Occurs between chapters 12 and 13 of the novel, Honestly.
“I gots it!” The high pitch of a child vibrated through the apartment door, followed by the thunder of small steps running, and the slow turn of the knob. Troy waited as the door shifted open and a four-year-old appeared in the gap.
Terrell’s eyes popped, the wide whites showing prominently against his summer-darkened black skin. “Mr. Troy, what are you doing here?!”
“Picking you up, Mr. James, if that is acceptable.” Troy smiled down at the little boy.
“In or out, don’t be a cat!” An older female voice carried from deeper in the apartment.
“Oops.” Terrell fell backward against the door, pushing it wider to allow Troy into the living quarters.
Stepping just inside the door, Troy helped Terrell close it as he waited for the other speaker to come into the living room. While waiting, he glanced around trying to get a feel of the person who raised the woman he loved. The walkways between cracked leather furniture were wide and one section, directly in front of the television playing Sesame Street, temporarily strewn with Terrell’s Legos, crayons, coloring pages, and one shoe. Threadbare carpet presented a bigger trip hazard, especially where some of the strings curled together in a mass at the one end of the sofa near a bright, colorful African pattern throw covering the failing leather surface. Four unlit lamps and a ceiling fan-light combo would turn the dingy white walls into bright reflective surfaces in the evening, if she lit them. Kassandra never turned on her lights to save money, and likely the mother followed suit.
Around the television were dozens of photographs of Kassandra from childhood to adulthood, some of them containing a matching woman slowly aging beside her. A few show Kassandra, the woman, and Terrell; in those, the woman’s health clearly has been deteriorating. The picture where a tired Kassandra is triumphily holding a newborn in a hospital bed, Troy would guess the woman to be in her early sixties although Kassandra’s mother should have been only late-forties. Arthritic hands twisted by the enlarged knuckles lay on her daughter’s shoulders, salt-and-pepper hair pulled back from a proud face, just beginning to have laugh lines about the eyes and smiling mouth. The most recent one, taken in this room four short years later, had a Terrell (slightly younger than he knew) reading a book while sitting on his grandmother’s lap. The steel grey hair a sharp contrast against the African throw as she bent over the child to see what he is pointing at; unkind light from the flash added sparkle into the young child’s eyes but turned her laugh lines into crow’s feet and the smile lines around the mouth carved into a permanent painful frown even with the clear enjoyment she experienced in the child’s presence.
No pictures of Terrell’s father appeared anywhere in the room. Nor any crafts or books. The two end tables had water rings etched into the wood by forgotten drinks, nearly all on the table by the throw, but at the moment it held just the remote with the channel search button worn off; the mostly dusted surfaces hid small dirt bunnies behind the lamps where the woman couldn’t reach. The other walls supported a set of windows covered by crumbling venetian blinds, a cross and warped picture of Martin Luther King Jr., and the entry into the kitchen where he could see cracked linoleum and pealing, but clean, cabinets. The woman, aged even further, was maneuvering a walker with bright green tennis balls on its feet from the linoleum to what was left of the carpet.
“You must be Kassie’s new boy.” Premature aging caused by pain added cracks to a strong voice. She nodded his way as she pushed along one of the two well-worn paths in the brown carpet. One went from the sofa to the kitchen, and the other led down a small hall, presumably to the bathroom and bedroom. Neither path led to the front door.
Troy nodded acknowledgment back from the door. “May I come in, Mrs. Carter?” With his head dropped, he studied the floor a moment. The carpet did show a slight wear of the walker going over it. When Kassandra had called and begged him to pick up Terrell because a co-worker didn’t show making pulling a double-shift a requirement at her present slave-wage job, she mentioned her mother arthritis issues meant she couldn’t care for the active child too long. Either Kassandra was in denial of the level of her mother’s disability, or the woman hid it as much as she could. Having dated the down-to-Earth goddess for just over two months, Troy guessed the later. Likely compounded by being too busy and already feeling guilty about asking her mother for help at all.
“Kassie did say you are a polite one.” The woman plopped onto the African throw, moved the walker to the side, pushing against the wad of loose strings, and, when she noticed he hadn’t moved, waved him over. “Come on, come on. Terrell, boy, bring him over.” A welcoming smile of healthy teeth erased ten years of pain from her dark face.
Grabbing his hand, Terrell started pulling Troy into the apartment. “Careful,” he muttered to the enthusiastic child. Even with nearly two years on the prosthesis, having a forty-pound weight actively pulling to the side challenged his ability to balance. Once close enough to be polite, he managed to disengage the boy by saying, “We need to be leaving soon, Mr. James, if you could gather your things.”
“Sure thing.” And the barefoot child rushed down the hall, quickly returning his backpack and throwing himself on the floor where his Legos warred with the crayons.
Smiling gently, sadly, after the ball of energy, Mrs. Carter turned to him. “Won’t you have a seat?” She waved at the separate leather chair. The least worn piece of furniture in the room and only one not facing the television.
“I am afraid not, ma’am.” Troy tapped his left leg. “Getting up and down is a production sometimes, and we do need to be on our way. I am sure you understand.”
Her brown eyes narrowed, dropping a moment to his leg, adding another frown line into the forest surrounding a mouth meant to smile. Kassandra had told her something. Well, it wasn’t a secret and his girlfriend … girlfriend, yea Gods … was breaking him free of the embarrassed shame-filled prison his scars and amputee injury had chained him into.
“Very well.” The flickering TV drew her eyes a moment, where Terrell had stopped moving to watch Grover fly around in a red cape and mask. Mrs. Carter grabbed the remote and turned off the show. When Terrell turned to protest, she raised her eyebrows then dropped her eyes to the task he had lost track of. Once the child returned to stuffing his coloring sheets into the backpack, her attention returned to him. “Can I offer you a drink or something to eat?”
He smiled, shaking his head. And Kassandra teased him about Southern Manners. “No, thank you, Mrs. Carter. I am fine.”
“I’m ready,” reported Terrell, standing.
“Mr. James, I am fairly certain you arrived with two shoes and socks.” Troy scolded lightly. He looked over at the seated woman who joined him in the fun.
“Oh yes, two shoes and his Elmo socks.” Mrs. Carter considered the lonely shoe. “It’s why today was a Sesame Street day.”
Troy nodded. “You wouldn’t want to lose those.”
“Look in the bedroom hon, I think they came off during naptime.”
The four-year-old tore down the hall looking for the rest of his footwear, leaving the backpack and shoe behind.
“Anything else I should look for?” he asked the woman.
She shook her head. “No jacket or hat needed in summer, so we are good.”
Coming back with two socks and two shoes, Terrell dropped to the floor and started pulling them on. Velcro ripped when he tightened the shoes.
“Are we going to the park?” Terrell asked, after standing, the solo shoe unexplained. His eyes went sideways, and he rocked from foot-to-foot. “Mom always takes me to the park to see the puppies and play on the slides after Nana’s.”
“She does not, Terrell Martin Samuel James, and I will not have you lie to this man.” Mrs. Carter’s voice ripped through the room with power.
Troy unconsciously came to attention at the drill sergeant tone, seemingly doubling in size and firmness to the little boy.
“I..I..I am sorry, Mr. Troy.” He started sobbing. “I just want to see the puppies.”
“Lying, even to get what you want, is wrong.” Troy said firmly, his eyes fixed on the bowed head covered in short black curly twists. “You do understand that, Mr. James, correct?”
The bowed head bobbed up and down.
“I’m sorry, Mr. James. I need you to answer me verbally.” The military, while not perfect, raised more than one wayward child and much of its mannerisms worked well during toddler interaction.
The bowed head shook sideways. Clearly verbal was beyond the four-year-old at the moment.
Nana wasn’t haven’t any. “You heard the man. Do you understand lying is bad, Terrell?”
The head snapped sideways. Eyes of two generations met.
Troy wondered if a dominance battled was occurring, or a begging for mercy, or some other telepathic exchange only family can do. Not standing between them, he couldn’t hazard a guess. Eventually Terrell’s eyes shifted away to meet his. Not a dominance battle, the four-year-old would have broken under Mrs. Carter’s will much sooner. The tears on the corners of the eyes were drying. Assurance and confidence, that was the exchange. How many times had his parents instilled those feelings in him with a look? How many times had his father bolstered him with energy and determination since he had come back broken?
“Yes, Mr. Troy.”
He couldn’t leave it at that. Not if he was going to be staying around Kassandra. Terrell needed to understand what would be expected. “Yes, what?”
“What?” Came a confused echo. The four-year-old eyes returned to the older woman, widening to ask for clarification.
“Yes, Mr. Troy, I understand lying is bad.” She supplied him the words and tilted her head, returning the four-year-old back to the conversation with the adult male.
“Yes, Mr. Troy, I understands lying is bad.” Terrell repeated.
“Good.” Troy touched the boy on the shoulder, stopping himself from ruffling the hair. They weren’t that familiar yet, though Troy ached sometimes in worry for the little boy. Every so often they roughhoused while Kassandra was prepping something, but in general, their getting-to-know-each-other dance was slower and more emotionally difficult than the one Kassandra was putting him through. Dewayne might be a total loser, but, as Terrell’s dad, he was in the picture and staying in the picture whatever Troy and Kassandra ended up being, and the child did not need any more confusion on that score. “So, the plan is, we are going back to my place and cook your mom dinner.”
“Cook?” Terrell gasped.
“Yes, cook. I thought your mom would like a nice cooked meal when she got home after all the work she did today.” Terrell wished he could easily kneel to look the child in the eye. Maybe he should have taken up Mrs. Carter on her offer to sit. “I left the bread rising and the vegetables are waiting to be chopped up.”
“Vegetables?” Terrell crinkled his nose while Mrs. Carter laughed.
Clapping her hands in joy on the couch, the woman commented, “Oh, you’ll do. You’ll definitely do.”
Troy quickly glanced her way. “Thank you, ma’am.” Kassandra may be a completely independent woman, but she was also completely committed to her family. “You are invited by the way, if you would like to come.”
Startled the woman’s face froze. “I couldn’t. I wouldn’t want to be an imposition. I just-“
Troy interrupted. “My normal Lyft driver specializes in the mobility impaired. I had been planning on taking the bus back, but I could see if she is available. She keeps two child seats in the back of her van so she can run families to doctor offices. Shall I see if she is available?”
“You were planning on cooking for just-“
“A small army. Where I learned to cook.” Troy looked down at the wide-eyed child. “Mr. James, get your bag please.” The boy had dropped it during the chastisement. Crossing the room, Troy carefully knelt beside the sofa arm and walker, and put his hand on her hand where it gripped the tired leather. “My father will be there and love the company of having someone his own age to talk to, and when was the last time you truly got to sit down and talk with your daughter? Do say you will come.”
Black and brown eyes met, both knowing the lie and the gift being offered. Lies are not always bad. Honestly.
Her eyes tried to break away, to find another excuse.
“If you do not come, Kassandra will try to help me clean up.” Troy clasped her hand in both of his. “Please.”
“Well, if only to keep Kassie out of the kitchen.” The tension released from her shoulders and hand, not in defeat but in acceptance and anticipated pleasure.
(Words 2,230 – first published 10/1/2017 – put into the unused 1/29/2017 timeslot)