BOMB


I sat straight up in bed. I could hear him breathing and I could tell he was shaking. In the dark, I breathed faster while I heard him start to gulp in air. I knew from the past what that sound meant. I'd fought for air the same way when I'd thought I was about to die.

"T., I'm comin' for you. Just stay calm, and I'ma come get you."

"No! Y-you can't. I just wanted to say- " his voice choked up.

"Ey, whatever you wanna tell me, you can tell me to my face. I'm comin' down there."

"No! Don't. I just- I love you."

I heard my phone beep and I knew he'd hung up but I still yelled for him, "T? T!"

Chris jolted up out of his sleep, "-What's wrong?" he turned the light on, "You okay?"

"Tariq's at the studio. Tru got it set to blow. I gotta get him." I was moving towards the door and pulling my clothes on at the same time. I was halfway down the hall by the time Chris caught up.

"Hey," he grabbed my shoulder and pulled me back, "Hey, hold on!" He stared at me with his eyes stretched open, "What did you say?"

"Three other places already blown: all shit Dynasty own. The studio's next. He got the doors rigged and the police cain't get Tariq out. He's trapped. I gotta go. Now."

"No. We're going. I'm going with you," he put his hand on the back of my neck, and looked me in my eyes. He was trying to keep me from going berserk, "You go downstairs and put your shoes on. I'll drive."

I nodded and tried to stay in control of myself, but the fear in me was building up so fast that I felt like it was taking over.

'I know I fucked up,' I could hear the words I'd said to Tariq the last time that we'd talked. Even with how bad that situation had gone, I'd always thought that maybe one day, we'd find a way to be friends again. But now, everything was separating itself into 'then' and 'now'. Then, when I had an opportunity to still make it right, and now when it was looking like I was way too late to ever get the chance.


OCTOBER


I got out of my car and stood in front of the studio. Looking at the door I felt nervous.

I'd left Big Bear feeling better and worse about myself at the same exact time. After I'd told Carol and Ted everything, they'd took it to me. Not in a cold-hearted way, but a real way, a way that let me know that what I'd done to Tariq had been a thousand times worse than knockin' Young's teeth out.

"You're living on ego, kid. I know 'cause I did the same thing with Carol when we first got serious. What I didn't know was that your ego is a trap, man. It traps you in a place that keeps you unhappy. When you're obsessed with your ego, it makes you believe that you're giving more to someone else than they've ever given to you, and most of the time, that's a lie.

You're mad 'cause you think Tariq owed you everything once you said you were all in. But here's the thing, Tariq's been all in since the day you met. Now you want him to be perfect, just 'cause you finally realized that he's what's best for you? There's no way a smart guy like you can possibly think that's fair.

-He is perfect for you, by the way. Catch up, Kal. Before it's too late."

When he'd said the word 'ego', I'd known he was right. And a few hours later I was driving too fast, back towards L.A. with my heart going even faster. Five hours between us seemed way too long to hold in what I had to say. I was so wrong that he deserved an apology, and I was already starting to hope I wasn't too late.

I didn't get relief in the mean time. I'd tried to get a hold of him, but he never did answer my texts or my calls. And when I'd looked for him at my house or his, he wasn't there either.

That had made the only place left I could think to find him, here, at the studio. And when I'd pulled in I saw his car in the lot, with Dynasty's and Young's too.

Now, standing outside, I felt like I was walking in to something I might not be able to control.

I looked through all the missed calls and texts I'd sent him, going over everything I'd said and how I'd said it. The whole time I was doubting myself. Then I put the phone back in my pocket and stared at the door.

Was he ignoring me on purpose, or was I trippin'? Maybe he was just at work and not lookin' at his phone.

But all the excuses I was making for him didn't stop me to keep from wondering: What would he say when I went inside?

There was no way to know the answers without trying. I put my head down, and opened the door.


"I love you," I'd lost track of the conversation, how it started or how it'd gotten here. It wasn't going right, and I didn't know how to stop it from getting worse. Everything I'd said so far was coming down on me like an avalanche. I heard the desperate feeling inside of me come into my voice, "I know I fucked up, but I can fix it. You just gotta come home."

Young laughed. The bruises on his face shined in the light when he smiled with his missing teeth, "Get that lame shit outta here, homie! You embarrassin' yo'self. It is what it is. You lost. Kick rocks."

"What you mean get out?" I felt my body tense up, "This studio wouldn't exist without me." I hit my chest, "I built this!"

"If Tariq doesn't want to speak with you, he doesn't have to," Dynasty raised an eyebrow at me, "Keep pushing and I will have you removed from this building."

The hairs on the back of my neck went up. My hands clinched into fists, but I made myself calm down so I could focus on Tariq. "I know I hurt you, and I know I took things too far. But I see that now. I know I was wrong, and I apologize for my behavior. I just wanna talk to you alone. Please? Anything you want, I'll give it to you."

His face twisted up, like my words were hurting him,"All I want, all I'm asking you for, is for you to get out of my life."

The anger in him jolted me back, "T.- "

"Please?" he looked desperate, "You've destroyed me, so many times. And still, I've never asked you for anything. But I'm asking you now, I'm begging you; leave me alone.

After everything you've put me through, that's the least you could do, Kal.

I've earned it."

The look on his face showed me that I'd lost him.

He swallowed hard and straightened up, "Just this one time give me what I need from you. Get. Out."


BOMB


"I didn't know! I didn't know he was in there, man!" Tru's voice went high as I shoved forward to swing at him.

"YOU DIDN'T KNOW?!"

His eyes bugged as the police dragged me back and my fist blew past his nose, "I wasn't tryin' to hurt nobody!" His eyes bulged out and snot went down his face, "The buildings were supposed to blow, but nobody was supposed to die!"

"YOU CRAZY?"

He rubbed the snot off on his shoulder and shook his head, "Naw, dude. I just wanted to show y'all. Ya took hip-hop and made it into this mainstream bullshit, and now you the hero 'cause you came out the closet? I been keepin' it real, and nobody wanted to listen. I just wanted hip-hop back, dude. I just wanted to show y'all- "

I pointed at the studio, "Fuck what you wanted!" I felt my hands clinch down into fists, "GET HIM OUT! NOW!"

"I CAN'T! I don't know how! I ain't no professional! This was just some bullshit I found out off the internet. That's why it didn't blow. It was supposed to blow at midnight, but I must'a done somethin' wrong. I'm sorry!"

"You bitch-ass-"

"-Trust me, if I could, I would." His lip started to shake like he was about to cry, "That's why I came down here and copped to this myself, man, to see if there was a way to help him. He wasn't supposed to be in there! If he dies, I'ma catch a murder case for this!"

"No, you gonna catch a bullet."

"Hey! You hear that?" Tru turned to face the cops that had been keeping us separated and pointed at me, "He threatened my life. He put a threat on my life, you hear that?"

One of the cops raised an eyebrow at him, "Officer Banks, did you hear anything?"

The other cop spit on the ground and sniffed, "Hear what?"

"You guys are supposed to protect and serve! Y'all can't act like y'all didn't hear that!"

"We got good officers in there, risking their lives 'cause of what you've done. So like Officer Banks and I said, sir, 'we didn't hear a go*damn thing'."

"Hey, you okay?" Chris came up behind me and put his hand on my shoulder. I was glad he was back. He was the only thing that was keeping me from losing my mind.

"Did you find out anything?" I pulled my eyes away from Tru, and reached for Chris' hand.

He nodded towards the woman behind him, "She knows what's going on."

The cop started talking without me asking any more questions, " –There are two explosives; one on each door, but their timing mechanisms are connected. Faulty wiring seems to be the reason why they didn't detonate like the others around town. Squad's doing their best, but they can't get the doors open until everything's disarmed, otherwise it's likely they'll trigger."

"But y'all can get him out, right? Y'all got this?"

She made a face, "We're working with something really unstable here, Mr. King. Tru's not a professional, and in this case it's working against us, not for us. He rigged this stuff together with no real rhyme or reason. We're doing our best."

I couldn't accept what she was saying, "But it's a good chance that you can get him out?"

She was quiet for a second, then pointed towards the building, "You know Tariq's got a phone in there, right?"

I nodded, "I been talking to him."

"Then keep talking to him for as long as you can." The way she said the words, I could tell what she was trying to say without actually having to say it, "Like I said, we're doing our best, but this is the kind of situation where there are no guarantees.

If I were you, I'd stay on the phone."


NOVEMBER


"Ready for pumpkin pie?" Chris came around the corner with two plates and put one in my hands.

"Yeah. Sure. Okay."

"Man," he raised his eyebrows at me, "That's the saddest reaction to pie I've ever seen."

"Huh? Oh. My bad," I said, "It's real good. It's great."

"You haven't even tried it yet," he laughed, "It's Thanksgiving. Try to have a little bit of fun."

"My bad. I know I'm bringing you down. My head's just not in the right place right now."

He frowned, "It's okay. I thought this might happen." He got up, went to the kitchen and came back with the whole pie. He took my piece off of my lap, and handed me the pie pan instead.

"Here," He stuck a fork in it, "You got two goals: finish the pie, and watch football."

He sat down next to me, changed the TV to the Raiders, and picked up his piece, "And if that doesn't work, I've got a gallon of ice-cream and a bottle of Hennessy for backup. I'm not a doctor, but that's practically a medical grade cure for holiday depression."

I forced myself to smile, "Thanks."

He frowned, and looked defeated, "…Maybe I should've scratched the pie and gone straight for the boos."

"Naw. This is cool. The pie's real good."

His shoulders dropped, "You still haven't even tasted it."

He put his fork for down, "Look. I know you're sad, but I can't let you mope around forever. I wanna help you, but come on, man," he put his pie on the table, "you gotta meet me halfway."

"You're different, Chris. When somethin' doesn't go your way, you know it's 'cause it just wasn't s'posed to. You do everything right, all the time. You don't have to walk around with all these regrets. For the rest of us, the ones who fuck shit up, the holidays is all about regrets. I'm trying, but I cain't help thinkin' 'bout that shit: All the ways I fucked it up with him. You know?"

I sat quiet, staring at my hands and waiting for him to answer. The only thing that had been keeping me going for the past few weeks was the fact that Chris always understood. He'd always had a way of pulling me out of something too deep for me to handle.

He was quiet for a minute, "This," he pointed to me, then him, "This is over." He stared at me while his face lost emotion, "As of now, between you and me, it's done."

I jerked as my head snapped up so I could look him in the eyes. I felt like I was hearing him wrong. I had to be.

He moved away from me on the couch, and his expression got colder, "I know it's been tough for you, and I want you to be happy- but times like these it feels like there's no point in even trying. I'm here for you, I've been here for you, but it's like you don't even see me-"

My heart stopped, then twisted, but I was too lost to find anything to say.

He sat up straight, "You don't even see how bad it hurts to sit here with you night after night and listen to you tell me how perfect he is, because I don't think he's perfect for you.

I know everything about you- more than you even know about yourself. No matter how sad, or happy, or lonely, or completely overwhelmed you feel, you always come to me, but you don't even notice that! I'm just somebody who always listens and makes you pies when you're down.

And in case you didn't notice, I was dating someone too. I was dating an amazing guy who put me first and never made me feel like I was second best. And the last time I saw him is the night you went off on Young and drove to Big Bear. One minute, I'm letting him stay the night, and the next minute, you show up, hurt and alone, and I drop off the face of the planet, just because you needed me. You know what you do to me, and it isn't fair."

I felt my body react to the words that he was saying. I was cold and hot at the same time. I couldn't move.

"Shawn," he stood up, "This, the way it's been, it is over," he pointed back and forth between us, "If you want me now, any part of me, you have to choose.

You can keep crashing, keep burning, or you can stay here with me and be happy.

I'm putting it all on the line, the same way I did when we first met."

He took a deep breath, "You can have all of me," he stood up tall, and in his eyes I could see that what he was about to do was taking up all of his courage. He pulled his shirt over his head and dropped it on the ground, "Or nothing." He swallowed hard and pulled his pants over his hips to let them drop down to the floor, "But you've gotta choose." He fought down his fear and took another deep breath. His body flexed. "If you can think of one reason I'm not perfect for you- "

He hadn't even finished the sentence by the time I'd burned away the space between us. And the second we started, there wasn't any part of me that wanted to stop.


BOMB


Chris looked me in the eye. He was talking to me like I was someone who was about to jump off a bridge, "You're gonna do great. You're calm and that's exactly what he needs." He kissed me on the cheek, "I love you. Come get me if you need anything."

"Thanks. I love you too."

He kissed me again, then walked away to give me some privacy.

Alone, I stared at my phone and started to call. I had to use both hands to dial the number. I was so nervous that I almost dropped the phone when I heard Tariq's voice, "Hello?"

"T. I'm right outside, alright? Everything's gonna be fine. The police is here and they're coming to get you. But I'm gonna talk to you the whole time, okay?"

His voice shook, "Don't stay here. You've gotta leave. If this blows up, you could get killed. "

"It's not. That's not gonna happen. They're gonna get you out and I'ma be right here."

"They're gonna get me out?" he sounded like I'd said something that didn't even make sense.

"Yeah. I promise."

I could tell from his voice that he still didn't believe me, "You shouldn't stay- not for me."

"T., no matter what happens, you're worth it."


DECEMBER


I heard Chris exhale as he pressed his body closer to mine.

I swallowed hard. After two weeks of waking up next to him, I still felt like I was dreaming.

He moved so I could be on top of him, pulled his legs up around my waist, and then I knew it was real.

I put my face against his neck, "Hey, sleepyhead."

"Hey, you. You're not ready to get outta bed, are you?"

I tried to look serious, "Maybe. I mean, I got important stuff to do. I can't be laid up here with you whenever you want me to."

He laughed, "If you've got something better to do than this, then go on and do it," He stretched his arms above his head, and turned his face to the side.

I tried to keep it together, but looking down at him stretched out underneath me was something I couldn't keep from reacting to. He peeked up at me, saw the way I was staring at his body and smiled.

"I was lyin'," I confessed, "I wanna stay in bed."


We'd finally made it outta the bed, just so we could do everything over again in the shower.

Chris clicked the T.V. in the bedroom on while he dried off.

A second later he was hollering at the screen, "You've gotta be kidding me!"

I wasn't paying attention. He hadn't had clothes on the whole morning but I still couldn't stop looking at him naked, "Huh?"

He turned the volume up high, "What's this idiot talking about?"

'- it ain't only Kaldrick King that perpetrates it. The media as a whole is a perpetrator,' Tru was sitting with his legs crossed, trying to look professional.

"Is this bitch really on Barbara Walters right now? What the fuck?" I laughed. "I can't believe this!"

'The media portrays criminality, misogyny, and greed as though they are components of a legitimate lifestyle, but they ain't. Those ain't the habits of a valiant man. Artists like Kaldrick King, Kanye West, Jay-Z, Drake, all of 'em, are leadin' our youth in the wrong direction.'

'Didn't you go on tour with King not too long ago?'

'Yeah. But that was before I realized the effect he was havin' on our youth. He on top right now. He got the biggest piece of the media pie, and that means the responsibility to say and do the right thing is greater for him than for others. To him who much is given, much is required. That's a quote.

Kaldrick King owes society a great deal.'

"Gimme a break!" Chris muted the TV. "He's a homophobe! That's why he hates you! This doesn't have anything to do with hip-hip or the kids!"

"He must still have his panties bunched up from that ass-whoopin' he got put on him. Too bad he didn't get the message that I'm out the game. He gon' have to find somebody else to hate on."

Chris cocked his head to the side, "Out of the game?"

"Yeah." I shrugged, "My contract's up in January. They ain't gonna re-sign me, and I don't want 'em to. Ain't nothin' left for me over there.

Matter fact, you should quit your job too. We could be retired together, like old people."

"I don't know if you've noticed, but I kinda like living in a house and eating food. You know, that's where the whole paycheck thing kinda comes in handy."

"I'd buy you a house. And I'd feed you."

He looked at me weird, and I knew he was about to worry.

"Hey, cut that out."

"Cut what out?"

"That scrunched up worry face you got on." I pulled him close, "I got this."

I put my arms around his waist and pulled him down so that he was laying back on the bed. I climbed on top of him, "And I want you with me."

He looked up at me, but didn't say anything.

"What, you scared you'll get sick of me, if we got all day together?"

He looked away, "No. You know that's not it."

"Then what's the scrunched up face about? What's wrong."

He took a deep breath, "I don't know... it's just... Ever since I've known you, your career's been everything to you. It's who you are. So when you say you're ready to walk away from it," he bit his lip and thought about was he was about to tell me, "I just wanna make sure it doesn't have something to do with you and Tariq."

I felt myself react more than I'd meant to. My muscles tensed up and my back went stiff, "I mean, I don't wanna see him, no. But that ain't why I'm leavin' the label. I'm leavin' 'cause I'm tired of fightin' everybody. Ain't nothin' left for me to prove. I wanted to go out on top, and I did. I'm done."

"-I wasn't trying to get into your head," He put his hands on my chest, "Or anything like that. I only asked because… If you leave unfinished business between you and Tariq, then you'll always have that; in here." He rubbed his hand over my heart. "You know what I mean?"

"Yeah. I know. But what happened between me and Tariq is over. It was a big part of my life, but it's done now."

I moved so that I was stretched out on top of him. With nothing between us, I felt his body respond. He flexed and made a sound that told me what he needed. "I'm here," I put his hand back on my heart, "And you got this."


BOMB


"We're gonna make a move."

"And that's good, right?" Chris asked the officer who'd been filling us in since jump, "That means you're about to get him out?"

She looked at us like we hoping for way too much and frowned, "Officer Banks is going to move you back to a safer viewing distance. This is a calculated risk, but a risk all the same."

"I ain't moving." I told her, "If Tariq's in there, I ain't goin' nowhere."

"There's no good to doing that, Mr. King. You can't do him any good by putting yourself in danger. Besides, moving you back is a precaution, that's all."

"It shouldn't need to be no precautions! If you ain't sure, then get somebody here who is!"

"Kal-" Chris tried to calm me down.

"-You got your best people on this? 'Cause it's gotta be somebody who can do this shit without needin' precautions! This shouldn't even be that serious! Tru ain't even know how to make a bomb! He said so himself! You need money, I got money. Get whoever out here, and I'll pay 'em whatever they want, overtime, double time, triple time, I don't give a fuck, but you don't do this unless you know you can get him out!"

"This isn't about money," she pulled herself up as tall as she could and looked me in the eye, "We all wish it were that easy, but it is not. And the fact that Tru had no idea what he was doing makes this more difficult, not less. We're doing the best we can, Mr. King. Trust me. None of us want Tariq's blood on our hands."


Tariq answered the phone and I could hear he was trying to sound like he wasn't scared, "Hey, Kal, what's up?"

"I got some good news and some bad news. Good news: Tyler Perry wanna make a movie about this. End of the movie's gonna be you getting' out, and beatin' Tru's ass like you did the first time. It's gonna be a blockbuster."

The fear in his voice broke and he laughed, "Oh, really? And what's the bad news?"

"You ready to be immortalized lookin' like Madea's cousin? 'Cause Perry gonna be the one to play you, and maaaan, and he ain't layin' off that dress!"

He laughed harder, "Shut up. You are so stupid!"

"I ain't playin'! This is real. Tyler Perry's gonna play your part, and Denzel's gonna play me."

"NO WAY!"

"Hey, nobody tells Denzel 'no', homie."

"Then he can play both of us, like Eddie Murphy played all the Klumps. But I'm not being immortalized in a moo moo, and that's final!"

"Well you can talk to him about that when you get out. The cops about to make a move."

The sadness made his voice get weak, "I heard. They called me."

He was quiet for a minute, and I was too while the fears I had took my voice away.

"They said I should call my parents, just in case.

I didn't call," he said, "I couldn't. I don't wanna say 'goodbye' to them.

God, -I don't wanna die here."

"You're ain't going to, Tariq," my voice came back. I wasn't going to let him be afraid alone, "I promise."

"You don't know."

"I do know. And I can prove it to you."

"How?"

"Get up on that bench, in the lobby, underneath where the window is."

He sounded like he was hurting about it, "I can't get out that window. I tried. It's too small."

"Just look out. Trust me."

The rocks and high grass tripped me as I moved faster through the dark, but I was almost there and I had to keep running. I didn't know how long I had before anyone realized I was gone.

"You there yet?"

"Almost." I heard his footsteps echoing down the hall as he walked a little faster.

"Okay," I said, "Step on the bench and look outside, you'll see why."

I waited.

And then I saw him pull himself up- and almost fall off the chair and drop the phone at the same time.

He caught his balance and put his hands against the window while he jammed the phone between his shoulder and his ear. The glass was only big enough to see his hands and his eyes. I watched him blink hard and try to keep the tears back.

"Hey, T." I put my hands against the glass, and blinked back tears too.

"What are you- ? How did you- ? Kalrick-"

I lied down on the ground with my face against the window. The back wall of the studio was built into a hill, so I was up high while he was down low.

"See, I ain't worried." I forced myself to smile, "'Cause there ain't nothin' to worry about. I'ma just wait right here with you 'til it's over, show you there's nothin' to be afraid of."

He gulped in air like he couldn't breathe, "Thank you so much." He winced, "But you've got to get away from here."

I shook my head, "T., one thing about you and me; every single time shit got hard, I left you, but not this time. I'm gonna be here for you like you deserve. Me and you, right here, for whatever happens, okay? I'ma be right here."


JANUARY


"So where we gon' put this?"

Chris crossed his arms and shook his head, "I said you could stay with me while you sold your house, but this wasn't part of the deal."

"This is Jordan! You want me to leave Jordan?!"

"Leave it or burn it."

"How you gon' hate on MJ like that?!"

"There is no way on god's holy earth that I'm living with a life size Space Jam poster in my house," he frowned at it, "Hell no. That things' gonna give me nightmares."

"This the only thing I wanna bring!" I pointed to everything else in the room that I was leaving behind, "Most people would think that's gett'n off easy."

"You won't be getting off ever, if you bring that in my house," he tipped his head to the side and winked at me.

I made a face at him, "Guess I better get it now then."

"-What?"

I tackled him and he fell back on the couch. I kissed him slow and he gave in for a minute, until I moved my hands down the front of his shorts and he breathed in fast

"Wait! That's not fair!" He jolted up straight, "You can't win every argument with sex. You do it all the time, and it works, but it's NOT fair!"

I tried to look confused, "Who? Me?"

He laughed, "You. Cheat!"

I smiled down at him, "Come on, I promise by the time it's over, you'll know you won." I pulled at his shorts again and got a little further, "I'll make sure you win a couple times."

He laughed while he pushed away from me, "No! This is serious! This is something we have to settle like grown men."

"That's what I was tryin' to do!"

He rolled his eyes at me, grabbed the basket ball off the table, and pointed to the window, "Outside, you and me, on the court, now. I win, and Jordan gets the curb."

"That's cool with me. I'm from the streets, son. I can beat you with my eyes closed."

"If you think it's that easy, then get to provin' it."

"-Mr. King," we were interrupted by a steady knocking at the door, "It's Mark, Mark Campanelli. We've got some stuff out here, a few boxes actually, and I wanted to ask you a question or two if you've got a minute."

Chris straightened up and tucked his shirt back in with a guilty smile on his face.

Mark heard us being too quiet and second guessed himself, "I could come back, if you needed me to," he cleared his throat, "No rush, sir, really."

I pointed at the door, "You might wanna use the time to make friends with M.J. At least you and him could come to some kind of understanding, you know, about how y'all gon' share me."

"Actually, I'm more than willing to let this cardboard poster be your new man. Careful though, paper cuts hurt bad enough when they're only on your fingers…" He winked at me while I pulled open the door.

"Sorry, sir." Mark straightened up like he was about to throw me a salute, "Sorry to interrupt but, everything's marked for the estate sale except the last few boxes you wanted to oversee yourself. If I could get you sign off on them, we'll be all set. It's just on the other side of the house." He pointed behind him.

"Yeah, that's cool." I looked back at Chris and nodded towards the cutout, "I'ma handle this real quick. Be cool, man. Jordan don't take no shit."

Chris smiled back, "I'll meet you on the court."

His smile sped up my heartbeat, but when I made it to where Mark was taking me, what I was facing made it stop short.

"Here it is," he waved towards the boxes in front of the empty shelves, and even though I'd known they were there, looking at them now made me feel weak all the way down.

"Since it's the only thing that's not part of the sale, we wanted to double check with you first, make sure we packed it to your specifications."

He handed the clipboard towards me. All the information on it was mine except for the shipping address. That was Tariq's.

I stood there, and stared at the shelves where the records used to be.

I couldn't stop my mind from pulling at the memories of Tariq going crazy over all of it. The first time he'd seen them had led to me letting my guard down in a way I hadn't before. The first time he'd trusted me again, I'd promised him he could have 'em all.

Whatever had happened between us didn't mean he didn't deserve to keep what was his. Holding on wouldn't mean it wasn't time to let go.

"Make sure they get to his house in this order," I said, "They arranged a certain way. He should be here later to drop off his keys. Tell him I'm taking care of getting these boxes to his place. If there's anything else here he wants, he can have it."

I forced myself to scratch my name across the paper, "There you go. It's all good."

"Thanks, Mr. King," he said, and left the room.

Alone, I hung my head, and let myself feel the pain of it for a few minutes. I'd made my peace with what'd happened between Tariq and me, but there was still something sickening about the way I'd torn what we had apart. But after a while, I knew I couldn't stay there with those memories anymore. I was lucky: Chris was waiting for me. It was time to go.


I walked out of the room, out of the house, away from the memories, and onto the basketball court.

I'd been glad to see Chris waiting for me, but as soon as I saw the look on his face, I knew something was wrong.

"Hey," I said, "You alright?"

He swallowed hard, looking like he'd just seen a ghost. "Yeah. I'm okay… I'm…"

I moved towards him out of instinct, like I wanted to protect him. He looked so scared and I couldn't think of why, "Chris, what's goin' on?"

He stiffened up, shook off a chill and I saw him swallow hard, "Tariq was here."

I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up while my reflexes snapped into effect. I circled around looking for him, like he was something dangerous coming down on me."

"He's gone." Chris said. "He dropped off his keys and he left. It was quick. It just… it shook me."

I heard the pain in his voice and moved close to him, "My bad. This my fault." I put my hands on his hips, and he breathed out. It seemed like he'd been holding his breath the whole time. I put my arms around him, "I texted him he to tell him that the house was goin' up. Some of this stuff is his, so I thought I should say somethin'."

I put my arms tighter around Chris, "He said he was coming around six, so I didn't think it'd be a problem. If I'da known he was gonna show up now, I never would'a left you alone."

"It's okay," he lied, "No big deal." He shifted back and forth while I was holding him, like he was still uncomfortable. "He wasn't rude, or anything. We talked."

"Oh," I could see the stress tighten across his face, and I didn't blame him. Whatever words had been laid out between him and Tariq, it had to have been uncomfortable. "About what?"

He winced, and looked down at the ground. He opened his mouth, then clamped it shut. I could tell he was trying to figure out what parts of the truth he should tell me. I could see the pain building up in his eyes as he tried to make the decision.

"-You know what," I reached out and held his hand, "This is all packed up," I looked back at the house, "It's all in boxes and it's about to be gone for good. And as long as you're okay with it, we could leave it all here, everything that's happened. We don't have to talk about nothin'. We could just walk away: You and me."

He looked up at me, and I saw a thousand different emotions flash across his face, but at the end I saw the pain in his eyes get replaced with relief, "Really?"

"Yeah. 'Course. The main reason I wanted you here was so you could see that all this is gettin' left." I took my keys out of my pocket, and Tariq's key out of his hand. I walked over to the back porch and set them down on the concrete. "It's a part of my past, and I'm okay with that. I don't need it now. I got you."

He flinched, and I could tell the words had hit him so hard because they were what he'd needed to hear the most. As much as Tariq haunted me at times, I knew he haunted Chris too.

"So, you hungry? I got a place I wanted to take you. We could get somethin' to eat, celebrate lettin' this place go. You down?"

He held my hand tighter and the look in his eyes showed me that he understood what I was trying to say, "You know what, that sounds perfect." He kissed me, taking his time before he pulled away slow, "I'm ready."


I pulled out a chair at the table for Chris as the chef put the food on the plates, "Hey, how you doin', Ms.? Everything looks great."

She smiled at me, "Glad you're happy, Mr. King," she put champagne in front of Chris, and then one for me, "Would you like me to stay and serve?"

"Naw," I handed her a bill as I shook her hand, "I got it from here."

"Thank you very much, sir. Merry Christmas and enjoy." She looked between me and Chris a few times. The look on her face was like she was watching TV and wished she could stay to see what happened next.

"Okay, have a good day. Thanks."

She snapped out of it and smiled in a guilty way while she picked up her bag and ran out.

I pushed the hot sauce and a napkin towards Chris while I heard the door close behind her, "Well, I still don't know how to cook. But I told you I know how to feed you. Sit down, lemme make you a plate."

He turned around in a circle, looking around the apartment before he faced me again, "So wait." He laughed a little, "What are we doing here?"

"I had a lady come in and make you breakfast."

"No, not that part, which is a totally great part, but the other part!" He put his arms up in the air, "Why are we at my old apartment?!"

"Oh. Yeah." I put some steak and eggs on his plate, "I bought it for you."

He choked on nothing, "What?"

I shrugged, "You said you loved this spot, but the roof leaked and the plumbing was busted. Both those things is somethin' we could fix," I put hot sauce on the eggs, "so I bought the building."

His eyes were getting bigger and bigger.

"Come on and eat. Your breakfast is gettin' cold."

His shoulders dropped. He stared around like he couldn't believe what he was seeing. I didn't know if that was a good thing or a bad thing.

"It's not gonna be like this when we get done with it. Tear down the walls, make it all one place, make the view even better. When it gets finished it's gonna be tight."

"You wanna live here?" He still seemed like he couldn't understand.

I slid the plate towards him, "Naw, not by myself," I took a deep breath and felt my nerves get the best of me, "but with you… with us. All our memories, just ours, you and me. I want me and you to have a fresh start."

His face went blank, and the fork he was holding clanked down on the table. There was nothing happy about the way he looked. "You want this place to be our house?"

This time my nerves caught on fire and I started to panic, "Not if you don't want it to. I mean, it could just be yours. It don't have to be ours if you don't feel right about it."

He was still for a second, and it felt like a year went by, until he grabbed on my shirt and pulled me closer.

By the time he stopped kissing me, I couldn't even see straight. I had to hold onto him to keep from falling over.

I tried to pull myself back together, to keep from showing how sprung I was, "If that means 'yes', that was the best way you could'a said it."

He saw the look on my face and smiled back, that crooked smile he gave me when he knew he had me weak.

I felt his hands unhooking my belt buckle while he pressed up against me, "I haven't even started telling you 'yes' yet."


BOMB


Tariq bit his bottom lip, and I watched him start to shake.

It was bad enough that this was the only window in the place, but on top of that, it was bulletproof glass, soundproof, and too strong to break through.

I pressed my hand against it and forced myself to smile, "We're gonna be okay. We been through worse than this. We're gonna be fine."

"Either way," he put his forehead against the window and put his hands up, spread out like mine, "I'm lucky you're here." He closed his eyes tight, "I- I know I said I wanted you out of my life. I thought that if you were gone I could forget…" he swallowed hard, "but , I love you. I never stopped and I always will. And if I'd known then what I know now I never would've- "

The sound of the explosion cracked its way through my head and shook its way through my body. And then I couldn't feel anything, or see anything. There was just darkness and a pain that was creeping up in a dull ache, getting sharper every time my heart beat.

As the pain grew and the noise in my head got louder, I saw Chris' face flash through my head. I thought of all the promises I'd made him that death wouldn't give me a chance to keep.

But in my last second before all my thoughts faded to black, I could only think about one thing:

'Tariq.'


AWAKE


I woke up in the morning to voices I didn't recognize. I opened my eyes and stared up at the doctors in my room. I tried to focus but the room was spinning.

"Morning, Mr. King. Welcome back to the land of the living."

"I was dead?!"

"No, no!" the doctor checked himself on the dramatics, "But your condition was quite serious. You've been out for a couple of days. Still, you were very lucky that only one bomb went off. Extremely lucky."

"What about Chris and Tariq?" I felt sick as I asked the question. "They okay too?"

The doctor smiled, "They're just fine. Tariq's in a room down the hall, and Chris just went home to clean up. You started talking in your sleep a few hours ago. It was a good sign, and exactly what we needed to get him to take a break. He's been by your side every second, hasn't slept or eaten. We told him we'd call as soon as you were fully awake."

I tensed up, "What kind of things?"

"Come again?"

"What kind of things was I saying in my sleep?"

I had a dull memory of what I'd been dreaming about: old times I'd had with T. Flashes of it were coming back, and from what I could remember, none of it was something I would've wanted to say out loud.

The doc looked like he understood what I was worried about. "Listen, Mr. King, don't sweat it. I explained to Chris that morphine's a very powerful drug, and with as much of it as you had pumping through you, no one could ever blame you for anything you may have said under the influence. He understood completely. All Chris cares about is that you're getting better. Everything will be fine."

He picked my phone up off the table and handed it to me, "You'll see. Go on. Why don't you give him a call?"


TRUTH


"Hey!" Tariq banged into the room on his crutches, "You're awake!"

The second I saw him, my eyes watered. All the feelings I'd had of almost losing him crashed down on me.

"Don't!" his eyes watered too, "Whatever you do, don't cry. I'm fine. See?" He rocked back and forth on his crutches, "I'm okay."

"You sure?"

"Yeah. This happened," he nodded at his leg, "And a couple ribs, but for an explosion that's pretty lucky, right? Plus: morphine," he rolled his eyes in a circle and made a face, "I think I saw a unicorn."

"Was his name Fred? I saw him too. Cool dude, but he talks a lot."

Tariq laughed, "Yup. That's Fred."

The nurse checking my I.V. smiled big, "Well Fred wasn't the only one you were talking to."

Tariq smiled back in a guilty way, "Uh-oh. Do I even wanna know?"

"You kept thinking you were talking to this guy," she pointed at me, and all you said were three things, "'I'm hungry', 'I love you', and 'Can we have Carl's Jr.'" She winked at Tariq, "I knew right then, you were a kid with your priorities straight."

"Oh, wow." He frowned and looked like he was gonna melt into the floor.

"If it helps any, I guess I was talking in my sleep about you too. So you ain't the only one."

Tariq got that half-sleepy, half-happy look in his eyes that came on whenever he was daydreaming about something.

It got me every time, "You okay, pimp?"

"I'm not gonna lie to you." He clunked towards me, "Seeing you awake is one of the best days of my life."

I reached for his hand, "Tha's how I feel about seeing you too."

He stared at me for a while with that same sleepy look on his face, then he snapped out of it, "-Hey, where's Chris?"

I gritted my teeth and took a deep breath. I'd been trying to decide how I was gonna tell him, but all I'd figured out so far was that there wasn't any easy way. I pushed myself back against the pillow so I was sitting up straight, and blurted out the words that I'd been holding in, "Chris ain't comin'."

He looked up at me, confused, "What do you mean? Is he at work or something? You just woke up. He shouldn't have left you."

"It ain't his fault. He was here, but now he's gone."

Tariq shook his head, "Why?"

I looked at the nurse. She nodded back at me, finished messing with the I.V., pulled the blanket back up around me and escaped out of the room.

Tariq looked over his shoulder as he watched her go, then back at me. A second passed before his eyes got big, "Oh my god." He looked like he was going to throw up, "Is he dead?! Is Chris dead?! Did he die in the explosion?! Kal! Oh my god!"

"No! No." I reached out for him to try to stop him from falling sideways. He was so scared he'd almost lost his balance. "Chris is alive. He's alive, Tariq. That ain't it."

He put his hand over his heart and tried to breathe, "Oh my god. You scared me. Where is he?"

I winced and swallowed hard, "It's a lot." I felt my eyes water again. As happy as I'd been to see Tariq, there was a pain inside of me that even the painkillers hadn't knocked down.

I picked up my phone and pressed on the email I'd gotten before I'd even had a chance to call Chris. I stared at it for second, then passed it to him.

I concentrated on the sheets while he started to read.

'Shawn,

It's been a while now that I've been keeping a secret from you. But after seeing the way you risked your life for Tariq, I know you both deserve for the truth to come out.

It's something Tariq told me on the day you put your house up for sale. He asked me to keep it from you, to protect you. Truthfully, I kept it from you to protect us. I wanted to be with you, and I was afraid I might lose you if you knew.

But there's no way to change how you feel about him, no matter how many secrets I keep. When you see him, let him know I'm grateful for the chance he gave us, but it's time he came clean. There's never going to be anyone in this lifetime you'll ever love more than him.

I am your best friend, and I always will be. I love you so much, and that's why the only thing I can do right now is walk away.

Next lifetime, I'm yours,

Chris.'

"Oh no," Tariq looked sick all over again, "Kal," His eyes opened wide, "This is my fault."

"No, it ain't."

"You don't understand. The night you went to Big Bear, I was so angry and I tried to find you. I knew you were staying with Chris so I went there. But I was at the door and I heard- " he looked embarrassed, "I heard two people… together, and I thought, I assumed it was Chris and you. I thought you'd cheated. I thought you'd slept him, when you'd accused me of cheating.

So when I saw you next, when you came to the studio to find me, I couldn't even…" He gritted his teeth, "I didn't even wanna look at you."

His shoulders dropped, and he looked defeated, "When I came to your house to drop my key off, Chris was outside on the court and I… I felt like I needed to make some kind of peace with him and you and what I thought happened.

I'd been burning up inside for so long, and I just wanted a way to get it out and let it go."

He switched his weight on the crutches and stared down at the ground, "I tried to tell him that I forgave you and I wanted you two to be happy. But then he told me you'd never cheated, that the person who was with him that night was his ex, and I knew then that I'd had it all wrong.

But it was too late. I'd pushed you away, and you'd moved on, and you were happy. You were in love. And you'd already lost so much, and been through so much. I didn't want to shake up what you had with Chris because I'd made a mistake. It wouldn't have been fair.

So I asked him not to tell. I made him promise." He swallowed hard, "And he did."

I stared at him, and as I watched the pain on his face, all I could think was Ted's advice, 'ego, it makes you believe that you're giving more to someone than they've ever given to you, and most of the time, Kal, that's a lie.'

Tariq had given me everything, even when he had everything to lose. How I'd ever questioned that didn't make any sense now.

"You want me to call?" Tariq asked, "Maybe I can talk to him, make him come back?"

I shook my head, "No. It's too late."

"It's not! You can't give up! Not if you love him."

"It's not about that. It's just- "

"Please? Let me fix this. I know he feels guilty about lying to you, and I know he feels scared because of everything that happened, but I can fix this."

"You ain't hearin' me."

"Why won't you let me try?!"

"-Because! He's right."

He went stiff, and his mouth opened. He didn't say anything for a while, just stared at me.

"T., it's you."

His face twisted up, and his eyes watered. He took a wobbly step back on his crutches and shook his head, "Don't say that kind of stuff." He put his head down and closed his eyes tight, "Don't play around."

I lowered my voice and reached out for him, "Hey, look at me."

He took a deep breath, wiped his eyes, and straightened up.

"You make me weak," I said, and it felt right to finally say the truth, "But being weak for you is the best I ever felt. And if you could still look at me like you used to, then there ain't nothin' else I'll ever need. From the first time I met you, it's always been you. If you can forgive what I put you through, I'll do whatever it takes.

Just come home."


LIFETIMES


Waiting on the stage, I felt my nerves start to turn my stomach. I'd never been nervous about giving a speech, but right now, nerves was all I could feel. It wasn't the crowd that had me shook. It was the fact that in a few minutes, I was going to have to stand right next to Dynasty and pretend that I didn't want to hit him in the face.

"-When I built this company, I wasn't working with superstars," I was working with a couple of unknown brothas with nothin' but raw talent and hood dreams. We did everything from scratch, and we kept everything real. All we'd ever had was the streets, so we put that in our music. The result was the making of not one, but two of hip-hop's greatest.

K-Co, Kid Codeine, we lost too soon. Rest in peace, and may your legacy live forever, in spite of the wrongs you committed in the end." My stomach felt like it was full of boiling water as he hung his head for a moment of silence.

"He's really laying it on thick, huh?"

I jolted a little, then turned to face him. My first instinct was to grab him, give him a hug, but I forced myself to hold back. All the same, I heard my voice crack when I talked to him, "Chris… You came."

"'Course." He shrugged a little, with his hands in his pockets and smiled at me, "It's your retirement. I told you I would."

I nodded, "I know, but I didn't think you'd really… " I made myself quit talking to keep from losing it.

He must've seen it in my eyes 'cause he took over, "Nice tux, by the way. You're lookin' good."

I made a face, "Ain't really my thing. I feel like I'ma suffocate." I pulled at my bowtie, "Only thing more uncomfortable than this suit is having to listen to this bullshit," I looked out towards Dynasty. "You think it's too late to make a run for it?"

He smiled, "First of all, you look great in that tux. Second, I know it sucks, but after this everything's gonna be better. Everyone's going crazy over you retiring right now. It's the only thing people are talking about, and Dynasty knows it'd be stupid to be on your bad side. So let him give his speech and make people think you two are cool. It might not be the truth, but it'll give you a chance to walk away- with no beef and no trouble from him or Young. Everything you've been going through- It'll be over."

"I don't mind him telling people whatever. I just wish I didn't have to be here for it."

"With all the punching Young in the face and stuff, it's gonna take a little convincing from you to make people believe him."

"You know how I say you're always right? Can we pretend for a minute that you're not?"

He laughed, "I mean, we could, but… I'd still be right."

I frowned at him, "Then I guess I should go through with it and get it over with."

"You're gonna do great. I can't wait to YouTube it."

"You can't stay?" I felt a panic come up inside of me when I thought about him leaving. I'd texted him, and we'd talked a little on the phone, but this was the first time I'd had a face to face conversation with him since he'd left the hospital, and I wasn't ready for it to be over so fast. I had a lot to say to him, and I needed more time to find the right words for it.

"-Tom's got a thing. Some fishing trip. I think it's more about networking than catching anything, but I told him I'd be there. Which is a little nerve-wracking because I have no idea how to fish." He made a face and pulled at his collar like he was letting off steam, "But don't worry. You'll do great. You can do this. You can do anything."

I looked down at the ring on his left hand, "Am I gonna get to meet him before, you know, the whole wedding thing?"

"Sure, as soon as you can stop yourself from looking like you're about to Hulk out when I say his name," he winked at me.

"It's not a jealousy type thing," I lied, "I'm just tryin' to look out. He always wanna be takin' you out on that motherfuckin' yacht. If he get you ate by a shark, I'ma have to light him up."

"A shark?!" his shoulders shook as he laughed at me. "There's literally no way that's gonna happen!"

"You don't know!"

"How is a shark gonna get onto the boat?!"

"You the first brotha on the ocean from his own free will! One of those motherfuckers jump up hungry and it's curtains! Chomp, chomp!"

"You're ridiculous right now!"

"Hey, I get to be ridiculous when it comes to you. You're my best friend." I put my head down, "I got too close to losing that too many times to let anything fuck it up now."

The look on his face changed. I could tell he was remembering all the shit we'd been through, "I am your best friend. Some of it hurt, along the way, but we're still right here," he smiled that crooked smile, "You're not gonna lose me."

He took a step towards me. I closed the distance, and hugged him tight as I could.

"Shawn," he put his chin on my shoulder, "Enough with the guilt, okay? I'm happy. I found where I'm supposed to be. You can it let go."

My eyes burned, and I blinked back the tears so he wouldn't see, "And I'm happy for you. But don't forget," I held onto him tighter, "next lifetime, I'm comin' for you."

"You damn well better."

He leaned back and put his hands on my chest, "But in the meantime, whatever you do," he pointed out towards the audience, where we both knew Tariq was waiting, "This lifetime, don't let him get away."


SPEECHES


"Fortunately, the other artist who made Dynasty Records into a legend, is now a living legend himself. Kaldrick King has sold more records than any of his contemporaries. He's a genius on the mic, a pop culture icon, a revolutionary figure in the world of hip-hop, and beyond. And it is with great sadness and gratitude that I say, 'Thank you for your contributions to this label. You changed the game forever, and you will be missed'. Come on out," he waved towards me, "Kaldrick King, everybody."

Chris winked at me, then turned away and walked down the steps, off of the stage.

I put my shoulders down, and forced myself to walk out towards the podium. The crowd was clapping loud, cheering for me, but I couldn't see them. The spotlights blinded me. I was grateful for that. Staring out at the darkness, I let myself pretend that I was alone, that Dynasty, Young, and the media wasn't even there. All I had to do was talk to myself.

"Ey," I held my hand out to get the invisible crowd to stop clapping, "Thanks to everybody here tonight. This is a sort of 'goodbye', but in a way, it doesn't even matter.

My whole life is on the record. Everything up until this moment, everything I've ever felt I've told to y'all. When I started with nothin', when I was just a criminal, dope dealer, angry at the world, I talked to you about it. When I got big, got money, got fame, you were the first ones to hear about that too. When I realized that riches wouldn't fix my anger, you heard me try harder to be more of who I wasn't. And then you heard me finally choose to tell myself the truth.

Along the way, I've lost some good homies. And in all of them, I feel like, I can see where I could'a gone. I could'a been them. Maybe if I hadn't had y'all to listen, I would be.

But thanks to y'all, I'm still here. And I got a shot at livin' a real life, with someone who makes it worth livin' for. -Don't worry, I ain't gonna Kanye y'all with a whole bunch o' whack-ass love raps."

The audience laughed and some camera flashes went off, "But it's time to walk away from the tabloids, and the beefin', and the shootin', and the dyin'... Give living a real life a shot for once. But don't take it as me walking away from y'all. I'll never forget that you were the ones that listened when I needed it the most, and I'll miss y'all as much as you miss me. That'll never change.

"And neither will this," I straightened up and faced the darkness spread out ahead of me, "I am Shawn Dugan, son of Walter Dugan, A.K.A, Kaldrick King, A.K.A, The King of California. One crown forever. One love forever. Goodnight."

I heard the crowd roaring as I stepped away from the mic and walked off the stage. As I took the steps, I knew Chris had been right. I felt a weight fall off my shoulders. All the drama, all the bullshit, it was all over. I'd said what I wanted to to the people that mattered, and now I didn't owe anybody anything.

I was going out on top.

"Kaldrick," Dynasty came out of the shadows. He'd been waiting for me off stage.

I stopped in my tracks and felt myself tense up. I didn't want to hear anything that he had to say.

He took a step back, and put his hands in his pockets, "I know what you're thinking, but I'm not comin' for a fight."

"Tariq is waitin'." I said, and hoped that he would take the hint and get out of my way.

"This won't take long. I'm not trying to hold you up. I just wanted you to know, I meant what I said out there. For all of our disagreements, I can't deny that I wouldn't have the label without you. Pretending anything otherwise would make me a fool.

Besides, we both came up from nothin'; the sons of conmen with nobody but the streets to raise us. In the end, I guess that makes us brothers in a way. For all that's come between us, I still respect you." He held out his hand, "No hard feelings?"

"Dynasty," I looked down at his hand, "Officially, our beef is over. But on behalf of Rook and K-Co, you can go fuck yourself.''


FLY


"You're still not gonna tell me where we're going?" Tariq looked up at the jet, then over his shoulder and back down the runway.

I put my arm around him as we went up the steps, "Why? You don't trust me?"

"If we're going back to Tokyo, I'm gonna let you know right now, I will beat you at Time Crisis. All over again! So if this is about a rematch, lemme know right now, 'cause I don't want you getting your hopes up!"

Seeing him stand his ground over Time Crisis with a straight look on his face cracked me. I'd been trying to be smooth, but I laughing so hard that couldn't.

"I want you to be prepared!" he kept going, "I love you and I don't want to hurt you! Don't do this to yourself!"

I put my hands over my face, "You cain't have me laughin' like this. I'm trying to be Obama on this shit; secret planes, and shit. You're makin' me laugh, I'm trying to make this sexy!"

His eyes got big, and he smiled like he always did, so that his whole face lit up with it, "Well that, you got under control. Completely. You're always sexy. All the time."

I put my arm around him again and walked with him into the plane, "That's good to know. But for the record, we ain't goin' to Tokyo for a while! I got my ass beat at Time Crisis, which makes you an International Champion."

We got on the plane and I helped him take his coat off, "And I got sick off some raw fish, which my black ass knew I shouldn't be eatin' anyway! I got an embargo against the whole country of Japan right now!"

He laughed so hard he fell back in his seat, "Well then where are we going!"

"It's a surprise. You gotta guess."

"I can't guess! I have no idea!"

I cheesed at him while he searched the expression on my face for clues.

"Where would I take you if I was trying to impress you?"

"I dunno know!"

"Your favorite place!"

"I've only been like, four places my whole life. They were all with you. And you said it wasn't any of those!"

"Not places we been, but your favorite place. Think about it." I picked up the bottle of champagne they'd put on ice and poured him a glass.

"Well it can't be too long of a flight because you have your tux on again, and I know you hate wearing it!"

"I ain't gon' front, I wore this to entice you," I winked at him, "But this shit feels terrible! I cain't wait to take it off!"

"-What about mine?"

I laughed, "Yours too. Especially yours. Matter fact, let's take it off now."

He got a guilty look on his face as he thought about it, "Will they see us?"

"Naw, they know what's up. They ain't comin' back here 'til we almost to Canada."

He frowned as he tried to figure out what was happening. He looked confused, "Canada? What's in Canada?"

"Your parents."

He stiffened up, "You wanna meet my parents?"

"Well if I'ma spend the rest of my life with you, I guess I should get to know 'em sometime."

He frowned, "They'll never approve."

"Why not?!"

"Because you suck at Time Crisis!"


QUESTIONS


"So do you prefer Kaldrick or Shawn?"

I swallowed hard and wondered if it was a trick question. "Well Shawn's my given name, but my friends call me Kal. Either one is fine with me, ma'am."

"My son calls you Kal?"

"Yes ma'am."

"Then Kal's fine with me too. Have some more rice and chicken."

We hadn't even started eating but they'd put rice and chicken on my plate three times.

"He has all the rice and chicken!" Mr. Muhammad said, "He is going to turn into rice and chicken."

Mrs. Muhammad made a face at her husband, "You've had enough rice and chicken to last you for the rest of your life. You want to get fat?" She poked him in the stomach with the end of the spoon.

"I am not fat."

"Yes, you are!" She kissed her husband on the cheek, "And it's my fault. I fed you too good over these years. Now you see rice and chicken and you want it all. You can't even let our son's fiancé eat rice and chicken without staring at his plate like a refugee."

"-He's not my fiance', mom. He's my boyfriend."

"-I am not a fat man!"

"You are a fat man! I love you, but you're a little fatty." She kissed him on the cheek again, "My fatty.

Tariq, tell your father to share the chicken. Kal, you eat the chicken. Don't let him get it from you! He'll take it! Don't close your eyes!"

I looked over at Tariq's dad. He was staring at me with his fork in his hand.

"Dad, put your fork on your own plate," Tariq pointed at him, "Mom, dinner looks great. Thank you."

She smiled big, "It's been a long time since I've seen you, love, and even then, it was on a billboard! I almost crashed my car! When the police came,"

Tariq almost spit his tea out, "-The police?!"

"I saw the billboard, and it made me run up onto a curb. I got stuck. –When the police came, I told them you were my son and I had no idea you were going to be on a billboard. I told them it raised my blood pressure, and they told me it was an ad for headphones! My son is famous, and I'm the last person to know."

"Mom-"

"First, you almost die in an explosion, and don't even tell us until you're out of the hospital. Then you appear on a billboard and almost make me faint!

Say you don't want to kill your mother who loves you so much. Haven't I raised you well, Tariq? Just tell me you want me, your mother, to live a long life."

Tariq made a face, "I want you to live, mom."

"-You are getting money off of the headphones, right?" Mr. Muhammad pointed his fork at T. "Don't let them cheat you on a paycheck! They wanna use your face and your family name! They owe you money!"

"They pay me, dad."

"Good. 'Cause when your mother starves me half to death, you better buy me some rice and chicken."

I put my head down and tried not to laugh.

"And you do alright with your rapping?" He asked me, "You save your money too, or are you like M.C. Hammer? I like you fine, and I don't care how much money you have, but I don't want my son to marry anybody who goes broke buying chains and gold toilets."

Tariq looked like he was about to die, "Dad!"

"Don't say 'dad' to me. I love you. You are my only son. You moved to L.A. and live a crazy life with bombs in it! I have a right to ask this man if he has a problem with toilets!"

"No sir, I don't. I only got all regular toilets. And I love Tariq. I'ma take care of him."

"Good. I worked hard all my life to give him a good life. Maybe I worked too much, but nothing reminds you to slow down like almost losing the person you love the most," he held Mrs. Muhammad's hand, "We learned that when we heard about the explosion.

-So I'm not concerned with how famous you are, or how many albums you have sold. I want to know you will be loyal to my son. You make me that promise, and I will forgive you for coming here and eating all the chicken."

"Always back to the chicken," Mrs. Muhammad rolled her eyes.

"Don't worry. This ain't a game to me." I looked at Tariq, "This a forever type thing."

Tariq smiled at me with his eyes big, like he didn't know what to say.

"I like this one, Tariq," Mrs. Muhammad said, "He's not jelly-armed like the white one."

Tariq put his hands over his eyes, "Mom! "

"I'm just saying, he was a nice kid, but his arms were like a Spongebob. He would've gotten a cramp taking out the trash."

I got my napkin to my face just in time to cover the fact I was laughing too hard.

"We had no problem that he was white, no problem at all. But Kaldrick, if this man had to lift a gallon of milk to keep from being thirsty, he'd die of dehydration first!"

"He looked like one of those car dealership balloons, arms everywhere for no damn reason!" Mrs. Muhammad waved her arms up in the air, "He looked like this all the time."

I put my head down on the table and tried to keep it together. Tariq was about to say something to stop her, but he was laughing too hard too.

"It's not nice to make fun of people," she pointed at Tariq and her eyebrows went together in the middle, "Stop laughing and eat your chicken and rice."

"I didn't even start this," he put his hands up, "This is all you guys!"

"We are old and fat. We can laugh at whoever we want," Mr. Muhammad pointed his fork at us again, "You are young kids and you have to be good. Now hurry up. After dinner we have presents for you both. Tariq's were supposed to be for Christmas, but he was too bogged down with his work to make it home."

"Okay cool," I said, "Y'all do Christmas?"

Mr. Muhammad shrugged, "We are Muslim. We honor Allah as the only God. But Tariq has always loved Christmas, and I don't think God cares very much about us giving our son Christmas presents. I don't think He's afraid of Christmas." He looked over at Tariq, "Like I told my son when he was very young; sometimes, you have to have faith that merciful God will see the true love in your heart, and open His arms to you. It might not fit into ancient words, or ancient pages, but He made your heart, and He made love to fill it," he looked at Tariq, and smiled, "and it's okay to follow it."


"Did you get the Tupperware of fresh chicken and rice?"

"I did, Mrs. Muhammad. Thank you so much."

She smiled up at me, and I could see where Tariq got his smile from, "This weekend was very nice. I wish you didn't have to leave so soon, but I understand the L.A. life. You boys are very busy. Don't let my baby get into any trouble. I love him."

I smiled back, "Don't worry. I love him too."

Mrs. Muhammad's smile got bigger, "You are a good boy."

"You did the right thing by coming here," Mr. Muhammad put his hand on my shoulder, "When you called to ask if you could meet my wife and me, I had high hopes for you. You stood by my son in a time when it could have cost you your own life. Now, meeting you face to face, I am not disappointed.

You are a good man. You were there for our son when we couldn't be. You keep it that way and we'll be alright."

"I will," I shook his hand, "I promise."

"Good. Now go, get out of here. You came to ask me a question, and you have my answer. Run off, go live, be young… quick before my wife gives you the rest of my chicken!"


DESTINY


"Well, that's two down. How many plates worth of food do you think we still have left?" Tariq sat across from me on the bed with his legs crossed; two empty containers on the side table.

"If we go hard, breakfast lunch and dinner… a week's worth!" I laughed, "But I ain't mad. Your mom throws down in the kitchen. I see where you get it from."

"No way. I can't cook anywhere near as good her."

"I don't know, T. You know those waffles is how you got me on lock."

His eyes lit up, "You want me to do the rap again?!"

"Ohhhh, no!" I fell back on the bed as I laughed, "I'm cool on that. Kaldrick King is retired and I think Waffle T. should do the same!"

"You know I keep it batter-ey, so they call me Waffle T- "

"Please stop! Just please!"

Tariq threw up double 'C's "Cholesterol up, arteries down!"

"That was so bad and I can't even say nothin'," I was holding my stomach, "I'm laughin' too hard!"

He climbed on top of me and shook me by the collar, "That's how you flow!"

"You are the worst rapper in the whole damn world!"

"That rhymed! It has to be good if it rhymed! I think you're saying that because you're jealous!"

I put my arms around his waist while I caught my breath, "You right. I'm hatin'. Waffle T. is a contender."

"Damn right!" he leaned down to kiss me, and we forgot about laughing for a minute. I wrapped around him and lost track of what we'd been talking about.

"I love you, T. I've never met nobody else like you and I never will."

He put his face against my neck, and I felt his chest swell up as he breathed in, "I love you. So much. And of everywhere we've ever gone, that was the best trip," He shifted so he could be even closer, "Thank you."

I held on to him as tight as I could, "Well I gotta tell you; I ended up takin' you there for a selfish kind of reason."

"Yeah?"

I kissed him on top of his head, "I had a question I wanted to ask you, but it wouldn't have been right to say it before I met your pops."

I felt him tense up in my arms.

"Because- because," I felt my nerves start up. I swallowed hard and felt my mouth go dry. I stuttered and tried to remember what I'd practiced saying in my head more times than I could even keep count, "I wanna be old with you, eatin' waffles in bed with you. I wanna spend the whole day laughin' all the time. I wanna get beat at Time Crisis by you, and have your back when you go ape-shit and punch somebody in the face. I wanna be young with you, and old with you. I wanna bring you Carl's Jr. every time you feel sad.

I wanna be a man for you. And be there for you, even when it looks like we might not make it. I want you to feel safe because you trust me as somebody who never wants to let you down, no matter what that costs.

I wanna love you… forever, T."

He stared at me, and the ring in my hand that I'd been keeping in my pocket every day for a month. But the look on his face was like I'd hurt him. I went back over the words I'd said. I couldn't find the thing I'd said wrong, but I could see that I'd fucked up again.

This wouldn't be the first time I'd jumped to think Tariq would be ready, just because I was ready. Maybe I'd done all of this way too fast.

"-We can wait." I put the ring down, "I know I wanna be with you, and if it takes more work to make you wanna be with me, I ain't scared this time. I'll wait, and I'll work for it. I'll work for you- "

I felt him kissing me before I realized what had happened, and then I realized that he was saying 'yes'.

I kissed him back and that was the last whole thought I had, but I remember the feelings. All the fears and doubts I'd ever had seemed like background noise. All the conflict and anger seemed like pain that was never worth feeling in the first place.

Back in the day, all the stress had made me wonder which side of me would choose my destiny; Kaldrick King or Shawn Duggan. But now that didn't even make sense. There was only one thing that both sides of me wanted so bad that nothing else came to mind. And he was right here with me, loving me back.

Two personalities, one fight, and one final destiny: I said his name while I pulled him underneath me.

"Tariq."

the end.