traffic stop

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Chapter 3

Mikayla stared out the back window as the car skirted downtown St. Petersburg, the domed baseball stadium, high rise buildings and noisy traffic. She’d heard about how fancy downtown was, right there on the water, and how the people there had everything they wanted. She and Momma lived close by, but she’d never been there. Momma said they should stick to the neighborhood.

Ten minutes later the car turned off the highway to a row of small cement block houses. She laughed at the sight of hungry hens running around the neighborhood store’s back door looking for scraps. Some things don’t change. The car stopped in front of the small brown home with peeling paint and some garbage along the side. Mikayla jumped out of the car before her case manager brought it to a full stop at the curb. Momma!

She ran across the small, bare patch of front lawn into her mother’s waiting arms. The two of them hugged tightly, sharing kisses and tears. Mikayla’s skinny body pressed tightly into her mother’s chest.

Mikayla pulled out of the embrace to look at her Momma. It had been so long—over three years since they’d actually lived together. Dressed in black capris and a bright yellow blouse, her mother looked happy and hopeful, despite the dark circles under her eyes.

I’m home! Mikayla closed her eyes for a minute. She was finally with her mother again and in their home. Not a visitation center. Not supervised at a McDonald’s or Burger King. Home! Just the two of them. No more staying with aunties who did not want her in their homes. No more foster homes or group homes where she was nothing more than a check to keep things running. Three years away, but now she was home. Momma had a good job at the school cafeteria. Mikayla knew Momma was drug free, needle free, marijuana free and had test results to prove it.

“Looks like a happy reunion,” the case manager said, carrying Mikayla’s suitcase, her backpack and her own clipboard.

“It’s great to be together,” Mrs. Wright replied, wiping her eyes. “I don’t think we’ve met.”

Mikayla rolled her eyes. She didn’t remember the case manager’s name either. The young white woman who drove her home was their fifth case manager in three years. Three years, three foster placements, two group homes, one failed reunification when her mother relapsed into prescription drugs, and now home. It was a struggle for her and Momma too.

She grabbed the suitcase and backpack from the case worker, eager to get to her small bedroom. Her own bedroom, just as she’d dreamed about forever, it seemed. No more bunk beds stacked together in tiny rooms. No more sharing a bedroom with the foster mom’s real children, who liked to tease and bully. My…Own…Room. Yeah, that sounds good.

The case manager reminded her mother about aftercare and a follow-up visit, as well as weekly drug testing and a final court hearing. Mikayla smiled at the drug testing; she was glad she wasn’t included. It wasn’t over yet, she knew, but shit, would she just hurry up? Finally, the case manager handed her mother a form to sign. Mikayla peeked over and saw different dates written on it. Drug tests for Momma. Then she saw her name, Mikayla Wright, age fourteen, and the word, “Reunification.” That’s all that matters! She bounced on her toes, unable to stand still beside them. She’d been on visits to this house that Momma rented five different times. The last two were overnights, so she’d slept upstairs in the bed that was hers.

“Sign here, please.” The case manager pushed the clipboard to Mrs. Wright. Mikayla watched her mother scribble her signature. Just like UPS, Mikayla thought. I come signed and delivered and no one wants me back again. Except for Germaine. Who wants to go back to a group home anyway?

Mikayla bounded up the wooden stairs to her bedroom. It looked as it had on her last visit. A single bed, chest of drawers, battered desk and chair. No curtains, no bedspread, no pictures on the wall.

“Just like I wanted it.” Mikayla turned to her mother with a puckish grin. “You said we could decorate it together. I was afraid you forgot.”

Her mother came close, out of breath from the stairs. She ran her hand through Mikayla’s short black dreadlocks.

“We need to get some ribbons for your hair, too. With your skinny body, you look like a boy.”

Mikayla couldn’t suppress a smile, just thinking about Germaine.

She threw her suitcase on the bed and opened it, then ran to the window and looked down at the tiny back yard. A small table covered with a red and white checked cloth was set for two.

“A picnic,” she exclaimed. “Does that mean...”

“Fried chicken, sweetened yams, coleslaw,” her mother interrupted. “Your favorite dinner, as soon as you get down in the kitchen to help me cook it.”

They both looked at the half empty suitcase.

“Well, it won’t take you long to unpack. Maybe we can go by the church or the thrift store and get you some clothes.”

Mikayla’s smile vanished and she stared at the bed. Hand me downs again. It had been so long since she had worn new clothes, bought just for her. She fingered the necklace and silver cross she wore. Her hand went to the back pocket of her jeans. She felt the plastic case holding her cell phone…

Her momma laughed and took Mikayla’s chin in her hand, lifting her face so that their eyes met.

“You always were an open book, child. We can’t decorate your room and buy you new clothes all at once. Be patient. The important thing is that we are together again.”

“You’re right, Momma.” Mikayla felt ashamed. “I’m so proud of you. I know it wasn’t easy.”

“Don’t get me crying again, girl. Just get yourself downstairs to peel the potatoes.”

Alone in her room, Mikayla searched for a place to hide her cell phone. She made sure it was on vibrate, wrapped it in an old sock, put it in the empty suitcase and pushed that way back into the closet. She would call him later, when her mother was asleep. And, she would remind him of his promise to take her shopping.

She felt guilty about keeping secrets from her mother. She meant it when she said she was proud of her, but she felt funny about that too. She was only fourteen. Weren’t mothers supposed to be proud of their kids, not the other way around? She bit her cuticles. Looked at her stubby nails.

“Mikayla!”

An hour later they were sitting outside as the sun set, eating the most delicious fried chicken Mikayla had ever tasted, laughing like girlfriends and talking about bedspreads, paint colors and posters of rock bands. The weekend lay ahead, followed by the first day of high school. Both sounded good—even school.

Back in her room, she opened the closet. It was dark inside but her hands found the suitcase and opened it. She peeled the sock off her cell phone and turned it on. It glowed in the dark, making her smile. She leaned against the wall and speed dialed the only number programmed into the phone. He’d insisted that his be the only number. He checked the phone each time they met.

It rang three times and she was thinking voice mail when…

“Yo, Mik. How’s my girl?”

He’d called her “Mik” from the beginning, when Livy, the oldest girl in the group home had introduced them.

“I’m fine. I’m home with Momma. Outa the group home. I’ve got my own room, my own bed and I’m standing in the dark in my own closet.”

“Dark closet, huh, Mik?”

She could hear him inhale. She could almost smell his cigarette breath.

“Lots we could do in a dark closet, Mik.”

She giggled.

“Yeah, it’d be fun, Mik.”

She squirmed and slid down the wall of the closet to sit on the floor.

“I think I can get away from Momma for a little while this weekend.”

“Good. Now here’s what I’m thinking we should do to each other…”

She listened, blushed and felt her body grow warm inside.

The phone lit up each time she pressed the button and read his name.

Germaine.

Good night, Germaine

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