Samuel Johnson was a good guy, but he wasn’t much of a boyfriend. That’s what all the girls in Connecticut told him anyway, and his ex said it with more colorful language. He never thought spending extra hours in the gym and refusing to party as he prepared for his rookie season in Brazil would provoke such an onslaught of fuck you’s and you ain’t shit’s, but she proved Samuel wrong for about 15 minutes. His mother told him young girls were stupid, and she knew that because she was stupid once, so he shouldn’t take it personally. Just move on. Sandy Carvalho, the resident psych major of the house, had a different explanation.
“People are products of their environment,” Sandy said as she rolled down the window of her Acura at a red light and spat out her gum.
“So you think it was her environment that made her cuss me out?” Samuel asked as he leaned back in the passenger seat. He promised to never need a ride again after his first pro basketball check. Of course, Sandy ignored it with a wave of her hand. She wasn’t a fan of promises, especially in response to her kind gestures. She just drove Samuel back and forth to the gym every morning and night and considered it recompense for his mother’s hospitality.
Sandy always felt indebted to the Johnsons no matter how often Samuel reassured her she was no burden. She cooked, cleaned, and drove him to his workouts. She also worked two jobs and volunteered at the Rape Crisis Center of Milford. Sandy was so busy, Samuel only saw her when she was transporting him somewhere. The last time he asked her how she managed to work so hard, she reminded him that if he used to be a hooker, he might bust his ass too if it meant never going back. He never asked her that question again.
Sandy sighed as she swiped her turn signal and rolled the steering wheel to the right.
“Maybe,” Sandy said. “But I was talking about you.”
“What do you mean?” Samuel asked.
“Real talk, you like bitchy women,” Sandy said with a shrug as she turned another corner by twirling the steering wheel with the heel of her left hand. “And, I mean, your mom’s great, but your dad got lucky with her. From what I hear, Achilla’s mother was crazy.”
“You heard it from me,” Samuel said.
“Exactly,” Sandy replied. “I’m shocked your father’s alive.”
Samuel hadn’t told Sandy about Ailina’s monstrous strength and how she attacked their whole family with only Achilla to fight back. Without her there, they were helpless. Samuel shuddered when he remembered Ailina’s glowing green eyes from the night she kidnapped him. She threw him across that hotel room in Stratford and clamped her hand over his mouth when he protested. He didn’t want her. No man wants a woman who tries to kill his parents and older sister. But she pinned him down and made him do it. No matter how much he screamed for help, none. He never thought he would say that about any woman, but she made him feel so defenseless, like she could take his manhood whenever she wanted, like it was some resource she could mine at her bidding. Samuel blinked back tears and wiped his eyes with the back of his fist as he looked out the window. Damn that monster. If he had a gun and saw her walking down the street-
“You all right?” Sandy asked. “Man, this girl has you all broken up. I’m sorry.”
“I’m good,” Samuel muttered and Sandy cocked her eyebrow at him.
“You can’t lie to me, Samuel,” Sandy said. “I’ve seen you naked.”
That was Sandy’s response whenever Samuel tried to slide something by her, which never worked.
I’ve seen you naked when he tried planning a surprise birthday party for her.
I’ve seen you naked when she caught him buying her roses for Valentine’s Day and scolded him about why they couldn’t be a couple because what would your mother think?
I’ve seen you naked when he hid the fact that he was dating other women, and she reassured him it was all right because I want you to be happy.
Samuel didn’t buy the last one. After all, he had seen her naked too. Sandy had a tough exterior, but in bed she was softer than the sheets. She gazed at him with eyes that begged for protection as well as pleasure, and he tried his damnedest to give both. The moment they finished, she would hop out of bed and stroke her black, curly hair into a bun as the hard look in her eyes returned. That hard look remained when she refused to be his girlfriend, and she always used it when she mentioned seeing him naked. She had that hard look in her eyes even now as she stared out at the road, and Samuel was in no mood to argue with it.
“Look, let’s just change subjects,” Samuel said.
“Fine,” Sandy replied. “I don’t want you talking about anything that makes you uncomfortable. Just don’t bullshit me.”
“I’ll just end with this,” Sandy said as she raised her finger the way she always did when she wanted the last word. “You seem to give girls permission to treat you like shit without realizing it, so they get comfortable with it. When they see you’re not a punk, they get mad because they expected a punk and didn’t get one. Make sense?”
“So do I like bitchy women or do I just attract them?” Samuel asked.
“Both,” Sandy said. “They like you too until they realize they can’t take advantage of you, and you like them until you realize they’re trying to take advantage of you. It’s really about expectations. You expect a partner. They expect a sucker. Nobody seems to get what they want in your relationships.”
“How do I fix that?” Samuel asked with a frown as he watched a crowd gathering on the sidewalk around two girls fist-fighting on the ground. He saw at least one of those a week when he passed through Bridgeport. He sighed and looked straight ahead. There was a time when he would’ve joined that crowd, but not anymore and especially not today. Sandy flicked his forearm and he jolted.
“Fix is the wrong word,” Sandy said, and they drove in silence for a few minutes before she pulled over in front of a pair of tan stone walls that read Lakeview Cemetery with pillars on the ends of each word. “It’s more like manage. You must recognize your own behavior and expectations first. Then recognize red flags. For example, this last girl…um…”
“Right, her,” Sandy said with a wave of her hand. “When you two first started dating, didn’t she tell you to shut your phone off at a certain time of night? It was 8:30, right?”
“Yeah,” Samuel replied. “Unless she called me.”
“That’s a red flag, Samuel,” Sandy said. “How often did you hear your mom talk to your dad that way?”
“That’s because your mother isn’t crazy,” Sandy said as she patted Samuel’s shoulder. “See the difference?”
“Yeah,” Samuel said while grabbing Sandy’s hand. “You’re not crazy either.”
“Yes, I am,” Sandy sighed as she caressed his hand with her thumb. “Why do you keep doing this?”
“You know why.”
“Right,” Sandy said as she lowered her head. “Look, I just can’t, all right?”
“You can’t yet.”
“I can’t period,” Sandy snapped with a roll of her eyes before she squeezed his hand. “But…um…do you need me to walk with you?”
Samuel stared at the pillars for a moment before shaking his head.
“No,” he said. “Not today.”
“Ok,” Sandy said as she bit her lip and nodded her head. “I get it.”
“No problem,” Sandy said, and she scratched the top of Samuel’s head with her index finger and kissed his cheek. “Go. I’ll wait here.”
Samuel opened the passenger side door and swung his legs out, standing and wiping off his khakis as he shook out the stiffness in his knees. He then opened the back door and grabbed a bundle of crocuses wrapped in plastic. He waved to Sandy and walked into the cemetery, adjusting his black tie and pressing it against his white shirt. He had to make sure he was dressed appropriately for his grandfather.
It didn’t take him long to find the grave, mostly because Grandpa Johnson died only two weeks ago. His battle with cancer came suddenly the first time around, but he won. The second time, he gave it his all, but it wasn’t enough. In his words a few days before his death, Father Time is one hell of a knockout artist. Samuel knelt down and set the flowers down by a grave stone that read:
“Trevor Johnson: Ecclesiastes 9:7.”
It was actually Grandpa Johnson’s favorite verse, mostly because he used it as an excuse to drink wine after church. Samuel chuckled at the thought before lowering his head. Grandpa Johnson was always so happy. He always smiled when he saw them, no matter much pain he suffered. He always had a joke ready to make everyone laugh, even with tears in his eyes. This visit was the least he could do before he flew off to a foreign land.
Samuel flinched when he heard footsteps behind him. Whoever stood behind him didn’t move for a few minutes and he scowled. Who the hell interrupted someone at his grandfather’s grave? He had half a mind to slap whoever it was. He opted to politely tell him to step off instead.
“Can I help you?” Samuel asked with a shaky voice. “Or are you going to watch me grieve all day?”
“I actually wouldn’t mind joining you,” a husky, yet feminine voice replied.
Samuel whirled around and saw a woman wearing a black jacket, black slacks and matching flats with a gray scarf. Her dark skin and green eyes made him burst into tears, and he rushed forward and hugged her. Achilla hugged back with one arm, and her grip made him grunt until she let go.
“Sorry,” Achilla said as she scratched her head and looked away. “It’s been a while since I’ve hugged someone.”
Samuel frowned at that sentence until he looked in Achilla’s eyes and saw their hollowness. She looked so alone, but she lacked the kind of desperate loneliness of a social outcast. Achilla’s eyes held the emptiness of someone who starved herself of human contact, or maybe just love and affection. This loneliness wasn’t pathetic. It was proud and dangerous.
“Where’ve you been?” Samuel asked as he held her by her shoulders and searched her eyes for any signs of the life they held when they were kids. “Are you all right? What…what’s going on?”
“A lot that I can’t tell you,” Achilla replied. “And I can’t stay long.”
“What brought you in town?” Samuel asked.
“Him,” Achilla said as she pointed at Grandpa Johnson’s grave. “It’s bad enough I missed his funeral. I won’t miss my chance to grieve. He deserves my time.”
“Well, I’m glad you’re here,” Samuel said with a smile. “And I’m sure he would be too.”
“Yeah,” Achilla sighed as she patted Samuel’s shoulder. “I know I don’t deserve it, but can you do me a favor?”
Achilla giggled and shook her head. When she opened them, the hollowness weakened. For a moment, her eyes shone like they did during her surprise Sweet 16. Samuel smiled at the sight. She hadn’t changed completely. She was still his big sister, but Samuel got the impression she had to be someone else for quite some time. Achilla laughed again and covered her mouth.
“What?” he asked. “You didn’t expect me to say that?”
“Sorry, it’s just you, Dad, and Grandpa,” Achilla said with a laugh as she pointed at Grandpa Johnson’s grave. “You’re always so loyal. It’s been so long since I’ve seen that. It’s refreshing.”
“Look who’s talking,” Samuel replied. “Must be a Johnson thing.”
Achilla sighed and looked around the cemetery before stepping past Samuel and standing before Grandpa Johnson’s grave. A breeze sent her hair flapping over her shoulder, and she stroked it into a ponytail, pulling out a hair tie from her pocket and wrapping it around. That was new. Growing up, she used to let her hair flow all over the place unless she had a basketball game. Now she looked like the girls at his school when they studied during finals.
“That’s a compliment I haven’t really earned,” Achilla said. “Along with your trust. I know I have a lot of explaining to do-”
“Not really,” Samuel cut her off. “I don’t think Sandy gets it, but I do. You’re after her, aren’t you?”
Achilla looked at Samuel over her back before looking at the grave again. Her shoulders shook and her breathing hiccuped as she balled her hands into fists. Samuel stepped forward and placed a hand on her shoulder. He knew it. She blamed herself for what happened to Grandpa Johnson, just like she blamed herself for what happened to their father.
She always blamed herself.
“I’m so sorry, Samuel,” Achilla sobbed. “I should’ve been there. Had I been there to stop her…Had I just been there…She’d…She would be…”
Samuel lowered his head. So she knew about the night Ailina attacked him. Achilla was way to protective to not feel any guilt over that. He could reassure her. He could tell her she couldn’t be everywhere hovering over him all the time. He could tell her that shit happens. But it would have to wait until they left. They came here for Grandpa Johnson, not Samuel. His issues could wait.
“Please,” Samuel said as he gripped her shoulder. “Not in front of Grandpa.”
Achilla stopped shaking. After a couple deep breaths, she patted Samuel’s hand.
“You’re right,” Achilla sighed. “Can I ask that favor?”
“Yeah, what’s up?”
“Could you pray with me?” Achilla asked.
“Of course,” Samuel said as Achilla knelt in front of the grave stone. She folded her hands and looked up at the sun, but she didn’t say anything. She sniffed as she raised her clasped hands to the sky while her tears dropped from her chin into the grass. Samuel knew that prayer well. He saw it in church during altar calls. He prayed it himself a few times alone in his dorm at Duke. It was the kind of prayer you uttered when you forgot anyone else saw you but God. When Achilla stood up and wiped her eyes, Samuel turned her around and hugged her.
Achilla hugged back. Gentler this time.
“You don’t have to tell me anything,” Samuel said. “He forgives you, Achilla. I promise.”
“Thanks,” Achilla replied before patting his shoulder. “Maybe one day I’ll believe that.”
Samuel sighed and nodded his head. Faith was never her strength. How could it be when she shared DNA with a demon like Ailina? Samuel questioned why God allowed Ailina to live. He couldn’t imagine how Achilla felt about her own existence. Perhaps she wasn’t much different from Sandy in that regard, always protecting the family to repay some debt she incurred from her very birth. It wasn’t fair, but who was Samuel to tell her otherwise?
“It was good to see how much you’ve grown, Samuel,” Achilla said as she walked past him. “Mom too. And it looks like Sandy’s doing all right. Just like I knew she would.”
“We all are,” Samuel replied.
“Good,” Achilla said. “That’s all I want for you.”
“What about you though?” Samuel asked.
“I’ll survive,” Achilla said. “It’s what I do best, among…other things.”
“I understand, Achilla.”
“No you don’t,” Achilla said with a chuckle. “And I want to keep it that way. Please. Don’t be anything like me, Samuel.”
Samuel stared at Grandpa Johnson’s grave. He used to resent Achilla’s secrecy, but after watching her behavior before she ran off, he didn’t mind it so much anymore. Part of him feared learning what could haunt someone so much she would try to shoot herself in the head in front of her whole family and disappear the next day. He would bet money it involved Ailina though. That woman ruined everything and everyone in her path.
“Samuel,” Achilla said. “One more favor.”
“It’s more for you than me,” Achilla said. “Tell Sandy.”
“You could just come out and see her,” Samuel replied as he pointed toward the exit. “She’s parked right outside, and she would be really happy to-”
“No,” Achilla snapped. “You know what I mean, Samuel. She can help you. She doesn’t just help women, you know. She helps everyone.”
Samuel stared at Grandpa Johnson’s grave again. Would Sandy understand? After all she had been through, would Sandy want to hear Samuel complain about his one incident? Anyone who had the misfortune of meeting Ailina would believe him, but would she? Would Sandy even care after all of her stories about what men did to her? She grew up poor and abused her whole life. She worked street corners through her teens. Why would she want to hear about this from a star athlete who never worked a full-time job before?
“I know what you’re wondering,” Achilla said. “She cares about you, Samuel. She’ll listen, but she won’t listen if she has to find out from somewhere else. You need to be the one.”
“Don’t you think she’s been lied to enough?” Achilla demanded. “Open up. She trusts you, Samuel. It’s time you trusted her too, even if it doesn’t lead to what you want.”
Samuel nodded his head.
“Take care of her for me,” Achilla said. “She needs someone to do it, and I can’t right now. Not from up close.”
“Got it,” Samuel replied. “You can count on me.”
“I know,” Achilla said. “You’re a Johnson. Reliability’s in your blood.”
“Thanks,” Samuel said. “That was one thing Grandpa and Dad had in common. You could always count on them. Now they’re gone.”
Samuel and Achilla stood in silence as another breeze passed between them.
“I’ll always love you,” Achilla said. “All of you. You can count on me for that too.”
“You sound like Dad,” Samuel replied as he turned to face her and saw nothing but trees and more tomb stones. He scanned the cemetery and saw no one. It looked like he was standing by himself the whole time. Samuel looked at Grandpa Johnson’s grave and saw the gray scarf folded next to the flowers and held his hands on his hips.
Well, at least he wasn’t hallucinating. Achilla was here all right. She also learned how to disappear out of thin air. Samuel shook his head before he walked out of the cemetery. He found Sandy sitting in the blue Acura bobbing her head to the radio. When he knocked on her window, she pressed the off button and unlocked the door. Samuel stepped in and she grabbed his hand with both of hers.
“Are you all right?” Sandy asked.
“Yeah,” Samuel sighed. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
Sandy blinked twice before giving Samuel a hard stare.
“Samuel,” Sandy said as she gripped his hand. “I’ve-”
“Seen me naked, yeah I get it.”
“Then tell me the truth,” Sandy said.
Samuel looked out the window before leaning his head back against his seat. He didn’t realize he was crying again until Sandy released one of her hands to wipe away his tear.
“What is it, Samuel?” Sandy asked with a much softer tone.
“Um…I know why Achilla ran off.”
“Why?!” Sandy asked with a shrill voice. “What happened?”
“Her mother, Ailina?”
“She’s like Achilla,” Samuel said as he gestured with his free hand. “Strength wise.”
“Right?” Sandy asked before she gasped and held her hands over her mouth. “She beat you up?”
“Yeah,” Samuel said as his throat closed up. “Yeah, and…um…”
Sandy stared at Samuel with the same hard stare, but there was something different about it. Her eyes didn’t beg for protection. They demanded honesty. They offered safety. Like Achilla’s eyes, they swore revenge. All he had to do was say the word.
“She…um…,” Samuel said as tears flowed down his cheeks, and he patted his own lap. “She made me…”
Samuel choked on his words, but he heard Sandy gasp again before she held his face in her hands. Her hard eyes all but disappeared before she kissed his forehead.
“I’m sorry, Samuel,” Sandy said as she pulled him in for a hug. “God, I’m so sorry.”
She gripped his neck tight until his body relaxed.
“I didn’t want to,” Samuel sobbed. “She made me. I couldn’t get away.”
“I know,” Sandy said as she rubbed his back. “There was nothing you could do. It’s not your fault.”
Samuel embraced Sandy as she rubbed the back of his head and rested his forehead on her shoulder, soaking her t-shirt. He stayed that way for a few minutes until she lifted Samuel’s head and poked his nose. They both laughed and Samuel leaned back into the passenger seat.
“She’s after her,” Samuel said.
“Achilla,” Samuel said. “That’s why she left. I mean, that’s probably not all of it. You know she keeps secrets, but she’s after her. She’s going to get her back for me.”
“Of course she is,” Sandy said as she patted Samuel’s back. “She’s your big sister. She’s also a Johnson.”
“What’s that mean?” Samuel asked.
Sandy smiled and rubbed Samuel’s head before hugging him again.
“It means she’s a protector,” Sandy said. “All of you are. Your sister protected me from a corrupt cop. Your mother protected me when they bullied me at school.”
“When have I ever protected you?” Samuel asked.
Sandy gripped Samuel’s shirt a little tighter and hugged a little closer. She pulled Samuel’s head into her chest until he rested there and closed his eyes as she scratched his hair. They stayed like that as Samuel nodded off to Sandy’s heartbeat. From there, Samuel figured it out. He couldn’t guard Sandy from Ailina, corrupt police, pimps, or even mean girls in college. Samuel saved Sandy from her own loneliness.
That was the one thing Achilla couldn’t defend herself against, let alone anybody else.
Will Achilla finally showdown with Ailina? Will she make her pay for what she did to her little brother? You’ll have to read Strike of the Mantis on June 5th to find out!
Keep reading, my friends.