“I got to talk to yuh in private.” Petal tapped Dad’s hand the moment he returned. She glanced at Boyie. “Throw an eye on de kids fer me.”
Boyie mumbled his response while continuing to fiddle with a bunch of CDs placed on top of the stereo system’s mahogany stand. Petal headed toward the corridor. My father lifted his suitcase and followed her, leaving me standing there awkwardly, a few feet from Boyie. The room fell completely silent for about thirty seconds while Boyie changed cds. Soon the music was as loud as before and he began to mouth the words to a 50 Cent song. As the minutes ticked by, I wasn’t sure whether to remain standing or to sit on the sofa. The noise began to hurt my ears, but Petal’s boys didn’t seem at all fazed by it. I was too scared to ask Boyie to turn the music down, so I walked onto the porch and counted the birds as they flew by, hoping Dad and Petal would return soon.
From a distance, a man’s grainy voice shouted, “Number ten play, monkey play!” He raised his voice as if to ensure that the entire neighbourhood would hear him. I shifted position several times until I saw the man. He had a shiny, bald head, a square jaw, and a cropped beard. To my surprise, he stopped in front of Petal’s gate.
“Tell Boyie, number ten play!” he said, looking at me. “Then tell him to come and get his money.”
I turned and instantly collided with Boyie, who’d stumbled out to the porch and down the stairs.
“Your number come. Ten play today!” the man said to Boyie. Boyie’s eyes gleamed; he made a fist and pumped his right arm up and down. He rushed toward the fence and the man dug into his pocket, pulled out a stack of bills, and handed them over. Boyie counted the pile, after which he shoved it into his pocket and made his way back inside the house.
“Number ten play. Monkey play!” The man continued up the hill, shouting even louder than before. He swung around the bend so I could no longer see him, but I was still able to hear his voice clearly. It eventually faded as well.
As I lingered on the porch, a girl dressed in white, an older man carrying a small child, a woman clutching a big cardboard box, a little girl dressed to the nines, an old man with one leg shorter than the other, and two boys and a woman lugging large buckets of water on their heads passed by Petal’s gate. Most of them made their way uphill, but a few stepped down the trail.
Suddenly, a man wearing a sleeveless, white t-shirt with arms as thick as a body builder’s rattled the iron gate. His eyes landed on my face. “Tell Boyie I have something fer him,” he said. I pulled back the curtains draping the front door and peeked at Boyie as he fiddled with his music system.
“Somebody at the gate is asking for you,” I said as he dusted the stereo with a soft cloth. I thought I’d spoken loudly enough, over the din of the music, but he didn’t respond. I wondered if the loud music had already cost him a sizeable amount of his hearing.
“Someone by the gate is asking for you!” I shouted this time. Suddenly Boyie brushed past me.
“Come, I have the thing, man,” the muscular man said to him.
“Oswald, I coming.” Boyie made his way down the staircase and unlatched the gate. Boyie pulled out the stack of money he’d shoved in his pocket earlier. He counted one, two, three, four, five, six bills and handed them over. Oswald slipped a tiny package wrapped in brown paper to Boyie, who shoved the parcel into the opposite pocket. Boyie then shut the gate behind him, and headed down the trail alongside his friend.
Even after Boyie had left, I remained on the porch and continued my examination of the neighbourhood. The white duplex to my left, built on as high an incline as Petal’s house, was shut tight, but I could still see some of its white walls through a drape-less window.
A portion of the roof covering the brown house to my right, which stood on a lower level than Petal’s, was somewhat visible, but an ugly aluminum wall, way taller than any human I’d ever met, obstructed a wider view of the dwelling. It wasn’t until I climbed on top of one of the chairs on the porch that I was able to spot a small dingy window with a piece of plywood nailed over it.
I lifted one leg, lowering my body to the ground, but the chair shifted, making a grating sound. My arms flapped around as I tried to keep my balance. Luckily, my two feet landed safely on the ground.
“What yuh doing?” Petal’s older boy looked at me strangely, but moments later he smiled genially.
“Yuh wanna play a game?” Warren took my hand even before I’d responded. “I have a police car, a fireman truck, and a firehouse too.”
Just then his baby brother, Drew, ran toward us. The two boys romped around the chairs. Drew tripped, banging his head on the floor. He bawled and I tried to quiet him, but I couldn’t. Petal, now wearing a bright red polka-dot sundress with two large, square pockets, dashed toward us.
“What happening here?” She scooped up her younger boy and rubbed his head in a circular motion. But the young boy closed his eyes and hollered even louder. “Where Boyie?” Petal asked.
“Gawd man!” she said. “He couldn’t wait a lil’ bit?”
Petal shifted her son from one arm to the next and made her way toward the living room. Suddenly the music stopped.
“You’re enjoying the lovely view?” My father stepped onto the porch, dressed in a short khaki pants and cream sleeveless top. “I bet you’ve never seen so many birds and trees on Paradise Lane. It’s nicer here, isn’t it?”
“I don’t like it here!” I hissed. I kept my eyes to the ground, but still felt his stare.
“You’ll get used to it in no time, just as you got used to Paradise Lane.” He inched closer.
“I don’t want to live on a big hill,” I said.
“You’ve got to behave like a big girl, not a little child.” Dad plunked himself down on the bottom of the staircase and lit a cigarette.
After he’d finished smoking, Dad went back to the car to collect the rest of our baggage. A few minutes after he left, I heard a loud bell ring. I looked up and noticed the big square clock on the wall. It was exactly six o’clock. I couldn’t tell where it was coming from. Who was ringing this bell so loudly, and why? I climbed up on the same chair I’d almost fallen off earlier, but I made sure to be more careful. I craned my neck and peered over the old, rusted aluminum fence, but I couldn’t see anyone, so I swiftly climbed down.
“Yuh hear de bell?” Petal asked as she came toward the porch. I nodded.
“Who’s ringing it?” I asked.
“Is de neighbour, Mr. Arthur. He does ring dat old bell at six o’clock every morning and in de evening too.”
“He ringing it since I was a lil’ girl,” Petal smiled. She rushed toward her younger son, who had once again started to cry. She tucked him into her hip, and he stuck his thumb in his mouth while pressing his cheek against her chest.
My legs and arms started to itch. I rubbed all over to ease the itch and noticed that several big blotches had suddenly appeared on my skin. “Ouch,” I said, as the irritation spread to another spot.
“The mosquitoes eating yuh?” Petal examined the red, swollen areas. “I going and get something fer yuh to put on it.” She returned with a long, thin tube. “Put it all over yuh skin. It going to stop de stinging,” she said. “Is de nasty Carlin and dem up de hill causing so much shitting mosquitoes in dis village.”
After I’d rubbed the ointment all over my limbs and the itchiness stopped, Petal walked ahead, carrying Drew while Warren trailed me. We entered a bedroom with two tiny windows and two single beds. The bed to my right was covered with Superman sheets. The one to my left had ordinary white sheets. Two big boxes overflowing with children’s toys stood beside the left bed.
“Yuh going to sleep here,” Petal said and stepped toward the bed with the white sheets.
“Dis is my big bed,” Warren said.
“Is Baby Girl bed now. Yuh have another big boy bed at yuh father and granny house.” Petal dragged the white sheets from the bed and replaced them with pink flowered ones.
“Put yuh clothes in dere.” She shoved a bunch of hangers overflowing with the boy’s clothes to one side of a tiny wardrobe, making room for my clothes on the other.
“Yuh father going to have to get a desk fer yuh to do yuh homework on,” she said and walked out of the room with her two sons following closely behind her.
Flat Hill Village, with its shabby yards, unruly trees, and assortment of odd individuals, compared to Paradise Lane, with its regular hardworking folks and neatly kept trees and flower gardens decorating the front of each house, was hard for me to take in. I sat on the bed and stared at the walls, wishing I had the magical power to make my absent mother reappear. Just then a gecko about five inches long scurried from one edge of the ceiling to the next. I rubbed my palms together as if I were lathering soap all over them. I was too shell-shocked to holler.