Dora stared at Excellent and Excellent met her eyes with such intensity that Merry felt the hot, sticky air get heavier in the room. Dora sliced through it.
“Merry, you and Johnson gone outside and finish pickin’. Dis grown folks business.”
“Yaw betta get duh hell…”
Dora took one threatening step toward Merry and Johnson, and before she could raise her hand good, they shot out of the house, the creaky screen door slamming behind them.
Corn barely had time to step out of the way before they ran into him.
“Whoa! Whoa! Where you goin’ so fast? Yo’ momma still inside?”
Merry and Johnson didn’t stop to answer. Johnson ran straight ahead for the cotton field, just like Dora told him, but Merry, stubborn as ever, headed around the side of the house. Johnson found her eavesdropping through the open kitchen window.
“Girl, whut you doin’? Momma tol’ us…”
“Ssh, I can’t hear what dey sayin’.”
Merry could see Dora and Excellent good, because the view gave her a straight shot through to the sitting room where they were arguing, but she couldn’t really hear them. They were talking in harsh whispers as if what they were saying was too painful to speak out loud.
Excellent snatched a letter out of her purse and handed it to Dora. Dora tore the letter in two and threw it to the floor. Johnson tried to push Merry out of the way to get a better look inside.
“Whut they sayin’?”
“Stop it, boy! I can’t see!”
Merry shoved Johnson and looked back through the window. Excellent walking out. She was leaving.
Merry and Johnson ran to the front of the house. Excellent stood with her back to them, talking to Corn. Sensing her children behind her, she turned to them. The look in her mother’s eyes made Merry want to cry. It was a look of regret.
A look of goodbye. A look that Merry recognized, because Dora was looking at Excellent the same way through the screen door.
Johnson took a step toward Excellent to hug her goodbye. Merry stopped him with her arm. When their mother left them the first time, she couldn’t protect him. Today, she would.
Excellent reached into her purse, handed the bag of licorice to Corn and sorrowfully walked to the car. Johnson, standing still behind his big sister’s small arm, followed Excellent with his eyes. Merry looked back to the screen door for Dora. She was gone.
“Li’l Man and Baby Girl, yo’ Momma wanted you to have this. She’s real sorry it didn’t work out.”
Corn handed Merry the candy and stood before them a moment, looking uneasy. He was a big, bad soldier that had killed his share of Jap soldiers and been to war and back, but today, Excellent’s children made him nervous. Merry and Johnson starred at Excellent in the car.
Excellent couldn’t look at them.
“Well, now, yaw take care.”
Take care. Corn’s last two words hung in the air like a thick cloud of smoke from one of his city cigarettes as Merry and Johnson watched him and Excellent drive off.
Merry tenderly took Johnson’s quivering hand and squeezed it. No one had to tell her to take care of her baby brother. She always had.
And she always would.
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