We barricade ourselves in the library after Elizabeth leaves.
By us, I mean Sebastian, Loretta and I. Everyone else left to usher Elizabeth out the house and to the hospital, but Sebastian refused to go with them. Knowing the family that has come to visit would want to confront Sebastian about him staying behind, he decided to lock the library doors. He let a few maids come in to clean Elizabeth’s ‘mess,’ that she left behind, but soon after he locked the doors again and kept them that way.
“My mom told her family not to come into the library at all while they’re here,” he explained to us as to why he decided to hide out here. That did little to blind the sight I see; Sebastian wanting to lock himself away with the only two people here who know the full extent of everything going on.
“I think you should have gone to the hospital,” I tell him. Loretta is silent again and sits back down on the couch.
“They don’t want me there. And besides, one extra person is unnecessary.”
“You’re her brother, Sebastian. Soon to be her child’s uncle. I’m sure she would have wanted you to go with her.”
He’s quiet, facing away from me and looking out of the windows, watching the children—his cousins—play outside. He has an expression that is similar to yearning.
“So who told them?” He asks again.
“I did,” I blurt out, not trying to get Loretta roped into what I did this morning.
He turns around, and looks as if he wants to be mad, but instead just looks disappointed.
“Why?” he asks.
“Because your brothers were saying the nastiest things about you. I was just defending you and it came out. I’m sorry.”
He swallows hard, then sighs. “It’s fine. At least someone cares in here.”
Loretta and I exchange a look. The narrowness of her eyes is now gone; wide and alert, still buzzing from telling me everything about Garrett, Gloria and Sebastian to watching Elizabeth’s water break.
Then suddenly, she stands up, takes a deep breath, and calls out Sebastian’s name.
“There’s something I need to tell you,” she says when he turns around. Loretta is known to me to be a quiet, reserved person—someone who doesn’t like confrontation even when it involves doing the right thing. But now, for some reason, she has taken initiative. And not just with me, but with Sebastian, too.
“What is it?” he says. This is the first time they’ve talked to each other since we’ve gotten here.
Sebastian sits down when he realizes it’s serious; everything this past week has been serious, but pertaining to them and their history, he knows it’s something he needs to receive wholly.
Loretta then proceeds to tell Sebastian everything she told me. He listens to every word, every syllable, and his facial expressions change from shocked, to angry, then reminiscent to just…empty. Apparently, he didn’t know about Gloria having a son, James, the same age as him; she never told him. He didn’t know Loretta had been seeing Gloria’s family this whole time. And he didn’t know Garrett was involved in drug trafficking and corruption, but when he hears it, he isn’t as surprised as I thought he would be.
“Sebastian?” I say softly to him after a minute of silence from his end. He is robbed of the ability to say any words in response to Loretta’s testament.
“I’ve been wanting to speak out about all of this for years,” Loretta says. “But I ain’t had the courage. After everything happened I just thought it’d be best to keep my mouth shut and do my work. It wasn’t right for me to not tell you these things.”
“It’s my fault,” Sebastian replies. “I cut everyone off and out and I’m the reason nothing got resolved. God, I’m such…I-I need to go over there.”
“To where?” I ask him when he stands.
“To Cecil and Elijah’s house. I never even gave them my condolences for their mom passing away and all this time I’ve just been ignoring them. It isn’t right.”
What could I possibly say? Sebastian taking the big leap to go talk to Gloria’s children after he’s been avoiding them for over a decade is huge. But this is so sudden. Is he ready for this?
You’re treating him like a child, my mind chides. And the little voice in my head is right. But it’s only because I care. A lot.
More than I like to openly admit.
Loretta stands along with him, eyes narrow again but brows high and curious, “Are you sure? That’s a bit sudden.”
“I’ve been ignoring them all these years. It’s selfish. And I’m not letting anyone stop me from going with my gut. Not this time.”
“No, no I ain’t stopping you. I just wanted to make sure that you’re following your judgment.”
“I’ve ignored my judgment too long, Loretta,” he says sincerely. “I’ve let my father get into my head and destroy me from the inside out. I pushed so many people away and I…I don’t want to do that anymore. I’m done being scared and pitiful.”
He looks towards me again, and I freeze instantaneously. “You were right, Leslie. Everything you’ve said since that night at the bar, you were right about. It just took me a long time to believe it myself. But I’m ready to tackle the shit that’s eating away at me now. I’ve ignored it for too long.”
The day we got lost in the forest. The night we spent at the bar, and the early morning we spent outside the diner, when Sebastian and I sat outside the diner as I tended to the wound on his hand. I told him that I cared. I told him that he shouldn’t shrug off the pain he’s going through, but instead embrace it and work on eradicating it. That, paired with the slew of other things I’ve told him in order to make his defenses weaken, I meant every bit. And now, seeing him so in charge of facing the past that he’s been running away from is shocking, to say the least.
“How far to Cecil and Elijah live from here?” Sebastian asks Loretta.
“About an hour. They’re livin’ in their grandmother’s house on a small plot of land. It ain’t much, but the house is a nice size, at least.”
“I’m going to go over there.”
“I’ll come with you,” she says. Without saying another word, Loretta and Sebastian start to leave together with a confidence I’ve never seen in either of them. I’m still standing still, speechless, and wondering if it is in my place to go as well.
“Wait,” I call out to them. They stop, turn, and stare at me with patience. I gulp.
“I would like to go, too,” I say to Sebastian timidly. “If that’s alright.”
Sebastian laughs at me like I’ve said something foolish.
“I mean, of course you can.” He smiles kindly. “I thought you were right behind us.”
The thought of us leaving the manor while Elizabeth is currently having her baby and while Fiona’s family is visiting did dawn on me. I did feel bad, to be quite honest.
We managed to slip through the living room to get to one of the cars. Sarah and Lucas were with Sebastian’s grandmother, or Oma, keeping her entertained with a few of her children and grandchildren. Margot went to the hospital with Fiona, but left Rachael in the company of Ulysses, Fiona’s younger brother and Rachael’s father.
So successfully, we got into one of the cars and departed from the manor. Sebastian is driving with tense shoulders and a tight one-handed grip on the steering wheel. I’m sitting in the back while Loretta sits in the passenger seat serving as his navigation system.
“It’s so back-woods you wouldn’t be able to find it on a GPS,” she explained to me when I asked why we couldn’t navigate it on a cellphone.
Contrary to Loretta’s estimate, it took us less than an hour to get to the house, thanks to Sebastian and his speeding. It is large by her words, but the structure is very old fashioned, and in general the house is isolated from everything and anything; the nearest town has to be about thirty minutes away. Surrounded by woods and a marsh about half a mile away, this is more detached than I thought.
Sebastian shuts off the engine when we arrive, but doesn’t get out of the car. He just sits and stares at the house from out of the car window.
“When I was younger, Gloria used to tell me stories about this place and what it was like growing up here,” he says to us over the birds and crickets outside.
Loretta nods. “Yup. This place was her stomping ground. She wanted to come back here with enough money to afford a nicer house for her mama and kids; she loved Tennessee more than any other place.”
Sebastian gets out of the car when, apparently, his emotions cloud his mind. Loretta follows, and I get out lastly. The humidity is ridiculous, especially so close to the marsh. I wipe a layer of sweat away from my brow and keep walking.
We walk up the porch steps, and Loretta knocks on the door. A few moments later, a young woman a little older than I with deep mocha skin and beautiful hazel eyes opens the door. She sees Loretta and smiles widely, but then sees Sebastian and appears shocked.
Loretta smiles back. “Cecil!”
“’Etta! You’re back!”
They embrace warmly. A few more voices are in the background, but only one man approaches us through the hallway. His reaction is the exact reaction Cecil had when he sees who’s at the door. With the same facial structure as Cecil and the same hazel eyes, this must be Elijah—Cecil’s brother and Gloria’s son.
Loretta and Elijah hug, and as they do, Cecil shyly says hello to Sebastian. He returns the greeting in the same shy manner.
One look between Loretta, Elijah and Cecil, and they know why we’re here.
“Well, come on in, y’all.” Cecil says. “We were just gettin’ supper ready.”
Following Cecil and Elijah, we walk into the house and through the dining room until we’re in the living room. Right when we enter the room, Sebastian, Loretta and I are a little shocked to see more people than initially thought.
“Loretta, you already know Grandma Agnes and Grandpa Lee. Sebastian, these are my little ones, Otis and Chris, and this is Elijah’s daughter, Gloria.”
Gloria immediately runs to Elijah’s leg and hides behind it while staring at us. Sebastian smiles down at the little 3-year-old, but I can tell that knowing one of Gloria’s children names his daughter after her puts a little more weight on Sebastian’s heart.
Especially since it took over a decade to find this out himself.
Cecil introduces us to Gloria’s three sisters and her brother—Roberta, Eliza, Elaine and George. The tension in the room is so high that I feel the sudden urge to wait in the car, but from the way the sisters look at me and how Agnes stares at me as well, it feels as if Loretta told them something about me the last time she visited.
“Why don’t y’all have a seat? It’s a lot cooler over there by the couch,” Elijah says kindly. Loretta and Sebastian both walk over to the vacant couch and sit. I, for one, take the chair by the dining room instead; I feel odd including myself in this.
“Cecil, we’re gonna go get started on the mashed potatoes and greens,” Eliza says to her. With one look to her siblings, Roberta, Elaine and George all stand up and head towards the kitchen. Cecil orders Chris and Otis to play outside, and obediently they run out of the back door and play with a ball out on the grass underneath two large sugar maple trees. Agnes looks to her husband, Lee before offering to take Gloria upstairs. And just like that, within thirty seconds the living room is empty except for Loretta, Sebastian, and Gloria’s children.
And I can proudly say that this is the most awkward silence I have ever had to sit through.
“We would have had you over sooner, but somethin’ was wrong with your assistant’s number or somethin’, ‘cause none of our calls were gettin’ through,” Cecil says. “And we tried writtin’ you but we never got anything back.”
I can tell Sebastian is currently basking in his guilt, having ignored them for so long.
Loretta encourages him to tell them the truth with one reassuring nod. Sebastian sighs and rubs his eyes.
“Actually, nothing was wrong with the number. I just…I didn’t want to get in contact with you.”
“Why not?” Elijah asks, frowning but out of curiousness, not anger.
“I felt too guilty to.”
Now any friendliness or “southern hospitality” is gone from their faces. It’s as if they immediately remember 2003 like it happened yesterday.
“You have no reason to feel guilty,” Cecil tells him. “It wasn’t your fault, no matter how much you want to think it was. She wouldn’t want you to think it was your fault. You know that.”
“I just…I didn’t even get to say goodbye; you know?”
Elijah and Cecil exchange sad looks.
“You were like another son to her,” Elijah says, smiling a bit. “We used to joke around and ask when we’d be able to meet our little brother from how much mama talked about you.”
Everyone laughs, but each one of them is starting to tear up as the memories begin.
Cecil points to a photograph on the wall. “You see that picture up there?”
All of us look in the direction of her pointing finger. It’s a photograph of Gloria, smiling while wearing a nice lavender dress with red flowers on it.
Loretta laughs, and rogue tears escapes her eyes. “I took that picture. It’s when we went to your 3rd grade play, Sebastian. The one where you were dressed up as a little lion? You remember that?”
“Of course I remember that. I could hear you both shouting my name and clapping from the back row.”
Everyone breaks out into laughter again. Tears fall from their eyes shamelessly.
“She was so proud of you,” Loretta tells Sebastian. “She kept on saying, ‘that’s my boy,’ when you would come out on that there stage. Her face just lit up when you would say your little lines and try to pronounce those words through that lisp you used to have. She bought herself a little disposable camera just for that show. I remember that day so clearly.”
“I remember when she took me to see a piano recital that you had, Elijah,” Sebastian says. “The one where you—”
“—cried ’cause I missed a few keys?” Elijah chuckles.
“Yeah, that one. You didn’t see me because I had to leave early with my mom, but I saw how Gloria just looked so proud of you. Even when you messed up, she cheered you on so loudly.”
Elijah nods. Cecil rubs his back as he begins to cry even harder into his hand. And after a few moments of silence, she stands up and runs over to the water heater. Cecil kicks the floor board before lifting a piece up and taking an old envelope from underneath. Everyone’s eyes follow her until she stands in front of Sebastian and hands it to him.
“That night at the hospital, she asked me to write this for you since you weren’t there. Every word here is her own, though. She made me promise not to give it to you until the time was absolutely right. No matter how long it took.”
Sebastian takes the envelope carefully, but doesn’t open it. It looks as if he’s scared to. Loretta grips his arm gently and reassuringly. We all wait with bated breath until he peels it open and takes a letter out. He proceeds to read it aloud:
I’m making you this letter because you aren’t here for me to tell you in person. We tried calling, but you haven’t been picking up. So I’ve got my sweetheart, Cecil, writing this for me.
I’ve been hit by a car on my way home, and my injuries are real bad. I feel myself weakening every second I keep my eyes open. I don’t know if the Lord will take me or not tonight, but hopefully he’ll give me some more time so I’ll have the chance to see you again for the last time. Please don’t think this is because of you. It ain’t, and I’ll have Loretta get on your butt about it if you beat yourself up about this.
I never told you, but I had a son. A younger one names James. He was two when he died, and I think about him every day. When I got to see your smiling face every morning, with your little two front teeth and those cute curls you had on your head when you were a baby, it made the pain a lot easier to deal with because you reminded me of him. The love I have for you is more than just the friendly love of a housekeeper and their boss’ child. I see you as my third child; my second son; my youngest baby. Every moment I spend with you brings a joy in my life I can’t describe. You’re so bright, and smart and kind. The art you do is amazing I mean out-of-this-world! God has given you a gift! And you’re so funny and full of life. Remember when you took me, Sonya and Andre for a ride in your car the day after you got it? I’ve never screamed so loud in my life, child!
I remember telling you something in your room years back, when I used to read with you before you went to sleep. I said, “Don’t ever give up on your dreams. Don’t ever give up on you.” I didn’t say that just to say it. I said it because I mean it. Your dad, your mom, even your siblings don’t see you for the amazing boy you are, and it makes me sad. So sad, I try my hardest to make sure you don’t give up on your dreams. You got a gift that not a lot of people got. So use that gift to get into your dream school, Yale. The one you’re always talking about! I don’t think I’ll be here to see you graduate high school. Or start your first day of college. But please keep me in your heart where I promised you I’d always be. Study hard. Practice makes perfect! Don’t you quit on me now, you hear? Follow your dreams, and always know that I’ll be watching.
I don’t know what else to say because my mind’s all jumbled right now. All I can think to tell you now is that I love you. I love you, I love you, I love you, and I will always be with you. Always.
Sebastian holds the letter tightly in his hand, like he’s afraid that it will disappear if he lets up just a little bit. It was one thing to see Sebastian cry while he was drunk, but to see him cry like this while he’s sober is completely groundbreaking. It’s as if all the guilt, pain, regret, and anger pent inside of him from Gloria’s death is slowly coming out of him in the form of weeping. I’ve never seen him so fragile before.
“So this is what I’ve been running away from all these years?” he says, managing a laugh that makes even more tears spill out of his eyes. I have this urge to just sit next to him, hug him, wipe his tears away. But instead I sit at the dining room table choking back my own tears from watching everyone else cry.
Loretta wipes the moistness away from her cheeks. “You know she wouldn’t want you to feel like this. All she wanted was for you to be happy.”
“I know.” Sebastian’s nods. “I mean, I know now.”
He stands up and looks at Cecil, who is staring at the ground trying to hide her emotions.
“Thank you for giving me this,” Sebastian says to her.
All she does is nod to the envelope. “There’s something else in there.”
Sebastian is reluctant to see, but pushes past it and reaches into the envelope. He pulls out a small photograph. It’s of him and Gloria from when he was about sixteen, staring at one of his paintings. The sun hits the both of them perfectly as Sebastian listens to whatever Gloria is saying, and as Gloria speaks to Sebastian with a radiant smile on her face.
“Damn,” Loretta cries. “I took that picture, too.”
Instead of bursting into even more sobs, they begin to laugh at Loretta’s outburst before she starts laughing too.
Cecil embraces Sebastian warmly, just as she did with Loretta, and Sebastian continuously thanks them. This may seem like a small moment for him compared to how far he has left to go, especially with his father, but Sebastian was unable to continue forward with the guilt looming over him; the lack of closure. Now, the possibilities for him are endless. I see it in his eyes; he’s ready to conquer and to close chapters in order to move onto new ones.
And I’ll be there with him, if he asks me to.
Cecil insisted Loretta and Sebastian stay for dinner. And despite me suggesting that I leave and come back to pick them up, she insisted I stay, too.
“Loretta couldn’t have done this without you,” Cecil mutters to me. “For that, you have my thanks. And my invitation to stay for some pork chops and mashed potatoes.”
Eliza has put on some music and encouraged everyone to gather outside since it’s later now and a little cooler. Cecil invited me, Sebastian and Loretta into the kitchen as her and Roberta finish cooking something called “corn bread.”
And I feel out of place not knowing what that is or having not tasted it. Ever.
“That corn bread look damn good, Roberta!” Cecil exclaims.
Roberta smirks while pulling the light brown cake-dish out of the oven. “Girl, you know how I am with my corn bread!”
Roberta looks at me, “Have you ever seen corn bread this good before, Leslie?”
“Well, I wouldn’t know,” I chuckle. “I’ve never had it before.”
The kitchen grows quiet.
Everyone, even Sebastian is looking at me like I have three heads.
“You’ve never had cornbread?” Loretta asks, shocked.
I shake my head. “I’ve never heard of it.”
“Oh, Lord Jesus!” Roberta shouts. “How about catfish? Collards?”
I shake my head again, a little more embarrassed. But instead of scolding me more, Roberta and Cecil grow excited.
“Girl, then you’re about to have the dinner of your life. Go find a seat outside while I fix you a plate!”
So off I go, ushered outside with the rest of the Johnson’s until Roberta comes out with a plate of Catfish, mashed potatoes, collard greens and corn bread. And I can say that this plate of food is one of the best plates of foods I have ever had. Cecil laughs at me when she spots me licking my fingers, and even more so when I ask Elijah bashfully to pass the ketchup for the catfish.
About another hour passes and the sun starts to set. As the sky turns a beautiful mixture of lavender and rose pink, Eliza turns up the music and turns on the backyard lights—lanterns attached to wires that hang on the trees surrounding the area. At the table, everyone begins to exchange stories about memories they’ve had with Gloria. I sit and listen, watching them laugh instead of cry and revel in happiness instead of sadness and regret. Sebastian sits next to Loretta and Elijah on the other end of the table, and I watch him laugh along with them. I’ve never seen him so happy before.
Afterwards, Elaine proposes a toast to her late sister. We all hold up our cups and give graces to a woman whom I didn’t know, but feel like I did know from the amazing stories I’ve heard of her.
“A toast to Gloria,” she said. “Who’s smile could light up the darkest of days.”
After ten more minutes of story sharing, George turns up the music again, and Cecil drags Elijah and Sebastian out on the grass to dance. Agnes, despite being at least 80 years-old, gets up from her seat and starts dancing with her husband, Lee, and eventually it’s only Loretta and I who aren’t dancing. She moves her seat closer to mine and watches everyone enjoy themselves. I watch Sebastian dance with Cecil, and am thoroughly surprised at how good of a dancer he is.
I wish I had the courage and confidence to dance with him again, but my shyness keeps me planted in my seat while drinking the rest of my iced tea.
“Amazing what a little closure can do to a person, huh?” Loretta says. I follow her eyes onto Sebastian, who is now dancing with little Gloria. She isn’t dancing, per se, but just jumping up and down happily while he holds her little hands and spins her around. I just can’t stop smiling; he looks so happy.
“You know,” Loretta starts again, “I think if we’ve all learned something these past weeks, is that we need to speak up once in a while if we got something on our minds.”
I nod in agreement with her, still watching him dance and him smile at Gloria who is now in his arms spinning in his grasp. But when I turn back to Loretta, I notice her staring at me with a smirk planted on her face. Her eyes flicker back and forth from Sebastian and I, and I can feel my heart beat faster.
“I see the way you look at him all the time,” she says. “You like him, don’t you?”
I already know my face is a bright crimson. “Wh-what? No, no I don’t. It’s just…I see how happy he is and it’s very—”
She doesn’t believe me.
I scoff, “Okay. Let’s say, hypothetically, I was…attracted to him. What point would there be in telling him? You’ve seen the type of girls he dates. I’m nowhere near that league. And no, I’m not saying this to be the “I’m so ugly and every girl is prettier than me” type of woman. I’m just saying that we’re on two completely different pedestals, and his happens to be a lot higher than mine. I mean just look at that face! And those eyes! And that smile and…and the way he laughs, too. And how he raises only one eyebrow when he doesn’t understand something. And how…how he bites his lip sometimes when he thinks really hard. And that body? I mean, c’mon? I won’t even waste my breath. Hypothetically.”
I’ve never felt so judged in my life. Who knew someone as quiet as Loretta can be so shady?
“Don’t look at me like that,” I mumble, angrily drinking my tea. Loretta shrugs and drinks her tea, too, but with a smirk still on her face.
Later on in the evening, alcohol starts to get involved.
Luckily the kids are upstairs playing in Chris’s room, so George bringing out beer and whiskey wouldn’t be around the children. I already know that Sebastian loves whiskey, so I make sure to keep an eye out on him.
At first, he seems to be doing pretty good. He has one small cup of whiskey on the rocks and continues to dance with Cecil. But I guess I turned my back for too long, because seven beers later, Sebastian is piss drunk.
And so is Cecil.
I think I’m hallucinating when I see Cecil grinding on Sebastian when some R Kelly song comes on. But it isn’t a hallucination. Blame it on Elijah for insisting that Cecil have a few more beers, possibly knowing that she’s a lightweight.
Loretta, of course, looks at me and waits for a reaction when Cecil starts rubbing her ass on Sebastian’s crotch.
They would not be doing this if they were sober. They would not be doing this if they were sober.
I suppose Sebastian comes to his senses that he’s grinding on Gloria’s daughter, because he immediately stops dancing and walks over to where Loretta and I are sitting.
You could smell the alcohol on him.
“Hey, ladies!” he says with an army salute. I fear he’s going to fall over any moment.
“Sebastian, are you okay?” I ask him.
He nods at first, then shakes his head with a pout.
“I think I’m gonna be sick. I need’s to lay down. Can you take me upstairs, Leslie?”
I refuse to look at Loretta’s face right now.
“There’s a guest bedroom, first door on your right,” Eliza says. I thank her before slinging Sebastian’s arm over my shoulders and helping him into the house.
He’s fine on the flat surface, but getting him up the stairs is a challenge since every step he wants to lean back and pretend he’s falling down the stairs, giving me a heart attack.
“I did not sign up for this,” I mutter under my breath.
Or did I?
Guest bedroom. We walk in, and I close the door behind us. Sebastian frees himself from me and starts spinning around in circles.
“Sebastian, you’re drunk. You need to sit.”
Scarily, his face is composed for a second as if he’s sober.
“Wh-what? I’m not drunk. Okay, yeah I may be a lil tipsy, but I’m not drunk.”
“Will you just sit, please?” I say.
He points a swaying finger at me. “Not until you say you believe me.”
“Alright. I believe you. Now will you please sit?”
He rolls his eyes. “Fine.”
Upon walking to the chair, he tells me he has a secret to tell me. That secret being that he lied about being tipsy, and that he believes he actually is drunk.
Guiding him to the chair, he still continues to speak.
“You know what Sarah told me when we were having breakfast in Seattle a couple weeks back?” he mumbles.
“What did she tell you?”
He kicks off his shoes and sits down on the chair. “She says that I like you.”
My eyes bore into him, but his attitude doesn’t change. I start to grow nervous.
Drunken words are sober thoughts.
“Yeah,” I start. “You’re drunk. Let’s get you to b—”
Sebastian then buries his head into my torso before wrapping his arms around my waist, pushing me into his face.
“Sebastian!” I laugh. “What are you doing!?”
“You smell really good,” he says into my chest. “You always smell really good.”
I pat the top of his head. “Thank you very much.”
He shrugs, not loosening his grip but instead repositioning his head so he’s more comfortable.
“But Sarah’s wrong though,” he says.
“Sarah’s wrong. I don’t like you like she says. Sorry.”
I hate to admit it, but I feel like my heart has dropped in my chest. I want to back away from him, but his hold is strong.
“Oh. You don’t?” I say to him, trying to keep my tone mellow.
“No,” he sighs. “I love you.”