The professor walked in wearing his favorite purple blazer paired with his usual no nonsense expression. He stopped at the blackboard, his patent leather penny loafers screeched at the sudden break in movement. He chalked in the date: December 16, 1998.
“Take out your book.” He told everyone.
Elaina wondered had she remembered to put it in her bag after studying last night. She fished around in her tattered briefcase, moving aside the rolled joint she planned to smoke right after class. From under her Walkman, which was wrapped tightly with the cord of her headphones, she pulled out her borrowed copy of “The Making of a Chef.”
Thank God, she thought and laid the book on the long table in front of her. Even though her long black box braids were pulled back with the lacy white headband a few braids still fell loosely in her face. Elaina grabbed at the annoying strays and placed them behind her.
“Damn,” whispered the skinny brunette sitting next to Elaina. Elaina looked to her side to see what the skinny girl’s problem was.
“I forgot my book,” The girl said to Elaina while giving her bright green bookbag another look through. The class was very small but still somehow took on the attitude of the professor, impersonal. Elaina shrugged her shoulders and scribbled something in her notebook.
For less than a minute, the shuffling of students in their chairs and even a few more soft spoken cuss words filled the small classroom. Then just like that it was back silent.
“Turn in your books to chapter six, it should start on page…” A knock at the door interrupted the professor. He mumbled something about respecting the craft and walked to the door.
“Elaina Wright,” The professor called out. Anyone could have answered. It wouldn’t have made the professor any difference. After nine weeks of class, he still hadn’t put any student’s name with its corresponding face.
Elaina frowned. She had half a mind to just stay put. Let him believe that the person in question was absent. She couldn’t believe they hounded her down in class. The Financial Aid office had been bugging her on the daily now about her skipped payment. She ignored their phone calls and prayed she could just float through until her next paycheck. Her priorities were rent, utilities, school then groceries. Her stomach growled.
“Elaina Wright,” the professor called again. The skinny brunette looked at the notebook Elaina had been scribbling in. Her name written huge in pen then outlined in neon pink highlighter screamed from the page. Elaina looked at the girl, slammed the notebook shut and stuffed it along with the book she hadn’t forgotten back in her briefcase. She stood up and walked to the door. That wooden door slamming behind her would be a sound that haunted her for the rest of her life.
“Elaina Wright?” a woman who had voted for presidents Elaina only read of in history books stared at her over a silver pair of wire framed glasses. The woman used her shaking finger to push the glasses up further on her face and squinted.
“Yes,” Elaina answered.
“You have a call up at the front, in the office. It sounds like a family emergency, dear,” The frail antique of woman placed her boney hand into the cushion of Elaina’s back and walked her to the office.
“El?” a voice asked softly from inside the beige office phone.
“June? What’s going on? You alright?” Elaina looked around the office. Everyone pretended to be busy at work. Noses pressed in computer screens, fingers busy typing. Wasn’t nobody that damn happy to be getting paid minimum wage. Elaina lowered her voice and turned away from her audience.
“I know this is a lot to throw at you all at once El, but I don’t have anyone else to call,” June said.
Elaina knew her big sis wasn’t lying. They only had each other and they were blessed for that. The court could’ve split them up when they were ten and thirteen, after their mother died and no one cared to claim them. Thank God, they were placed, together, with the Martin family. A small home only down the road from where the girls had grown up. Inside of it, a fifty-eight-year-old praying husband named Nate and his lovely wife, who was just a year younger than him, who he called Puddin. Nate and Puddin doted on the girls and used what years they had left making June and Elaina feel like real family. As soon as the girls had become grown women, their beloved adopted parents died only weeks apart from one another. They left the sisters their house and everything in it. It was shabby but it was mortgage free and most importantly, it was theirs.
“Well, June I ain’t got no money so…”
“El, I had a baby,” June whispered.
“What you say?” Elaina asked, knowing she heard good and damned well what her sister had said. June knew it too.
“A boy. I named him Emmanuel.”
June started to cry into the phone. Her cry sounded muffled like she was trying not to be heard.
“It’s going to be okay. That’s a good thing. A baby is a blessing,” Elaina tried to comfort June with words Papa Nate would’ve said.
“I don’t think so El. This family I have gotten involved with is a piece of work and I don’t trust them,” June started.
“What you mean? What family?”
“Emmanuel’s father’s family. El, they’ve got money. So much money. They treat me bad because I don’t.” June explained.
“Then why are you even dealing with them?” Elaina asked bluntly. She was good at that.
“Quincey is not like them. He’s different, but he’s not here right now and I think me and my baby’s lives are in danger.”
“You need me to come and get ya’ll? Ya’ll can come back to Cleveland with me. It’s only a one bedroom but hey, and if they come here trying anything funny it’s gon be something,”
“El, I’m serious,” Elaina was serious too. She’d go to work over her sister but she could tell that talking about beating down her sister’s new baby daddy’s entire family tree wasn’t being taken well so she kept quiet and let June talk.
“Something ain’t right. I just know it. I need you to come home, El.”
“Okay. I’m coming.”
Elaina had only stopped to fill up her tank. She had run three red lights and yelled at two children throwing snowballs, to get the hell out the street, on her two-hour drive to Columbus. Thank God, for clear roads and a new car. Since she was the one headed off to college, her and June decided it would be best that she take Ma Puddin’s car. June kept Papa Nates rickety work truck.
She finally pulled up to the valet at the hospital where her sister had birthed a secret just three days ago. She didn’t have any money but she handed her keys to the man anyway and ran inside, ignoring the sign that read, valet service: 3 dollars. She booked it up to the receptionist’s counter.
“I’m here for June Wright,” Elaina spit out quicker than she could think it. She spent a few seconds trying to catch her breath.
The receptionist clicked away at her computer then stopped, “Looks like she just checked out of room 204.”
Elaina pounded her fist on the desk. The receptionist looked at her, unbothered. She had seen this type of behavior before. She went back to staring at the computer screen, then she looked back up.
“Are you Elaina?” The receptionist asked.
“Yes…yes,” Elaina said, nodding frantically.
The receptionist stood up from her seat and came from around the glass partition. She pointed to a staircase at the end of the room.
“You can head right up those steps, make a left at the top of them and then another left at the end of that hall. The nursery will be smack dab in front of you. You can’t miss it.”
Elaina was stunned but not necessarily confused. She was here for her sister and her baby but clearly, she would only be leaving with one of them.
The hospital had Emmanuel all prepared to go with a diaper bag and a car seat. He was completely wrapped to where she couldn’t see him but she knew something little and fat was under the blue blanket. Elaina walked outside the hospital and waited for valet. The same man she had handed her keys to before pulled her red 1997 Volkswagen Jetta to the front door.
“Mam, you still need to pay,” the young man said gently. “Nice car,” he added. The car always made people believe Elaina had more money than she did.
“Oh, does this cost?” she tried. The valet looked at her like she knew better. Still, Elaina kept up her role of clueless.
“I thought it was free. It’s a hospital. Shit! It should be free,” Elaina spouted off. The car seat on her arm was heavy. She couldn’t understand how something so small was weighing her arm down so. It was too cold for this. All of it.
“It’s only three dollars, mam,” The young man stated looking confused at the pretty red car once again and then back at Elaina.
“It should be free,” Elaina repeated trying to shift the weight of the car seat and the diaper bag to one side so she could look in to her purse for the three dollars she couldn’t afford to give up.
“Here,” a woman said. A woman old enough to be Elaina’s mother in a black fur coat and a matching hat stuffed five dollars at the valet man.
“Keep the change.” The fancy woman demanded.
Thank God for decent people, Elaina thought.
A shiny black Lincoln Town Car had pulled up so quietly behind Elaina’s car that she hadn’t even noticed it.
“Let’s get this show on the road,” the woman insisted. She obviously had somewhere to be. Elaina said thank you but got no response. She didn’t care. She stuffed her new bundle in the backseat of the Jetta. The woman headed back to where a gentleman waited to open her door for her.
“Mrs. Carolina,” he nodded as she stepped back into the limo. Her pale nose to the sky.
Elaina ran around to the driver’s side of her car and got in. She drove like there was a newborn baby in her backseat. Careful and slow, she pulled up to the home she had grown to love. Tears streamed down Elaina’s face as she watched Papa Nate’s and Ma Puddin’s home go up in flames.
The smell was beyond horrific. In fact, it wasn’t the thick black smoke billowing from every window and door that warned Elaina that she’d never walk back into the classroom with the distant professor and the forgetful brunette. Not even, would the crackling sounds of the ever-growing fire give way to the fact that her big sister, June, was gone. However, it was the disturbing smell of burning flesh that told Elaina that although she participated in none of the joys of making a child, she would now parent the infant cooing and wiggling in her back seat.
As the sirens got louder, Elaina fished around in her briefcase in the seat next to her. She fished past the Walkman and headphones, the culinary textbook and the notebook with her name scribbled bright within it. Finally, she found Papa Nates Bible. She looked through the pages for a sign. Anything to help her understand this fate. She went to the glossary and found the name Emmanuel, spelled Immanuel. Next to it said “God is with us.”
“I sure hope so,” Elaina said aloud as she wiped tears from her face. She reached in the backseat and pulled the blue blanket from off Emmanuel’s face. He squirmed and smiled and offered her the deepest set of dimples she’d ever lay eyes on. Her nephew, without knowing it, offered her a little light on the darkest day of her life. Elaina knew she would be able to get the house back because her adopted parents swore by home owner’s insurance, which her and June kept current. Her car was pretty much brand new and it would last them a while. She smiled back at her little man, “My Manny, God is with us.”
Copyright © 2017 by Aja Brown Crowder