It was late, but Tobyn Wolfe didn’t care.
She climbed down the rickety, old fire escape attached to her bedroom window and jumped the last few feet to the ground, her skirt flying up and showing too much of everything, but luckily there was no one around to see. She had on black fishnet stockings with her black skirt, and a black jacket over her shredded black tank top. The only color on her body was the blue streak in her short, curly afro, and she liked that everything about her blended into the night. She turned up the music in her headphones and couldn’t help but sing along, loudly, as she jogged to the end of her alley and then the end of her block, waiting at the bus stop to catch the one that would take her to her sister’s apartment.
Tobyn didn’t care about the stares she got when she sang out loud in public. In fact, she welcomed them. She loved to be the center of attention—loved to be looked at and watched. It was why she’d first joined the Harlem High Notes, the a cappella group at school. And it was why she dreamed about being famous—recording an album and going on tour—why she wanted it all so badly.
The ride passed quickly. When she got to her stop, Tobyn stepped off the bus with her songbook (a worn notebook full of her original lyrics) in one hand and her phone in the other. She texted her sister, Walking
, as she started down the block that led to Devyn’s apartment. She was actually on time for once, so she knew her sister wouldn’t be expecting her yet. The thought of catching Devyn off guard gave Tobyn a little thrill. She liked being underestimated. She liked surprising people, and she loved being surprised, too.
Noelle Lee had surprised Tobyn. They were friends and had been for years. But ever since Noelle had placed her wide palms on either side of Tobyn’s face and kissed her after the fall showcase last semester, Tobyn couldn’t get her friend’s hands out of her head.
Noelle’s hands were dark-skinned and long-fingered and bigger than Tobyn’s. They were cello hands, perfect for moving along the instrument’s long neck, and her nails were always painted (by Lux) so they looked like works of art. Tobyn had tiny hands with short, stubby fingers that gripped a microphone fine but weren’t elegant at all. As she walked, Tobyn thought about her hands holding Noelle’s, how her lighter brown skin would look next to the deep ebony of her friend’s. Things had been fine between them for the last couple of months; calm, and easy, and oddly normal. But it didn’t change the fact that Tobyn thought about Noelle way more than she used to. And she didn’t know what, if anything, she should do about that.
It was a school night, but lately Tobyn cared less and less about staying out. With her mom working the night shift, it was easy to get away with doing whatever she wanted. She used the fire escape to leave so that her keys would be in the dish by the front door just in case her mom came home earlier than she expected. Climbing the fire escape and sneaking in through her bedroom window meant she could get into bed without needing to pass her mother’s bedroom, or opening the creaky front door. She went to shows as if she’d already graduated, not making it home until the sun was rising, like she didn’t need to be at Augusta Savage School of the Arts a few hours later. And she drank a lot
of coffee to keep it all together.
Outside Devyn’s building, Tobyn lifted her finger to her sister’s buzzer just as a tall guy pushed his way through the door. He held it open for her, so she eased inside with her hand against the wall. She tapped her fingers along the railing as she skipped up the three flights that led to Devyn’s apartment, humming along with the song playing in her headphones.
She knocked and waited. Knocked again and waited longer. It was the first time she was hanging out with Devyn in forever, and she was excited but nervous. She and her sister used to be really close, but over the last year Tobyn had felt more and more space opening up between them. Tobyn wondered if Devyn had forgotten about their plans tonight, like she had when Tobyn told her about the fall showcase back in November, and when Tobyn had saved for months and bought two tickets to a show their favorite band was performing on New Year’s Eve. It wouldn’t be the first time her sister let her down, but it made a part of her heart ache to think it might be happening again.
She took out her phone and sent Devyn another text. Yo I’m here.
After what seemed like far too long, and still with no one coming to answer the door, Tobyn tried the knob. It turned easily and slid open.
“Hello? Dev?” Tobyn called into the apartment. It opened into a short hallway, and the living room was on the right, the kitchen on the left. “Anyone home?”
Devyn’s head poked out of the living room. Her hair was all fuzzy, streaked with red instead of blue like Tobyn’s. (Devyn had added the streak of blue to Tobyn’s hair. Whenever she needed a touch-up, Tobyn would text Dev. When her sister stopped by and tilted her head over the small bathroom sink to bleach the roots and reapply the sky-colored dye, it made Tobyn feel like things between them might get back to how they used to be.)
“Oh, hey,” Devyn said. Her eyes looked sleepy, and her lids seemed heavier than they normally were, but Devyn walked over to her sister and wrapped her in a bear hug. Devyn kissed Tobyn’s forehead and spun her around before they bumped their hips together; a little dance they’d been doing to greet each other since they were small.
“Sorry I’m early,” Tobyn said, smirking. “Surprised you, right?”
“You could say that,” Devyn agreed.
“We still going out?” Tobyn asked. She looked at her sister’s clothes, which seemed like something she’d wear to bed. She glanced at her sister’s sleepy eyes again. “I thought you had tickets to a show?”
“Oh yeah,” Devyn said, like she was just remembering. “Sorry, I’ve been kinda hungover all day.” They’d been talking about checking out this singer/songwriter for weeks, since they first heard she’d be playing a show at the club around the corner from Devyn’s place. Tobyn took a few deep breaths to hide her frustration.
Tobyn looked around the apartment. It was messier than usual, and her sister, who normally loved getting all dressed up and going out, wasn’t ready. She didn’t even have her contacts in yet, so she was squinting at her phone. Tobyn grabbed Devyn’s hand.
“Dev, you good? Everything okay?”
Devyn’s eyes seemed distracted. She pulled her hand away. “Yeah, of course. Everything’s fine.”
Tobyn didn’t believe her. The Wolfe women—their mother, Sabrina, Tobyn, and Devyn—were all stubbornly good at keeping secrets. It was why Tobyn never showed anyone her song book. Tobyn knew it was why their mother never talked about their father. And it was why Devyn was lying now. So instead of trying to force the truth out of her sister, Tobyn said, “Soooo . . . I think I have a crush on Noelle.”
“What?” Devyn replied with a smile. “You serious?”
Tobyn nodded. “Remember I told you she kissed me?”
“Uh, how could I forget?” Devyn said.
Tobyn laughed. “Well, ever since then, I don’t know. I just think about her more. Differently.”
Devyn bit her bottom lip and grinned. Tobyn thought she looked more like herself in that moment—like she did on stage with her band: mischievous, brave, and ready to show the best parts of herself to the world.
“Follow your heart, little sis. This is the only life you get,” Devyn said, and then, “Oh, wait, I got you something.”
Devyn pulled a small box out of her dresser drawer and handed it to Tobyn. “What’s this for?” Tobyn asked.
“Just open it,” Devyn said. She bounced on her tippy toes.
Inside, Tobyn found a small charm bracelet with a shiny gold microphone dangling from one of the links. “Whoa,” Tobyn said. “This is beautiful.”
“I saw it and had to get it,” Devyn told her. “It’s so you.”
“This looks expensive. You sure you can afford it? It’s been awhile since the band had a big gig, right?” Devyn’s band, Boys Behaving Badly, had been getting better and better, but recently Devyn had been oddly quiet whenever Tobyn asked if they had any gigs coming up.
Devyn waved her off. “Doesn’t matter. I’ve been singing on the subway like we used to, to make a little extra cash. Besides, I want you to have something to remember me by.”
“Remember you by?” Tobyn said, frowning.
Devyn hesitated for a second, but then she laughed. “You know. When you go away for school.”
“Oh,” Tobyn said. “Well, I don’t even know if I’m going to college next year. But you don’t have to buy me things, Dev. We could just hang out more.”
Devyn picked at a hole in her shorts. “Sometimes I wonder if hanging out with you at all is a good idea.”
Tobyn slipped the bracelet out of the box and onto her wrist. It was a perfect fit. “What does that mean?” Tobyn asked.
“Nothing,” Devyn said, shaking her head. She reached out, touched the tiny microphone, and glanced up at Tobyn, who smiled.
“This bracelet is so freaking cute,” Tobyn said, lifting her arm to look at it more closely. “You the best,” she said.
“Glad ya like it,” Devyn said.
Tobyn sat on Devyn’s bed and watched her sister get dressed. Devyn had light brown skin like Tobyn, the same gently freckled shoulders, and long, wavy, dark brown hair. Her sister redid her bun, taming all the fuzzy hairs with edge control and a tough-bristled brush, then slipped into a pair of ripped jeans and an off-the-shoulder green shirt that made her brown eyes seem even browner.
“Where’s your roommate?” Tobyn asked.
“Spending the night with her boyfriend, but she said she might meet us at the show.”
Devyn had always been curvy, but Tobyn noticed her sister’s jeans sagging a little, in a way they normally didn’t. “Are you like on a diet or something?” Tobyn asked.
Devyn laughed but didn’t answer.
Copyright © 2021 by Ashwin Writing LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.