Englewood had once been an up-and-coming neighborhood for immigrants. That was long before Antioch was born and many years before White Flight. Now, all that was left was an urban war zone, stranded four miles inland from the coastline, and all-but-forgotten by the sprawling city.
The residents never saw the money brought in by big business and tourism in the city’s affluent Downtown and Gold Coast areas. For everyone not living there, it was a place to be driven through quickly or to see on the news as the murder rate climbed.
But it was the place that Antioch Jackson called home. And the apartment she shared with her mother and father was full of love. And, though she and her little brother Corinth did more fighting than anything else, the actually loved each other, too.
Their place overlooked the large grassy median on Garfield Boulevard. It ran east from Washington Park, past her house, and west to Gage Park. There were apartment buildings on her side of the boulevard, but large bungalows and old miniature mansions on the other. During her walks into Sherman Park, which sat diagonal from her building on the corner of Garfield and Racine, she imagined the neighborhood a century before. Back then, it was a place where doctors, attorneys, and affluent businessmen took up residence. But not anymore.
“Antioch,” a booming baritone called in a singsong-y cadence from the dining room.
“Yes, Papa,” she replied, emerging from her bedroom.
She headed toward the back of the house to find her dad sitting at the dark wooden table, taking up an antiquated pastime: reading the newspaper. She could smell the hash browns, turkey sausage, and eggs that Mama had placed beside him. There was a crinkling sound as he turned one thin sheet to the next page.
“Yes, Papa,” she repeated.
He had heard her footsteps and felt her presence, but like many other things in life, Gerald Jackson took his time. There was a pile of books next to his plate, the bottom being a thick, hardback tome. It wasn’t surprising for his wife, Demetria, or his children to see his nose between the pages of some volume or paperback whenever he was not at work. His eyes roamed from one article to the next, before he turned the newspaper page again.
“Is Cory up, yet?”
She and her brother had been named after the cities where churches were set up in the New Testament. His name had been shortened to Cory while hers didn’t get a nickname. This told her something about her position over her less-than-responsible sibling: she was the one to be taken seriously, while Cory had the luxury of slacking off.
Though she read about as much, Antioch had not taken on her father’s patient outlook on life. She was up early each morning, even on weekends and during summer vacation. And, save the time she set aside to read, she almost hyper-kinetic.
“He doesn’t want to let that pillow go,” she said with a sigh, “But I shook him after his alarm went off the second time.”
The top of the newspaper canted downward so she could just see the frown on Papa’s brow. His eyes were serious.
“You tell that boy I said for him to get his butt up!”
Her father never raised his voice but he knew how to convey the gravity when he needed to. She had accepted she was the liaison between her father and brother. More often than not, she was the one to plead Cory’s case when Papa was ready to use his belt.
“Yes, sir.” With that, she excused herself and gave her brother’s box spring a good kick. “WAKE YOUR BEHIND UP! Daddy said if he has to come in here, you’re gonna be dancing above the sheets!”
Corinth half-grumbled and half-whined in protest, sounding more oinking pig than growling bear. He was tangled up in the sheets and swinging for his sister, he rolled out of bed, and hit the floor.
He rolled his eyes and yawned. He liked sleep too much and what she imagined the modern-day Rip van Winkle to be.
“Dang, Antioch,” he complained. “You didn’t have to kick my bed.”
“I’m gonna tell Papa you’re trying to cuss again.”
To that, he sucked his teeth, and tried unraveling himself. “What time is it?”
“Not enough time for you to eat breakfast. You’ve got about five minutes to brush your teeth, get dressed, and get out the door for school!”
What ensued was a catastrophic, offbeat dance that sent Cory knocking over the lamp, losing balance, and falling to the floor again.
“What the hell is going on in there,” she heard her father boom from the table.
“Nothing, Papa,” the children said in unison.
They heard the faint crinkling and he went back to his morning reading.
Antioch made a playful fist at Corinth, putting it under each of her eyes in a comical threat. “Five minutes,” she said plainly.
When she left out the door, it sounded like her Uncle Chris was playing his trade on the drums. Her brother was still wrapped like a pig in a blanket, trying to untangle himself. She shook her head, kissed Papa on the cheek, and made her way to the bus stop to wait.
When Cory emerged, he looked like he’d slept in his outfit. No doubt he’d whisked past their father without being seen. Though not always he newest items, Papa wanted their clothes to always be pressed and neat. Cory, however, marched to the beat of his own drum.
“You’re ridiculous,” she said.
“Shut up,” he shot back with a frown.
“Up late again playing those games, I see.”
“You ain’t my mama,” he fussed.
“The word is aren’t and you still have some crust in the corner of your eye.”
He stopped and used his shirtsleeve to get it together. She shook her head.
Though the Number 55 bus stopped right in front of their apartment, they would walk down a few blocks until it caught up with them. Mr. Anderson, who was a family friend, would pull over even if they were between stops.
As they made their way east on Garfield, Antioch looked at the dilapidated homes on the other side of the boulevard. She imaged buying one, fixing it up, and moving her family into it. Then, all of Mama’s early shifts and Papa’s extra hours would be for something more than paying rent.
They were nearing Carpenter Street when Antioch noticed something different. She nudged Cory and pointed toward the corner diagonal. “Look at that.”
“Okay, it’s a crew, working. What’s the big deal?”
There were men in hard hats with tools and equipment moving about, busying themselves, and making a fuss over a house that had been abandoned since her Mama was a little girl.
“They’re not tearing it down.”
“Okay, so what’s so weird about that?”
“Nothing, I guess. But why now?”
Cory was munching on a granola bar he’d pilfered from the pantry. He took a bite and, with his mouth full, said, “You ask too many questions.”
He may have been right. Her curious nature kept her in the books, inquiring about things most kids never bothered to ponder. But something about that house on that corner had gotten her attention. Yes, part of it was the construction crew but that wasn’t the only thing.
Then she saw it. The figure appeared to be a man but something about him was out of place. He was very tall, extremely skinny, and stood stark still. While the men moved about with pieces of lumber and bags of concrete mix, he stood there in his dark clothes, not wearing a hardhat at all.
“Look at him,” she said, trying not to point too obviously, though the figure’s back was to them.
Cory took his last bite. “So what? It’s a man standing on the corner.”
“Look at how he’s dressed.”
“He’s rocking a black getup,” Cory said dismissively. “Maybe he’s just making a fashion statement.”
The gaunt man with the wiry, gray mane of hair did appear to be dressed for a funeral. But something about him made her suddenly feel like she had to use the bathroom. Reality seemed to retard itself and cars rolling down the Garfield seemed to do so at a turtle’s pace, still blurry from their momentum.
It was a cool autumn day and the colorful leaves were swirling about in the wisps of wind in slow motion. A closer observation revealed that many of the leaves were gathering at the man’s feet, as if he was the center of a vortex. She had to squint from across the street but it appeared that the ones that were drawn to him lost their bright colors of orange, yellow, and red. As they came to him, the brilliance of each leaf dulled, the color fading until they were about as black as his pants.
Her stomach churned. She looked to her right and her brother’s mouth was moving in slow, silent commentary, a bit of granola stuck to his lip.
She looked to her left and the creep across the street turned without effort. His feet levitated above the pile of leaves and his entire body rotated until he faced her. He wore black shades and his skin was about as gray as his shock of hair. His shoulders were slightly hunched like a predatory cat.
Antioch froze in place. Her heart was all over the place, palpitating like Uncle Chris slapping the skins on his latest Jazz tour. As when she played Hide and Seek as a younger girl, she suddenly hoped that shutting her eyes tightly would render her invisible.
It didn’t work. When she opened her eyes, the gaunt man raised his glasses so he could see her clearly from his perch. In a fluid motion, he rested the shades on his prominent brow, continuing his hand upward to the mushroom cloud of wiry hair. As if smoothing his mane, moving his hand backward pulled his facial muscles, his somber countenance transformed to a wide, snaggletooth grin.
His smile sent an electric chill from the base of her neck to her tailbone. She could barely control her urge to run to the restroom as not to soil herself. She gasped and suddenly…
The world was moving at its normal speed again. Cory was in the midst of telling her how silly she was and how she thought too much.
She furrowed her brow, wondering if her overactive imagination had gotten the better of her again. The construction crew was still buzzing about and there was a dark figure looming on the corner, watching their progress. However, his back was to her and her brother.
Antioch sighed with relief. Corinth, her mother, and her father were probably correct. Whereas her brother stayed up late playing video games, she put off sleep to read her books long after her mother told her to turn off the lights. Her e-reader was perfect for what she deemed night ops. Could it be that the superstitious and mythological world had converged on her real one?
“You’re right,” she told her brother.
He stopped and his eyes nearly popped from his head. “Say what?”
“I said you’re right. I probably do think too much.”
“You alright Big Sis? Do you have a fever or somethin’? You never admit to being wrong!”
“Hardly ever,” she agreed monotonously. That may have been true but what she had seen seemed so real.
They continued to walk and the man in black took up space in her periphery. The sickening feeling in her gut returned and she tried not to look. But that didn’t stop him from rotating above his pile of leaves so that his predatory eyes remained locked on her.
When they passed Carpenter, she ventured a peek over her shoulder and found him standing there, just a stone’s throw away. He was no longer on the other side of the street but right behind her and Cory.
Her mama had told Antioch from the time she was little that she was a tomboy who didn’t seem afraid of anything. But Mama had never seen this looming, levitating presence in his musty, tattered suit. He was casket sharp and just as dead.
His announcement was timed to get her attention and shake her up a bit. It had unsettled but not immobilized her. She had seen ghosts before, though they were non-sentient, spiritual recordings. People were spooked by them but the ones she’d seen were virtually harmless.
Not this shadowy man. He was interacting and intelligent. The beady, fiery eyes, which has sucked the color from the leaves, framed in his dark sockets, told her that. His crooked smile of jagged, yellowed teeth, was beaming malicious intent. When he winked at her, she knew she had an adversary with which to contend.