Shahada Thomas


Excerpt from Heat Waves:

Ninety-Eight Degrees

I tapped a finger on the thermostat to make sure it was working properly. The air conditioner was broken again. I probably shouldn't have been surprised. Summers in Greenville, Mississippi were brutal, and this year was no exception. I would have been in summer camp this year, basking in the cool air conditioning, but Mama said they just couldn't afford it until Papa brought home more money.

I walked into the kitchen to find Mama. Her head was buried deep in the refrigerator, while she furiously scrubbed at a stain that didn't seem like it was coming off anytime soon. The back of her t-shirt was drenched in sweat and I wasn't sure if the puddle lying beneath her was water spilled from the soap bucket beside her, or excess sweat that dripped off of her body.

“Mama, the air conditioning went out again.”

Mama sighed, lifted herself out of the refrigerator, and headed for the air conditioning unit. She opened the door and flipped a switch, waiting for something to happen. She flipped the same switch a few more times and sighed before slamming the door shut. “Just open a window Monica. There’s nothing I can do about it.”

“Can’t we at least get a fan? It’s so hot.”

“Didn’t I say open a damn window.”

She had that look in her eye that she was getting frustrated so I kept my complaints to myself. I walked down the hall to my room and opened a window. Moving was becoming more and more difficult with the heat draining all my energy. I tossed myself on my mattress and spread my limbs apart, making sure none of my skin was sticking together.

“Wow you look dead.” I sat up, heart pounding at the sudden sound of Kimberly's voice.

She was peeking through my window resting her head on her hand. Her honey-blonde hair was pulled into a tight French braid with a pink ribbon holding the end together. She climbed through my window and sat on my bed. “Get on some shoes, we're going to the lake.”

“Kim you know you can’t be here. Mama is right in the kitchen!”

“Well then hurry up so we can get out of here. Daddy’s finally out with his friends. This is the only time we can go.

“Okay, okay. But you have to get out of here before my mama hears you.”

Kim climbed back out the window while I shoved my feet into a pair of sneakers and crept toward the front door. Mama was in the kitchen, smoking a cigarette and reading a book. I walked past slowly, making sure the floorboards wouldn’t creak. I didn't make it halfway to the door before Mama stepped out of the kitchen with her arms crossed. “Monica, where you trying to go?”

“I was just gonna ride my bike.”

“You better not be going with that little friend of yours. I don't need her father coming back around here. Got my neighbors outside thinking I’m crazy. You stay away from them. You hear me?”

“Yes ma’am.” I didn’t meet her threatening glare. If I did I would crumble and my plans to go out with Kim would be ruined immediately.

“Be back before the street lights come on.” She warned before returning to her book. 

I rushed out of the house, grabbed my bike, and headed towards the lake to meet Kim.The lake was incredibly small. It was more like a watering hole, or a pond. It was in the middle of the swamp and it was our favorite place to go to escape the heat. Tall cypress trees surrounded the area providing shade and protection from the harsh sunlight. Hordes of Spanish moss hung off each branch, and cascaded down towards the duckweed covered water. Some of the trees
sprouted thick roots that made great seats.

Kim and I sat outside for hours watching birds land and pick food out of the water and then fly away. Every now and then the water would move and Kim would point out the alligator that poked its head out of the water getting more air so it could go back down for a few more hours. We skipped rocks and giggled about going into junior high, wondering what the sixth
grade uniforms would look like.

“I love the plaid skirts,” Kim laughed jumping over a mud puddle and landing on a tree root. “And they even have formal dances I heard.”

“You think our parents will let us be friends next year.”

“Probably not. I don’t get what Papa doesn’t like about y’all, seem like pretty good people to me.”

“Mama said we’re just too different.” And I couldn’t understand why. Kim and I both loved pink, and watching cartoons, and riding down hills on our bikes. Kim and I couldn’t be more alike. Sure Kim and I looked different but I didn’t understand why Mama always made such a big deal out of that.

A mama duck wadded by, her six ducklings followed behind. The sun beat down on us through gaps in the trees and I wished I could bathe in the water like each of the ducks. Kim and I must have been thinking the same thing because in a hushed tone she said, “I wish I could swim away too.”


I got home just as the street lights came on. Mama was inside the kitchen, cooking dinner. Not long after I got home Papa came back too. He didn't say anything to Mama or me. He reached into the refrigerator, pulled out a beer, and drank most of it in one gulp.

“How the jobs looking?” Mama asked, stirring whatever was inside of the skillet.

“Can’t I even come home and get comfortable before you start nagging me?”

Mama didn't say anything for a while and neither did Papa. He just stared down at the table blankly. He finished his beer and sat the can on the table. “What’s for dinner?”

“Stewed chicken and rice.”

Papa sighed and grabbed another beer out of the fridge. “Don’t you know how to cook anything else?”

“It’s all we can afford to eat.”

Mama made our plates in silence. She gave each of us a bowl filled with stewed chicken and a glass of water. I enjoyed Mama's stewed chicken. Even if we had it more than three times a week. Sometimes she’d put a scoop of peanut butter in the pot to make it a little sweet. That was my favorite. Papa wasn't too happy about eating it though. He jabbed his fork into pieces of chicken and forced it into his mouth. His nose scrunched up and he spit his food out on a napkin.

He guzzled his third can of beer and slammed the can on the table when he was finished, startling both Mama and me. He pushed his bowl towards Mama calmly. “Taste that.”

“Eli can you stop acting like a damn fool?” Mama responded pushing the bowl away from her and rolling her eyes.

“Can you stop cooking like one? I swear your food is getting worse by the day.”

“Well maybe if I had something better to work with my cooking wouldn't be so awful to you.”

“You blaming this on me, Opal? You know how hard I’ve been looking."

“You can’t find more money for better groceries but damn sure find the money for beer. Look at you. You ain’t ever gonna find a job like this.”

Papa looked like his blood was boiling. His can of beer flew across the room and would have hit Mama in the head if she didn't duck. I screamed and covered my head, scared that Papa would throw something else. “Don't speak to me like I'm some damn child.”

“Monica, get in your room,” Mama said, placing her napkin on the table.

I uncovered my head, glanced at my bowl full of food, and looked at Mama. “But I’m still eating.”

Mama flicked my lips and glared at me. “You heard me child. Don’t make me tell you again. Get in that room.”

I hurried out of my seat and into my room, tears starting to roll down my cheeks. At first I was only crying because Mama flicked me, but the tears never stopped. I could hear Mama and Papa fighting, screaming profanities at each other. I would hear a can of beer pop open and Mama would scream at him. Then Papa would gulp down his beer, crush the can and throw it at the wall. Sometimes I’d hear the shrill sound of shattering glass and I’d place my pillow over my head.

I don’t know when Mama and Papa stopped arguing, or when I fell asleep, but the next morning I was awakened by the pitter-patter of raindrops against my window. The gloomy mood outside reflected the way my house felt. Papa didn’t go looking for jobs that day, and Mama didn’t do much cleaning. Papa spent most of his day flipping through channels on the television. He must have run out of beer because a glass of ice water sat in its usual place on the coffee table. Mama didn’t come out of her room much. She came and made egg salad sandwiches for lunch before retreating back into her room. A few times I heard her on the phone with someone, speaking so softly it was barely audible.

The house was eerily quiet, with the exception of the rain pounding against a rooftop. Mama cooked in silence. Papa watched T.V. in silence. We all ate in silence. When I wasn't at the table watching Mama cook or in the living room watching Papa watch T.V., I was in my room looking out the window. In the moments between showers, crickets would chirp and frogs would croak. I opened my window and inhaled the scent of freshly wet grass and mud. It reminded me of the swamp. Making me wish I was there, with Kim, chasing squirrels and making Spanish moss wigs.

When the weekend ended so did the rain. I was happy to see the sun out even if that meant the temperature would be high. Sunshine meant I would be able to get out of the house. The only bad thing is that the humidity would attract mosquitos and while I was used to them, I wasn't fond of them. When Papa didn't leave the house to look for jobs again that morning I could tell Mama was holding back her anger. She’d been vacuuming our tiny living room for forty five minutes just so Papa couldn’t hear the television. That angry vein in her forehead looked like it was throbbing too. I didn’t want to be around when her and Papa started fighting again.

After eating bologna and cheese sandwiches for lunch, I decided to ride my bike down to the swamp. If I was lucky I would find Kim there, and if not then I would be able to relax in the tranquility. When I got near the swamp I spotted Kim bent over the water, holding a stick submerged in the duckweed. I rested my bike against a nearby tree and joined her. Kim and I didn't talk for a while. She shoved her stick into the mud and then dipped it back in the water while I watched. Kim broke the silence first. “I ran away,” she said, her voice low and somber. She let the stick fall completely into the water and walked away, sitting down on a tree stump.

“What happened?”

“Last night Daddy went out with his friends. Came back stinking like beer. Started yelling all crazy. Nobody even did him nothing. Mama tried calming him, but that only made things worse. Rodney and Jacob left for the weekend. Just me and Mama at home. He kept yelling about work then he hit Mama and hit me too.” Kim was crying. Her face was buried in her hands. I sat on the stump beside her and hugged her. “I was just so scared Monica. I ain’t know what else to do. I grabbed some clothes and my bike and pedaled straight here.”

“You been here since last night?” I asked. She only nodded. “Kim, your mama has gotta be looking for you. You have to go home.”

“I can’t Monica. Come on. Let’s just get on our bikes and ride away from here. Then nobody can tell us we can’t be friends.” Kimberly looked at me with puffy red eyes and the most desperate look on her face.

I imagined running away with Kim. Some place real far away. Somewhere people wouldn't care about our friendship. Somewhere I wouldn't have to go to bed hungry. Somewhere I wouldn't have to hear Mama and Papa fight. But our bikes wouldn't get us far and we didn't have any money or any food. We wouldn't have a place to sleep or bathe. And I couldn’t leave Mama. She was trying her hardest.

“Kim, come home with me. I'll get Mama to help you.” I wasn't sure how willing Mama would be, but I have never seen her turn away a person in need. I’d get in heaps of trouble for hanging out with Kim in the first place, but it was worth it.

“But your parents hate me. They’re just going to put m on the street.”

“No they won’t Kim. I promise.” I held out my pinky toward her. Kim reluctantly wrapped her pink around mine. I could feel her hand trembling. She gathered her things and headed home with me. The entire way back, I imagined Mama’s reaction in my mind. I knew she would be furious with me. Especially considering she was already angry at Papa when I left the house. That’s why I planned to sneak Kim through my window and then tell Mama. As we rounded the corner to my street, I noticed a second truck parked in our driveway.

“Kim, isn't that your Daddy's truck?”

“He came looking for me already?” she said worriedly. “Monica your mama can still help me right?” I couldn’t answer her.

Luckily my room faced the back of the house so I was able to sneak Kim through the window without anyone noticing. We came from the back streets so we wouldn’t be spotted. I hid Kim in my closet and went to find Mama. I could already hear the screams coming from the front. I rounded the house to find Papa and Kim’s dad arguing. I tried to creep back around the house, so I wouldn't get involved, but Kim’s dad spotted me.

He ran up to me and tightly gripped my arm. “Where’s my daughter you bitch.”

I screamed and Papa rushed over pulling me away from him. My arm getting scratched in the process. “Keep your hands off my daughter.”

Mama ran over grabbing me away from both of them and placed me on the porch.

“Mama I need to talk to you.”

“Monica. Not right now.”

“But-” She raised her hand to flick my lips but didn’t as I stopped myself from objecting. Kim’s Dad and Papa argued on the front lawn. Kim’s dad kept screaming about how we were no good and he kept threatening that he’d call the police if we didn’t tell him where Kim was. I wished he would just leave and go look for Kim somewhere else. She would be safe is she was with us.

“Eli just come back in this house. You don’t owe that man nothing.” Mama yelled. But Papa ignored her and continued arguing with Kim’s dad. He kept taunting Kim’s Dad to attack him, which only made Mama scream louder for him to cut it out.

Just when I was sure one of them would lunge at the other, Kim ran around the house grabbing her dad's arm. “Daddy stop.”

My heart fell deep into my stomach. I got that throw-up feeling I got when Mama made me take nasty medicine. Why would Kim leave the closet? We could have protected her.

“Kim,” I yelled, reaching for her, but Mama yanked me back. That vein in her forehead was bulging again.

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