For nine consecutive months, I found myself being followed by the same dream. Every time I closed my eyes I arrived at the same destination. For nights I drifted into slumber, only to arrive at the shore of a moonlit bay. My bedroom walls collapsed into the vast ocean, while bed sheets engulfed me like the steam that arose from the evaporating surface. I always began this dream walking along the shore, letting sand slip between my toes and filling my palms with pretty pink corals. I walked until an indistinguishable figure emerged from a bed of crashing waves. It glided out gracefully, moving in unison with the dancing current. I took note of the way it glowed- fluorescent and white, while water drops kissed its skin. It sliced through the current, walking along sand, stopping just inches before me. The face was unfamiliar, yet I always felt like I was in the presence of a friend. Then the bay and waves and smoke and moonlight all dispersed as I stood face to face with this figure. They stopped before me, almost to say something. Longing to say something. But the alarm sounded off. And I never heard what they had to say.
“Junie!” Momma shouted as she entered my room. “Junie! You better get yo behind up and get ready. You know better than to sleep this late, you lost yo mind girl?” I opened my eyes to find Momma standing above me. She still woke me up as if I were a child even though I was twelve going on thirteen.
“I’m sorry, Momma” I groaned, “I didn’t mean-”
“Aht aht,” says Momma, “I don’t want no excuses, now go on ahead and get ready.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I replied, dragging myself out of bed. I walked towards my drawers, wearing my long, pink nightgown which hugged my skin with sweat. I opened them, picking out my school clothes.
“June Bug, I know we’ve been talking about this, but I need you to be careful out here. You know they’ve been snatching up girls around your age. If something happened to you I would die of a heart attack myself. Be safe and don’t be out here acting foolish.” Her words were steady but I could hear the underlying fear. For the last few weeks people were saying at least three girls had gone missing. No one could recall their names or what they looked like or even how old they were. No one knew their families or where they stayed. I just knew that I didn’t want to go missing, too.
“I know, Momma.”
“No, I don’t think you do.”
I stopped myself from rolling my eyes, as I turned towards her with my school clothes in hand. Momma didn’t take kindly to no disrespect and would pluck me across my forehead if she saw my reaction. Momma shook her head, then turned to walk out the door. She was nearly in the hallway when she paused to face me again.
“And another thing June Bug, wear something light today, it feels like it’s gon be a hot one.” And she was gone.
I was in no particular rush to get to school that morning so I took the scenic route along the boardwalk at Chicken Bone Beach. I loved this part of this city, the color and vivacity felt otherworldly. I often wondered if it had a spirit of its own. When I walked along the battered wood of the boardwalk it made me feel less alone. On particular summer evenings, massive concerts would be held on Sunshine Row. People traveled from near and far to hear acts like Sammy Davis JR and Louis Jordan. I loved Louis Jordan. He was a man who knew his jazz. People complained about the beach being segregated, but I didn’t mind. The white people didn’t party like us. They didn’t feel the music, they just heard it. I looked at the waves as they ebbed against the shore. A heavy aroma of salt water and fried dough overwhelmed the air, while the sun crept up the morning sky.
“Hey girl!” shouted a voice from behind. I recognized it instantaneously as Mr. Eddy. Mr. Eddy was older than my mom but younger than my grandma. He was tall and his dark skin was wet with either water or sweat, maybe even the mist in the air.
“Hey, Mr. Eddy. How are you doing?” We stood in the center of the battered boardwalk. The wood was old and decaying but it gave me an odd sense of security. Mr. Eddy was a trusted friend of Momma’s. I’d known him longer than my memories. He’d help Momma around the house after Daddy died. He mowed the lawn and painted walls and cleaned the gutters. I always thought he smelled like outside, like dirt and sweat and flowers. He used to be over all the time, before he got so careless one day he nearly burnt the house down. The whole kitchen stove was set aflame. Momma didn’t take much of a liking to that. It took months of apologies and good deeds for Mr. Eddy to win his way back into her good graces.
“I like your dress, June Bug. You look mighty pretty today.” He had a big, goofy grin like always and he bowed to me as if I were royalty when we both knew I was not.
“Thank you, Mr. Eddy.” I curtseyed back lifting my dress above my knees just like I learned from the pretty ladies on the television. The pretty ladies who would be dancing and grooving every evening on American Bandstand.
“You welcome, honey.” In a split second, however, his smile had faded, and his shoulders were high and tense. He looked like a deer who had suddenly sensed danger. “Hey, June Bug, you heard about them girls that have gone missing? Somebody said they used to go down by the bay to collect shells. You be going around there? I would hate to see something happen to you.”
“I heard, Mr. Eddy. I got too much sense for all that plus Momma would smack me upside the head if she caught me.”
“Okay then, June Bug. Just looking out. Now, you go ahead and get to school.” I walked down the boardwalk until I reached the street my school was on. I didn’t know what made me more anxious - the thought of the missing girls or the thought of Leroy Brown.
Missouri Elementary was a tall brown building that sat directly across the boardwalk. It towered over its neighboring buildings making them feel insignificant. The exterior walls were stained from years of wear, while the interior was dark and covered in cement. It carried a smell so pungent it made my nostrils recoil in disgust. I hated spending my days in that school- maybe it’d be more bearable if I had somebody to call a friend.
“Junie?” shouted Mrs. Sawyer from the front of the classroom. She faced her students, turning away from Macbeth on the chalkboard. “Junie, I hope you’re paying attention. This will all be on the test and I don’t want to see nobody fall behind.” Mrs. Sawyer was a petite, light skin woman with a voice sweet as sugar. Everyday she smelled of daisies and wore whimsical, flowy dresses adorned with petals. She was stern, but with a heart full of kindness.
“Yes ma’am, I’m sorry.” I replied. I knew I had a bad habit of getting stuck in daydreams. “It won’t happen again.”
“Youse a lie if I ever seen one,” whispered a voice from behind, “Junie Bug, the liar and cockroach. They call her bug cause she so dirty.” Laughter erupted.
I felt my face get hot. I wanted to sink into the floor beneath me. The comments came from a bug eyed, dark skinned boy named Leroy Brown. Leroy had bullied me relentlessly since we were eight years old. The only reason I could pin it down to was my younger self rejecting him in a room full of peers. I rejected him, leaving an ego so bruised he refused to let it go. I will never be with you. I don’t like you, I told him, and when the words left my mouth I noticed a darkness in his eyes. I guessed he was one of those scary boys Momma had warned me about who couldn’t take no for an answer. From that day forward, he and his friends would pick on me and call me names and do just about anything to tear me down. That’s just the way things were.
“Enough,” Mrs. Sawyer interjected in a tone that cut like a blade, “I’d like to get back to the lesson if you all don’t mind.”
I hated stupid Leroy and those ugly boys he called his friends. He made me so mad. I would never admit this aloud, but I took pleasure in the thought of him disappearing. I was delighted at the thought of him drifting away, taken by the waves. Gone.
The last bell sounded as we ran from school. We shuffled out the entrance in clusters like the fish schools that swam along the shore. I arrived at the pavement and started to walk home, taking heed of Momma and Mr. Eddy’s words. The school had nearly faded into distance as I reached the top of Missouri Ave. I looked at the horizon, realizing the sky and ocean had decided to share the same shade of blue today. Salt water taffy filled the air, smelling so potent I could nearly taste it.
“Hey!” Shouted a voice across the pavement. It was Leroy, of course, with his pack of friends trailing behind.
“What you want, ugly?” I yelled back. They started to make their way over to me, but I had no desire to hear whatever nonsense they had to say. Without looking back, I began to walk.
“HEY!” He yelled once again, but this time I felt a hand grab my shoulder. He tugged on me so hard I nearly lost balance. “You don’t got manners? I said, hey.”
“I don’t wanna talk to you. I hate you. Let me go.” He refused to loosen his grip. “I said, let me go!” And as I shouted these words I wound my leg all the way back, releasing with a quickness, to kick him in his crotch. My foot hit him with so much force he collapsed against the ground.
“You dumb bitch,” he screamed, grabbing his crotch and squeezing his face so hard, his features vanished into his skin. “You dumb stupid bitch.” He looked up at his friends, “and why y’all just standing there? Get that bitch! Teach her a lesson about being rude to folks showing nothing but kindness.” For a moment his friends looked around in hesitation, but that look faded, as their eyes became overcome with hunger. Run. Run. Keep running. The boys looked like they wanted to spill blood. I ran down the pavement, turning down alleyways and winding through hidden backroads. I ran across blocks leaving the boardwalk and Missouri Ave behind. I ran until I felt like I couldn't. Until my lungs were on the brink of collapse. I stopped to catch my breath. The ugly boys had been lost. Everything ceased. The only concern was that I now found myself standing before the calm waters of the forbidden bay. The bay where they snatched little girls. If Momma could see this she’d have a fit.
I looked around for a landmark or path home, only to realize I was completely lost. Stranded. Standing at the edge of this bay, as if I were walking in my own recurring dream. I took note of the sun which looked like it would soon disappear under the horizon. The sea blue sky was beginning to darken, and it wouldn’t be long until nightfall. My heartbeat quickened at the thought of Momma and Mr. Eddy and the expressions on their faces when they informed me of the missing girls. Now I was standing before the place where they said I could become one of them. Alone. I never put much thought into God or all that religious business, but maybe it was time for a prayer? Dear God. Please let me return home safely and soon so Momma don’t worry.
Please protect me and everyone I love. Good enough. I started to turn around when I noticed a figure wading in the shallow water. I peered closer and was surprised to see a young girl. She looked like she was around my age - no older than fifteen or sixteen. I knew now was not the time to be communing with strangers, but for some reason, I trusted her. Without hesitation, I found myself walking across sand to stand beside her.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” I said, “I’m just lost and was wondering if you could point me out towards Missouri Ave.” She jumped, startled, but was quick to regain composure. When she looked at me, however, I was stunned. Her skin was vibrant and brown, she had prominent cheekbones, and large round eyes that looked as if they held the mysteries of the universe. I had never seen a girl so beautiful.
“Lost?” She asked, “what you mean lost?” Her voice was soft and childlike. “I mean I’m lost.” I had no time for foolish questions. “Some boys were chasing me and now I can’t find my way home.”
“Well, why was they chasing you?”
“Because their Mommas don’t love em. Because they’re mean. Because everyone in the world expects black girls to run and run and run. But, can you help me get home?” The girl frowned.
“I can try, but I’ve been running and running, too. I might be a lil lost, too.” She paused, looking off into the distance. “I ain't been home in weeks.”
“That’s crazy,” I said, “what, you don’t wanna go home or something?” She shrugged. “What’s your name, anyways?”
“Naia. What’s yours?”
“Junie,” I replied. “And what were you doing out here all alone, anyways?” “I can’t remember.”
I looked at her in utter confusion. Who was this girl? Why was she so strange? “I can’t remember,” she continued, “I just wanted to be by the water.” She waded her hands beneath the current as she spoke. Now, this, I did understand. I loved to be by the water as well. I loved to sit in it, allowing it to cleanse and heal. I understood her longing to be submerged. To float and be still at the same time.
“I hear you,” I said, “I love the water as well. It helps me think.”
“See, you get it.” She grinned at me. I looked up at the sky and the sun had nearly faded, but the moon was beginning to rise.
“Let’s go this way,” she said, pulling my hand. “You came from this direction, right?” Her fingers felt icy cold as they clasped around my palm. Her hair looked damp with sea water. I began to wonder how long she had really been out here. Although the sun had disappeared, the air remained thick and humid. I inhaled, smelling the sweet summer breeze.
We walked along the bay while I searched for any indication that could lead me back to Missouri Ave. Momma was probably worried at this point. She was probably getting Mr. Eddy and the neighbors to conduct a search party at this moment. I felt bad. I wasn’t too fond of the thought of me worrying her sick. I followed Naia, hopeful that some miracle would occur and I would find my way home.
“Naia?” I asked, after a few moments of silence. “Why don’t you wanna go home?” I felt her fingers tense around my palm.
“Why you wanna know?”
“Cause I’m just thinking about my Momma and… I’m sure your folks are worried sick about you. You miss ‘em?”
“It don’t matter if I miss em. They don’t miss me.”
“I’m sure they do. Why wouldn’t they?”
“Maybe. Sometimes I think they don’t know me.” She hunched her body, curling into a ball, the bumps of her spine prominent. There was something so familiar about her pose, like I had seen it a million times before, like I had been in her skin.
“I understand that. No one knows how I feel or what I go through either. I don’t even know who I would tell about it.” I looked out at the ocean. The water looked calm but I knew underneath was deep and dark, filled with sharks and monsters and the absence of light.
“You can talk to me.” She straightened up and held my gaze. Her eyes began to shift, becoming more narrow, the lashes longer, more like mine. Her cheekbones rounded, the hollow flesh filling out. She didn’t look like the same girl as before, and I was scared. She reached out to grab my hand and said, “I promise, you can trust me.” She smelled like salt water, like mystery and hope.
“I feel alone all the time. I wish somebody would just talk to me.” My fists clenched, and I felt a knot in my throat. I took a slow breath. “I’m tired of getting picked on. I’m tired of having no friends. I’m tired of shrinking and being scared. I don’t want to be scared anymore.” I unclenched my fists and continued to breathe steady. I wanted to release my pain, longing for all the hurt to flow out of my body like the tides.
“It’s okay to be scared. Everybody’s scared of something. But, it doesn’t mean you’re not strong. It doesn’t mean you’re not capable. It doesn’t mean you’re not deserving of friendship and love. You can always return to love.” Her face was still shifting. I felt like I was looking into a mirror. “You can survive the currents of life. You can ride the waves and stay afloat.” I closed my eyes and thought of my dream:
I arrived at the same destination, the shore of a moonlit bay. My bedroom walls collapsed into the vast ocean, while bed sheets engulfed me like the steam that arose from the evaporating surface. I always began this dream walking along the shore, letting sand slip between my toes and filling my palms with pretty pink corals. I walked until an indistinguishable figure emerged from a bed of crashing waves. It glided out gracefully, moving in unison with the dancing current. I took note of the way it glowed- fluorescent and white, while water drops kissed its skin.
When I opened my eyes I was looking at myself. And I was beautiful.