Despite the fact that it was a late Saturday afternoon there were already three other vehicles in the church parking lot and Shantaya recognized them all. Janiqua, who was driving, pulled in next to Lewis’ dad’s truck and parked. She sat, bobbing her head through the rest of the radio’s current number. Shantaya bit the inside of her lower lip and worried at it impatiently.
Only after the song finished did Janiqua kill the car’s engine and remove the keys. Shantaya wasted no further time in popping the passenger side door and getting out. Her sister snickered quietly while following suit on the driver’s side.
Janiqua jogged the few steps to catch up to her sister, then forced Shantaya to slow down to her speed by catching her from behind in something between a hug and a tackle. “You know,” Janiqua commented, “Jeremy isn’t actually your baby brother. You don’t need to go all enraged mama bear just because you heard he had a bad day.”
“I know,” Shantaya agreed to forestall further of her sister’s scolding. It didn’t help that she was upset and Janiqua was clearly amused. “It’s just that he doesn’t know what’s what half the time, you know? And Jacob can be such an ass!” Who knew what he did to provoke Jeremy into getting in a fight? The very prospect of it boggled Shantaya’s mind. Jeremy was the quiet, thoughtful guy that everyone else would’ve overlooked — or, he would’ve been if he’d gone to their school and had to deal with that crap.
“Yeah, no,” Janiqua corrected her. “He was clueless, back when Benny dragged him to youth and nominated you to watch out for him. And it was adorable the way he followed you around like a chick after momma hen when you were five.” Janiqua hesitated, and then her voice turned uncharacteristically serious. “But he’s a grown ass man, now, or close enough. He was older than you then and he’s older than you now, and if he’s gonna be the kind of guy who grows into a violent streak, then you don’t want to get mixed up with it. And you shouldn’t just give him the benefit of the doubt before you hear the whole story, even if you two are besties.”
Shantaya shrugged her way out of her sister’s hug. “And I think that he’s my friend, and he’s had some kind of a crappy day, and I should be there for him,” she declared. Then she frowned. “What do you have against him all of a sudden, anyway? Jeremy’s a good guy. I mean… He’s Jeremy. Heck, if you have a problem with him why’d you even drive here, anyway? I would’ve walked.”
Janiqua tilted her head and crinkled her nose. “Sure, if you wanted Dad to have an aneurysm. I’m here because someone’s gotta keep an eye out for you while you’re all busy being the pillar of support for your Jer-bear.” She grinned. “Besides, my guy’s trapped here for the evening, too. So if I’m laying it on a little thick, it’s just that I want you to remember not to defile the church while I’m otherwise distracted.”
“Oh my god,” Shantaya exclaimed. Her faced heated up — definitely because of the absurdity of what Janiqua was hinting at. “It’s not even like that,” she protested. “And you know it!”
Janiqua snickered. “Someone’s protesting too much,” she declared.
Shantaya blew out an exasperated breath. “I swear,” she said as she stalked past her sister, “if someone read your diary it would fail the Bechdel test, wouldn’t it?”
“Hey!” Janiqua protested in mock hurt. “I may not be honor roll, but I’ve got a B average.”
Shantaya held her breath for a moment and refrained from pointing out that the Bechdel test was pass/fail. Her sister might like to present herself as a fluffy, bouncy, cookie cutter cheerleader stereotype, but she wasn’t stupid. Janiqua was, however, clearly trolling her little sister. Because Shantaya knew that Janiqua didn’t actually ignore her when she went on one of her social justice tears. In fact, Shantaya suspected that she and her sister probably weren’t that far off in terms of native intelligence — it was just that Janiqua was popular, and happy with that role, and not that fussed about academics. Whereas Shantaya had chosen to define her personality as something other than just following in her sister’s footsteps forever… and so somehow she’d wound up becoming the geek of the family, instead.
But whatever the difference in their cliques, they were still family and they still got along fine at home — which included listening when one or the other was talking about their interests. “Troll,” Shantaya accused. “You know what I’m talking about.”
Janiqua laughed and followed her sister. “Well, sure I do,” she said. “But does Jeremy? I mean, if he’s being all emotionally vulnerable and you go telling him it’s all gonna be okay, is he going to know what you mean? You should probably decide what you’re going to do if he takes that as an invitation to make a move for some ‘physical’ therapy.” She skipped ahead of her sister. “I mean, are you gonna…” She did a pantomime of a one-two knockout punch. “Or is it going to be all….” This time Janiqua wrapped her arms around herself and made exaggerated kissy faces at the air.
Despite herself, Shantaya sputtered and started laughing at her sister’s antics. “Yeah, that’s not going to happen,” she said. “I like my boys a little more mysterious and a lot more tough than Jeremy.” She smirked at her sister’s surprised expression. “What? It might be more accurate to call Jeremy your little brother than mine but we still practically grew up together. And I might pick up your so called ‘charity cases’ that can’t stand up for themselves, but that just means that if I want someone to look after me then they’ve gotta be able to look after me.”
“Huh,” Janiqua said. “Okay. Fair enough.” They reached the church side door before anyone said anything else. Janiqua knocked to get the attention of whoever might be inside, and then she added: “But he isn’t going to get any better about that if you don’t tell him so, you know.”
Shantaya’s eyebrows flew up and she took a swat at her sister. “No! Bad lecher!” She scolded.
Janiqua laughed. “What, over you and Jeremy? Psh. He’s a good guy and all, but I like my boys to be men, not boys.”
“Riiiiiight,” Shantaya drawled. “Which is why you’re going to spend all your time trying to convince Benny to defile a church while I’m busy not defiling it with Jeremy. Right?”
“Yep,” Janiqua cheerfully agreed. She knocked on the door again.
“You know,” Shantaya said — emboldened by her sister’s attempt at butting in on things between Jeremy and herself to bring up something about her sister’s infatuation that had worried started to worry her when she’d noticed it — “You can try all you want with Benny. You aren’t going to get anywhere with him.”
Janiqua smirked — but the expression faded as she took in her sister’s seriousness. Shantaya shifted uncomfortably. She’d been trying to figure out how to bring it up — if she even should! — but she wanted her sister to be happy, and she knew Janiqua couldn’t be if she was always chasing something that wasn’t going to happen.
“Yeah, I know,” Janiqua admitted quietly. Then her voice picked up a little force. “And I really don’t care. Look, getting Benny to hold hands will probably count as all the ‘defilement’ he’s up for. It’s probably the most I’ll ever get out of him. And I’m good with that. I’m not kidding, ‘Taya. You don’t want to mess with an older guy who gets moody and violent. Trust me. I don’t care if Benny is gay, or in the closet, or whatever. I like him. He’s nice, he’s funny, he’s smart, he’s good looking — and I’d much rather flirt with a guy I know will never take advantage of me than actually get all up in it with someone who might not take ‘no’ as a stopping point.”
Shantaya stared at her sister in something akin to shock. She wasn’t stupid, either, and what she was reading between the lines of Janiqua’s advice was something dark that Shantaya had never been aware of. Not in relation to her sister’s experiences, anyway. The thought spawned alarming speculations: is this why she’s so wary of Jeremy all of a sudden? Did something happen to her before? A sick feeling flooded Shantaya’s stomach. Did something happen between her and Jeremy?! No — no, if that was it she wouldn’t be hedging about it. Shantaya felt like her mind was running miles a second, but nothing substantial was coming out of it other than the obvious conclusion that something had happened, with someone. Shantaya opened her mouth to ask Janiqua… something. Something to clarify what experience Janiqua was speaking from. To confirm or dispel the uneasy feeling that had crept up in her gut. But before she could form a question, the church door opened.
Shantaya snapped her head to look and saw Benny standing in the door frame, slightly out of breath. She schooled her face to impassivity. At her side, Janiqua had already gone back to bubbly, lighthearted, and energetic. “Hi, Benny,” Janiqua cheerfully greeted him. “Sorry we’re getting in late. Dad took some convincing.”
Benny shot her a dazzling smile that he shared equally with Shantaya. “It’s cool. I’m glad you could make it. Sorry it took me a minute: you know how it is with everyone running around. Anyway, Jeremy has been in a serious mood. Maybe he’ll come out and actually talk to one of you two.”
Janiqua laughed. “Well, not me,” she opined. “As much as he’s like my little brother, ‘Taya is the one he’s so tight with they may as well be married.” She stepped into the church and leaned against Benny. “Say, can you do weddings? Maybe making everything official will cheer everyone up.”
Shantaya rubbed her forehead and groaned — but it was a long-suffering groan, not an upset one. “Where is he, Benny?” She asked. “I’ll go talk to him.”
“Uh,” Benny said. If he was distracted by Janiqua’s blatant attention or silly proposals it would’ve been the first time, so Shantaya disregarded his sudden discomfort as instead being due to his friend’s bad mood. “I’m not sure. He wandered off looking for a place to be alone. You might check upstairs, though. I mean: a guy wants a quiet place in a church, and it’s not during a service? The sanctuary pretty much leaps to mind.”
“Thanks,” Shantaya replied. She stepped around Benny and Janiqua and turned to go up the hallway stairs — only to pause when she heard Benny suddenly let out a startled exclamation.
“Oh, shoot,” Benny said.” He was still looking out the door, and although Shantaya didn’t have the angle to see what he did, Janiqua was able to follow his gaze. She frowned.
“Is that Jacob?” Janiqua asked.
“Yeah,” Benny said. “Looks like. Shoot. I should deal with this.”
“What’s to deal?” Janiqua asked. “Close the door, lock it, and walk away.”
“I can’t do that,” Benny protested. “I mean, yeah: we all got together to hang out with Jeremy and help him pull together. And Jacob was not invited. But we’re at a church! I can’t just turn somebody away. Not even just by ignoring them.”
Benny glanced over at Shantaya. “Um,” he said. “Go ahead and talk to Jeremy. I’ll take care of this. If I can’t convince Jacob to leave it for tonight, I’ll at least keep him away from Jer, okay? But maybe warn him that Jacob showed up, just in case.”
Shantaya scowled. She didn’t say anything, but she did turn and start up the stairs. As she ascended she heard Jacob’s voice at the door. It grated at her nerves. He was a bully and a jerk, and even though she didn’t know exactly what had happened between him and Jeremy, she had no difficulty imagining that it was Jacob’s fault.
“Hey man,” Jacob said. “So, I heard everyone was getting together for a lock in. And that somehow I wasn’t invited. The fuck, man? Isn’t this a church?”
The conversation at the door faded behind her when Shantaya reached the top of the stairs and turned down the next hallway to get to one of the sanctuary’s side doors. She felt weirdly off-balance: She’d been all set to be angry and defensive on Jeremy’s behalf, and the sudden realization that there was something in her sister’s life that she needed to be worried about, too, had thrown her off-balance.
But that was something she’d have to put off until later. Whatever had happened, Janiqua was clearly over it. She had her shit together, and she was popular and happy — even when she wasn’t putting on her bubbly facade at school. Shantaya knew her sister well enough to be confident in at least that much. Whatever Janiqua had been alluding to, it hadn’t broken her. Shoot: whatever it was, Shantaya hadn’t even noticed when it happened. Was it last year? The year before? Janiqua had been kind of intense when she’d gotten into high school, but their mom had told Shantaya that was just because Janiqua was adjusting to the bigger school. And Shantaya had changed, herself, in response to the changing social pressures when she moved up a grade a year later. So… maybe?
Shantaya was so preoccupied that despite herself she almost didn’t realize Jeremy was in the sanctuary when she got there to look. He was normally a quiet person, but now he was so silent and so still that she looked right past him at first, and had to sweep her gaze over the room a second time before she caught that he was really there.
Although the sun hadn’t set yet, the stained glass windows kept the lighting dim and slightly eerie. Jeremy himself cut an oddly severe figure where he sat in the pews. His head was bowed and his arms were braced on his knees. She could feel the tension rolling off of him.
For the first time that evening, Shantaya thought about the things her sister had said and didn’t get the urge to laugh. If he’s getting a violent streak, you don’t want to mess with that, she remembered. But… But this was Jeremy.
Jeremy was quiet and sweet and sensitive in that awkward ‘guy’ sort of a way. He would never hurt — or even raise his voice — at anyone. Shoot, he was already kind of a doormat. Frankly, if he’d gone to public school the other kids would have eaten him alive. That was why he needed a friend like Shantaya. So he’d have someone to look out for him. To get righteously pissed off on his behalf when other people stomped all over him — because he sure as heck wouldn’t do anything about it on his own!
But this Jeremy… This brooding person who radiated anger and the dangerous stillness of a predator? He was a stranger. Way down in the back where Shantaya’s brain processed threats on the most primitive level — deep, deep in her instinctual subconscious — Shantaya didn’t recognize him at all. But Shantaya didn’t find herself drawn to people like Jeremy because she was some kind of a shrinking violet herself. She knew how nasty the Jacobs of the world could be and it pissed her off when they broke the nicer, gentler people who might’ve made it a better place.
Especially when those nicer, gentler people were her friends!
So Shantaya suppressed her hindbrain’s nascent urge to back away without even consciously acknowledging it. She took a deep breath to steady herself, and then she pushed out her worries about whatever it was that her sister had been hinting at before. One thing at a time, Shantaya reminded herself. Jeremy needs someone right now. Janiqua has kept her thing quiet for so long that she can wait… I’ll deal with that next. Tomorrow, if I have to.
Steadied by her decision, resolved in her course, Shantaya then quietly approached Jeremy’s pew, instead of listening to her instincts and running for her life.