he fixing to say something, too. He just watch Charlie’s sneakers as they leap up the stairs, two at a time. I pick up the bowl again re-dry it, wiping off the bubbles that it got covered in when I dropped it. My eyes wander to the side, then Lawrence at my side suddenly.

“Go and change the sheets upstairs, Lila.”

But he give me no clean linen. I see the truth in his cornflower blue eyes clear as day. He be asking me to go speak to Charlie.

“Yes, suh.”

I slip up the stairs quiet as I can. I can hear the faint murmur of Johnny Samuel’s afternoon talk show in the room in front of the porch, where Miss Lucinda be dozing. I take in a quick breath, and give a tap on Charlie’s door. “Charlie? I got sheets to change.”

I hear a groan. “No, you don’t.”

I give the door another tap. “Please. Let me in.”

Another silence.

“You want me to lose my job, Charlie, suh?”

The door clicks open, barely ajar. I put my hands behind my back so he can’t see that I got no sheets in ‘em. He mustn’t no I be lying; otherwise I’ll be back out that door before I can ask him what’s wrong. But this is Charlie. He know everything ‘bout me, ‘specially when I be lying.

Charlie be laying on his bed, the football poster above it with a grinning Abner Haynes on the front. I always wonder why he be so happy; he have to play when it be 100 degrees outside. And he be black, just like me. But he be happy, and that what count.

I go and sit at the end of Charlie’s bed. Silent tears be fallin’ down his sweaty face, and his tousled straw-colored hair be all matted.

“You gonna tell me what happened?”

He shook his head, still staring at the ceiling. I look up, think he’s watching something, but all I see is the wall. Nothingness. Charlie’s eyes be full of that nothingness too; they be sad and empty like the eyes of a malnourished black child.

“Well, you gonna tell me who did it then?”

I faintly hear Miss Lucinda’s three-inch heels clacking across the hallway and we both freeze. She be awake. Charlie suddenly grab my hand, all urgent-like. “Lila, you know there’s a reason I’m not telling you.”

“What reason?”

He sigh. “It’s too complicated for me to explain now.”

I wait for him to continue. He offering nothing ‘cept his hot breath. My words come out croaky. “Who, suh?”

I see his mouth open the slightest bit, but Charlie’s eyes stay fixed to the ceiling. He don’t look at me. “Miss Grace’s boy. Robert.”

My heart drop like it made outa lead. Robert be Charlie’s best friend. Miss Grace be Miss Lucinda’s best friend, too. Miss Grace’s husband, Walt, be Lawrence’s fishing partner.

But all that was gone now, and all cause of me.

I stroke Charlie’s golden curls gentle-like. “Charlie, suh,” I begin, “I think I know why Robert do that to you.”

Now he look at me, his sapphire eyes glintin’, questioning me. I sigh. “Today was bridge club. Them ladies… be asking Miss Lucinda stuff. Well, it be mostly Miss Grace who asking the questions.”

“What stuff?”

If I was white, I be turning a deep red color by now. “It be… about you playin’ with me, yonder back.”

Silence. “In the yard?”

“Yes, suh.”

Charlie’s forehead be all wrinkled up, like he tryin’ to work something out. “So… They don’t like it?”

I laugh, but it be hard. Sometimes, I think that Charlie really is color blind. Or he just doesn’t care enough to change his personality. “Charlie, they hate it. Ain’t you been watching the news recently? The houses being burnt down? Tongues being cut out? Babies being drowned in water buckets right in their own front yards?”

His face be pale white, like after all this time, he just didn’t realise it before now. I smooth down my white uniform, as is habit. “Black children ain’t meant to play with white children.”

“And that’s law, is it?”

At first, I thought Charlie was still upset. It took me a moment to realise that he was angry. I shake my head, look down.

“I don’t know ‘bout no laws, suh.”

Charlie roll over from his bed, and pace back and forth on the rough oak floorboards, ‘specially imported from England.

“All I’m saying is, there are laws about black children in white schools, white diners, white libraries, white water fountains… Where are the laws about black children playing with white children?”

Wow, he be even dumber than I first thought he was. I speak quietly, purposefully, so he understand.

“Them kinda laws don’t be in no law book, Charlie. Them kinda laws just be Mississippi laws.”

“Well God damn Mississippi!” Charlie roared, pounding his fist against the wall by the door. A light sprinklin’ of plaster flutter down to the floorboards. We both just stare at each other for a minute, like we both thinking the same thing. Then Miss Lucinda’s wavering voice float up the stairs and into our ears. “Lila? Lila? Where in God’s name is that Negra?”

I halt. My heart be pounding a trillion beats per minute. Charlie look at me, put a finger to his lips.

“Lila! I need you to iron my smock shirt now. I got a meeting this evening and it’s already four thirty.”

Charlie grab my arm so I be pushed up against the wall. In one movement he rip the bedclothes off his mattress and pile them up in my arms. “Go. Go.” He barely whisper in my ear.

Silently, I twist the knob of Charlie’s door and step lightly into the hallway, with Charlie’s sheets laying sleeping in my arms. Miss Lucinda must have smelt me, ‘fore she be waiting at the top of the stairs, arms folded.

“What on earth do you think you’re doing, Lila?”

“Changing Charlie’s sheets, ma’am.”

Her mascaraed eyes narrow. “It’s Thursday.”

I nod, hope she don’t think I’m sassing her. “Yes, ma’am.”

“You change sheets on Fridays.”

I rack my brains, lookin’ for a good excuse. “I just be getting on top a things, Miss Lucinda.”

I be excused with a sharp nod, almost approval, and I make my way downstairs to the laundry. Suddenly I hear that voice again, and I feel a cold shiver creep up my back. “There’s been a slight change to your schedule, Lila.”

I turn around. “My schedule, ma’am?”

“Yes.” Miss Lucinda be looking at me so hateful that I want to run straight back into Charlie’s room. “I’m afraid you won’t be able to do your painting any more.”

I feel the butter sun from the top window melting onto my back. The sweat dripping from my temples be falling onto the floor like syrup. “Sorry, ma’am?”

Miss Lucinda grinned spitefully, I knew she be enjoying this. “No more painting, Lila. Lawrence can’t teach you anymore. He’s too busy.”

I wanted to know where Lawrence was, hear what he had to say ‘bout this. Judgin’ from the defensive look on Miss Lucinda’s face, probably not a lot.

“So, are you clear on this, Lila?”

I wanted to shake my head, scream at her, stamp my feet; but I had been doing these things on the inside for so many years it seemed more normal for me to just consent. “Yes, ma’am.”

I looked on with a strong, resounding hatred bubbling up inside a me as Miss Lucinda began downstairs, when she looked back, quickly.

“I’ve left you a glass of water in your room, Lila. You must be hot with your black skin absorbing all this heat, now.”

I didn’t do anything but nod this time. Once Miss Lucinda disappeared down the stairs I marched into my room, dumping Charlie’s clean sheets onto the floor, and picked up the glass of water Miss Lucinda fix for me.

I take my handkerchief, ratty and filthy with age, and dip a corner of it into the seemingly innocent water.

A deep purple color slowly creep up the grey cotton menacingly, fixing to poison me. It be bleach.

Straight bleach.

And that’s when I knew Miss Lucinda wanted to kill me. 

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