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Untitled

Overshadowed: Chapter One

      
As soon as I spotted Mama and Papa holding hands in the airport waiting area—you did get back together while I was in California, didn’t you!—I shrieked at the top of my lungs and took off running.

“Go, Jo, go! Go, Jo, go!” Kim and Aleesha cheered me on in my mad dash to reach my parents in the next fifteen seconds. Or less.

Although my friends’ chant of encouragement dimmed as the distance between us increased, the words kept pounding in my head to the rhythm of my running feet. Go, Jo, go! Go, Jo, go! Just another few seconds...

A bouquet of red roses, Mama? How precious. You’ve never given me flowers. Not even for the most special occasions.

A pang of realization hit and hit hard. Papa had probably bought them. Thoughtfulness like that had always been his thing, not hers. Then again, maybe this was one of the positive changes she’d assured me she was making.

I broke out crying so hard I could barely find my way into Mama’s arms. I vaguely noticed the rustle of floral wrap as we squished the bouquet between us. No matter how I wished I could have seen those flowers before we crushed them, Mama’s hug was more beautiful than even the most beautiful of roses.

She and I were still hugging when Papa put an arm around my shoulders. At forty-something, he might not have been Mr. Muscleman whose amazing physique impressed the girls at a beach volleyball game—nobody would give him a second glance—but he had his special strengths. Strengths that never failed to reveal his care and concern for me.

“Papa…?”

Once Mama and I untangled from our embrace, he took his arm off my shoulder and gave me a bear hug that made me gasp for breath. He loosened his grip, looked into my eyes, and smiled.

I smiled back. “You’ve been working out, haven’t you?” I couldn’t keep from smirking. He was so much fun to tease—especially about his dislike of exercise. Our relationship had always been good. The best. I’d always felt secure with him. With and about him.

A one-eighty from the way I'd felt about Mama longer than I could remember.

That’s why I’d been fighting back doubts about him and Mama getting back together again after their brief separation. No matter how I tried to let God control my life, I doubt I would’ve had the patience to stay married to a woman like her for twenty-one years.

She could be so demanding. So overbearing. Even though I believed in miracles, I wished I felt more confident about her ability to—

“Josh,” Mama interrupted my thoughts in a tone I couldn’t quite interpret, “would you get Betsy Jo’s suitcases from the carousel and meet us at the car?”

Her words were polite. So-so polite, anyhow. Her use of “would” theoretically gave Papa a choice. I would’ve said, “Please,” though. That would’ve removed all doubt. A loving smile would’ve helped, too.

I was still trying to figure out whether Mama had made a request or a demand when she continued. “You can handle her luggage by yourself?”

Hmm. That question had actually implied potential helpfulness. “You need money for a cart?” Uh, not quite the kind of helpfulness I’d hoped for. Yet thoughtful in its own way.

He winked at me and shook his head.

She released Papa’s hand, probably thinking he would need two hands to carry the suitcases she thought I had. Yet the expression on her face said she really didn’t want to let go. Amazing.

So, no, she hadn’t made a demand. And she’d offered a little bit of help.

Papa broke out laughing. Belly laughs that erupted from somewhere deep inside. Mama probably thought he was nuts, but I knew where he was coming from. That’s why he’d winked at me. He’d helped me pack. He knew I hadn’t brought a single item I didn’t need, and I hadn’t needed much. Hence, no excess luggage. Hardly any, in fact.

But Mama didn’t know that. She’d been out shopping or visiting friends—or doing whatever—while Papa and I were packing. And while he drove Kim, Aleesha, Mr. Scott, and me to the airport. Sometime I’d ask Papa how long it took her to notice I was gone and find out I was on a mission trip to California.

He didn’t take the first step towards Baggage Claim. He didn’t need to.

I grinned at Mama. “I only have one piece of luggage.” I pointed to the duffel bag that lay at my feet like a sleeping brown bear cub. “This. My technically-too-big-to-carry-on-as-a-carryon.”

Stowing that bag under the seat in front of me heading west had been out of the question. Kim’s dad…where was Mr. Scott now? He’d been right behind Kim and Aleesha getting off the plane.

Anyhow, he’d helped me maneuver my bag into the overhead compartment. After five minutes of trying to jam the compartment door shut, the SkyFly flight attendant asked me to remove a few of the larger items and stow them by themselves in a different compartment. The poor lady had sounded so embarrassed.

On our return trip, the duffel bag had been nearly empty.

Mama eyed me as if she couldn’t believe I’d packed everything she would have considered necessary in such a modest bag. I could almost hear her thinking, You got all of your cosmetics in that bag? And your jewelry? Your hair care products? And clean clothes for every activity of every day and night you were to be gone? And an extra set of everything in case of an emergency?

I kept quiet and watched in amusement as she stewed in her own curiosity.

While she was looking me up and down and side to side, I looked her over, too. What? When had her lips been so less-than-perfectly painted? She never let that happen. Never. Why now?

Then I chuckled. Had she and Papa been smooching while waiting for me?

The harder Mama stared, the further down her lips curled and the deeper her forehead furrowed. No way would I pass inspection today. Her frown morphed into a nasty scowl, and the scowl began to deepen in intensity. “Betsy Jo…?”

I shrugged. No need to act defensive. I’d tell her the truth. “All of my clothes were clean a week ago, Mama. Very limited laundry facilities at the hostel. I didn’t have anything clean left to travel in today. The clothes I’m wearing now are the cleanest ones I have.”

The only ones, actually. My work clothes—I’d taken my most dilapidated jeans, grungiest tops, and not much else—had been through such a rugged workout while I helped clean up and paint the hostel inside and out that they would’ve fallen apart in the washer. So I’d pitched everything before leaving that morning.

Everything but what I had on now. And these travel garments would go into the trash as soon as I got home. Hopefully, they wouldn’t make the garbage men turn up their noses in disgust.

Mama started sniffing the air.

Yes, ma’am, I am a bit odoriferous, to use one of your favorite words. You would be, too, if you’d been in my place. I wanted to say, At least my clothes don’t stink the way Kim’s do, but I wasn’t going to tell her about Kim’s run-in with the skunk. Not yet. I would need her full attention for a story as funny and furry as that, and now wasn’t the time.

Mama shook her head as if to relieve herself of all responsibility for her only child’s total unladylikeness. But then she smiled. “Could I interest you in a chai tea latte? My treat, of course.”

I’d forgotten how easily she could change subjects. That characteristic had always struck me as a defense mechanism. Probably to keep from having to think too much or too hard.

I drew my right middle finger back as if to flick a bug off my sleeve and thumped myself on the lips. Hard. Sorry, Mama, I shouldn’t think such disrespectful things about you. Even if they’re true. I thumped myself again. Even harder.

She didn’t appear to notice.

“Mama, you told me last night that you like my new nickname, Jo.” There. I could change subjects, too. Maybe that ability was hereditary. I hoped some of her other traits weren’t, though.

She narrowed her eyes ever so slightly. “It’s a cute enough name, I suppose, but I’m not sure it’s you.” Before I could protest, she switched horses again. “So what about that chai tea latte? Or would you prefer a different flavor? Maybe peppermint mocha?”

Hmm. She really was trying to be thoughtful. In a one-track-mind sort of way.

I spent so much of my own money at the various specialty coffee shops around my hometown—Dogwood, Georgia—that Mama’s offer should’ve thrilled me. But for the first and probably only time in my life I didn’t want a latte.

I mean I really didn’t want one.

I’d drunk so much high octane coffee on the plane that I spent half of the flight in the restroom. My oversized seatmate finally asked—no, he begged—me to trade my window seat for his aisle seat so he could get some rest. At least my visits to the back of the plane hadn’t delayed our arrival.

I didn’t want to be responsible for multiple stops on the drive home, though. I’d seen that exasperated look on Papa’s face a million times over the years. He was ready to hit the road. Night was approaching—maybe already here—and the drive home would take an hour-and-a-half. Maybe two, depending on traffic.

I shook my head. No telling how much longer the trip would take if I needed pit stops.

Papa, why don’t you just tell Mama we need to head home? He’d never been very assertive. Especially with Mama. Would that change now? Lord, please.

I dug my cell phone out of my duffel bag and glanced at the time. 7:19 p.m. Long after nightfall this late in December.

Delaying Papa from starting the exhausting drive home this late wouldn’t be fair, safe, or nice. You can be more thoughtful about things like that now, can’t you, Mama? You really need to be.

My lips were tender from thumping myself so often and I was afraid she might notice if they started bleeding. Maybe expecting her to turn over so many new leaves almost overnight was unfair. Unreasonable.

Still, the only signs of improvement so far had been inconclusive. Hints of possibilities more than likelihoods.

But at least Papa and Mama were holding hands again. I wish I’d noticed who took whose hand. And that smudgy lipstick? Mama would definitely not have left home looking like that. She must have kissed Papa recently.

“What about your latte?” Her question brought me back to earth. She didn’t sound particularly impatient. A pleasant surprise from someone who didn’t normally give people a chance to ignore her.

Despite Papa’s justifiable impatience, the thought of turning down my “new” mother’s hospitality didn’t seem right. Doing something nice for somebody voluntarily was a characteristic worth encouraging. If we had to stop a dozen times on the way home—what was the title of that Beatles song from long years before my birth?—Let It Be. Maybe a few stops would help to keep Papa awake.

Hmm. Or would Mama offer to drive? That would be thoughtful. Not to mention miraculous. How many times had Papa driven every millimeter of a thousand-mile trip when a blind man would have detected that he needed a break? A blind man who would’ve offered to drive if he’d been physically able to.

“Betsy? Uh, Jo?”

“Sure. Thanks, Mama. And, yes, I would prefer peppermint mocha.”

Papa and I exchanged grimaces. His eyes told me he understood why I’d agreed to something I didn't really want.

Although Mama couldn’t have missed seeing our expressions, she didn’t say anything. That was progress. But taking the cue and dropping the latte talk would have been even better.

Then I heard footsteps approaching. Dragging wearily.