a new novel, presented in serial form, by Linda Peterson
Go to Chapter 1
TONIGHT, it was not Tyrone’s deep laugh echoing off the buildings–it was the rev of Cutlass engines circling back to look for Cloaks. We gotta clear out, we ain’t got another fight in us tonight!
“Come on, Asha, keep up, girl!” Carmen urged, holding her hand and rushing through a pungent alley.
Asha wrenched her hand away. “I can’t, I can’t!”
Carmen turned, trying to grab her. “Baby, you have to! No, no, don’t fall on the ground, there’s broken glass. Asha, Asha, please!” It was late. The self-control was gone. Asha cried out again, limbs loose and resistant to her mother’s grasp. Carmen scraped her hands on the close brick walls, swearing under her breath.
The older kids crowded back closer to Carmen and Asha.“Mama, she’s so loud! What should we do? They’ll find us!” Zati said, fear in her voice.
Carmen’s adrenalin was rising, but she whipped herself into control. Can’t lose it. Too many babies at stake. “Purple Thread, now. Zati, Deshawn, block that end of the alley. Lenore, Ty, block the other end.” The kids nodded, rifling through their Threadpacks. In moments, it felt almost like they were in a soundproof hall. Asha hadn’t calmed down yet, but with purple Thread thickly criss-crossing the alley’s ends, everything was very muffled. And any Blades glancing that way would just see more shadows.
Carmen checked her phone. I’ve got less than five minutes to calm this girl down and catch that last bus. But just as she opened her mouth to comfort Asha–
“Mama, someone’s cutting our Thread!” cried Ty.
Carmen jumped in surprise and dimly saw a tall, slim lady Blade chopping through the thick layers of purple Thread like she was cutting cake. Lord, she’s fast! How’d she find us?
“Back up! Obscure!” Carmen shot a thick ball of yellow and orange Thread over Lenore and Ty’s heads as they dove out of the way, knocking the lady Blade’s weapon down. Strangely fast, the Blade was back in her hand–Carmen hadn’t even heard it hit the ground. The woman cut even quicker, gathering strength from every Thread sliced.
“Babies! Yellow and orange Thread, now! We’re going up!” Carmen called as she rapidly pulled back her Thread ball. Asha had been shocked out of her tantrum but couldn’t find the right spool. Carmen yanked an orange spool from her Threadpack. Launch! Wrap! Lift! Tie! The orange Thread snatched Asha up and tied her to Carmen’s back just as the lady Blade burst into the alley, three more Blades shoving through after her.
Following Carmen’s lead, everyone launched their Thread up to the rooftops. The buildings here weren’t too high, so the spools were definitely long enough. Carmen’s long legs didn’t have much room Zipping up in the alley, though; she banged her knees more than once as they left the Blades below.
“Rewind that purple Thread, y’all!” she called to the older kids once they reached the top. She unwrapped Asha. “Girl, we gonna Zip now, you got it?” Asha nodded, and Carmen helped her grab a yellow and orange spool. “Aight, this way! Lenore, bring up the rear!” Carmen ran to the other side of the flat roof and Zipped to another building across the way. Checking to make sure the coast was clear in the bright moonlight, Carmen led them across three more rooftops, till they were right above the bus stop–and could see an idling Cutlass lurking below, right next to where the bus would arrive.
“Mama! Hey, Mama!” Tyrone whispered. He was holding a large planter up with some orange Thread. “What if I drop this on the–”
“Ty, no! Lord, no! Put that down!” Carmen shot her own orange Thread out, wresting the planter from him. Where does he get these ideas?!
“Mama, the bus!” cried Deshawn.
So much for explaining the plan. “Yellow and orange still, we’re going down!”
“Down where?” Lenore asked, confused.
“To the top of the bus, baby! Follow me, quick! And obscure yourselves!”
As the bus slowed to a stop, six shadows swung through the air, arcing down to the roof of the large vehicle. “Stay down! Anchor with your Thread! Obscure, obscure!” Carmen hissed to everyone. After some riders got off the bus, it drove off, carrying the Campbells away from the waiting Cutlass and the Blades running up behind.
The bus ride home was a lot colder that night–no one could spare much will for warming up while trying to stay on the bus top–but they stayed out of sight of Blades. As they launched to the roof of their own building, Carmen thought, Free bus tonight. Guess I’ll try to pay double next time.
Finally, they were home. “Shoes off, and Cloaks on your peg!” Carmen said as everyone clamored inside the apartment door. Ty and Deshawn immediately started chasing each other, flapping their Cloaks like bat wings. Asha bounced over to the pantry, dropping her Cloak on the floor. Seeing their trajectories, Carmen blocked Asha with one leg while grabbing the boys with either arm.
“Stop. Pay attention. Shoes off, Cloaks up!” Carmen encouraged them all to sit with a gentle push downward.
Leaning against the wall, Carmen slid her mid-calf black boots off, followed by her socks. Everyone’s socks had blue Thread interwoven, which could be willed to keep feet warm for a whole outing.
“Hey, Lenore, Zati, do not leave your clothes in a pile here! Put them away in your room.” She and the kids wore plenty of outer layers. It was too much to deal with coats on a raid, but they needed to stay warm until they could actually wear their Cloaks.
“Uh-uh, put that away,” Carmen said, grabbing some ShopRite brand frosted cereal from Lenore. “It’s way too late for that, it’ll keep you up all night.” She swooped by and took some fruit snacks from Asha, earning a squawk.
“But I’m so hungry!” Lenore complained, reaching to grab the cereal back.
Carmen stretched her arm up high with the box.”Then eat a banana, or a piece of bread, or some ham–not sugar cereal!”
Lenore moaned and snapped two bananas off the bunch on the counter, handing one to Asha and cracking open the other herself.
After hanging up her Cloak, Carmen grabbed three slices of ham from the fridge and took a big bite. She exhaled, released from the intense internal pressure of mother hunger. Chewing fast, she shoved the rest of the ham in her mouth–then grabbed one more slice for good measure. Since the moment she’d become pregnant with her twin girls over 11 years ago, it felt like her hunger had never abated. Mamas can never eat enough.
She licked her fingers and wiped them on the corner of a dishtowel. “We gotta put away the Blades, everybody over here!” Carmen called.
Carmen got the package of Blades from her Threadpack, and started rewrapping each Blade individually in red Thread. “Kids! Come on!” No response. “I guess I’ll have to bind up these Blades all by myself,” she called tauntingly. “I hope my will is strong enough.”
“No way, Mama, you need us!” Asha accused from the hallway, half-dressed in pajamas.
“Whyyy do we always have to dooo this?” whined Ty. “It takes forever!”
“I’m having a bowel movement!” Deshawn hollered from the bathroom.
Carmen buried her head in her hands. Every time. We do this every time. Shouldn’t they know to come by now? Finally, the kids all clamored around. Everyone put their hand on the thickly wrapped Thread, and said out loud,
They repeated this three times for each Blade, everyone putting their will into it. If the will within the Blade ever changed, ever reflected peace on the part of its owner, then the Thread would unwind. Carmen always left a note for the Blades, explaining that she’d know if they had a change of heart. She promised to leave any weapons for peacefully-minded Blades hidden in Love Park on the first Saturday of each month.
She picked up the three Blades and went to the large cabinet in the hallway. Using a green spool from on top of the cabinet, she opened the lock. She crowded the bound Blades onto the middle shelf with all the others.
“Why do we say free for ties?” Asha asked. “Those are for Sunday.”
“What do you mean?” Carmen knelt down to her level.
“Ties are for Sunday, like for the boys.”
“Oh, I see what you’re saying. It’s not ties like what the boys wear, it’s ties like…like a knot, like tying something.”
“Okay. But why do we say that?”
Carmen kissed her on the forehead. “Cloaks are about tying and weaving together, right?”
“Being a family!”
“Exactly. Blades…don’t usually think the same. They want to cut things, cut people apart from each other. They got their own…ambitions, things they want. But if they change their mind, then our Thread will sense it, and will unwind.”
“I gotta pee!” Asha said suddenly, running off.
“Have any of the Threads ever unwound?” Zati asked, looking over the dozens of Blades.
“No, no they haven’t,” Carmen sighed.
“Do you think they ever will? Can Blades really change?”
“I don’t know, baby. Greed dies hard. Power lust dies hard. I sure hope they can change, because I get tired of whooping them.”
Half an hour later, the kids were all in their beds, with only one splurt of toothpaste left on the floor. Carmen leaned down and wiped it up with some toilet paper. She glanced at the door frame with little marks for everybody’s height at different ages and smiled. Lenore and Zati, eleven years old already. They were getting so tall. And Ty, he was nine but he’d catch up in inches soon enough. Deshawn had just barely turned eight, and he was her little shorty so far–a few inches less than the twins or Ty at that age. And Asha was only four, so it was hard to tell if she’d be tall, but she was very slim.
Carmen held up a paperback copy of Active Birth while she brushed her teeth. Sure, it was only 2 minutes of reading, but every little bit helped. Some midwives or OBs let their knowledge grow static, just sticking with what they knew–but she had never attended two identical births, and she liked to keep fresh ideas in mind for her clients.
Carmen crawled into her large bed, spent. In the thin sheets and thick quilt (interwoven heavily with blue Thread), she stretched and twisted and started her mental count backwards from 1000. She had to rein in her mind now, or be consumed with thoughts–raids, money, Thread, food, school, Blades, babies, Big Mama…Besides, she’d soon have company. Carmen started the night alone, but never stayed that way. First came Asha, curling up by her pillow. Then Deshawn on the left corner, always with his own pillow. Zati and Lenore cuddled back to back to back with her, and in the early morning, Ty always snuck in, squeezing close with a protective arm around Asha. King size…ain’t no king need a bed like this. It should be called Mama size.
As Carmen counted down to the 800s, her numbers got slower, more garbled. In that hazy time right before sleep, he snuck into her mind, that man she hated thinking about. And in her dreams, they still Looped around Philadelphia with their children, swinging in every block for a kiss.
The next day, there was a family dinner at Big Mama’s. They headed out in the afternoon, everyone with their Cloaks in their Threadpacks. It would be far too conspicuous to wear the Cloaks in broad daylight. As much as possible, Carmen tried to seem like any other single black mom in Philly.
Even on a windy November day like this one, they walked the twenty minutes to Big Mama’s rather than waste bus money. The kids all bounced by Carmen, keeping close but forming a constantly shifting shell around her. As they waited to cross big, busy Broad Street, something caught Carmen’s eye.
“Huh,” she said, as she led her family through the crosswalk.
“What, Mama?” Zati asked.
“I thought I saw a Cutlass, driving down the other side of Broad.”
“In the daytime?” Deshawn asked.
“By itself?” Ty added. “I don’t know, Mama, Cutlasses always come in pairs.”
Carmen gave him a look. “Boy, I know that. It could have been nothing, but just in case…” she took Asha’s hand and turned early onto Fairmount Avenue, a slightly quieter street. The older kids followed. “Let’s go this way.”
The rest of the walk was cold, but uneventful–no sign of the possible Cutlass. They all kept their jacket hoods up against the wind. They stepped around soggy Dunkin’ Donuts trash and broken glass on one block, walked briskly down a smooth sidewalk with large decorative planters on the next block. Philly had neighborhoods, but especially in this area, every block was a different city.
“Hey, baby! Y’all come in, come in, get your Cloaks on!” Big Mama called from her front door. “It’s freezing out there!” Each child was enfolded in Big Mama’s short but ample arms as they entered.
Carmen got a hug too and relaxed as she stepped into Big Mama’s warm little row house–her childhood home. But she wouldn’t have relaxed if she had seen the dark red car sliding into a spot at the end of the block.
Kicking off shoes in the front hallway, all the kids jostled for spaces on Big Mama’s big, comfortable couches and armchairs. Pops liked furniture squishy; he was probably upstairs napping with five pillows.
The kids all slipped on their Cloaks, but Carmen headed into the kitchen to help with dinner. Carmen and her mother never wore Cloaks while cooking, not with popping oil and hot burners around.
“Smells good in here, Mama,” Carmen said.
“How you doing, baby?” Big Mama asked, pulling Carmen in for a hug.
“I’m good, I’m good.” Carmen said, hugging her back. “Had a decent raid last night.”
“Oh? How’d the kids do?” Big Mama handed Carmen three spools of twisted green and orange Thread, and gestured to several countertops as she spoke. “Potatoes need chopping, cucumbers slicing, and carrots grating. Can you handle all that?”
“You know I can, Mama.” Carmen sat at the table to do her tasks. Placing a finger on each spool, she sent commands. Launch. Grip. Lift. Steady. Slice. Thread from the first two spools snaked across the kitchen, picked up knives, angled out to steady the potatoes and cucumbers, and started chopping. For the third spool, Carmen willed Launch. Grip. Lift. Steady. Press down. Lift. Press down. Lift, keeping up a mental repeat of the final two commands to keep grating the carrots.
With her tasks started, she could spare enough concentration to chat again. “The kids are getting real sharp. Tranqed some Blades for me.”
“You’re lucky they so handy with darts.”
“Don’t I know it. They work so well together. Oh, and tell me who needs new Thread, we found a good amount last night.”
“Elaine was asking me for yellow, she wants a bright patch on her Cloak.”
“We’ve got another raid tonight, I’ll ask the girls to keep a look out for yellow.”
“Elaine wants yellow?” Pops said, coming down the stairs. “What’s a woman her age want a yellow patch for?”
“Homer, are you saying a woman can’t have any color patch she wants on her Cloak?” Big Mama said, hands on hips.
“Doris, I am talking about dignity.”
“And yellow has no dignity?”
Pops walked over to the roast chicken Big Mama was cutting, and stole a piece. “It’s got dignity if you want to look like a banana.”
“Out of my kitchen, Homer!” Big Mama cried, chasing him into the living room with a wooden spoon. He grabbed another piece of chicken on the way.
The front door opened, and a voice shrieked, “Mama! Who is your neighbor? They need a chain for their dog!”
Carmen rinsed off her hands and went to greet her older sister. But her way was blocked by her kids. They were all wearing their Cloaks backward and had willed them to puff out like giant bellies. Running toward each other, the kids would knock each other over and bust up laughing. Pops chuckled from an armchair. Carmen carefully pushed her way through.
“Careful, crazies, your cousins are here, they’re littler than you! Hey, Ashley.” Carmen reached out and took her baby niece from Ashley’s arms. Ashley herded in her boys, who were three and five.
“You seen that pit bull next door?” Ashley asked, slipping off her coat. “It jumped at me! Nearly bit a hole in my Threadpack!” Ashley showed off the smattering of holes on the bottom of her bag.
“Good gravy, that thing got Blade teeth?” Carmen cried, feeling the holes between her fingers. “Mama, maybe you should get your neighbors a muzzle for Christmas.”
“Ashley, you probably scared the poor thing,” Big Mama called from the kitchen.
Ashley rolled her eyes. “Yes, Mama, me and my three little children are so threatening. Oh, here,” she said, digging into her Threadpack for Jaleia’s little Cloak. “She’s gotta have it, sweet baby. Cries and cries every time I gotta take it off.”
Carmen held Jaleia out while Ashley put the Cloak on her. “How can it be three years since my Asha’s Cloak was this small?”
Ashley shook her head. “I don’t even know. Big Mama and I just had to add a bunch of new patches to Tashae’s Cloak. That boy grows too fast!”
“These little ones. Keeping us young and making us feel old. Let’s make dinner.”
Navigating through the big bellied children, Carmen handed off baby Jaleia to Pops. Tashae and his little brother Andrew eagerly got their Cloaks on and got in the fray–and despite his younger age, Andrew puffed his Cloak even faster than Tashae. Carmen and Ashley came into the kitchen with their mother. Soon they were all sitting at the table, fingers on spools, lines of Thread criss-crossing over the kitchen. Carmen and Ashley both had three spools, but their mother–at home in her own kitchen and with decades more cooking experience–had eight. Thread held utensils and pushed sticky raw chicken into the pan, slid potatoes into the pot, and shook liberal doses of Old Bay Spice over everything.
“Is Lawrence going to chat tonight?” Ashley asked.
“Pops got an email about it, but his connection is always so spotty. Video’s always freezing up.” Carmen answered.
“You’d think the army could afford something better for my baby,” Big Mama muttered.
“They might have other things to worry about in Afghanistan,” Ashley noted.
Just then a cry came from the living room. Tashae came in, tears in his eyes, Cloak hanging loosely on his front. “Andrew wrecked my big belly!” he wailed. Andrew peered around the doorframe, looking innocent.
“And just how did he wreck your belly?” Ashley asked mildly, briefly pausing the work her Thread was doing to focus on her boys.
“He pushed and pushed on it,” Tashae sniffed.
Ashley sighed. “Baby, if you want it bad enough, then Andrew can’t ruin it. Now, what do you really, really want? Do you want to cry, or do you want to make a big belly and play?”
“Make a big belly and play.”
“Then will it stronger, and go play!” Tashae bounced off. Now Ashley turned to Andrew. “Boy, don’t mess with your brother’s Cloak.”
Andrew’s eyes got bigger and he pursed his lips.
“Andrew,” she said, warningly. “Go tell him you’re sorry, or you can’t play.” He nodded and went back into the living room. Ashley placed her fingers back on her spools and resumed her work.
Carmen let out a laugh as soon as he was gone. “What are you gonna do with those boys?”
Ashley shook her head. “I don’t know. Andrew is only three, but his will is so strong! He messes with Tashae’s Cloak all the time, and Tashae gets torn between wanting attention and wanting his Cloak to work.”
Big Mama cleared her throat. “Sounds like some other kids I know.” She kept talking while piling the carved chicken onto a platter. “Any advice, Carmen? You’re the one used to drive Ashley crazy. Sometimes it almost seemed like you could will her Cloak and yours to do things!”
Ashley elbowed her. “Yeah, Carmen, what d’you got to say?”
Carmen shrugged. “They’ve got to figure it out. You and I did, right? And I never really controlled it, just pushed or pulled. If your will wasn’t there, the Cloak would give. Once your will to cloak was bigger than your will to fuss, I couldn’t do it.
Ashley snorted. “That wasn’t till I was eight and you were seven. Don’t tell me I’ve got three more years of this with the boys.”
“Not if Tashae toughens up sooner than you!” Chris popped into the kitchen. “Hey, Mama!” He went over and kissed his mother’s cheek.
“There’s my baby!” Big Mama cried, giving him a big kiss back. Chris was the youngest, after Lawrence.
“You making my favorites, Mama?” Chris started pinching chicken from the platter.
Ashley kicked awkwardly at him, keeping her hands on her spools. “She’s making my favorites. Go play with the babies!”
“They’re not my babies.” Chris grabbed more chicken.
“Which is why you should play with them!” Carmen quipped, kicking him toward the living room.
“Is that boy ever gonna grow up?” Ashley asked.
“He’s only twenty-one,” said Big Mama.
“And when I was 21, I had two jobs and I was going to school!”
“When I was twenty-one, I was chasing Lenore and Zati and expecting Ty,” Carmen added.
Chris stuck his head back in the doorway. “And when I was twenty-one, I saw a Cutlass parked down the block.”
He pulled away as they all leaped up, shrieking and talking at once. All activity in the kitchen stopped as Threads collapsed to the floor in a tangled mess. Carmen leaped across the kitchen to turn off the stove tops and oven.
“Get the kids upstairs! Hide them!”
“When were you gonna tell us, Chris?!”
“Lord have mercy, on my own block!”
Carmen, Ashley and Pops clamored at the window while Big Mama and Chris ushered the little ones upstairs. Baby Jaleia cried out for her mama and Ashley took her from Pops, trying to see out the window with a ten-month old on her hip.
“Shh, shh!” Carmen said, and carefully started pulling back the curtain. She looked down the east end of the block. She looked down the west end.
“Chris, I hope you were joking,” Pops called out. “There ain’t no Cutlass out there.”
Chris came halfway down the stairs. “I wouldn’t joke, Pops, it was there, down by 10th St.”
Carmen grabbed a spool of the green and orange Thread from the kitchen and shoved her boots on. She went out the front door, ignoring the protests of her family. She slunk quietly down the steps and down the block, going from car to trash can to a bit of fence, avoiding any noisy bits of litter. The street was quiet, and Carmen’s skin rose in the cold air. She hadn’t grabbed her jacket. There was only a beat up Lincoln at the end of the block by 10th Street.
Carmen closed her eyes for a moment, listening. Did she hear…?
She stood and raced down the block, choosing speed over stealth. She just had to know. Breath ragged from sprinting in the cold, she ran into East Poplar playground. Glass crunched under her feet as she passed under the empty swing frame and started into the underpass. She could just barely make it out at the far end–a single Cutlass, dark red finish gleaming faintly in the November twilight.
“Hey!” She yelled, running toward the car. “Get the hell out of here! This is my town!”
She shot out a line of Thread, aiming for the door handle. Find. Enter. Unlock. Pull. Open! She started willing, but the engine revved, and the Cutlass roared straight for her.
To be continued.
Go to Chapter 1
Cover image by Elise Matich