Friday, May 6, 2016

Too Wyrd, Excerpt, Part 5


We stepped through the open back door at the city mission’s kitchen, Joseph and I hesitating at the doorway. My nose wrinkled at the stale smell of cooked pasta that permeated the kitchen.
“Hello?” Mercy called out, striding through the kitchen and towards the swinging door that probably led to the dining area. “Anybody home?”
I glanced at Joseph before hurrying after her. Joseph was on my heels as we burst through the door.
It was, in fact, the dining hall - a large open space filled with long tables packed around with folding chairs. The room had that vaguely eerie feeling of a room that should be full of people but isn’t.
Mercy was already talking to a huge black man who looked like he was in his early 20s. At around six and a half feet tall - a bit taller than Joseph - and close to 250 lbs, he looked like he could lift cars off of small children. His white teeth flashed against the dark brown of his skin as he chatted with Mercy.
I smiled in recognition. Big Ralph used to go by Little R around a decade ago. Obviously, he'd grown out of the “little”, but based on the input I was getting from his body language and a glimpse of his aura, Big Ralph was still a teddy bear of a guy.
I was proven right when I walked up and Big Ralph grinned. “Nicola! How have you been, girl?” He pulled me into a big hug. “How's the baby?”
“Hey, Big Ralph! She’s not much of a baby anymore,” I laughed. “She's in kindergarten already, and the smartest little girl ever, too!”
Big Ralph puffed up his chest. “'Cause of them books, right?”
Ralph had decided that it was his job while I was pregnant to find my baby some books. I had accepted them gratefully, knowing how hard it was for the street kids to get and keep books. They didn’t usually have the luxury to encourage reading when they had babies. Food usually won out against books when you were homeless.
I'd considered it a sacred duty to pass on as much of my daughter's toys, books and clothes to the homeless when she'd grown out of them. I'd also begun teaching my daughter about the importance of passing along such items to those less fortunate.
I nodded. “It was definitely those books,” I assured the man.
Joseph stepped up and offered his hand to Big Ralph. “I'm Joseph. Nice to meet you, Big Ralph.”
Big Ralph shook his hand firmly. He grinned at us all before grabbing the dust mop propped up against a nearby chair and continuing his work while he talked to us. “So, what can I do for you guys? Don't tell me you missed me so much you had to come look me up at work?”
I shook my head. “Sadly, no,” I said. “We heard that Muriel has gone and disappeared. You know me – I can't just leave her hanging. We are trying to find her so we can check up on her, but no one's seen her or her family in weeks. Except we heard you did.”
Big Ralph nodded as he turned the corner to go down the next row between tables. “I seen Jada 'bout a week or so ago. She come in for the chili.” He grinned. “Ms. Pauline makes the best black bean chili outside'a the Deep South.”
Joseph smacked his lips. “Sounds good!”
Big Ralph turned to face us. “We ain't got chili today. Sorry. We only do chili on Wednesdays.” He turned back to his sweeping. “Today, we got chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes, peppered white gravy, creamed corn, an' a little lettuce salad on the side. Mm hmm.”
He hesitated a moment before he continued. “I dunno where Jada is now. Or Muriel. I didn't get a chance to talk to her much. Just said hi and that's it. But,” he threw a sly grin at us, “you could stay an' volunteer at the supper tonight. Maybe she'll come in.”
I smiled. “That sounds like a great idea.”

I talked Mercy into helping us convince some of the Bridge Kids to come with us to the city mission for supper. I knew most of them could use the meal, but the walk was too far for most them to make the effort. Plus walking meant taking the risk of running into trouble with a capital fist to the gut.
With Mercy and Joseph helping, I piled as many kids as I could into the car and we headed for the kitchen. Joseph grimaced and shifted in the passenger seat under the two teens on his lap. I drove slowly, hoping we wouldn't get pulled over.
At the mission, a flustered woman thanked us for our help and gave us our assignments. Joseph got put on door duty, greeting people and directing them towards the end of the line. Mercy walked the floor, keeping an eye on the people in line and sitting at the tables in case someone needed help, or on the off chance someone started trouble.
I was put at the end of the food line, helping people with walkers, wheelchairs and kids get all their silverware, food and drinks to their seats. I smiled and chatted up the guests, knowing that half the reason they came to the kitchen was for the small degree of respectful interaction they got.
I turned back from chatting with an older woman who had promptly cut her chicken fried steak in half, wrapped up one of the pieces and put it in her purse for the dog, Betsy, she'd left tied to a tree outside. Big Ralph stood at the end of the row of tables, gesturing me over. I walked quickly to his side.
“There she is,” he said in a stage whisper. “Jada. The girl in the red shirt.” He poked his finger towards the front of the line, holding it close to his chest to keep the movement from being seen.
I followed the direction his finger showed and saw the girl he was talking about. She was a strikingly pretty and very young-looking Hispanic girl with shiny auburn hair and piercingly light hazel eyes. I glanced around and found Joseph chatting up a middle-aged couple near the door. Mercy had disappeared for the moment.
I walked back to the drink table and helped a middle-aged woman with three kids get their food to a group of empty seats, keeping an eye on Jada the whole time. I set down the last drink and tucked a napkin into the lap of the youngest girl, then turned to check on Jada. She had just sat down at a table a little closer to the door. She seemed to be here alone, but she was making small-talk with an older lady sitting nearby.
I made sure that the others helping with getting people seated weren’t too busy for me to take a few minutes, then I grabbed a glass of tea and plopped down in the chair beside Jada. She glanced at me warily and turned back to the lady.
I smiled. So she thought she could ignore the crazy chick sitting next to her, huh?
I cleared my throat, “So, Jada, how's it going?”
Her head whipped around and she stared at me with a slightly confused look. I sat up and turned my body to face her.
“You're Muriel's family,” I accused. Her face went pale, and I took a moment to rethink my approach. “It’s okay. I'm her other family. We need to talk.” I glanced at her half-eaten food. “Soon.”

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