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Grown
Author: Tiffany D. Jackson

Chapter 1


Beet Juice


NOW

 

When I awake, I am eye-level with a puddle of beet juice soaked into the carpet, soft fibers cushioning my cheek. The beet juice is dark, thin, dried sticky between my fingers.

Damn, I have to pee.

I roll over, spine unforgiving, and struggle to my feet, knees wobbling, pain shooting stars through my skull. Out of the one eye that isn’t swollen, everything is a bright blur. The blinding sun shines through dozens of floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the city. My jaw is an unhinged door. I lick blood off my bottom lip, relish the metal taste and take in the room.

There’s blood everywhere.

No, not blood. Beet juice. Or maybe cranberry. Thinned barbecue sauce. But no, not blood. Blood means more than I can comprehend.

The beet-juice stains are all around his penthouse—on the cream sofa, the satin curtains, the ivory dining table, splatters on the ceiling . . . I even managed to spill some beet juice down my tank top and jeans. A hectic painting on what was once a pure white canvas.

A breeze glides up my bald head, the tips of my ears icy as I’m attacked by shivers. It’s not the beet juice or my position on the floor that unnerves me; it’s the silence. No music, no television, no voices . . . damn, I’m a mess and he’s going to be so mad when he sees all these stains. The thought of his inevitable reaction produces more terror than the blood surrounding me.

Sorry, not blood. Beet juice.

I step over Melissa, cast aside like a dead dog, wrapping arms around myself. Where are my shoes? I didn’t walk in here barefoot.

Wait . . . why am I still here? Didn’t I leave last night?

A bloody handprint glides across the wall toward the bedroom, the door wide open.

Korey is slumped facedown, hanging off the bed . . . body covered in beet juice. Flaming words are stuck in my esophagus, but my body is frozen, rooted to the floor. If I move . . . if he catches me . . . he’ll kill me.

Three pounds on the front door. A voice booms.

“Police! Open up!”

Piss runs down my leg, soaking my sock.

 

 

Chapter 2


Swim Good


THEN

 

In my past life, I was a mermaid.

I lived deep in the ocean, swimming free, eating crustaceans, and singing five-octave ballads. My notes caused ripples in the sea—whales, turtles, and seahorses alike gathered for my daily concerts.

But on land, I struggle to breathe. Humans don’t understand my pescatarian diet, and singing is a concept, not an aspiration.

Sitting a few feet away from a near-Olympic-size racing pool, I warm up my quads. Pool water is nothing but fake water. Swimming in it feels unnatural. But it’s the closest substitute I can manage to find.

Whitney Houston hums through my headphones: “Where Do Broken Hearts Go.”

The stretching playlist has some of my favorite classics—Mariah Carey, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Chaka Khan, Nina Simone. Wish I could hook it up to a waterproof speaker and drop it into the pool. Synchronized swimmers listen to music underwater all the time. Maybe I should try out next year. Be a tour de force—an underwater ballerina who can sing.

Arms extended up with a graceful bow, I stretch and hum and stretch and hum . . .

“All right, Enchanted. Would you just sing already!”

Mackenzie Miller stuffs her long blond hair into a swim cap.

“Huh?”

“Go ahead, sing,” she says, her pink lips in a sly smirk. “You know you want to.”

“Might as well,” Hannah Tavano says next to her, slipping out of her track pants. “You’re humming loud enough.”

The entire swim team nods in agreement.

“Well, I’m always willing to give the people what they want,” I say, stripping out of my sweats. I step to the edge of the pool, grabbing hold of my invisible mic.

“Where do broken hearts go?

Can they find their way home?

Back to the open arms

of a love that’s waiting there.”

The thing about singing near the pool is the acoustics. My voice carries, notes bouncing off the tiles, the dome roof, then skipping across the water like a pebble before boomeranging back. Every word pulses and echoes through my bloodstream, but then the song ends. The adrenaline leaves me breathless.

Applause shakes me out of a trance, and I glimpse down at my fans, a group of eight pale faces in matching navy swimsuits.

“Wow. It’s like . . . you can really sing,” Hannah says in disbelief. “You sound just like Beyoncé!”

The other teammates nod in agreement.

My heart deflates a bit. I love Beyoncé, but they use that comparison because that’s the only black singer they know.

“Ladies,” a voice shouts behind us. Coach Wilson leans against the doorframe of her office, pushing her red glasses back up her thin nose.

“If you’re done with your concert, can you kindly get your butts in the water? Now! Ten laps. Let’s go!”

The whistle blows and I dive in, slipping under the surface like sliding into a freshly made bed.

In the lanes to the right and left of me, Mackenzie and Hannah practice their breaststroke. My goggles are tight, but on purpose. I hate when chlorine slips through the crevices and I end up with red eyes like I’ve been smoking a blunt. Not that I’d know what that’s like. But being one of ten black students in the entire school . . . the stupid assumption would be too easy.

After a warm-up, coach talks us through a few practice drills.

I hit the wall at the end of the pool on my last lap and power back. On land, Coach Wilson clicks her stopwatch, her face unreadable.

“Few seconds off. Not bad. Could be better.”

I sniff, wiping my face dry. “You are full of compliments.”

“Compliments don’t help you improve,” she chuckles. “All right, ladies! Showers. Then class. And I better not hear about any of you being late to homeroom. Jones, a word?”

Dripping wet, I skip into her office. “Yes, Coach?”

She tips her glasses. “You’re spilling out of your uniform there.”

I give myself a once-over. “I . . . am?”

“Butts and boobs need to be fully covered. Might be time to move up a size.”

The locker room smells of chlorine and musty wet socks as a blow-dryer churns in the background. Glad I don’t have problems like long hair to deal with anymore. In and out the shower, I can be ready for school in less than ten minutes.

Parkwood High School is the only private one in the county that doesn’t have a strict dress code, but the student handbook specifically says no hats, no short skirts, no “distracting” hairstyles.

Yeah, I can read between the words unsaid there too.

I solved that problem by shaving off my locs. But somehow, my presence is still distracting.

At the mirror, I glide a hand over my baldy, the short hair prickling my fingertips. The cutest shirt I own looks plain in the dingy locker-room light. I didn’t want to do too much . . . it would set off alarms and I’m already nervous enough about today as it is. Maybe later, with Gab’s gold hoops and some bright pink lipstick, I’ll look . . . hot.

Hot? This is going to be a disaster.

Mackenzie slams her locker shut with a smirk. “Kyle Bacon.”

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