Mama strokes my cheek with her finger before pressing the doorbell. I feel tears pooling behind my eyes, but I will them not to fall. Mama has enough to worry about right now.
“It’s only for a little while, Jaxon. I’ll be back before you know it.”
I nod and look up at the peephole in the door. If I look down at my feet, the tears will fall and my nose will start to run and Mama will know I don’t want her to leave me here.
Mama’s biting her lip and tapping her toe nervously. She presses the doorbell again, letting it ring longer this time. We both hear someone stirring--and cursing--inside the apartment. Mama laughs nervously and says, “Ma curses like a sailor sometimes, but she’s a harmless old lady. She’s fun, too--you’ll like her, Jax.”
I never even knew I had a grandmother living in Brooklyn. Mama never mentioned her before. Sometimes Mama hides things from me--or that’s what I let her believe. Mama thinks I don’t know our landlord’s trying to get rid of us. She takes down the eviction notices he pins to our front door, but I still know what’s going on. Today Mama has to go to court. I want to go with her, but Mama wants to leave me here instead.
A heavy body shuffles toward the door. Mama and I wait patiently as at least three locks are turned. The chain stays on and lets the door open just a crack. I cringe as a raspy voice asks, “What you want?”
Mama smiles sweetly and places her palm against the door. She speaks slowly and politely. “It’s just us, Ma. I called this morning and told you we were coming. Remember?”
The woman behind the door barks at Mama, “Course I remember. You called and asked if you could leave the boy with me and I said NO!”
The sweet smile on Mama’s face doesn’t budge. If anything, it hardens. Mama tries to push the door open, but the chain’s still on and my mysterious grandmother doesn’t seem ready to move out of the way.
Mama puts her other hand on the doorframe and leans in so that the woman on the other side of the door can see and hear just how desperate she is. “It’s only for a few hours. Please, Ma. You’re all he has.”
I step back and wonder if that’s really true. I’m sure Vikram would let me stay at his house for a while. His parents like me and don’t mind having me around. Mrs. Patel calls me a good influence. That’s what the grown-ups who know me always say. But this mean lady won’t even open the door and give me a chance. If she doesn’t want me around, that’s fine by me.
But it’s not okay with Mama. She’s whispering to the woman behind the door, but her smile is gone now, and there are tears shining on her cheeks. I want to hold Mama’s hand, but instead I take another step back and hold on to the straps of my book bag. Mama’s saying one word over and over again: please.
I have never seen my mother beg anyone for anything. But it doesn’t work, because the door finally closes. Mama rests her forehead against it before wiping her eyes and turning to me. “Let’s go, Jax,” she says wearily.
I sigh with relief and take Mama’s hand. Just as we start to walk down the stairs, I hear the chain slide, and the door opens once more.
“One day. Give me your word, Alicia. One day.”
Mama says, “I promise, Ma.” Then she pulls me back over to my grandmother’s apartment. The door is open, but the lights are off and I can’t see anyone inside. Mama gives me a quick hug and pushes me through the doorway. Before I can ask her when she’ll be back, Mama rushes down the stairs and is gone.
Copyright © 2018 by Zetta Elliott. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.