Authors: Lynn Emery
“You're successful. That's all I ever wanted for you.”
“And you?” Talia studied him.
“I'm good.” Derrick said. “I only work part-time for the DA's Office. I've got my own investigative firm on the side.”
“Terrible D working with the authorities. Wouldn't Mrs. Haywood be stunned?”
He smiled at the mention of their old principal in grade school. Mrs. Haywood had issued him dark warnings at least three times a week.
“I can hear her now. âSon, there's worse places than a classroom!'” Derrick shook his head. “She helped me get my first honest job.”
“Get out of here!” Talia's mouth dropped open.
“We're pretty close now.” Derrick laughed again at the look of astonishment on Talia's lovely face.
“I thought you'd hate each other until the end of time!” Talia threw her head back and laughed hard. “Now I really do believe in miracles.”
Derrick relished the melodious sound of her contralto voice. “I guess we both survived pretty damn well, considering.”
She stopped laughing and smiled at him in an easy, natural way. Once again Derrick felt blown away at the beautiful, accomplished woman she'd become. Leaving her would be painful, but at least he knew she still had a good life.
“We sure did. Okay, we've covered the heavy stuff.” Talia stood and held out her hand. “Come on. I'm going to take you to some of the funkiest music places in town.”
He stood and took it. “My dance moves are rusty.”
“I don't believe you,” she joked. “You may be an upright citizen these days, but I'll bet you can still jam.”
For the next four hours they had a good time, with no more talk of the past. They seemed to have turned a final page of their shared history. Derrick was able to push away pangs of what might have been as they danced. When he drove her home later, he vowed that no one else would reopen that book. He pulled to the curb in front of her apartment building.
“Take care of yourself,” Derrick said softly. He curled a thick tendril of her silky hair around one finger.
“See ya next time, Big D,” she murmured. Her bottom lip trembled. “I've never said good-bye to you in my heart.”
Talia melted into his arms, and he welcomed her. Derrick put a forefinger under her chin and lifted her face. He kissed her hard, unable to leave without one last taste of her full lips. She moaned deep in her throat as she dug her fingers into the fabric of his cotton shirt. Then she let go and got out of the car. Talia waved to him once before she disappeared into the building.
“Good-bye, baby girl,” he whispered, and put the rental car in gear. No matter what happened, he'd make sure she didn't have to hurt again.
The next week was a busy one. Talia welcomed the long hours. Hard work helped her cope with the memories of strong arms and a scorching kiss. She arrived back at the office after a long day of meetings and research at the library. Jasmine met her in the foyer.
“Hi, Stephanie.” Talia smiled at the office secretary. “Make sure Pete gets these reports.”
“Sure,” Stephanie replied.
“Hey, Jas.” Talia juggled her shoulder purse and leather briefcase until she dropped a stack of reports into a basket.
“Talia, your brother Karl called. He didn't have your cell phone number.” Jasmine wore a somber expression.
Talia froze. “What's happened? Just tell me.”
Jasmine twisted her hands together. “They found Miss Rose passed out on the floor in her bedroom. They're not sure if she had a stroke, a heart attack, orâ”
“When?” Talia called out as she raced to her office with Jasmine on her heels.
“Damn!” Talia tossed her purse and briefcase onto a sofa in her office. She went to her phone.
“Here. He's probably still at the hospital.” Jasmine handed her a message slip with the phone number.
Talia gripped the receiver hard as she dialed. “Karl, how is she?” She listened for a few minutes. “Is she able to talk? Yeah, I'm coming. Bye.”
“I'm so sorry, honey.” Jasmine put an arm around Talia's shoulder.
“She was fine a few days ago,” Talia said as she hung up the phone. She rubbed her forehead with a shaky hand. “Listen, I've got to leave right away.”
“Sure. Don't even think about work.” Jasmine swept a hand out. “I'll take care of it.”
Peter came in. “Jasmine told me, Talia. Just go. You've got everything organized. Eileen and Bill have already pulled a lot of info from our database.”
Talia blinked back tears and stood straight. “Thanks, guys. I'll call you.”
Jasmine handed her a printed itinerary from an online travel site. “I found this flight leaving tomorrow morning at six. I already booked it for you.”
“We couldn't find one that left tonight,” Bill added.
She hugged them both. “You're the best.”
“Just tell Miss Rose we love her,” Jasmine said with a sniff.
Stephanie appeared at the door. “Pete, the deputy secretary at Health and Human Services is on the line for you.”
“Right. Talia, I'll be thinking about you.” Pete pecked her cheek before he rushed off.
“Guess I'd better go home and pack. I'm not sure how long I'll be gone.” Talia shivered as she picked up her purse.
Jasmine walked beside her with an arm around Talia's waist. “Take care of things at home and don't worry.”
“Yeah, sure. Home,” Talia repeated. “You know I haven't spent more than a week in Rougon since I left ten years ago.”
“Guess it will feel strange after all this time,” Jasmine said. “Like I said, don't worry about what's going on around this place.”
Talia arrived at her apartment without remembering the drive home. She went straight to the extra bedroom in her apartment and pulled out her large suitcase. For an hour she carefully packed. While she went through the motions of pulling clothes out of her closet, Talia thought about what she would face. In a few hours she would be in Rougon. Their roles must now reverse. Mama Rose would need Talia to be strong for her. She had to put aside her fears, even with Monette stirring the pot again.
“God, I know this is short notice, and I don't call often, but please,
, let her be okay,” Talia whispered.
She found Derrick's business card tucked inside a pocket of her purse. Talia sat down on the edge of her bed and stared at it for a long time. Maybe the final chapter of that part of her life had not been written.
Tired as she was, Talia couldn't sleep on the plane the next morning. She put the seat back, closed her eyes, and tried to at least let the tension go from her tired muscles. Monette kept popping up in her head, which didn't help at all.
Her mother had been blessed with a pretty face, a knockout figure, and a love for the fast lane. No matter where she landed, Monette always managed to find some man to take care of her, at least for a while. Indeed, Monette had a captivating way of charming most people. Unfortunately, charm usually turned into a con game. When she added cocaine to the mix, the result was predictable. Partying became more important than anything else, including being a mother. Talia went into foster care the first time when she was six years old. The system put a priority on keeping children with their biological parents, so Monette had chance after chance. Talia went through three foster homes before being placed with Mama Rose the first time when she was eleven. Their relationship lasted after Talia went back to Monette a year later.
Mama Rose became her surrogate mother even when the state wasn't paying her to do the job. She'd taken in fourteen-year-old Talia that terrible night without hesitation. Talia said yet another prayer that she would be all right. Even more, she hoped the past that included Monette and Earl would remain closed.
“Stop racing around, Talia. You're making me tired just looking at you.” Mama Rose shifted with a slight frown, trying to get comfortable in the hospital bed. “You'd think this place would have better pillows.”
Talia arranged the plants, sent by family and friends, on a dresser in the room. “You're not going home, so don't start. St. Francis is an excellent rehab center. This suite looks almost like a cozy apartment.”
“I don't like apartments, and this is a nursing home. They can dress it up with a fancy name, but that's all it is.”
Mama Rose gave the sheet an aggressive jerk to straighten it. Her plump cocoa brown face screwed up with distaste. She was only five feet four inches tall. Yet Rose Travis was a force to be reckoned with when displeased.
“It is not,” Talia said. She unpacked underwear and neatly placed it in a drawer. Then she went into the bathroom to put away toiletries.
“Oh, yes it is,” Mama Rose said loudly.
Talia came back into the room. She put one suitcase
away in a large closet, then started unpacking a second smaller one. “No, it's not.”
“It is.” Mama Rose stared out the window with a sullen expression.
Talia held up a pretty pink sweat suit. “Bet you look cute in this. Who knows? You might meet a handsome gentleman friend.” She smiled at her.
“Right, just what I need, a sickly old guy wearing a diaper.”
Talia laughed out loud as she hung the suit in the closet beside more clothes. “You're too much.”
When she turned around to tease Mama Rose some more the smile faded from her face. A single tear slid down her foster mother's cheek. The proud woman's hands were tightly clasped together in her lap. Talia sat beside her on the bed and placed an arm around her shoulders.
“You're talking to me the same way my friend Alice's daughter talked to her. Alice never went home. She died in one of these places.” Her voice was a strained whisper.
Talia rested her head against Mama Rose's. “Miss Alice was in the last stages of terminal cancer. That was totally different, cher.”
“Maybe you and that doctor haven't told me everything.” Mama Rose reached into the pocket of her bed jacket and pulled out a tissue.
“Look at me, Mama,” Talia said. “We've always been honest with each other. I wouldn't lie to you about this.”
“You're sure he didn't say anything more about those tests? I can take it, Talia.” Mama Rose stared back at her intently.
Talia felt the strength in her yet saw fear in her hazel eyes. “I'm sure. He didn't see any new scarring on your
heart to indicate a second attack. But he's concerned at the way your blood pressure dropped so low. Dr. Jean-sonne wants nurses checking your vital signs every four hours the first week at least, just as a precaution.”
“I can get nursing care at home.”
“And he wants you near the medical equipment here,” Talia added firmly. “Otherwise, I would have been just as stubborn about taking you home. This makes sense.”
Mama Rose plucked at the floral top sheet. “I'm not staying one minute longer than necessary.”
Talia smiled. “You always told me when things got tough to use my brain. We both know the doctor is doing what's medically best for you.”
As though unwilling to go that far, Mama Rose merely waved a hand. “And what are you going to do in that house all alone? Maybe Derrick canâ”
“I'll be fine,” Talia cut in with a cheery tone. She patted Mama Rose's cheek and stood. “I'm going to make sure your dinner is ordered. Where did I put that menu?”
“It's right here.” Mama Rose pointed to the oak table on rollers. It could be raised to different heights so she could eat in bed.
“Right. Hey, baked fish with garlic-roasted potatoes, green beans, and pears for dessert. Maybe I'll stick around.” Talia grinned at her. “Move over, and I'll spend a few days.”
“You like it so much, you stay, and I'll go home,” Mama Rose said in a dry tone.
“At least you've still got that sense of humor. Now settle down while I finish fixing this place up. My goodness, did every kid you ever taught send plants?”
Talia shook her head when she looked into the small living room to find more plants had arrived. She set about making the room look as homelike as possible.
Mama Rose gave directions from the bedroom despite Talia's instructions that she should rest. Soon Talia heard the muted sound of the television. There was a strong knock on the door left ajar. Her brother Karl stood in the door with a vase of small sunflowers.
“Whassup, sis? Just came by to see how Miz Rose is doin'.”
At least six feet tall with a wide handsome face the color of caramel, he was thinner than she remembered. He also had a touch of gray in his hair. Though only thirty-five, he looked older. Talia did not smile back at him. She crossed her arms. Still, he kissed her on the cheek lightly.
“She's doing just fine, and I plan to keep it that way,” Talia said, gazing at him through narrowed eyes.
“Peace. I didn't come to upset her or you.” Karl's familiar charming smile flashed.
“Okay.” Talia turned away and continued arranging family photos on a mantel over the fake fireplace. “So why did you come?”
“Aw c'mon. I care about Miz Rose. She was my foster mama, too.” Karl's smile faltered. “Don't be like that.”
“Uh-huh. Except youâ”
“Who is that?” Mama Rose came in using the walker. “Karl! Baby, I'm so glad to see you.” She smiled with genuine pleasure.
“Had to come see my best girl,” Karl said. He hugged her gently. “You got no business movin' around. Come over here and sit.”
“No, she should be in bed. That's why it's called âbed rest.'” Talia pursed her lips.
“Nonsense, I can rest just as well sitting in this chair.” Mama Rose lifted her nose.
“You know Talia is right. Don't be hardheaded. Tell
you what, I'll sit with you and tell you the latest gossip,” Karl said.
“Oh, you are such a scamp.” Mama Rose laughed as Karl led her back into the bedroom. He kept up a steady stream of banter all the while.
Talia ground her teeth at the sound of their laughter. If the tough lady had one soft spot, it was Karl. Though she never hesitated to condemn his actions, Mama Rose never gave up on him. Karl had been more than a handful the brief time he'd been in Mama Rose's care. Even though he'd been removed and placed in a group home, she continued to visit him.
Fifteen minutes later Talia heard a mild debate through the open bedroom door.
“I'm not tired,” Mama Rose said.
“Then relax before you get all worn-out,” Karl replied. “I'll come back on my day off and make sure you're behavin'.”
Mama Rose laughed. “That's what I used to tell you.”
“Yeah, and remember what else you'd say? âMind these folks and follow the rules.' Bye, darlin'. I'll see you soon.”
Talia was in the compact kitchen when he came out and shut the door quietly. She looked at him as he walked toward her. He wore a frown.
“She's lookin' weak. I ain't never seen her look that way before.” Karl rubbed his chin with one large hand.
“Mama Rose is sixty-nine years old with a heart condition. She's worked hard all her life raising other people's wild kids and teaching school, too.” Talia folded a white dish towel with a large pineapple print and hung it on a metal rack.
“She's a special woman alright. She stood by me
when a lot of people walked away.” Karl sat on one of two barstools at the breakfast counter.
“Like me.” Talia felt no guilt in the admission.
“I can't blame ya, little sister. I was a mess. But I've got a real life nowâa job, wife, and kids.”
Talia stared at him with a blank expression. “Sounds good.”
Karl laughed softly. “Yeah, you've heard it before. This August it'll be three years I been clean. And it feels good. Look.” He took out his wallet and showed her a picture of two smiling boys and an infant girl.
“Beautiful children, Karl. Take care of them.” Talia's heart turned over at the sight of nephews and a niece she'd never seen.
“You gotta meet LaTrice and the boys. Come on over for Sunday dinner after church.”
“Yeah sure. Maybe if I have time.”
Karl wore a proud expression. “I'm a deacon at the Sunrise Baptist Church.”
“I know and I'm real glad you finally got it all together.”
“I realized I couldn't fill up the emptiness with drugs, liquor, women, or nothin' else I tried.” Karl wore an earnest expression. “You welcome to come worship with us.”
“Thanks,” she murmured, unsure of what else to say.
“I'm sorry for not being there to protect you while you was little. Even though I wasn't that much older, once I got to be grown, I shoulda done somethin'.”
“Don't be silly. You had to deal with Monette and our dad. But let's not rake up the past.” Talia realized too late that she shouldn't have mentioned Karl's father.
“It's okay. I made peace with the man.” Karl nodded
with a wise, thoughtful expression. He studied Talia for a few seconds. “And I'm finally talkin' to Mama.”
Talia tensed. “Would you like something to drink? I think we have some diet cola in here.” She started to rise when he put a hand on her arm.
“No, thanks. Have you been to see her yet?”
“I've got other priorities. Mama Rose needs me.” Talia walked back into the kitchen and put away pot holders. “I might try to cook something. Mama Rose will probably get tired of institutional cooking.”
“Talia, Monette been askin' 'bout you. Now that Miz Rose is all settled and taken care of, you could maybe go see her,” Karl said.
She faced him sharply. “No. I'm not going to let Monette pull me into her latest plot.”
“I ain't sayin' you got to make like she's some angel or nuthin'. I'm tellin' you from experience that anything could happen.”
“Monette is healthy and still playing her games,” Talia said with scorn.
“Sure, she's still young at forty-nine, but tomorrow ain't promised. If somethin' happened to her, that unfinished business would eat you up.” Karl rested both elbows on the laminated counter as he gazed at her.
“Everybody is so worried about my mental state when it comes to Monette. Well, let me ease your mind.” Talia crossed her arms. “My business with Monette is finished, Karl. I let go years ago. I don't intend to let her yank my chain.”
Karl gazed at her several moments, then sighed. “I know it hurts. Butâ”
“Mama Rose, you, and Derrick don't get it. It doesn't hurt anymore. I survived and moved on.” Talia's voice rose as she waved her arms.
“Okay, okay. I didn't come here to get you all upset,
little sister.” Karl walked to her and gave Talia a brotherly hug. “I ain't gonna harp on that.”
“Good.” Talia accepted a peck on the cheek. She felt awkward, not used to having affection expressed within her family, and definitely not from her brother.
“So you an' Derrick hooked up again. I always liked him. He didn't let circumstances drag him low.” Karl went back and sat down again. “He's a good man.”
“Derrick and I haven't âhooked up.' I saw him a few times when he was in D.C.” Talia cleared her throat.
“He's a good friend is all I meant.” Karl's bushy eyebrows went up.
“I haven't had time to socialize with schoolmates and old acquaintances.” Talia busied herself arranging an already neat line of canisters.
“Yeah.” Karl's mouth lifted at one corner. “Good as this place is run, you gonna have time on your hands. Have some fun.”
“Once I'm sure Mama Rose is stable again, I'll be going home.”
“Louisiana is home, Talia. Where you start will always be part of you.” Karl wore the look of a sad wiseman for an instant, before the bright smile came back. “I better get goin', or my wife will have my backside. Don't forget, baby sister, Sunday dinner.”
“Thanks, Karl.” Talia smiled back at him. “I'm really happy for you.”
“Bye now.” Karl gave her another quick hug and left.
“He's right on both counts.” Mama Rose stood in the door without the walker. She wore a blue floral housecoat and powder blue slippers to match.
“Just what do you think you're doing? I'm going to get that walker and march you right back to bed.” Talia put her fists on her hips.
“Don't take that tone with me, Talia. My doctor says
I shouldn't lie around like an invalid, and I should walk without that thing if I can. I'm not sleepy.”
“Fine. Sit and watch television. I'll call the kitchen and order your dinner. What do you want?”
“There is nothing on television I want to see. I'll order my own dinner, thank you very much.” Mama Rose sat down on one of two large easy chairs.
“You are so rebellious! What did Karl just say?” Talia glared at her.
Mama Rose waved a hand, dismissing her disapproval. “I wiped his bottom and yours. I'm a long way from taking orders from two babies.”
Talia shook her head. “You're driving me up the wall.”
“Now back to Derrick. He's a good boy, even if he still is kind of wild.” Mama Rose fluffed a throw pillow and positioned it behind her back.
“What do you mean?” Talia forgot to be irritated with her. She sat on the sofa across from her.
“He's been in the papers at least three times. Everybody knows he's the reason the district attorney got reelected.” Mama Rose scowled. “A few brainless Black folks say he sold out.”
“Because he helps gather the evidence to convict people.” Talia tucked her legs under her.
Mama Rose nodded. “Exactly. Course they don't like to dwell on the havoc those no-good criminals cause. You wouldn't believe it, but we've had drive-by shootings in little old Rougon!” She sighed. “Times have changed for the worse, sugar.”