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The Finest in Crime and Suspense Short Fiction

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Safe at Home
by Irette Y. Patterson

I still thought of the neighborhood I grew up in as safe. I mean, of course, doing my first cursory review before heading back home gave me a clue of what to expect. The housing app I downloaded outlined the ranking of Ruby Gate Elementary School, the school I spent seven years walking to and from.

Back then the county was testing a new concept—placing elementary schools in neighborhoods. So, there I was, pigtailed with glasses in Wonder Woman brown to match the book bag slung across my body, the bag bumping against my thigh as I rushed to make it in time before the opening bell.

When I was late, I’d cut through Ms. Robinson’s yard that backed up to the basketball court. That yard was a neighborhood favorite because of the plum tree out front. My best friend CeCe and I picked the plums when they were ripe and Ms. Robinson never chased us away. She must have been too focused on keeping the video arcade in business that was a front for money laundering to worry about us.

The place I spent grades one through seven (middle schools hadn’t been put in place yet) was now just a white number encircled in blue with a proprietary score on a phone screen. Maybe it was accurate; that school had been shut down an entire year to remove the asbestos.

Now, though, it was up and running—flat with open walkways that mirrored the homes in the neighborhood. Ruby Gate Subdivision was built in the 1970s and there were either flat ranch homes or split levels.

East of Atlanta, outside the perimeter that surrounded the city, the parents chose the neighborhood because of the school district; many had read an article about it being one of the top in the country when they’d decided to move to Atlanta to be closer to family after a short stint up North. We moved in, then the neighborhood began to change as evidenced by the class pictures my mom preserved in our family picture albums. The number of Black kids increased each year.

The kids I grew up with in that neighborhood went on to gain letters behind their name—PhDs, MBAs, and various others. They graduated undergrad from places like Spellman, Morehouse, and Xavier rather than Emory, Georgia Tech, or University of Georgia. Their graduate degrees came from prestigious schools. It was a combination that worked well. Well, it worked for me.

Later, the neighborhood began to decline, but it was so incremental we really didn’t notice it go from respectable suburban to hood bougie. It was the type of place where folks in the neighborhood golfed at the local course, but made sure there was a Glock in the bag. There was a drug bust across the street from the community center attached to the pool. I know because we were having a student council overnight retreat there the night when it happened. The whomping of police helicopters interrupted our midnight munching on potted meat sandwiches and cheese puffs.

And though the sounds of gunshots popping off at night were a normal occurrence, I never felt unsafe. It was home. I didn’t see the cracks in the grayed pavement as I’d bike around the winding streets of the subdivision until the sun got low enough to threaten the streetlights coming on and missing my curfew. I didn’t notice as the local mall’s major department stores left and it became a sea of kiosks resembling more of a flea market than a treasured outing. It wasn’t important.

Now, coming back as an adult trying to figure out my next move in life, I was looking at this place with adult eyes. My parents had kept the house as a rental after they’d retired and offered it as a place to stay after I’d quit my job as a food scientist, when I couldn’t take one more day of figuring out how to manipulate a “potato chip” into becoming more addictive. While here, I could investigate the neighborhood, perhaps look into doing some renovations. Mom had been making some noises about selling.

I planned to keep to myself, but I still must have had a bit of that Southerness in me, so to get comfortable in the place where I hadn’t been in years and to remember how I settled on my career in the first place, I baked a cake. A pound cake with extracts of a mix of vanilla, orange, almond, and lemon. Plain. Nothing to top it like a glaze. I liked things neat to show off the flavor.

You don’t need fancy if you do it right is something that my mother said. So the batter went into a plain tube pan. It was familiar, and though the grocery store around the corner had dimmed lights and yellowing floors, I was able to pick up the supplies I needed.

The best way to see anything was by foot, and the first stop, I figured was next door. I figured CeCe would be over there and we could catch up. When we were kids we’d actually yelled across the yard at each other from our bedrooms. We’d grown apart, though, in high school, when she set her sights on becoming a majorette and fell into that crowd. Most of my excitement back then came from poring into thrifted books with yellowed pages, their covers illustrated with planets against a faded starry sky. It hurt to be left behind, though I admired how ruthlessly she pursued her goal once she decided on it.

Since I’d be staying there temporarily, it might be good to look her up. Christmas was a good enough excuse for stopping by.

I set the cake on a rack for it to cool, but I was tempted to put it on the windowsill like those old recipes from the checkered red-and-white cookbook that they changed each year. And then I got tired of waiting, so I slipped it in my mom’s old Tupperware cake carrier—clear domed plastic with a burnt yellow base that matched its handles because I figured CeCe would get a kick out of it—and made my best impression. Steam clouded the dome.

I’d never been an apron kind of baker, but luckily the flour that dusted the red mock turtleneck I was wearing would be covered by the hoodie. The hoodie was a staple of mine despite what some might say about the danger because I had short hair and even though it didn’t get that cold in Atlanta, in December sometimes the weather came out of north field and shocked you. I made a habit of always buying jackets or pullovers with hoods to protect my head, and that day the wind was whipping enough in the neighborhood to make you pay attention.

I locked the door behind me, traveled down the five steps, and crossed the plain patch of grass that separated our yards. Most of the homes in the neighborhood were either a split level or a ranch. The split level back then was a popular type of house when the subdivision was established. They were all set up the same way—kitchen, bedrooms, and formal spaces on the top floor; den and garage at the bottom, along with another bedroom that could provide privacy.

CeCe’s house next door was a split level, and because I did not have the eyes of childhood, I saw it clearly—brown with maroon shutters that could use some paint. The flower garden that CeCe’s mom had taken such pride in was now just covered over with pine straw. There had always been color at this house. Not anymore. Good thing there was not an HOA because there’s no way that broke-down Cadillac on bricks in the front yard with a hood up would have been allowed.

The faint sound of a laugh track slipped through the walls, so I knew someone was there. Good. I’d never seen any of their cars out in the driveway so I couldn’t tell if they were in or not. The yard was mowed, but not edged. The sidewalk was only on one side of the street and we were glad to get them. Sidewalks were considered a premium feature, probably something that had to do with the car-centric Atlanta.

Now more people wanted to move to a place with public transportation, but even though DeKalb County had MARTA, the demand for homes in this area hadn’t begun yet. It was still outside the perimeter. Not close to a train station or places for cultural events. Any place on a bus line would be a hot property soon, but for now, this place was not, which put it right in the sweet spot. Still, there would be nothing like CeCe’s perspective.

I rang the doorbell and waited. It didn’t take long, but what I saw was a surprise. It was the girl I’d known, filled out, with a full face of makeup in the evening, like perfect, but her eyes were hollow.

“I brought you a cake.” Silly, but the only thing that came out my mouth.

“Reeny,” she said.

It was an old name from childhood, like a well-loved stuffed animal whose arm was stitched together in red thread with awkward stiches. Familiar. Loved. A name reserved for family. Most folks called me Serene or Dr. Miller these days. It was nice to hear it from her, though. I didn’t correct her.

I held out the cake.

And now we would go through the song and dance. She would invite me in. Maybe she’d pour me some saturated red Kool-Aid from a pitcher that had a layer of sugar at the bottom. We’d swap stories at her kitchen table about our lives, spontaneous laughter drowning out the canned laughter from the television.

But that didn’t happen.

She looked back and then back at me again. “I’d invite you in, but it’s late.” She took the carrier and shut the door in my face.


I mentioned the episode the next time I talked with my mom on the phone. The parents had moved down to a retirement community in Florida that was known for it’s conservative views and high rate of diseases of the, uh, intimate nature.

I was scrolling through Mountain Dew cake recipes on my tablet about to decide on one to bake. It was by request. CeCe had returned the cake carrier with a plate and a fresh loaf of homemade bread. This wasn’t from a bread machine or a stand mixer. There’s a difference. She made these by hand.

It became a thing unintentionally—I baked a cake and she returned the plate with fresh made bread. We’d take walks and I would wave to Fred who was on the couch, his fingers pressing on a console, with a barren, alien landscape across the screen.

The walks were a way of me checking out the neighborhood, getting acquainted even as our conversations were pierced at least once a walk with an ambulance siren slicing through the air. As she slimmed down and left the makeup off, the bruises became more pronounced. Fred, however, seemed to be gaining weight.

“What’s up with CeCe?” I asked the question more for confirmation as I scrolled through the search results of recipes. The first one had over a thousand five-star reviews. That would do. Folks made things way more complicated than they needed to be—box cake and Mountain Dew. Done and Done. This one was going to be way easier than the pistachio cake she requested a couple of weeks ago.

“He beats her.”

I grunted in response.

“Words,” came my mother’s admonition.

I honestly didn’t understand the need for words when other sounds made the point, but I started speaking. “I figured.”

“How is she?”

“We’ve got an exchange going on with homemade bread and cake.”

“It’s good that you’re seeing her regularly. It’s good that someone is seeing her regularly.”

None of my business. That is practically the family motto. Don’t stick your nose into someone else’s business unless they ask, and from my research into domestic violence the best to do is to let that someone know that they had a place to go, to be there. My mom’s phrase of “seeing her regularly” was code for it’s good that you’re noticing what is happening. That someone is around. An abuser might be able to keep her from family, which I noticed had not been around, but to hide from the next-door neighbor was tougher. Besides, I wasn’t a threat. I was only staying there as a way station, staying in the house until I figured out my next move. Soon there would be another tenant, a person not connected to the neighborhood or to CeCe.

The cakes were for Fred. . . .

Read the exciting conclusion in this month’s issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2024. Safe at Home by Irette Y. Patterson

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