Authors: Beverly Jenkins
A Blessings Novel
To foster parents and adoptive parents everywhere.
Get in the car!” Jack James snarled at his sixteen-year-old son,â¦
Eleven-year-old Amari Steele looked down at the food on hisâ¦
Bernadine's alarm usually went off at 6:00 a.m. Rising early wasâ¦
Most of the mail on Bernadine's desk pertained to theâ¦
That following morning, after breakfast and Preston's departure, Trent saidâ¦
Over at the Dog and Cow, Malachi was in hisâ¦
Out in Las Vegas, Genevieve Curry and her old friend Marie Jeffersonâ¦
Before Bernadine could leave her office for home and dinnerâ¦
It was 6:00 a.m. and still dark when Bernadine got upâ¦
Over at the Dog, Rocky and her staff had justâ¦
As Preston and Amari rode their bikes out to Tamar'sâ¦
Before heading over to the town meeting, Bernadine swung byâ¦
Amari came down to breakfast that next morning and foundâ¦
Sitting in his office at the D&C, Malachi was thinkingâ¦
To Bernadine's surprise, Rocky delivered the lunch.
Bernadine got up Friday morning and made a pledge toâ¦
He's here, Ms. Bernadine.”
On Saturday morning, Bernadine and Crystal drove over to theâ¦
Amari and Trent were standing together in front of theâ¦
Ray got paid Friday morning, and after lunch he andâ¦
Things in Henry Adams settled down pretty much for the remainderâ¦
In San Francisco, Lily was also wowed. She felt like aâ¦
Mal hadn't had much to say to Otis after theirâ¦
Crystal was sitting in the car with the man sheâ¦
et in the car!” Jack James snarled at his sixteen-year-old son, Eli. Snarling was better than cursing and yelling though both were justifiable when you get a call from the LAPD in the middle of the night telling you your kid has been picked up for joyriding in a stolen car.
Eli plopped down into the seat and slammed the door.
Jack gritted out, “You've been gone for four days! Do you know how worried I've been? You're lucky the car owner didn't press charges.”
A surly silence was followed by “I'm not moving to Kansas with you. I don't care what you say.”
“Then you go into foster care until you're eighteen.”
“You heard me. It's either Kansas or foster care. Legally, you're not old enough to be on your own, and if you think I'm kidding, the papers are in the glove box. I'm done trying to make you do right, Eli.”
Jack, a widower, didn't know his son anymore. Since Eva's death, two years ago, Eli had become increasingly distant and angry. His grades were on life support, his attitude surly as the ocean in winter, and his contempt for his surviving parent obvious. Jack remembered the day Eli was born; how tiny he was in his little blue blanket and how perfect. He'd held his child in his arms and thought about what a blessed future their family would have, and it had been that until the day Eva was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer. She'd fought for her life with all the strength, humor, and faith she possessed, but it hadn't been enough.
And so here he sat, furious at that same perfect child; furious, tired, and heartbroken. “I love you, Eli, but I'm going to Kansas to take this teaching position. If you don't want to, fine. We can go back inside and you can wait for Child Protective Services to come pick you up. Like I said, paperwork's ready to go.”
“I hate you, you know.”
“I do. I also know that you're hurting and angry about losing Mom, but did it ever occur to you that I might be feeling the same way? I loved her too,” Jack whispered.
Startled, Eli looked over, but Jack ignored him and started up the car instead.
leven-year-old Amari Steele looked down at the food on his plate. He guessed the yellow stuff on the left was eggs, and he knew a muffin when he saw one, but this other stuff, it looked like spinach. Who ate spinach for breakfast? “What's this supposed to be again, Dad?”
Trenton July, the mayor of Henry Adams, looked up from his own plate and into the skeptical eyes of his foster son. In truth, Trent didn't have a clue. “Not sure.”
Bing Shepard, one of the town's elders, leaned over from the booth behind them and drawled, “French cuisine.”
Amari moved his plate away, grumbling, “Doesn't she know we're in Kansas? I came here for waffles.”
in question was the new cook at the town's recently rebuilt and refurbished diner, the Dog and Cow, aka the Dog. Her name was Florene Maxwell. She was a culinary student at the community college, but as far as the local residents were concerned, she couldn't cook a lick.
Trent looked around the diner. The place was as packed
as it was supposed to be on a Saturday morning but if all the plates being sent back to the kitchen were any indication, no one was pleased with Florene or her cuisine.
She'd taken over the kitchen this past Monday, and proceeded to serve up not the pork chops, chicken, rice, and other familiar fare on the menu when Rocky, the previous cook, reigned in the kitchen, but an ever-increasing array of strange dishes no one could pronounce, let alone cared to eat, like itty-bitty potatoes set on sprigs of green twigs, multicolored spats of pureed root vegetables that had to have come out of baby food jars, and portions of meat so small they wouldn't have fed a cat.
And she had the nerve to be snippy. Earlier in the week, when Trent asked why there were no pork chops, chicken breasts, or anything else on the new menu real people wanted to eat, her response had been a haughty “Because this is my kitchen and if you don't like the changes eat somewhere else.”
Because the town's owner and fairy godmother, Bernadine Brown, who usually handled the town's problems, had flown off to Barcelona on Monday morning to hang out with her girlfriends, the disgruntled residents had no one to take their complaints to but Trent and his father, Malachi, the owner of the diner. Malachi and Florene had been going round and round about the food. The only reason she hadn't been fired the very first day was that Malachi wanted to wait for Bernadine to return. It was his hope that she'd be able to talk some sense into the girl.
In the meantime, Henry Adams was a small town. Popu
lation, seventy, give or take a few, and folks had small-town values. As a result they'd bent over backward to be kind and welcoming to Florene. For the first few days nobody overtly complained about the unpronounceable dishes or the teeny-tiny portions, but spinach for Saturday breakfast instead of waffles and pancakes? They were done.
Amari pushed his plate farther away. “May I be excused? I want to go home and get my bike.”
Trent asked, “Why?”
“So I can ride over to Tamar's. I want waffles.”
Trent chuckled. “Me too. How about I drive?” Tamar was Trent's grandmother. She knew grandsons like him and growing boys like Amari needed their Saturday morning waffles, so Trent paid their bill and with a wave good-bye to the rest of the grumbling diners, he and Amari made their exit.
Driving the road to Tamar's, Trent glanced over at the boy beside him riding shotgun. Amari “Flash” Steele. He was born in Detroit and given the nickname Flash for his lightning-fast ability to steal cars. Amari was wise beyond his years. One would think that a child who'd spent the majority of his young life moving between foster homes would be distant or empty inside. Not Amari. Beneath the street smarts and swagger beat a heart of gold. The kid also had a charismatic charm bordering on the magical.
Trent's eyes drifted back to his driving and the expanse of plowed Kansas fields that stretched to the horizon and lined both sides of the gravel road they were traveling on. Being a father had always been a dream of his, but after two failed marriages and marking his fortieth birthday, he'd all but given up hope. Then Bernadine Brown entered the
town's life, bringing with her a bunch of blessings, and five needy foster children she wanted the Henry Adams community to help raise: fifteen-year-old Crystal Chambers; thirteen-year-old Preston Mays; eleven-year-old Amari; and Mississippi-born and-raised Devon Watkins and little mute Zoey Raymond, who were eight and seven respectively.
Trent chose Amari to foster, and so far it had been a good fit. Initially he'd questioned the decision once it became clear that Amari asked questions 24/7, 365. The kid was smart as a whip and curious as the proverbial cat in spite of being academically behind. Now, thanks to local schoolteacher Marie Jefferson, his grades were improving and the questions continued to flow like the Mississippi.
“When's Ms. Bernadine coming back?”
“Sometime tomorrow night, if they make all of their connections.”
Bernadine was traveling with her foster daughter, Crystal, and Lily Fontaine, the town's COO and Trent's lady. Lord, he missed Lily. Back in the mid-eighties, they'd been high school sweethearts, but after graduation their relationship crashed and burned. She came back to town last summer and they'd reconnected, so now Trent had Amari and Lily, and life was sweet.
There was nothing sweet going on between Crystal and Amari, however. When the kids first came to live in Henry Adams, they'd been strangers, all hailing from different parts of the country, and Crys and Amari had gotten along like warring nations. The one time they did see eye to eye, half the town ended up in court, including Trent and his father, Malachi, because Amari had “borrowed” Mal's
truck to help Crystal run away so she could track down her birth mother, Nikki. Luckily the caper had been cut short by the local sheriff, but the judge placed Henry Adams's unique foster child program on probation for one year; a probation that would end in the fall as long as there were no more Stupid Kid Tricks in the interim.
“When Ms. Bernadine gets back, first thing I want her to do is fire that dumb cook,” Amari groused. “Even I know you don't serve people spinach for breakfast.”
The smiling Trent agreed.
When they reached Tamar's, the two got out. The freshly painted green house with its wide wraparound porch had been home to the July family since the late nineteenth century. Its first residents had been Trent's great-great-great-grandmother, Olivia Sterling July, and her husband, Neil July. Olivia had been the Henry Adams mayor and Neil the eldest of the train-robbing, bank-robbing, always-wanted-by-the-law July family. Trent swept his eyes up over the grand old structure, noting the white gingerbread trim and the rusted rooster weather vane Tamar refused to replace. Both his grandmother and his father had been born inside; he himself had grown up within its sheltering walls, and now, thanks to the repairs and remodeling courtesy of Bernadine and her town revitalization efforts, it would stand tall for generations to come.
Tamar must have heard his truck's approach because she stepped outside just as they reached the porch's bottom step.
“Well, good morning. What are you two up to?”
“Will you make us waffles?” Amari pleaded.
Tamar, dressed in her signature caftan robes of black
and green, long silver hair flowing like a river, looked first at the boy she'd agreed to raise as her great-grandson and then over to her grandson Trent. “Why me?”
Amari answered, “Because that crazy girl perpetrating as a cook gave us spinach!”
Tamar kept a straight face. “Thought you liked spinach?”
“Not for breakfast. Please, Tamar, you make the best waffles in Kansas. Please?”
“Sucking up, are you?”
“Oh, most def.”
Ignoring Amari's patented megawatt smile, or at least trying to, she moved her attention to Trent. “I suppose you want waffles too?”
She eyed them both for a long, silent moment, then sighed. “May as well. If I don't feed you now, you'll just be back here begging later on.” She reentered the house.
A pleased Amari did a Tiger Woods fist pump. An amused Trent followed him up the steps and inside.
Trent and Amari had just dug in when Bing Shepard and his housemate, Clay Dobbs, walked into the kitchen. “Got enough to feed two more?”
Tamar looked up from the griddle. “I take it you all didn't want spinach for breakfast either?”
“Don't get us started,” Bing muttered, taking a seat at the table. “When does Bernadine get back so she can fix this?”
Clay sat too. “Hopefully before dinner, because if I have to look at another fancy-shmancy plate I'm going to shoot myself. Why can't we just have plain old American food?”
Tamar used a fork to transfer a waffle from the grid
dle to a plate. She handed it to Bing. “I had a run-in with Miss Florene earlier this week. Told her if she put some of that attitude into her cooking she might be able to whip up something folks might want to eat.”
“Amen,” Bing cracked.
“Have you talked to her about the menu?” Clay asked Trent.
Trent looked up from his plate of golden brown waffles swimming in butter and maple syrup and wiped his mouth with his napkin. “I did. Blew me off. Said she only answers to Ms. Brown.”
Amari cracked, “She keep cooking that mess she calls food and Ms. Bernadine might give her an answer she may not like. Tamar, can I have some more, please?”
Bing laughed. “For that piece of wisdom, I think he should get two.”
And when Tamar placed two more waffles on his plate, Amari grinned over at his dad. “I love being a July.”
Trent forked up more waffles and grinned in response. “It does have its perks.”
That night, lying in his bed in the dark, Amari thought back on that conversation. Being a July did have its perks. Not only did he get to eat Tamar's great cooking, he got family: from his dad, to the O.G.âhis nickname for Malachiâto Tamar. He'd never had family before. Some social workers made believe that being in a foster home was just as good as having real family, and maybe it was that way for some kids, but it had never been like that for him. For him, foster care had been something to survive; something to get through
until time came to move to another home where he'd have to do the same thing all over again. Admittedly some had been okay, like the first foster mother he remembered, old Mrs. Crandall, who'd taken him in at age five, because one, she had a good heart, and two, the money she received from the state for his care helped supplement her tiny Social Security check. She'd taken him to church, on trips to the zoo, and hadn't demanded much except that he sit and watch cartoons and old movies with her. She died when he was eight, and he had to move again, and this time, to hell.
Her name was Willie Lee Oxford. Crackhead. How she managed to get a foster care license was beyond him. The only things he remembered clearly were her screaming at him and the four other kids in the house, the daily whippings, and that he was hungry all day every day because every penny in the household went to feeding her habit. Six months into his sentence she was busted for prostitution and the state took him and the other kids back. Just before he came to Henry Adams, he saw her on a street corner in Detroit. He'd been looking for a car to steal and she'd been working. She recognized him immediately and asked him for a dollar. When he told her he didn't have any money, she cussed him out, in between yelling to anybody who would listen that he used to pee in the bed.
But now he was in Kansas with a real family. No bullshit, no screaming, no crackheads. For the first time in his life he was sleeping on a mattress that wasn't secondhand and full of stains. He had a brand-new bike, clothes the right size, purchased specifically for him. None of that Salvation Army, Goodwill stuff. He even had his own bedroom that he didn't
have to share. Yeah, Henry Adams was out in the middle of nowhere, but to tell the truth, Amari didn't care. He liked the people, the town, and he definitely liked his family. The last two words made him smile. Being a July did have its perks, and because of that, he'd come to a decision. He wanted to be a real July and he planned to talk to Ms. Bernadine about it, right after he convinced her to fire the new cook. Satisfied, he turned over and drifted off to sleep.
In the dream, Amari was driving. The speedometer on the black Carrera convertible hovered at 120 and he was chilling behind the wheel, sounds blasting. The smooth two-lane road twisted through the desert-looking landscape like something out of a TV commercial. It felt real as hell, even though it couldn't be. For one, he hadn't seen any other cars, and two, according to the GPS he was heading west, but the sun was setting behind him. He had no idea what that was about, or where he might be heading, but it felt good to be rolling again. He looked to his right and saw a big brown hawk with black-flecked feathers riding shotgun. It was standing in the seat, facing forward, keen eyes focused on the road ahead. For some reason, that didn't strike Amari as odd. He just smiled and turned his attention back to the wheel.
Seated in the snow-white interior of her personal jet, the very tired Bernadine Brown looked out at the starry night. She'd had way too much fun in Barcelona at the Bottom Women's Society annual convention and she had the weariness to prove it. Not only had the event been an
over-the-top, five-star affair, she'd gotten to show off the beautiful city to two of the most important people in her new life: her fifteen-year-old foster daughter, Crystal, who'd spent the entire time being blown away by everything from the food to the architecture, and Lily Fontaine, Bernadine's friend and administrative right hand.
Now she couldn't wait to get home and sleep in her own bed. Who'd've ever thought a woman with all her wealth would find happiness in a town so small it wasn't even on most maps? She certainly wouldn't have. When she divorced her oil executive husband, Leo, four years ago because of his cheating, her divorce settlement had been an eye-popping $275 million. Having been married to Leo for over thirty years, she'd already owned everything monetarily a woman could ask for. However, having been raised in the church, she knew that when much is given, much is expected, so after the divorce she asked God to send her a purpose for all the excess wealth. That purpose turned out to be the financially destitute town of Henry Adams, Kansas. She saw a news report about it being for sale on eBay, so she purchased it. Lock, stock, and barrel. Best investment she'd ever made. Not only had she gotten the unique opportunity to rebuild a historic Black township founded in the 1880s, but she'd found peace and family there as well.