There was a tap on her thigh now, signaling the arrival of her little sister. Her hair was as black as the apartment that cocooned them, and it swished across her round cocoa face as she scooted in. Silence meant safety. Lights out meant no one would try to come in. At least, that's what their parents told them.
Little sister brought flashlights and chapter books. The two sat like twin statues; books propped on knobby knees, headphones secured over innocent ears, miniature flashlights illuminating worlds just beyond their reach. This pose wasn't perfected out of fear or obedience; they weren't old enough to fear the noises just outside the door, and they were never threatened with spankings or creative punishments for not assuming their post under the kitchen counter. They simply stayed, and listened, and read.
In a few hours, their parents would materialize from their own hiding places. Lights on meant it was safe to come out. Two pairs of sleepy legs would stretch long before shaking off the tingly feeling just behind the knees. Their father would entertain them with stories of what happened outside; sometimes a nervous laugh would escape his belly. Their mother would complain about the police officers who were either too loud or lazy good-for-nothing's, depending on the night. Just before nodding off, the older sister would wonder if it was really safe to fall asleep ... or would it be better to nap under the kitchen counter?
It would be several years before the older sister realized what an abnormal, disturbing childhood the two girls had. She would realize that the things she was never taught to fear were darker than an apartment without light, and scarier than Alice Cooper's ever-runny mascara. There was a different life to be lived, beyond the spray paint and cement walls of the ghetto. A life where little girls could read about tigers that could climb tall trees, and babysitters who formed clubs in suburban Connecticut. A life where lights held no secret code, and children slept without the soundtrack of urban desperation.
This story is based on a season of my childhood. For several years, my family lived in an area of San Bernardino, CA known as "the war zone". There were multiple active gangs residing and fighting in the streets at that time. It has since been destroyed - literally - by the city, and is currently an abandoned space of dirt and weeds.
Submitted for the speakeasy - #155. To learn more about the fantastic people behind this fun little exercise, head over to yeahwrite.me.