by Selika Maria Sweet
Enjoy this never before published short story, with just a bit of a mystery twist to it.
Gracie Lou crossed the Pearl River Bridge on the way from her hangout, the coffee shop in Jackson, Mississippi, across from the medical center. It occurred to her that the bridge separated more than just the cities of Jackson and Pearl; crossing it was like going across a racial twilight zone. Jackson was mostly African American and Pearl was mostly white.
An emergency room physician in Pearl, Gracie Lou spent the first seventeen years of her life in Jackson, but many of her ancestors were from Rankin County where Pearl was located. The aged slave church still stood with carved headstones on the graves behind it—headstones carved by those ancestors, who were themselves slaves.
In her memory, she could hear the words of her grandfather. “The Negroes are afraid to go and vote even when they’re registered,” he had told her. “That place is backward. We go once a year to put flowers on the graves for Mother’s Day, and that’s it.”
Yesterday, Gracie Lou had coffee with her best friend, Harriet. “Gracie Lou, I don’t like it over there,” she said to her. “Twenty years ago, in law school, I was defending a man who the police said was speeding and was arrested for being suspicious. The judge called me to the bench in the middle of the case and looked at me with the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen and said, ‘You get out of this courtroom and take that sleaze ball of a client with you, and I better not ever see either one of you cross that Pearl River, or I’ll send both of you up to Parchman, and the two of you will be picking cotton for the rest of your lives.’ And I haven’t been back to Pearl or to that courtroom since. You just have to tell me one time.”
Gracie Lou paused, then said, “But they’re nice to me.”
“That’s because you’re young, pretty and a good doc. But one day, you’ll see,” replied Harriet.
Gracie Lou sighed as she crossed the bridge. I know my family and friends don’t like it here, but the hospital offered me a good job and made it so easy for me.
Then it happened, on the back highway crossing the bridge, a car headed to Pearl from Jackson swerved to the right, and the driver attempted to pull the car to the left causing it to flip five times before landing on the rocks of the riverbank.
Gracie Lou stopped as she always did. She always stopped because she always remembered that night she went out with her older cousin, Nelusko.
“Nelusko, it’s great to have you home for Christmas,” said Gracie Lou.
“Yeah, Baby Girl, I’m training for the NFL, and I thought I’d take a break.”
“Going out tonight, Nelusko?”
“Yeah,” replied Nelusko.
“I wanna go, too.” she said.
“You know you’re too young.”
“I won’t tell. I have a fake I.D.”
“What?” said Nelusko.
“I ordered it from the back of a magazine.”
“Well, get dressed, and I’ll see you in a little while”
“You betcha,” she said.
Two hours later, Nelusko rapped on the door.
“Hi Auntie. Taking Gracie Lou out.”
“Y’all be careful.”
“Let me get my camera,” Gracie Lou said.
They said their goodbyes and climbed into Nelusko’ s bright blue ’67 Impala with the shiny gold rims. The passenger and drivers doors had white streaks of lightening on the blue.
“Put on your seatbelt, “ Nelusko said. “We’re going to Back Woods Dirt Track Racing. This baby’ll go from zero to a hundred in five-seconds.”
As soon as Nelusko paid the $10 entrance fee, a Dodge drove up beside them in the pit. Ten seconds later, Nelusko was the winner and one hundred dollars richer.
“You did it,” she said, grinning.
“A hundred dollars.”
“Let’s go to the new club,” Gracie Lou said.
“You know, I heard Mom talk about it. The neighborhood was all white, and then most of the white people left and went to Rankin County. They are protesting because now since the neighborhood is all black, there are liquor stores and clubs everywhere. Mom saw the protestors with their signs on TV.”
They arrived there in ten minutes. The protestors and the signs were still around: FOOD NOT ALCOHOL, STOP BLACK-ON-BLACK CRIME, GROCERY STORES NOT CLUBS. They saw about fifty of them: ministers, schoolteachers, politicians, members of Gracie’s and Nelusko’s new family church in Jackson.
“Nelusko, there’s my English teacher.”
“Where?” he said.
“The woman carrying the protest sign that says, ‘Alcohol, Drugs, Clubs kill us every Friday night.’ ”
“Just look away and walk on the right side of me with your head bent down so she won’t see you.”
They slid unnoticed by the crowd and into the club.
“We did it, Gracie Lou.” Nelusko threw up a high five.
“Whoa, it’s hot in here, “ she said, wiping her forehead with the back of her hand, “and look at all that food.”
“Look, Gracie, you be careful with those high heels and miniskirt on. You standing ‘bout six-feet tall, and you look older than sixteen. I don’t want to leave here in handcuffs from fighting someone for robbing the cradle.”
She grinned. “No problem, this girl just wanna have some fun.”
“Well, be careful. I see my homies over there. See you in a few.”
“Okay. I got my camera, and I’m gonna take y’alls pictures.”
Four hours later, Nelusko took her elbow and steered her toward the door. “Time to go, Gracie Lou. The club’s closing,”
“It seems like we just got here,” Gracie Lou whined.
“You didn’t drink any alcohol did you? Got to take you home, and Auntie would be pissed if she knew you been drag racing, and hangin’ out in the club while the church members are on the picket line.”
“I did drink something,” Gracie Lou said sounding kind of buzzed. “I thought it was Kool-Aid, but it was jungle juice and rum.”
As Nelusko guided Gracie Lou through the door and into the parking lot to the blue Impala two girls walked up, “Hey Nelusko,” the smaller of the girls said, “call me after you drop off little cuz. Here’s my number.”
Then it happened. A tall, thin man in his thirties came up to a green pickup truck in front of Nelusko’s and BAM! BAM! BAM!…shot a man right in front of them. Then he jumped into his red Camaro and roared off.
“Oh, my gosh!” Gracie Lou screamed as she stood on the passenger side of the blue Impala.
About fifty cars dispersed from the parking lot in seconds. The two girls who approached Nelusko disappeared as if in midair. All that were left at the scene now were the victim, Gracie Lou, and Nelusko. Gracie Lou got in the car with wide eyes and an open mouth.
“Let’s go, Nelusko, let’s go!” she screamed.
“Not yet,” he said. “Don’t ever let anyone just die right in front of you.” He thought for a moment. “Take off your coat and sweater, Gracie. I’ll take him out of the car, and then you put pressure on his wounds.”
“I have my camera,” Gracie Lou said. “I can take pictures. I see the car.”
The wounded man moaned. Blood was coming out of his mouth.
“Hold pressure over the wounds, Gracie. I’m going for help.”
“Hold on. You’ve been shot. I’ll help you,” Gracie Lou said as she bore down hard on the three wounds—right leg, left side of neck, and right arm.
Nelusko, who had entered the Impala and driven about a hundred feet, looked in the rearview mirror, and saw that the shooter had turned around. He was coming back to finish the job! He also saw that Gracie Lou was so busy helping the victim, she didn’t see the Camaro returning.
“Hang on,” Gracie Lou whispered, with blood all over her clothes. “God loves you. Hang on.”
The blue Impala and the red Camaro made it to Gracie Lou and the wounded man at the same time.
“Get in the car Gracie! Now!”
“He has a chance,” she said. “I thought you were going for help,”
“Help,” the wounded man murmured. A tear trickled from his left eye.
“Gracie Lou, right now, stop, and get in the car.”
“No, he has a chance.”
Gracie Lou looked back down and saw big brown crocodile shoes standing right in front of her. Then she looked up to see a .32 pistol aiming at the victim. She jumped to her feet with the camera dangling from its strap-sprinted to the Impala and leaped inside.
They drove off, spraying gravel, and she heard, “Bam! Bam! Bam!”
Then, just when she thought it could get no worse, she saw the shooter in the rear-view mirror enter the ’68 Camaro and head toward them.
“Throw the camera out the window now,” Nelusko said.
Gracie threw it out the window and saw it land on the protest sign, “ALCOHOL, DRUGS, CLUBS KILL US EVERY FRIDAY NIGHT.”
“He turned around. We’re safe,” she said. “He finished him off.”
The rest of the trip home was in silence. They stopped in the driveway, and Nelusko cut the engine.
“Look at me, Gracie Lou.”
He took a long breath. “It’s called street life, and there will be street justice,” he said, “and you leave it at that.”
The driver, a tall, heavy-set African American woman with a Hinds County tag, had made it out of the car.
Gracie Lou heard one of the bystanders harrumph, “Hinds County must be from Jackson.”
“Look at that car,” someone else said. “The trunk looks like it’s part of the motor.”
The woman was staggering about. Gracie Lou looked around, and saw that others had stopped as well—young, old, teenagers. It was a Rankin County crowd.
Gracie Lou’s instincts made her the team leader. She had years of experience and had done countless hours of emergency room work.
Again she thought of Nelusko. It had been twenty years, and he had moved on with his life. He and she didn’t club hop or hustle anymore. Nelusko had made it to the NFL for two seasons and was now a minister. He lived in the uppity neighborhood, with his schoolteacher wife and three children, where they had witnessed the murder. In the back of the house, he’d built a garage by hand.
“Baby Girl,” he told her every year when she stopped by for New Year’s dinner, chitterlings and black-eyed peas with a half dollar in the pot for good luck, “this ’67 Impala, you were the last one ever to ride with me in it. I retired it after that night.”
And then, her mind snapped back to the present. She realized she was at a trauma scene.
“You,” she said to a bystander, “call 911! And you, get her belongings so the ambulance will be prepared.” She turned to the woman. “Ma’am, are you okay?”
“No,” the driver said. “Where am I?”
“Here, take my coat. It’s cold.”
About that time, a Rankin County police officer appeared.
“You are under arrest,” he said to the woman, “for evading a law enforcement officer. You were speeding and putting lives in danger.”
“What?” Gracie Lou said.
“Hi, Doc, it’s great to see you. But this woman is a shoplifting suspect, and she was evading us. She totaled that car.” The officer was quiet a moment, then added, “We may use you for a witness. You are as credible as they come.”
The driver turned as she was entering the police car.
“Help us,” she said.
“Us?” Gracie Lou said, looking confused.
Then Gracie Lou looked down, and saw a diamond-shaped sign on the ground: BABY ON BOARD. Whirling to face the crushed car, she saw in the back seat a bottle half full of milk.
“Look for a baby!” Gracie Lou yelled.
About that time, a tall man with blond hair and a beer belly hanging over his blue jeans showed up.
“Where?” he asked.
Moving quickly, her husband climbed the big oak tree. The crowd, which had grown to about fifty people, watched in awe. In less than a minute he had retrieved the baby carrier. Inside it was an infant several months old.
Four fire trucks and an ambulance screeched up to the scene. The local news station’s cameraman and reporter arrived as well, and the pretty news reporter zeroed in on the baby.
“This nine-month old baby, a passenger in a vehicle that flipped over five times, flew out the window, and landed in a tree,” she announced.
The baby bawled.
“And this man is the hero of the night. He climbed the tree and rescued the baby.”
As Gracie Lou, still stunned and amazed, stood looking at the driver in the police car, the big man holding the baby, and the news reporter giving the story, a pretty red-haired girl with two pigtails and a cheerleader outfit came up to her.
“Doc, I know you from the E.R., when I broke my leg tumbling.”
“I remember,” Gracie Lou said. “Homecoming game.”
“I hope that baby’ll be okay, and that woman too,” said the cheerleader.
“What will happen with the baby?”
Gracie Lou sighed. “A social worker will come, probably one from Hinds County or Rankin. They’ll figure it out.”
The cheerleader, after a pause, said, “My mother will take that baby. I know she will.”
Gracie Lou smiled. “Well, check with the social workers. That’s where cases like this end up.”
She was sitting at a table in the town restaurant the next morning when the man who climbed the tree came in.
“Good to see you,” the tree climber said.
“Good to see you, too,” she replied.
“No way,” said the cook.
“Did too. Tell ’em doc.”
It was a strange scene, Gracie Lou thought. Here they were, talking and laughing, and here was this guy with a Confederate Flag tattoo on his arm and another on the front of his pickup.
“Doc,” the tree climber said, “my wife is a dispatcher at the police station, and she checked on that baby. The child is safe in Social Services. I told those people if they can’t find a home or have any problems, my wife and I will take the baby. You know it was a miracle. We’ll rename her Miracle.”
Gracie Lou laughed. “Stand in line, a cheerleader has first claim,” she said, referring to her new pig-tailed friend.
He seemed not to have heard that. “That baby looks just like us,” he said, “only a different color. He’ll fit right in.”
Gracie Lou couldn’t help smiling. Then a thought occurred to her. “Did anybody find out anything about the driver?”
“You won’t believe it. She’d stolen some baby stuff and a laptop computer. Claimed she needed the laptop for school and just forgot to pay. Said the police spooked her, and she was afraid of being on this side of the river due to, well…”
“I know, afraid to be the wrong color on this side of the River. You can be honest with me,” said Gracie Lou.
“Thanks, Doc. You’re like family to us,” said the tree climber.
Gracie Lou left and went to the river at the site of the accident and gazed up at the oak tree and branches torn from the big man’s climbing. When she bent over the railing and looked down at the rocks, she saw the yellow diamond-shaped sign that said BABY ON BOARD. And when she looked closer, right after the word “Baby,” GIRL was written with black ink.
At that moment, Gracie Lou decided to make a phone call, “What’s up, cuz?”
“Good to hear from you,” Nelusko said.
“You know, I thought maybe we could take that blue Impala for a ride and make another ending to a bad night,” said Gracie Lou.
“Sounds good to me, you know I retired Old Blue, but anything for you cuz,” he said.
“I was thinking that maybe after hanging out tonight, we could go to church in the morning. You know, the one we used to go to and put flowers on the grave in the country part of Rankin.”
“Yeah, and you know how he would say Paul and Luke traveled together, a doctor and an apostle? Well, I’ve been thinking. What about you preaching here in Rankin County? Granddad’s church could use a pastor.”
Nelusko was quiet for a moment. Finally he said, “Sounds like a plan.”
“Where are you?” Nelusko asked.
“I’m standing on the Pearl River Bridge,” she said. “Watching a sign float down the river.”
You can find more short stories in out Terrific Tales section.