Blackout - Dhonielle Clayton

The Long Walk

Act 1

Tiffany D. Jackson

Harlem, 5:12 p.m.

IT’S A HEATSTROKE kind of day. One where bad stuff happens. Tensions matching the temperature make people do stupid things in a city full of millions. On days like this, you wouldn’t catch me dead outside. I’d be huddled in my room, next to the air conditioner, streaming movies, with an iced tea and a turkey on wheat. So when the train doors open on the hot-ass platform, blowing sticky air in my face, I have second thoughts about the new job.

Out of the station, I’m surprised to see so many people on the street, the Apollo Theater’s sign gleaming in the brutal sun. If this was my film set, we’d be wrapped, or I’d switch to night shoots. Concrete melts the bottom of my sneakers as I run down 125th Street, train delays setting me back a whole ten minutes. The MTA doesn’t give a damn about being on time, even during a heat wave. Now I’m going to be late. Well, I’ll be on time but that’s the same as being late! Dad always says, If you’re early, you’re on time; if you’re on time, you’re late. That’s why I never chilled in the halls between classes, was always first in my seat minutes before the second bell would ring. Think that’s why all the teachers liked me. It showed I respected them. Even Mr. Bishop, and no one hated gym more than me.

My dress is soaked by the time I take the elevator up to the fourth floor. I don’t think I’ve ever sweat this much in my entire life. But they said I needed to drop off my paperwork before Monday’s training.

Yes, HR orientation training. For a legit job. Your girl is the new office assistant at the Apollo corporate headquarters. My advisor hipped me to the opening. Working for the most famous Black theater in New York, known for the start of such music superstars like Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, and Stevie Wonder, will have me kiki-ing with elite celebrities. Good practice for when I become a big-time director.

The pay: $3,500 for six weeks.

Sure, it’s all the way in Harlem, no less than an hour and change by train from Brooklyn. But it puts plenty of distance between Bed-Stuy and me all summer long.

I don’t want to be around there anymore. Not since . . . it happened. Not since “we” became a him and her, then a me.

The acceptance email said to arrive at five fifteen, and since this was going to be the first time my coworkers would see me, I put on my new yellow-and-blue baby doll dress, bought thanks to some graduation funds. You know what? I’m going to buy a whole new wardrobe before school, all to match my new life as I leave my old one behind. Might even start introducing myself as Tam instead of Tammi. Who would know the truth? It’s not like anyone’s coming down to Clark Atlanta with me. I’ll be there . . . alone.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this, I think as I approach the reception desk. “We” had different plans. Promises made. But there’s no longer a we, and it’s time I learn how to live my life without him.

“Hey, hon.” The elderly Black woman beams, sweat dripping off her brows. “Can I help you?”

I pull back my shoulders and shake the thoughts away. “Hi, my name is Tam Wright. I’m the new intern, here to drop off my paperwork.”

“All right, then. Let me see if Maureen is here to sign off. Whew, hot enough for you?”

The windowless office area is steamy. I peep men and women at their desks in damp clothes. “Um, yeah.”

She turns to grab a folder off the desk. “Well, heard it hit 101 around noon and hasn’t come down since.”

I wrap my braids up in a high bun, fanning my face.

“Is it always this hot in here?” I’m trying not to panic but I’m already thinking about the few dresses and shirts I own that’ll keep me cool in here all summer. I need to look perfect. Everything needs to be perfect.

She throws me a sympathetic smile. “Sorry, love, system has been acting up all day. I think a—”

“Whewwww! Shit. Sorry I’m late!” The voice behind me makes me jolt and stiffen, my skin going cold, even inside this oven. I close my eyes and start to pray.

Please don’t let it be him. Please, God. Please. Anyone but him.

“Hey, hon.