For an elongated time Jai just walked down the alley very slow and labored. His mind wasn’t in the world, it was in the past. The only place his mother was still alive. His thoughts were on constant replay of various moments. Her voice continued to echo through his mind in various forms. As a disciplinary, a loving mother, through laughter. Jai finally made it to the end of the alley. An image of Selena Simmons seated on the couch came, Jai was eight years old; his head rested on her lap while she stroked his hair. 

“You’re going to make something of yourself, I know it. You’re my baby. You will leave the ghetto and make it!.” She said, the little boy looked up at her as Selena’s hand gently stroked the side of his face.

“But I wanna stay here with you.” The little boy said. Selena smiled looking down at her son.

“There comes a time when a boy puts away childish things and leaves his mother to become a man. Lord knows I will always be there for you.” She leaned down kissing the little boy on the forehead. Jai saw the memory playing out it was too much for him to bear. He slammed himself heavily against the wall sliding down to the ground. He sobbed uncontrollably crying out loud. He slouched hunching over head to the ground.

“Jai…? Jai Simmons…?” A womans voice said in front of him. At first the voice  was distant. “Jai it is you!” She said again, this time with authority causing him to quickly look up seeing a woman standing in front of him looking down. It was Shanikia Williams. “Oh God it is you!” She said stunned. She looked around before kneeling her face close to Jai’s. Her skin was dark, it had a smooth texture, even. Her nose was arrow shaped, the top of the bridge was thin spreading out wider as it got to the tip. Her eyes were dark and feline being large and almond shaped. Large dark lashes curved at the tip. Her lips were full something she was proud of her mother had always called Shanikia’s lips kissing lips. She wore long braids that went halfway down her back. She was small yet her frame was healthy. Her body was the envy of many women who lived in Barret Gardens, and the lust of countless men. But she wanted more out of life, she maintained her virginity even at her current age of twenty two. She was holding out for love. 

Shanikia was a neighbor of Jai’s and they went to high school together. She knew something wasn’t right here, many knew that Selena had been told that Jai was killed at the Army base, a victim of a stray bullet during target practice. Many came to the closed casket services and a few stood up and said a few words about Jai. It was a touching ceremony. Jai was supposed to be dead, she saw his casket. What was going on here? Shanikia was always untrusting of the government it was just her way. And what was going on right now had the smell of something foul.

“Get up, here hold onto my arm!” Shanikia said. She extended her arm to Jai who didn’t take it. “Come on, don’t make a scene! I live just down the street, on Carlson. Keep it together until we get back home!” She looked around making sure that no one was paying attention to what she was doing.

“Momma…” Jai said faintly. “She killed herself over me.” He said pitifully. His face scowled and he began to cry again. Shanikia made sure that no one was watching then she quickly slapped Jai across the face, he wasn’t expecting that. He did not trigger so he actually felt the pain of her strike. But it was what was needed. He stopped crying and took a moment to look up at who had hit him. He squinted focusing on her face.

“Shanikia…?” Jai said weakly. She extended her arm hand reaching down to Jai, he looked at her hand grasping it.

                           Quality of Life

“Life is precious son. The obvious is that human life is important. But so is the quality of life. This is something that has been forgotten in so called civil societies. The wealthy enjoy the best quality of life while the poor may be alive but have the lowest quality of life. Now I’m not saying life is important only because one has wealth. Truth be known you can’t take money with you when you die. But doesn’t everyone deserve fair housing? Good health? To never have to worry about where your next meal comes from? To feel safe? Food stamps never improved anyones quality of life. Neither is social security. I want more for you son, to be able to leave Barret Gardens. Living is something that is precious here in the ghetto, but life is something that is forgotten. Crime of every sort and violence is the cancer of this place. We are trapped here like animals with no true hope of a better quality of life. The only way a better life happens is if you leave this place behind you, start a new one in a better environment. Just don’t do like the few that have left and have indeed improved their quality of life. Those few have stepped forward and never looked back, leaving so many others in hell. Remember where you come from, and extend a hand to someone who is still here. Pull them up and out of the ghetto. You don’t need to do this with a bunch of money, your mental support is far more valuable. So when you go off to the Army seeking a better life, go and find it. Chase your dreams and catch them. Then help someone get stronger legs so they too can become fast enough to chase their dreams and catch them…”

Jai opened his eyes slowly, the words that his mother told him before he left for the Army still residing in his mind. He was lying in a bed the covers over his body halfway, he was shirtless. His eyes stayed glued to the ceiling he took a deep breath then exhaled loudly. The pain of knowing his mother was dead and that she took her own life sapped his strength. He heard footsteps from the other room coming towards him until the door handle turned and the door opened. It was Shanikia. He looked at her sourly and she smiled at him.

“I thought I heard you stirring, bout time you woke up.” She said trying to make the moment lighter. Jai slowly sat up rubbing his face with both hands.

“How long was I asleep?”

“I brought you home yesterday morning, you just woke up the next day a little past seven o’clock pm. I suppose it was much needed rest.” Shanikia walked over to the bed sitting at the edge.

“Where am I?” Jai asked. Shanikia extended her arms in a grand fashion looking about the room.

“My luxurious one bedroom apartment. It may not be much but it’s home. It’s on the top floor so I have a view, although it was a task and a half getting you up three flights of stairs in your condition. This is what I call home.”

Jai moved to the edge of the opposite side of the bed Shanikia was seated and kicked back the covers setting his feet on the ground. He was hunched over for a moment collecting his thoughts. He stood up the cover fell from him, it was then he realized he was naked.

“Where are my clothes?” Jai asked.

“Downstairs in the dryer, you’re welcome.” He yanked the top sheet off and covered his body in it then walked over to the window parting the curtains looking outside. “If I had known you would be an asshole for me helping you I would’ve let you sit and rot in that alley. I took off from work today just to nurse you back to your feet, and spent money at the corner store to make you a hot meal!” Shanikia said angrily. Standing up she crossed her arms, Jai continued to look out of the window.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be an asshole. Just a lot on my mind.”

“No shit, for starters how are you walking around living and breathing if you’re buried six feet under? I was at your funereal over two years ago!” Shanikia asked. Jai continued looking outside.

“I don’t know if I should tell you. The more I say, the more in danger you become. For now I just need my space please. I’ll get out of your hair as soon as I can.”

Shanikia stared at Jai’s back for a moment waiting for more but he never spoke or turned around. She turned and walked out of the room. “Diner is ready!” She yelled from the hallway.

                               The news
Over the next few weeks Jai was back to normal but was still struggling with the loss of his mother. His guilt was heavy over the fact that if he had not went into the Army none of this would ever have happened. A routine occurred over the time Jai was staying with Shanikia. She would get up at six am and leave by seven. She worked until three and Murphy’s the large retail company as a cashier. The pay wasn’t good but Shanikia didn’t mind, it was enough to pay the bills. She would come home by six pm. It wouldn’t take so long if she had a car, but she had to ride a bus. She had to make two transfers in order to make it home. While she cooked for her and Jai she would be doing her online college courses for a few hours per day. Jai wondered if the online courses would pay off like the commercial said it would. As he watched Shanikia’s daily routine he understood what his mother was saying about how life was precious and the quality of it. Shanikia worked hard, she wanted more out of life. The American way was all about if you worked hard you’d get ahead. But there was a lot of hard working Americans who were still very poor. So there was more to it than just hard work. Shanikia wanted a better quality of life but Jai wondered if she would really even achieve it. The odds were against her. He hoped that she would. The two seemed to bond over the time spent and Shanikia gave respect and didn’t ask about his private life.

The day went as they always had. Shanikia would go off to work, Jai would sit and struggle all day with how his life was and on top of that the death of his mother. He sat back on the living room couch turning the tv on to distract his mind. He did not like sitting around while Shanikia was at work. Although they may not have been dating it just felt wrong. His feelings for Shanikia was growing but he new better. Soon he’d have to leave. A he flipped through the channels a heading for the local news caught his eye. It said: neighbor in Barret Gardens claims to have seen ghost of dead Army recruit.” Jai turned up the volume. It was Mr. Clarke standing by the back porch of Jai’s old house, he was pointing at the porch.

“And I thought it was some drug addict tryin to get in the house, cuz I seen so many others goin in there to steal copper.”

The news reporter stood beside Mr. Clarke holding a microphone. “And you say you know for sure it was the ghost of Jai Simmons?” The reporter asked.

“Look, I accidentally shot him in the face. The bullet didn’t kill him! And he moved so quick only a ghost moves like that!”

Jai turned the tv off sitting back he realized that he had to leave in the morning.

Jai and Shanikia sat at the small round dinner table silently eating the dinner she had cooked. Since she got home she felt something was out of the ordinary but she waited to say anything. She felt uncomfortable and she didn’t know why. Just as she was about to say something.

“I have to leave in the morning!” Jai blurted out. Shanikia looked up quickly while chewing the food in her mouth. Jai stared at her intently.

“I knew it was coming. I mean you left before didn’t you? None of the niggas that leave ever come back. They go off to do better things and marry white women.” Shanikia said it calmly. She didn’t mean what she said, but her feelings where hurt. She had started liking Jai, and she felt that it was mutual.

“No, it’s not like that. I’m doing this for your own safety!”

Shanikia stood up gripping her plate that was still full of food. Walking over to the sink she tossed the plate in.

“Yea, you told me that already…” She replied. Jai stood up and walked behind her. She didn’t turn to face him.

“When I was still in basic training I saw a post in the barracks. It called for open try outs for a particular type of special training.” He paused a moment, Shanikia turned around facing him. He continued to tell her the entire story of what he endured at the private base in Hawaii, and his escape up to the point where Shanikia found him in the alley. She never interrupted Jai, when he was done she leaned back against the sink.

“So you have some kind of super hero powers?” She finally spoke bewildered by it all.

“If you want to call it that.”

“And this Griffin Core is searching for you? To take you back?”

“It’s all true, everything I told you.” He went to the cabinet opening the drawer where the eating utensils were grabbing a long knife. “Here…” He turned and gave it to Shanikia. “Now stab me as hard as you can in my chest.”

Shanikia took a step back dropping the knife to the ground horror was on her face. “No, are you crazy?” She said shocked by Jai’s request.

Jai reached down grabbing the knife. Without warning he reversed the knife and quickly stabbed himself in the stomach. The knife bent making a chipping sound on impact as if it had just struck metal. He raised the knife Shanikia’s eyes glued on the bent tip in disbelief. Reaching out she took the knife staring at it before speaking.

“Oh my God! But then that means you are really dying too!” Her hand covered her mouth. Jai smiled sourly.

“I have it down to a T now, I feel connected to the nanites; they communicate to me. I know when the last time will be.”

Shanikia looked up at Jai with true concern. “How many more before…?” She didn’t want to say before you die. Jai forced a smile at her.

“I triggered to prove to you that I was speaking the truth. That leaves only one more time before the end.”

Shanikia walked up to him standing right in his face. “You said the nanites or whatever they are, they communicate with you? Can’t you just tell the damn things to stop?”

“They aren’t alive, they are like machines. They don’t talk to me, they just transmit information. Professor Fredericks was right, the nanites are fighting to take back over my body. But my body refuses to relinquish power. Because of this tug of war the nanites work overtime to attempt a hostile take over. They may have bonded with my body but I guess the human body is more powerful than man made engineering. So when I leave in the morning, I will be walking out instead of flying. I won’t trigger again. I’ll just have to try to stay hidden until the Professor can get ahold of me.”

“But that might not be ever!” Shanikia said desperately.

“Well I have to hold onto faith. But now you see why I can’t stay here. I can’t protect you like I want to. And you’ve already done so much for me.”

Shanikia grabbed both of his hands holding them firmly. Neither knew what to say at that point. There was only silence. She stared at him her eyes roving about studying Jai’s face. Then she leapt forward kissing him deeply. His arms instinctively wrapped around her body. He was surprised that he could feel the warmth of her body, the softness of her skin. He had an erection while he was pressed close to her, kissing her passionately. Neither wanted to fight this moment, both gave in to their desires.