“What’s up Rico” Nate says dropping onto a bar stool back at Wicked. Having an impromptu meeting with the club’s owner Enrique Olarté had been in his plan last night, but apparently Enrique had made other plans and put him off. When he’d gotten another call in the morning he’d wanted to ignore it, but Nate knows better than to ignore clients this big. Rico is responsible for more than half of his deals. The place is much less spectacular during the day light hours, even if it is sunset. It almost looks like a completely different establishment. When the sun is out, the flashy, new up to date night club looks like a big dusty room with extremely tacky furniture in neon colors. “It’s amazing what the darkness and a little allusion can hide” the man behind the bar says motioning towards the room’s ambiance, or lack thereof as he lounges in the shadows. “Yeah, I guess”
Nate is in no mood for games or small talk. The club owner is dressed immaculately in a brown two piece Italian suit that compliments the olive tone of his skin. His crème button down beneath it exudes a look of elegance and sophistication. Nate notes that Olarté prefers to wear designer suits, and his alligator shoes aren’t too bad either. “I’m glad to know you enjoy my establishment Mr. Washington.” the man says in honest appreciation. “What makes you think that?” Nate tries to avoid getting personal with business contacts; that always means bad news. “I saw you dancing with a sexy little thing out there last night, and I saw you leave with her.” Nate doesn’t respond. He can’t figure how the clubs owner had seen them in a crowd that size; the club had been packed the night before. “I see everything that happens in my establishments Mr. Washington, especially things that interest me.” The owner brushes invisible lint from his lapel, noting Nate’s unwillingness to respond. The man can tell when a negotiation is about to take place, and knows better than to jump the gun with too many words and trap himself.
“Don’t worry Washington, I wasn’t watching you. It was the woman you were with that I couldn’t keep my eyes off of. I was watching her before you joined her on the floor. You know her?” Nate tenses even more than he had before. The last thing he wants is to get Laila involved in any of his dark dealings, especially with scum like Olarté. His world would rip a nice girl like her apart. “Yeah, why?” his tone is obviously defensive and abrasive to say the least, Laila is always off limits. “My bad man, I didn’t know she was your girl,” Rico laughs. His gleaming white smile is disarming. Nate can tell that Rico is vying for his trust, especially with the homeboy like teasing. Nate is not impressed; they are not boys. “She’s not my girl, she’s an old friend. We went to high school together. Why are you all of sudden so interested in my personal life?” Nate tries to move the conversation away from Laila. “I like to know about my employees Nate, everyone can’t be trusted.” The men share a tense glance, but Nate doesn’t blink. Intimidation does little more than piss him off. “I don’t work for you, not directly”. “I know, that’s why I asked you to come here.”
Rico becomes serious quickly. His eyes darken with intensity as he speaks, lowering his voice to a more business like octave. Rico speaks slowly and very clear, crossing his manicured fingers and leaning forward on the bar as if to say I mean business. Now, he has Nate’s attention. “I’ve been watching you Nate, and I like the way you work. You are too skilled to be dealing drugs hombre, and you know that. It turns out that I’ve lost some of my closest and most trusted associates recently and I need to regroup. I feel like you’re definitely the man I need to help build my empire” Empire? Nate can only imagine what type of empire Rico is referring to. Rumors have him linked to prostitution, extortion, and he personally knows about the drugs. He’s been selling for Rico for months, but as something like an independent contractor. Nate had made it clear that he runs his own show, and that had been fine with Rico’s people as long as the money was right. He was very rarely in contact with Rico at all, only once before this meeting. “What is it you want me to do?” Nate is stanch, knowing better than to sound too interested. This is what he wants, to move up in Rico’s territory, to get where the big money and the action are. “I want to make you one of the big dogs Nate, have you handle one of the major branches of my business. Right now I’ve got room to grow, so you can get in where you fit in, you feel me?”
Nate grunts his understanding, still seeming unimpressed. “What do you say Washington, I’ll make sure you are paid better than you have ever been. I’m offering you the high life my friend, all you have to do is come work for me. We have a deal? Are you ready to sell your soul for that almighty dollar?” Nate’s stomach ties into a knot, something about Rico’s proposition feels wrong. Not wrong as a matter of law, that had gone out the window a long time ago, but wrong in the truest sense of the word, fundamentally wrong, like he were making a deal with the devil. Unfortunately his job doesn’t leave a lot of room for being fundamentally right. “Yeah man, we have a deal, for a price” “Everybody’s got a price” Rico says with a smile shaking Nate’s hand in an official hood greeting more than a contemporary hand shake. “And I can afford to pay the piper.”
The night is particularly hot for Los Angeles, even to be August. A blistering 78 degrees at 10:15 in the evening has Laila wanting to crawl out of her skin. Not even a cool breeze from the pacific blows its way inland, leaving her and a million other Los Angelino’s high and dry. Her late night ice cream run had been against Nadine’s wishes but Laila had to get out of that house. It’s her birthday for pete’s sake, and all she’s done is train. Sure, Mom baked a cake and everyone sang, but they’d forgotten the ice cream. Normally it wouldn’t have mattered, but today the ice cream means everything. It means an excuse to get away. Even a late night trip to the grocery store in sweats and a tank tastes like freedom to Laila. Ever since she found out about her ‘cosmic duty to the world’ that she did not want or ask for, her life has not been her own. All of a sudden Momma and Daddy became head master and mistress of the Walker’s supernatural school for girls; or at least that’s what she and Dawn jokingly called it. The sad misfortune, in Laila’s eyes, is that none of it is a joke. Their lives have changed; everything is different.
Ever since that night at Wicked, it seems like every rogue spirit of the underworld crept up to the surface to try her patience, trying to gain some respect by having challenged the mighty gatekeeper. Laila is sick to death with all of it, and this is supposedly just the beginning. She, Dawn and Nina had tried to catch a movie and ended up in a cat fight behind the theatre just the night before. Four skanky she-demons had crept up on them on their way out the theater, looking for trouble. They found it in a very permanent way. While Laila can’t control her abilities yet, they still serve as radar for when trouble is near. Nina and Dawn are getting better at it too. Before those ghetto-looking, demon hood rats could roll up on them, Laila and her sisters were ready. They were all gorgeous black women with varied skin tones who looked to be of genuine African decent. Despite their distinct African features, they wore the garb of the average southern Cali street walker. They were a real throw down for the girls: no rules, no holds barred, back alley ass whippin’, but the sisters triumphed. They’ve all started carrying holy anointed blades on them or specialized weapons hand crafted by Big Daddy many weeks prior and that is usually enough coupled with their training. This time however, halfway though their fight, Laila managed to get focused enough to turn on her lights when the tallest demon of the bunch slapped the taste out of her mouth. After that, her sister’s abilities all came in and it was hardly a fair fight at all. They had already figured out that their special abilities only worked when Laila’s was on, talk about pressure, pressure that is only relieved by one thing; chocolate chip cookie dough.
“That will be $6.00 ma’am” the cashier says, bringing Laila out of the stupor she’s been in. She pulls the cash from her wallet and hands it to the woman behind the counter. She smiles at the cashier to keep from laughing. Only in L.A can you find a forty something year old black woman with her hair braided in Laker’s purple and gold, and in the off season at that. “Ma’am do you want me to call security and have them walk you to your car?” the woman asks in a nervous tone. “Why?” she suddenly has Laila’s full attention. “That guy has been watching you the whole time you’ve been here” she responds on a whisper directing Laila with her eyes. “I don’t know if he just wants your number or what, but he’s creeping me the hell out.” Laila looks over her shoulder and sees the man. He’s about 6 feet worth of sexy Latino brotha’ wearing a crooked smile. Why do they always have to be fine? Laila wonders. She’d been so deep in thought she hadn’t noticed him. “No, don’t worry about it, I’m good” She grabs her ice cream and her purse, smiles, nods at her admirer, and walks briskly out of the store. The last thing she wants is to be caught on somebody’s security camera going into battle. Battle the word echoes in her mind, it certainly isn’t what she had in mind for her life. This mortal combat bullshit is a far cry from being an archeologist, which is her normal life, if you can call it that. All those years of college were for what, to have brawls in grocery store parking lots? This shit is really beginning to piss her off.
“Que pasa Mami?” As usual the voice appears before the creature. She’s been in a few late night scuffles with her sisters since she’s began to change and demon’s generally all have the same M O. Laila is beginning to be bored with their parlor tricks. So far nothing has ever caught her alone, but tonight what the hell, her mood can’t get any worse. “Trying to mind my own business, I suggest you do the same,” Laila mutters, taking her keys from her purse and unlocking her Mustang. Before she can climb in a cold hand rests itself on her shoulder, bringing her to a stop. “Don’t rush off baby girl, let me holla at you for a minute” She can feel his cold coursing through her own body chilling her into motionlessness. Unfortunately for him, she’s already learned to manipulate her inner heat, not much but enough. Laila shuts here eyes, not wanting the bright glow to draw the attention of anyone driving by if she loses her little bit of control. She tries to focus on the light inside of her. Immediately her palms heat up and the rest of her body follows suit. “Shit girl!” he pulls his hands away from her as if being burned; a wicked smile curls Laila’s lips as she turns to face him, she did it. “I tried to warn you” the flickering light in her eyes backs him up another step. “Whoa baby, chill okay? I’m not trying to run up on you like that, you can turn off the lights.” She narrows her eyes taking in the demon before her.
He cast an illusion of being about 6 feet tall, a smooth olive tan, and hair slicked back just enough not to look like a greaser. His dimples are so deep he could pass for a very sexy Mario Lopez double. She can still however pick up the faint shading of grey over his alluringly deep brown eyes. “Look, I’ve done this before so let me tell you how it works” Laila says sounding annoyed. “You attack me, I whoop your narrow ass, you poof into a cloud of ash injured but semi alive or you turn into a pile of green bile and sink into the ground. I get into my ‘Stang, drive home and eat my chocolate chip cookie dough, okay?” The demon shakes his head and chuckles low in his throat. “You got it all wrong baby, I don’t wanna fight.” Again it approaches but more cautiously. Laila can’t help but to laugh, even in the face of imminent attack. “Oh, so you’ve got jokes huh? So what do they call the smooth demon with the sexy dimples?” His smile returns with her compliment. “Francesco, but you can call me Frankie” “So what is you want then Frankie” she asks stressing his name with sarcasm. “I was just wondering what a pretty thing like yourself is doing walking the streets alone at night” he pauses as if considering the safety of continuing his sentence, “and I was wondering what a guy like me had to do to escort you safely home” he says licking his lips in a manner so sexy its impossible not to notice. “I could take real good care of you mami if you let me” Laila has to remind herself that Frankie is a demon, the damned undead, but he’s spitting game like a full blooded Latino male. He’d even come to her in street apparel: slightly baggy black jeans, a crisp white Tee, and a plaid button down shirt. This thing has mad swagger she decides.
“Thanks, but I don’t really do demons” she says tossing her curls over her shoulder and turning away from Frankie, content to let it survive another night. Anything that fine deserves to live at least one more night. He hasn’t attacked her, why waste her energy? “Yeah, you don’t really do anyone from what I can tell baby, and believe me I can tell.” She turns slowly back to face him, guffawed at his accusation. “Why don’t you let me take you some place quiet and rectify that for you girl. Believe me when I say I can do shit that will have you speaking my native tongue.” The grey in his eyes deepens and Laila is aghast at the images running through its mind, if not somewhat intrigued. Is a demon really trying to get into my pants? This is definitely a first. “Again, I’ll pass on that Frankie, but thanks”. Something about the whole situation feels wrong to Laila. Most demon attacks consist of some idle threats, a swear or two, and then a fight. This smooth, sexy somethin’ talking yang in her ear is brand new and intimidating in a whole new way; a way that has her squeezing her thighs together from its burn.
Frankie isn’t the least bit hostile; he’s actually rather inviting and damned hard to say no to. “Come on now girl, don’t do me like that. Just standing this close to you has my mouth all dry. I promise you one night with me will make up for all the nights you’ve spent alone.” Laila finds herself baited into conversation. Her hands plant themselves into her bare hips that are left revealed by her low hanging sweat pants. “What makes you think I spend my nights alone?” she rebuts. Frankie seductively laces his hand around her waist and pulls Laila close to him, his fingers holding firmly to the small of her back. “You’ve heard of the spirit of lust right?” Frankie seductively whispers into her ear. She nods her head, barely able to speak from the flood of sexual sensations that cover her skin at Frankie’s touch. Old boy has game she hadn’t even imagined before. “Of course I have Frankie, I was raised in church like a good girl”. “Well that’s my specialty mami, that’s my area of expertise. There are a lot of us I admit, but I can show you what I’ve got goin’ on, and I promise your boys no joke” It takes Lai a moment to compose herself against the barrage of explicit images Frankie mentally sends her way. He shows her impression after impression of sexual and sensual acts he’s been responsible for inciting. “You’re the man Frankie, I give you that, but I’m still not interested” she says pulling out of his grasp deciding his brand of demon is decidedly too dangerous. This one could get her caught up in more ways than one. “Then let me try a different approach mami”, Frankie steps closer, pinning Laila’s back to her vehicle with a thrust. “I can just take you with me, without asking you, and take what I want if you want to do this the hard way.” Its sulfuric breath tells that his jaw had begun to distend before she can look up and see his rows of shark-like teeth. “I’m from the hood Frankie, you know I like it rough. Let’s do this the hard way.” With the swiftness of death, its hand is around her throat, fingers growing into sharp, jagged talons around Laila’s neck. Laila can feel her feet lifting off the ground, but doesn’t bother to struggle for her breath. She reaches for the cool metal pressed against her back beneath her clothes, and as fast as lightening plunges a six inch blade into the gut of what was once a beautiful specimen of a man. He drops her immediately and tries to grasp her blade.” You think you can stab me and I won’t just regenerate?” it snickers. “Uh uh smooth talker. You didn’t consider that my blade is made from precious metals, soaked in holy water and anointed with blessed oil did you?” “Oh fuck” surprise lights his eyes as his wound begins to smolder and light up. “You have no idea how fucked you are” Laila counters. In a swift and powerful motion Laila proceeds to cut him open from asshole to appetite, leaving burning ashes in her wake, hops in her car and speeds away from the scene, ice cream in hand. He or it will survive, it wasn’t a fatal blow. After all, he was far too cute to kill on a first date.
“How could you be so irresponsible?” Laila scoops another spoonful of chocolate chip cookie dough into her mouth while Nina continues on her tirade with her hands planted so tightly in her hips Laila thinks she’ll leave a bruise. Dawn just sits at the table in her flannel pajamas uninterested, having seen the two go at it multiple times in her life. “I just wanted some ice cream” she rolls her eyes at her older sister in disdain. The last thing she wants to hear is a lecture, especially from Nina. Nina can be worse than Momma sometimes when it comes to giving a lecture. “Lai you could have been killed this is not a joke.” Laila is distracted by the way Nina’s dark tresses sway back and forth as she rolls her neck in earnest, attempting to make a point to her sister. “You might take all of this lightly but those things out there want you dead, they want all of us dead.” “Yeah Nina I know, no one ever lets me forget that there are hundreds of thousands of things out there that want me dead, I get it.” “No you don’t get it!” Nina slaps the table so hard that her sisters’ ice cream bowl nearly falls off. Laila’s fists tighten in instinct. She and Nina have been fighting their whole lives and she’s not opposed to one more household rumble with her big sis. “Laila these things won’t stop! They are smart and they get organized. You can’t just run around fighting every demon that crosses your path. I know you’re supposed to be the Gatekeeper, The One” Nina uses self made quotes around the phrase, “but that does not make you invincible, you can die.” “Stop being so dramatic Nina” “Lai, maybe you should listen to her” Dawn, who had sat quietly thus far, rests her hand on Laila’s shoulder to silence her. Laila can see the concern in her younger sister’s eyes and considers that she is worried too. “Look guys, I know why you’re upset, I do, but aren’t I supposed to be the Gatekeeper? Isn’t it my job to fight those things out there? I didn’t ask for this job and I don’t want it, but it’s too late for that. That demon found me. I didn’t go looking for it. I was just walking to my car when it came up to me. I wasn’t hunting, I wasn’t looking for a fight; I was just looking for some chocolate chip cookie dough.” Laila says motioning to her half eaten bowl of ice cream. “You should have run, got in your car, and driven away.” Nina says. “I’m not running from anything” Laila is obstinate. “Fine then, get yourself killed” Nina storms out the kitchen and up the stairs.
“Lai, you know I’m not taking sides, but maybe you should listen to Nina” Dawn takes liberties that only sisters can and scoops some of Laila’s ice cream into a bowl. “Nina doesn’t get it” Dawn sighs heavily before swallowing a large scoop of ice cream. “I think she gets it better than both of us. Nina has been doing this stuff for more than two years, we’re just getting started. I mean, I know that we’ve been working hard, especially you, but she has more experience.” Lai closes her eyes in frustration. Doesn’t everyone know that she knows that? That Nina, Momma and Daddy are seasoned hunters and warriors and she and Dawn are not? Laila understands that more than anyone, which is what bothers her. If they are so much better at this than her than what do they need her for? Since her body began to change Laila can see and sense things that terrify her, she can asses a threat before it ever appears, but nobody else can. She is different, again. She is the odd member of the family, again, and no one understands. What’s even more disturbing is why no one else in the family can feel when there are demons present accept her. Unless something is right up on them, they can’t tell until they’re in a fire fight. It could be too late for them by then. Every free moment Laila has is haunted by the idea that if she doesn’t get her shit together with this whole Gate keeper thing that someone, one of her sisters, could get hurt or even die. “You don’t get it either Dawn, none of you get it.”
Laila pushes away from the table and makes a hot path up to her childhood bedroom where she’s been staying most nights recently, slamming the door hard behind her. They all have moved back home little by little, training and preparing for God knows what. It is all just too much. Laila sinks into her bed and balls up like a child, attempting to rock herself into a state of calm but failing. Silent tears stream down her creamy brown visage. The whole world? They expect me to protect the whole world? Laila can believe in the demons, she’s seen them, she can believe in her abilities, those she’s also seen, but to believe she can protect the whole world from them, that is where she draws her line. Some shit is just impossible. “Mm, mm, mm, I aint seen you looking so pathetic since that time you got grounded and couldn’t go to that spring dance” “It was winter formal” Big Daddy has a way of creeping up unheard that is insane for a man his size. The way he’d just appear in a doorway without a sound, you’d think the man was a ballerina. “Some kind of silly school dance” he grunts. Maurice Walker leans into the door jam, in his usual jeans and T-shirt, arms crossed over his broad chest. That is where he always stood for a one on one conversation, outside the doorway. He’s always been cognizant of the girls and their need for their own personal space in the house, one in which men did not enter. Their rooms were their safe places growing up. “I’m not pathetic” Laila finally manages to protest after a few moments of silence between she and her father. “No baby, you’re not pathetic. What you are is scared” “No I’m not” she’s quick to rebut, sitting up to look Big daddy in the eyes. “Yeah you are. I can see it every time I look at you. I know because me and you are cut from the same cloth. We’re fighters, and we like to be in control. Me and you need to feel strong, more than that we need to be strong.” Laila nods in agreement, however unsure of where he is going with this discussion. She figures its some misguided attempt at making her feel better.
“I remember when your mother and I were real young. We did what we wanted to do in those days. We did a little demon slaying back then, just some basic sentinel stuff. We trained and we fought and we practiced and we kicked some ass, let me tell ya’” Daddy has a far off reminiscent look in his eyes that Laila can appreciate as something gained with age. “Then one day, our names came up. You’re mother was studying some ancient prophecy about the gatekeeper and low and behold there was Maurice and Nadine. My ghetto, street ass was called to raise and rear the Gatekeeper. We were supposed to train and lead the Gatekeepers sentinel team until she was ready to lead. That’s some amazing shit right?” He seems to be asking himself so Laila doesn’t answer. She does however tuck the reference to a prophecy away in her mental ‘to-do’ list. What prophecy had they heard and from whom? “Yeah well I was terrified. How was I going to take care of you and two other super kids? I didn’t know the first thing about kids, especially girls. That was some bull if I ever heard it.” Laila smiles up at Maurice, “But you did good Dad. You are a great father. The thing is, if you screwed up and weren’t a good dad, we still had mom. Worse case scenario, three girls get screwed up. If I can’t do my job the entire world is in jeopardy from what I understand. It’s a little bit more pressure, you think?” “No, I don’t. If I screwed up the protector, the Gatekeeper, or let any of the many things in life that can screw you up get to you, the world never had a chance to begin with. Believe me baby that thought kept me up many nights. If my sorry ass couldn’t handle my job, you and everything you would one day stand for would amount to nothing. Every time your mother and me brought one of you home, we were accepting to care for the fate of a generation. We had to raise you right, and somehow sneak around and handle our business as sentinels. My dream was to renovate classic cars for a living, travel to car shows all over the country, maybe open my own shop” Laila and her father share a silence that they both understand to speak volumes. She’s watched her father tinker with cars and motorcycles in the garage as long as she can remember. She’d never known that car renovation was anything more than a hobby of his. He’d given up his life to raise them, he’d sacrificed his own ambitions for all of this, and Laila is expected to do the same. “Do you ever regret it Dad?” she asks in all honesty. “Never baby, not even for one minute.”
“Hi, you’ve reached Laila. I am currently unavailable. Please leave …” Nate hangs up his phone before her voicemail can finish, feeling annoyed. He’s called her everyday all week long and she hasn’t answered. More than three months have passed since they’d crossed paths at Wicked, and in that time he’s managed to get her on the phone a few times. Those conversations were short and sweet. They’d exchange common courtesies, and once it was established that they were both ‘fine’, Laila made some excuse about being busy or having a lot on her mind and ended the call. At least then she had the decency to answer the phone Nate fumes. They haven’t spoken regularly in a few years, but when they had, Laila never ignored his phone calls. He just wanted to wish her a happy birthday… several days ago. He plays their last conversation in his mind over and over again, trying to figure out if he’d somehow managed to piss her off. Before long he finds his Navigator parked in front of her apartment complex. Nate refuses to be ignored. She and her sister Dawn had gotten an apartment together in the same complex as Nina, much closer to school than home and just a hop, skip, and a jump away from the family owned museum that they work at for their parents. He’d gone in on several of the tours Laila guided when they were in high school and college to watch how excited she’d get talking about a bunch of old pictures, furniture and well preserved dead bodies. She’d had a knack for history; he just had a knack for her. That museum bored him to tears, but she loved it so he put up with it whenever they got some new artifact that he just had to see. Only one section in that museum had been even slightly interesting to him, some of the weaponry from ancient battles. Outside of that history for Nate was just that, history.
Nate begrudgingly climbs out of is his chromed out SUV and hits the alarm before walking into Laila’s complex. It would be dark in an hour or two and no car is safe anywhere in L.A. at night. She lives in the college district, Bruins blue and gold is on display everywhere. While she doesn’t live in campus housing, Laila’s place is close enough to be considered campus living yet far enough away to be separate from college life and campus security. Nate considers how perfect the location is for Laila. It keeps her where she needs to be to handle her business without having to get involved with the crowd. Laila has always been an outsider, independent from what people say or think. Laila does her own thing and is always a step ahead of the crowd.
The complex is large and shaded in varying hues of brown and gold. Even the steps leading upstairs to floor where Laila lives are a deep earth brown with golden specs. Nate is impressed by the lengths some management company went to lease an apartment and considers how much Laila and her sisters are paying extra for the luxury of gold specs. He approaches apartment 3C and raps lightly on the door. Nate tries to shake the anxious feeling gathering in his stomach and kicking around his insides. In all of his adult years, he’s never dropped by her place, not since she’s moved out of the neighborhood from her parents’ house. There is no answer, but he can hear music playing inside in the distance. Nate knocks again, this time a little harder and the front door comes open. She doesn’t lock her doors or even check to see that they’re closed? Laila and Dawn have to be out their minds to be so careless. “Laila” Nate calls into the apartment, just peeking through the open door. “Lai, its Nate. Your door was open.” She doesn’t respond. He’d seen her Mustang outside in the lot, Laila is definitely home.
Nate steps inside, this time its worry that’s kicking around his insides. Her car is here, her front door is open, and she’s not answering; the whole situation feels wrong. “Laila where are you?” He calls out. The balcony door is open and the burnt orange curtains flail wildly on the afternoon breeze. If Laila were on the balcony and okay, she would have replied. Nathaniel pulls his piece from the back of his loose jeans and removes the safety. Her apartment is huge and he makes an effort to creep across the wood paneled floors without making any sound. If anybody had come in here and hurt Laila, they’re definitely leaving in a body bag. Weapon drawn, Nate steps cautiously out onto the balcony. All he finds is a yoga mat, planter filled with soil and an opened bottle of water. Before he can retreat he hears the familiar click of the safety being taken off a loaded gun and the press of steal to the base of his skull. By rote his arms raise at his sides revealing his weapon and his free hand; the classic sign of surrender. “Drop your gun”. Nate doesn’t move at first. The person speaking is clearly Laila, he’d know her voice anywhere, but then where does the gun come in? “Hey , look I…” “I said drop it!” Her tone is serious and menacing as is the way she presses the gun harder into his head, letting him know she means business. Slowly Nate lowers his gun, bending his knees until one hits the yellow yoga mat he’d been standing over and lets his weapon rest on it. He stands to his feet again as slowly and cautiously as he’d bent down, hands still in the air. “Turn around” she says angrily, obviously anxious to look in the eyes of her intruder. Nate turns casually as if uninterested until he gets Laila in his full view. She stands before him soaking wet, wrapped in a thick white towel that looks as if it might lose its hold and fall any second now and reveal her hidden treasures.
Her hair is wet and water is dripping down her neck, face and back. Despite being damned near naked, Laila keeps both hands clasped to the Kimber 1911 Compact in her palms. “Nathaniel Washington, what are you doing sneaking around my apartment?” She screams angrily at him. “You want to get your gun out of my face Lai?” “I ought to shoot you, are you crazy?” Laila doesn’t budge, her arms are shaking; he’d scared her. “Woman you better get that damned gun out of my face” he warns again, not seeming fazed by much more than her soaking wet body that his eyes take in greedily. “Woman?” Before Laila can comprehend what has happened, Nate has her disarmed. He simply grabs the barrel ad yanks it from her wet fingers.“Give me my gun back!” She complains, now holding securely to her towel, the act of him yanking the gun from her hand had nearly cost Laila her modesty. Nate removes the clip and the remaining bullet from the barrel and tosses her gun to the cream colored sectional couch with brown and orange pillows spread across it. He takes a moment to notice the room. It is very well decorated and he knows that Mrs. Walker has to have a hand in it. “Girl I taught you how to hold a gun, don’t you pull one on me.” He says tossing her Kimber back into her hands. “What did you expect Nate. I get out the shower and find some random uninvited man wandering around my apartment with a gun. You’re lucky I didn’t shoot first and ask questions later.” Nate had considered that, she could have just blasted him on site and been well within her rights.
“What the hell were you doing here anyway?” She grabs the magazine and reloads the bullet he’d expended and walks off into her bedroom. Nate follows her instinctively. “I missed your birthday so I came to see you. I saw your car outside, but when I got upstairs your door was open and I called you a couple of times and no one said anything. I thought something was wrong.” She smiles to herself as she rifles through her underwear drawer, he’d been trying to protect her, and she’d figured that anyway. “Next time call or something Nate instead of bursting in with your gun drawn like some damned cowboy.” He tries not to notice her choice in underwear, but fails. She pulls out a pair of white lace boy shorts and a white bra. He forces himself to focus on the conversation and not what she might look like in them. “I have called you, and you haven’t been answering your phone. That’s why I’m here in the first place so don’t go there.” “I’ve been busy” is her only response. Lai knows she can’t tell him the whole truth. How do you tell someone that you’ve been a little preoccupied with saving the world, or at least trying to learn how to save the world? She’s spent day after day and hour after hour learning about this whole Gatekeeper business, learning how to fight better and how to use different weapons. After her first fight in high school Daddy had insisted she take a martial art. “You like to fight so much, so I just booked all of your Friday nights baby girl.” Daddy had said, “When all your friends are out at the movies or the mall, you get to go fight, because that’s what you like to do. May be you’ll think about it before you fight at school again” It was meant to be a punishment, but Laila had loved that class. She’d studied Northern Shaolin Kung Fu, Thai Chi, and her personal favorite, boxing. Dawn and Nina were never very thrilled about being forced to take it with her, but in hindsight they can all see why. They were being conditioned, fashioned to protect themselves. “Look, I’m really sorry Nate. I wasn’t trying to blow you off, I swear. I’ve just had a lot going on.” Laila hollers her apologies out from her bathroom door. Nate can partially see her reflection in the mirror through the cracked door. He can only see a fraction of the left side of her naked body, but its enough to cause his breathe to catch in his throat.
Only now when the adrenaline coursing through her system begins to subside does Laila consider what has just occurred. She’s been training so hard, and fighting so much that she’d actually pulled a gun on her best friend, on Nate. She’d held a gun to his head, while practically naked and dripping wet. And now, he’s in her apartment, sitting on her bed. Nina tries not to remember how many times she’s imagined him in her bed. Nate had been her constant dream lover ever since she felt that tingle below the belt for the first time. She does however remember the way his eyes roved over her soaking skin just minutes before when he’d taken her gun. She smiles to herself imagining his hands and lips following the same path his eyes had taken then sighs her lament. Nathaniel had never seen her that way. He’d always looked out for her the way a big brother would. Laila had seen him watching her many times, but never really seeing her. ‘Maybe it’s better that way’ she thinks to herself while pulling her size seven jeans up over her hips, ‘Especially now’. If Nate had walked in half an hour earlier he’d have caught her doing something she couldn’t very well explain. She’d been practicing her control of the elements, which at this point is a total lack of control. However, how do you explain to someone how it is you have water hovering in the air? This whole Gatekeeper business is going to ruin my social life she laments inwardly.
“So what brings you out this way Nate?” She asks, trying to sound friendly and not nervous. Having Nathaniel Washington in her bedroom is playing a real number on her concentration and her hormones. “I came to check on you.” Laila steps into his view, now fully dressed in dark blue jeans and a fashionable black and white blouse. “Well, here I am.” She says beaming nervously. “I was just going to make myself some dinner, are you hungry?” Nate nods in affirmation, but food is most certainly not what he’s hungry for. After seeing Laila wearing a terrycloth dress with only water as an accessory, a more primal hunger had been stoked.
Laila heats up some leftover spaghetti and cornbread she’d made the night before, making sure to fill Nate’s plate. He has always been a big eater. She broke out of her familial prison to come to her own space, Dawn and Nina can stay there all they want, but she needed to get away. “Is it that good or have you not eaten in a week?” Laila asks wide eyed as Nate stuffs forkful after forkful of food in his mouth. “It’s delicious” he says between swallows. Laila can’t tell if he’s even chewing or just inhaling his food. She scoops more spaghetti onto his plate. “You act like you’re starving to death” Nate pauses from his gluttony long enough to look up and answer her. “I’m sorry; it’s just been a long time since I’ve had a home cooked meal. I don’t really have anywhere to go for Sunday dinners, you know.” Guilt stings Laila’s cheeks, as it often does when dealing with Nate. She’d been adopted and had a family. Nate only had himself, that’s how he ended up in the street game to begin with. All he had were his ambitions and his own strength. She admires that about him, but it still pains her to think of how alone he must feel sometimes. “Yes you do Nate, you can always come here.” She reaches across the small wooden table and lays her small hand across his large one, giving Nate pause. “I’m your family. I always have been and I always will be.” He lifts her small hand to his lips and places a soft kiss on her fingers. “I know Lai, and I’ll always love you for it” He lowers her hand but doesn’t let go of it.
The moment is too intense, too deep for Laila to sit in silence. “Do you remember when we were kids, right after you left Juvi?” He smiles in joint remembrance. “Yeah, your bad ass snuck out from the Walker’s to come visit me at my group home” “That’s right, I wanted to thank you without Big Daddy breathing down my neck. He hated how close we were, remember?” Laila laughs heartily, squeezing Nate’s fingers. “I’m not mad at him though, I was pretty bad myself and just got out of Juvenile Hall. He didn’t want me within 100 yards of you girls.” Nate’s eyes light up the way they had when they were just kids, sharing some secret, the way Laila always remembered them to be. They seem darker now that he’s older. “Do you remember what you said to me that night?” she asks. “Yeah, I told you I’d always protect you no matter what, no matter how many times they locked me up.” “Yeah, then you said that your soul belonged to me forever, that I could have it because I was your only real family.” Laila sighs. Nate laughs at the comment, “I was kind of dramatic back then wasn’t I?” “We were in middle school Nate, everybody was dramatic” Laila says eating cornbread with her fingers.
Nate watches as she sucks her fingers clean and feels a tightening in his groin. “That’s when I kissed you, right?” he says, as if to himself. A flush comes over Laila’s caramel toned cheeks, just as it had so many years ago. “Yeah, that is when you kissed me. That was my first kiss you know.” She confides, though she’d never told him that. “Naw, no way Lai. That couldn’t have been your first kiss. There were girls at our school giving it up already at that age” Nate jokes. Laila snatches her hand back and places it firmly on her hip. “Well it wasn’t me, and don’t be comparing me to no middle school hoes, okay?” Her old school attitude flares up and Nate loves it. Lai is still his round-the-way girl. “If I said it was my first kiss, it was my first kiss damn-it. Don’t calli me a liar sitting in my own kitchen” Laila continues to protest. “Calm down sistah soldier, I’m not calling you a liar. I just didn’t know” he continues to laugh even harder. “Damn girl, you let me give you tongue on your first kiss? If I’d have known you were that easy I would have tried to feel a little booty too.” He jokes. Laila picks up napkin and throws it at him. “Yeah, then I would have had to kick your ass” Laila makes herself have a snide reply in order to keep from telling him that it’s not too late. That night when they were kids was the first and last time Nate had shown any romantic interest in Laila, and it had nearly driven her mad.
Either Laila or Nate are anxious to end their evening, so Laila puts a DVD on in her bedroom. Nate had jumped into her queen sized bed as if he’d owned it, and was quickly scolded about putting his ‘rusty old boots’ on Laila’s sunset colored comforter. The bottom of the comforter depicts a scene of the sun setting over a tropical sandy beach; the colors of the sunset cover the remaining area of the blanket. The colors of sunset, in fact, adorn Laila’s entire room from the curtains to her lamp shade. She climbs in the bed besides Nate baring the offering of fresh popped pop corn. She takes the bowl with her to the foot of the bed, opposite of where Nate is laying. “What I can’t get any popcorn?” He asks, nudging Laila in the side. “Only if you promise not to make a mess.” Her voice is taunting, but Nate knows she means it. “Scouts honor” he says reaching for the bowl and watching the previews. “You’re no scout Nate” “Either are you apparently. What’s with the gun anyway Laila?” She swallows hard, she knew that was coming. Why did she have a gun in the first place? “Me and Dawn live alone, it’s for protection. You know in case some weirdo comes sneaking through our apartment with a gun.” She mocks tossing more buttery popcorn into her mouth. “Yeah but is that really necessary? What do you need that kind of power for, and is it legal?” “Of course my gun is registered” she lies. This particular weapon is completely untraceable. Laila and her sisters can’t end up in jail. The whole transition into spiritual warfare has her jumping at shadows so Daddy Walker had gotten her a little something for more natural protection against regular everyday intruders. “And for the record, I like power. I didn’t want some weak gun. If someone puts me in a position to have to shoot them I want to make sure they stay down.” Her voice is serious and intense. Nate pauses for a moment. He’s not sure but he thinks he’d seen a flash of gold cross through her eyes, just like in his dream. He shakes away the crazy notion.
“So where is Dawn tonight? Out on a date?” Nate asks. “No, she’s at home with our parents. I was supposed to be too, but I think I’d rather hang out with you a while longer.” She smiles up at Nate then turns back towards the movie she’d been pretending to watch. She can’t focus on anything but her breathing with Nate in her bed. “Are you dating?” he asks nonchalantly, as if just making conversation, or at least that’s how he hopes it sounds. “Nah, I’m a little too self involved at the moment. I had a really big discovery out in Egypt. My team is busy cataloging our finds. I could be spending a lot of time back and forth right now. I’m way too busy to date. What about you, you have a special lady whose gonna be pissed when she finds out you’ve been in my bed?” Laila teases but holds her breath waiting on a response. “No, I’m riding solo.” His voice is so absolute that Laila can sense the double meaning, Nate is always riding solo. Again she feels pain for his constant loneliness she imagines to be real. She knows he won’t express it, that violates one of the hoods many unwritten rules. You don’t show weakness in the streets, men don’t cry, and nobody admits to being hurt. That’s just the way it is. She wishes he didn’t have to live in that world, but he’s made his own choices about where is life will end up. Laila moves to the top of the bed with Nate and squeezes her hand into his. He appreciates the tender gesture but hasn’t the words or emotional experience to express it “Good, I could hardly see the movie around your big head.” Laila smiles and lays her head on his shoulder. That is definitely his thank you.