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Rated: 18+ · Chapter · Drama · #1133628
Monique's troubles have only just begun.
Chapter Four~0~

Monique walked up a pair of wooden steps and reached for the double bars to the entrance of the Café. However, before she put her hands to the glass, the door swung in. On the other side of the threshold a stranger cleared the way for her to pass. Meekly she smiled, thanking him for his courteousness as she wandered inside. ~1~

She stopped at the reception area to survey the room. Slowly she uncrossed arms and dropped them to her sides, closing both hands into a tightening fist. The crowded atmosphere made it difficult for her to find her boys Jamal and AJ. It did not help her find her boyfriend Darrell either, even though he was fairly taller than the majority of people who walked in. His dark, bald head tended to shine like a beacon in this crowd.~2~

She picked up her feet and moved toward the cash register. As she came closer, she realized no one was manning the station at all. The employees, each one dressed in red and black, had fluttered back and forth behind the counter. But none had paused long enough to assist the elderly couple standing there. The pair, seemingly unflustered by the inattention, had been waiting around since the moment she had walked in.~3~

Where in God’s name is Darrell? Monique thought as she concentrated on the vacancy behind the register. Darrell had a duty to take care of the money from both in-house and take-out customers. That had been so for almost a year, from five to closing. Most of the time when she had stopped by, he could be found standing at his post, except for when he had to make a quick dash to the kitchen. But for some reason, he had left the old man and woman hanging with his prolonged absence. Monique could only hope that he was not chasing after Jamal and AJ. As sweet as her boys could be, they were definitely no choirboys.~4~

Another waiter came by the counter to drop off a customer’s boxed dinner under the register. Monique stayed back, waiting to see if he would assist the old couple waiting patiently beside her. But when he started to leave, she rushed over to the counter. Hooking her hand about his arm, she stopped him in his tracks.~5~

“Brian, wait!” She leaned against the counter, bringing herself down a few inches to meet his gaze straight on. “Hey, you hadn’t seen Darrell or two little black boys looking like me, have you?” she asked.~6~

The man shook his head. “Sorry, Monique. Been tool busy to notice, actually.”~7~

“Hmm. Then could you ask around? I’d much appreciate that if you would.” ~8~

When he nodded, she thanked him and let the gentleman return to his business. Meanwhile, she stewed in her own bewilderment over the whereabouts of her boys, Darrell included.~9~

She slowly moved around the room. Taking care to stay along the perimeter of the dining area, she again peered out into the crowd for her family, this time with more diligence. In the process, she caught some stares from the diners, and for a second she became conscious over the way she must have looked. Although most did not wear their best to dine here, they at least appeared neatly dressed in their casuals. She, on the other hand, was still wearing her work clothes that resembled a set of pajamas. She started to wish she had at least carried a light sweater to drape around her shoulders. That way, she could have hidden the several grease stains that had set in as splotches on her top.~10~

It did not take long before a pair of black boys walked into view. A sigh of relief came to Monique when they picked up their pace and skipped towards her. She extended her long arms to receive them. Jamal, her seven-year old, took hold of her left hand, while AJ, who was two years younger and half a head shorter than Jamal, grabbed at her right hip. Almost instantly they began to poke at each other, giggling loudly as they dodged each other, using their mother as a shield.~11~

“Jamal, AJ, where you two been?” Monique asked, not as much in irritation as in curiosity. “I been waiting here five minutes for you.”~12~

Jamal briefly looked up at Monique and said mockingly, “Bathroom. We had to pee.” He started to say something else, but AJ slapped him against the ribs, causing Jamal to squeal and shove his little brother backwards.~13~

Monique pushed the two apart. She then shot them a warning glance. “Y’all two better knock it off, or both of you’s going straight to bed when we get home,” she hissed.~14~

“But Mamma, it’s Spider-Man Night,” AJ whined.~15~

“Then quit poking if you want that Spider-Man on TV.” ~16~

Monique shut her eyes tightly for a second and grumbled under her breath. When she finally blinked, she caught the amused stares of another middle-aged couple pointed her way.~17~

Monique did not like sending her two boys to work with Darrell, and oftentimes she did not have to. Her eldest Mercedes usually kept watch of them after school. But today, Mercedes was stuck in bed with a migraine, so leaving Jamal and AJ at home with her was not an option. And since she had to work during the day, that left Darrell in charge, who, in her opinion, had the more favorable situation of the two of them at the time. All he had to do was stand in one place and watch the boys while he worked.~18~

Darrell was not all that bad with their boys. He had often proved himself to be a capable sitter, playful yet stern when his demands were ignored. But in light of serious distractions, he tended to get lax with the supervision. Unfortunately, the Café presented him with plenty enough things to do, so Monique often worried about her boys. Would Jamal and AJ behave themselves and sit tight with Darrell at the register, or would they slink off when he was not looking and cause a scene like they had last December, when one of them accidentally kicked a waitress so hard in the knee that she spilled her drinks on the floor and a customer’s legs?~19~

Monique glanced down at her boys. At that moment, she noticed AJ scratching his right arm vigorously from hand to elbow. He gave a little growl as he went on to claw at his right leg just below his shorts. He quickly followed up those actions with stomping a couple times on the ground. He looked like a pogo stick.~20~

“AJ, don’t you scratch. That’ll make it worse,” she said.~21~

“But Mamma, it itches everywhere!” the little boy replied as he fidgeted.~22~

Monique bent over for a closer look at AJ’s arm. Initially, she thought she would find several large bumps to indicate mosquito bites. But she discovered his skin dotted with little pimples here and there amidst raised scratch marks where the skin had been broken. She found similar sights on his other arm and legs, albeit in a milder form.~23~

She focused on Jamal. “And Darrell been watching you two carefully?” she asked.~24~

“Yes’m,” Jamal replied, though he shrugged his shoulders when he did so. “He and Miss Wendy took turns.”~25~

Monique flinched. “Miss Wendy?” That name did not sound familiar.~26~

AJ started to say something, but Jamal answered before the younger boy could get a word out of his mouth. “She’s cool. Nice lady.”~27~

Monique let out a faint “humph” but otherwise stood stoic. “What’d y’all get for dinner anyway?” she continued, aiming to concentrate on AJ’s condition instead.~28~

“Catfish nuggets and French fries and Chocolate Heaven cake,” Jamal answered.~29~

“Chocolate Heaven cake? They leave off the coconut flakes that come with it? ‘Cause you know AJ can’t eat those.”~30~

Neither boy said anything. Jamal simply stared off into space. AJ started to scratch again.~31~

She squatted down next to AJ and pressed her fingers to his cheeks. “Well, you don’t feel hot,” she said. “And you sure don’t act sick. But we gotta get you home and take care of those itches. You breathing all right?” ~32~

“Of course he is, Mamma,” Jamal said. “He ain’t turned blue in the face yet.”~33~

Monique disregarded Jamal’s sly remark and was relieved to know that AJ’s breathing was fine. Luckily, the last few times he had developed hives, his health had not gotten worse. This was reason enough for her to hope he might be okay. Still, she would have to watch him carefully for the next hour or so just to make sure nothing else happened.~34~

Afterwards, she straightened out AJ’s sleeves. Along the edge of one of his white shirt cuffs she noticed a point of red. The boy had scraped off a tack-sized patch of skin underneath the sleeve. The cut itself was still oozing.~35~

Blocking AJ’s hand from doing any more damage the best she could, Monique nudged her boys out the checkout area. “Come on, we’re cleaning you up,” she said before herding them toward the restrooms. ~36~

When the three of them returned from the bathroom, they saw Mr. Willey heading toward the checkout counter. He was wearing his gray hat, something Monique did not see him do very often. He also held a long, red and white-striped umbrella in his right hand. Monique watched him tap it along the ground in front of him like it was a walking stick or cane. He appeared ready to head out for the night.~37~

With her children’s little hands firmly in her grip, she shuffled towards Mr. Willey. She called out to him and got his attention, although it had taken her three tries before he had finally acknowledged her.~38~

A slightly surprised Mr. Willey turned around and flashed a grin at Monique. “Well hello there, Ms. Thompkins,” he greeted her. “Thought I’d be seeing you sometime tonight.”~39~

Monique returned a smile. “I just thought I’d get these boys off everyone’s hands.”~40~

Mr. Willey peered down and found the boys standing pat on either side of their mother. He started to chuckle. “They weren’t a bother at all. Over all this racket, they barely made a peep.” He then stepped behind the counter and waved at the old couple from earlier, who waved back at him.~41~

Monique eyed the old pair. Although they appeared content, she still felt the need to say something. “Those folks have been standing here a while, Mr. Willey,” Monique whispered loudly yet discreetly enough to not be heard beyond themselves. “I feel bad Darrell ain’t taking care of them.”~42~

“Oh, not to worry. They’re only here for me, and the food.” Mr. Willey then bent down, easing himself into position with the help of his umbrella before coming back up with a brown bag in his hand. His face crinkled a little as he straightened himself up again.~43~

Monique understood that Mr. Willey could drag out a conversation. He had a way of drawing his listeners into his world with his stories. But there was no time for chitchat, not now. She had to act quickly and get to the point for the sake of her children. ~44~

“Listen, Mr. Willey,” she started, “I was looking for Darrell. Have you seen him?”~45~

“Mr. Daveys? I’d seen him around, though I don’t reckon I know where he’d run off to at the moment. You want me to fetch him?”~46~

Monique hesitated a moment before finally shaking her head gently. “No…no. I really should get going.” She prepared herself to turn away. “But please, if you do see him, tell him I’m taking the kids home.”~47~

Mr. Willey nodded at her. “Will do, ma’am. Ya’ll take care.”~48~

Monique, along with Jamal and AJ, bid Mr. Willey a good night as well before stepping out into the hot evening.~49~

The lights from the sign above the Café flickered white and red as the three of them wandered through the parking lot. Even though the slowly clearing sky remained tinted with the last traces of sunlight, the uneven pavement beneath their feet had grown blacker. Being in the shade had in fact made it difficult for Monique to immediately spot her car. A deep indigo on a bright day, the car now blended in with the other dark vehicles sitting around. ~50~

Monique eventually found her car parked in second row of the lot. Once she had gotten her door open, she crawled inside and proceeded to unlock the back doors for Jamal and AJ. When she returned to the driver’s seat, she checked to make sure that the two boys were strapped in. Then, as soon as everyone was settled, she hurried through her set of keys to find the right one. ~51~

Quickly, she cranked the ignition. The car kicked then purred from under them, barely topping the noise of the radio talk pouring out of the front speakers. But as she tried to shift the car in reverse, the engine suddenly sputtered. Before everyone knew it, they started to roll backwards, then came to a jarring stop. Placing the gear in park once again, she tried to restart the motor. But her efforts were useless. By then, the car had refused to even put up a fight. ~52~

Nervously, she looked at the dashboard systems panel to see what was going on. At first, all sorts of symbols lit up in red. Most of them were a riddle to her. But one by one, they vanished into blackness. In the end, only the battery sign glowed, flashing the word “low” beneath it. She hoped it was a mistake.~53~

After a few more failed attempts at starting the car, she finally stopped trying. She cursed inaudibly as she pulled the lever to her hood before moving out to the front of the vehicle. Propping up the hood, she looked down into the gray mess of boxes, tubes and wires underneath. She had no idea where to begin. All she knew was where the battery box sat and that this was not a task that she could manage on her own.~54~

Willing herself to stay calm, Monique went back into the car and rolled down her window. She stopped to observe, unconsciously taking in her surroundings while she considered what to do next. Periodically, she felt a breeze of cooler air fan the inside of the car. Nevertheless, Jamal griped about how hot and smelly the air was. AJ continued to whine about being itchy. The sound of traffic zipping along Beach Boulevard served only to add to the voices of discontent. Monique could hear a few cars sounding off their horns from a couple blocks away where the casinos were.~55~

Despite battery problems, the car radio continued to ramble on in the background. Though her concentration waxed and waned at times, Monique realized she was listening to a radio news brief. She caught bits and pieces of a report murmuring something about the latest hurricane’s path of destruction through South Florida earlier that day. Only when some interviewees spoke of the storm being the worst Category One of their lives did Monique start to feel her head throb.~56~

She shut her eyes and shielded them beneath a hand. She pushed her fingertips into her face, tracing the creases under her brows with firm pressure until she saw stars. In her slow retreat into herself, her mind began to race with several thoughts at once. First, it was Mercedes, then it was the necklace. Afterwards came AJ’s breakout and then the situation with the car. What had started as a promising day for her had disintegrated into a string of bad luck. And a part of her wanted to blame Darrell for that. She believed he had his reasons for being away, but the fact that she could not find him when she needed him ate at her. ~57~

Finally, Monique realized that the sky had darkened another shade since leaving the Café. Without wasting any more time, she rolled up her window and twisted the key to the off position, cutting the radio to silence. Then, speaking over her shoulder, she told her boys to unbuckle their seatbelts and come with her. She figured the last thing they needed was to be out in the dark waiting for something worse to happen to them.~58~

As she got out of the car, she saw a man and a boy walking alongside the row ahead of her. They continued moving in her direction until they stopped a couple of spots away. She turned to help Jamal and AJ out of their seats. But before they had a chance to head back toward the Café, the man stepped forward and spoke to them.~59~

“I see your hood is up. Is there anything I can do?” he asked them.~60~

Monique nodded, noting the man’s preppy attire. “My battery’s gone dead, I’m afraid.”~61~

While the boy stayed behind clutching a package to his side, the man moved towards Monique until he could get a good view under the hood. After a while, he asked Monique for a flashlight. ~62~

When she had retrieved one from her trunk, he instructed her to shine the light down on the tangle of parts. In a glance, his almond-shaped eyes narrowed. ~63~

“It’s no wonder your car won’t run. The battery has corroded,” he said, pointing to the layer of green sludge that had collected at the base of the battery’s knobs.~64~

Monique stared at him blankly. “Can’t it be fixed?”~65~

The man ran a hand through his dark hair as he continued looking down at the car. “Well, when a battery is corroded like this, you should have it replaced. But for now, I can jumpstart it so you can take your car home.”~66~

Monique followed the stranger with her eyes as he went to go get a set of jumper cables from his car. She noticed that he had spoken with a slight accent she could not quite place – something four-fifths American, one-fifth foreign. But even if he had not said anything, she could have told that he was not like anyone else she knew around here. He carried himself very well on his nearly six-foot frame. From his manners, it was clear he had been brought up right.~67~

Upon his return, she found some words to express her gratitude. “You are a godsend,” she said, briefly watching the clamps latch onto the battery. “I can’t thank you enough for your help, Mister….” She realized she did not know his name.~68~

He grinned. “Mr. You,” he answered. “Jack.”~69~

Monique unwittingly bowed her head and stated her name in return. Although it was not in her nature to blurt out such information to just anyone, she figured it was the least she could do for someone kind enough to help.~70~

Once Jack had finished setting up on Monique’s end, he walked back to his car and slid into his front seat. Following his lead, Monique did the same. Together they sat around as Jack’s engine droned in the darkness. Monique gripped her steering wheel, waiting for her cue to crank and for her fortune to turn.~71~
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