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- The Finest Urban/Contemporary Fiction! -

 

 

Dare I Say No?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chrisney closed her eyes, avoiding the casket below the stage’s edge just a few feet away. Though Aunt Helen’s face was no less beautiful, she was not ready to accept that the woman who'd meant so much to so many was gone. But, even with the blackness behind her lids, as they’d done since she first heard the heartbreaking news, the tears made their way through. She acknowledged the choir director’s heart warming smile, but was unable to pull herself together.

“Take your time, Chrisney,” she encouraged “I know you can’t see it now, but it’s going to be alright. Okay,” she said, turning towards the seventy member choir, “Let’s give our sister in the Lord a little help on this evening. This is for Helen. Her physical may be down, but her spirit was always up. Let’s do this for the Courtland’s, our grieving, spiritual family. In spite of our heavy hearts, let go and to God be the glory!”

Humming in harmony, each voice rose to the rafters, stirring the capacity filled building through a series of concerted shouts of glory and praise. Moments later, Chrisney was motioned to the front of the stage. Instantly, the room quieted. The church’s baby was about to sing and no one wanted to miss a note.

 

“Child sings so beautiful makes you forget your sorrows.

“Yeah, but I don’t know if she’ll make it through the service. You can see the pain all over her face. Maybe they should’ve gotten someone else. Somebody outside the grieving family.”

“Uh, uhn. Helen wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Oh, I feel so bad for lil’ Chris. Betty, Reddi, all of them.”

“Make ya auntie proud, babygirl! You always did.”

 

Chrisney held tight to the softness of her gold and white choir gown. The custom fitted, silk and lace creation was a sight to see, but couldn’t hold a candle to the beauty she’d been bestowed. Smooth, honey brown complexion, pouting lips, and the biggest, most innocent, hazel eyes imaginable. Enchanting smile, perfectly set nose, and genuine, giving soul; she was a true gem inside and out. Face swollen from days of crying, she stood tall, determined to bring comfort to the masses.

She looked out into the sea of faces overflowing the beautiful, three years new structure that was The Temple of Divine Healing. Bishop Stanley’s congregation was an affluent bunch. Faithful in their giving and it showed in every detail; the building was immaculate. A dynamic preacher and true man of God, his congregation topped thirty-five hundred and Chrisney was certain they’d all shown up on her family’s behalf. Not one seat was empty and there was barely room to stand on the carpeted floor. The fact that they’d come out on such a dismal, rainy day made her love them all the more. Closing her eyes, she welcomed the ramblings of comfort and concern; voices from this person, or that. Anything that would take her mind off her grave and untimely loss.

 

“That is one beautiful child. Got the spirit of God all over her. Looks like a sure ‘nuff angel all dolled up.”

“That she does. I remember when she was just a little thang. All she wanted was to get in that choir. Begged Helen to make her mother let her join. Betty thought she was too young, but Helen saw the light in those eyes. Bless her lil heart, she couldn’t have been a day over five and she loved her some Helen. ‘My Aunt Helen’, she’d always say. ‘Mines’.”

“I sure miss Helen. Ain’t but a few that loyal and sweet.”

Another co-signed, then hugged the woman close. They’d been good friends of Helen for years and already missed her dearly.

 

The gentle hands of Deena Scott, Chrisney’s best friend since first grade, and their choir mate, CeCe Sparks helped her stand firm when all she wanted was to rush home to her bedroom and cry. With every movement across her shoulders, each caring stroke, her strength was renewed. So, when the music dropped and the choir’s boisterous intro was reduced to a mere, melodic hum, she opened her eyes and sang from the depths of her soul.

 

“Jeeeee~~~~~~~~sus is~~~~~~~.”

“All we believed he be and more!”

“Yeah~~~~~~~~ yesssssss~~~ He~~~ is~~~~.”

“All we believed he be and more, so much more~~~~~.”

“Le~~~~~~~ lean on him~~~ in your ti~~~mes of struggle – for He~~~ He’ll~~~~~~ sustain you! ~ Lord have mercy! He’ll~~~~~~ Main~~~~~ tain you! He~~~~~ He is~~~~”

 

“Yes, Lord! That Chrisney Courtland can sing with the best of them can’t she? Can’t she?”

The elderly woman raised her head just long enough to look over at her good friend. Like most everyone else, the melodic voice filling the church hall had taken her to that special place where pain and sorrow could never go and she was content to remain as long as possible. A short lived wish with her best friend, Mable, around. As always, both were dressed to the nines; styling head to toe and every piece of jewelry in between. Wouldn’t think to step into the upscale church wearing any less.

Sheila was fashionably conservative. But, Mable had always been one to take it to the extreme; like wearing a mink in the pouring rain, then refusing to get out of her Maybach because she didn’t want it to get wet. It was just like her to become overly preoccupied with some man she’d been accusing of stalking Chrisney since the service began. Sheila was too gloriously entranced in the singing to entertain Mable’s mess. Still, she knew she’d better say something, or she’d never hear the end of it. They’d been friends for over half a century. She knew her all too well.

“Yes, she can. The voice of an angel. Oh, here it comes. I love this part.” Spry as a teenager, she leapt to her feet. One would never know she was rounding seventy-two if she didn’t tell it so proudly. “Whew! Hit them notes, girl! Hit ‘em in the name of Jesus even on this sad day, Chrisney! We’re with you, baby. Helen’s with you. Praise the Lord!”

Mable waited until Sheila had her fill. She felt the song just as much. Hadn’t missed a note, or tone. But, her love for the Courtland’s, especially the one standing before them, soothing the hearts of so many when her own was tearing apart, went far beyond mere admiration of God’s gift. Chrisney was a good girl. A woman after God’s own heart and still a baby in Mable’s and her father, Reddi Jr.’s, watchful eyes. But, to the hordes of males who’d been hot on her tale since she was old enough to sprout one, she was fully grown, single and, therefore, available. A target, is the way Mable saw it. So did her father. Speaking of which, had Reddi seen the blatant disregard, Mable was sure he’d have spoken his mind. Instead, being the dutiful husband, he was tending to his loving wife. But, no matter. All he couldn’t see, Mable made sure she had. Yes, the song was good. Great. Exceptional as always. But so was Chrisney’s virtue and the look on that man’s face did not say anything about preserving it.

Chrisney was a virgin. A good girl from a long line of good girls on both sides. Mable was the matron over the celibacy classes. Through the years she’d led hundreds of women to the alter still in tact. Men too. Chrisney had not missed one class, one group event, nor intercessory meeting of her own, nor the other women's since she turned thirteen and was old enough to attend. She was intent on holding onto her vow and by hook, or crook, Mable would see to it that she did. Armed with the armor of God, a sharp tongue, and an unbending will, she forged a shield of hundreds of female members as well as a good measure of the men of The Temple of Divine Healing, including the Bishop himself. No matter how ridiculously gorgeous he was, that man would get no further than any who’d come before, or had the nerve to try after. Cutting her eyes at the imposing figure seated several rows away, she grit her teeth, snarling as if ready to pounce at the first sign of trouble.

 

“If you don’t stop hunching me!”

Mable had come to her feet. Most everyone had in light of Chrisney’s series of flawlessly hit, high notes, including Sheila, and that was the only way she could get her attention. “Well, look then and I won’t have to!”

Sheila took a quick glance. Then another. “Whoa!”

“Shameful, Sheila! Just shameful!”

“I’m seventy-two, Mable. Not dead. God can’t blame me for it either. He’s the one who made that man so… well… uhm… Whoa! If there’s a flaw on him anywhere, it must be in his feet.”

“Exactly! That child don’t need that kind a mess in her young life.”

Sheila looked again. This time longer. “Honey, no single woman of God needs that much man in her life, young or old. I’m farsighted and I can see all his glory way back there. Goodness, is all that even real? He’s so swole you can see the bulges through his suit and what a suit it is. You know it’s tailored.”

“Ex – xactly! Lookin’ like that and got the nerve to have money too? Skin looks softer and more tended to than any woman’s. Probably gets manicures and pedicures too. He's a flocker, Sheila. I just bet he's got hordes of knuckleheaded females flocking ‘round, doin' his every bidding. I know his kind. Trouble with a capital ‘t’, he is.”

“More like trouble in all capital letters. Sang Chrisney! Yes, Lord.”

“Praise be to God! Bring it home, babygirl!” Mable shouted as the choir chimed in. “Ain’t took his eyes off her since he came up in here.”

“And you haven’t taken your eyes off of him, nor your words. Now shush. Chrisney’s coming to my favorite part. God knows, that child can sing. No matter the occasion, sad or happy, and this one’s sad as hell. I’m trying not to burst back out crying. This isn’t only a treat, it’s a wonderful diversion and you’re making me miss it.”

“This is a funeral. He ought to be mourning. Have his head down, or something. Everybody else does, or at least did, or do from time to time. I don’t even think he’s blinked once.”

Sheila sighed heavily. The choir just finished their lead-in and Chrisney’s verse was next. She crossed her fingers, praying Mable would get the spirit at least until the song was done.

Chrisney closed her eyes. The mass of tear stained faces was more than she could bare. As her own tears fell, wetting the top of her gown, she dug deep and let the words flow.

 

“Feel~~~~~ Him in your spirit! Live~~~~~ Him in your~~ li~~~~fe – embrace the grace! the joy! the love! ee~~~~~ven in your strife~~~ - I’m hurting too~~~~ as much as you~~~~ but together~~~ together~~~ together~~~ we’ll get through~~~~ I said to~~~~~get~~~~ther~~~~ we~~~~~ we~~~~~ we~~~~~ we’ll~~~~ get through – hmmmmm yeah – hmmmm…”

 

“Praise be to God! We miss you, Helen!”

“Yes, Lord!”

“Helen, you will not be forgotten. Oh, Lord! Oh, Lord take her home, Jesus. Take her with ya Lord!”

“Helen! Helen! Glory be, God why her? Why our sweet Helen?”

 

Chrisney’s heart swelled at the sound of her aunt’s name and the love behind it. Helen may have been a lot to others, but she was everything to her. The two had been inseparable until a great job and an even greater husband moved her and their two sons away from Atlanta and up to the East Coast. It had only been six months, and even though Helen came down for her party, she missed her so much it seemed like years. She hummed along. She’d sang solo on many stages throughout her home town of Atlanta, Georgia; traveled with the church and alone. But, on this day, had it not been for the comfort of those surrounding her, she wouldn’t have made it through. Though she was a mature and accomplished twenty-four year old, she was suffering her greatest lost – one that quickly became too much.

Helen said time and again if she passed before her favorite niece, she wanted her to sing at the funeral. Homecoming, she called it, and made Chrisney promise to bring comfort and joy to all who came just as she had for her aunt each time she sang. Helen was a burst of spirit filled energy in life, the spark that kept everybody’s hopes alive and was determined to leave that legacy in death. If anyone could do her final day justice, it was Chrisney Anita Courtland. Chrisney was certain her aunt was joking, which made the reality of her passing that much harder to take.

With the strength of her friends, she was able to maintain, but she was still concerned for her mother. She’d tried to catch her eye several times, but her face had been buried safely in Reddi’s chest. Even before she entered the church doors, she was crying profusely and could barely stand. Helen was Betty’s baby sister. The only other girl in a family of six. Betty was years older, but the two had been closer than twins.

Deena and CeCe took Chrisney’s hands and the trio crooned softly as Bishop Stanley manned the podium to read from the matched, silk and lace covered program. The Bishop was a handsome, fifty-ish man, tall in stature and well kempt. And, despite the many offers from a host of not so shy women in and out of his congregation, he’d remained a widow for more than ten years. He was a man of conviction who practiced what he preached and had watched after Chrisney like a father since she came into the world. She couldn’t have loved him more. Midway his speech, he turned and offered a genuine smile. He’d promised to spend time with the family after the repast and she was looking forward to it.

 

“Amen. Amen. Thanks for that beautiful, moving piece, Chrisney.” Choking back a tear, he cleared his throat. “Let the church say, Amen.”

“Amen!”

“The Songbird. That’s what she is. One of many God fearing Courtland’s and reason why an entire congregation would come out in droves, get their fine clothing, suits and dresses and nice shoes all soaked up in this pouring rain as a show of support. The Courtland’s have been the rock of The Temple of Divine Healing for over four decades. Truth be told, had they not been the giving souls they are ‘til this very day, there may not have been a church for me to come unto. You’all mean the world to me. To us. And, you have our deepest condolences. Helen Courtland captured God’s essence and shared it with the world like it was second nature, because it was. She will be truly, truly missed.”

 

“Yes, Lord!”

“Amen!”

“Our prayers are with you, Betty!”

“Hang in there, Reddi. It’s gone be alright.”

 

Reddi hugged his wife closer. As Bishop Stanley forged ahead, he looked into his daughter’s eyes. She’d always been a thing of beauty. Perfect in every way. He remembered holding her as a baby and praying to God for her safety and grace. He didn’t give her permission to grow up. Wouldn’t have even if she’d asked. But, she hadn’t. So, as much as she relished in her all grown up freedoms, he fought against them tooth and nail. Silently, most times, but fought them just the same.

His street background was not as widely known since he’d given over his past ways for a life in Christ. Still, his position on his daughter was crystal clear. His intentions were only as good as any man with the nerve to step to her. He’d become a true man of God, but he’d always been a man of his word. What was bestowed upon Chrisney, bad, or good, would surely be returned ten fold. He ran a hand through Betty’s shoulder length hair as he thought back to his days of chasing the boys away. He’d do anything to have them back. But, the boys were no longer boys and Chrisney was far from the long legged, tomboy pulling pranks and running about the school yard with Deena, her equally mischievous, partner in crime. As the much interested, Deacon Philips so eloquently put it before Reddi advised him otherwise, she’d blossomed into an ‘athletically thick, full bosomed hottie with much junk in the trunk’. And, to her parent’s elation, she’d managed to do so with her virtues intact. None of which was by chance.

If an idle mind is the devil’s workshop, Chrisney’s was the last place he’d want to be. Her ambitious soul was forever planning, achieving, and moving onto the next challenge. She worked hard in and out of the church. Loyal as a spoiled puppy, she had more play mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, and cousins than any blessed soul could ask. Bishop Stanley’s raised voice snapped him back to the present.

 

“It’s a sad, sad time for the Courtland family. Betty’s lost her baby sister to a cancer no one knew she had. Just over a month ago, the family was on cloud nine. For those who don’t know, Chrisney was a child prodigy. Been baffling academia since she was a little bitty thang. Some say a near genius. Well, I cut out the near when she graduated at fourteen. I tell you, that lady’s on top of her game. She’s already got two bachelors and she’s a year away from her masters at what, twenty-four years old? Just turned? Like ta killed Reddi to let her go to college so young. Not his baby.” The Bishop laughed shortly. “Now who but God can bless a soul like that? Lord have mercy, can the church say Praise His Name?”

 

“Praise His name!”

“Yes, Lord! Yeeesss!”

 

“Now, why is that relevant at this saddened time in our lives? Because a great deal of that is owed to Helen Courtland. Betty and Reddi don’t play when it comes to education. They go hard. But, that Helen?” Bishop Stanley shook his head in wonder. As his heart filled, he took a moment to regroup.

 

“Tell it, Bishop Stanley!”

“Yes, Lord!”

“Make it plain.”

“Our Helen was something else, Lord! Yes, she was!”

 

“Let the church say Amen.”

“Amen.”

“Yes, Helen was truly something. As beautiful as she was brilliant. It was she who spotted the gift and helped young Chrisney hone it to perfection. It was she who talked that child’s loving parents into trusting what God had put into their seed and letting it grow. Chrisney went onto college that following year and we’re blessed to see the fruits thereof. That’s what Helen did. That’s who she was. A prophetess. A queen. A true servant of our Lord. Have mercy!

“And, her younger brothers, Jason and Bennie; those handsome soldiers for Jesus over there. One’s on his way to the NBA and the other’s only a year behind. Prayerfully, they’ll get picked up right here in the ATL ‘cuz our Hawks could use a little help.” He paused as laughter filled the room. “Both of these boys have the world in the palm of their hands. Ahead of their classes too. Yep. Graduating early. Ain’t never gave their Mama and Daddy a lick of worry. And yes, Helen had a lot to do with that too. You see, when somebody loves the way she does, gives of her very soul the way she always had, it makes an impact. So, when everybody heard she was coming down, all else took a back seat.

“The Courtland’s have always been close and what you see before you is the results of generations of their labor. All I haven’t seen, I heard from those who came before me. Those Courtland elders gave the younger generation hell for bringing any darkness into their world of light. Didn’t tolerate it. But, their love was unconditional. Yes! And, it was backed by firm teachings. And to this day, every generation after carries on the tradition of family first, family always. We’ve adapted it here. Family first! Family always! The greater good where no one thing comes before the whole. Everybody must remain concerted out of love, if not obligation.”

 

As Bishop Stanley continued, Chrisney’s mind drifted back to better times. The news of Aunt Helen making the trek down from New York had stirred her heart inside her chest. She was looking forward to the long walks, dinner dates, and shopping sprees they’d enjoyed so much. With Helen coming back, even for a visit, they could pick up where they’d left off. It would be like old times. But, that was not the case.

The choir director clapped her hands, bringing her back to the present. She’d been so deep in thought she didn’t realize the bishop had finished the eulogy and a host of others had said their piece. Following the director’s lead, she began the requested selection. Still, no matter how she fought to focus, her thoughts drifted. Nothing could erase the devastating event that led up to today.

There was more to Helen’s visit than just missing her sister and favorite niece. She hadn’t been feeling well and didn’t want to worry her husband, so Betty insisted she see her family doctor. After a wonderful breakfast and short shopping spree at Atlanta’s premier mall, the women went for what they were sure would be a routine check-up. One month later, Helen was gone. The aggressive strain of cancer swept down and stole her beautiful soul -- shortened the life she’d barely begun to live. Helen was forty.

Chrisney sought her father’s face. It was strained. Reddi Courtland, Jr.. was a strikingly handsome man; tall, chiseled features, and durably built with a countenance stronger than most. On the outside he was the attentive husband and protective father. But, deep within, he was a man in pain; a soul hurting with no time to grieve. Every ounce of strength was reserved for Betty Courtland, the love of his life, clinging to him to remain upright, and the children they shared whom he loved beyond measure. Forever the rock, he favored his daughter with a perfectly toothed smile that said everything would be okay.

 

Jason and Bennie couldn’t believe the woman who’d been like a second mother to them was gone. They fought back the tears, but the pain was too deep to hide. Jason, the taller of the two at six feet, two inches, was the spitting image of his father with sharp features, broad shoulders, and smooth, dark brown skin while Bennie, a couple inches shorter and a confessed Mama’s boy, had taken Betty’s traits of large, engaging eyes, cute dimples, and a soft brown complexion. Both were ridiculously handsome. Athletically slim with neatly cut heads of thick, wave filled hair and a flair for game that kept the girls swarming about. But today was not a day for youthful exploits. Aunt Helen was gone. Nothing else mattered.

They talked amongst themselves as they neared the casket. It was a man thing. The only way they knew to keep from breaking down.

“God sho took the wrong one this time,” Jason snapped. Filled with anger, it was hard to keep his voice down.

“You mad at God?” Bennie whispered back. “God don’t make mistakes.”

“Well he did this time, bruh. Aunt Helen was not the one.”

“God knows best, bruh. No matter how much it hurts. Or what? You saying you know better than God?”

“I’m saying Aunt Helen should still be here! That’s what I’m saying!”

When they reached the casket all conversation stopped. They remembered Helen as one of the most beautiful women alive. Even in death, that held true.

Tears streaming, Bennie broke the silence. “Man, she was so beautiful.”

“Is!” Jason argued. “Is beautiful. She’s an angel.”

“Yeah, but, God needs angels too. The world needs angels. Don’t you believe that, Jason?”

“I believe Aunt Helen was an angel. A live one who shouldda stayed that way.”

“So you questioning God?” Bennie sniffled. “Ain’t that nothing.”

Jason turned and gave his younger brother a stare. The single year between them felt like ten now that Aunt Helen was gone. “You don’t tell me what to think. Shut yo young mouth and keep crying aiight?”

Bennie swiped at his tears and stuck out his chest. “You ain’t scaring nobody.”

Jason stared until Bennie looked away. “I thought so.”

“Whatever,” Bennie pouted. “Non-believer. You goin’ straight to hell. Do not pass go. Do not collect two hunnndred…” Jason’s look stopped him from finishing. But, as soon as he turned away his facetious little brother added, “dollars!”

Any other time, Jason would have engaged his baby brother; bantered back and forth until he gave in. Today, he took a deep breath, held it, then slowly let it go. After a final stare into Helen’s face, he leaned in and kissed her cheek. Her skin was cold, unfeeling. Still he knew that wherever she was, she’d felt him just the same. He looked to the ceiling and began to cry. “Not, Aunt Helen, God. Ain’t no good reason for her to be gone. No good reason!”

Bennie reached out to his brother. The choir’s harmony touched the depths of their souls, bringing comfort as their big sister led the way. Jason turned to him and they shared a much needed hug. Shortly after, they moved along, headed for the second row behind their parents and next to Helen’s husband and their two grown, equally teary eyed sons.

  

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

Mama Courtland had her hands full trying to contain Reesie. Even before their daughter and son’s marriage, the two had been thick as thieves. Reesie was a loving and dedicated woman to her late husband of forty-seven years and equally so to her six children. Helen was the first she’d had to bury. She’d been blessed that they’d all lived good and full lives. But on that day when fate took her youngest away, she felt as if God’s entire wrath had been thrust down upon her. She wanted to be strong for Betty, her only remaining daughter, but the loss of her youngest was too much for even her broad, take on the world shoulders, to bare. Reesie was a God fearing woman. She knew He worked in mysterious ways, but her soul carried a burden so heavy, neither she, nor any of the grieving family could see the greatness at hand.

 

As Chrisney brought another verse to climax, she found the strength to face the sea of mourners. She’d watched two of the church Mothers throughout the service. The way they carried on, it was impossible not to. It seemed Mable was troubled by something and she was not about to let Sheila get a moment’s peace until she helped her figure it out. Chrisney loved them both dearly. They’d been her play mothers since she could remember. Sheila caught her eye, then waved and blew her a kiss.

“Hang in there, baby,” she said. “It’s gone be alright.”

Chrisney smiled her content, then hit a lengthy note that brought the crowd back to their feet. Spirit filled, she hopped around a bit before settling back into the song. As she did, she caught Mable hunching Sheila again. As the crowd settled, Mable pointed boldly, shaking her petite frame, thrusting her small arm, and rolling her eyes. Chrisney couldn’t help but follow her lead. Once she had, her voice went up two octaves higher than she’d intended, causing her to miss that note and the next.

He had to be the most gorgeous man imaginable. Even seated she could tell he was tall, strong, and built in ways she didn’t want to think about. And when the usher motioned for his row to stand, he confirmed her every thought. She tried to look beyond the obvious attractions, to see past his smooth, dark brown skin, ripped frame, and deeply set dimples. She took note of the sadness in his eyes and was touched by his sincerity. She’d never seen him before. Didn’t know his connection to her aunt. But, he was there just the same, sharing her loss.

Finally, she looked away, forced her eyes to see something other than the neatly corded dreadlocks hanging past his shoulders, or the thickly fingered hand that moved them back into place. She even tried to concentrate on Mable’s ramblings as she caught back up with the tempo and harmonized along with the background.

“Look at him, Shelia! Everything about him screams rebellious, bad boy in his very nature. Ain’t out to do that child no earthly good.”

“Her and nobody else.”

Mable followed Sheila’s eyes. “Lord be with ‘em. Half the women in here are fawning over it.”

“It?”

“Anythang that isn’t God’s is “It’s”. Don’t belong to one, you gotta belong to the other. Up, or down. Ain’t but two ways to go.”

Sheila was too done with that one. “Lord knows if I could wake Helen’s sleeping frame I would. Betty’s suffering a major loss, but Lil’ Chris is going to need her, Helen and a whole lot more Courtland’s to see this one through. That child’s eyes are as fixed as any other woman’s up in here”

 “It’ll be over my dead body!” she said, gritting her teeth.

“Stop it, Mable. I couldn’t stand to be without my last best friend. If there is a battle down the road, I do not see him losing. Praise be.”

Mable rolled her eyes and turned back towards the stage. She’d finally convinced Sheila that her mettling was not in vain. Now both women glared until Chrisney turned away. But, they may as well have saved their energy. The damage had been done. His eyes had sealed the deal. They were the most sincere Chrisney had ever seen. She wasn’t the only one who’d been smitten and he did not mind her knowing. In spite of the disheartening event, he smiled broadly; blushed even. What else could he do? His heart had leapt with hers as if the two had already been intertwined.

“Over it, Sheila! You hear me? Not around it. Not through it. Ohhh verrrr it! On Helen’s memory, I will fight tooth and nail! Jeeee sus!”

 

Chrisney gathered herself and brought the song home in grand fashion. The choir fed off her newfound energy and the entire church went into a spirit filled frenzy. Feet moving. Hands clapping. Some heads bowed, others looking to the sky. Most every eye that wasn’t teary, every face that was not yet wet, became so. After letting them have their fill, Bishop Stanley settled the room. The eulogy had been read. Those who wanted had said their piece. The program was complete and it was time to see Helen Courtland to her final resting place. The Bishop lifted his hands in dismissal and everyone stood, some leaving to line up for the processional, others making their way to the Courtland family to offer words of sentiment.

Betty held tight to Reddi’s strong frame. Overcome by grief, she was content to let him do the talking. Her heart fluttered and for a few seconds there was no breath. The line was growing. And with each sympathetic word the reality that Helen was truly gone sunk deeper and deeper. Soon, she could no longer see the faces, nor feel the hugs so sincerely given. There were only words, voices that reminded over and over that the very thing she loved most had been taken away and she’d never see her baby sister again. It was too much.

Head to the sky, she called out, begged God to not let one word be true. As reality gripped her worn frame, she screamed in despair, stomped her feet and flailed her arms. Her clothing was drenched with perspiration, her face and hands slick with evidence of the mounting agony. She was venting. Having her talk with God. Releasing the anger and everyone was content to let her have her way. She’d been through hell and had yet to come back. She deserved every moment.

Reddi was not convinced Betty was alright. The jerking of her body, the grimacing of her face was not anything she’d invoked. No. She was not in control. She was not going to be okay. Family members gathered around. Chrisney ran from the stage, jumping from the closest edge with Deena and CeCe right behind. She reached her mother just as the life left her eyes.

“Daddy, get her!”

Reddi was two steps ahead. He caught her flailing body before it hit the carpeted floor. “Betty! Talk to me, baby. Say something. Anything!”

 

“It’s gone be alright,” someone said.

“She just fainted, Reddi. She’ll be fine.”

“Don’t worry. She’ll come around.”

 

He was not convinced. “Someone call an ambulance! Please!”

“I did.” It was Bishop Stanley. Reddi was instantly soothed by the arm he placed across his shoulder.

“She’s, she’s not responding.”

“I called them as soon as she started up. They should be here any moment. Just hold firm, Reddi. We are not going to lose her. We can’t.”

Chrisney fell to her knees and grabbed her mother’s hand. “Mama, please. Please say something.”

Betty tossed her head from side to side, moved her lips frantically as if trying to respond to her family’s call. Her eyes rolled as she fought to focus. Still, there were no words.

“Dear, God, don’t let this be,” Reddi pleaded. “Not my wife, Lord. Not my wife!”

The doors of the church flung open. Within seconds, the paramedics cleared a path and went to work. Minutes later, sirens blaring to clear the way, the ambulance raced up Main Street with Betty tucked safely inside.

 

The choir, church leaders, and hundreds of family and friends rushed through the wall of glass doors. Helen was gone and although they still grieved, Betty was alive and they planned to keep her that way. The hospital was a few miles west of the church. Chrisney and Reddi rode in the ambulance and were on the heels of the hurried paramedics as they rushed through the emergency room doors. Chrisney did well to hold firm, but the report of a heart attack to the doctors standing by took her over the edge.

“A heart attack! No!” she screamed. “Mama! Maaaammmmaaa!”

Reddi grabbed hold of his oldest child. There was no way the doctors and nurses could keep her out of the restricted area. It took all of his strength not to break through the oversized doors. Soon, the massive entourage of family and friends poured in, filling every vacant chair and measure of floor space. The Courtland family was no small group. Both sides had taken the ‘be fruitful and multiply’ concept of the Bible quite literally. The immediate family was given precedence in the oversized waiting room, while the remaining family and friends gathered on the hospital grounds to pray.

Minutes seemed like hours as they waited to hear the news. Chrisney was a wreck and Jason and Bennie was not much better. Reddi did all he could to hold them together. Inasmuch as he was Betty’s rock, she was most certainly his; the foundation upon which he’d built his life. He’d left the streets and its sordid dealings to walk the righteous path. He was a great father, an obedient man of God, and devoted husband. Surely God would not take that all away.

“Daddy!” Chrisney pointed to the youthful doctor rushing up the hall.

“Who’s here on behalf of Betty Courtland?” he asked in a hurried tone.

Reddi and his children moved forward, followed by the rest of the Courtland clan.

“Wow!” The doctor took a step back. “That is one blessed woman. Oookay, how ‘bout we do it this way. Who’s Chrisney and, uh Reddi? And, please let it be only one of each.”

Chrisney and her father took another step.

“I’m Reddi.”

“I’m Chrisney and these are my two brothers.”

“Is my wife okay?

“Is our mother okay?”

The doctor smiled as they chimed in unison. “I’m happy to report that your mother, your wife, got to the hospital in time. She requires surgery and is being prepped as we speak, so I’ll need to get back right away. The immediate family can come upstairs to the OR waiting area, but there’s only enough space for twenty, or so. You’ll have to decide...”

Chrisney didn’t wait to see who’d go, or who’d stay. Before the doctor finished, she said, “lead the way.”

 

Reddi paced the floor until the carpet seemed to wear thin. Out of the blue he grabbed hold of his children and hugged them like he never wanted to let go. It was impossible for him to sit, but eventually, he ordered them to. Chrisney burst into tears all over again, but the boys fought their fear, did their best to be strong in their father’s presence and not cry.

“Mama’s gone be alright, right Daddy?” Bennie asked. “I mean, I know God needs angels, but he’s already taken Aunt Helen. Tell me he’s not going to take Mama too. Tell me, Daddy.” Unable to hold back, he let the tears flow.

Reddi leaned into the coolness of the wall. He’d never lied to his children and wasn’t about to start. He had no idea how bad his wife’s condition was. He couldn’t answer his youngest son. At least not in any manner that would soothe his troubled soul. So, he gave no answer at all. Instead, he wiped his face with a trembling hand, then ran it across the neat, short cut rows of waves covering his head. Bennie sniffled, then cried some more.

Jason reached over and patted his brother’s back. “It’s gone be alright, bruh. I talked to God. He ain’t taking, Mama. On my word, he is not taking Mama.”

 

Hours later, Reddi felt a strong hand on his shoulder. He lifted his face from his palms and found the head of the cardiac division.

“Mr. Courtland?”

Reddi stood and greeted his old friend. “Dr. Maitland?” he joked, using his professional title.

The two shared a brief laugh as the doctor acknowledged Chrisney and the boys. Turning back to Reddi, he said, “Man, I’m so sorry.”

“Thanks, Bob. It’s good to see you. I was worried sick.”

“This happened at a funeral, right?”

“Yeah, her baby sisters.”

“Helen? Oh my God. You’ve got my deepest sympathies. Both of you.”

“I know, bruh. I know.” Reddi sighed heavily. “This has been one trying day. But, at least now I know my wife was in the best possible hands. She’s fortunate you were here. We both are.”

Dr. Maitland blushed at the compliment. “Thanks. Betty’s going to be just fine. I don’t see any complications, or reasons for concern down the road. We’ll be watching her like a hawk over the next few days, but that’s just procedure. You know how that goes.”

“Yeah. I know.”

Chrisney watched her father closely as the doctor explained what had taken place. For the first time since they’d entered the hospital, he smiled.

 

Betty awakened to a room filled with sniffles and teary eyes. Along with her husband and children, Mama Courtland, Reesie and all four of her brothers were present. There would have been more, but the hospital had already extended the room’s visitor limit and would not allow another soul in until someone stepped out. Betty’s eyes had barely opened. No one knew she was awake. Her throat was sore, her voice strained, but she was determined to lighten the mood.

“What’s with all the crying? I’m the one who missed the rest of my baby sister’s funeral.”

Uneasy laughter filled the room followed by sighs of relief. Reddi moved to the side of the bed as the others gathered around. Reesie was at a loss for words. The thought of losing both her girls still haunted her. Mama Courtland had sat on the sofa next to her the whole time, refused to move unless it was to get something Reesie wanted. She held her in her arms, assuring her that Betty was indeed alright.

“God Almighty,” Betty said. “Of all times for something like this to happen. I’m sorry, Mama, to all of you.”

“It’s not like you planned this, baby,” Reddi assured. “It was the stress of losing Helen. The surgery was relatively minor. Bob said you’ll be fine.”

“Dr. Maitland?”

“Yeah. He spoke with you briefly in recovery, but you were so out of it.” Reddi laughed shortly.

“It’s good to hear that,” Betty said. “My husband’s laughter. I wasn’t sure I would ever again.”

Reddi kissed her forehead. “Neither was I. But, Bob says you’ll be good as new in a few weeks and better than ever in a few months. Says no permanent damage was done. Bishop Stanley called to see about you.”

“Lots of times,” Chrisney beamed. “He’ll be by later.”

Betty smiled as much as she could, then grimaced in pain. As she pressed the button to increase the morphine, Reddi dabbed her forehead with a cool towel and smoothed her hair.

“Oh, my chest feels like I was hit with a baseball bat. Hope I didn’t scare ya’ll too much. Especially you, Mama. You’ve got enough on your hands without…”

 “Betty Alicia! You hush with all that now,” Reesie ordered. “You just join me in thanking God I’m not in a matching bed beside you. Whew! This has surely been a time. But, God is a good God is He not?”

“On everyday, He is,” Reddi said.

“He is, Mama,” Betty chimed. “He most certainly is.”

“Yes, He is and you’re still here!” Reesie leapt to her feet. “He didn’t see fit to take both my baby girls away. Lord, thank you! Oh! Oh yeah! I just wanna praise His holy name even as I grieve for my poor little Helen. Thank you, Jesus.”

“Amen,” they all said. “Amen.”

Mama Courtland broke out in song and Chrisney smiled bigger than she had in a long time. She snuggled into her arms. The family locked hands and rejoiced as quietly as their newfound joy would allow. It was always something special when Mama Courtland sang.

 

It took three days for the rest of the family and friends to visit even for a brief time. Chrisney took over like a little soldier, helping the nurses ensure her mother got the rest she needed. By the fourth day, the visits turned into phone calls, more cards, and even more gifts, allowing Reddi and the kids some time with Betty alone.

“Mama, Bennie was crying like a baby,” Jason reported. “He thought you was gone die.”

Bennie threw his brother a look, but Jason laughed even harder.

“Just Bennie?” Betty asked with a laugh of her own. “I could’ve sworn everybody’s eyes were red when I finally opened mines. But, hey, who am I to say? I was under heavy medication. Maybe your eyes were red from laughing so hard, or something other than worrying ‘bout yo mama dying.”

Bennie couldn’t laugh hard enough. He loved it when his mother came to his rescue, which was often. The others joined in. It was impossible not to.

Jason grinned. “Oh, I see. Mama’s back in rare form. Got jokes and everything. But, that’s cool, I am too happy to be embarrassed.” He kissed his mother’s forehead. “I’m so glad your eyes are open, Mama. No frontin’. Death is not cool. I told God I was not having anymore of it.”

Reddi shoved Jason playfully. “Boy if you don’t get somewhere and sit down. Your mouth runs like water and I do not want to be in the puddle when the Lord strikes you down for talking so much trash.”

After sobering, Chrisney said, “Daddy, I’ll take everyone home so you and Mama can get some rest. Then again, with all those folk waiting…”

“Okay, baby. Daddy always could depend on you. I appreciate it.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” she said as the boys took turns hugging and kissing their mother. “That’s why Bentley made more styles of cars than one. I love the Azure, but that GT Coupe ain’t stopping at zero either. God willing, I’ll have another birthday in just under a year. Ya hearin me?”

Everyone broke out laughing. There was no way Reddi wouldn’t have a comeback and when those two went at it, it was something to see.

“I was thinking more like a nice watch,” Reddi said.

“I’m down with the bling, bling, Pops. What we talking, presidential Rolex, ladies style for a lady of much style?”

“Naw, I was thinking more like… uhm, secretary of state.”

Chrisney took the bait. “Secretary of state?”

“Yeah, Secretary of State, Timex.”

Jason and Bennie cracked up laughing along with the others. They’d all been spoiled rotten, but with Chrisney being the only girl and the oldest, they had no problem with her getting a little extra. Still, Reddi could come up with some of the funniest stunts and keep such a serious face knowing he was teasing her to no end. Even if she cried, he would hold firm. Unable to resist, Jason brought up the prank Reddi played before giving Chrisney the Bentley for her twenty-fourth birthday.

“Chris, remember ya twenty-fourth?” he laughed. “That watch will go great with yo hooptie.”

“Hooptie?” Mama Courtland asked. “Chrisney Anita with a hooptie? I know ya’ll tripping.”

“Naw,” Jason continued between he and Bennie’s bouts of laughter. “Daddy played the number one, funniest prank on Chris at her birthday party. Not everybody knew it ‘cuz ya’ll was in back. He pulled a few of us over to the detailing area by his custom rides and man! It went down.”

“For real, it did,” Bennie co-signed.

“Daddy hired one of the guys from the shop to dress up like an alley mechanic from our old hood. He was all greasy, wore dirty coveralls and everything. He pulls up in this straight hooptie, a two door Buick, or something; one of those boats from back in the day and tosses Chrisney the keys. She tried to play it off. I’m happy with whatever my daddy gets me,” he mocked. “That’s what she said before her birthday, right? But, when that alley mechanic told her happy birthday, then patted what was left of the hood on that raggedy piece of junk, she nearly lost it. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, Daddy took her all around the car and pointed out broken stuff he was going to have fixed and told her he’d have the car completely restored to its nineteen eighty-five look. When the thought of rolling up windows by hand, sitting on vinyl, and locking doors with a key took Chris back to the eighties, she did lose it.”

Jason paused as everyone fell out laughing.

Mama Courtland punched Reddi’s arm playfully. “You did not do that to our baby. I know you didn’t.”

“Yeah,” he laughed. “I did. Boy, did I ever.”

“Daddy’s face was so straight,” Jason continued, “you could not convince Chris he was just playing. She cried like a newborn baby and he did not make it any better. He went back to the party like that was it. Got his dance on and everything.”

Reesie gasped. “That’s just mean!”

“You think that was mean?” Bennie said. “Tell ‘em the rest Jay.”

“Okay. He let her sweat for about three hours. And, as always, our sweet Lil' Chris was prancing around trying her best to keep a happy face and make all of her guests happy when her insides were erupting with disappointment. Finally, after all that time, Daddy called the shop and had them bring out the real treasure. When that brand spankin’ new, candy apple, red on white, Bentley Azure, dream car on 22s pulled up? Man! Chris nearly choked him to death with hugs and kisses. That was surrrrely a tiiiime, wasn’t it Chris?”

Chrisney threw her brother a smirk followed by a smack to the side of his head.

“Owe!” he screeched, through another round of laughs.

“That’s for the trip down “I don’t need to be remembering lane”, bruh!”

“Ain’t that child abuse?” he said to no one in particular. “Hello? Child abuse as in ouch, your daughter’s hurting your favorite child? Mama? Daddy? Anybody?”

“Boy, if you don’t get on out that door,” Reesie teased. “I’m gone get a few in myself. Laughing like that’s funny. Shame on you and yo Daddy and Bennie too. Come to think of it, don’t I still owe you a lil’ somethin somethin?”

“Uh, nope,” Jason said, ducking and rushing out the door. “Your debts all paid up.”

Chrisney waved to her parents. “Alright, Daddy, Mama, we’re outta here.” After the others left, she added, “by the way, Pops. I seen how you been looking at Mama. Yeah, she fine as evah, but uh, she ain’t ready for ya, bruh. Doctor’s orders so uh, keep ya drawers up!”

Reddi laughed. “Keep yours up too!”

“Oh, but don’t I always? Good girl in the skizzzhouuuse! Peace now!”

Reddi and Betty laughed as their daughter left for good, closing the door behind her

 

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