She gasps dramatically and holds onto the door frame for support. She leans closer and whispers, “Asher, baby? Is that you?”

“Yeah. It’s me,” I say, chuckling at her dramatics.

She blinks. Once, twice, three times.

Then she squeals and jumps up and down in excitement, her plump body jiggling with every jump. She yells, “Oh, sweet Jesus! Oh lordy lord! I prayed and prayed and prayed for you, baby.”

She jumps into my arms and smiling like an ass, I hug her tight. I missed my aunt. Pulling back a little, she places her hands on my forearms and says, “Let me get a look at you!”

She searches my body first, her hands cup my cheeks and she shakes her head and clucks, “Oh, dear me. You turned into a looker, Ashy.”

I open my mouth to speak, but Aunt Faith turns on her heel and walks back into the house. She shouts, “Follow me, honey.” So I do. I open my mouth to speak a second time but she cuts me off again with a shout to another room, “Jeffrey, get off your ass! We’ve got company!”

Holy shit. Jeffrey’s still alive?

Jeffrey putters in saying, “What’s with all the squealin’ woman? I can’t hear what the hell’s going on on Wheel of Fortune.”

Aunt Faith puts a hand on her fleshy hip and responds, “What the hell do you need to hear when you watch Wheel of Fortune? It’s all right there on the screen, Jeff!”

Uncle Jeff scowls at her and says, “I’m missin’ all the one-liners. Wheel of Fortune ain’t funny if you miss the one-liners. Oh shit, woman. Askin’ you to be quiet is like asking the cat to take a dump on the toilet.” He turns to me with a smirk. “Ain’t gonna happen.”

I chuckle and watch as his brow furrows. He stares at me long and hard before a small smile breaks out on his face. He whispers, “I don’t believe it. Is that my little man Asher?”

Smiling so hard my cheeks are starting to hurt, I nod. Uncle Jeff comes forward and wraps me up in a bear hug. I don’t do hugging all that much, but if I’d let anyone hug me, I’d let Jeff or Faith.

Jeffrey is a large African American man who fell in love with my aunt Faith when they were in college. I’ve never met a more perfect couple in my life. Faith is my mom’s sister and the complete opposite of what my mom is.

Mom is tall, Faith is short. Mom is graceful, Faith is not. Mom cares about appearances, Faith…not so much. Mom is quiet and Faith is louder than an air horn. Faith is happy…mom is not. Mom told Faith she was making a mistake by marrying a ‘colored’ man, Faith told her to stick it.

Jeffrey taught me how to throw a football. He taught me how to swing a bat and pitch too. Jeffrey was everything my dad should’ve been and I loved spending summers with them. They never had kids of their own, but they fostered two or three needy kids at a time. They had a lot of love to give and would give it freely to whoever needed it. Faith did a lot of charity work with special needs children and Jeffrey used to coach a baseball team for paraplegic kids.

They are, for lack of a better word, exceptional.

Jeff finally lets me go and clears his throat. He says quietly, “How you doing, Ash?”

Sitting at the table, the same table I sat at as a kid, it all pours out, “If you’d asked me that yesterday, Uncle Jeff, I’d have told you I was doing pretty shitty. But today, I’m better. I’m doing better than I’ve ever been.”

Aunt Faith’s face softens. She raises her brows as she smiles, “You got yourself a girl, baby?”

My face falls. I tell her, “I don’t know. I hope I do. I fucked up.”

Uncle Jeff booms, “Oh hell! Never thought I’d see the day!” He turns to Faith and says, “The boy’s in love, Faithy. Seen that look many, many times before.” He smiles at me and recalls, “I remember this young man told me one day a long time ago that girls were yucky and that he’d never take a wife because he didn’t want to catch cooties.”

My head falls back and I burst into laughter. I really did say that. Faith and Jeff laugh with me.

Suddenly, I’m sad. My chest hurts. I tell them both, “You guys were the only good thing in my life, and I’m sorry I never came to see you after I left. You- you helped me a lot and I guess- I guess I just wanted to say thank you.”

Faith bursts into loud and noisy sobs, and for some reason it makes me want to burst into laughter.

Aunt Faith…she’s somethin’ else.

Jeff looks over at me and rolls his eyes. I grin at him. He knows how she is.

What Faith sputters through tears makes us both sober: “If I’d known- If I’d known, baby. I would’ve taken you away from that place. Never taken you back. You’d have been safe here, Ash. I would’ve protected you with my life.”

She says this with such conviction that I don’t doubt her, not even for a second.

Her face remains devastated when she asks quietly, “So all the sports injuries you had? They were really-”

Cutting her off, I reply, “Yes, ma’am. Never played sports all that much. Dad was a serious case of fucked up.” Turning to Jeff, I say, “You remember how he liked to drink, right? I can’t really remember a time he was sober.”

We sit in thoughtful silence for a while before I decide to get to the point of my being here.

I ask, “Do you know where mom is? I don’t want to call her. I don’t actually want to speak to her, but she has something I want.”

Jeff and Faith look at each other in a way that makes me narrow my eyes. Jeff says quietly, “Well, you see, son, Grace lives here…with us.”

My back straightens and I look around. I see photos of her on the wall and wonder why it never clicked.

I ask quietly, “Is she here?”

Faith looks confused for a moment before saying, “Honey, I thought that was why you were here. She went to see you today.”

My brow furrows.

Why the hell would she come to see me? She’d know I wouldn’t want to see her.

Just as I open my mouth to ask, the front door opens and from down the hall, a familiar voice yells out teasingly, “It’s just me. Don’t shoot, Jeff!”

She walks into the kitchen with a small smile and says, “Why so glum, chum?” Then she spots me.

Her body stiffens, her hands fly to her mouth and her bag drops on the ground, its contents spilling everywhere. I take this moment of silence to get a look at her.

She looks like my mom used to. Happier with bright eyes. I guess she should be happier with my dad gone.

I stand slowly and, knowing it would hurt her, say in a way of greeting, “Grace.”

Direct hit.

Her eyes close tightly, her face pained. I suddenly wonder why I feel like a piece of shit.

Faith clears her throat and says, “C’mon, Jeff. We’ll give you two some time alone.” They both stand. Faith quickly picks up the contents of mom’s bag, placing it on the counter. They both walk out, leaving me and my mother alone for the first time in twenty years.

Coming to terms with the fact that her son stands only feet away from her, her face softens and a small smile appears on her face.

She looks really pretty. I missed that.

She tells me, “I just went to see you, but you weren’t in.” She shakes her head, smiles and rambles, “Well, of course you weren’t in. You’re here! Which is strange as heck. And I know you don’t want to hear it, but I’m your mom and I’m going to tell you anyways… You grew to be a handsome man, baby.”

I can’t stop myself from staring at her.

She’s a different woman to the one I knew twenty years ago. To the woman I hated.

Who is this woman?

She claps her hands together, goes through the fridge and says over her shoulder, “I missed lunch so our options are turkey on rye or…” she looks closer before nodding, “turkey on rye, it is.”

I still haven’t said a word, but she goes about making our sandwiches and talking jibber jabber. She chuckles, “So, like I said, went to your place today and you weren’t there.” She turns to look at me and says, “Ashy, it’s not a great neighborhood, baby. Are you sure it’s safe there?”

Stunned into silence, I can only nod.

I feel like I’m ten again.

She puts the cheese on the bread first then the mayo then the turkey and cuts off the crusts, just how I used to ask for it. By the way she moves around the kitchen, she hasn’t even noticed. She utters, “I guess I should ask what brings you here today, but we can talk about that over lunch.”

She brings me my sandwich on a plate along with a glass of sweet tea then brings hers over too and sits. She takes a bite of her sandwich and watches me closely. Suddenly feeling awkward, I take a bite of my sandwich and her face erupts into a beautiful smile.

Unable to fight myself any longer, I say quietly, “You can’t pretend it never happened, mom.”

Her face falls a little but not into sadness, into something serious. She tells me, “Asher, I spent twenty years with that man, fearing for my life and yours. I was a different person back then. Did you know that your father threatened me? He told me if I went to the police that he would kill you.” Her face falls further as she whispers, “And I had no doubt he would, baby.”

Clearing her throat, she speaks a little stronger when she says, “I told myself that if I had you beaten but alive, I was winning. I know I wasn’t there for you, Ash. I wish I could go back and do what you had the strength to do. If I could, I would’ve been the one to end it. But after you’d gone, I felt like I was getting only what I deserved, so I didn’t fight him.”

I shove half the sandwich in my mouth to stop myself from speaking a little while longer.

Fuck this, get to the point.

After I swallow, I tell her, “I want Gram’s ring.”

She blinks at me wide-eyed for a moment before standing and walking away. Not a minute later she comes back with the blue velvet ring box. She places it on the table in front of me, opens it and says, “Asher, this was yours from the day you were born, baby. No need to ask for what’s yours. That’s why I’ve been calling. I came to bring this to you today. This and something else. Something I’m sure you won’t want, but I have to give it to you.”

I don’t ask her what she wants to give me so she takes this as permission to continue. She says, “When Robert… When he died, I didn’t realize just how much he had his life insurance payment set to. After his death was ruled self-defense, I got that inheritance and put it in a bank account. You were still underage, Asher, so I had them put it under your name. It’s been sitting there for almost twenty years and I don’t want the burden anymore. I can’t touch the money anymore. You’re an adult now, and I can’t access it, so you need to make a decision about what you want to do with it, baby.”

I scowl down at the table.

I can’t believe this shit.

I sneer, “You’re seriously fucking throwing this on me now? Seriously, Ma? I don’t fucking believe this shit.”

She swallows visibly before saying a strained, “Think of what this money could do for you. This money was always going to be yours whether you wanted it or not. If you don’t want it, give it away. Think of what a domestic violence charity could do with this money, baby. There are people out there who need help… just like we needed and never got.”

I can hate on her for the rest of my life and blame her for what happened, but I know how my father was. If he said he’d kill me, I wouldn’t put it past him.

She puts the account details in front of me with shaking hands and I freeze. I stare and stare and stare at the figure before chuckling. My chuckles turn into full-blown laughter and I see mom crack a smile. I look up at her and ask, “This shit for real, Ma?”

A seven figure number sits in front of me and all I can do is laugh. I had nothing growing up. You’d think I’d be grateful for this now, but I’m not. I hate this money more than I hate my father. It’s as if I’m being compensated for the years of torture I endured.

No money can fix me.

I tell my mom, “I’m seven shades of fucked up and this is what I get? I’m a simple guy, Mom. I don’t even own a TV. I live within my means. I don’t need this.”

Her eyes gleam and she asks, “What about your pretty redhead? Could she use some of this?”

My head snaps up and she smiles sadly. “Met your lady today. She ripped me to shreds. Tore into me. Said I had no right to see you and that I was to never come back there.” Mom stares at me and says finally, “Ever.”

I can’t help the grin that spreads across my face.

Nat tearing my mom a new asshole…I’d pay to see that shit. I can only imagine what she said.

She chuckles and says quietly, “She really loves you, Ash. I’m so happy that you found someone who’d go head-to-head with anyone to keep you safe and protected. Because she would. She’s a little ball of fire, that one. I like her.”

My little ball of fire.

She really is.

Maybe mom’s right. Maybe this money could help Nat somehow. I might hold onto it a while longer before I make any final decisions.

I stand, taking the ring case and placing it in my pocket. I fold up the account information and pocket that, too. Unsure where to go from here, I say, “I gotta get back home. I didn’t leave under the best circumstances.”

Mom takes two steps closer to me and takes my hand in hers. She says confidently, “She’ll forgive you, baby. She loves you. Said that she was your family now. So go home to your…”

Her eyes widen in question. I answer, “Nat. My Nat.”

Smiling, she whispers, “You get home to your Nat and make it better.”

She looks up at me uncertainly before wrapping her arms around my waist and squeezing me tight. I’m not sure I want to hug her but put an arm around her shoulders anyways. She says into my chest, “Flowers help.”

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