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She was a young woman with dark chocolate skin. She wore pearls around her neck that contrasted nicely to her black dress. Her hair was pulled up into a bun and her white gloved hands held a floppy hat to her head. She smiled at the ground, her lips curved slightly upward. She was standing in the middle of a street that seemed to come from the 1920’s. She was confused.
Carlotta Hemp was a 16 year old black girl from Brooklyn NY in the year of 2007. She had a family of 8. Her mother, her father, her three older brothers, herself, a younger sister, and a baby brother. She went to a trashy school with the cream of the crop form the ghetto and she spoke fluent thug. She had been born in the middle of a heat wave, so she hated summer, her favorite ice cream was moose tracks, and she cried while watching the 6th Sense. She was normal in a toughened NYC sort of way and she prided herself on that.
Carlotta had been in art looking over photographs from her families past because it was a grade and she wanted to pass and go on to college, despite what the city threw at her. Course, the next thing she knew, she was standing in the middle of the street on a hot summers day in a long sleeved dress and gloves, holding a floppy hat to her head and smiling at the ground because the sun was in her eyes. She heard someone protest, “Oh Lottie child, don’t look away from the camera while I’m taking the picture!”
Carlotta looked up and saw an older woman with pale white skin that hung around her cheekbones, clutching a camera in her thin fingers and frowning at Carlotta.
“Who are you?” Carlotta asked, pulling her hands away from the floppy hat.
“Now Lottie there is no need to be rude! I know I promised to take you to the new department store, but one picture for my mantle is hardly worth getting upset over!”
“No seriously, who are you?” she asked again.
“Fine Lottie, I’ll play your little game! I’m Nina, your grandmother. Now come along dear,” the woman said, grabbing Carlotta’s arm and pulling her along.
Carlotta let herself be towed down the street until an old man rasped, “I know what you are. Go back, don’t come here and bring your problems with you!”
Turning, Carlotta looked at the man. He was bald on the top of his head, but a white ring of full lined the back. His eyebrows were thick and pulled together while his mouth was set in a mean line.
“Oh Mr. McGruff, you know my granddaughter Carlotta, so stop scaring her. Poor child has had enough to deal with!” Nina huffed, letting go of Carlotta’s arm.
“Who am I? Why am I here? What am I?” Carlotta asked, stepping toward Mr. McGruff in earnest.
He reared forward in his creaking rocker, a weird ensemble next to his bright, clean tuxedo. “You, my child, know nothing; understand nothing, so you hide! You are an imposter! Go back! Do not let your problems cause us harm!”
“Oh Mr. McGruff, you are so filled with nonsense. Come along Lottie, Mr. McGruff has no idea what he’s saying,” Nina said, propelling Carlotta forward from the back.
Carlotta went to the store with Nina. She shopped and bought two “nice dresses” that she was sure were made of cardboard. She lived the day out totally confused, but without incident. She tried numerous times to go home, but nothing worked. After running as hard as she could into a door, she knew that getting back wound not be easy.
She managed to escape from Nina at night, claiming that she needed the fresh air. She walked into town and found the center as that she remembered being in that day. She wandered aimlessly until she saw the rocker that Mr. McGruff had been sitting in only hours before, and she rushed to knock on the door of the grey house it sat in front of.
“Looking for me, little Lottie?” the old mans voice rasped from behind her.
Carlotta jumped and spun around. “Mr. McGruff, you have to help me! You are the only one who seems to know that I am not from here! You have to help me get home, I can’t do it! I don’t know how!”
“Ahh, poor little Lottie, lost all by her lonesome,” he recited, smiling at her.
“This is not a joke Mr. McGruff! I need to get home!” Carlotta half screamed.
“No it is not a joke little Lottie, not a joke at all. You do need to go home, but I can’t help you get there. Only you know how, all I can do is figure out why you are here in the first place, and what it might take to get you out. Come inside, I will explain it to you there,” he said, almost sadly.
They walked into his house and he sat Carlotta down in an old armchair. Leaning back on the couch he said, “You see child, all people who come through here come through for a reason. Their lives aren’t what they wanted, someone died and they couldn’t cope, something along those lines. Most of them leave, some of them never figure out what got them here in the first place, so they never leave. They are stuck in here forever, their own personal fantasy. You see, this is the place of a rest, a place to think about it, understand it, relax, and then go back. This is a place that exists outside of time, it is hidden and used only as a refuge for those who need to get away. You are here for some reason or another, and you must understand what that is before you can leave.”
“Why did you tell me not to bring my troubles here? Why did you yell?” Carlotta asked, leaning forward.
“Oh, that was for Nina’s sake. Nina always tries to pull people like you in. Nina loves more people, so she yanks them in. Did it to me same as she would do it to you. Nothing to it for Nina. She pretends that you were here all along. Says something like you’re her granddaughter, or sister or uncle, anything to make you doubt who you really are. The really weak ones fall for it, like me. I was once James Monroe, the prodigal son of Mark Monroe, but I didn’t want what they wanted and I was confused. I got pulled in here and Nina pretended I was her best friend’s son. She was wonderful, until I realized what I had let her do, and then she wasn’t so nice. If she knows that you’re here talking to me, she will spitting mad,” Mr. McGruff said, not to upset about what he’d just announced.
“So all I need to do is figure out why I’m here, and I’ll be able to get back?” Carlotta asked, not sure.
“Yes, but it’s not that easy little Lottie. You’re here for a reason, same as everyone else, you just don’t know it. You might think you want to go home, but if you’re here, you wanted to escape it in the first place,” he answered.
“Okay, I can do that,” she announced, more to herself then to him.
He just smiled and nodded, closing his eyes. Carlotta, sensing that their discussion was over, got up and left, thinking the whole time.
When she looked back on the 10 days that went by after that, she would think of how stupid she was for not realizing it sooner. But on that 10th day she got it.
She was walking down the road in a pink short sleeved dress, wearing white gloves and a floppy hat, laughing with Nina when she understood. She was no longer Carlotta Hemp, or at least not the Carlotta Hemp that she had been before. She was Carlotta Hemp, a 16 year old girl who loved plain strawberry ice cream. Who laughed when listening to blue’s records, and lit up when talking to an old man named Mr. McGruff. She spoke gentle and fluent English, and she knew that she would someday be a historian. She had 8 people in her family and she loved summer for the time it was. She was young, alive, happy and free. She was normal by any standards and was proud of that.
Mr. McGruff had been right, it had been staring her in the face to begin with, she just hadn’t looked right at it. Hadn’t smiled into it and let it immerse her in its light. As she walked down the street, eating ice cream and listening to the chatter of the world around her, she knew what she had to do.
“Nina! Take my picture!” she cried.
Nina smiled her agreement and took a stance with the sun behind her. Pulling her camera up to her eyes she counted, “1, 2, 3!”
Carlotta looked straight into the lens, her chin up, and smiled.