Welcome to #ReadWithMC—Marie Claire's virtual book club. It's nice to have you! In July, we're reading Mia McKenzie's Skye Falling, a story about a woman named Skye whose life changes when she receives a surprise visit from a 12-year-old girl who is her biological daughter—"her egg" she sold when she was 26 and broke. Read an excerpt from the novel below, then find out how to participate in our virtual book club here. (You really don't have to leave your couch!)
I'm lying very still on top of a hotel bed's rumpled sheets. My mouth is slack. My eyes are open. My stare is cold and lifeless. If anyone looked down on me from overhead right now, they’d think I’m dead. And it probably wouldn’t be a huge shock. I’m pretty sure no one who knows me would be like: Wow, I never imagined her life would end like this! I always thought she’d die at a ripe old age, surrounded by seventeen great-grandchildren! Because no one thinks that. I don’t even think that myself. I’ve never really been the surrounded by seventeen great-grandchildren type. In junior high, my classmates voted me “Most Likely to Be Single.” Which, like, what even is that? I spent all of recess sulking in the library, feeling deeply misunderstood. It didn’t help that I hadn’t been voted:
1. Most Liked
2. Most Ride-or-Die Homie
3. Most Likely to Marry the Cute One from Color Me Badd
And while being voted “Most Likely to Be Single” at twelve years old isn’t necessarily an early indicator that one might die alone in a hotel bed many years later, it’s not hard to imagine it as part of the same narrative, right? Not that you’d expect it, but if you heard about it, you’d be like: Uh-huh, okay, I can see that. So, yeah. Nobody would be super surprised. Is what I’m saying.
Plot twist: I’m not dead, I’m just really hungover.
I snort and sit up straight in the bed. The sudden movement sends a wave of nausea through me and I close my eyes and take along, deep breath, trying not to puke. When it passes, I squint hazily around the room. It’s a nice room, in a nice little bed-and-breakfast called Narradora. The niceness of it is somewhat diminished, though, by the greasy, crumpled take-out bags I keep forgetting to throw in the trash and the suitcases open on the floor, spilling out dirty socks and underwear. In my defense, I just got done leading a two-week-long group trip to southern Africa for Black travelers for We Outchea, the company I own. The trip back to Philly from Zimbabwe was twenty-three hours long and I’ve been recovering from the flights fora week and three days, during which time I couldn’t possibly have been expected to clean up after myself. A purple thong hangs out of a carry-on, crotch-side up. I squint at it through eyes that are blurry both because I’m not wearing my glasses and because they’re burning in my head like little balls of fire. I rub them with my fists, like a sleepy kid.
There’s movement beside me, and I jump a little. There’s a naked man lying next to me, sleeping with a smile on his face. I try to remember who he is but, after a few moments of racking my brain, I give up. I decide I will never drink again probably.
There’s a knock on the door. I look over at the sleeping man. “You expecting someone?” The man, who is light brown and has a muscular ass, doesn’t answer. I look around for my glasses, don’t see them, give up, get out of bed, feel another intense wave of nausea, stumble, trip over a suitcase, and fall face-first onto the floor.
I get to the door and squint through the peephole, which is pointless, since I can’t see shit.
“Skye. It’s Viva.”
Viva Robinson is a friend of mine from high school who also owns this nice B and B. Because I’m bad at keeping in touch, she’s one of the few friends I still have in Philly.
I’m about to open the door when I remember there’s a naked dude in the bed. I grab the sheet and cover him from head to toe. Maybe she won’t notice.
“Veev,” I say as I open the door, “I can’t find my glasses.”
“Ajá, no estás vestida,” she says.
This is when I realize I answered the door in a camisole and a thong. I’m not embarrassed; I don’t have many bits that Viva hasn’t already seen. But her tone suggests there’s something I’m supposed to be dressed for and I have no idea what that is. I guess my cluelessness shows on my face because she says, “Art sale.”
“Oh, sí.” It’s all coming back to me now. A year ago, one of our other high school friends, Naima, quit her bookkeeping job to do art full-time. Which I only know because Viva told me. She’s still friends with some of the people we kicked it with in high school. Like, actual friends, not just social media friends. I haven’t seen Naima, or almost anyone we went to high school with, since graduation, except in passing. But for some reason I can’t recall now, when Viva asked me to goto Naima’s art sale with her, I said I would.
“It’s at eleven,” Viva says. “Remember?”
“Of course I do.” Nah, I don’t. “I just need, like, ten to get ready. Fifteen tops.”
I move toward the bathroom as Viva comes farther inside the room. I catch her eyeing my mess. “Have you thought about getting an apartment?”
I turn to look at her. I’m only in Philly for a couple of weeks every few months, between trips, which I guess makes it my base, but getting a whole-ass apartment feels more permanent than I’d like. “Is this your way of telling me I’ve worn out my welcome?”
Viva shakes her head. “Claro que no.”
Good. Because I love this place. The theme of the bed-and-breakfast is famous Black and Puerto Rican women writers and the six rooms here are styled after the works of Zora Neale Hurston, Lola Rodríguez de Tió, Lorraine Hansberry, Julia de Burgos, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Gloria Naylor. My current room, the Zora Neale Hurston, has a late 1930s chaise made of ebony and upholstered in deep pink velvet; a tall, narrow, dark-finished oak armoire that reminds me of playing hide-and-seek as a child; framed book covers from Jonah’s Gourd Vine, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Moses, Man of the Mountain hanging on the walls; and a painting of Zora herself, grinning in a feathered hat and fur-collared coat. I love being here, surrounded by all this. Plus, Viva and her husband, Jason, who helps manage the place, let me stay for mad cheap.
“I just don’t know how you survive on French fries for two weeks at a stretch,” she continues, pointing to a particularly greasy bag.
“The potato is a vegetable. I’m pretty sure.”
“I worry about you sometimes,” she says.
“Ew. You sound like somebody’s mother. Not mine, you understand. But somebody’s.”
She laughs. “Well, you are almost forty, chica. And you don’t even have a toaster.”
I shrug. “Luckily, it’s the twenty-first century and I can procure crunchy bread at any number of establishments throughout the city. Also—and this is really important, Viva—I’m thirty-eight and three-quarters, not almost fucking forty.” And with that, I take my ass to the shower.
I’m in there, trying not to throw up, when I hear a scream of surprise and I figure Viva and the naked guy are making each other’s acquaintance.
Viva and I walk together from the bed-and-breakfast to Naima’s art studio, straight down Fifty-first Street, past large, wide-porched row houses lined up like heavy books on shelves. It’s sunny and warm out, unseasonal for early April in Philly, and I say a little prayer to the global-warming gods for their generosity. I’m kidding; I know climate change is bad. Hip-hop songs spill out from open car windows, battling for attention with the loud sighs of city buses. The air smells like garbage and then not garbage and then garbage again. Which doesn’t help with the nausea, tbh.
The art studio is in a little storefront on Baltimore Avenue, a busy-ish commercial strip lined with take-out joints, small grocers, and the occasional artsy-fartsy shop. Inside, the large windows throw daylight into every corner. The exposed brick walls—some of which are crumbling here and there but in a very artsy way, somehow—are hung with paintings and prints, most of them depicting Black women and girls with Afros or cornrows riding tractors or motorcycles or, in one instance, a rhinoceros. Or maybe it’s a dinosaur of some sort. Either way, it sounds dumb, right? But it’s actually kind of cool.
There are more people here than I expected for this early on a Saturday, at least a couple dozen folks staring at the walls and sifting through large bins full of neatly arranged prints. Some people have even brought their kids, which means Naima must be pretty good because, the way I figure it, you have to really be committed to showing up somewhere if you’re willing to drag a kid along to do it. There’s a tween girl standing near the door, staring at a print of two women scissoring. It’s mostly shadows and suggestion but...still. I worry it’s not really child-appropriate. But then I’m like: Whatever, it ain’t my kid.
My phone buzzes in my back pocket and when I check it there’s a text from my brother.
U in town???
I text back: No. In Zimbabwe.
Marv just called me. He saw u on Baltimore Ave a few minutes ago.
Wasn’t me. Marvin’s prob smoking that shit again.
U know that nigga ain’t reliable.
Are you coming by to see Mom?
I just said I’m in Zimbabwe, WTF?
I stuff the phone back in my pocket.
From across the room, Naima waves and bounces toward Viva and me. She’s wearing a yellow Kangol and turquoise lipstick. It’s the most Black Philly look you’ve ever seen. “You made it!”
“¡Seguro que yes!” Viva says, hugging her. “We wouldn’t have missed it.”
“Skye,” says Naima when they part, “it’s so good to see you.”
“Okay,” I say, realizing a second too late that THAT’S NOT A NORMAL RESPONSE. Ugh. I wish I was better at this. And by “this” I mean any sort of social interaction with another human being.
Naima laughs. “Well, you haven’t changed, have you?” Which is possibly an insult? I don’t have time to decide before a little bit of bourbon-flavored vomit creeps up into my throat and I have to concentrate hard to swallow it.
“I was actually just thinking about you the other day, Skye,” Naima says. “I saw the photos you posted of your group in Zimbabwe. So amazing!”
“I need to get it together and sign up for a trip. Where are you going next?”
“Brazil next week. Then Cuba.”
She sighs. “I’m so jealous. I would travel all the time if I could.”
I hear that a lot. And, as someone who actually travels all the time, I’m not sure I believe it. Nonstop travel isn’t as romantic as it sounds. A lot of it is hard and lonely and complicated and infuriating and I don’t think most people imagine it that way.
“We have to get dinner sometime and talk about all the places you’ve been,” Naima says.
I nod. “Cool.” There’s no way I’m doing that.
“Selfie for the event page?” Naima asks, taking out her phone. “Sí,” says Viva.
I hold up a hand in protest. “Um, can we not?”
Look: I know photos of happy people smiling at your events are good social capital and I’m not trying to be unhelpful. I swear. I just have a rule that I never let my picture be taken by anyone I’m not sleeping with. It’s been my experience that if you’re performing cunnilingus on someone on a regular basis, they tend to care how you look in photos, because of their own ego. People you’re not regularly going down on, however, care less about catching your good side or making sure your hair’s not doing anything weird. They’ll legit have you looking busted, with one eye closed and food in your teeth and then tag you so everyone can see. Also, I’m not super photogenic to begin with. Most of my facial features are twice as large as they functionally need to be. My face somehow works fine in real life, but pictures of me have startled babies. Like, made actual babies cry and throw food. I’m not making that up.
“Oh,” Naima says. “Okay. No problem. Maybe just Viva and me, then?”
Viva and Naima take a few smiling selfies while I stand there looking uncooperative. When they’re done, Naima posts the photos, then waves at some people coming in.
“I’m going to go say hello. We have refreshments set up right over there,” she says, pointing to a table where plates of crackers and cheese, bottles of fancy Italian soda, and those little clear plastic cups have been arranged, “so help yourselves. I’ll come back to chat later.” She bounces away.
Viva gives me a look.
“What? I wasn’t trying to be difficult, I swear.”
“And yet, you succeeded anyway, antipática,” she says, laughing and shaking her head.
My phone buzzes in my pocket again. I ignore it.
“There’s Tasha,” Viva says.
“Tasha? Ugh, what’s she doing here?”
Tasha Mosley is an ex-girlfriend of Viva’s and an ex-friend of mine. We used to be homies of the highest degree, from second grade through high school. We had a pact to go to the same college, but then Tasha decided to go way out of state. At first, I was devastated. Then, when she didn’t even bother to keep in touch, I was pissed. When I ran into her in Philly the next summer, she was all, hey girl, and I was like, nah. Eventually—I’m talking years later—we started saying hi again when we saw each other out at the club or wherever but dassit. I haven’t seen her in years now.
Viva looks at me. “What do you mean? This is Tasha’s art sale.”
“This is Naima’s art sale.”
“No,” she says. “Naima shares the space with Tasha and they both planned the event. Pero it’s Tasha’s art sale.”
“You didn’t tell me that!”
“It was right there on the event page.”
I barely even looked at the event page. I only hastily RSVP’d “maybe” so people would see it and think I’m a very busy, popular person, which I’m not.
“I thought you two are okay now?” Viva asks.
I shrug. “I never see her. Which is what I prefer.”
Viva frowns. “We can leave if you want.”
“Viva!” It’s Tasha. She’s spotted us and is heading in our direction.
I stand there while Viva and Tasha hug. It’s a long hug. Longer than necessary, in my opinion. When it’s over, Tasha sort of half-smiles at me. She looks taller than I remember and there’s some gray in her hair, which is cut in a tight fade. She’s wearing a button-down with a bow tie, neat slacks, and wing tips, which is to say: She looks gay as hell, as per always. “Oh, hey, Skye,” she says. “I didn’t know you were back in Philly.”
Why would she? We’re not friends. She needn’t be privy to my comings and goings.
“When did you get back?” she asks. “Week ago.”
“Cool. How was...Africa, right?”
She looks at me for a few seconds, like she’s waiting for me to say more. I don’t. I suppose I could make more of an effort, but I find small talk to be a kind of torture on par with waterboarding, and doubly so with people I don’t even like. Triply so with people I once trusted who, as it turned out, couldn’t actually be counted on.
“Okay, then,” she says, rolling her eyes. She looks at Viva. “I saved that print for you. It’s in the back.”
Viva looks at me. “Are you okay on your own for a minute?” she asks, as if I’m completely socially inept.
“Of course,” I say, muchly offended, as they walk off.
So now I’m standing there alone, and I suddenly feel eyes on me. I get super self-conscious and can’t figure out what to do with my hands, so I put them in my pockets, all casual, like hey whatevs. But that feels awkward, so I stop and take out my cellphone to text someone. I can’t think of anyone I actually want to text, though, so I put my phone back in my pocket, as another wave of nausea rolls through me. I decide to look for a bathroom in which to puke.
Down a narrow hallway, I find one. I try to vomit, but nothing comes up. So, I pee and then head back. As I’m re-entering the room, I see my brother standing at the refreshments table, stuffing cheese in his mouth. I back out, quickly, before he sees me, pressing myself against a wall.
I can’t believe this nigga came to find me. He’s annoying but he’s also lazy and rarely has the follow-through to finish an anecdote, let alone orchestrate an ambush. I’m halfway impressed, to be honest. But also I’m searching for an exit.
There’s no door I can get to without my brother seeing me but there is a window down the hall in the direction I just came from. I head straight for it. It’s kind of high off the ground, but I think I can hoist myself up if I use my core like they made me do that one time I tried yoga.
I glance over my shoulder. Standing there is the very serious-looking kid I saw viewing adult content earlier. She has braces, and hair done up in plump, shiny cornrows that curl under where they touch her shoulders, and curious, russet-brown eyes.
“Are you Skye Ellison?”
She frowns at me. “Yes, you are.”
I glance toward the studio, out of which my brother is probably going to emerge any second, see me, and start bitching about how I never visit our disabled mother, how I suck at family and, really, at relationships of all varieties.
The kid is still staring at me.
Maybe she’s right about me being Skye. After all, I am considering jumping out of a window to escape a pretty standard family obligation. Plus, my mouth tastes like sweat and rancid bourbon and...well, balls, frankly. I’m probably gonna hurl any second. All of that sounds a lot like Skye.
“Okay, yeah,” I tell her. “Fine. Who are you?”
A look passes across the kid’s face, part I knew it and part oh shit and then she says, “Okay. Well. I’m Vicky. I used to be your egg.”
From the book Skye Falling by Mia McKenzie. Copyright © 2021 by Mia McKenzie. Published by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
If audio is more your thing, you can listen to the excerpt below, and read the rest of the book on Audible.
Audio excerpted courtesy Penguin Random House Audio from Skye Falling by Mia McKenzie, read by Bahni Turpin.
Rachel Epstein is a writer, editor, and content strategist based in New York City. Most recently, she was the Managing Editor at Coveteur, where she oversaw the site’s day-to-day editorial operations. Previously, she was an editor at Marie Claire, where she wrote and edited culture, politics, and lifestyle stories ranging from op-eds to profiles to ambitious packages. She also launched and managed the site’s virtual book club, #ReadWithMC. Offline, she’s likely watching a Heat game or finding a new coffee shop.
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