Authors: Beverly Jenkins
To all the mothers and their sons
ita Lynn Babcock had a good life. At the age of sixty-Âtwo she had no health issues; her husband, Paul, a cardiac surgeon, still loved her madly; and their daughter, Val, was founding partner of an eponymous law firm. Rita was thankful for her blessings, but at the moment her heart was heavy. Two days ago she'd buried her mother, Ida Merchant. Except for an indiscretion Rita had committed at the age of seventeen, they'd never had reason to share a cross word. Now Rita Lynn and Paul were meeting with their lawyer in his office to discuss Ida's will.
“Please, have a seat.”
The lawyer, Dexter West, was an old college friend of Paul's. He took a moment to look through the stack of papers before him, as if to make sure all was in order. The estate wasn't large. Ida hadn't been wealthy by any means, but she'd been well loved and, until her stroke eighteen months ago, maintained her own home and finances.
With Dexter's guidance, Rita and Paul made the final arrangements for Ida's earthly possessions, from her house to the ten-Âyear-Âold sky-Âblue Toyota she'd lovingly called Gladys. Her extensive cache of African-ÂAmerican history books was donated to the local library, and all the money left in her bank account after her bills were paid would be going to True Saints AME, the church she'd worshipped in and loved for over half a century. As executrix, Rita affixed her signature to each document Dexter slid her way, and when they were all done, she put her fingertips to the corners of her teary eyes to staunch the flow.
Paul gave her shoulder a tender squeeze and said softly, “It's okay, babe.” Five years ago they'd buried his beloved mom, so he understood her grief.
“There's one more thing,” Dexter said gently. He handed her a sealed envelope. “Your mother gave this to me a few years back. She asked me to hold on to it until her passing.”
Rita paused. “What is it?”
“You should read it.”
His face told her nothing, but she had a strong sense of foreboding. She looked to Paul and received a reassuring nod. The letter was one page and penned in her mother's strong handwriting. She read the beginning silently, but by the midpoint her eyes had widened. She whispered in a shocked and broken voice, “No!” The further she read, the louder her “No!” echoed, until she was screaming the denial again and again from the depths of her broken heart.
earing the high-Âpitched peals of female laughter coming from inside the new addition he'd built for his wife, Lily, Trent July smiled. She and the ladies of the Henry Adams Ladies Auxiliary were celebrating the room's grand opening. He'd been promising that she'd have her own space for some time. Being the only female in the family, she needed someplace to escape all the testosterone generated by him and their sonsâÂfourteen-Âyear-Âold Amari and twelve-Âyear-Âold Devon. He was glad she was enjoying it.
“They're having way too much fun in there,” Amari announced, entering the living room and dropping down onto the couch beside Trent, who was watching the NFL game between the Indianapolis Colts and the home team, the Kansas City Chiefs.
Trent chuckled softly. “Yes, they are.”
Trent loved his oldest son. He'd come to him as an eleven-Âyear-Âold foster childâÂa pint-Âsize car thief extraordinaire, filled with swag, street smarts, and a talent for asking a million questions. Since finalizing his adoption two years ago, Trent had watched Amari grow into an exceptional young man. Yes, there'd been instances when Trent had to lay down the law, like the time Amari and his friends were caught surfing the Internet in places they had no business being, but such was the life of a parent. All in all, Amari July was a good kid with a big heart. “What's your brother doing?” Trent asked.
As if on cue, Devon entered. “Dad, can I go in and see what Mom's doing?”
Trent loved Devon too, but the boy was at that trying stage between child and teen. “Because you weren't invited.”
“It'll just be for a minute. I have something I want to ask her.”
“No, Dev, but you're welcome to ask me. What's the question?” Trent assumed Devon wanted to be nosy, but he was willing to give his son the benefit of the doubt.
“Um, I wanted to know what we're having for dinner.”
Amari sighed and shook his head at his brother's grasping-Âat-Âstraws answer, but Trent kept his voice kind. “The three of us are going to the Dog for dinner.” The DogâÂreal name, the Dog and CowâÂwas the local diner owned by Trent's father, Malachi July, and was the social hub of the community. “Do you want to watch the game with us until then?”
Devon quietly turned down the offer. “No, thank you. I'll just go back to my room.”
“Okay. I'll call you when we're ready to go.”
Devon nodded and left.
Watching him exit, Amari drawled, “I still think we should trade him for a draft pick.”
The two boys were sometimes like oil and water, but even when things got hairy, Amari put up with his younger brother because Amari was all about family. Before Trent and Lily married last year, Devon had been Lily's foster son. Back then, all Devon wanted in life was to be the town preacher. Reality made him reset that goal, and now he was having difficulty just being a kid. His new mission in life seemed to be getting on everyone's last nerve. Even Zoey Garland, Devon's former BFF, had grown so tired of his behavior that she'd given him two serious beatdowns recently just to make her point. Reverend Paula, the town's priest and certified child psychologist, was meeting with him a few days a week to help him work out his issues. Trent and Lily remained hopeful. Even though he'd been spoiled rotten by his maternal grandmother, Devon was loving, talented, and charismatic.
“Do you ever think about your mom, Dad?”
The question caught Trent off guard, but he answered truthfully, “Every now and then.” Trent's parents were teens when he was conceived, and according to what he'd been told by Malachi, his mother's family had moved away once the pregnancy became known. After Trent's birth, his maternal grandmother brought him back to town, handed him over to his paternal grandmother, Tamar, like someone returning shoes to a store, and promptly drove away. The Julys hadn't heard a word from them since. “Have you been thinking about yours?”
“Yeah. After Brain's bio mom came for Thanksgiving, they've been e-Âmailing each other every day. Hard not to be jealous when mine wants nothing to do with me.”
Preston “Brain” Payne was Amari's BFF and another of the adopted kids in the small town of Henry Adams, Kansas. Preston's biological mother, NASA scientist Dr. Margaret Winthrop, had visited him and his adoptive parents, Barrett and Sheila Payne, for the first time during the holidays. As a result, Brain was on cloud nine. By contrast, Amari's biological mother had made it clear that she wanted no contact with her son, and her adamant stance weighed heavily on the boy's gawky teenage shoulders. Considering Trent's own situation, it was a weight they shared. “Maybe she'll change her mind,” Trent said, “but in the meantime, all you can do is go on with your life.” Just as he'd done, even though to this day he wondered why his mother had never sent him so much as a postcard.
On the TV the Colts quarterback threw a fifty-Âyard pass to the end zone to score on the home-Âteam Chiefs. The disappointment caused Trent and Amari to shake their heads sadly.
As the Colts celebrated, Amari said, “I know you're right, Dad, but it's really hard. I don't want to make it sound like I don't appreciate Ms. Lily as my mom. I mean, she's the kind I used to dream about in foster careâÂbut .Â .Â .”
“You'd like ties to your bio mom.”
“Yeah, I would.”
“Understandable. I feel the same way.”
“Deep down inside, I'm really happy for Brain, but it's still rough.” Amari glanced over. “You're an awesome dad, by the way.”
The Chiefs fumbled the kickoff, and Amari cracked, “Too bad we don't have an awesome NFL team.”
“Keeping hope alive for the second half.”
It was the first week of December. Four inches of snow had fallen overnight, and according to the dashboard gauge on Trent's truck, the temperature outside was a balmy fifteen degrees. As he drove down Henry Adams's main street to the Dog with his sons, not even the winter weather kept him from marveling at the changes to the landscape brought about by the largesse of town owner Bernadine Brown. The open stretches of land that had once been strewn with the crumbling remains of the town's nineteenth-Âcentury past now held a new recreation center, school, and church. The old dirt roads were paved. Asphalt parking lots had been added, along with cement sidewalks and towering solar streetlights. Other improvements were in the planning stages, and Trent couldn't be more pleased by the town's rebirth. His family, residents since the nineteenth century, had seen it rise over the years to become a model for African-ÂAmerican communities nationwide. But by the twenty-Âfirst century, Henry Adams had fallen so low that, as mayor, he was forced to offer it for sale on eBay. That's when Bernadine Brown, armed with a multimillion-Âdollar divorce settlement, rode to the rescue like a one-Âwoman battalion of the famed Tenth Cavalry. She'd even footed the bill for rehabbing the Dog, turning what was once a well-Âloved but dilapidated eyesore into a glistening eatery complete with brand-Ânew red leather booths, smooth-Âtopped tables, a state-Âof-Âthe-Âart kitchen, and Wi-ÂFi.
Inside, old-Âschool music played on the fancy red jukebox, as always. The mounted flat-Âscreen TVs were tuned to the day's football games, and the interior was filled with the familiar faces of those Trent had grown up with: Rochelle “Rocky” Dancer, the diner's manager and Henry Adams's resident bombshell; Clay Dobbs, his godfather and his dad's best friend; and Bing Shepard, the crusty old World War II vet now living with Clay after the death of his wife. Both men had played significant roles in Trent's life, growing up.
His dad, Malachi, walked over to greet them. “Well, if it isn't my favorite son and grandsons.”
“We're your only son and grandsons,” Trent countered, which made the boys grin. Father and son ribbed each other constantly, a testament to their strong bond.
“You overeducated engineers always have to point out the obvious,” Mal groused. “Go on and get a seat. Your booth in the back's waiting on you.”
After pausing a few times to speak to friends, Trent and his sons took seats in their favorite booth. Crystal Chambers-ÂBrown, Bernadine's seventeen-Âyear-Âold daughter and the resident big sister of the town's kids, came over to take their order. “Hey, guys. Your usual burgers and fries?”
“Yes, ma'am,” Trent told her. While she wrote down the order, he asked, “When are your friends coming from Dallas?”
“Tomorrow morning. Mom's going to let me miss school so I can ride with her to the airport. I'm so excited.”
“I'm looking forward to meeting them. Hope they'll like living here.”
“What's not to like?” she asked. “We live in the middle of nowhereâÂno fast food, no clubs, no real music on the radio. It's paradise.” She left them to go put their orders in.
Trent looked to Amari. “Was she being sarcastic?”
The boy shrugged. “Who knows? With her it's hard to tell, but I do know that after running away and having to come back to âparadise' after only a few days, with her tail between her legs, she's figured out Dorothy got it right: there's no place like home.”
Trent concurred. After earning his master's degree in engineering from Stanford, he'd taken a job with a multinational architectural firm in LA and for ten years immersed himself in big-Âcity living. Eventually, wearied by the breakneck pace, the sometimes cutthroat nature of the Âpeople, and two failed marriages, he'd returned, never to leave again. He glanced Devon's way and saw him staring across the room at his former best friend Zoey, sitting with her dad, town pediatrician Reginald Garland, and eleven-Âyear-Âold Wyatt Dahl. Wyatt and his grandmother Gemma were the town's newest residents, and he and Zoey had become inseparable in the short time since the Dahls' arrival. Everyone in town was well aware of Devon's long-Ârunning feud with Miss Miami, as Zoey was affectionately called, and although Devon wouldn't admit it, Trent knew he missed calling her friend. “You want to go over and say hi to Zoey and Wyatt?”
“No,” Devon replied, as if Trent had just asked him to drink motor oil.
Amari shook his head but kept his opinion to himself.
Trent didn't press, but the irritation in Devon's eyes was mixed with unspoken longing and a deep sadness. Later in the week, they'd be meeting as a family with Reverend Paula. He hoped the rift with Zoey would be one of the topics on the agenda.
A short while later Crystal returned with their meals. Devon said grace, and they dug in.
When Trent and the boys returned home, all the ladies' vehicles were gone, and the interior was quiet. They found Lily in the kitchen, feeding the dishwasher.
“Hey, baby,” he said affectionately. “Did you and your girls have a good time?”
Her smile said it all. “Yes, we did. No one wanted to go home. How was your afternoon?” Her eyes brushed over her sons.
“The Chiefs lost,” Amari said.
“We saw Zoey and Wyatt,” Devon said.
“Did you wave?” Lily asked.
He shook his head.
“Did you want to?” she pressed gently.
“She doesn't want to be friends with me, so I don't want to be friends with her.”
“She might be waiting for you to make the first move, Devon.”
But her son wasn't buying it. “She's the one who started it, so she should make the first move.”
Apparently Amari wasn't buying it, either. “No. You were the one who started it.” Devon tensed, but Amari ignored him and asked, “Is it okay if I go hang out at Brain's for a little while and watch the Sunday night game?”
Devon's eyes shot daggers.
Trent asked, “What's wrong, Devon?”
“Nobody ever agrees with me.”
“That's because you're always wrong,” Amari pointed out.
“Amari,” Trent cautioned.
“Well, he is.” Under Trent's mild look of censure, Amari amended his answer. “Okay, maybe not all the time, but for sure ninety-Ânine point nine percent of the time. So, can I go?”
“The colonel's out of town, but if Mrs. Payne's okay with it, you can stay until halftime.” Trent sent Amari a speaking look.
Amari sighed loudly before asking his brother, “Do you want to go?”
Trent and Lily had been encouraging Amari to include Devon in some of his activities, with the hope it might help Devon chill out. They knew Amari would rather walk to Topeka through the snow with bare feet, but he never overtly balked.
“No. I'm going up to my room to watch some videos.”
“Okay. Be back at the half.” Amari left to get his coat, and Devon headed for his bedroom upstairs.
Once both boys were gone and Trent was alone with his wife, he draped his arms around her waist and looked down into her dark eyes. To him she was still as beautiful as she'd been when they were in high school together. “This parenting business is more than a notion.”
“Have I kissed you today, Mrs. July?”
She made a point of thinking. “Hmm. I don't remember, so you should probably get busy.”
Chuckling softly, he did as requested. When they finally came up for air, she whispered, “Very nice.”
“Do you want help cleaning up?”
“Men who help with housework are considered very sexy.”
“Yes, and later, after the knuckleheads are snuggled in their beds, I'll show you just how much.”
“I like the sound of that.”
She waggled her eyebrows. “Thought you might.”
It took only a short while to remove all the spent plastic cups and plates and reposition the furniture. As they worked, Trent watched the way she moved, the flow of her walk, and savored the way his heart rate accelerated like a teenage boy's each time she glanced his way and smiled. Circumstances tore them apart after high school, but now after nearly two decades they'd settled their differences and were man and wife. He loved her as much as he did breathing. When his first two marriages crashed and burned, he'd thought his life would never hold happiness again, but his Lily Flower brought all that and more. He felt blessed.