ANGELA’S HEART BOUNDED. The solid gold ring was carved with African symbols that looked both geometric and oddly singular, unknowable. Gramma Marie had been wearing that ring the day she died. She’d motioned for Angela to come closer, then she’d slipped the slick, warm gold across Angela’s finger, making her promise to keep it always. This ring had been Gramma Marie’s goodbye to her, and Angela hadn’t seen it in four years.
It had been stolen. Whatever bastard had broken in through her bedroom window and stolen this ring had also somehow broken her life, the parts that mattered.
Now, the ring was back. This was impossible. Angela stared at the ring, not touching it.
Corey’s voice wavered as he met her confused eyes, his explanation tumbling out. “I threw the brick and broke your window, Mom. It sounds dumb now, but there was this girl I liked, right? Her name was Sherita, and I knew the ring was special to you, and I thought maybe it would be special to her...” – Corey swallowed, glancing away. His voice became a monotone, signaling that he had spent time rehearsing this speech. – “It was just dumb kid stuff. I said I’d let her wear it for a week. But she said she saw me talking to some girl before the week was over, and she wouldn’t give it back. I was afraid to tell you I took it. So I threw the brick and broke the window and knocked your jewelry all over the floor, and you thought somebody stole it. I said to myself, ‘If she asks me if I did it, I won’t lie.’ But you never did ask, Mom.”
He looked relieved to be finished, blinking fast.
Angela took the ring and stared at its beautiful symbols, which looked like shiny golden light-etchings against the sunken surface. A triangle with a cross in the center, a double wave, a pear shape. Slowly, she slid the ring onto the bare finger where she had once worn her wedding ring. It was snug, but not too tight. Perfect fit, like the day it had been given to her.
Thinking of her grandmother, Angela could nearly smell the rose-scented talcum powder Gramma Marie had dusted herself with. She felt a shift in time, as if she were standing before this cellar door with her grandmother again as she had when she was Corey’s age. Angela had hauled box after box of preserves down those steps, stacking the jars in the compartments that had been built for wine. Now, Li’l Angel, you be careful on those steps. The jars were dusty now, and the preserves inside were surely dried or rotten, but some of them were still down there exactly where she’d put them.
Angela felt a single icy fingernail brush the back of her neck, hearkening to the strange cold-burn she’d felt at the store and in the kitchen. Something felt very wrong.
“How did you get this ring back?” she whispered.
Corey didn’t look her in the eye. “I wrote letters to see if Sherita was still staying down there, and she was. I paid her for it with extra money I made from Sean’s dad, grooming his horses. I was thinking about how stealing your ring was one thing I wish I could take back. So I did.”
No wonder Corey had been behaving so strangely! He must have lain awake half the night, wondering how he was going to finally tell her the truth. And yet, it wasn’t all truth, either. Not yet. Corey spoke quickly when he was lying, like now.
“And she still had it?” Without meaning to, Angela had shifted into her courtroom voice.
Corey shrugged. This time, he looked at her and smiled, trying to imitate his father’s playfulness, the Hill men’s charm. “Well, it’s a damn nice ring. Like they say on TV, I cared enough to give the very best. You know what I’m sayin’?”
Corey knew better than to cuss in front of her, no matter how grown he thought he was, and she’d told him she would skin him alive the next time he dropped youknowhatimsayin into a conversation with her, which sounded as ignorant to her as Jimmie Walker’s Dy-no-mite had sounded to Gramma Marie. She wanted to slap her son’s face. How many times had she told the story of her stolen ring as a woeful loss? How many times had she felt genuine hurt over it, sometimes at the mere sight of Gramma Marie’s photograph, as if allowing someone to take her ring had been a shameful act on her part? How dare Corey let all these years go by without saying anything!
Then, Angela’s anger melted, swallowed by relief. Bliss. She breathed in deeply, feeling lightheaded. Could this be real? Maybe her secretly-spoken wish was coming true after all. She squeezed her own fingers, enjoying the solidness and texture of the ring.
“I know you’re mad at me, huh? Well, I’ve been thinkin’ about a punishment—”
“Corey...” Eyes smarting, Angela cut him off. She cupped his chin in her palm. “I don’t know if you remember, but not long after you took this ring, everything fell apart for us. Your daddy and I lived in separate houses, in separate cities, and we forced you to choose between us. I think maybe that’s punishment enough. What do you think?”
Now, it was Corey’s turn to be silent. His lips were mashed tightly together, thinned out. He was fighting tears, she knew.
“Come here, baby,” she said, reaching up to him, and he leaned against her in a hug, as he hadn’t in far too long. Angela felt her heart pounding from the simple pleasure of embracing a child who rarely gave her the opportunity anymore. “When you stole this ring, you were being a selfish, thoughtless little boy. But getting it back to me – saving your money, writing a letter to that girl, using your head – that was the work of a young man. That makes me proud of you, Corey. That lets me know you’re doing all right despite everything we’ve put you through. I’m glad, and I thank you with all my heart.”
“It ain’t all that, Mom,” Corey said. She heard moisture in his nose.
“Yes, it is. I love this ring. And I love you.”
Corey exhaled, and his breath warmed her neck. He gave her a tight squeeze before releasing her. Then, his gaze was dead-on. “Mom, did Gramma Marie tell you stuff about the ring? Like, those symbols. Did she tell you what they mean?”
“It’s West African, she told me. She got it from her grandmother, and I forget how far it goes back before that. At least another generation. I guess she thought it was a good-luck charm.”
He lowered his voice. “But what about the symbols? She never told you anything about them? Like…if they’re supposed to have powers or something like that?”
“You know,” Corey said sheepishly. “If they could...make things happen?”
Angela didn’t have the heart to ridicule him. The guests’ speculations about Gramma Marie must have fired up his imagination, and how would he know any better? Corey had only been four when Gramma Marie died, and he barely remembered her. This was the first time he’d asked about his great-grandmother with real interest, as if he wanted something from her memory.
“What kind of things, Corey?” she said. “I don’t understand.”
Corey’s gaze shifted away, then back again. His sigh seemed to harbor real sadness. “Nothin’. Forget it.”
“Well, hold on. Gramma Marie held onto a lot of old folks’ superstitions, so she might have mentioned something about the ring,” Angela said quickly. One of Corey’s major complaints about her was that she didn’t take his concerns as seriously as Tariq did. “I’ll have to sleep on it, OK? Ask me tomorrow. When it’s not so crazy.”
“Yeah, a’ight,” Corey said. His face brightened slightly. “Things are good with you and Dad this summer, right? I hear ya’ll sneakin’ around at night, those floors creaking. Ya’ll ain’t fooling nobody. Thought you should know.”
Angela laughed, rubbing his short, wiry hair. “Don’t get your hopes up, but we’re trying.”
“Cool. Guess we all make mistakes, huh? Some small and some big.” Corey’s eyes were unusually solemn and wistful now. He pressed his hand to his abdomen, like a pregnant woman feeling her baby kick. “And you just gotta’ try to fix them, right?”
“Corey, you look awful. Are you sure you’re all right? You don’t have to help with the fireworks if you want to go lie down. I’ll explain it to your dad.”
Angela saw uncertainty on her son’s face – or, more precisely, what she saw looked more like he could not choose one facial expression. First he looked nearly stricken, then sharply annoyed, then resigned. Corey rarely allowed his emotions to surface so baldly in front of her, and watching his face reminded her of studying her mother’s warring emotions as a child, trying to guess which version of Dominique Toussaint would emerge next.
“I’m fine, dag,” Corey said impatiently.
“Then do me a favor and go to the cellar and bring some sodas up, OK? They’re stacked in the corner. Bring up a couple of cases. And you might as well bring the fireworks up, too.”
His eyes flickered to the cellar door and back. She thought she heard the thckk as Corey sucked his teeth. Gramma Marie would have knocked her across the room for making a sound like that, but she and Corey had just had a rare nice talk, an actual conversation, so she ignored it.
“I have to go to Sean’s,” Corey said. “I don’t have time for the Fourth of July, Mom.”
“Take that up with Tariq, but I we both know what he’ll say. I tried to talk you guys out of a big light-show, but your dad’s looking forward to it,” Angela said. “Now go get the sodas, please.”
Corey didn’t answer. What was wrong with him today? Angela watched him prop open the cellar door and stare down a moment before he descended the stairs in silence. Now, Li’l Angel, you be careful—
She was about to call after him to flip on the light-switch when he suddenly leaned back to gaze at her from beyond the narrow doorway. He seemed glad to see she was still there. All at once, his tentative expression shed itself of everything except the unrestrained love he’d shown her when he was four and five. So loving he almost looked feverish. Little Corey. God, she missed that sweet, happy young kid. And he was here again, smiling at her like a photograph from easier days.
“I’m gonna’ take care of you good, Mom,” he said with an exaggerated wink. “You wait.”
Angela never forgot that smile from Corey.
If she had glanced at her watch, she would have noticed that it was 7:15 p.m. Exactly five minutes before the party would be over.
© 2003 by Tananarive Due