LONG TIME COMING

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Prologue

 

Wilhelmina Brown couldn’t believe she’d been married for seven full years. People had said she and Steven would never last when they’d tied the knot the day after high school graduation. She was happy to prove them wrong. Looking at the two precious children they’d made, who slept together on a pullout couch in the tiny yet spotless living room, she couldn’t have been prouder or more content.

Hopefully, her husband would enjoy the dinner she’d cooked to celebrate their milestone and the time they’d had together. The roast was the prime cut of the latest slaughter from the Berry Family Farm down the road from the house they shared on the outskirts of town. She’d bartered some extra sewing to supplement her grocery money for the splurge. Rural Mississippi life had to have some perks. After all, inclusion certainly wasn’t one of them.

She tried not to think of some people’s outdated ignorance and the hatred they tried to inject into her relationship with Steven, simply because her skin was drastically darker than his. Or how he’d been passed over for promotions after he’d brought her to the company picnic. Or her guilt about the way even some lifelong friends had treated him, turned on him, since he dared to love her.

Not tonight.

Sometimes it felt as if it was them against the world. She was okay with that. With a partner like him at her back, she could manage pretty much anything.

Willie tidied the already neat kitchen then fussed with her hair and the skirt of the pink dress she’d made while she waited for her husband, who frequently doubled up on his shifts for overtime. Maybe they’d get lucky and the girls would sleep straight through the night. They were almost always in bed by the time their daddy got home. In the cramped quarters, they often woke up to sneak in a visit before Willie and Steven were ready to go to sleep in the house’s single bedroom. She probably shouldn’t let them stay up so late so often, but when she saw how happy the playtime made her children and her husband alike, she didn’t have the heart to put her foot down.

Willie checked the clock on the wall.

Wouldn’t it figure that Steven was running even later than usual?

She peeked in at the supper, breathed deep, drew the savory aroma into her lungs, then crumpled the tinfoil over the baking pan tighter to keep the meat warm without drying it out.

 

***

 

An hour later, it was pretty clear something had gone horribly wrong.

Willie sat with the phone on the kitchen table in front of her, twisting the spiral cord in her fingers as she waited for Steven to call and explain whatever fluke had kept him at the factory where he welded hot water heater tanks, or how he’d run out of gas, or…something.

He never did.

Instead, a loud triple knock on the front door had her shooting out of the kitchen chair so fast it toppled to the outdated harvest-gold linoleum behind her. The kids woke at the crash. Nola began to cry when Willie darted past her and her older sister—Amber, who comforted her sibling—to answer the door.

“Shush, it’s okay,” she lied to them as she paused, her fingers wrapped around the knob, afraid to turn it and change her life forever. Alternating red and blue washes of light painted her babies’ lovely mocha skin ghastly unnatural shades.

Right then, she knew she’d relive this moment in her nightmares for the rest of her life.

The pounding on the door came again, startling her into action.

Before she could stop herself, she opened it—just a little, like Steven had shown her. She peeked from inside the safe haven they’d built together at the police officers standing on her cracked front stoop.

“Mrs. Brown?” the taller of the two asked with a grimace.

“Yes.” Her heart pounded so fast and so hard that she had trouble hearing her own voice. Or maybe it was merely a wisp compared to usual.

“I regret to inform you that there’s been an accident.” He paused and swallowed. “A bad one. It’s your husband, ma’am.”

“No!” As if it would block out the terrible news she’d never be able to unhear, she lifted the hem of her apron, covering her face with the gingham material Steven had salvaged from a stained tablecloth at the Salvation Army for her last birthday.

It seemed as if her children understood the cops when their wails escalated to shrieks. Or maybe that was her making those strangled sobs.

“He’s hurt?” She tried to keep herself together in case she could go to him, help him to fight.

The stockier officer came to his partner’s aid. “There was no chance for survival. The car was completely destroyed in the collision with a delivery truck. Then it spun off the road, crashed through the railing on Jefferson’s Bridge and went into the river. With all the rain we’ve had lately, he washed away before anyone could even think of assisting. I’m very sorry.”

Willie’s knees buckled. She fell to the ground, gasping for air through the searing pain in her chest, which resulted from her shattering heart. Was this what Steven had felt like in those final moments?

If it weren’t for the girls behind her, she would have let herself wither away and rejoin her husband. Amber and Nola screamed a chorus of “Momma, Momma!” endlessly, as if they could tell how desperately Willie needed a reason to pick herself up.

Somehow she would do it.

She had to.

For them, the only remaining pieces of her husband in the world.