Variable Chapter 4

Tara pulled into the parking space at Johnson’s Grocery and jumped out of her car, tossing her keys in her handbag and slamming the door. She had to hurry if she wanted to get home in time for the latest episode of Game Plan.

That’s when she saw him—Jay-Jay across the street with his mom—and smiled instinctively. “Jay-Jay!” She yelled, waving.

Jay-Jay’s mom turned, saw Tara, and smiled. “Look, Jay-Jay,” she said, pointing toward Tara.

*****

Tara braced herself, squeezing her eyes shut and clasping the creaky, wooden chair until her knuckles blanched. The stillness of the corridor compounded the endless roar of cars whizzing past. And then she heard it from a distance—that familiar shriek of delight. And no matter how hard she tried not to see, tried not to feel, the scene was forever etched in her memory.

*****

Jay-Jay didn’t want to look, but then he saw her, and his face brightened into one of his adorable smiles. He let go of his mother’s hand and broke into a run, headed toward Tara.

Tara’s smile faded quickly. “No, Jay-Jay. Stay over there! Go back to your mom!”

But it was too late. Tara watched helplessly as Jay-Jay’s little feet bounded over the curb and into the street. His mom was right behind him, scooping him up quickly, but not before the speeding pick-up truck . . .

Cars stopped everywhere. Sirens sounded. The police came. Then the ambulance. But the man kneeling in the street only shook his head. And slowly, silently, the EMTs loaded the ambulance and drove away. The police left. The cars sputtered back to life and moved on. The streets were busy again.

Tara made it home in record time—going 95 mph. She didn’t notice the flashing blue lights in her rear-view mirror. She didn’t bother to park her car. She jumped out, bounded up the three flights of steps to her apartment, burst through the door, and scrambled for her bedroom. She flung boxes from beneath the paisley bedspread until she found the one she was looking for.

Tara ripped the box open, and pulled the back pack-like object out. Putting the pieces to her ears, she sunk down beside the bed.

*****

“So, you’ve been a teacher for how long?” Miss Conelly asked.

“Uh . . . I taught for a couple months awhile back and . . . something came up . . .” Tara squinted to see the dash board from the passenger seat. 35 mph. She wished she could will Miss Conelly to drive faster.

Miss Conelly glanced over at her. “But you’ve done student teaching and all that,” she said.

“Uh . . . yeah,” Tara said, fiddling with her seat belt.

“Well, then, I don’t need to tell you how important they are,” Miss Conelly was saying. “I mean so many people just don’t realize their value. They know not to say anything against them, but as a country we don’t really value special needs students. And it’s our loss.” She spoke with passion, occasionally pounding the steering wheel for emphasis.

“Yeah,” Tara mumbled, looking away.

“You’ll do fine, Tara. Really. Everyone’s nervous on their first day, but you’ll be great. Just love  them. That’s the most important thing.”

Tara watched the buildings going past her window, the trees, the white truck.

Suddenly, a red sedan came hurtling through the intersection. Miss Conelly swerved over a bit too hard, nearly swiping the cars in the next lane off the road. The sedan sped past. The light turned green and the cars moved on.

Tara leaned forward. Almost there.

“…arrive on time for work. Wasn’t thinking. I’m fairly certain I’ve run lights for that reason,” Miss Connelly chuckled. “And if I didn’t, but brother Clark certainly did.” They were pulling into the school now. Tara swallowed and unbuckled her seat belt.

The woman with the lipstick greeted Tara. Tara smiled briefly, her heart pounding. Miss Conelly signed the paper on the clip board and then passed it to Tara. “Just sign here, and we’re good to go,” she said.

Tara glanced frantically around the room.

“Tara?”

“Yeah?”

Miss Conelly nodded toward the clip board.

“Oh, yeah,” Tara said, taking a pen and signing her name. It didn’t look like her signature. Her hand was shaking so badly.

“So . . .” Tara handed the pen back to the lipstick lady. “I think I know one of your students.”

“Oh, you didn’t tell me that during the interview!” Miss Conelly smiled. “Which one?”

“Jay-jay,” Tara said, her heart rate rising and hands sweating.

“Jay-jay? Hmm. I don’t know a Jay-jay.”

Tara’s heart skipped a beat.

“Is that a nickname?” Miss Conelly asked.

“Oh, oh, yeah,” Tara said. “His name is Adrian. Adrian Morris.”

Miss Connelly tilted her head, scrunching her eyebrows. “I don’t believe we have an Adrian. Do we, Marcia?”

“No,” said the lipstick lady. “But we do have an Andre.”

Tara blinked.

“Tara, are you okay?”

“Uh . . . yeah . . . I’m fine,” Tara muttered, stumbling toward the door. Maybe she had gotten the time wrong. Maybe she was too early. Maybe . . .

“Tara?”

But Tara was gone, out the door and sprinting toward the road.

*****

“Come on!” Tara banged the computer keys. Stupid library computers. Ugh. It was taking forever to load the results of her search.

“Okay, now we’re talking.” Tara scanned the list of results. A couple Latesha Morris profiles that were not Jay-jay’s mom. An obituary for a Latesha Morris born in 1998. Latesha first violin . . . Donavan Morris. Latesha Boggs. Latesha Boggs Realty. … they fired Latesha and hired . . . Morris, Jones, and Wilder.

Tara frowned. Was it really possible that Jay-jay’s mom couldn’t be found on the internet? Unless she went by a different name . . . but she could look up his grandma. Sometimes his grandma had picked him up.

Tara typed, “Marla Jones.” Ah. There she is.

Tara grabbed a piece of paper and scribbled down the address.

*****

Tara stood in front of the small, white house and reached for the doorbell. A moment later Marla appeared behind the screen door.

Tara breathed a sigh of relief. It was definitely Jay-Jay’s grandmother. She would know where he was.

“Hello,” Marla said, smiling and cracking the door open.

“Hi,” Tara said. “You probably don’t remember me.” Because technically they hadn’t met yet. “I’m a friend of Latesha’s.”

Marla’s face brightened. “Well, you come right on in here. A friend of Latesha’s is a friend of mine.”

Marla swung the door open wide and waved Tara through. “You got lucky. I just made me some cookies, and there’s a fresh pot of coffee.”

Marla led Tara down a short hall to the kitchen. “I found this recipe in . . . some magazine. I can’t remember the name of it now. What was that? Oh, well. I’ll remember in a day or two. Anyways, I found that recipe, and I thought to myself, Marla, you got to try that recipe. It just looked so good, you know? So I done it this morning. I whipped up them cookies, and they are just cooling off. Go ahead and have a seat right there. And I’ll get you a cookie.”

Tara sat down in the wooden chair Marla had pulled out for her. The table in front of her was spread with a flowery tablecloth, and the smell of baked chocolate filled the room.

“I was wondering . . .” Tara began.

Granny’s Cooking!” Marla said as she grabbed a spatula and a plate from the cupboard. “That’s what it was. Good little magazine. I read it every night before I go to bed . . . although I really shouldn’t. Makes me hungry, and then I got to get out of bed for a snack, and we all know what that means.” Marla slipped the spatula under a cookie, lifting it and sliding it onto the plate. “Extra pounds around the waist.” Marla chuckled and handed the plate to Tara.

“So where does Latesha live these days?” Tara said, picking up the cookie and tasting it.

“She lives across town,” Marla said, pouring a cup of coffee. “In a nice, big place there on the lake. She married a rich man, and they have all kinds of nice things. But she ain’t nearly so happy as I been here in my little white house with my George.” Marla smiled and set the cup on the table. “You want some cream and sugar, hon?”

Tara nodded. “What’s her address?”

“Latesha’s? I’ll get it for you in a minute, but there ain’t no rush. Too many people these days are in too big of a hurry. They ain’t got time for nothing. You just relax and enjoy your coffee. Latesha will still be there when you get done.”

Marla smiled. “Me and Latesha we been friends for a long time, ever since we was in kindergarten.”

Tara almost choked on her coffee. “But . . .”

“I still remember the day we met. This boy named Rutherford was calling me names, and Latesha—she didn’t like it, so she beat him up real good. And we was best friends right then.”

“I think you’re thinking of the wrong Latesha,” Tara said. “I know Latesha Morris. Your daughter.”

Marla’s smile faded, and she looked at Tara curiously.

“Please tell me she’s okay,” Tara said, unnerved by Marla’s expression.

“I don’t have a daughter,” Marla said slowly. “Me and my George, we always wanted to have kids. But we couldn’t.”

“I’m sorry . . .” Tara said, her mind racing.

“But I always planned to name a daughter after Latesha,” Marla said. “How did you know?”

How did she know?

Tara felt sick.

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