Every Monday morning I quit.
Before I even crawled out of bed, sometimes even before I clawed all the way from dreams to the mental pile of stuff I was going to have to try to make a dent in, if it was Monday, I said, out loud so there could be no misunderstanding: “God, you’re going to have to find somebody else to be your prophet, because I’m done. You got a recovery group I can get into?”
Sometimes I’d imagine such a group—a place where I could sit in a circle with other people who were in way over their spiritual heads and say, “Hi. I’m Allison, and I’m a recovering prophet.”
Seriously. The women of Sacrament House could nobly go to Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous and Prostitutes Anonymous (okay, I made that one up), and begin to see themselves healing. Ninety meetings in ninety days was a requirement for them.
But there was no Prophets Anonymous. There was no recovery from being one—although at times I would have given up my Harley to escape it—and there was nothing anonymous about it. I knew. I’d tried that.
That particular Monday, however, I skipped quitting. I didn’t even give a nod to the stack of not-yet-done stuff teetering just beyond my reach, waiting for one more thing to topple it over. Because that late August Monday, almost exactly one year since I’d caught twelve-year-old Desmond Sanborn trying to steal my house key, I was standing in front of a judge, about to adopt the boy.
It was enough to make the whole precarious pile disappear.
Judge Atwell now dragged his ancient face down with his hand and went into a pause as lengthy as his chin. I remembered that about him. You could practically go out for a cappuccino during one of those conversational gaps. Beside me, Desmond shifted his negligible weight from one lanky leg to the other. I put a cautionary hand on his shoulder and prayed he wouldn’t blurt out, “Mr. Your Honor, sir, you takin’ a nap up in there?”
Finally His Honor nodded gravely at Chief, who stood looking even taller than his six-foot-plus on the other side of Desmond. I suspected that judicial gaze was as much about Chief’s graying ponytail as it was about the solemnity of the occasion. He must have been satisfied with the fact that at least Chief was clad in Brooks Brothers all the way down to his black wing tips, because he said, “Mr. Ellington, you may proceed.”
“Who’s Mr. Ellington?” Desmond whispered to me. His version of sotto voce was like sandpaper on a two-by-four.
“I was just askin’ who’s Mr. Ellington,” Desmond said.
“That would be your attorney.” Judge Atwell moved his head in slo-mo to regard Chief. “I assume you’ve introduced yourself to your client.”
I could see the spray of tiny lines at the corner of Chief’s eyes crinkling, but he nodded with the proper sobriety.
“Oh, you talkin’ ’bout Mr. Chief,” Desmond said. “No, he introduced hisself to me a long time ago. We go way back.”
“I’m relieved to hear it.”
The Judge indulged in another snail-caliber pause and then nodded once more at Chief. Behind us, I heard Jasmine’s nervous giggle, followed by Mercedes’s unmistakable shushing. Like most of the Sacrament House Sisters, they were both virtually allergic to all things judicial. Mercedes wasn’t going to take a chance on being escorted to a cell.
“Your Honor,” Chief said, using the courtroom voice that made people involuntarily improve their postures, “I introduce Allison Chamberlain to the court.”
His Honor and I nodded at each other. I was no stranger to the man or his courtroom.
“Ms. Chamberlain, would you state your name?” Chief said.
“Allison Eugenia Chamberlain,” I said, and then squeezed the lifeblood out of Desmond’s shoulder. Even though we’d rehearsed this so he wouldn’t go into convulsions of hysteria over my middle name, I couldn’t trust him not to at least snicker.
He remained snicker-less.
“I do,” I said.
“Do you know any cause that would legally prohibit this adoption?”
I knew none whatsoever, although everybody and their sister had tried to make one up. “No, I do not,” I said.
“The rights of Desmond Sanborn’s biological parents have been terminated?”
I couldn’t help cringing at that one. His mother herself had been terminated. As for his father, the monster had never had any rights as far as I was concerned.
“Yes,” I said.
But I still stopped breathing and sneaked a look at the judge. Chief had assured me this was all a formality, that there was no way anybody was going to protest the adoption at this point. Still, I’d been blindsided on this before.
Judge Atwell nodded as if his head was too heavy for his neck, and I allowed myself a breath. According to Chief, one more question and I would be Desmond’s mother.
“Ms. Chamberlain,” Chief said. “Would you please tell the court why you want to adopt this child?”
I felt more than saw the sudden slant of Desmond’s huge brown eyes, made browner by his cinnamon-shaded, half-African face. During our rehearsals I had threatened to come out with, “Because who else is going to put up with him?” or “I’ve invested too much in groceries for the kid to kick him out now.” I never had told Desmond exactly what I was really going to say, and at that moment I still didn’t know myself.
Evidently endless pauses were the sole privilege of His Honor. He squinted down at me from the bench and said, “Not having second thoughts are you, Ms. Chamberlain?”
“No, sir,” I said. “I just can’t seem to find the words.”
“Now that is a surprise.”
I looked at Desmond, who despite his new manly cut-closeto-the-scalp haircut and the tiniest of hairs sprouting on his chin, seemed suddenly as vulnerable as a four-year-old. Then I did what I’d learned to do in situations of the utmost importance: I opened my mouth and let God come through.
“I want to adopt this young man because he’s been given to me to love,” I said. “And to love him is a privilege.”
Yeah. Couldn’t have said it better myself.
The little-boy Desmond popped away, and my adolescent Desmond slipped cleanly back into place and presented a fist for me to knock mine against. Somebody, probably one of the HOGs, whistled through his fingers. Judge Atwell banged his gavel, though not much louder than Mercedes' “Y’all got to hush up now. We ’bout to get throwed out.”
Finally Judge Atwell looked up, this time at Desmond. “I have one question for you, son,” he said.
I shot Chief a This wasn’t in the script look, but he kept his gaze riveted to the judge.
“Ask me anything you want, Mr. Your Honor, sir,” Desmond said. “I got nothin’ to hide.” He grinned. “’Cept the Oreos I ganked from the snack drawer.”
I came just short of snapping his collarbone in two with my fingers.
“Petty theft is handled in a different court,” Judge Atwell said. “What I want to know is …”
Desmond gave it eight seconds before he held out his palms, face quizzical. “I want to know if you realize that most parents have to simply take what they get when they have children.”
“Oh, I know that thing,” Desmond said. “I seen me some ugly babies, now.”
Somebody in the back seemed to be choking on a hairball.
The judge nodded toward me. “That woman standing beside you—”
“Big Al,” Desmond said.
“Desmond,” I hissed. “You can’t interrupt—”
“Go on,” Judge Atwell said. “Let’s hear what you have to say.”
My eyes met Chief’s over the top of Desmond’s head. His were sparkling so hard I could almost hear them. “Big Al does have to adopt me. If she don’t, she be in some big
trouble. We talkin’ epic, now.”
“Trouble with whom?”
Desmond’s ellipsis rivaled any the judge could leave. Judge Atwell pulled his chin nearly to his navel as he turned his houndish eyes to me.
“I do recall that about you, Ms. Chamberlain,” he said. “You call yourself a prophet, don’t you?”
“If I might speak for my client,” Chief said.
“There’s no need. I think we’ve tried that case before, right here in this courtroom.” For a sliver of a second, something that might have been a smile quivered around the judge’s long lips. “And as I recall, God won.”
“Amen,” someone muttered behind us.
“Now before this turns into a prayer meeting …” Judge Atwell picked up his pen again, trailed his finger down the paper, and wrote with the careful deliberation of a preschooler gripping his first fat pencil.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “this adoption is final.” Then he pulled up one corner of his mouth and added, “I think that calls for some applause.”
“Desmond!” I said between clenched teeth. “What the Sam Hill are you doing?”
“I just got to say something,” he said.
Chief wrapped his fingers around the back of Desmond’s shirt and transferred him to the floor. I looked frantically at the judge, who was either in the midst of one of his pauses or had simply passed on from shock.
“Can’t you control your kid, Classic?” Chief whispered to me.
“Your honor, we apologize,” I said, and gave Desmond a death stare.
“Sorry, Mr. Your Honor, sir,” Desmond said. “But I got to check something out, now.”
Judge Atwell resurrected himself and looked at me. “Are you sure this boy isn’t genetically related to you?” Before I could answer, he turned back to Desmond. “What is it, son?”
“I just got to make sure somethin’ is right ’fore I leave here.”
Desmond glanced at me and added, “Sir.” Like that was going to keep me from throttling him later.
His Honor held up two of arguably the world’s longest fingers and beckoned to Desmond. He approached the bench with surprising propriety, while I anticipated a lecture from His Honor about Desmond’s behavior or his impudence or his grammar. But Judge Atwell merely picked up the paper before him and handed it to Desmond.
“Yeah, baby. That’s what I’m talkin’ about.” Desmond grinned up at the judge, his marvelous mouth extending lobe to lobe. “You got it right.”
“And what is that?”
Desmond swiveled to take in the crowd, which was still in unanimous inhale. “Y’all can call me Desmond Chamberlain now, ’cause that is my name. Yeah, baby!”
No one waited for His Honor’s permission this time. The cheering went on long after Judge Atwell retreated to his chambers. I didn’t have a chance to thank him, not with half the crowd bawling on one shoulder and the rest of them pounding on the other. I was sure Judge Atwell was just grateful to have me out of what was left of his hair.
The group was sorting itself into a variety of vehicles out in the parking lot of the St. John’s County Courthouse by the time I signed the paperwork under Desmond’s scrutiny. Ulysses, Stan, Rex, and the rest of the Harley Owners Group members had already roared out on their bikes, led by Hank, who was wearing what she called her Sunday-go-to-meetin’ helmet, an amusing term when delivered with her Boston accent. Five of the seven Sacrament Sisters—Jasmine, Mercedes, Ophelia, and our two newest, Gigi and Rochelle—were loading into the van, having given the motorcycles a wide berth, although ten months ago they would have ridden with Evel Knievel if it would have helped them get high. Besides Chief and Desmond there was only Owen Schatz, looking far younger than his seventy-something years next to Ms. Willa, fifteen years his senior. He had evidently refused all help transferring her from her wheelchair into his Lincoln.
Desmond paused, helmet halfway on. “When he started seein’ Ms. Willa.”
“‘Seeing’ her?” I said. “Like dating, you mean?”
“I don’t think they datin’. Just talkin’. There ain’t nothin’ goin’ on.” Desmond wiggled his eyebrows. “Yet.”
“Keep us posted, will you?” Chief said drily.
“Oh, please don’t,” I said. “Who are you riding with, Desmond?”
It was a pointless question. If given a choice, he was always on the back of Chief’s Road King in a heartbeat, especially since two weeks before Chief’s orthopedist had cleared him to ride again after a five-and-a-half month recovery from a leg injury. If I’d had a choice, I would have been there too. As close as I could get.
But Desmond was already swinging a lanky limb over the seat of my Softail. I fought back the “emo” gathering in my throat.
“You’re not dressed to ride with that lady,” Chief said.
“I got my brain bucket,” Desmond said, motioning with his helmet, “and you know she never let me ride without every part of my body covered up even when she knows Imma get heat stroke.”
“You’ve got the wrong jacket on,” Chief said. “Here. Try this one.”
He reached into one of the studded saddlebags on his bike and produced what appeared to be ten pounds of leather. I could feel my eyebrows lifting. Granted, Desmond’s arms were growing so fast he needed new gear about every three months so his wrists didn’t stick out like poles, but I’d just gotten him a denim jacket that should last him until Thanksgiving. Okay, maybe Halloween.
But Chief unfolded a soft, muted-black garment and held it out to Desmond as he climbed off my bike. “Congratulations present,” he said.
Desmond turned the jacket around, and I lost control of my emo. Just beneath a full-out screamin’ Harley Davidson emblem, the letters D.C. were embroidered, thick enough for even Ms. Willa to see from a hundred yards.
It was one of the few times I ever saw my boy without the perfect retort. Chief rescued him by holding out his fist. Desmond didn’t tap it. He threw his arms around Chief’s substantial chest and buried his face.
Classic II, my Red Hot Sunglo Heritage Softail, purred like a lioness beneath Desmond and me as we followed Chief. He might still walk with a slight limp, which I personally found sexy, but he rode like he and the Harley were one streamlined, bad-dude being. I’d been back on my bike six weeks longer, after my own injury, but I never hoped to handle a motorcycle with that kind of hunky confidence.
He led us away from the looks-like-any-other-town-in-America cluster of Walmart, Target, and Safeway, and toward the part of St. Augustine that is like no other town anywhere.
Coquina-sided Spanish-style houses cozied themselves between Greek-revival columned mansions and Victorian-era bed and breakfasts trimmed with gingerbread. Live oaks, bowed under Spanish moss, tunneled streets so narrow a Harley was about the only vehicle a person could drive comfortably on, if it weren’t for the brick pavement that threatened to jar our teeth loose. From the “sissy seat” behind me, Desmond howled his delight with every bounce, maybe with even more abandon than usual. I did a little howling myself.
As we entered the long sweeping curve of Avenida Menendez that ran along Matanzas Bay, the sunlight glared onto my visor, momentarily blotting Chief from view. Too bad, because the sight of his back pulling denim across his shoulders did it for me like no other. That and his eagle profile. And the raptor eyes that could twinkle with mischief or take my breath right out of my body with their I-know-you-Classic intensity …
Chief continued to lead us toward our turn-off at Cadiz Street. I could almost smell the sun bleaching the pastel of the waterfront homes. Plantation shutters were closed, lace-bordered shades pulled down. My black pants and my own denim jacket made me feel like I was wearing a plastic garbage bag. Other women didn’t seem to sweat the way I did. Chief didn’t even sweat the way I did. Desmond had to be dying in leather, though he’d never admit it. I’d be lucky to get him to take that jacket off to go to bed.
But despite the rivulets trickling between my shoulder blades, I took a long inhale of a peace that was still as foreign to me as heart-bursting joy. Left to my own devices, I wasn’t one for all manner of thing shall be well. My MO was more: When will the other shoe drop? Come on, I know it’s going to. So whenever even my breathing was taken over, I braced myself for the Nudge, the kind that threatened to knock me off the bike if I didn’t take heed. And above the purr of the Classic and the uninhibited yowling of my kid, I heard the whisper that was not my own.
Go another mile.
Up ahead, Chief leaned easily into the left turn onto Cadiz, but I stayed on Avenida Menendez. I didn’t argue with the Nudges any more. Didn’t question them, even though I had no idea what they would eventually mean. This one would initially result in Hank having to warm the lasagna up and Ms. Willa tsk-tsking about my manners. Chief would just sit on the side porch, feet perched on the railing, waiting. Getting it.
We inched our way amid the trails of wilting tourists jaywalking across the Avenida just about anywhere they pleased to get to their suppers at O. C. White’s and the Santa Maria and the A1A Ale Works. A mile would take us to the fort and back, but I didn’t check the odometer. I would know when to turn back. The almost violent power that told me to go would thrust us forward until it just as firmly said stop. It was a sort of coerced freedom that I never tried to explain. Most people thought I was sufficiently crazed as it was.
So with Desmond calling out, “Oh, yeah!” and leaning with me as if we’d been somehow Velcroed together, I answered the whisper to go another mile and chugged behind the tired traffic along Castillo Drive. Finally we broke free at Orange Street and cruised past the crumbling City Gates that kept no one in or out and drove on heedless of the funky shops and pubs that beckoned visitors in search of respite from the heat and the history. I turned left on Cordova, the street tourists seldom made it to when the sun was bearing down this hard.
I teased Desmond with the throttle at the intersection, and he hollered, “That is what I am talkin’ about!”
Grinning inside my helmet, I gave the Classic just enough gas to make Desmond yell again and let the Methodist Church and Scarlett O’Hara’s pub go by in one blur. With Flagler College in sight on the right I slowed down, but Desmond was already squeezing my rib cage and croaking, “Copper, Big Al.”
I would have blamed God, except that the Nudge had just been to go another mile. God hadn’t indicated how fast.
I could feel Desmond’s skinny body flatten into my backbone. One year with me wasn’t enough to shake the aversion to law enforcement that had been ingrained in him the first twelve. I was starting to suspect it was in his DNA.
“Busted,” he said.
But as I watched the officer climb out of the cruiser, I shook my head. “Maybe not, Des,” I said. “It’s Nicholas Kent.”
“Well, shoot, we got nothin’ to worry about then.”
“Let him tell us that,” I said. “Which means, say a word and you lose helmet privileges indefinitely.”
As usual, that guaranteed silence.
I raised my visor and tried to look contrite as young Nick Kent stood beside me, freckled hands on his hips. He was wearing shades, but I could still see his Opie Taylor eyebrows knitted together.
“What were you thinking, Miss Allison?”
“I wasn’t, Nick. I’m sorry.”
“Do you know how fast you were going?”
Even if I’d had a clue I couldn’t have answered with Desmond death-gripping the air out of me. I could practically hear him gritting his teeth. His impression that our favorite cop was going to let us off had clearly faded.
“Forty in a thirty,” Nick said.
“Are you serious?” I said.
He nodded solemnly.
This was the point at which I expected the freckles to fold into laugh lines around his eyes, but he kept his boyish mouth stern.
“If you have to write me a ticket, I totally understand,” I said.
Nick pulled a pad out of his back pocket, and my heart turned over. He really was going to give me a citation, and any minute now Desmond would crack a molar. I’d have to add dental fees to whatever this was going to cost me.
Officer Kent scribbled briskly on the pad and tore the page off, while I peeled Desmond’s arms off so I could breathe.
“Just a warning this time,” Nick said.
I took the paper from him and gave it only a glance before I felt the grin melt across my face.
Congrats, Miss Allison, he’d written. BTW, the coast is still clear.
“Thank you, officer,” I said. “I’ll be more careful from now on.”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Desmond’s hand come up, fist balled to thump into Nick’s.
“You don’t gotta worry about that,” Desmond said. “Imma keep a eye on her for ya.”
“Do it,” Nick said. “I’m counting on you.”
My next sensation was Desmond’s chest puffing against my back. I sneaked a smile at Nick and crept out of the parking lot at a speed just short of falling over. Officer Nicholas Kent was one of the good guys. Staying out of the less-than-good guys’ headlights wasn’t easy for people who associated with me, and I wasn’t going to make it any harder for him. We headed to Palm Row at a respectable twenty-nine miles an hour, while Desmond rattled on about cheatin’ death again and I savored the God-joy.
It was the upside of being a prophet.
When we got to our house on Palm Row, the site of just four houses between Cordova and St. George Streets, Chief was, indeed, on the side porch, Italian soda in hand. He didn’t ask me any questions, although he did shoot me a puzzled look when Desmond barely spoke and hurled his adolescent self into the kitchen.
“I told him not to tell you something until I had a chance to,” I said. “I don’t think he trusts himself.”
“You ever going to tell me?”
Chief’s eyes grinned. “You’re a cruel mother.”
“Somebody should have thought of that before they let me adopt him,” I said.
Chief reached out a hand, big but always surprisingly soft, and hooked it around my neck to pull me to him.
“He’s all yours now, Classic,” he said into my hair. “Nobody can take him away.”
I pushed my face into the chest I loved and felt his other arm come around me. One would think such a scene would cause anyone who happened upon us to do a sensitive about-face.
Yeah, well, one would have to know the Sacrament Sisters before assuming such a thing.
“Miss Angel? Everything all right? Didn’t nothin’ happen with Desmond, did it?”
Chief chuckled into my scalp and let me go. I tried not to glare at Sherry and Zelda, who were rushing up the steps onto the porch.
Sherry’s already almost-translucent face was turning another shade of
pale, while Zelda’s very-black one pinched inward.
“Everything is fine,” I said. “We were just celebrating.”
“Oh,” Zelda said. And then her eyes quickened. “Oh! I’m sorry, Miss Angel. When I see somebody cryin’, I always think somebody died or got busted or somethin’.”
“I’m not crying,” I said.
Sherry nodded toward the kitchen door that was even then just closing behind Chief.
“She was talking about him.”
Zelda let out the laugh that was still rusty from underuse. “We didn’t mean to interrupt you and Mr. Chief hookin’ up.”
Sherry smacked her on the shoulder.
“I didn’t mean hookin’ up like hookin’ up! I just meant—”
“I get it, Zelda,” I said. “I’ll catch him later. I’m glad you two made it.”
Zelda’s eyes clouded again. “We almost didn’t. Old Man Maharry was all up in my grill work the whole day.”
Sherry glared at her.
“I don’t care if he’s your daddy,” Zelda said. “I don’t need him fussin’ at me all the time.”
“He gave you a job,” Sherry said. “I wouldn’t be griping about it if I were you.”
I raised both hands. “We’re having a celebration here, ladies. We’ll talk about this later.”
Then I waited and watched as Zelda rearranged her expression and jiggled her shoulders out of defensive mode and sucked in her lips. Four months ago that display of self-control would have been impossible.
“There’s food inside,” I said.
Zelda gave up a smile and disappeared into the kitchen. Sherry wandered to the railing, her bony back to me, arms hugging her own feather-thin body. I felt a grab at my gut.
“It is not working out at C.A.R.S.?” I said.
“Daddy’s having issues.” Sherry shrugged. “It’ll be all right.”
“So what’s the deal?”
She turned to me, eyes pale. “Mr. Chief is right. Nobody is gon’ take Desmond from you, Miss Angel.”
“You’re talking about Sultan.” I said.
She didn’t answer. She didn’t have to.
“Nick Kent just told me things are still cool,” I said. “The last news we heard was that Sultan—”
“Just never mind.”
Sherry took the steps in one long lurch and marched across the yard, once again hugging her body as if she were trying to hold herself together.
Whatever she was carrying made my own arms ache. That was the down side of being a prophet.
By the time I got inside, I knew the crowd had probably already eaten its way through the antipasto and was working on Hank’s matchless lasagna. Square, dark-haired, and wise-eyed, she greeted me in the kitchen with a forkful of noodles and sauce already pointed toward my mouth. A string of steaming cheese clotheslined from plate to tines.
“I know you won’t stop to eat, Al,” she said, “so open up.”
As my spiritual guide and Harley-riding teacher, Hank was surprisingly light-handed with the instructions, so when she told me flat out to do something I did it. Especially if it involved her cooking.
It would be an insult not to take a moment to appreciate a D’Angelo special. She’d even improved Desmond and the Sisters’ palates, though granted, anything beyond what they could cull from alley trashcans would have been a step up.
“I will be back for more,” I said.
“I’ll hide some for you for after the ceremony. We’ll start in ten.”
“Where’s Chief?” I said.
“He grabbed a paper towel and went out on the front porch.” Hank’s lips twitched. “I heard him blowing his nose.”
I slid around the bistro table, which was completely taken up by an enormous basket of the kind of garlic bread that cleared your sinuses, and pointed myself in the general direction of the dining room. With any luck I could slip out to the front porch and finish what we’d started.
“Am I too late for the salad?” said a voice from the side door.
I turned around, straight into a bouquet of lettuce larger than both my head and the one behind it, which belonged to next-door neighbor Owen. The man was nothing if not green-thumbed. I tried not to think about him having something “going on” with Ms. Willa.
Hank tilted a now-empty basin toward him.
“I’m always a day late and a dollar short,” Owen said. “Sometimes I get so far behind I meet myself coming back. I’ll probably be late for my own funeral.”
“You’re fine,” Hank said. “I’m sure if I make another salad it’ll get eaten.” She cocked an eyebrow at me. “Don’t you ever feed your kid?”
“He’s growing like a weed, isn’t he?” Owen said. “It’s like he has a hollow leg—”
I left Hank to untangle the usual Owen-string of similes and nearly plowed into Mercedes, who was deftly hoisting a tray of licked-clean dishes with one hand and steering Desmond by the back of the neck with the other. It struck me that he was almost as tall as she was now, a fact that did not make her any less capable of cowing the boy better than most of us. Though he was grinning, his eyes were definitely seeking an escape route.
“What did you do now?” I said.
“I didn’t do nothin’,” he said. “Mercedes Benz just always up in my business.”
“It’s not your business to be telling Gigi and Rochelle how to get away with slackin’ on they responsibilities.” Mercedes gave him a shake that wobbled his head, but he beamed her the smile he claimed put every woman in the palm of his thirteen-year-old hand.
“Ain’t nobody responsible as you, M.B.”
“Then don’t make me responsible for smackin’ you up the side the head.”
Desmond at least had the smarts to look guilty. When Mercedes’s black eyes flashed like that and she drew herself up to her full five-eight, I usually felt guilty myself, even if I hadn’t done anything.
“Go set Gigi and Rochelle straight, Clarence,” I said. “And stay out of the tiramisu until after the ceremony.”
Mercedes gave him another jiggle and let him go. He grabbed the hand that wasn’t still holding the tray and brought it to his lips.
“Don’t you be tryin’ that with me,” she said. But I could see her pressing back a voluptuous smile.
“Something I should know about?” I said when he’d escaped.
“Just the usual when somebody new come into the House—but nothin’ you need to be worryin’ about today. This is your day, you and Desmond.” She deftly shifted the tray. “Now I need to get rid of these dishes, is what I need to do. Where is Sherry? She s’pose to be helpin’ me.”
Mercedes disappeared into the kitchen before I could tell her Sherry was outside putting her game face back on.
I tried again to make my way to Chief on the front porch. We now only had about five minutes left before the ceremony and I would have loved to at least finish off that reassuring hug.
This time I got as far as the entrance hall. Who in the world had left Ms. Willa parked there in her wheelchair? Although if Ms. Willa hadn’t wanted to be there, we’d be hearing about it. The bluish mane fell over her collar as she leaned back and pursed her entire wizened face at Desmond’s framed artwork displayed in the entryway.
“Your boy did these?” Her voice never failed to remind me of a terrier’s, though she looked more feline than canine. Since neither animal had an azure tint to its fur, Ms. Willa was actually her own breed. No one ever argued with that. Or her.
“Hard to believe this comes out of him, isn’t it?” I said.
From the front porch, I could hear the resonance of Chief’s voice in conversation with somebody, and I looked longingly at the door. But I sat on the edge of the old church pew that flanked the wall and pulled a throw pillow into my lap.
Ms. Willa pointed a knotty finger at Desmond’s drawing of me, the one I unabashedly thought was the best thing up there. “Is that supposed to be you?” she barked. Yipped, actually.
“It is,” I said.
“He made your face too long and your mouth too big.”
“It’s a caricature, Ms. Willa. See? He’s made Owen’s teeth huge and his face all pruney. Kind of captures his optimism.”
Ms. Willa’s nose wrinkled. “Owen goes on about the boy like he’s the next Leonardo da Vinci. I don’t see it myself.”
“I would love to sit here and debate art with you,” I said, “but I need to—”
“How’s my boutique doing?”
Before I could answer, the front door burst open and a bulging black trash bag entered, followed by Erin O’Hare, Desmond’s history teacher. The humidity had frizzed her massive tresses into a mahogany-colored white-girl Afro, which accounted for Desmond calling her Miss All-Hair.
“Sorry I’m late,” she said. “I went by my place to pick up these clothes for the boutique. I found some great stuff at the consignment stores in Orlando and got it all for a song.”
I came off the old pew like a shot. “Let me help!” I said.
“We’ve got it handled.”
That came from Chief, backed up by Bonner Bailey, who was wearing his Bailey Realty nametag as if everyone in town didn’t already know him. Chief took the bag from Erin and Bonner hiked a second one over his shoulder.
“Excuse me, ladies,” Bonner said. “Didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“You’re not—” I said.
But they hurried on through, jaw muscles working to hold back laughter. Traitors.
“Ms. Willa,” Erin said, “you and I are going to keep the Sisters in merchandise, aren’t we?”
“The idea is for them to sell the merchandise.” Ms. Willa’s papery paws were folded in the lap of today’s all-puce ensemble, but any minute the claws would come out if I didn’t give this my full attention.
“Just tell your two Sherpas to put the bags on the upstairs landing,” I said to Erin.
She glanced at Ms. Willa and, with a knowing nod at me, fled the scene even less unobtrusively than Chief and Bonner. I turned with a stifled sigh to Ms. Willa.
“Your building looks great,” I said. “The guys have turned that place into a—”
“I’ve seen it,” she said. “I had Owen Schatz take me down there.”
“Then you know it’s fabulous.”
“Harold Renfroe would be pleased with it, I’ll give you that.”
Her tiny face squeezed in. I was about to get an earful about how Troy Irwin had ruined her first late husband and cheated him out of that piece of prime real estate on St. George Street, as well as the rest of his fortune.
“All right, everyone—it’s time,” Hank called from the living room.
I thanked God for her as I took hold of Ms. Willa’s wheelchair. “We need to get in there,” I said.
“I want that shop to be the talk of the town,” Ms. Willa said. “I want to make sure the score has been evened.”
We were still tapping toward Troy Irwin, and that was a dance I refused to do, not just today but any day. Anytime. Anywhere.
“I’ll give you a full report when I come over this week,” I said, my fingers already curled around the handles. Then I dropped that onto the Things To Deal With Later pile and steered her to the living room.
The court had made the adoption legal. It was time for us to make it real.