The irritating and perpetual beep would not let up, but then it bore the task of waking the dead. Chantele had never slept well, but even more so now that the baby was born. She had been so tired for so long that she might not have roused at all had she not confused the high-pitched beep of the alarm for the cry of her five-month-old, Anissa. Luckily, the baby had grown accustomed to the annoying sound and didn’t so much as twitch when it went off. It was the little blessings that made life as a single mom bearable. Chantele sat bolt upright in bed, her eyes nearly crossing, and allowed her brain a moment to catch up to her body. It was still dark out, but once she focused, she could see by the streetlights that Anissa was still fast asleep. Slowly, as reality replaced her dreams, she remembered that her early morning shift was about to begin. She worked Tuesday through Friday, then again on Sunday with Saturday and Monday off. It bypassed even the overnight shift as the most unpopular at The Universe, but it’s what her new boss assigned her. After six months, though, an exceptional healthcare plan 33 kicked in and that would be a game-changer for her family of three. It was five am and Chantele realized Anissa had only woken up once in the middle of the night, an incredible blessing considering most nights Chantele could remember being up as many as three times. Even just a few extra hours of sleep would help her tremendously with energy and mental clarity. However, at the moment, she was beyond the limit of exhaustion. Chantele grabbed her clothes and the baby monitor and snuck into the bathroom of her tiny apartment. She turned on the tub faucet to give the water time to warm up; she was freezing. For some reason, the change of seasons had always been difficult for her. She put on a shower cap and tested the temperature of the water a few times. When it was just warm enough, she pulled the tiny knob that made the water shoot out of the showerhead above, then hopped in and shivered as the water warmed her. She had just grabbed her pouf when she abruptly froze, pulled the shower cap above her ear, and listened. The baby was up. Chantele began washing double-time when she heard a voice come out of the monitor, “Don’t worry mom, I got her.” It was her ten-year-old son, Dante. She breathed a sigh of 34 relief. What would she do without him? He had always been an absolute lifesaver for her. She dried off quickly; threw on her clothes, placed the shower cap back on the hook, then tiptoed back to the bedroom. She whispered, “Do we need a bottle?” Dante whispered back, “No, she’s asleep again.” Chantele had never allowed herself to take credit for the amazing son she had raised. He was, without effort, the most tenderhearted, intelligent, and mature soul she had ever met. She smiled as she watched him rocking his tiny sister in his boyish arms. She walked closer and ran her hand over the top of his hair as he smiled up at her. He loved seeing his mom looking so peaceful. Life had not been easy for them before the baby came, but they finally had a home, and everything just seemed right now. She gently took Anissa from her son’s arms and laid her gingerly back into her crib. Anissa looked so small in her little bed, and as her warm skin touched the cold sheets, she instinctively retracted into a tight little ball, like a roly-poly bug. Chantele quickly covered her with her thick, pink giraffe blanket and as momma and 35 brother held their collective breath, the baby exhaled and fell back into a deep sleep. They looked at each other and smiled, then Chantele put her index finger over her lips to signal Dante not to make a sound. Chantele took his hand; led him back to his room, tucked him into bed, and pulled his covers up around his ears. “Are you cold, baby?” He shook his head no. “Okay, well, try to get a little more sleep before Grandma gets here or I’ll never hear the end of it.” Dante smiled sympathetically; he couldn’t understand why his grandma was always so tough on his mom. As he turned and faced the wall, his eyes felt heavy. “I love you, Momma,” he whispered. She covered her mouth and cleared her throat to push back the pesky little proud momma tears. She laid her hand on top of his head and said, “I love you too, Dante. I’m stuck like glue…” “I’ll always follow you,” he finished their saying as he yawned and closed his eyes. She smiled and prayed that her son would someday have a better life than the one she’d had. He was the only light in what had otherwise been a gray and gloomy existence. Maybe she couldn’t 36 take credit for him, but she was so incredibly proud of him. She kissed his head then made her morning commute to her kitchen table. Chantele started a pot of coffee in her little kitchenette. She was up to two cups a day just to get through work, which was why she’d had to stop nursing after only two months. With so little sleep she needed the coffee to stay awake while on the clock, however, the pediatrician at the Homeless Clinic said that the caffeine might be the cause of the baby’s chronically poor sleep habits. Chantele tried going without coffee for several weeks, but when the baby still didn’t sleep, she pulled the pot back out. Though it wasn’t unheard of for a baby of five months not to sleep through the night, Chantele hadn’t expected this phase to go on for so long. She couldn’t help but envy those women who had the help of a husband. One morning Chantele fell asleep during her shift, mid phone call. It was the job of Tristin Poux, her supervisor, to monitor employee calls. When he realized that she’d fallen asleep on the job, he called immediately to tell her he’d be writing her up for the infraction. He informed her that if it ever happened 37 again, he would have zero difficulties replacing her. She took responsibility for the mistake, but she could tell he didn’t like her. She had experienced racism before, it was certainly nothing new, but it was his problem, not hers. It wasn’t her job to teach him right from wrong, not that he would have changed his ways if she tried. Needless to say, after that, she went back on coffee and the baby went on formula. Chantele had seen some terrible things – on and off the street – involving racism, but she had done her best to shield Dante from them. Though it was hard to imagine, there were many people in the world who’d lived a harder life than her. Many of those people would be sleeping out in the cold this very night, but she couldn’t dwell on it or she wouldn’t be able to function. She did everything in her power to stay positive for her kids. She sat down with her coffee, turned on the space heater, and aimed it at her feet. Her apartment was one of eight in Manor House Ministries, located in downtown Dayton. It was a converted old manor house with four apartments on the first floor and four on the second. Ramón and Olive Flores, the maintenance man and his wife, had an apartment in the basement and the attic had become an office for the staff. Manor House 38 Ministries offered housing, counseling, life guidance, and even medical help for those who had suffered from addiction and homelessness, and for Chantele, it was a godsend. In early summer, Tracey Sutherland, the director at Manor House; called Autumn Ramirez, the director of the YWCA, to let her know that a room had opened on the second floor. These two women often worked together serving underprivileged and abused women, and their children. Autumn told her that a woman and her son had recently arrived at the Y, attempting to escape an abusive relationship. When Tracey learned that the woman not only had a son but was about to give birth, she told Autumn to send them over immediately. Tracey introduced Chantele to Olive, Ramón’s wife. Olive was the registered nurse at Manor House. She would become Chantele’s birthing coach, preparing her for delivery day. Chantele really took to Olive and made every excuse to spend time with her. Ramón had been busier than usual lately and Olive was glad for the company. She took Chantele under her wing and she and Dante spent hours in the yard helping Olive with her garden, though, to be fair, Dante spent most of that 39 time on the tire swing. They quickly forged a sort of mother/daughter relationship and before they knew it, the day of Annisa’s birth arrived. Tracey Sutherland acted as a life coach for Chantele. She helped her find a job, got Dante enrolled in school, and then began Chantele’s counseling. When Chantele first began their sessions, she was a closed book, but slowly, as they continued to meet twice a month, she soon opened up. The more she confided, the more Tracey could tell that something was very wrong, and homelessness had only been a symptom. If her suspicion was correct, Chantele would have to meet with someone other than Tracey. She tried to get her an immediate appointment with a different doctor, but the soonest one wasn’t available for three more weeks and Tracey was greatly concerned. To everyone’s great shock, Olive passed away, something that could have buried Chantele, but thanks to her counseling sessions with Tracey, she was able to keep her head above water. Being a nurse, Olive had known something was wrong, but foolishly, she stuck her head in the sand, afraid to imagine Ramón left to face the world without her. By the time she went to the doctor, her breast cancer was stage four and nothing 40 could be done. Her effort at the end was courageous, but it was too late. The very thing she feared most, had come true, Ramón was alone. Though everyone was kind, Chantele couldn’t imagine Manor House without Olive. When Chantele first showed up on the front porch of Manor House she had nothing to her name, but her son and her unborn child, yet she never felt anything but acceptance. From the staff to the residents, she was warmly embraced. For the first time ever she and Dante had a home, they had security. Dante was making friends at school, something Chantele had never experienced herself. Now, even in group therapy, Chantele felt excepted, she was just one of many broken people and began to wonder if everyone in the world wasn’t broken in one way or another. There was one Manor House resident though who caused Chantele to put up her walls, a little old lady named Mrs. VanBuskirk. The first time Chantele met the woman, she dragged Chantele into her apartment on the first floor. Mrs. VanBuskirk was very good at keeping most of the rules of Manor House, save one: she couldn’t get a handle on the whole confidentiality/anonymity thing. She figured that if she 41 had to share her private story with the group, she should be free to discuss the private stories of the people in group. So, after she confided in Chantele that she was recovering from a pain pill addiction, an affliction she came by after hip surgery, she went on to share Ramón’s story. Mrs. VanBuskirk knew Chantele had not been there long enough to be privy to the fact that Ramón was a recovering alcoholic, so she assumed the onus of imparting that information. She explained that back in the day; Ramón drank like a fish, but Olive had given him an ultimatum, lose the alcohol or lose her. Since the death of his wife though it had become clear to everyone that Ramón had returned to substance abuse; only this time, he had bypassed the bottle and gone straight for the needle. She thought Chantele should know in case she was confused as to why he’d been kicked out. She explained that it broke Tracey’s heart to ask him to leave, but it was against the rules to allow him to remain while actively using. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what had happened to Ramón, she had already guessed as much. Chantele wanted so much to help him; after all, he was the husband of her only friend, but what did she have to 42 offer? She hadn’t started her job yet and didn’t have a dime to her name. Just as she had escaped homelessness, he was falling headfirst into it. He looked so lost and alone as he staggered away from the manor with nothing but a duffle bag. She knew he would be in for a rude awakening; being cold and hungry wasn’t easy and he didn’t even have the advantage of being young. Chantele had grown accustomed to the aspects of homelessness, which didn’t always mean living on the streets; sometimes it just meant living a transient lifestyle. To Chantele and Dante, having a home seemed more radical than not. Manor House Ministries’ work with addicts and the homeless was well known and respected in the community at large. They received generous donations and pledges all year through which enabled them to provide residents like Chantele with a furnished, two bed, one bath apartment, but they also found them jobs. Tracey acquired one for Chantele as a call taker for an e-commerce company based right there in Dayton. As long as she could find someone to watch her baby during working hours, she could work from home, which solved the problem of her not having a car. 43 Unfortunately, Chantele didn’t know any reliable caretakers for her kids. She had left home the night of graduation back in 2008 without so much as saying goodbye to her mother or her boyfriend; she just took off and never looked back. She and her mom, Letty had always been like oil and water, and it would be difficult for her to reach out to a woman she had not spoken to in over a decade. Even though Letty lived close to Manor House, Chantele had never gone back. Her mother had been a constant dark cloud in her life, but Chantele decided that if life had given her a second chance, maybe her mother deserved one too. Approaching her wouldn’t be easy; she would have to walk on eggshells, something she found to be very familiar. So, in the middle of July and for the first time in a decade, Chantele showed up on her mother’s doorstep, carrying a two-week-old baby with a ten-year-old in tow. Letty opened the door and without so much as a hello, she took one look at her daughter, pointed from the baby to Dante, and said, “I know you ain’t come ‘round here to dump those youngins on me.” On Tracey’s advice, Chantele had prepared herself for anything her mother might say. She had expected her 44 mom to be ugly, but she was not going to allow her comments to affect the way she felt about herself nor would she let them dictate her reactions. Chantele pressed on, putting on the biggest smile she could muster, and asked how her mom was doing. Letty curled her lip and responded with a single syllable. “Mm” was the only thing the middle-aged woman said. Chantele took a deep breath and apologized, as humbly as she could, for having left home without saying goodbye and Letty replied with the same tone she’d always reserved for her daughter, “One less egg to fry…” Chantele’s smile faded, and she asked if she and Dante might come in and sit down; the baby was tiny, but at this point, she was starting to feel heavy. Letty said it would be best if she just said what she’d come to say. She was ready to get back to her stories, and she didn’t have all day to chit-chat. Chantele looked at Dante and asked him if he’d like to go pet his grandma’s cat, who was sunning in the yard. She wanted a little distance between her mother’s mouth and her son’s ears in case her mother said something Dante couldn’t unhear. “Momma, I just came to ask you something,” she said, trying to summon her confidence. 45 “I ain’t got no money, girl, and if I did, I wouldn’t be givin’ it away.” Chantele reminded herself to let her mother’s words roll off. “No, Momma, I’m not looking for money. I got a job.” She pressed on. “The reason I came was to see if you’d be willing to watch Dante and Anissa for me while I work. I’ll be working from home, so I’d be there to help out if you needed me for anything. We’re real close by, just over at Manor House.” “I’m sho’ I ain’t heard you right,” Letty said, incensed. “It sounds like you comin’ ‘round here asking for favors when I ain’t even knew where you was all these years. Girl, when you disappeared, those cops came ‘round here pointin’ their fingers like I done somethin’ bad. You shoulda heard ‘em.” The memory of the police embarrassing her in front of her neighbors rankled her. “They was talkin’ to me like I was some kinda criminal, and in my own home too!” she said bitterly. Chantele had prepared herself for this, “I’m sorry Momma, I was just a kid back then, but I’m not here asking for favors. For real, I just thought it could be good for both of us, you know? I want to pay you to 46 watch them. That is if you feel like it wouldn’t be too much for you. I made a budget; I can manage two hundred dollars a week and, like I said, we only live a few blocks away,” she pointed up the street. “You could walk or take the bus. I know it’s not a lot of money, but maybe you could get to know your grandkids?” She just let her words hang in the air; she had nothing more to offer. Chantele didn’t know that she'd come at the right time. Letty was having trouble affording food for herself and her cat on social security. She wasn’t the looker she had once been. Men put up with all her crazy when she was young and hot, but now, coming up on sixty, no one was lining up to pay her bills. If she’d have been willing to cook and clean, she might have trapped one, but after a lifetime of letdowns she was done with men altogether. Her cat was just about the only thing she could tolerate anymore. Chantele never knew her biological father; Letty refused to speak of him. Instead, Chantele’s father figures had been a series of her mother’s boyfriends. One or two might have made Chantele a half-decent dad, but because of Letty’s violent mood swings, they’d get what they’d come for and go. Sadly, there were a 47 few who thought the fringe benefits of dating Letty meant helping themselves to her young daughter in the middle of the night. The first time Letty caught a man sneaking into Chantele’s bedroom, she threw him out, cussing, screaming, and throwing a fit, but after a while her ego got the better of her. She began to blame Chantele for their interest in her and dealt with the problem by drinking herself into an apathetic oblivion. Letty was obviously not Chantele’s first choice for a caretaker, but she had no second choice. Olive would have offered had she survived, but she was gone now. The facts were, Chantele had to have a job to live at Manor House, and she had to find childcare to have a job. She was convinced that her mother was the only thing that stood between her family and homelessness. She knew her mom lacked the maternal qualities one looks for in a nanny, but she wasn’t too worried, she would be there in the apartment with her mom the whole time. And it wasn’t like Letty was all bad, she did have a few good memories with her mom, though not one of them was outside the kitchen. Chantele used to sit on a three-legged stool and watch her mother cook while Letty told dozens of stories about life growing up in the south. 48 Her mother stood on the stoop, watching Dante out of the corner of her eye. She liked the way he was treating her cat; it was mangy and old, but it was literally the only thing on earth she cared about. She kept her arms folded, lifted her chin towards Dante and said, “Cat seem to like him.” Letty stood watching the boy and Chantele could tell she was actually considering her offer. “He mind good?” “Yeah, Momma, he’s a real good boy, even his teachers say so and the baby sleeps half the day.” She felt her hopes rising. This job would change their lives, they’d have security and a future. “More than I could say for you. You din’t never sleep,” Chantele nodded and told herself again to ignore it. She could hear Tracey encouraging her; telling her she’d be okay whether or not her mother decided to help. “I guess I’ll do it,” Letty said. “Wait here,” she went inside and came out with a people magazine and a pen. “Write down when I got to be there so I don’ forget.” Chantele smiled, gratefully, “Thank you Momma, I can’t tell you what this means to us.” She began to write on the magazine, but her mother snatched it out of her hands and hit her over the head with it. 49 “What’s wrong witchu girl!” Chantele froze and Dante looked up to see what was going on. Letty handed the magazine back to her, “Write on the back!” She pointed to a picture on the front of the magazine. “They got Wayne Brady on the cover! Din’t you see him there!” Chantele blinked twice and took a deep breath, “I’m sorry Momma, I didn’t… I didn’t see Wayne there.” Her mother folded her arms and made a disgruntled sound as Chantele wrote down the information and handed the magazine back to her. Letty said, “I’ll be there,” before slamming the door in her daughter’s face. Chantele stood staring at the paint that was chipping away from her mother’s door, trying to decide if she should view this as a win. As Dante came over and took her hand, she looked down into his eyes and decided her mother was preferable to homelessness. They walked the five blocks back to the manor and two weeks later, Chantele started her new job at The Universe. Chantele really enjoyed her on-the-job training period. For the first time in her life, she was getting positive feedback instead of criticism. Her trainer, Bekah, 50 singled her out for her skills in customer relations, critical thinking, and problem-solving. She received high marks for her understanding of policy and even technical ability, which was quite remarkable, for someone who, other than the library, hadn’t used a computer in ten years, and had never owned a cell phone. Bekah told her sincerely that she could easily see her advancing quickly at The Universe. There was so much positivity coming her way that she didn’t even know how to process it. That was until they assigned her a supervisor. His name was Tristin Poux, and he seemed to make it his mission to erase all the confidence that Bekah had instilled. He told his superiors that he took umbrage with the fact that they had hired a homeless person when there were surely more qualified candidates, more appropriate for the job. He complained to his peers that it demeaned him to work with the “untouchables” as he referred to them, and he believed it painted the company in a negative light. Truth be told, the only thing Tristin disliked more than Chantele’s former living status was the color of her skin. Not that he had said those things to Chantele in so many words. As a matter of fact, Tristin was told in no 51 uncertain terms to stifle his perspective on the itinerant community, so he did, though it was begrudgingly. Unbeknownst to management, however, he still belittled her as often as possible. Micromanagement was a great way to make people feel small. It sucked the life out of them, and this was one of Tristin’s favorite tools. The harder she tried, the more he found reasons to criticize. It was becoming increasingly difficult for Chantele to stay positive and, of course, a dangerous lack of sleep wasn’t doing much for her mental health. Somehow, she had made it all work and now, two weeks before Christmas, business was really booming. Chantele’s mom had been babysitting for about five months and that was working out as well as could be hoped for. Although one issue was especially problematic, Letty had a tendency to be late, and this morning was no different. Her mom still hadn’t arrived when her first call of the morning came in. Her earpiece beeped twice alerting her to an incoming call which always gave her enough time to get to her computer before saying, “Thank you for calling The Universe. How can I make your world a better place today?” 52 This time, however, she looked up and noticed that she’d left her bedroom door open, and the baby was still asleep. The phone had beeped once when she jumped out of her chair and ran to the bedroom door. She closed it as quietly as she could and heard it beep a second time as she dashed back to her computer. She finished her spiel before she sat back down, but in all the rush, she realized she’d forgotten to say her name. Tristin would surely deduct her ten points for that. “Hi,” the customer said. “I ordered some Christmas gifts which just arrived, but I ordered one of those scarf/hat/gloves sets for my sister, but it wasn’t included in the delivery. It said on the e-receipt that it was included in the order, but I checked twice and it’s definitely not there,” he said. Chantele had almost stopped breathing the moment he started speaking. She knew that voice, it was him, it had to be. She could barely remember a word he’d said so she let autopilot kick in. “I’m sorry sir, could you give me your name and order number?” she said, desperate to hear him speak again. She looked like she’d just seen a ghost. She fought to stay present, even though her mind kept trying to travel back in time. Why was it taking so long for him to say something! 53 “Yeah, sorry. I was looking for the order number. My name is Noah Wright.” She hit her mute button in case any of the crazy that was building up inside her decided to come out. She practically collapsed in her chair and whispered to no one, “It’s him!” Noah Wright was the young man she’d run away from the night of graduation, and he was the only man she’d ever loved. How was it even possible she was talking to him now? Had he meant to call her? Did he even know it was her? If he did, he certainly wasn’t letting on. She didn’t say another word while he continued the search for his e-receipt. Finally, when he sounded like he was about to speak, she unmuted her phone, but she was so nervous she interrupted. There was no way this phone call could be business as usual. “Noah?” she said, quietly. He was still focused on finding the receipt; but when she’d said his name, he cocked his head to the side like a dog who’d heard a whistle in the distance. “Yeah,” he said hesitantly. “That’s correct, this is Noah Wright.” Neither said a word until he couldn’t ignore that 54 something out of the ordinary was taking place. “Who is this?” he asked slowly, reminding himself of all the times he’d gotten his hopes up before, only to have them crushed when he realized the love of his life was never coming back. “Noah,” she whispered again, forgetting everything else. Neither said a word, the moment was filled with potential, and neither wanted anything to change that. Gathering her wits, Chantele realized he would demand some kind of explanation for her disappearance. She’d always known the possibility of seeing him again was real, but she’d always imagined having time to prepare. She had no excuse, nothing to offer other than the truth, and she wasn’t ready to lay that all in his lap right now. “Noah,” she swallowed hard, “this is Chantele Williams from Thurgood Marshall,” as if she needed to specify. She knew it was him, just the same, she held her breath waiting for him to speak. She had to know for sure if it was the same boy she had fallen in love with, the boy she had dreamt of for nearly a decade. “Chantele,” was all he could manage as he felt emotion welling up in his chest. With all the unanswered questions he’d had for all these years, where should he 55 even start? Since the night of graduation, he hadn’t known if she was dead or alive. Overwhelmed, she began to rock back and forth. “So, Chantele Williams, from Thurgood Marshall, where have you been all these years?” he asked, as his eyes filled with tears. The heartbeat in her chest matched the one in her temple; she felt like she could pass out at any moment and considering the total amount of sleep she’d had in the past five months, she might. “Um, I’m right here in Dayton; Noah. I never left,” she said and winced when he cussed under his breath. “I’m sorry, please don’t be mad.” “Mad? Chantele, what are you talking about! Mad? I’m… I’m losing my mind here! Where did you go, what happened to you! Do you know how hard we all looked for you? Even after the cops gave up, I kept looking, by myself! I was the only one out there, for months. I looked everywhere for you! Everywhere!” The desperation and helplessness of those months flooded his memory. “In all these years, you sayin’ you couldn’t find a way...” His voice cracked. “Why didn’t you just let me know you were alright?” He walked out onto his balcony, shivering, but not from the cold. 56 “How you gonna tell me you’re just sitting there with a job and a telephone, and you couldn’t even call?” Chantele didn’t know how to answer him; how to explain, but somehow, she noticed the time. Her mother should have been back already getting Dante out of bed and to the bus stop. She knew she couldn’t answer all of Noah’s questions now, not like this, not while she was on the clock. “Noah, I’ll tell you everything. I promise I will, but I can’t at this moment, it’s too much to unpack on the phone. Could you possibly just tell me real quick how you are?” Noah couldn’t believe she was still withholding the answers he needed, but she was calling the shots, and he would have to be okay with that if he ever hoped to see her again. “Alright Chantele, okay then. Well, uh, I’m still in Dayton too.” He sighed. “I own Wright Electric, one on Franklin and one on Jefferson. We mostly install and repair HVACs. I have twelve employees, all people of color… except Dale, but he’s cool, I guess.” Chantele smiled; she couldn’t believe Noah was a man now, and he’d already achieved his goals. He’d always talked about owning his own business, and when he 57 did, he said he was going to hire people of color. Noah’s dad was a plumber and at times he couldn’t put food on the table for Noah and his sister because sometimes white women didn’t feel safe with a black man in their home. Noah said when he was grown, the only thing he would look for in an employee was good skills and brown skin, apparently, with the exception of Dale. “It’s just like you always said, right? I knew you could do it,” she said proudly. “Thank you,” he said, genuinely touched, but he couldn’t be put off any longer. “Listen, I need you to tell me what happened. You know how I felt about you, right? I mean, I was head over heels in love with you and you just disappeared on me.” Hearing him say that he had loved her turned her knees to jelly like it was 2008 all over again. “Noah, I know I need to explain myself but, I’m at work and I’m not allowed personal calls. I’m sorry, but I really have to go.” He knew she was about to hang up, but he hadn’t told her the most important thing yet. He didn’t want her to 58 think he was hiding anything from her, and the words just came spilling out. “I’m engaged to be married.” There was nothing but silence in response, why did he suddenly feel like he’d been cheating on her? This wasn’t fair; he thought he’d never see her again, he believed she was gone forever. Never in a million years did he imagine telling her he was getting married to someone else. He could feel her slipping away; she was going to hang up and it would be like losing her all over again. Still, he waited for her to speak, but she didn’t. She didn’t know whether it was the lack of sleep or the realization that the only man she’d ever loved belonged to someone else, but waves of nausea began to flow over her. She was not someone who’d ever learned to face her problems; she was more of a runner and always had been. “I’m sorry! I’m so sorry, Noah. I have to go!” And that's all she could manage before she hung up on Noah Wright forever. She clicked ‘unavailable,’ a setting for restroom breaks, threw her earpiece on the table and got to the bathroom just in time before she threw up. Chantele heard a sound in the other room and even while tossing her cookies, she knew it was her mother 59 coming in the front door and not Dante getting out of bed. Shoot! In all the excitement, she hadn’t gotten Dante up! “Girl?” Letty knew something was up and she made a beeline straight for Chantele, always ready to kick her daughter when she was down. Her mom leaned against the doorjamb, shaking her head. She folded her arms and looked at her daughter with the same disapproving stare that she always reserved for Chantele, no matter the circumstance. “Dante’s still in bed, Momma. I meant to get him up, but…” she sat on the edge of her tub, wretched for a moment, and then shook her head. She decided she was finished throwing up. “Mm hmm,” Letty said, without hiding her contempt. “You been drinkin’,” Letty didn’t ask, she stated. “No Momma, I haven’t. I swear!” Letty had always said things just to get under her daughter’s skin, but Chantele was in no mood. “I got a baby now, Momma. I’ve got responsibilities, I wouldn’t do that! I just need some sleep, that’s all.” 60 “Mm hmm,” Letty said again, making her feel even crappier than she did before. “That boy done missed his bus by now. I guess I’ll be walkin’ him to school.” She tried to shift the blame onto Chantele, but it was Letty’s fault that Dante was late. She’d downed forty ounces of malt liquor the night before and by the time her alarm clock went off she was still laying on both the recliner and the floor. “When I get back, I’ll prolly have to feed yo’ baby too. I’m guessin’ you ain’t fed her yet?” Letty sighed when Chantele shook her head ‘no.’ The baby hadn’t asked for food yet, but Chantele didn’t have the strength to argue. Letty clicked her tongue, reducing her daughter to a self-loathing child all over again. Chantele had actually felt pretty good when she woke up this morning, but just one hour in and everything felt out of control and chaotic. She wished she could tell her mother that she’d spoken to Noah, but Letty would, no doubt, find a way to shame her for it. Letty headed off to Dante’s room and asked over her shoulder, “The boy got a lunch?” Chantele nodded. She felt the tears pricking at her eyes. “Yes ma’am, I made it last night. It’s in the fridge.” 61 “Well, at least that’s something, ain’t it!” Even her accolades were malignant. Chantele made her first cup of coffee; as soon as they left, she would begin taking calls again. A minute later Letty scooted Dante out of his room and told him to grab his stuff which consisted of his coat, hat, lunchbox, and backpack; he'd lost his gloves the week before. “And getchu one of them cereal bars, boy. You can eat it on the way.” Chantele ran into the kitchen; grabbed one from the cupboard, handed it to him, and kissed the top of his head. Dante knew his grandma was in a hurry, but he could tell something wasn’t right with his Momma. He hadn’t seen that look in her eye for a long time, kind of empty and hopeless, like she was drowning with no one to save her. He may have been an intuitive child, but he was still just a child, he could only do so much. “Grandma, I don’t feel so good,” he said, standing in the hall, looking at his mom, but Letty wasn’t having it and she pulled hard on his arm. “I think I need to stay home today,” he pleaded. “Hush boy, we got to go now!” She had no plans to care for two kids if one of them was just fine. She pulled him even harder, but he grabbed on to a 62 neighbor’s doorknob and looked back at his mom. “Momma, let me stay with you!” he cried. “Don’t worry about me, son, I’m fine,” she lied. His eyes filled with tears; he didn’t believe her. She needed him, and he knew it. ‘I’m stuck like glue…’ she said with a smile that didn’t reach her eyes, but he didn’t finish the saying; he was too busy trying to fight for her. She waved and blew him a kiss, but his grandma pulled him hard again, which forced him to let go of the knob. Finally, with no other choice, he followed her down the stairs. Chantele closed the door and tears streamed down her face. She knew her son was hurting deeply and that was on her, she hurt everyone she ever loved. She thought, if she could just crawl back into bed and close her eyes for a few hours, maybe she’d feel better, but she had to get back to work. The baby was still asleep and hopefully would remain so until Letty returned. Chantele looked down on the street from her second-story window and watched her mom and her sweet boy walk off to school together holding hands and a strange thought flitted across her mind, ‘He’d be better off without you.’ Chantele tried to ignore the 63 voice as she began taking calls again, but the negative thoughts continued to taunt her. She felt like her brain wouldn’t slow down, couldn’t keep up, wouldn’t let up. One second, she was haunted by her conversation with Noah; the next, she was tormented by the image of Dante in the hallway with her mother. Before she could complete one thought, she was on to the next; reliving memories of violence and poverty on the street while simultaneously hearing Tristin berate her, which seemed to lead her to the memories of all those men. Whenever she found herself spiraling like this in the past, she’d look for that light at the end of the tunnel, that one prospect she’d always counted on, and like a fairytale, Noah Wright was always there waiting for her. But now Prince Charming had found himself a new happy ever after and she couldn’t stop his words from playing repeatedly in her mind, ‘I’m engaged,’ he’d said. Her headset beeped in her ear and though it felt like her world was imploding, she responded like a pro, “Thank you for calling The Universe; this is Chantele. How can I make your world a better place today?” 64 “Chantele, it’s Tristin,” he visualized her quivering like a child at the sound of his voice. “We have to have a talk.” He paused for effect, imagining the gravitas those words carried. He imagined himself as Evita, addressing her people, he’d always been a man who’d dreamt of bigger stages. “It appears you took a personal call this morning and according to my stopwatch, you stayed on the line for four minutes and thirty-two seconds. Am I correct?” he asked as he micromanaged the life out of her. Chantele’s cheeks grew warm as she realized this sad excuse for a superior had heard every word of that intimate phone call, and she thanked God that she hadn’t gone into more detail when Noah pressed her about why she’d left. “Yes sir, that’s true, however, it was, um, it was just a crazy coincidence. An old school friend just happened to call in on my line. I didn’t in any way instigate the call, but I do apologize, it won’t happen again.” It surprised Chantele how well she was communicating, considering how completely unstable she felt. “Chantele,” Tristin said, reproachfully, “you haven’t been with us long,” he’d worked for the company for a year and a half. “However, you have been with us long 65 enough to know that you are neither allowed personal calls nor are you allowed to indulge in fraternization with the customers.” He paused for a moment to allow the seriousness of her infraction to sink in. “You broke both rules with one phone call.” He paused again to give her time to respond to his comment, but she didn’t. Instead, she jumped straight to the point, “Sir, are you firing me?” He loved it when they called him “sir,” it made him giddy. Unfortunately for Tristin, he had just received an email from upper management congratulating him on being the supervisor of the team member with the best stats in the entire call center, for the second time. Chantele was that team member, which put him in a very tough spot. He would look like an idiot if he fired her over this. “You know what, Chantele? I’m not going to fire you… today.” He felt like Father Christmas! Chantele exhaled, but her breath was ragged and shaky and her eyes were filled with tears. It was a rule of Manor House that you had to have an ‘upstanding job’ to live there. She didn’t realize that if The Universe fired her, Tracey would have helped her find another job. Either way, she hadn’t lost her job, and everything was going to be okay. 66 “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that, sir.” Her hands were shaking as Tristin lapped up her subjugation. “I won’t ever let anything like that happen again.” “Let’s hope not, Chantele. Because, just between you and me, I can’t always be Mr. Nice Guy. Sometimes I must be the tough guy, which I realize is no fun for anyone. Let me be brutally honest with you, though, Chantele. If you don’t get your act together, there will come a time when I can no longer protect you, capisce?” He let that hang heavy in the air and then he said brightly, “At least it won’t be today. Okay? Okay! Enough wretchedness! Back to work, girl! You got this!” Tristin felt like that last part counted as ‘daily positive feedback,’ so he checked that box off on his todo list. Chantele thanked Tristin for giving her a second chance. She knew she was selling out by not sticking up for herself, but she had very little fight left in her. This job was the key to changing her life for good, and she wouldn’t allow anything to jeopardize it. She decided that she would have to put Noah completely out of her mind for the moment and redirect her focus on her job, 67 which was going to require her mother’s presence. She stood up and looked out the window again, but still no Letty. Chantele kept her eye on the front door while she worked. Everything would be okay if Letty would just return before Anissa woke up. With it being such a small apartment, Letty spent most of her time in Chantele’s bedroom, watching her shows while the baby slept, and the baby slept a lot. As long as Letty had a recliner and a TV with a remote, she was happy. She only came out from time to time to get a bottle for Anissa or a snack for herself. Chantele wanted more than anything to be the one rocking her baby, but she had learned to be grateful for any and all help that came her way. Her earpiece beeped in her ear again and though she really needed a second to catch her breath, she couldn’t afford one more mess up, so it was right back at it with a smile on her face. “Thank you for calling The Universe, this is Chantele, how can I make your world a better place today?” “Can I give you my order number?” the woman on the other end said. 68 “Of course,” Chantele responded cordially, but had she known what was coming, she would have disconnected the call without hesitation. The customer was calling about replacing a vintage sofa she had purchased. It was manufactured forty years ago, and the odds of finding another sofa like it, in this condition, were nearly impossible. Apparently, there was a small blemish below one of the arms. A reasonable person would have grabbed some hydrogen peroxide and a rag and applied a little elbow grease, but this woman was looking for perfection and she was used to getting her way. Chantele’s every response and suggestion were textbook. She did exactly as they had trained her to do while being pleasant and helpful, but this customer was not just rude, she was mean. Chantele didn’t know if the customer was saying her name wrong purposely, mocking her ethnicity, or if the woman thought her name was inconsequential because she was inconsequential. Either way, she made Chantele feel small and worthless, which seemed to be the story of her life. By the time the woman asked to speak to her boss, Chantele’s hands were shaking. She knew if this call 69 went to Tristin, it would be the end of her career with The Universe and that was more than she could bear. She had been told she had such a bright future; she had come so far. From living helplessly on the street to providing a real home for her children, she was supporting her family and sending her son to school in a uniform, with a full belly. She had never felt like such a success in her life. Chantele’s front door swung open upon her mother’s return. She was still mad that she’d had to walk the boy to school. She went into the kitchen and warmed a bottle for Anissa. Chantele thanked her mother, but the woman refused to make eye contact. Letty walked into the bedroom and shut the door with a thud, waking Anissa. She would change and feed the baby now, and Chantele didn’t expect to see them again for several hours. The nausea she had felt earlier was coming back in waves. She took slow, deep breaths, trying to fight it off. Finally, she cracked a window even though it was below freezing outside, she had to get some fresh air. She looked in a tree and saw a white-throated sparrow and wondered, just for a moment, what it would be like to be that bird. She would fly so high no one could ever 70 hurt her again. Her earpiece beeped again, bringing her back down to earth, and her boss spoke before she could say a word. “Chantele, this is Tristin again.” She had a migraine now, and it was throbbing. “Do you know why I’m calling?” he said in a mopey voice. Chantele could barely find the strength to stand, but she walked over to the freezer and put an ice pack on her head. “No, sir, I don’t,” she answered honestly. She had already forgotten about the last call, something was wrong. “The customer you just sent me was livid. She said you failed in every aspect to help her resolve her issue. She gave you zero stars.” Tristin sounded as if someone had died. “Can you imagine? I mean, you couldn’t possibly get a worse review if you were trying!” “No sir,” she agreed. She still wasn’t sure what he was talking about, but it didn’t matter, she was running on empty. Every battle she had ever faced had left her beaten and bruised, literally, at times. She sat back down, unable to stand up for herself anymore. “If you’ll recall… let me, see. Yes, right here,” he looked closer at his screen. “On September ninth, I told 71 you I’d give you another chance after you fell asleep on the phone.” She closed her eyes. “Mm hmm,” was all she could muster. “And then just this morning you took a personal phone call on company time and this time I offered you another chance. What did you do, Chantele?” he waited for her to answer, but she had put her head down on the table. Finally, he spoke up, “You promised to make a marked improvement, did you not?” “I did,” she said into the table. “That was strike two. Then, not an hour later, a customer filed a complaint, saying, and I quote, ‘That was, bar none, the worst customer service I have ever received!’ end quote. You fell so short of our standards you didn’t even place on the rating scale. I mean, if I were you, incapable of securing even one star, I might ask myself if this was the right job for me. Anyway, that, my dear, was strike three.” Tristin wished so badly she was in his office so he could have had a drop the mic kind of moment. The possibility for dramatic effect 72 would have been so much greater had she been sitting in front of him when he dropped the bomb. Tristin’s opportunity had finally arrived. He would show his superiors that he had been correct about Chantele all along. Chantele laid the ice pack on the table and stood up to close the window, not wanting the baby to get cold. When she didn’t respond right away, he worried that he’d dropped the call, so he repeated himself, “I’m sorry Chantele, but The Universe is going to have to let you go,” he said again, feeling victorious. Never had anything sounded so completely accurate to her ears. The universe had let her go a long time ago; finally, someone said it out loud. Now that it was official, she didn’t know what she was still doing on the planet. She had begun attending church somewhat recently, but this made her question if even God remembered her name. Yesterday she worried if she would have enough money for Christmas presents when clearly, she should have been worrying about how she was going to keep her kids from freezing to death on a daily basis. Without this job, she would return to the streets, but she didn’t have to drag her kids down with her. 73 Chantele heard the voice again. It told her that her kids would be better off if she would just remove herself from the picture. She knew her mother wouldn’t take the kids in, but surely some decent couple would, maybe someone from church. She pictured them playing in a backyard with a dog. Dante would finally have a dad to play ball with, and that same Dad would one day walk Anissa down the aisle. It would be the life she had always wanted to give them but had failed to. Tristin jabbered on about paperwork and human resources, but she didn’t hear a word of it. She simply closed her laptop, took her earpiece out of her ear, and let it fall to the floor. She walked straight out the door without saying goodbye or grabbing her coat. She was the only thing keeping her children from a better life, and that had to be remedied. If the universe was done with Chantele, Chantele would return the favor.
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