While Shantaya went upstairs, Janiqua scooted over to Benny’s side so she could add her two cents to his confrontation with Jacob. Really, Janiqua agreed with Shantaya about Jeremy: he was a basically good guy. But even good guys could go over the edge if they were pushed enough, and Janiqua didn’t think Shantaya realized that. Not really.
“Jeeze, Jacob,” Janiqua spoke up. “I know you’ve probably kicked a lot of puppies today, but you can pray for forgiveness at home you know.”
“Aw.” Jacob pouted in a feigned expression of hurt. It was undermined by the split in his lip. “But Jane, I’ve had a real bad day. Can’t we just all be nice?”
“Look,” Benny interrupted before they could escalate into a serious spat. “I’m not turning anyone away from the church. Everybody’s welcome here, and you both know that. But Jacob, you aren’t convincing anyone with that hangdog act. If you want to hang out I won’t say you can’t — but leave Jeremy alone. He’s our friend, too, and whatever you two have going on between you doesn’t have a place here.”
“What do we have going…?” Jacob started to protest. “I was just at the library to study. I was browsing books until Maggie got there for our tutoring session! Jeremy’s the one who got all up in my face.”
Benny frowned like he was actually listening to Jacob’s whining, so Janiqua interjected again. “Yeah, right,” she said. “Jeremy just got up in your face, with no provocation?” She squinted at Jacob. “And now you’re going to tell us that when he was done he stole your lunch money so he could buy cotton candy to feed his pet unicorn. Ooooo, what a dastardly villain!”
Jacob scowled. He started to bluster, but Benny stepped in again.
“Okay. You two?,” Benny asked rhetorically. “Calm down.” He reached out to put a hand on Janiqua’s arm and the other on Jacob’s shoulder. “Jacob, just… go wait in the gym for me, okay? We can shoot some hoops and you can tell me what happened. I just have to talk to Janiqua for a moment, first.”
Jacob snorted, but didn’t argue. He shouldered past Benny and Janiqua and strode down the hall. Then he turned and disappeared into the lounge.
Benny closed his eyes and breathed out. “Close enough,” he muttered before opening them again. He turned around and Janiqua suddenly found herself subjected to more of his direct attention than she was used to.
Suddenly uneasy and unexpectedly feeling defensive, Janiqua fell back a step. “So, whatcha want to talk about, Benny?”
Benny frowned. It wasn’t an expression that came very naturally to his face. Which was probably a good thing, because the way it made his brows furrow and pinch together made him look like he was trying to figure out something obvious that he just didn’t get — which was almost funny, since Janiqua had been in school with him for long enough to know he was seriously smart.
Janiqua tilted her head to the side. “Okay,” she blurted. “I know Jacob’s your friend and I was getting kind of snappy with him, but I’m not gonna apologize! If people don’t call him out on that stuff, he’s never gonna stop.”
“I think he gets ‘called out’ more often than you realize,” Benny said. “And that he probably feels stuck in a role because no one would believe it if he stepped out of it.”
Janiqua arced her head back to get a broader view of Benny. She raised one eyebrow and furrowed the other in an exaggerated display of skepticism. “What, so you think Jeremy actually picked a fight with Jacob?” She felt a little silly — just moments ago she’d been telling her sister not to extend the benefit of the doubt to Jeremy until they’d heard the full story — but the fact was that between the two, Jeremy definitely had the better track record.
“Maybe?” Benny said. Then he backpedaled. “Okay, no: probably not. Not without some kind of provocation or extenuating circumstances. But dang it, that’s not what I wanted to talk about.”
Janiqua crossed her arms beneath her breasts and stepped back slightly on one heel. It was a pose she’d picked up from television and magazines, and she’d realized a while ago that it let her emphasize her boobs under the guise of being angry or hugging herself or any of a bunch of different emotions, really. She shamelessly pulled it out on Benny and went for ‘mildly annoyed, but hella hot.’ “Yeah? Then what’s up?”
Most of the time, Benny wouldn’t have looked away from Janiqua’s face — but that was fine by her. A lot of the fun of hanging around Benny was that she could be as sexy as she wanted and not have to deal with being leered at or objectified or him deciding she was starting something that she just wasn’t. But this time, his eyes dipped down for just a second, as though for once he was reading her posture as the flagrant display she’d meant it as.
Benny’s expression didn’t change, but that one glance sent chills down Janiqua’s spine. She almost pulled away when he shifted his grip on her elbow and pulled her toward the privacy of the hallway stairwell — but she was too much in shock to do more than just stumble along. What just happened there?!
Once they were away from the church’s back door — and further away from the gym and the lounge — Benny let go of Janiqua’s arm. She did pull away, and leaned against a wall. But this time when she hugged herself it wasn’t with the intention of attracting attention. “So,” she said. “What is it?”
Benny sighed. He started to lean against the wall opposite her, but then decided to pace, instead. There wasn’t a lot of room in the stairwell, however, so after shuffling awkwardly for a moment Benny just turned his attention back to Janiqua and started blurting stuff out.
“You,” he said. “I mean: me. I mean, you and me, except no. Not that. I mean….” Benny stopped and sucked in a breath. “Aw man,” he said on the exhale. “I am not good at this stuff. Okay. Trying again. Janiqua, you’re like, really awesome. You’re smart and funny and pretty. And I know you’ve been flirting with me off and on for a while, but I guess maybe I didn’t really realize how much?”
Janiqua’s jaw had dropped somewhere about when Benny had started listing off her meritorious attributes. She clicked it shut when his statements turned to speculations. “Oh no,” she huffed. “Oh, heck no, Benny.” She pointed a finger angrily at his face. “You do not get to give me the ‘let’s just be friends’ speech. I’ve never even asked you out, buster!”
Benny raised his hands defensively and backed into the wall. “Yeah!” He agreed. “I know! I was just, you know… Pointing it out. I mean: if you did, I would be an awful boyfriend. Like, I could remember the dates for special occasions and things — but I just don’t care about the other stuff. I mean, I don’t see you like that. You know? So if you want a boyfriend, you could do better. And, like, not me. You know?”
As funny as a flustered Benny was — and as pathetically desperate as he seemed to be in his attempt to let her down without hurting her feelings — it wasn’t enough to offset the surge of annoyance that ran through Janiqua as he continued to ramble. She set one fist on her hip and held up her finger in a sharp shushing motion. Benny shushed.
“Okay, Benny,” Janiqua said sternly. “What exactly is bringing this on? Because you didn’t care if I was flirting with you before, and I wasn’t trying to date you, either, and that was just fine.” She glared at him, utilizing her best impression of her mom’s stare when she was interrogating Shantaya and herself about how they thought they’d done on a big test. “Talk.”
Benny swallowed. “Nothing!” He tried to protest. Janiqua scowled fiercely enough that Benny reconsidered and tried again. “I mean: nothing.” Then, when she wasn’t any more convinced than she had been the first time, he tried again. “I mean…” He took another deep breath and finally blurted out: “Jeremy has a crush on you.”
Janiqua’s jaw dropped open again. “What?!” she yelped. He did not just say that…
“Jeremy has a crush on you,” Benny repeated. It was like the words were the plug in a dam. Suddenly more came rushing out. “Like, a serious one. He was yelling at me for leading you on, you know? And I started thinking: am I? I mean, what if I was? That wouldn’t be right. You deserve better. And frankly, so does Jer. I mean, I don’t want to get in anyone’s way or lead anyone on or… So I just wanted to, you know, clear everything up between us and…”
Janiqua’s hand whipped up in the ‘zip it’ gesture again, and Benny’s outpouring of words zipped. She squeezed her eyes shut while she tried to process a few dozen divergent emotions. She was mortified that Benny was ‘turning her down’ for Jeremy’s sake. As if she — or at least her affection — could be passed around like a toy. She was angry at him for trying to make choices for her, and at Jeremy for putting Benny in that spot instead of making his interest known to her directly. And she was hurt because her ‘safe guy’ — her friend that she could flirt at as much as she wanted and know it wouldn’t go anywhere — had turned out to not be so safe after all. Not if he thought he could pass her on to someone else, just like that. But she didn’t know how to express all of that, or all the eddies and complexities of emotion that went with it. So she fell back on the easiest one.
“I am so mad at you two, and you don’t even get why, do you?” Janiqua glared. She was almost as embarrassed as she was angry, but fortunately the one could be fed into the other — and she was going with ‘angry.’ “Tell me,” she demanded, “How much do you listen when my sister starts talking about her hobbyhorses? Specifically: feminism?”
“Uh…” Benny answered.
“Yeah,” Janiqua said to herself. “That’s about what I figured.”
“What?” Benny yelped as his brain caught up with what he saw as a conversational non sequitur. “I listen!,” he protested. “I mean, I couldn’t quote her or name authors, but I’m paying attention when I’m listening!”
“Uh-huh,” Janiqua agreed while injecting her tone with blatant disbelief. “Well then, listen up because I am going to lay down some words for ‘Taya, since you are clearly in need of a remedial reminder and she’s busy trying to take care of your boy, Jeremy.”
Benny, flustered and unsure how he’d wound up going from ‘doing the right thing’ by Janiqua to being on the defensive, wisely shut up.
“What, if anything goes on between you and me has nothing to do with Jeremy. You aren’t ‘in his way’ because, frankly, you aren’t with me. And even if I were chasing you like that — which I’m not! — you wouldn’t be hurting Jeremy’s chances because he’s got none. And he’s got none not because I might be interested in you, but because one: he’s never brought it up with me. And two: I’m not into him. I mean, God, Benny! Jeremy’s my little sister’s childhood bestie. That puts him somewhere between being my little brother and being that annoying kid I had to babysit!
“But…” Benny protested, “but isn’t he like a month older than you?”
Janiqua’s eyes narrowed. “Not. The. Point,” she growled. “The point is that this bullshit where you two decide who ‘gets a chance’ with me without asking my opinion is insulting. And the implication you’re laying out that I should drop my supposed crush on you to get with Jeremy because he’s got some crush that he’s never told me about? That’s worse!”
She sniffed and crossed her arms again. This time the posture was ‘righteously pissed.’ “Or do you think my autonomy counts for crap just because he’s a guy and if a guy wants a piece we ‘womenfolks’ should be grateful and compliant?”
Benny floundered for a second — Janiqua could see the horrified shock on his face as she spelled out what his attitude meant to her.
“See,” Janiqua said, “you might’ve heard some of the stuff Shantaya’s talked about — but I actually listened.” She took a deep breath. She wanted to keep going, but that was just a matter of conversational momentum: she’d already spelled out her position on things. In fact, she was a little worried that if she kept going she’d lose that momentum and start apologizing.
Benny looked so hurt, it was hard not to apologize. She knew he hadn’t meant the implications of what he said — he was just following along with the tenets of some unspoken guy code, or some bullshit. Maybe he thought he’d actually be helping Jeremy out? But that didn’t matter, really. As Shantaya would say: someone’s intentions about what they do don’t trump someone else’s actual experiences of what they do.
And it wasn’t like Janiqua wasn’t hurt, too. She’d thought Benny thought better of her than that. She’d thought they were friends — that if something serious came up that involved her, he would get her input instead of making her choices for her. That she was apparently wrong about that hurt a lot worse, she figured, than whatever damage she’d done to his ego did.
So instead of saying anything else, Janiqua kept her arms crossed and turned away from him. It left her staring at the stairs. I should get ‘Taya, she thought, and tell her we’re going home. But she couldn’t make herself take the first step up those stairs, because even if her evening had unexpectedly gone to crap it didn’t change the fact that Jeremy’s day had been shit, too, and Shantaya always had to be there for her friends. So I’ll just deal until she’s done. Maybe Benny’ll just go away now.
But Benny didn’t leave. After a long, initially angry — and then just awkward — silence, he finally spoke up. “So…” Benny said hesitantly. His tone of voice was utterly apologetic, despite the word ‘sorry’ not leaving his lips. “You flirt with me a lot. Um. What’s up with that? And, er, Jeremy has a crush on you. So… Yeah. Thoughts?”
Janiqua almost laughed with relief. She wasn’t even entirely sure why: just that she’d thought the best case scenario would be if he’d walked away, but she’d expected him to storm off or throw a fit protesting his innocence and raging about how she was reading things in and making stuff up about him. She turned to face Benny again, unsure of what to say and uncertain as to how to say it.
She didn’t get a chance to figure it out, though, because then they heard the scream.
At first it sounded human — agonized, but human. By the end, though, it was an animal howl. It echoed down the stairwell and through the empty hallway, and it sent ice down Janiqua’s spine. Her feet were left frozen in place while the rest of her trembled with the urge to hide.
Benny, on the other hand, turned toward the stairs. “What was tha…” was as much as he managed to ask before the second scream wrenched Janiqua out of her immobility.
Shantaya! Every one of Janiqua’s instincts, everything her parents had ever told her about keeping away from trouble — about running or hiding if trouble broke out where she already was — went out the window when she heard her sister’s scream. She bolted up the stairs, taking them two at a time before it even registered that she had no idea what she was running toward.
But it didn’t matter. Janiqua reached the top of the stairs. She could see that one of the side doors to the sanctuary was open — before she could reach it she heard another cry, someone else’s, and a clatter and thump. She reached the entrance without even slowing and bolted into the sanctuary, shouting out for her sister.
“Shantaya!” Janiqua’s shout went unanswered. The sanctuary was frighteningly silent in the aftermath of the screaming that had summoned her. But even without that, Janiqua knew something was horribly, horribly wrong. She could smell it. She hadn’t ever had experience with that smell, but it was awful and she knew it meant something horrible had happened.
The doorway Janiqua had entered through was at the front of the sanctuary, near the lectern. In the eerie colored light filtering through the stained glass windows, Janiqua couldn’t see her sister. “Shantaya?” This time, dread made Janiqua’s call hesitant and anxious. There was no answering reply — except that she heard someone move, at the back of the sanctuary, on the ground where she couldn’t see.
Benny appeared at her shoulder. “What…” he started to ask, but then he gagged at the smell. Janiqua thought she heard a whimper — a moan of pain — in the silence that followed. She didn’t wait to hear more.
Instead, Janiqua dashed along the front of the sanctuary, following the aisle between the chancel and nave that people used to return to their seats from communion so that she could get to the main aisle running through the center of the pews as quickly as possible. “Janiqua, wait!” Benny called out from behind her — but it was too late. She’d already reached the main aisle, and turned…
And seen her sister.
Shantaya was slumped over sideways. There was blood. Everywhere. Janiqua barely stifled a scream — and even then it was only because of a sob that escaped instead. This isn’t right. This had to be a… a prank, or something. Shantaya had told Jeremy about how Janiqua had her misgivings about him after hearing he’d been in a fight, and the two of them had put together this horrible, awful, sick prank.
Please let it be a prank.
Something moved. It wasn’t Shantaya. Janiqua looked, startled, and heard another pained whimper. At the far end of the aisle, near the doors to the narthex, a much larger person was on the ground. It took a second for Janiqua’s terror-numbed mind to recognize him. Jacob. He must’ve cut through the fellowship hall and taken the front stairs straight up to the narthex, Janiqua thought in a vain attempt to make sense of something she was seeing, instead of waiting downstairs like Benny told him. But that was only an instant of sanity — of sane thoughts — before Janiqua took in his condition.
Jacob should’ve waited. He was on his back, now. His clothes were torn and bloody, and something slick and glistening — oh God oh God, oh Jesus, Mary, and Joseph help us — that should have been inside of him was stretched out of his gut and onto the floor. His face was so pale from the pain he was in that it was utterly washed out by the stained glass light: turning it a hideous pallor tinted by twilight reds and shadowy greens. His mouth opened and closed, but he wasn’t saying anything. He was just looking down at himself in pain and shock and disbelief. But he was alive. He was alive, and so Janiqua made herself ignore him.
Shantaya might not be. She started to run toward her sister — Jesus, God, Mary: I promise I’ll be a better person if you let her live. I don’t know how but I promise I’ll find a way. I’ll… — but Benny had caught up to her and grabbed her arm. Janiqua screamed — partially in surprise, partially because someone was holding her back from her sister. “Let go!” she shouted, even as she jerked free of his grasp.
“Janiqua, wait,” Benny tried to tell her — but she was already backpedaling: she had to, to get away from Benny — and toward her sister. But she couldn’t turn away from Benny, because he might try to stop her again — and why was he…? He was clutching a tall, floor standing candlestick holder from the front of the chancel like it was a staff. Like he was ready to hit someone with it. His eyes had gone cold. They gleamed with the determination that if violence came he would be the one to do it. Benny? Janiqua’s heart — already pounding from panic over her sister — beat harder as a healthy dose of fight or flight adrenaline surged through her.
Only Benny wasn’t paying attention to Janiqua — not directly. His eyes darted back and forth, roving over the nave even as he tried to call Janiqua back. Why is he… Oh no. Oh no. Where’s Jeremy? Where’s whoever did this?!
Was Jeremy collapsed somewhere, too, dead or bleeding to death? Or was he lurking somewhere with a knife, looking for someone else to stab and disembowel, another life to desecrate with wounds and blood and… and… and….
Janiqua shut down that line of thought. Her active mind recoiled from the horror of it. She turned away from Benny. She was almost to Shantaya. Janiqua looked to her left and to her right, trying to find Jeremy. Nothing to her left. But to her right, hunkered down between two of the pews where it had been slinking forward, unobserved?
A wolf. A black wolf with pale eyes and a bloody muzzle and bared teeth.
Janiqua’s eyes widened. She opened her mouth to scream — and the wolf exploded forward. It catapulted over the pews faster than she would have thought possible. She instinctively threw herself to the side, but not fast enough to avoid it. Its jaws closed around her knee. The weight and momentum of the beast tore her leg out from under her and she toppled as she screamed. Her forehead struck the back of one of the pews and bounced, turning everything into a sudden haze of pain and sparks. She flopped onto the ground — then scrabbled to grab anything when a new pain shot up through her leg as the wolf dug its teeth into her shin and she felt herself being dragged out of the aisles, into the pews.
Janiqua screamed again. She thrashed and tried to kick, but she was twisted around the side of one of the pews, holding onto it for dear life while the wolf snarled and wrenched at her leg. She couldn’t see it, didn’t know if she was hitting it or just the wood of the seating.
But she could see Benny. He ran toward her, candlestick brandished like a spear. He leapt onto the seat of the pew Janiqua clung to and stabbed down with his makeshift weapon. The vice around her leg vanished and the wolf snarled. Benny shifted his grip and swung like he was holding a baseball bat — or a golf club, or maybe just some primitive caveman implementation of club. Janiqua heard a meaty thunk as the blow connected, followed by an even louder snarl — and Benny shouting: “Lewis, no! Get out! Lock the doors; call nine one… oh shit!”
Then he was toppled over, into the aisle, while the wolf scrabbled at him and he held back its jaws with the candlestick and Janiqua was trying to drag herself forward, to help him or to help Shantaya, and…
And no. No. No, that was just crazy. Crazier than the wolf! This isn’t happening, is it? I’m in the hospital, having some kind of morphine dream. Or maybe she was dying, and instead of getting her life flashing before her eyes she was getting hallucinations. Because there was just no way some Asian chick with cat ears — and some sort of ridiculous frilly dress like the superheroes in those Japanese cartoons Shantaya used to watch — had actually just charged down the sanctuary aisle and drop kicked a wolf right before it could overwhelm him and bite off Benny’s face.