by S.M. Stevens

Author’s Note: The character Sunny is nonbinary, identifying with neither the female nor male gender, and is referred to using the pronouns they/them.

Sunny normally turned down Buwan’s constant invitations to hit a bar or club on a weeknight, citing work the next day. But tonight, they’d agreed on a night out as long as they took a slight detour to check on Queenie first. They preferred daytime visits but hadn’t been able to swing by lately and didn’t want to wait any longer. Queenie’s cut might need tending.

The elderly woman perched in her usual spot, enfolded in layers of brown, taupe and gray. The irregular edges of her clothes and the way the layers overlapped as they encircled her tall, gaunt frame made it hard to tell in spots where the fabric stopped and the gray-brown skin of her arms and neck began. A two-inch-long scab—thick, black and monstrous in the night’s muted light—crawled across her forehead.

Queenie’s shoulders hunched and her eyes flicked from one spot to another, never focusing. Sunny wondered if years of homelessness had honed Queenie’s vision and hearing; maybe she saw and heard things Sunny couldn’t. Or maybe age had dulled her sight, forcing her to live nights on high alert, like an animal tensed for danger.

“This is my friend, Buwan,” Sunny said lightly, trying to hide their concern at the old woman’s behavior.

Bu extended a hand, but Queenie only glanced at it and continued scanning her surroundings. Disappointed—Sunny had held some irrational hope that their two friends would hit it off—they waited until Queenie’s gaze settled on them.

“Now don’t you look pretty,” Queenie said in her trembling tenor, taking in Sunny’s short-sleeved, sheer, purple-striped top and fake black-leather miniskirt. Their long, tawny legs ended in a pair of short black boots. “You are a rare flower, Sunny.”

Buwan nodded. “There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who appreciate beauty and those who don’t.”

The old woman’s eyes bored into Bu. They crinkled up, and she gave one husky chortle. “Well said, young man. Well said.” She nodded. “But you two go on. Don’t stand here keeping me company. Looks like you’re having a night on the town.”

Sunny stepped closer. “Your Band-Aids fell off. But the cut looks better. Does it still hurt?”

Queenie flicked her hand at them. “Go on then.”

Sunny sighed and pulled a ten-dollar bill from the purse secured across their torso by a skinny crossbody strap. When they reached to drop it into Queenie’s Little Mermaid lunchbox, the woman’s hand zipped out and snatched the money, crumpling it into a wad. She looked left and right before hiding the cash in a fold of her grayish-brown cocoon.

“God bless,” she said.

“God bless,” Sunny and Bu echoed.

“See you soon,” Sunny added over their shoulder.

“She’s nice,” Bu said as they walked on, as if he’d made a new acquaintance at a barbeque or party.

Sunny nodded. “I worry about her. But she refuses to go to a shelter.”

“Hey, maybe she could stay with us? We could make room.”

Sunny gave Buwan a quick hug. “That is so sweet.” They struggled for words to explain why Queenie would never accept the offer but gave up, realizing they couldn’t explain what they didn’t know. “I guess there are two kinds of people in the world, Bu: Those who like living on the streets and those who don’t.”

Bu scrunched up his face. “I would say, there are two kinds of people in the world: Those who think living on the streets is their best option and those who don’t.”

Sunny took in Bu’s bronze face and dark eyes as a streetlight washed over him. His black hair reflected the artificial light in bits of blue and silver.

“Well said, Moon Boy. Well said.”

Two drinks and two bars later, Sunny was bored. And sleepy. But they didn’t want to ditch Buwan. That loyalty evaporated when they returned from the ladies’ room to find him swiping away on his phone, frantic energy sizzling around him.

“Tinder, Bu? Really?”

Unfazed, he tucked his phone into the back pocket of his black jeans.

“I’m sorry to leave you alone, but I’m taking off. It’s after midnight.”

“You’re not leaving me alone. I’ve got my new best friend.” He tapped his back pocket, his giant smile splitting his face.

Sunny shook their head. “Just be careful.”

“You be careful. Take a cab home, okay?”

Sunny nodded, but instead of calling a taxi, they retraced their steps back toward Queenie’s spot, unable to forget the old woman’s restlessness. Flashing red and blue lights swarmed their vision as they turned onto Queenie’s block. Beyond a small crowd of gawkers, three police cruisers and an ambulance, its motor running, filled the street. They walked faster, threading through the crowd until forced to stop at a police cordon of yellow crime tape attached to orange cones.

Three uniformed police officers and two in plain clothes—detectives, presumably—clumped together on the spot where Queenie camped out. Queenie was not there. Between the legs of the detectives, Sunny glimpsed a scraggly man in rags huddled on the sidewalk, holding something to his head.

They madly searched for Queenie. They forced their way over to the ambulance, where two paramedics were lifting a gurney into the back. A long, narrow shape under a stark white shroud lay strapped to the gurney. Sunny’s throat seized up as they skirted the police cordon to get closer to the ambulance.

“Wait!” they cried in a strangulated voice, making one of the paramedics—a white woman with a businesslike expression on her face—stop and look. “Is that Queenie? Is she okay?”

“You knew her?” the woman asked, her face softening a touch.

Sunny’s chest wrenched at the past tense. Their head whirlpooled and their mouth dried up. “Is she—?”

The woman shook her head. “She’s gone, I’m afraid. You might want to talk to the police if you knew her.”

The last words drifted away on the miasma of disbelief fogging Sunny’s brain. Peering into the ambulance, they saw no gray, brown or beige where their friend’s skin and clothes should have been. Just the white, white sheet. No face. No smile or husky voice. No movement.

They stumbled away to a nearby building and slumped against it, knees quivering. Only the vestiges of disbelief kept them upright. It can’t be true. It can’t.

“Excuse me. Did you know her?”

Sunny lifted their head as if it weighed fifty pounds. A fortyish-year-old man with light brown hair, wearing a tan windbreaker, stood before them.

“I’m sorry for your loss. I write a column for the paper.” He waved a small wire-bound notebook. “Brian O’Connor. Can you tell me anything about her?”

Sunny’s hand flew to their mouth to stop a rising wave of nausea. Reflexively, they folded their lower lip around their index finger.

“I don’t want this to be reported as just another senseless act of violence against a homeless person. I’d like to do better by her than that. Anything you can tell me would be appreciated.”

“It’s Queenie. Her name is Queenie. At least, that’s what she called herself.”

Brian fished a tissue from his jacket pocket and handed it to Sunny. “It’s relatively clean, I promise.”

Sunny closed their eyes and wiped their seeping tears. Opening their eyes, they sighed with enormous effort and looked Brian in the eye. “I guess I don’t know much about her. She’s been here as long as I can remember. I would bring her food and mittens and stuff to clean her cuts when she got hurt.”

Sunny tugged gently at his jacket sleeve like a shy child. “Tell me what happened. Please.”

Brian put the notebook in the back pocket of his faded jeans.

“There was an altercation. A passerby called the cops to say a man and woman were fighting on the sidewalk. A nearby cruiser got here in time to see, they say, the woman hit the man in the head with a metal object.”

Both sets of eyes swerved to the sidewalk where Queenie used to live. Her Little Mermaid lunchbox sat abandoned, a placard with a number two beside it. A photographer in a navy jacket with “POLICE” on the back moved around the lunchbox as if seeking the model’s best side. The flash exploded, making Sunny jump and little stars float between their eyes and the turquoise, green and red lunchbox. They welcomed the temporary blindness, which also blocked the viscous pools of blood on the concrete.

“She wouldn’t have started it. It was probably the guy who beat her up two weeks ago. She had a black eye and a cut on her head from that. The cut wasn’t healed—the cops should be able to see it. They’ll know she didn’t start it.” The tears gushed now as they realized the futility of debating who was at fault. “What happened then?”

“The cops yelled at her to drop her weapon, but she kept going after the guy. Witnesses say she was pretty enraged. The man kept retreating, but she stayed on him and ignored the cops. So they fired.”

Sunny’s stomach dropped to a depth they hadn’t known possible. “The police did this?” they whispered.

“Yep. Another potentially unjustified police shooting.”

He studied Sunny’s face and reached into his pocket.

“Listen, here’s my card. Call me if you remember anything you’d like me to know about your friend. I’ll be following the case and most likely writing about it at least once.”

Sunny clutched Brian’s arm. “Yes, do that. It’s important. Make sure you say how gentle and kind she was. She used to call me an angel,” they said with wonder, as if unable to connect their relationship with Queenie to anything happening tonight.

“I’ll do my best.” Brian walked away toward one of the detectives, leaving Sunny propped against the wall.

Buwan grabbed a newspaper from the floor beside the couch, rose and went to Sunny’s chair. He held out the paper, folded to show a front-page column on the Metro section. “Did you see this?”

Sunny recognized Brian O’Connor’s photo and byline under the column headline, “The Truth About Queenie.” They shook their head.

“You’ll want to read it.”

Sunny screwed up their face and shook their head. “Will you read it?”

Bu positioned his left thigh on the arm of Sunny’s chair. Steadying himself with one foot, he lifted the paper and read.

The death of the homeless person known as Queenie is drawing more attention than your average homeless person’s death because the police pulled the trigger ending the 72-year-old Black woman’s life.

The circumstances that led a police officer to fire three bullets at Queenie are under investigation by the police and the City. Frustratingly, our mayor is focusing only on the homelessness and mental health aspects of this episode, avoiding the touchier subjects of racism and police violence.

But here are some facts about Queenie that City reports will unlikely address. Resist the urge to judge her as a crazy, lazy, good-for-nothing until you know her story.

Queenie taught school for nearly 20 years and excelled at it. She received the city’s Teacher of the Year Award in 1983 for her commitment to students at the District 78 Middle School. Former colleagues tell of a teacher who literally loved the anger at life’s seemingly unsurmountable challenges right out of her students. For example, she insisted on sitting with two students per day at lunch. That desire to interact with thirteen-year-olds in a cafeteria setting would qualify as insane to many. To Queenie, it was a way to connect with and mentor at-risk youth, many of whom interacted with adults mainly at the end of a fist or through prison bars.

After being forced out of her teaching career, Queenie became a loyal administrative assistant at the We Care Agency for 15 years, leaving only when the nonprofit social services agency closed its doors due to government funding cuts.

Queenie was a daughter, a sister and an aunt. Only one living relative, her niece, would talk to me. Shonda (names have been changed) is ashamed of how her grandparents disowned Queenie when they disagreed with her definition of self. Shonda’s mother Brenda apparently remained loyal to her sister but lost touch when Queenie withdrew into the black hole of homelessness. Despite numerous efforts to track her down, Brenda knew not what became of her sister until the news media covered her death.

Queenie was a loving partner to one James Baldwin for 17 years, until a car crash killed him and put Queenie in the hospital for weeks with a head injury.

Queenie was not mentally ill. She did suffer from debilitating headaches and vision problems as a result of the accident.

Queenie was trans. Born Robert Queeley in 1946, she underwent gender reassignment surgery at age 41, back when “transgender” was called “transsexual.” That brave step resulted in her being fired from her teaching job.

Add all that up, and you get one of America’s most disenfranchised individuals: an old, homeless, Black, trans woman.

You also get, if you’re willing to look, a hard-working, caring, loyal and courageous person who loved her job, her family, her partner, and the hundreds of students she helped shepherd through the difficult life stage known as seventh grade.

One of the bullets fired at Queenie pierced her leg. A second bullet pierced her hip. The third pierced her Little Mermaid lunchbox, which she held up like a shield, and then it pierced her heart.

“Queenie” was Robin Queeley, 1946-2018. R.I.P.

Their memory of the pools of blood on Queenie’s sidewalk prevented Sunny from returning to the site until several weeks later.

They rested a handmade bouquet of frilly pink and yellow snapdragons tied with a strand of cork-colored jute beside the smattering of cards and flowers marking the spot. They bowed their head, lips moving, then spoke softly.

“Queenie, my friend. Brave trans woman and beloved teacher. I barely knew you. But I felt a connection. Maybe you felt it too. I brought you snapdragons because they symbolize grace and inner strength. Now that I know more about your journey, I see your strength was greater than anyone knew, including me.

“Snapdragons also stand for presumption, which seems fitting.” They swallowed hard. “Since the men who killed you presumed you were something besides what you really were.”

They pulled a small, crumpled box of Band-Aids from their back pocket and placed it beside the flowers.

“I brought you these too. I’m sorry you won’t get to use them. You deserved more.”