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“I don’t want to talk about anything in front of her. Let me drop her off at my neighbor’s. Come on, Reese.” I took my daughter’s hand and took her over to Abigail’s apartment. I felt awful for even having to ask Abigail to watch my little girl again, but I didn’t know what else to do. I had a feeling in my gut that the conversation with my family wasn’t going to be all rainbows and roses, so I wanted to keep Reese as far away as possible from the conflict.

Of course, Abigail was more than willing to help out.

“Is everything okay?” Abigail asked, raising an eyebrow as she looked down the hallway toward Mama.

“I don’t know, honestly. But I don’t want Reese to be involved in the conversation I’m about to have with my family.”

Abigail’s eyes widened a little. “Oh my. Is that your mother?”

I nodded. “Yeah. I’ll be back as soon as I can to pick her up.”

“Of course, no rush. She and I will be just fine,” Abigail said, placing her hands on Reese’s shoulders.

“Thank you.”

“Hey, Mama. Is that really my grandma?” Reese asked. My chest tightened from the question.

I bent down and kissed her forehead. “I’ll explain everything later, baby. You just stay with Abigail until I get home.” I stamped her heart, and she stamped mine back.

I walked over to Mama, and she was grimacing, like usual. “Do you always leave your child with strangers?”

I rolled my eyes and kept walking toward the elevator. “You’re more of a stranger to me than anyone in this building is. Let’s get this over with.”

“We will drive together, to the diner on the corner,” Mama stated, taking control of the situation, like she always had. I didn’t complain or argue, because my focus was zoomed in on Sammie.

I opened the back passenger door and looked at my sister, who was fidgeting with her fingers and looking down at her lap. I sat down in the car and took in a deep breath. “Hey, Sammie.”

She turned my way with the saddest eyes I’d ever witnessed and gave me an upside-down frown. “Hey, Emery.”

She was sitting up with perfect posture, as if she’d never slouched in her life. Her sundress was smooth as ever, without a wrinkle to be found, and her hair was in perfect curls. She looked remarkable from the outside, but I saw it—her truths within her eyes.

As we walked inside and took our seats, I had a million and one questions swirling in my head to ask Sammie. I wanted to know what the plans were to get her on the up-and-up again. I wanted to know how I could help her, because I would. I’d do whatever it took to help my sister.

But then, the conversation started off in a completely different direction, throwing me for a loop.

“We want full custody of Reese,” Mama said, clasping her hands together calmly, as if she’d only asked for a glass of ice water. As if she hadn’t just said the words I’d feared most in my whole life.

“Excuse me?” Did they really just bring me to a restaurant to tell me that kind of information?

“After talking to Sammie, and going through the process of research on the subject, I think it is in the best interest of that little girl that she comes back to Randall with your sister, father, and me, and we take over raising her.”

I laughed.

I laughed out loud because what she was saying was beyond ridiculous and out of this world. What kind of request was that for her to even consider making? When I realized they weren’t laughing along with me, my chuckles turned into rage.

“You’re joking, right? This is some kind of joke?” I choked out, staring at my family members and wondering how there was any possible way that the blood that raced through my veins was the same blood that flowed in theirs.

“We think it’s best that—” Sammie started, but I cut her off.

“‘We’? What is this ‘we’ you’re speaking of? Because you can’t be talking about our parents. They abandoned you, Samantha. And if you recall correctly, you went ahead and abandoned me and Reese too. Like mother, like daughter.”

She shifted in her seat, looking down at the tiled floor of the restaurant. “That was a long time ago, Emery. We want to give Reese a shot at a family.”

“What family?” I shouted, not caring about every person who was looking my way. “These two abandoned you at your lowest point, Sammie. They turned their backs on you after something horrific occurred. These people are not your family.”

“Lower your voice, Emery Rose,” Mama hissed, becoming flustered as she patted her cheeks with a napkin. “The whole point of coming to a restaurant to talk was so you wouldn’t have an outburst. So, calm yourself.”

“No. I’m a grown woman and I can be loud if I want to, Mama. You don’t get to order me around like I’m still a child.”

“I will not put up with your outbursts in a public setting. Now, calm yourself or remove yourself.”

“I will do no such thing. Not until Sammie realizes what a mistake she’s making.”

“See, Samantha? Do you see how unstable your sister is? Having Emery raise Reese after all this time is a terrible idea. She needs to be in a more structured household, with your father and me. That little girl needs to be raised in a God-fearing household with two parental figures. We can provide more for her than Emery can. What do you think it will do to a little girl growing up without a father figure around her?”

I sat back in my chair, completely baffled. “Did it bother you that much?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Seeing me that day in the marketplace with Reese. Did it bother you so much, seeing that we were okay without you? That we didn’t have to be controlled by your unrealistic demands?”

“We’re not doing this, Emery. We came here to allow you to have an idea of what’s to come with Reese’s future. I don’t think you even deserve that privilege.”

“You know what’s funny?” I asked, shaking my head in disbelief. “How you judge us so hard when you made the same choices when you were our age.”

“You have no clue what you’re talking about, little girl.”

“I’m not a little girl anymore, Mama. I’m grown. I have my own little girl now. But how old were you when you had me?”

She tensed up. “Like I said, we are not doing this.”

“Seventeen,” I said, ignoring her as she tried to change the subject. “And if I recall, you weren’t married at that time, either.”

She shifted around in her chair and shook her head. Dad held up his controlling hand as a way of silencing me. The number of times I’d seen that hand raised in my childhood to shut me up whenever I had a comment, or a question, or even a random thought, was staggering. That hand had wielded so much power over me, for so long, that even after all these years I slightly flinched from the sight of it.

“That’s enough, Emery,” Dad said, his voice low, smoky, and controlled. “I will not have you making your mother feel guilt for past sins she’d taken part in that she’s already asked forgiveness for.”

I laughed, trying to hide my fear of the man who raised me. “Her sins? Last time I checked, it took two to tangle up together and make a baby, Dad,” I snapped. I hated him. I hated what he stood for, how he looked down on women, how he’d controlled not only Sammie and me for our whole youth, but also how he belittled Mama right in front of her face.

How was it her sins that had gotten her pregnant before marriage, but not his own? Why did Mama have to ask for forgiveness, but Dad simply had to put a ring on her finger to fix his actions? It wasn’t right.

Nothing about their story was right to me.

“You shut your little mouth, will you not?” Mama snapped, waving her napkin in my direction. “Your disrespect will not be tolerated, and your assumptions are out of line. Do not ever speak to your father in that fashion again, or so help me—”

Dad held his hand up to her.

She fell quiet.

And the abusive cycle of control continued.

What would it be like for Reese to grow up in a household like that? What would it mean for her special mind that was filled with wonder?

Her favorite superheroes were women.

Dad would quickly stomp that out of her system.

I turned to my sister, the girl who looked as if she’d been drained of her spirit completely, and I placed my hands in hers. “Sammie, you asked me to be her mother. Don’t you remember? All those years ago, you left, and you asked me to raise her. I did as you requested. Do you know what this will do to me? Do you know how much this would destroy me? How much it would uproot Reese’s life?”

Sammie wouldn’t look me in the eyes. I couldn’t help but feel as if she was under some kind of spell. All I knew was that the person in front of me looked nothing like the girl I grew up with. She looked nothing like my best friend. She was hollow inside, and my parents didn’t seem to care at all.

“Drop her hands, Samantha,” Dad ordered.

Sammie’s shaky grip in my hold released as she placed her hands into her lap. She’d always been an obedient child, never speaking back, never causing trouble, and that didn’t bode well for me in the current situation. I needed her to crack. I needed her to scream. I needed her to have my back the way I’d always had hers.

Instead, nothing.

Silence and emptiness.