The morning that Corey Webb’s past finally caught up with
him, he was taking his daughter to a doctor’s
Tuesday, June 10, began hot, windless, and bright. The clear sky
was cobalt blue, the blistering sun giving it the gloss of a glazed
porcelain bowl. Although it was two weeks before the first day of
summer, the temperature was forecast to peak in the mid-nineties,
the heat worsened by a strength-sapping humidity that would
guarantee thousands of air conditioners cranked to the max
throughout metro Atlanta.
Cool air humming from the vents of his black BMW sedan, Corey
navigated the crawling rush-hour traffic on Haynes Bridge Road in
Alpharetta. His wife, Simone, and their nine-year-old daughter,
Jada, were debating an R&B song that had been playing on the
radio, a track apparently titled “Get Me Some.” Corey
had changed stations within five seconds of hearing the
song’s lewd hook --- and had been treated to Jada singing the
rest of it word for word in a pitch-perfect voice, drawing a gasp
from Simone and a blush from Corey.
“I can’t believe you knew the words to that
awful song, Jada,” Simone was saying. “And you tell me
you can’t recall where you’ve heard it, which I simply
do not accept.”
Corey had to admit that even after all these years, he got a
kick out of watching Simone play mom. With her penny-brown eyes,
jet-black hair styled in a cute bob, milk-chocolate complexion, and
prominent dimples, she might have been a fresh-faced coed, not a
thirty-four-year-old woman with a PhD in clinical psychology.
She was a great mother, though. He liked watching her at
Twisted around in the passenger seat, Simone subjected Jada to
her penetrating gaze and awaited a satisfactory answer.
“Mom, I said somebody at school played it on their
phone,” Jada pleaded from the backseat.
“Who’s this somebody?” Simone asked. Her voice
carried a gentle breeze of her Alabama accent. “Give me a
name. I want to talk to their parents.”
Last month, Jada had completed fourth grade at Alpharetta
Elementary. She currently attended a three-week summer program in
Roswell for gifted students. Nevertheless, high-performing
youngsters, like all other kids, obviously found the time to enjoy
lascivious songs that would have shamed their parents, and they did
it on their cutting-edge cell phones that performed every
conceivable task short of whisking you to the moon.
“Somebody,” Jada said. “I don’t remember
who it was. Everyone in class has a phone except me. When can I get
Corey held back a smile. His girl was a clever one. When you
couldn’t win the debate, change the debate.
“Don’t try to change the subject,” Simone
Jada frowned, caught red-handed. A chuckle slipped out of
Simone turned to him. “Why are you laughing? This is
serious. Your daughter was singing about having
“No, I wasn’t, Mom,” Jada said. “I was
singing about getting some till the morning comes.”
It took every ounce of willpower in Corey to hold back a laugh.
Simone flashed him a deadly, don’t-you-dare-laugh
Corey cleared his throat. “Umm, that’s not the kind
of song you should be singing, Pumpkin. Seriously.”
“Why not?” Jada asked.
“It’s a song for adults, that’s why,”
Simone said. “It’s not appropriate for you to sing.
“Okay,” Jada said with a sigh. “Then I
won’t sing it any more.”
Idly scanning the dashboard, Corey noticed that he had only
twenty miles’ worth of gas left in the tank. A QuikTrip
convenience store was coming up ahead, the fuel service islands
busy as people gassed up on their way to work.
He turned off the road and parked beside the only available
“That time again?” Simone checked the price of the
gasoline, clucked her tongue. “My goodness, remember when it
was less than a buck a gallon?”
“Those bygone days,” he said.
“Can I help you put the gas in, Daddy?” Jada
“Don’t be too long, guys,” Simone said.
“It’s twenty to nine. We can’t be late for our
Outside the car, Corey let Jada slide his debit card into the
card reader slot, enter his PIN, and select the grade of gasoline.
He inserted the spout into the tank, and told Jada the total price
he wanted to pay. Her gaze riveted on the digits climbing on the
price display, she ran her fingers through her cornrows, absently
adjusting the tiny black speech processor hooked behind her left
Jada had been born with profound hearing loss. When she was two
years old, Corey and Simone had arranged a cochlear implant, a
modern medical miracle that served as a prosthetic replacement for
the inner ear, electronically stimulating auditory nerve fibers to
produce a sense of hearing. Years of intensive speech therapy had
enabled Jada to attend mainstream school from kindergarten onward,
and she enjoyed as active a social life as any girl her age ---
Girl Scouts, ballet, play dates, the works.
In spite of her social and academic success, she enjoyed hearing
in only one ear, a condition that posed unique challenges when she
was in environments where sounds came at her from all directions.
That morning, they were taking her to a specialist in Marietta who
would evaluate whether she was a good candidate for a bilateral
implant: a cochlear implant in her other ear.
“Almost there, Daddy,” Jada said.
Corey squeezed in a few more cents and returned the nozzle to
the pump. Jada handed the receipt to him.
“Can I go inside and get something to drink?” she
“Actually, I could use some coffee myself.” He
tapped on Simone’s window. “Want some coffee or juice,
Simone checked her watch; the doctor’s appointment was at
nine fifteen, and she was a stickler about being on time. “If
you can be quick about it, sure, orange juice would be
“You heard your mother,” Corey said to Jada.
“Let’s be quick about it.”
“Yeah!” Jada performed a happy dance.
Together, they went inside the minimart, Jada skipping beside
him, her hand in his, swinging his arm around between them as if he
were a piece of playground equipment. He directed Jada to the
glass-fronted coolers at the back of the store, while he went to
the hot beverage station adjacent to the cash register.
He filled a large Styrofoam cup with coffee and flavored it with
cream and sugar. Checking his watch, he went to collect Jada.
Hands on her hips, she was examining the brands of orange juice
inside the refrigerated display case.
“We’ve gotta go, Pumpkin,” he said.
“I don’t know what kind of orange juice Mom
likes,” she said.
Corey started to reply that Simone liked Tropicana, when he
noticed someone standing in an aisle a few feet away, observing
It was a colossus of a man. Corey stood about five-ten and
weighed a hundred and seventy-five, and this guy had at least six
or seven inches and a hundred pounds on him. Fair-skinned --- what
Grandma Louise liked to call “high yella” --- he wore
faded denim overalls over a white T-shirt, muddy work boots, and a
tattered Atlanta Braves cap cocked on an unkempt, bushy Afro. A
stubbly beard made his pudgy face look soiled.
The guy’s brown eyes were oddly flat, as if they were
painted on his face. But Corey realized the guy wasn’t
looking at him at all.
He was looking at Jada. Gawking at her.
Jada was a beautiful child, but this man’s intense
attention was far from that of an innocently admiring adult. His
was the naked leer of a pervert, a parent’s ultimate
nightmare. Oblivious to Corey standing there, concentrating solely
on Jada, the man licked his lips, his tongue leaving a glistening
trail of saliva.
Disgust and anger wrenched Corey’s gut. He sat his cup on
a shelf, grabbed Jada’s hand and pulled her to his side,
shielding her from the giant stranger.
The pervert blinked as if awakening from a reverie, and only
then did he look at Corey.
His stare was as empty as a scarecrow’s. A chill trickled
down Corey’s spine.
Something’s wrong with this guy, he thought.
Dude’s elevator doesn’t go all the way to the
“Daddy, what is it?” Jada asked. She hadn’t
“We need to go, sweetheart.” He nudged his daughter
along with a firm hand on her back.
“But I wanted apple juice.” She looked over her
“Don’t look back there. We have to go. We’ll
get your apple juice later.”
He ushered Jada outside. The hot air was thick as cotton, but
refreshing compared to the bone-deep chill he’d felt inside
A man called out: “Corey? Corey Webb? That you,
In midstride, Corey stopped. He knew that voice, that piercing
falsetto. He had not heard it in probably fifteen years or so, but
he would never forget it.
Could that be who I think it is?
As other customers brushed past him, he stepped away from the
entrance and turned. Sunlight lanced his eyes. He lifted his hand
to his brow to block the glare.
When his vision adjusted, he saw a man leaning against a
late-model, blue Ford F-150 parked in front of the store. Brown as
a paper bag, he was about six feet tall, leanly muscular, with long
arms webbed with tattoos. He had shoulder-length dreadlocks as
thick as cables, a bushy salt-and-pepper beard, and deep-set,
fiercely intelligent brown eyes. He wore paint-splattered denim
overalls and faded leather work boots.
A cigarette dangled in his spindly fingers. He took a puff and
exhaled a halo of smoke, and just the acrid scent of the tobacco
stirred long-buried memories in Corey’s mind.
“Leon?” Corey asked. He was out of breath, as if
he’d been slugged in the stomach.
The guy flashed a gap-toothed grin, an expression that made his
elongated face appear wolflike.
“It’s moi, the one and only, the great man himself,
live and in the flesh.”
Corey was speechless.
Leon Sharpe, his childhood friend from Detroit, was the last
person he’d ever expected to see again.
And for so many reasons, the last person he’d ever wanted
to see again, too.
“My homeboy, C-Note, well, I’ll be damned.”
Grinning, Leon pushed off the side of the truck and spread his arms
to their full tremendous wingspan. “Gimme some love,
Corey broke his paralysis and gave Leon an awkward brother man
hug --- one arm looped around the back, a solid pound on the
shoulder blades with his fist. Leon smelled of nicotine, hair oil,
and stale sweat.
I’ve gotta be dreaming, Corey thought. If so,
someone please wake me up right this minute.
Stepping back, Leon looked down at Jada. She gazed up at him,
squinting, partly from the sun’s glare, but mostly, Corey
figured, from confusion. None of Corey and Simone’s friends
looked or sounded remotely like Leon. He could only imagine the
questions tumbling through her mind.
“Who’s this little munchkin here?” Leon
“She’s my daughter,” Corey said.
“Hey, cutie.” Leon extended his hand toward
Jada regarded his large hand doubtfully, gaze traveling across
his dirty fingernails and up the colorful tattoos that adorned his
Corey touched her shoulder. “Go wait in the car with your
mother, Pumpkin. Tell her I’ll be there in a
Nodding, Jada ambled across the parking lot, repeatedly glancing
over her shoulder at them with a puzzled frown.
“Good-looking kid you got there,” Leon said.
“Thanks,” Corey said numbly. He cleared his throat,
fighting to overcome a fuzzy sense of unreality. The last time
he’d felt this disoriented, it was when he’d learned
Grandma Louise had died of a heart attack.
But running into Leon after fifteen years, several hundred miles
away from their hometown, had to be the coincidence to end all
Leon looked much different than what Corey remembered. When
Corey had last seen him, his head had been as hairless as a
basketball, and he’d worn a goatee so meticulously trimmed it
might have been drawn with a mechanical pencil. His complexion had
been smooth, his eyes had been bright with wild, youthful
exuberance, and he’d been a sharp dresser, known for sporting
the latest fly clothes, the hottest new sneakers.
The Leon in front of him looked, in a word, tougher. There were
crow’s-feet under his eyes, and a netting of heavy wrinkles
across his forehead and cheeks gave his face the appearance of
sun-weathered leather. Dark hollows ringed his sockets, as if he
rarely slept. And those eyes of his, always fiercely intelligent,
glinted with raw, kinetic energy, reflecting a personality far more
dangerous than the young man Corey remembered --- and that was
saying a lot, because the Leon that Corey recalled was no one that
you wanted to piss off.
Leon took a draw on his cigarette and appraised Corey from head
to toe. “You’re looking good, too. How the hell you
been? It’s been how long? Fifteen, sixteen years?”
“Something like that,” Corey said. “I’ve
been...I’ve been all right.”
“All right?” Leon snickered. “You look like
life’s been treating you exceptionally well, I’d say.
Pushing the new five series Beemer, got the cute kid, the no-doubt
lovely wifey? Do you live in a white castle in the clouds, too?
When did you strike the Faustian bargain?”
Leon let out a high-pitched giggle that sounded as if he’d
inhaled a dose of helium. Same old Leon laugh --- he sounded like
an elf on crystal meth. For a long time, Corey had used to hear
that grating laughter in his nightmares.
“A lot of things have changed since I left Detroit,”
Corey said. He looked at Leon’s Ford truck, and wondered,
automatically, where Leon had stolen it from. “How long have
you been in town?”
“Not long at all, a few weeks, I’ve been living the
knockabout life, you know, dashing from pillar to post, painting
houses, doing odd handyman jobs here and there, trying to make a
dollar out of fifteen cents.” He dropped his cigarette on the
ground and snuffed it out with his boot. “Need any painting
done at your house, man? Seeing you here, all grown up and
spit-shined and polished, I know you’ve gotta be living in a
mansion somewhere, most definitely, a palace, dozens of rooms, and
no doubt the old lady’s been on your back about repainting
some of those rooms, a woman is never satisfied, ever, and
what better way to get it done than to hire your old, trusty
running partner from Motown to do the work? What do you
Listening to Leon’s mercurial patter as sunshine burned
into his skull, Corey began to feel a migraine headache coming
“Listen, ah, Leon, we don’t exactly need any
painting done... right now....”
“I’m only shittin’ you!” Laughing, Leon
slapped his shoulder. “I don’t know how much longer
I’m gonna be in town, anyway, it’s about time to blow
this pop stand and hit the road like Willie Nelson, although, damn,
I’ve gotta say, standing here enjoying a
tête-à-tête with my homeboy from back in the day ...
I might have to change my modus operandi and settle in for a
Heart knocking, Corey looked toward his car at the gas pump. He
could see Simone and Jada watching them, curious about his
prolonged interaction with a man they had never seen before.
He’d given them only sketchy details about the life
he’d left behind in Detroit. They knew that he had no close
family left there, that he’d moved to Atlanta sixteen years
ago, shortly after Grandma Louise’s death. They knew that
he’d never gone back to visit, on the claim that there was
nothing there for him any more.
But they knew nothing whatsoever of Leon. They knew nothing
about the past he shared with this man.
And he’d always wanted to keep it that way. There were
certain forbidden boxes of memories that, over time, he had closed
watertight by sheer force of will, and he’d dared not open
them, for his family’s well-being --- and his own.
But now Leon was here. Driving a new truck that had to be
stolen. Probably in violation of parole for something or other.
Maybe hiding a gun underneath his overalls.
Those hermetically sealed crates of memories were already
starting to creak open.
Corey squinted, listening. He could barely understand what Leon
was saying, and that brought back memories, too. Leon spoke in
dizzying run-on sentences so generously peppered with idioms,
foreign phrases, and archaic pop culture references that Corey had
often found himself totally confused, and agreeing with whatever he
said just to get him to shut up.
Leon said, “Have you been back to Motown, recently? I
haven’t, I severed my ties with the Motor City a few years
ago, cruised into that wild blue yonder and haven’t looked
back, but the last time I was there the downtown scene was
exploding with casinos, nouveau riche tourists crawling through
like so many cockroaches through the projects, and I’m of
half a mind to go back to get a piece of the action for myself, a
fresh and lucrative new hustle of some kind, though at this point
if I ventured back someone might declare me non compos mentis,
I’ll think better of it and keep drinking the wanderlust
Kool-Aid and seeing what life brings to my doorstep, that’s
the way I live, you know, in the moment, right, remember,
“Yeah, sure,” Corey said. He made a dramatic show of
checking his watch. “Listen, Leon, I’ve got to get
going. We have an appointment.”
“All right, all right, all right.” Leon bobbed his
head, dreadlocks swinging. “You have a business card? We
should get together sometime, grab a Heineken or two, reminisce
about how we use to rock and roll back in the day when we were
strapping young bucks, yeah, give me your card, all right, all
Without thinking, wanting only to get away, Corey pulled out his
wallet and withdrew a card. Leon read it. His eyes got as big as
“Gates-Webb Security Services? You own a security
company? You?” Leon laughed his frenetic giggle.
“The irony, my man, the irony is too delicious, the irony is
Corey felt blood rising in his face. “Good seeing you
“Yeah, yeah.” Leon tucked the card into his pocket.
“Yeah, yeah, it’s been real. We gotta get that beer
sometime soon, don’t forget. We ran in to each other for a
reason, there’s no such thing as coincidence, nope,
fate’s slammed us together again and we definitely need to
reconnect, uh-huh, all right.”
Mumbling in agreement, Corey was turning to go when someone
exited the minimart. It was the dull-eyed giant who’d been
ogling Jada. Corey’s chest tightened.
The giant tossed Leon a box of Newports and climbed in on the
passenger side of the pickup.
Jesus. They’re partners?
Leon slid a cigarette out of the pack and fished a
brushed-chrome Zippo lighter out of his pocket. It was a vintage
model, and it was the same one Corey had last seen fifteen years
ago. He would never forget it; the image was fire-branded in his
That old box of memories opened wider.
Leon caught him looking at it, and winked. He struck a flame,
lit his cigarette, and took a slow drag.
“Your lovelies are waiting on you,” Leon said, lips
curved in a smug smile. “Adieu.”
Corey got behind the wheel and gunned the engine. Mashing the
accelerator too aggressively for a parking lot, like a hot-rodding
kid, he peeled away from the gas station.
In the rearview mirror, he spotted Leon waving at him. He
exhaled through clenched teeth.
He still couldn’t believe he had run into Leon, of all
He felt Simone and Jada watching him, felt their questions. He
tried to will his racing pulse to slow, but it was tough.
“Who were you talking to back there?” Simone finally
“Who was that man, Daddy?” Jada said.
Ignoring their questions, as if by doing so they would go away,
he rejoined the sluggish flow of traffic on Haynes Bridge.
That damn cigarette lighter. He couldn’t get it out of his
head. What the hell kind of point had Leon been trying to make? Was
he taunting him? Making a joke?
With that sick bastard, you never could tell.
He wished he hadn’t given Leon his business card. What had
he been thinking? He had reacted to Leon’s request as
automatically as he did when someone extended their hand to be
shaken or asked how his day was going. Responding in kind was the
ingrained, socially correct thing to do.
But he worried about it. If Leon decided to stop by his
No, he won’t do that.
But it was an empty attempt at self-assurance. The truth was, he
didn’t know what Leon might do --- hell, from one moment to
the next, Leon didn’t know what Leon might do. In the past,
that was partly what had made being his friend so exhilarating.
Leon might, literally, do anything.
He wished he had gone to a different gas station. Then none of
this would have happened, and that Pandora’s box of old
memories would still be buried in the cellar of his mind.
He took a slurp of coffee, and immediately wished he
hadn’t. His stomach was cramped in such a tight bundle that
the coffee was likely going to give him indigestion.
He felt both Simone and Jada observing him intently now, and he
wished they hadn’t been with him that morning; he wished that
he’d run into Leon on his own and they had no clue about any
He took another sip of coffee, and grimaced. It seemed he was
wishing for a lot of different things right then.
“Baby?” Simone asked.
“Daddy?” Jada said.
He blinked. “What?”
“We asked you a question,” Simone said.
“Oh, right,” he said. “That guy back there?
Just an old friend from back home.”
“From Detroit?” Jada asked.
“Yes, from Detroit.”
“What’s his name?” Simone asked.
“Leon who?” Jada asked.
Corey glanced at Jada in the mirror. Her eyes sparkled with
curiosity. She’d inherited her inquisitiveness from her
mother, and for her to have seen a man from her father’s
fabled hometown was probably unbearably thrilling for her.
But he wished she would let it go.
“His name is Leon Sharpe,” he said.
“You grew up with him?” Simone asked, eyes as
intrigued as Jada’s.
“He lived across the street from us, for a while
“What’s a homeboy?” Jada asked.
“A homeboy is a good friend.”
“Oooh, oooh. Really? Was Leon your best friend,
“Mister Leon,” Simone said, gently correcting Jada.
“We don’t call adults by their first names,
“Was Mr. Leon your best friend, Daddy?”
He shrugged. “I guess so.”
“Wow, is that so?” Simone asked. “You’ve
never mentioned him before.”
“Well, I haven’t thought about him in
“When was the last time you saw him?” Simone
He looked at her. Simone’s interest was innocent, not
suspicious. If he’d seen her run in to a former, admitted
best girlfriend who she hadn’t seen in a long time, he might
have been asking her similar questions, too.
“Fifteen years ago, I guess,” he said.
Jada’s face bunched into a frown. “You haven’t
talked to your best friend in fifteen years, Daddy?”
“He’s not my best friend any more.”
“Why not?” Jada asked.
“Because I moved away from Detroit and came
“But you could have kept talking to him,” Jada
Their turn was coming up. Corey took it too fast. Simone knocked
against him, and Jada slewed sideways in her seat as if riding a
Simone lightly tapped his thigh. “Take it easy, Mario
Andretti. We want to get there in one piece.”
He bit his lip. “Sorry.”
“Daddy?” Jada said.
“Why didn’t you keep talking to Mr. Leon?”
“I told you, because I moved here.”
“But you never called him?”
“Jesus, Jada.” He clenched the steering wheel.
“Do you plan to be a prosecuting attorney when you grow up?
Lay off with the questions, all right? I don’t want to talk
about it any more. Period.”
Simone stared at him, lips parted in shock. In the mirror,
Jada’s face crumbled.
“Sorry, Daddy,” she said softly. She wiped away
Guilt punctured his heart. He rarely raised his voice with her,
and she didn’t deserve to be rebuked. She was only a kid with
a natural interest in his past.
“It’s okay, Pumpkin,” he said in a soothing
tone. “I didn’t mean to snap at you.”
But Jada wouldn’t look at him. Simone looked away from
him, too, jawline rigid.
They were quiet for the rest of the drive.
Excerpted from CORNERED © Copyright 2010 by Brandon Massey.
Reprinted with permission by Pinnacle. All rights reserved.