Oakland, California, 1989
He had come home saddened by a neighborhood boy making fun of his mother’s death. When he had told his dad about it Dad had looked at him with a sad look in his eyes, but immediately grabbed both of his hands. He used his thumbs to rub soothing circles while he talked. “Son there are people who hate and they teach their own to hate. To hate people who aren’t like them, who don’t look like them, talk like them or act like them. They’ll try to break you, never let them. Your mom didn’t either.”
“He said she wouldn’t have died if she stayed in the kitchen where she belonged,” he whispered. His father pulled him closer.
“He’s wrong. Your mother wanted to be in the world and help our people, but there are people who disagree with that. Do you agree?”
“No Baba. Was Mama happy?” he asked. His father smiled. “Yes. More than she would ever have been in the kitchen. That woman was a terrible cook. One time she made meat pie and me and your uncle got food poisoning.”
“Your food is delicious, Baba,” the boy said reassuringly.
“Thank you son.” He let go and stroked his cheek. The boy leaned into it.
“Do you want to help me make some jollof?”
“Yes,” the boy said happily.
That’s how James had found them in the kitchen singing “Love Me in A Special Way”.
Oakland, California, 1992
The boy had often heard this before, but it wasn’t until he really felt it that he understood.
It was a warm night. Cloudy and just slightly sticky, but maybe that was just due to the basketball they were playing.
The boy was distracted, but that was ordinary. He was rather silent and awkward even one might say. He didn’t have a way with words even though he knew many for his age, but he wasn’t one to brag about that. So the children around him alternated between making jokes at his expense, including him in their games and sometimes just letting him be.
It didn’t bother him too much. His father reminded him that people were different, but where there was love, they were all welcomed. And in his home there was love. Plenty of love and affection. His father was so patient with him and answered every question with mirth and pride. He hugged him when he did well in school and stroked his cheek when he didn’t. Erik loved his home. Between his father and his uncle James he’d always end up feeling okay.
The ball hit him and brought him back to the present. He tried to concentrate on the game when a strange blue light drew his eye. His heart started beating faster. Maybe today was the day, he thought as he recognized the engine as Wakandan. It looked exactly like the designs his father had showed him many times before. Then he noticed that it wasn’t coming closer but disappearing; as quickly as it had appeared it was gone.
He was moving and before he really knew what he was doing he was on the stair case. He was breathless. The steps felt endless.
His father wouldn’t leave. He couldn’t leave. Why would he leave? Without him? No. He refused to believe that his father would return to Wakanda without him. His father loved him. He wasn’t a burden to his father. He remembered the promise. He promised to show him the stars in Wakanda, the forest the jungle and most of all the sunset.
He looked around and realized he had come up to the sixth floor already. Behind him he could hear some of the boys from the playground running after him and shouting his name. He hadn’t heard them before with the sound of blood rushing through his veins.
Calming down he turned right. He could see his apartment door now. A shimmer of light was peeking through the slightly opened door. He frowned, because the door was never open. His father had always been very disappointed when he accidentally forgot to close it.
He walked in and his knees gave out. He was screaming his father’s name, but he remained lying there unmoving.
“Baba wake up. Dad please…BABA PLEASE,” he begged. He crawled until he reached his father’s body and cradled his head in his lap. He was crying and rocking, back and forth; rocking his father in his arms like Baba used to do for him when he got upset.
He wasn’t alone in the room now but it felt like he was. He was choking on the despair and pain he felt. Someone tried to tear him away from the body, but he wrenched himself free.
“I want…,” his voice broke and came out small so he tried again “I wan’t my uncle James.” He started sobbing again and didn’t wait for an answer. He’d stay with his father and wait for his uncle. So he waited.
“Everyone dies. That’s just how it is around here.”
Oakland Police Department, 1992
Must be comfortable sitting up here.
The boy hadn’t ever really felt envy in this way. He envied certain traits he had seen in other people, but he never envied the lives they lead. He never had any reason to. Sure he didn’t have many friends or talked much, but his father and uncle were more than enough.
Truly if there was anything better than his uncle James’ Sunday Evening Brownies with cookie dough ice cream he hadn’t found it yet. If there was anything as good as singing “Ain’t No Mountain” with his father, while standing in the kitchen making hot stew on a cold Thursday afternoon, well he hadn’t felt it yet. Sure his life hadn’t been easy, but it had still been good.
These however are not his thoughts at the moment.
He’s sitting at the police station a couple of blocks away from the apartment building they lived in. It’s late and nearly empty and he’s been sitting there for hours. His uncle seems to be nowhere to be found. His world is breaking apart all around him while the few workers left get ready for a shift change.
He’s trying to calm down; has been for hours. He’s trying to be strong; to be a good boy, while slowly going through a small pack of Kleenex, given to him by one of the officers. He wrings his hands trying to hold them as his father would have as some memories come back to him. He sobbed as they kept fading away. He desperately tried to hold on to them, but reality was setting back in so hard.
His father was dead and Uncle James hadn’t been found yet.
A woman appeared in front of him. She was wearing a grey suit and a yellow blouse. Her hair was big and poufy though she was rather short. She had pale skin that almost glimmered blue under the harsh lights. Thin lips stretched into a smile that instinctively made the boy want to take a step back. He leaned away.
“Erik Stevens?” she asked; her voice high and invasive.
“Yes Ma’am,” he whispered.
“I’m Cindy Baker with Child Protective Services and I’m here to take you in for the night. Please come with me.”
His eyes grew wide. He’d heard the horror stories about what happens to kids taken by Child Protective Services. “No I’m waiting for my uncle,” he said and he grabbed the chair he was sitting on as hard as he could.
“You lot are all the same. Listen boy even if your uncle ever comes back to get you I will have to sign off on that. If you want me to sign anything you’ll behave and come with me now,” she said while slowly stepping closer in a threatening manner.
He let go of the chair reluctantly but eventually nodded.
“See wasn’t so hard. Even you can do it,” she said and walked towards the front desk. The boy got up and followed her.
Erik doesn’t know how he got here or how it was even possible that he is here; watching his younger self walk away behind that cracker bitch.
The image freezes suddenly and a woman appears.
She is tall and wearing a leopard suit not unlike the one he had briefly worn, but the leopard pattern is more visible and there is gold glimmering underneath. He admires her for a moment. The swell of her breast the curve of her stomach and the way her hips move when she walks. Her dreads are longer than his and golden towards the tips. She’s decorated them with different colored stones. He digs her style.
“If I had known death looked this good I wouldn’t have fought it this hard,” Erik says.
The woman rolls her eyes. “I am not death N’Jadaka.”
Erik looks her in the eyes. “No? Then who are you and what d’you want?”
“The Black Panther opened the door to this plane, to the ones who have studied it and know the walls have become thin,” she explains. He makes a gesture for her to continue. “If you wish, you’d be able to return.”
“And why would you wanna help me with that?” he asks.
“As a war dog I saw many crimes. I reported them to my King, but he never intervened. Wakanda isolated itself to protect itself, but protection became inaction. Wakanda’s privilege affords us neither the sight nor knowledge needed to properly help the way we should. You do not possess the same shortcomings. The Black Panther now thinks a scientific outreach would help, but we both know better.”
“A scientific outreach? Nigga what?” Erik asks incredulous. The woman throws him a sharp look.
“Agreed. Wakanda has been isolated too long. Then again so have you N’Jadaka. Too long have you been away from Wakanda,” she says and changes to Xhosa, “You’ve lost the way of N’Jobu.”
“They took him from me!” Erik yells as anger flares up in him again. The woman doesn’t flinch.
“There’s a part of him in you, but you gave it away,” she says. “Face yourself and you may return… if you wish,” she says pointing at the boy. Erik looks at his younger self. He had buried most of these memories of his childhood and of the past. Some of them so deep, not even the nightmares could reach him in life.
“Ain’t got any other plans. Let’s do this shit,” he says turning back to the woman. “Scientific outreach? He got jokes.”
She draws up her left brow and conjures a staff which she hits against the ground. A light explodes that erases the image before them. Then everything turns black.