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Gone Like Yesterday

A Novel

Read by Bahni Turpin
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On sale Feb 14, 2023 | 12 Hours and 16 Minutes | 978-0-593-67139-9
| Grades 9-12
A GOOD MORNING AMERICA BUZZ PICK

A lyrical debut novel that asks what we owe to our families, what we owe to our ancestors, and what we owe to ourselves. Janelle M. Williams’s Gone Like Yesterday employs magical realism to explore the majestic and haunting experience of being a Black woman in today’s America.   
 
Gone Like Yesterday follows two Black women—Zahra, a listless college prep coach, and Sammie, a teenage girl and budding activist soon off to college—who are drawn to each other through the songs of gypsy moths. Gypsy moths have been singing the songs of Zahra’s ancestors to her for years, so when Zahra realizes that Sammie might be a moth person too, their paths become intertwined.
 
Then, the unthinkable happens: Zahra’s brother, Derrick, goes missing. Derrick has always been different—sensitive and connected to the spiritual world, he has been drifting from Zahra and her family for some time. But this time feels different. Zahra is panicked that he may really be gone for good, lost to her forever.

Zahra can’t let that happen. So, she, along with Sammie, embarks on a road trip from New York to Atlanta, Zahra’s hometown, in search of Zahra’s brother, but also to uncover just what the moths and their ancestors want with them, and what to do about their individual and collective futures.

Sharp and wholly original, Gone Like Yesterday is a novel about family and legacy but also a literary exploration of racial identity, self, and what it means to be found.
One

One month ago-September 2019,
Harlem, a Saturday night

Buzzed from her third glass of Roscato, Zahra slouches low in the back seat of an Uber headed east down 125th. She knows it's impossible to hide from shame but doesn't forsake the attempt. There are people who make a life of this, aren't there? She's people. A disaster headed to Kahlil's apartment like an MLM victim selling knives or a door-to-door Bible-thumper. Her expectations are low. She'll most likely find Kahlil reading one of his medical books or rolling a blunt. He'll open the door and look at her like he's nearly forgotten she was coming over. It's not that he doesn't like her; he's just that kind of a player, mind games, a one-upper. Even though the back-and-forth has always been their dysfunctional dynamic, she was surprised when he texted. Lately, she never wants his type of intimate fun. A finger maybe, but nothing more.

She was practically in love with him when they were at Stanford together. He was always shooting her smiles across parties or probing her with nonstop questions, stuff like, "You always been this shy?" or "You think you'll get everything you want out of life?" or "What was growing up in ATL like?" He'd follow that last question with something absurd like, "I bet all the girls were poppin' on a headstand, no? You were different though? You barely dance now." Then he'd grab her waist, and the shock of his hands would send electricity up her spine, and she'd imagine a different version of herself, a looser version, someone who slow whines to Sean Paul, and maybe that's what love was, being someone else for a short time. Kahlil was somewhat of the same, a nerd in class, his fuckboy alter ego part of a larger facade.

Now, in the middle seat of a Nissan, Zahra smooths her hands along the nylon upholstery, then curls them into tight fists. She's looking to be unwound. It's not about sex, but she mouths the words to Rihanna's "Same Ol' Mistakes" anyway. She almost doesn't hear the driver ask, "Going out tonight?"

She hates Uber small talk. "I'm already out, aren't I?" Then feeling like a jerk, she adds, "Just to a friend's house."

"A friend?" he says incredulously, laughing, then, "Sorry, I didn't mean it like that."

However he meant it, it's enough to shut her up. It's not like she really wanted to talk anyway. She studies him now through the rearview mirror. Skin the color of cedarwood. Scruffy beard that probably hasn't been brushed in days. A backward baseball cap, similar to the way her brother, Derrick, used to wear his, but this guy's has Stay Black on it. He's cute, in a 1990s D'Angelo sort of way, sans straight-backs.

She can't help but think about Derrick and who he used to be. How he sang church hymns in absolute pitch while she leaned against his bedroom door writing sentences that sat comfortably one by one but never added up as a conglomerate, dreaming Black love stories, The Wood or Poetic Justice, come true. He was her only savior then, no matter how distant his eyes were, black pearls swarming in discontentment. She misses him now. It's not the same, though she hasn't stopped trying to convince herself that he'll get back to where he was, that time hasn't weighed on him, hasn't removed the dimple in his left cheek so she sometimes thinks it was never there to begin with.

"Sorry," the driver says again. "I'm in my head about some other stuff, and I guess my manners just went out the window."

"Consider it forgotten."

He nods.

She takes out her phone, sends Kahlil a text. Hungry. Should we order food? Food helps with this eerie feeling she's been getting lately, of something gnawing at her, something trying to get in. She's doing everything in her power to keep shit out. If she thinks too hard about things, they'll eat her alive. A brother who's forgotten himself. A mother she can't stand. It's hard to measure over the phone, but she's sure Gram's voice has gotten . . . heavier. Cheeseburgers, medium skirt steaks, french fries dipped in a garlic aioli, help her forget it all.

"What's your name?" The driver again.

"Zahra." It's in the app. He must have already seen it. "It's in the app, you know. You're"-she pauses to look-"Trey."

"Right. Yeah," he says. He laughs a little. "My niece says, 'So you know what you didn't know you knew.' You ever heard anyone say that before?"

"No, but I work with kids, so I've heard a lot of other stuff." They say Gen Z's got more answers than millennials, but she's not so sure about that.

"You're a teacher?"

"Not quite."

"Counselor."

"Not really."

"Oh."

The pause is so awkward that she just tells him. "I'm a college prep coach. I help seniors with their college applications, mainly their essays."

"Wow."

"It's no biggie."

"My niece is a senior."

She sees him eyeing her through the rearview mirror. He looks a beat too long and has to swerve around a car with its hazards on when he sees the road again.

"Oh, really?" she asks. "Senior year, huh?"

"Yeah, she could probably use you."

"Yeah," she says, thinking he couldn't afford her. The thought in itself makes her feel like shit, and she unbuckles her seat belt and lies down. No need to look out the window when she already knows what's there. Right about now, they're headed under the Metro-North rail. This far uptown, Park Avenue always smells like piss and stale Wendy's, and Lexington is sure to be poppin' with teens and loud talk and blue-collar workers. When they turn on Third, they'll pass Goodwill, and the projects. Kahlil's isn't too far off from there, a building that screams gentrification in one of the least gentrified parts of Manhattan, East Harlem. Zahra was in for a rude awakening when she moved to this city, and the shock still hasn't worn off; melting pot, her ass.

New York is a place of numbers though. She leans up for a second, thinking of how many butts have been where her head rests now: Black butts, Latinx butts, white butts, Asian butts. Eventually, she convinces herself that her week-old twist-out is a buffer and resumes comfort. She thinks about how many Black women are in cars headed to see unequally yoked men, not knowing whether it's better to be a solitary fuckup or part of the masses. Her mother calls this a form of selling out. Go figure the woman probably hasn't been laid since the divorce in '95.

When the car gets there, Zahra wrestles herself up, then goes for the door in one smooth motion. It locks, and she jumps back surprised. She turns to Trey, accusatory.

"You locked it!" she says.

"No," he says, playing with the buttons on his door. The back windows go down, then up again. A series of clicks, but when she goes for the handle, it's still locked.

"No, I didn't. I don't know what happened," he tries to convince her.

"If you don't unlock the door right now, I'm calling the cops," she says, more distressed than demanding.

Either way, it's an eclipse of moths that do the job. She's never been able to understand how they appear out of thin air. But here they are inside the car, on the door handle like spotted mold. They're fucking with her again. They've been at it since she was a kid, always fluttering around like picnic flies, always singing their damned ditties-in moments of distress but in moments of calm too. While watching some shitty reality TV show. The night before she left for Stanford. Once, on the dance floor of a nightclub-she was so drunk that it must have been minutes before she realized that she was singing "Dancing in the Streets" by Martha and the Vandellas while everyone else was mantra-ing, "Slob on my knob, like corn on the cob." Sometimes the songs made sense, like a survival spiritual or a nursey rhyme. Other times, they were more confusing than Deuteronomy or Revelations, like trying to decipher a mumbling man with an Atlanta accent, something she'd completely lost the ear for. Somewhere along the way she stopped listening. Because maybe the words, the songs, weren't really for her. Because wasn't she entitled to a sense of normalcy? Because who the fuck was listening to her? For two years in high school the moths convinced her that she was schizophrenic. Now it's her brother who's lost because of them, out of his skin and into someone's she doesn't even recognize. Now, she sighs and spots Trey coming around the back side of the car.

He opens the door from the outside. "I guess I should get that looked at," he says.

"Don't worry about it." She slings her purse across her body. "It's me, not you."

Trey brings his eyebrows together in a way that almost makes her laugh. The sincerity opens something inside of her, and she sees him now, in a different way than before. Notices that he can't be much older than her, sees that he's been doing the best he can with her poor back seat bedside. She feels the worst for threatening to call the cops on him, a Black man. She knows better. Never good at apologizing, she takes off for Kahlil's walk-up.

But at the same moment that he offers a "Good night," she turns around. Ignoring his salutation, she says, "I could help your niece."

He doesn't say anything back, but his look of uncertainty deepens, so she adds, "Here, let me give you my number."


A week later, the goons are already at work, even though it’s cold as shit out here. They rock from heel to heel, trying to stay warm, looking for their next sale, greeting passersby like polite doormen. Zahra smiles, knowing the type, blowing into her hands. She notices a schoolgirl wearing practically nothing, a plaid skirt, ripped tights, just a jean jacket for warmth. The girl is a pine tree in a forest with no needles, surrounded by gypsy moths that she doesn’t seem to notice. The moths are too far away for Zahra to hear, but the girl brings back memories, fond memories, eternities in the cold waiting to get into Club Love, bodycon dresses exposing skin and insecurity, shame and power, shots of Jose Cuervo, hours later scarfing down a Filet-O-Fish or french fries drenched in mambo sauce, hoping to not puke. It’s colder now than it was then, and Zahra is wearing a leather jacket with a Stanford sweatshirt underneath, the hood’s strings pulled so tight it smushes her Afro.

She looks around and easily spots Trey's Nissan. This is the intersection he texted her, 120th and First Avenue, all the way on the other side of town, near the zombies of 125th Street, where you can taste the sweetness of K2, crack, methadone, whatever.

She looks up across the street and spots the girl again, digging through her backpack, pulling out thick textbooks and overnight supplies, deodorant and a makeup bag, what looks like lotion or body wash, shampoo or conditioner. She wonders if that's Sammie. Trey didn't mention what she looks like. The girl finds her keys, and stuffs everything back inside her backpack, letting it hang open as she unlocks the door. Zahra runs over, enchanted by the girl and the moths that flock her like a concentrated congregation. Zahra checks the address and barely catches the second door of the double entry.

The clunk of the girl's Doc Martens aren't far away, and Zahra tries to catch up, ignoring the pungent smell of marijuana and Axe body spray. She sniffs at her own clothes, thinking maybe it's residual from last week, the same Stanford sweatshirt, unwashed. She didn't smoke, but Kahlil did, and his high made her feel so low, like what the fuck was she doing with him again? She isn't that kind of woman, like her grandmother, flitty, needy. Or at least she never intended to be. The old pictures Gram stores in neatly lined shoeboxes under the bed keep her stories ripe for the picking. Oh, that was taken on the day that Lionel almost banged down the door crying, "I done wrong, Billy. Take me back." You never take 'em back when they're that low, or they'll resent you for it. Never mind that Gram kept opening doors she worked so hard to keep closed. There are a lot of love stories about Lionel, but when Gram gets to Mom's dad, she sighs from pity more than shame and certainly not from admiration.

Zahra remembers that she's her own person, unshackled and free. Honestly, she just wants to help Sammie with her essay and get the hell out of here. She doesn't want to know why the moths are so thick in this place, and she shuts off their stories, their songs. No Woke up this morning with my mind on freedom. No Whisper, listen, whisper, listen, or Are you gonna be, say you're going to be. No Ready or not, here I come, the Delfonics nor the Fugees. Instead, Zahra works with the immediate present. She got only three hours of sleep last night and has to be at her restaurant job in a little over four. Sometimes she lies in bed thinking, and other times, her right side aches so bad that she flips over to feel the same low throb on her left. No side quiet enough for her to get any decent shut-eye. Still, she can't be late; it doesn't wear well with her skin color.

By the third floor, she's caught up to the girl, so close she can see up her pleated skirt, but Zahra keeps her head down, focusing on the stone steps. She should be scared, headed to some stranger's apartment like this, a man's no less. She isn't naive to the possibilities, but maybe the girl who she assumes is Sammie at this point, allows her some comfort, the way her box braids are carelessly scooped into a side ponytail. She's sure-footed, just like Zahra was at that age, when socializing and AP scores were all that mattered, when she thought she could compartmentalize her parents and that the "good work" her mother did was a form of mothering in itself.

When the girl gets to the fifth floor and looks for the keys that she's already misplaced again, Zahra realizes that this is the apartment: 5B. She panics, preparing to explain herself to the girl, but the girl doesn't look over her shoulder, and Zahra feels like a ghost, light and translucent, when she steps into the warm apartment right after her. Zahra pauses inside the doorway, a narrow hall, walls littered with family photos. She listens for voices other than the bebops and ballads of the moths.
"There's so much music in the engrossing pages of Gone Like Yesterday—in the songs of mothers and daughters, brothers and sisters, would-be lovers, and the ancestors who watch over us. With lyricism and precision, Janelle M. Williams deftly captures the complicated beauty and chaos within our deepest relationships. A magical, mesmerizing debut!"
—Deesha Philyaw, author of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

“What a magnificent narrative about a girl who only seems to be average! This novel is a terrific mix of family drama, the perils of relationships, and the power of perception. I loved every word. Read this book immediately!”
—Brendan Slocumb, author of The Violin Conspiracy and Symphony of Secrets

"Mesmerizing. . . . Williams has a keen eye for detail and a lyrical voice, and her exploration of personal and collective histories is marked by maturity and compassion. The magic of the novel’s moths is truly imaginative . . . [A] profoundly beautiful novel that takes legacy seriously, from a promising new writer.”
—Kirkus

“Williams melds a ghost story with a frank reflection on the complexities of Black identity in her vivid if didactic debut…This is worth a look.”
—Publishers Weekly
© Jonathan Johnson
Janelle M. Williams received her BA from Howard University and her MFA in creative writing from Manhattanville College. She is the recipient of Prairie Schooner's Lawrence Foundation Award for her story, "From the Closest Waffle House." She was a 2017 Kimbilio Fiction Fellow, and her flash fiction story "Harlem Thunder" was longlisted for the Wigleaf Top 50 in 2020. Her work has appeared in The Normal SchoolShenandoahPassages NorthSplit Lip Magazine, and Lunch Ticket, among others. She is currently the Director of Programs and Outreach at Writopia Lab. Gone Like Yesterday is her debut novel. View titles by Janelle M. Williams

About

A GOOD MORNING AMERICA BUZZ PICK

A lyrical debut novel that asks what we owe to our families, what we owe to our ancestors, and what we owe to ourselves. Janelle M. Williams’s Gone Like Yesterday employs magical realism to explore the majestic and haunting experience of being a Black woman in today’s America.   
 
Gone Like Yesterday follows two Black women—Zahra, a listless college prep coach, and Sammie, a teenage girl and budding activist soon off to college—who are drawn to each other through the songs of gypsy moths. Gypsy moths have been singing the songs of Zahra’s ancestors to her for years, so when Zahra realizes that Sammie might be a moth person too, their paths become intertwined.
 
Then, the unthinkable happens: Zahra’s brother, Derrick, goes missing. Derrick has always been different—sensitive and connected to the spiritual world, he has been drifting from Zahra and her family for some time. But this time feels different. Zahra is panicked that he may really be gone for good, lost to her forever.

Zahra can’t let that happen. So, she, along with Sammie, embarks on a road trip from New York to Atlanta, Zahra’s hometown, in search of Zahra’s brother, but also to uncover just what the moths and their ancestors want with them, and what to do about their individual and collective futures.

Sharp and wholly original, Gone Like Yesterday is a novel about family and legacy but also a literary exploration of racial identity, self, and what it means to be found.

Excerpt

One

One month ago-September 2019,
Harlem, a Saturday night

Buzzed from her third glass of Roscato, Zahra slouches low in the back seat of an Uber headed east down 125th. She knows it's impossible to hide from shame but doesn't forsake the attempt. There are people who make a life of this, aren't there? She's people. A disaster headed to Kahlil's apartment like an MLM victim selling knives or a door-to-door Bible-thumper. Her expectations are low. She'll most likely find Kahlil reading one of his medical books or rolling a blunt. He'll open the door and look at her like he's nearly forgotten she was coming over. It's not that he doesn't like her; he's just that kind of a player, mind games, a one-upper. Even though the back-and-forth has always been their dysfunctional dynamic, she was surprised when he texted. Lately, she never wants his type of intimate fun. A finger maybe, but nothing more.

She was practically in love with him when they were at Stanford together. He was always shooting her smiles across parties or probing her with nonstop questions, stuff like, "You always been this shy?" or "You think you'll get everything you want out of life?" or "What was growing up in ATL like?" He'd follow that last question with something absurd like, "I bet all the girls were poppin' on a headstand, no? You were different though? You barely dance now." Then he'd grab her waist, and the shock of his hands would send electricity up her spine, and she'd imagine a different version of herself, a looser version, someone who slow whines to Sean Paul, and maybe that's what love was, being someone else for a short time. Kahlil was somewhat of the same, a nerd in class, his fuckboy alter ego part of a larger facade.

Now, in the middle seat of a Nissan, Zahra smooths her hands along the nylon upholstery, then curls them into tight fists. She's looking to be unwound. It's not about sex, but she mouths the words to Rihanna's "Same Ol' Mistakes" anyway. She almost doesn't hear the driver ask, "Going out tonight?"

She hates Uber small talk. "I'm already out, aren't I?" Then feeling like a jerk, she adds, "Just to a friend's house."

"A friend?" he says incredulously, laughing, then, "Sorry, I didn't mean it like that."

However he meant it, it's enough to shut her up. It's not like she really wanted to talk anyway. She studies him now through the rearview mirror. Skin the color of cedarwood. Scruffy beard that probably hasn't been brushed in days. A backward baseball cap, similar to the way her brother, Derrick, used to wear his, but this guy's has Stay Black on it. He's cute, in a 1990s D'Angelo sort of way, sans straight-backs.

She can't help but think about Derrick and who he used to be. How he sang church hymns in absolute pitch while she leaned against his bedroom door writing sentences that sat comfortably one by one but never added up as a conglomerate, dreaming Black love stories, The Wood or Poetic Justice, come true. He was her only savior then, no matter how distant his eyes were, black pearls swarming in discontentment. She misses him now. It's not the same, though she hasn't stopped trying to convince herself that he'll get back to where he was, that time hasn't weighed on him, hasn't removed the dimple in his left cheek so she sometimes thinks it was never there to begin with.

"Sorry," the driver says again. "I'm in my head about some other stuff, and I guess my manners just went out the window."

"Consider it forgotten."

He nods.

She takes out her phone, sends Kahlil a text. Hungry. Should we order food? Food helps with this eerie feeling she's been getting lately, of something gnawing at her, something trying to get in. She's doing everything in her power to keep shit out. If she thinks too hard about things, they'll eat her alive. A brother who's forgotten himself. A mother she can't stand. It's hard to measure over the phone, but she's sure Gram's voice has gotten . . . heavier. Cheeseburgers, medium skirt steaks, french fries dipped in a garlic aioli, help her forget it all.

"What's your name?" The driver again.

"Zahra." It's in the app. He must have already seen it. "It's in the app, you know. You're"-she pauses to look-"Trey."

"Right. Yeah," he says. He laughs a little. "My niece says, 'So you know what you didn't know you knew.' You ever heard anyone say that before?"

"No, but I work with kids, so I've heard a lot of other stuff." They say Gen Z's got more answers than millennials, but she's not so sure about that.

"You're a teacher?"

"Not quite."

"Counselor."

"Not really."

"Oh."

The pause is so awkward that she just tells him. "I'm a college prep coach. I help seniors with their college applications, mainly their essays."

"Wow."

"It's no biggie."

"My niece is a senior."

She sees him eyeing her through the rearview mirror. He looks a beat too long and has to swerve around a car with its hazards on when he sees the road again.

"Oh, really?" she asks. "Senior year, huh?"

"Yeah, she could probably use you."

"Yeah," she says, thinking he couldn't afford her. The thought in itself makes her feel like shit, and she unbuckles her seat belt and lies down. No need to look out the window when she already knows what's there. Right about now, they're headed under the Metro-North rail. This far uptown, Park Avenue always smells like piss and stale Wendy's, and Lexington is sure to be poppin' with teens and loud talk and blue-collar workers. When they turn on Third, they'll pass Goodwill, and the projects. Kahlil's isn't too far off from there, a building that screams gentrification in one of the least gentrified parts of Manhattan, East Harlem. Zahra was in for a rude awakening when she moved to this city, and the shock still hasn't worn off; melting pot, her ass.

New York is a place of numbers though. She leans up for a second, thinking of how many butts have been where her head rests now: Black butts, Latinx butts, white butts, Asian butts. Eventually, she convinces herself that her week-old twist-out is a buffer and resumes comfort. She thinks about how many Black women are in cars headed to see unequally yoked men, not knowing whether it's better to be a solitary fuckup or part of the masses. Her mother calls this a form of selling out. Go figure the woman probably hasn't been laid since the divorce in '95.

When the car gets there, Zahra wrestles herself up, then goes for the door in one smooth motion. It locks, and she jumps back surprised. She turns to Trey, accusatory.

"You locked it!" she says.

"No," he says, playing with the buttons on his door. The back windows go down, then up again. A series of clicks, but when she goes for the handle, it's still locked.

"No, I didn't. I don't know what happened," he tries to convince her.

"If you don't unlock the door right now, I'm calling the cops," she says, more distressed than demanding.

Either way, it's an eclipse of moths that do the job. She's never been able to understand how they appear out of thin air. But here they are inside the car, on the door handle like spotted mold. They're fucking with her again. They've been at it since she was a kid, always fluttering around like picnic flies, always singing their damned ditties-in moments of distress but in moments of calm too. While watching some shitty reality TV show. The night before she left for Stanford. Once, on the dance floor of a nightclub-she was so drunk that it must have been minutes before she realized that she was singing "Dancing in the Streets" by Martha and the Vandellas while everyone else was mantra-ing, "Slob on my knob, like corn on the cob." Sometimes the songs made sense, like a survival spiritual or a nursey rhyme. Other times, they were more confusing than Deuteronomy or Revelations, like trying to decipher a mumbling man with an Atlanta accent, something she'd completely lost the ear for. Somewhere along the way she stopped listening. Because maybe the words, the songs, weren't really for her. Because wasn't she entitled to a sense of normalcy? Because who the fuck was listening to her? For two years in high school the moths convinced her that she was schizophrenic. Now it's her brother who's lost because of them, out of his skin and into someone's she doesn't even recognize. Now, she sighs and spots Trey coming around the back side of the car.

He opens the door from the outside. "I guess I should get that looked at," he says.

"Don't worry about it." She slings her purse across her body. "It's me, not you."

Trey brings his eyebrows together in a way that almost makes her laugh. The sincerity opens something inside of her, and she sees him now, in a different way than before. Notices that he can't be much older than her, sees that he's been doing the best he can with her poor back seat bedside. She feels the worst for threatening to call the cops on him, a Black man. She knows better. Never good at apologizing, she takes off for Kahlil's walk-up.

But at the same moment that he offers a "Good night," she turns around. Ignoring his salutation, she says, "I could help your niece."

He doesn't say anything back, but his look of uncertainty deepens, so she adds, "Here, let me give you my number."


A week later, the goons are already at work, even though it’s cold as shit out here. They rock from heel to heel, trying to stay warm, looking for their next sale, greeting passersby like polite doormen. Zahra smiles, knowing the type, blowing into her hands. She notices a schoolgirl wearing practically nothing, a plaid skirt, ripped tights, just a jean jacket for warmth. The girl is a pine tree in a forest with no needles, surrounded by gypsy moths that she doesn’t seem to notice. The moths are too far away for Zahra to hear, but the girl brings back memories, fond memories, eternities in the cold waiting to get into Club Love, bodycon dresses exposing skin and insecurity, shame and power, shots of Jose Cuervo, hours later scarfing down a Filet-O-Fish or french fries drenched in mambo sauce, hoping to not puke. It’s colder now than it was then, and Zahra is wearing a leather jacket with a Stanford sweatshirt underneath, the hood’s strings pulled so tight it smushes her Afro.

She looks around and easily spots Trey's Nissan. This is the intersection he texted her, 120th and First Avenue, all the way on the other side of town, near the zombies of 125th Street, where you can taste the sweetness of K2, crack, methadone, whatever.

She looks up across the street and spots the girl again, digging through her backpack, pulling out thick textbooks and overnight supplies, deodorant and a makeup bag, what looks like lotion or body wash, shampoo or conditioner. She wonders if that's Sammie. Trey didn't mention what she looks like. The girl finds her keys, and stuffs everything back inside her backpack, letting it hang open as she unlocks the door. Zahra runs over, enchanted by the girl and the moths that flock her like a concentrated congregation. Zahra checks the address and barely catches the second door of the double entry.

The clunk of the girl's Doc Martens aren't far away, and Zahra tries to catch up, ignoring the pungent smell of marijuana and Axe body spray. She sniffs at her own clothes, thinking maybe it's residual from last week, the same Stanford sweatshirt, unwashed. She didn't smoke, but Kahlil did, and his high made her feel so low, like what the fuck was she doing with him again? She isn't that kind of woman, like her grandmother, flitty, needy. Or at least she never intended to be. The old pictures Gram stores in neatly lined shoeboxes under the bed keep her stories ripe for the picking. Oh, that was taken on the day that Lionel almost banged down the door crying, "I done wrong, Billy. Take me back." You never take 'em back when they're that low, or they'll resent you for it. Never mind that Gram kept opening doors she worked so hard to keep closed. There are a lot of love stories about Lionel, but when Gram gets to Mom's dad, she sighs from pity more than shame and certainly not from admiration.

Zahra remembers that she's her own person, unshackled and free. Honestly, she just wants to help Sammie with her essay and get the hell out of here. She doesn't want to know why the moths are so thick in this place, and she shuts off their stories, their songs. No Woke up this morning with my mind on freedom. No Whisper, listen, whisper, listen, or Are you gonna be, say you're going to be. No Ready or not, here I come, the Delfonics nor the Fugees. Instead, Zahra works with the immediate present. She got only three hours of sleep last night and has to be at her restaurant job in a little over four. Sometimes she lies in bed thinking, and other times, her right side aches so bad that she flips over to feel the same low throb on her left. No side quiet enough for her to get any decent shut-eye. Still, she can't be late; it doesn't wear well with her skin color.

By the third floor, she's caught up to the girl, so close she can see up her pleated skirt, but Zahra keeps her head down, focusing on the stone steps. She should be scared, headed to some stranger's apartment like this, a man's no less. She isn't naive to the possibilities, but maybe the girl who she assumes is Sammie at this point, allows her some comfort, the way her box braids are carelessly scooped into a side ponytail. She's sure-footed, just like Zahra was at that age, when socializing and AP scores were all that mattered, when she thought she could compartmentalize her parents and that the "good work" her mother did was a form of mothering in itself.

When the girl gets to the fifth floor and looks for the keys that she's already misplaced again, Zahra realizes that this is the apartment: 5B. She panics, preparing to explain herself to the girl, but the girl doesn't look over her shoulder, and Zahra feels like a ghost, light and translucent, when she steps into the warm apartment right after her. Zahra pauses inside the doorway, a narrow hall, walls littered with family photos. She listens for voices other than the bebops and ballads of the moths.

Reviews

"There's so much music in the engrossing pages of Gone Like Yesterday—in the songs of mothers and daughters, brothers and sisters, would-be lovers, and the ancestors who watch over us. With lyricism and precision, Janelle M. Williams deftly captures the complicated beauty and chaos within our deepest relationships. A magical, mesmerizing debut!"
—Deesha Philyaw, author of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

“What a magnificent narrative about a girl who only seems to be average! This novel is a terrific mix of family drama, the perils of relationships, and the power of perception. I loved every word. Read this book immediately!”
—Brendan Slocumb, author of The Violin Conspiracy and Symphony of Secrets

"Mesmerizing. . . . Williams has a keen eye for detail and a lyrical voice, and her exploration of personal and collective histories is marked by maturity and compassion. The magic of the novel’s moths is truly imaginative . . . [A] profoundly beautiful novel that takes legacy seriously, from a promising new writer.”
—Kirkus

“Williams melds a ghost story with a frank reflection on the complexities of Black identity in her vivid if didactic debut…This is worth a look.”
—Publishers Weekly

Author

© Jonathan Johnson
Janelle M. Williams received her BA from Howard University and her MFA in creative writing from Manhattanville College. She is the recipient of Prairie Schooner's Lawrence Foundation Award for her story, "From the Closest Waffle House." She was a 2017 Kimbilio Fiction Fellow, and her flash fiction story "Harlem Thunder" was longlisted for the Wigleaf Top 50 in 2020. Her work has appeared in The Normal SchoolShenandoahPassages NorthSplit Lip Magazine, and Lunch Ticket, among others. She is currently the Director of Programs and Outreach at Writopia Lab. Gone Like Yesterday is her debut novel. View titles by Janelle M. Williams