Avarice — Chapter 1

The light from Miami’s sweltering sun bounced off the diamonds on Zen’s watch, almost blinding her as she pushed thirty miles per hour down a residential street. Her right hand on the steering wheel and the left one hanging out the window, she nodded to the beat of a Trick Daddy record and yawned. The heavy bass shaking the seat beneath her kept her from drifting off behind the wheel of her Range Rover, but she wasn’t sure how much longer she’d be able to stay awake. While it wasn’t the first time she’d slept less than ten hours all week, it was the first time she’d done so because she couldn’t sleep, not because she didn’t want to.

Zen whipped into an empty parking space outside of the Skyline Village apartment complex. She got out of the car, bypassed the children and older women hanging around the parking lot, and headed up the narrow staircase outside the building. She adjusted her glasses as she walked, careful not to let her heels touch the litter lining the steps, a task made difficult by the fact that she wouldn’t dare lay a finger on the rickety, discolored handrail.

She approached apartment 337 and knocked five times. The door to the right opened as she waited, and a light-skinned man around her age poked his head out and smiled. She returned his grin and put out a fist to dap him up. “I haven’t seen you in a minute, Nate. Where have you been?”

Nate stepped outside and shook his head. “Twelve was sweating me heavy. Heard about my lil business, I guess, so I had to lay low and get that heat off me. I’m back to the money, though, baby girl. You tryna cop something? Pretty girls like you can’t be out here without protection.”

“Pretty girls like me have boyfriends who beat ass first and ask questions later. I’m good on a gun.”

“You know where to find me if that changes.” He kissed the top of Zen’s head and banged on the door in front of her with an open palm. “Aye, Zianna’s out here!” He continued knocking, prompting the dog on the other side of the door to bark and claw at the wood. “Muse!”

The door opened, and Zen came face to face with her twin sister. Dressed in nothing but a bra, sweatpants, and the headphones around her neck, Muse blasted an old rock song so loud that Zen was surprised she’d heard anything at all.

After thanking Nate, Zen hugged Muse and entered the unit, stepping over Jacob, the four-pound Havanese, as he pawed her legs. She bent over to pick him up before taking a seat on the couch.

Muse sat beside Zen and tossed her headphones onto a beanbag chair. Running her fingers down the length of her bone-straight blue hair, she laid her legs across Zen’s lap and sighed. “I went to my callback audition earlier. I didn’t get the part, but the casting director is going to keep me in mind for a play he’ll be working on next year.”

“You’ll get the next one.” Zen looked around the apartment. She’d always thought it looked out of place in Muse’s neighborhood. Her sister kept her home clean and decorated in art rather than scattered bullet shells. Not one to sit at home knowing there was an entire world to explore, Muse hadn’t bothered buying more than basic furniture and a television, but the apartment’s minimalist design didn’t make it any less cozy. “I think a rapper Joey knows is shooting a music video soon. I’ll send him your pictures or see if they could use another videographer.”

“Appreciate it.” Muse moved her feet to the Sailor Moon-themed skateboard protruding from beneath the couch and lifted Zen’s watch until it was within an inch of her eyes. “Hakeem’s coming to get me in a little bit. Did you come over for a reason?” she asked as she stood and walked toward the kitchen. “I’m getting water. You want something?”

“Unless you’re eating meat now, no to both. I just came from school and wanted to see how you were doing.” Zen reached over to the coffee table beside the couch, moved the case of green contact lenses Muse swore she didn’t need at home, and grabbed a pile of envelopes. Each one was from a utility company, and she was able to count two final notices before Muse returned and pulled the letters out of her hand. “You’re not paying your bills?”

“I got an extension for the light and water bills. Cable is going off tomorrow, but I’ll be able to pay the rent on Thursday. I’m good.”

“Why is your light bill six hundred dollars if you’ve been paying it?”

“Why are you stressing over it when I’m not?”

“Because the sky could be falling and you’d find something positive about the situation.” Zen snatched the bills back. “I’m gonna pay these for you.”

“No.” Muse reached for the envelopes, but Zen stood, tightening her hold on Jacob, and held them away from her. “I’m twenty-one years old. I can pay my own bills.”

“I can’t help my sister just because she’s twenty-one? I’m gonna pay them. Chill.” Zen stuffed the bills into a back pocket. “You haven’t gotten an acting job all year. People aren’t adding saxophones to their songs anymore. You don’t charge enough for photoshoots and videos. You can barely make ends meet while paying off your loans. You know what you should do?”

“You mean besides hit a club and make something shake?”

Zen rolled her eyes. “Move to Morningside and live with me. The guest bedroom is yours if you want it.”

“Absolutely not. I can take care of myself. I’m not gonna mooch off of you.”

“Then don’t mooch off of me. Give me two hundred a month and keep my apartment clean. You dont want an eviction on your record. Besides, I miss living with you, and I hate this neighborhood. Liberty City isn’t safe, babes.”

Muse rested her head in her hands and shrugged. “Josiah won’t mind?”

“Joey doesn’t get a say in what I do with my apartment. His opinion only matters at his place.”

“I’ll think about it. But I’m not giving you two hundred a month. I’ll give you five and pay two bills.”

“I’m not taking five hundred dollars from you every month. I don’t need your money.”

“And I don’t need your handouts.”

“It’s not a handout. I want you to make your money work for you. I’m not getting a whole-ass finance degree so my sister can make bad financial decisions. I already sat back and watched you go into debt for degrees in music and film production.”

Muse laughed. “I haven’t been out of school long enough for you to call my degrees a waste of money. Give it a year.” She looked up at Zen and nodded. “Three hundred a month, plus cable and household products. Deal?”

“Deal. Take a few days to pack up while I find someone you can sublet the unit to.”

“You’re the best, Zen.” Muse started to hug her sister, but she frowned and gripped her chin instead. After studying Zen’s face for a few seconds, she said, “Go to sleep tonight. You won’t be happy until you’re in the hospital because of exhaustion.”

Zen sat Jacob on the floor, stood, and waved Muse off. “I’m tutoring someone at my place in a few, and then I’m working at the club from nine to two. Pull up around midnight? I’ll get you and Hakeem in for free.”

“Whatever. See you tonight. By the way, I really like that hoodie.”

On her way to the door, Zen pulled her hoodie over her head and threw it over her shoulder to Muse, never breaking her stride. She grabbed one of Muse’s jackets from another small table and used it to cover her tank top. “Later.” She let herself out of the apartment and went back downstairs to her car. 

Still tired, she couldn’t wait to get through her hour-long tutoring session and at least try to take Muse’s advice before heading to her bartending job at Club Hestia. She considered calling out that day but was happy she hadn’t. While she would have no problem covering Muse’s bills with the money in her savings account, she knew the decrease in her reserves would make her nervous every time she checked her balance. She hated when her rainy-day fund fell below ten thousand dollars, and Muse’s expenses would set her back at least fifteen hundred.

Zen pulled out of the parking lot and honked at the white Toyota that drove in as she left. The car wasn’t uncommon and she couldn’t see the driver’s face, but the abundance of thick, brown, 3C curls on the man’s head let her know it was Muse’s friend Hakeem. He honked back and waved.

Focusing on the road, Zen flipped down the sun visor and let out a sharp breath, knowing that her agreement with Muse would lead to a tense conversation with her boyfriend. She just hoped she’d be able to deal with it another day. She couldn’t deal with Joey when she was that tired. Neither of them would care to hear the other out.

Zen took a series of back roads to avoid traffic on her way to the city’s Upper Eastside, cutting what would have been a half-hour ride in half. Upon pulling into her designated parking space, she found her boyfriend’s truck in the guest spot next to it and wasn’t sure how to feel about his presence. She gathered her belongings in a hurry and exited the vehicle.

Waving at her neighbors once inside the building, she boarded the elevator and pressed the second-floor button. Unlike the area Muse lived in, Morningside was quiet. Save the biweekly barbecue one of her neighbors held and the occasional lovers’ quarrel between an older white couple on Zen’s floor, there wasn’t much commotion around her apartment building. The complex smelled of a different flower every morning—lavender that day—and the only crime she saw on a regular basis was committed by the police officer who dropped by with an open wallet to see McKinley on the fourth floor every Saturday.

Zen unlocked her door and stepped inside. She dropped her keys and emptied her pockets into a glass bowl on a table in the center of the living room. “Baby?” As she walked farther into the unit, the calming sounds of an R&B record grew louder, and she followed the sound to her guest bedroom. She strolled through the open door to find Joey sitting in front of his iMac, one hand on the mouse and the other on top of a speaker, and her tutoring client standing beside him. The girl’s head bounced in approval.

“Dude came by and recorded this last week. I had sent him the beat a couple days before, and he had a song ready that same night.” Joey turned the music up. “He’s working on a lil album and wants me to produce the whole thing. I’m with it. This is hot.”

Hailey flung her hip-length hair over her shoulder and shifted her weight to one leg. “Did I tell you that I sing?”

“Oh, word?”

“Yup. I recorded a little EP in high school. There are a few songs I’d like to redo. I love this setup and how your recordings sound. Can I book a session with you?”

“One thousand for an exclusive, custom beat. Ninety dollars for every hour in the studio. Two-hour minimum.” Joey sat his Heat cap on the desk, leaned his head back, and looked at Hailey. “Sound good?”

“That’s what you charge everyone?”

Joey lifted his tall, chubby frame out of the chair. “You’re paying for my experience, bomb quality, and industry-standard equipment. You want that sound? Gotta drop some paper on it.”

Though her wide eyes showed her hesitation, Hailey said, “I’ll have my dad send some money next week,” and picked up one of the business cards beside Joey’s computer.

“Bet.” Joey stopped the music and turned toward the door. “What—you shy all of a sudden? Show me some love.”

Zen left her position by the door and moved toward Joey. She stood on the tips of her toes to kiss him, and then she rested her head on his chest. “I didn’t want to interrupt you while you were talking business.” She turned to Hailey. “You’re early. Ready to get started?”

“Uh-huh. Commercial bank management is kicking my ass, and I have a test next Monday. I need all the help I can get.”

“Send the money for the session and wait in the living room. I’ll be out in a few minutes. I need to talk to Joey.”

Hailey left the room, and both Zen and Joey watched her small hips sway as she left. Once they were alone, Zen closed and leaned against the door. “That’s what you charge everyone, huh? Last I checked, beats were eight hundred and sessions were seventy-five an hour.”

“You forgot the colonizer fee,” Joey said with a smile. “Gotta get those reparations somehow, right?”

Zen chuckled. “I’m not mad at it, baby.”

“What’d you wanna talk about?”

Zen’s smile faded. “You can’t get upset, okay? I just came from Muse’s place.”

Joey huffed. “I already don’t like this conversation, ma.”

“She’s falling behind on her bills. She hasn’t been getting much work lately. I think it would be good for her to come and—”

“No.”

“Joey, she’s barely surviving right now. You know how my sister is.”

“You’re right. I know exactly how Muse is. She lives in a damn fantasy land where people don’t need real jobs because their sisters will swoop in and rescue them whenever reality comes knocking. And she’s never going to grow up, because your ass keeps babying her, Zianna.”

“I’m not babying Muse. I’m helping her. You’d help your sisters.”

Joey ran a large hand down his face. “What about the studio? This is how I make my money. I don’t have anywhere else to set up my equipment, and the money I make from teaching isn’t gonna cut it. You know that.”

“You can’t ask me to watch my sister struggle just so you can make a few extra dollars.”

“A few extra…” Joey pinched the bridge of his nose. “We’re going to lose the money I put in your hands every month. Date night is gone, and so are all those unexpected gifts you love so much. In case you didn’t realize it, elementary school teachers aren’t rolling in money. My paper comes from the music. I won’t have a lot of excess funds without it.”

“Muse doesn’t have a lot of excess funds either. If you’re asking me to choose between a movie every week and my sister’s wellbeing, I have bad news. I don’t know how we’ll make up the money, but Muse is moving in. And she said she’ll pay me to stay here.”

Joey scoffed. “And you believed her?”

“Of course not. Don’t be stupid. She’ll pay when she can. She’s not a liar. We just can’t trust that she’ll be able to do it often.”

“You’re telling me not to be stupid when you’re giving up all this money for nothing? You’re messing with my pockets because your sister is banking on her worthless-ass degrees getting her somewhere in life.” Joey crossed his arms. “You think this relationship will work if we take money out of the equation? You like nice shit, Zen, and I like being able to make sure getting it isn’t a burden.”

“My hustle didn’t stop when I met you. With or without your money, I’m straight. But making my money requires me to leave this room and help Hailey, so you need to take this crybaby bullshit out of my apartment, because I said what I said. Muse is in. The studio is out. Bye, Josiah.”

Joey’s nostrils flared, and his right hand found one of his studio monitors. Before Zen could blink, he flung the thousand-dollar piece of equipment into the wall. She jumped at the sound of it breaking, and Joey stormed out of the room, ducking to get through the doorway. Seconds later, the front door slammed shut.

Her eyes trained on the door and a hand over her racing heart, Zen went into the living room.

“Everything alright between you two?” Hailey asked from her position on the loveseat. “You okay?”

Zen nodded. “I’m good. We’re good.” She sat beside Hailey and picked up her textbook. “Joey’s just being Joey. He’ll get over it.”

“If you want him to get over it a little sooner, I’m always available.” Hailey smirked. “I’d rather it just be you, but I know how you guys get down, so if he has to be there, that’s okay too.” Her eyes moved to Zen’s lips, and she leaned forward to touch them with her own.

Zen put a hand on Hailey’s arm and pushed her away. “I don’t cross that line when he’s not here. Fall back, alright?”

Hailey’s eyes narrowed, and she pursed her thin lips. “You’re turning me down?”

“Yes, and you better stop looking at me like you’re going to beat my ass over it. You don’t want to have to fight me and my sister. Now, are you trying to learn business or not?”

“Yeah.” Hailey rolled her eyes. “Whatever.”

“Oh, okay.” Zen shook her head and looked down at her watch, anxious to get through the rest of the day and head to Club Hestia that night, where the copious amounts of alcohol behind her counter would be better company than any person she’d encountered that day.

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