by Michelle Stimpson & Michelle Lindo-Rice
Hello! I have teamed up with Michelle Stimpson to bring you the first in an anticipated three-book Lovetown Series. Please enjoy the Prologue and first two chapters and share your thoughts. (unedited.) Release date: November 19, 2019 (copyrighted 2019 by Michelle Stimpson & Michelle Lindo-Rice)
Hello! I have teamed up with Michelle Stimpson to bring you the first in an anticipated three-book Lovetown Series. Please enjoy the Prologue and first two chapters and share your thoughts. (unedited.) Release date: November 19, 2019 (copyrighted 2019 by Michelle Stimpson & Michelle Lindo-Rice)
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About the Book
One small town. One big secret. An even bigger love.
Sean Morrison has returned to Lovetown, TX, with one purpose in mind—claim Janiya Thompson as his wife. He has his faith, his military career, his upscale apartment, and with Janiya by his side, his life will finally be complete. But Sean has a secret that could destroy his newfound relationship. Will he have the courage to tell Janiya the truth?
Janiya “Niya” Thompson has only known grief and uncertainty in her small town life. She doesn’t see any hope for a brighter future until her childhood friend, Sean, returns to town. Now, Janiya begins to yearn for more and opens her heart to new possibilities. Will Sean be a part of her healing, or will he bring more pain?
Sean knocked on the screen door of his best friend, Jhavon’s, grandmother’s house at the same time he opened it. If they lived in a larger town, maybe Big would have kept her front door locked. But here, in Lovetown, TX, there wasn’t a need. Somebody next door or across the street would have already registered Sean’s presence on King Drive.
“What up?” Sean announced himself to the household that might as well have been his, given how much time he spent there.
“Big is sleep.” Jazmin, “Jazzy”, fussed at a volume almost higher than Sean’s greeting. She didn’t even look up at him as she walked through the living room and on to the bedroom she shared with her twin sister, Janiyah.
He hadn’t seen her yet, but he could smell her sweet scent in the small house. Maybe it was roses. Maybe it was strawberries. Maybe it was his imagination that over the past months were wild with thoughts of her.
He had known Niya for most of his life because he had been friends with Jhavon since preschool. Head Start, in fact. The government-run school for low-income children, though it hadn’t occurred to Sean, Jhavon, or any of their friends they were “low-income.” They were just kids having fun, learning, living their lives.
Back then, Sean had had a mom and a dad and some good memories. But when his mother left, a piece of Sean’s happiness went with her. His father’s happiness slipped away, too. And, all of a sudden, Sean found himself hanging out with Jhavon’s family more and more.
Jhavon’s mom would make a cake for no reason at all. “Just wanted something sweet,” she’d say in her chirpy, bird-like voice.
She would let the four of them—Sean, Jhavon, Jazzy, and Niya—lick the batter bowl with their fingers. Vying for the last few fingers full of flavor, their four heads would bump one another. “Stop hogging it all!” and “Don’t use your whole hand!” they’d yell at one another.
And then Jhavon and the twins’ parents died. Both of them. Like, boom-boom. Sean was too young to measure the time surrounding their deaths in years or months. He had processed them in feelings. Worse, and worse still. And before they knew it, Jhavon and Sean started feeling like all they had was each other. Like brothers.
Which was what made Sean’s secret crush on Niya difficult. This girl—no, she was all woman now with curves and lips and perfume and hoop earrings, though he couldn’t recall the exact moment it happened. Like the terrible memories, the good ones of Niya followed a progression—cute, beautiful, amazing. She’d been cute the night she went to the Junior High prom. She’d been beautiful that time he’d seen her at the Lovetown vs. Red Valley homecoming football game. She’d been so breathtaking, surpassing the bougie Red Valley girls from the right side of the tracks. Sean had done a double-take and the girl he’d taken to the game had slapped his shoulder for looking at another female.
And tonight, he saw her as “amazing.” Jazzy was trying her hair-braiding skills on Niya. “If I can figure out how to braid hair, I’ll be ballin’ for real, in this little bitty town.”
Big woke up from her nap for a few hours, made beef ribs, green beans, and mashed potatoes with gravy, and gone back to bed. Everyone else stayed up watching movies. Sean couldn’t remember what they were watching because the screen’s glow on Niya’s face was all he wanted to see. She tilted her head this way and that, allowing Jazzy to part and braid, add a swath of fake hair, unbraid, and start over again.
Niya had been so patient. So encouraging. “Come on, sis. You can do this.”
And all the while, Niya had been the one who saw the “surprise” ending of the movie coming in the film a full hour before it happened.
“How did you know he was going to find the money?” Jhavon had asked when whatever it was did occur in the plot.
“Niya probably watched this movie already,” Jazzy teased.
“I did not,” Niya insisted. “Don’t hate on me because I’m brilliant.”
At that, they had all laughed, even Niya. And it occurred to him, then, that this was why he had fallen for her instead of Jazzy. Niya could be feisty when she needed to be. She was smart. And she let her sister try for hours and hours despite what appeared to be painful tugging at the hair on Niya’s scalp. Plus the fact that her smooth, brown legs twisted in all different directions depending on Jazzy’s braiding angle, went on for days.
He couldn’t keep this level of admiration to himself much longer. And, if Sean wasn’t mistaken, Niya felt it, too. She’d averted her eyes from his to smile and shied away from his stolen glances. It was a miracle Jhavon hadn’t seen the chemistry sizzling between them..
“Whatchu wanna watch next?” Jhavon asked when the credits rolled for the first movie.
“I’ve got an old one in mind,” Niya said. She cleared her throat. “The Lion King.”
Jazzy scoffed, “The Lion King? No way!”
“Ummm...I don’t think so,” Jhavon said, shaking his head.
Sean raised his hand. “I vote for the Lion King, too. I mean, think about it. Scar. Mufasa. Simba! How can you deny—”
“Anck!” Jazzy buzzed him out. “We are way too old to be watching a cartoon.”
Sean shook his head. He looked down at Niya, whose eyes fluttered up at him. There. He’d seen it. The spark in her eyes, again.
And, in that moment, Sean looked over at Jhavon. He must have seen what transpired, too, because his mouth hung open and his eyes widened with shock before they narrowed to slits.
“Pick something else,” Jazzy said, “Not a cartoon,” unaware of Sean and Jhavon’s silent communication.
Jhavon hopped up onto his feet. “Hey. Me and Sean are going to run to the store and get a few things, all right? Y’all figure out the movie. We’ll be right back.”
Sean didn’t protest. He was kind of hungry and could use a snack. Even more, he could use a moment alone with Jhavon. Because it was only a matter of time before something popped off between him and Niya and Sean needed Jhavon to be cool with it.
Unfortunately, Sean would never get that chance.
I should have been happy the day I turned 27, but I wasn’t. I was only three years away from 30, the age my mother died, an age my father and my brother, Jhavon, never reached.
My grandma, Big, said people in our family died young. “We got a hex on us,” she told me and my twin sister, Jazmin, as we were walking from Jhavon’s grave site the day we buried him. Jazmin and I were 14 when Jhavon died and when Big whispered those words to us in her raspy, superstitious tone. We’d heard the words before, but now that Jhavon, who had been three years older, had died, the curse seemed more real than ever.
The countdown was on.
So when I woke up at 6:58 a.m. on my 27th birthday, August 3rd, anxiety gripped my neck and pinned me in bed for the first five minutes. I took several quick breaths, my fist tightened around the fitted sheet. Only three years left.
I remembered once, when we visited my Uncle Poe in Oklahoma one summer, he took us to church, and our teacher said Jesus was 33 when He died. At the time, I thought Jesus had lived to a ripe old age.
Not so anymore.
Sunlight still managed to stream through the dingy window, making the blackened walls appear dirtier than ever. I had tried my hardest to clean those walls once, but the bleach I put in the water stripped the paint and Big popped me with a belt for destroying her house.
It never occurred to her or me that a fresh coat of paint might work wonders.
Lying on my bed in the small room I shared with my twin sister, Jazmin, on a lazy Sunday morning, I wondered still, How will I die?
I wasn’t even close to sick, so that was probably not an option. I walked or rode a bus almost everywhere I went, so a car accident was unlikely. I didn’t have any enemies in the neighborhood, but my neighborhood itself was a threat. Just the week before, somebody had shot up into Miss Mabel’s house-store. The store part of her house was closed, but maybe that was a warning shot.
I gotta stop going to Miss Mabel’s.
With that decision made, I breathed a little easier. I figured maybe I could plan well enough to buy myself the full three years. Maybe I could make it to 30 and a half, or 30 and nine tenths. My mind ran the calculations almost effortlessly. Twelve months in a year…divided by ten…one point two months…times nine…ten point eight…That meant I could make it through mid-summer of my twenty-ninth year. But I don’t want to die when it’s hot outside. People might not come to my funeral.
“Niyaaaaa!” Big hollered my name from the other side of the thin wall separating my bedroom from the living room.
Before I could take a deep breath and answer, Jazmin rushed into our room and yanked the covers off my legs and feet, sending a woosh of semi-cold air up my body.
“Get your lazy butt up. Big wants you to go to the store for her,” she fussed.
“Why can’t you go?”
“’Cause I do everything else around here.”
“No, you don’t,” I argued.
Jazmin shifted her weight to one hip. “Which one of us is already out of bed? And which one of us got up and cooked breakfast already?”
She had a point, though I wasn’t sure if she should call getting out of bed and preparing food doing “everything.” Besides, she’d have to do those things whether I was around or not.
“Happy Birthday to you, too,” I said, rolling my eyes.
“Same to you. Now, get up.”
But there was no use in arguing with Jazmin. Big would be on her side if I tried. Conceding, I twisted my body to a sitting position and let my feet hit the floor. “What does she want at this time of the morning?”
“Some candy and a beer. You can just go to Miss Mabel’s or, if she’s acting all self-righteous today and starts giving you a hard time about being a young lady buying beer, go around the corner to Mr. Henderson’s.” She said these words like we didn’t already know the drill, which annoyed me even more.
“You know I don’t like going to Mr. Henderson’s. You don’t go there yourself.” We both avoided that store for two reasons. One, Mr. Henderson could talk your ear off. There was no running in and out of the store with him. The second was Jhavon had died near Mr. Henderson’s store. Going there brought back too many memories and sadness.
“Well, hopefully Miss Mabel won’t be in one of her sanctimonious moods,” Jazzy said. “She wasn’t the last time I went. I guess she realized she was losing too much money trying to make us all holy.”
I didn’t bother telling Jazmin Ms. Mabel’s house-store was off limits to me because I was doing everything possible to live well into my thirtieth year. All I said was, “Okay,” because, again, there’s no winning with Jazmin.
“And if you end up at Mr. Henderson’s see if he has any new books by Gina Johnson.”
This last statement was almost a joke because, in truth, Jazzy would read books written by just about anybody.
I washed my face, brushed my teeth, and changed clothes with no fanfare.
When I finished getting ready, I passed through the living room. Big was sitting in her wheelchair, as usual. Her eyes glued to the small television set atop an antique entertainment center.
“Morning, Big,” I said. I bent down and kissed her wrinkled cheek.
“Don’t forget my candy bar. King size.”
“I thought you said the doctor didn’t want you eating all that sugar,” I reminded her.
“He ain’t no real doctor. He one of them nurse practitioners. That’s what the government give us. Save the real doctors for the folks with money.” She excused my warning.
“Ummm…I’m pretty sure practitioners know what they’re talking about, too,” I ventured. I slipped my feet into the flip-flops Jazmin had left on the floor next to the front door.
“Bet not let your sister see you putting on her shoes.” Big winked at me.
I gave a little smile and a thumbs up and left the house, the screen door swinging behind me.
Big had a sense of humor left, if little else. She hadn’t always been this poor. I mean, she’d always lived in that small, shotgun house, as far as I knew. But back when I was in elementary and junior high, Big used to sell dinners from the house, and people came from all over Lovetown, TX, to buy a plate. From businessmen in suits to prostitutes in the clothes they’d worn last night, everybody knew about Beatrice Thompson’s good cookin’.
Took a while, but the city health department found out about it, too, and gave her a bunch of fines. Tax bills, too. Big said it was because they were trying to bring in a bunch of franchises and make Lovetown one of those reformed places with coffee shops, bookstores, and over-priced high-rise apartments on every corner. She said that, probably, one of them well-to-do businessmen got wind of how much money she was making and said something downtown about it because his sorry old momma’s nasty, no-seasoning diner on the other side of the tracks was losing business.
Revitalizing the town might have been the original plan, but from the looks of my walk down Clark Street, the plan had failed. The two vacant lots where they’d torn down the old Piggly Wiggly and the Dollar Store hadn’t been replaced by any coffeehouse. A 10-year-old sign reading, Vote McCampbell for Mayor – Change is On the Way! still stood high above the street light. McCampbell hadn’t won the election, and the changes in the city never came to pass. The only change that registered for me was Big’s lack of income. We were no longer rich-poor. Just regular-poor after that.
I was in seventh grade that year. Fifteen years later, not much had changed in Lovetown or in my life, really.
It was still early enough in the day that the temperature was below 80 degrees. I passed Miss Mabel’s house and continued to the corner to wait for a bus. In a small town like Lovetown, I could be waiting for an hour before our one Sunday bus driver decided to pull out of the chicken place and run his shift. But, I was determined to wait. Jazmin and Big would both fuss that it took me too long to go to the store and come back, but what else was new? Those two couldn’t be pleased. There was no use in me trying.
I was attempting to survive to 30, which made my next move all the more ironic because statistics showed city buses safer than personal vehicles.
When Jhavon’s old friend, Sean, pulled up to the curb in his Mustang, I smiled real wide because… well…because his presence reminded me of my brother.
“Hey, Niya. Where you goin’?” Sean’s gapped-tooth smile always took me by surprise, as though I was seeing it for the first time every time. In fact, his entire face seemed different. Smoother. Older.
I answered his question. “To the store.”
He gave me a confused expression. “Miss Mabel’s?”
“No. The real store.” I looked around to make sure no one had heard me. To our neighborhood, Miss Mabel was a real store, just like Big’s operation had been a real take-out restaurant.
“You want a ride?”
I stepped closer to his car, getting a better view of him now that his head was blocking the sun. I hadn’t seen Sean in about six months. He’d joined the military after Jhavon died and had only returned a few times since then. He and Jhavon had been so close, Sean was like a second brother to me, so I normally wouldn’t have hesitated to get in a car with him.
Today was different, though. Sean was different. Maybe cuter than before, and there was something else...
His dimples popped into place. “You wanna have a heat stroke?”
“Uhhh…no,” I replied, aware my mouth was spreading into a much wider grin than I’d like.
“Then you’d better get in. Buses run slow on the weekend.”
I shook off whatever resistance I had and took Sean up on his offer, hopping into the passenger’s seat of his Mustang.
Once inside, I smelled his cologne, sultry and masculine. Like one of the businessmen who used to come to Big’s house every Friday and leave her a healthy tip. Another glance at Sean sent my pulse racing. He was absolutely cuter than I remembered. The indefinite facial structure had become chiseled, more refined. His hair was a precise crew cut, his brown eyes more confident. Not to mention his blue button-down shirt with black slacks. He could have been on the front of a magazine cover, except for the tooth-gap thing, which never looked bad on him.
“You’re all dressed up,” was all I could manage to say. “You got a job interview today?”
I could have kicked myself for asking such a silly question, seeing as it was Sunday. What’s wrong with me? It’s only Sean.
“No. I’m going to church.”
I wanted to bark, Church? but I didn’t want to insult him. I mumbled, “Oh, that’s good.”
“You want to come with me? I have to go back home to get my Bible and can swing back this way to get you?”
I rarely went inside a church for anything other than a funeral. But we had plenty of funerals in our family, so I figured me and God were even. I didn’t need to come to His house because He had already taken enough people from mine. Yeah, me and God were even.
“Naw. I have to cook breakfast for Big.” I swallowed my lie and sunk deeper into the seat. The ocassional white lie came easy, but I realized I hated lying to Sean.
“Okay, maybe next time,” he said, turning on the radio.
Sean’s radio played gospel music softly, and I began to wonder if I had made the right decision to ride with him. Is he in a cult? Maybe he was trying to recruit me. Maybe they were going to offer me as a human sacrifice. Maybe this is how I die.
I kept my mouth shut most of the way to the store, nodding as Sean attempted to make small talk. From what I heard in the neighborhood, he was back home for good after being discharged from the military sometime in April. He’d earned some certification, was about to start a job in a nearby suburb. People said he was helping other people get jobs. Recruiting, I think. Sean had moved into his own apartment on the fancy side of town.
“That’s good,” I said. “That’s great.”
He waited outside for me to buy Big’s things, then took me back home. When we arrived at Big’s, I didn’t wait for him to let me out of the car. I unlocked my door. “Thanks for the ride.” I stepped toward the house.
I turned to face him, walking back to the rolled-down window of his car. “Yeah?”
“How’s your family?” His eyes became shiny.
Instantly, I knew he was thinking of Jhavon and Sean was my second brother again. My heart softened. “We’re fine. We all miss him.” My short nails bit into the interior of Sean’s cushioned door panel.
“Me, too. I still can’t believe he’s gone.” Sean shook his head.
“Me, either,” I agreed.
“Let me know if you all need anything. Anything, Niya.”
I nodded, then skittered away so Sean wouldn’t see the tears streaming down my face.
Goodness. She sure was wearing those jeans. An old song, Flo Rida’s Low, played in my mind. I closed my eyes and willed the image of Niya’s luscious behind away.
It wasn’t easy. I was a saved man but I wasn’t blind.
I was also going to be late to church. But I couldn’t look away.
I waited until Niya disappeared inside her house before wiping my brow, putting the car into gear, and turning the corner. I was glad she hadn’t turned around to see me salivating after her like she was a sweet cup of coconut juice from Jamaica. Me and a few of my Navy friends had stopped there for a few days on an island-hopping adventure. Seeing Niya always brought me back in time. Back when I wasn’t ready to be saved.
My insides churned. “You’re not that kid anymore,” I told myself.
I rolled up the windows, sucked in the cool air, and made my way across the train tracks into the ‘good’ side of the town. I snorted. What a cliché. As a child, I’d lived contented on the other side not knowing the shack I’d grown up in wasn’t the norm. Not knowing I could ever do better, be better. Sean Morrison had come far. Farther than my daddy predicted I would.
Just before I left for the Navy, I can remember him hollering, “You ain’t worth more than bird poop,” while he threw a hot pan of grits my way, hitting my brow, narrowly missing my face.
Caught up in the memory, I rubbed the corner of my brow where I’d been seared by the heat. Pop’s words echoed in my ear, as I stood hunched by the front door.
“If you asked me, the wrong boy died,” Pop said, coming at me.
I bowled over from his harsh words and sank to the floor. I felt the heat of the grits seep through my one pair of khaki pants but refused to cry aloud.
“You’re right, Pop. I should’ve died.” I said the words because I agreed with Pop and thought, they would calm him.
Instead of placating him, Pop became enraged. “You trying to be funny, boy?” He kicked my chin, drawing blood. I would’ve stayed there and allowed him to beat me, I didn’t have much incentive those days to fight back. But then I saw the clock. I lunged to my feet, grabbed my backpack, and raced through the door. I didn’t stop running until I was at the military recruiter’s office.
Thankfully, Petty Officer Stewart hadn’t asked any questions. He took in my bloody face and soiled clothes and held out his hand. I put a shaky hand in his. Then Petty Officer Stewart drew me close and hugged me. Treated me with dignity. He said, “Your country is proud to have you, Seaman.”
I lifted my head and gave a little nod.
That was thirteen years ago. I wiped my tears, as choked up as I had been on that day.
I drove a few miles before pressing on the gas. My Mustang roared, appreciating the dust flying under its feet.
“Go, baby, go!” I yelled, accelerating twenty miles past the posted speed limit. I loved the feel of the car under my control. Hearing William McDowell come on, I pumped up the volume, singing along to “Wrap Me in Your Arms.” I whipped around the car in front of me and then another, before I saw the flashing red and blue lights.
Obediently, I slowed down and pulled to the curb.
I wasn’t worried about getting pulled over in this part of town. I knew the cops on duty. I’d gone to school with Meathead Mike and Travis the Tease and I knew their secrets…just as they knew mine.
I turned off the engine and waited for the two burly men to approach.
“Where you goin’ in such a hurry?” Travis asked, chewing on the ever-present straw. He’d been doing that since high school.
“Church,” I said.
Travis guffawed. “You running from hell to get there?”
“You know you were going close to forty miles over?” Mike said.
I felt my eyes go wide. I knew I was speeding but didn’t know I had been going that fast. “I’m trying to catch the nine o’clock service.”
Travis eyed me with suspicion. “This isn’t the way to your church.”
“I left my Bible at home. I stopped by Niya’s and got sidetracked so I wasn’t trying to be late.”
Mike whistled. “I can see how you’d get sidetracked by Niya. She’s definitely eye candy.”
I wondered what he meant by that but wasn’t about to ask a question when I didn’t want to know the answer. Mike had this salacious look on his face that made my stomach clench. He was talking about Niya like she was a piece of steak.
Mike licked his lips. “Me and Niya go way back.”
I cocked my head. Was he saying he and Niya…?
“Naw. She’s too feisty for me. Jazzy is the one who might snag me into settling down,” Travis said.
I couldn’t hold back my chuckle. Travis had been feigning for Jazmin for years. Everybody knew she would never look his way, not even once. My eyes fell on the clock. It was a little after nine. I started up the car.
“I’ve got to get going. I don’t want to miss praise and worship. And Pastor Moore’s about to start a new series on Heroes of the Faith.”
The officers stepped back. “All right. But we can’t make it a habit of letting you off the hook. Pretty soon, we might be getting dash-cams in our vehicles. We’d have to issue a ticket, then. But for now, go do your church thing. Repent to the Lord for speeding, this time. We’ll swing by later to catch up.”
I gritted my teeth to hide my agitation. What’s up with people calling my relationship with God, a “church thing”? I couldn’t stand that. God was my everything. If they only knew. Serving Him wasn’t a thing for me. He was my life. But I wasn’t about to argue with them and possibly end up with a speeding ticket after all and points on my license.
Travis gave a poor rendition of a salute. “Catch you later, Captain Morrison.”
I cringed. “Stop with all that. I’m still Sean. I’m proud of my accomplishments but this title didn’t make me into the man I am today. God did.”
Travis held up a hand. “Don’t start your preaching. It’s too early in the morning for all of that.”
I wanted to say, There’s never a bad time to talk about God, but I didn’t want to come off sounding cliché and, well, corny.
“You’ve come a long way from Cyber Tooth and High Waters. You don’t talk the same and you certainly don’t look the same,” Travis teased, though his voice held pride.
I nodded. Those old nicknames hurt. I placed a tongue between the now-smaller-sized gap between my teeth. I had had a gap so wide that kids said I must have lost a tooth in cyber space, earning me the title, Cyber Tooth. I wasn’t as bothered by High Waters because my pants never did fit me right. However, I was tall and I looked mean so nobody said it to my face. Lucky for them.
Mike chimed in. “I wish your old man was here to see you and eat his words.” He spoke with a steel-edged tone.
We all fell silent.
“I’ve got to go,” I said.
“We’ll call at the end of our shift,” Mike said. “It’s your turn to cook.”
I laughed. “Get ready for steaks and potatoes on the grill.”
The men shrugged. I knew they weren’t surprised. That’s all I had mastered how to cook.
With a wave, I shot off toward my home. Three minutes later, I pulled into the gated apartment complex and whispered a, “Thank you, God.” I had been living here for about six weeks and every time I entered, I was struck by the elegance and beauty of my home. I couldn’t help but praise Him for all His blessings. I chuckled to myself. Maybe Travis was right. I was turning into one of those high fallutin’ church folk, as he called them.
I pressed the car alarm and entered the ritzy, newly-built complex suited for the upper working class. I loved the blue plush couches in the lobby, the fresh flowers, and the fruit-infused water the staff kept on hand. Every time I came through the front door, I felt I was at a five-star hotel. It never got tired. I didn’t mind paying the monthly maintenance fees to keep the marble floors shiny and pay for the daily week socials. I flashed a smile at Wanda at the front desk and pretended I didn’t see a couple sisters checking me out. I strutted toward the elevator, proud to be a successful black man who had defied all the stereotypes despite his upbringing.
I had God. I had a career. I had more money than I could spend. I had a home. There was only one thing missing.
Niya’s face flashed before me. This time her lips were ruby red. I pushed that out of my mind and hummed a gospel tune to center my mind on God. I entered my apartment and took off my shoes before sinking my feet into the plush white carpet. I traipsed into my master suite and grabbed my Bible off my still-unmade bed.
Twenty minutes later, I entered The Great Hope Deliverance Center. Sis. Charlene already had the church on its feet with her singing gift. It was hot and crowded but I wasn’t bothered. I finagled my way through the crowd until I was in the front row at the left corner. I nodded at the keyboard player before closing my eyes and lifting my hands in worship along with the congregation.
I don’t know how long I stood there lost in His presence before I felt a consistent tug on my right leg.
I opened my eyes and looked down toward the pesky interloper of my time with God. When I saw who it was, I couldn’t disguise the breath-taking gasp.
I came down from my high, noticing a few curious eyes though most people were into worship. I kept looking until I saw her in the fourth row, fourth seat. Lakesha stood with her arms crossed, chewing her gum and rolling her eyes at me. The mile-high weave and low bangs across her tiny head did nothing to shield heat from her eyes that pierced me like the vicious Florida sun. I had to look away.
I felt another pull on my leg and sat so I could face the imposter. Her child. He was standing right next to me. Lakesha must have told him to come stand by me.
The child I hadn’t known existed until two days ago. The child I refused to believe was mine. Lakesha had slept with everybody. It was only one time, I told myself. A blunder. A poor way of handling my grief when my father died, five years ago. At the time, I wasn’t even sure why I was grieving the death of someone who had tormented me. I was in a state of complete confusion. Like someone who had flipped over with a capsized boat, I didn’t know which way was up or down, which was the only way on earth I would have ended up lying next to that girl.
It was only because I had made something of myself that Lakesha was trying to make me the donkey to pin this on. She needed a Baby Daddy with a few zeroes in his checking account. That’s what I told myself when I’d tossed her crudely written letter into the garbage.
But seeing the little boy now, I noticed a small resemblance. There was no denying this was Lakesha’s kid. But was he mine?
He gave me a shy smile. I froze at the slight gap between his front teeth. He rested one little hand on my leg and curled an index finger toward his face, motioning for me to lean in.
I followed his lead.
He cupped his hands around my ear and said, “I love you, Daddy.”
I croaked out some response, I don’t know what. All I could think about was his voice. I knew that voice. I knew those words. The sounds of worship around me dimmed and I was transported back to a time I couldn’t forget.
“I love you, Daddy.”
“Shut up,” Pop said. “I could never love you.”
I turned and stared at Lakesha. She had told her son to say those words I had told her in confidence that night. She lifted a chin and mouthed, “What?”
I turned to face my son again. To my horror, I found myself whispering, “I-I-man...I can’t do this.”
The boy’s eyes filled with tears. I winced, knowing I’d crushed the heart of one so young, but I couldn’t say the words he needed to hear. Lakesha’s child—I couldn’t call him my son—ran away from me, back to his mother. He clung to her side. Eyes narrowed into slits like sheard glass cut into me.
I grabbed my Bible. I had to get out of there. Despite all I’d gone through to get to church, I couldn’t stay. I couldn’t sit through a message on heroes when I knew I was that little boy’s villain. All around me people praised and rejoiced, but their joy suffocated me. All I could do was run. I rushed into my car and tore out of the church parking lot where freedom awaited. I accelerated with each passing mile, welcoming the rush, and tempted to leave Lovetown behind. And, I would have, except… Niya.