A seven-year-old girl sat in the back seat of a speeding car, eyeing the wooden bat on the floor behind the passenger seat. She struggled to control the blinding surge of rage boiling inside her. The Bible said it was wrong to hate, but Felicia did it anyway.
“What?” OooWee said, ignoring Felicia. She was on the phone with Aunt Grace.
“Mama, I gotta talk to you.” Felicia glared at the back of the driver’s seat. Her small arms rested on her chest. Today she was supposed to be Class Helper.
“Grace, that don’t make sense.” OooWee’s voice cracked the way it had six months ago when she received the first death threat. “How could he just up and die for no reason?”
“I hate you.” Felicia turned her attention to the city whizzing past her in flashes of colors and shapes. Houses, trees, and cars passed as quickly as they appeared. OooWee said the city of Jackson was a mess. Empty fire hydrants. Water leaks. Tore-up streets. But to Felicia, everything looked fine. The sky was as blue as the ocean in her picture book and the sun as yellow as the ducks on the wall in her second-grade classroom’s art center. It cast a light on everything. The only problem she noticed was a fluffy white cloud, which reminded her of someone she knew.
“Mama!” Felicia pointed at the cloud, with its large shapely afro and pointed nose. “That cloud looks like Miss Jones!”
“Hell, no!” OooWee said. “Grace, you know I got to work! I’m on my way to the clinic now. We’ll be there Saturday.”
The cloud followed the car, pointing an accusing fluffy white finger at Felicia for leaving school early. “Not my fault,” Felicia mumbled.
“I ain’t got time for your bullshit, Grace.” OooWee switched the phone to her other ear.
“I’ve got a new job,” Felicia heard Aunt Grace say.
“You always go to talking crazy when you don’t get your way,” OooWee said.
“Mama? Mama?” Felicia dragged out the last “Mama,” holding it as if she were holding a long note in a song as she slapped her hands against her thighs. The car stopped at a red light at the corner of Northside Drive and State Street.
“You wanna tell her, or should I?” OooWee handed the phone to Felicia.
“Hey, Aunt Grace!” Felicia said, putting the phone to her ear. She removed a Hershey’s kiss from her pocket.
“You didn’t have to go to school today?” Aunt Grace sounded as if she’d been crying. Water ran in the background. Felicia assumed Aunt Grace was rinsing breakfast dishes.
“I went for a little while. Then Mama picked me up.” Felicia popped the smooth brown chocolate into her mouth.
“I see.” Aunt Grace cleared her throat. The car jolted forward as Felicia waited for her to speak again. “I have some sad news about Porky.”
“About my Porky?”
“Yes, about your Porky.”
A few months earlier the animal doctor had told Felicia that Porky had a heart problem.
“Porky went to be with Jesus.”
“He died?” Tears slid down Felicia’s cheeks.
“Can I see him?”
“Saturday,” OooWee said, steering the car into the Krystal parking lot.
“We can have a memorial service on Saturday.”
Aunt Grace’s words competed with the scratchy voice at the drive-thru window and the speakers bumping with the sounds of the blues. “…WMPR!” the D. J. said, as “Honey Your Husband is Cheatin’ on Us” finished and “Hit and Quit It” started.
“But I want to see him.” Felicia hadn’t seen Porky since Aunt Grace took him to Delta Pride months ago. “Mama, please.”
When there was no response from OooWee, Aunt Grace said, “Saturday then.”
“Bye, Aunt Grace.”
After she ended the call, Felicia searched for her cloud. Like everything else good in her life, it was gone.
It was a hot, sunny day in Delta Pride. A hundred and five in the shade, according to Wendy, the Channel Nine weather girl. In Grace’s kitchen it was cooler, but she was sweating as she stood beside the counter nearest the stove with the phone to her ear.
Dr. Hemphill picked up on the second ring.
“Dr. Hemphill, this is Grace. I’m going to be in late.”
“Again?” Grace heard agitation in his voice. “What is it this time?”
“My cat died,” Grace said, fighting back tears. “I found him this morning.”
The body lay on the floor near the refrigerator. Grace had had big plans for that morning that didn’t include telling her seven-year-old niece or her boss about the death of Porky.
“I am so sorry,” His voice was softer. “He had congestive heart failure, didn’t he?”
“Yes.” Grace left the counter and moved toward her utility closet, a space large enough for a broom, a dustpan, and a stack of boxes she’d saved for packing in case she got the job. She chose one of the smaller boxes. “But that’s not what killed him.”
“I see,” Dr. Hemphill said. “Get here as soon as you can.”
Grace ended the call, then dropped the phone onto the kitchen table.
How could OooWee keep playing fast and loose with Felicia’s education? The thought whipped back and forth in Grace’s mind the way Porky’s tail used to move when he spotted an intruder. Grace closed the utility closet door harder than she’d intended, and the sound echoed throughout the compact kitchen. She crossed to Porky’s stiff body. His front paws stretched toward her as if he were reaching for something. He looked almost as if he were asleep, except that his round belly was still and his green eyes were wide open.
Grace scooped up Porky’s seven-pound body and searched once more for signs of what had killed him. Aside from a small puddle of vomit near his feed bowl, there was no sign of any distress. Porky was almost six months old, and even though the vet had said he had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, he’d been doing just fine.
Grace placed him in the box and closed it. Then, with the box under her left arm, she moved toward the back door. Her soft-soled shoes moved across the floor with light swishes that reminded her of her years in nursing school. The smooth sound of Whitney Houston’s voice singing “I Love the Lord” streamed through the small radio on the counter.
Grace stepped out onto her wooden porch, closed the door, and stared into the eyes of the man who had stalked her since she was a child. He was at the back of the yard behind the chain-link fence, watching her.
Grace’s head snapped to the left when she heard Miss Mabel’s voice, coming from the porch next door.
“Good morning,” Grace said.
With her free hand, she grabbed the shovel propped on the porch railing near the door. She took the five steps as fast as she could without falling. Her heart beat quickly as she moved toward the big oak at the back of her property. Grace already knew what it was like to lose a pet. Her black lab, Hope, had died when she was twelve. Grace had cried for weeks.
The shade of the oak was no protection from the scorching August heat. Grace’s face grew wet with sweat as she searched for the right spot for Porky’s final resting place. Sammy Gram’s watchful eyes studied her every move. He looked as if he wanted to say something, but he didn’t. He’d better not, Grace thought as she put down the box and jammed the shovel into the dry ground. She’d gotten a restraining order against him a few months ago.
After placing Porky into the small hole, Grace took out her rosary beads and whispered a prayer, then covered him with the dry, hard dirt. Each shovel-full sounded like a single drumstick against a snare drum as it landed on the box. The sound broke Grace’s heart. She wondered how any woman could kill her child when she herself could barely make it through the death of a kitten. She just didn’t understand how OooWee could support the murder of innocent babies.
She took one last look at Sammy before returning to the house. His dark chocolate skin glistened in the sun peeking through the oak leaves. His brown eyes stared at her like a dog’s staring at a juicy steak. If things went the way she’d planned, she wouldn’t have to deal with him much longer. Grace had applied for a new job in Gulfport, far away from her mother and OooWee. Sister Mary Philona had already given her approval. The only thing standing between Grace and her new job was a recommendation from Dr. Hemphill.
“Have a good day, Miss Mabel,” Grace said.
“You too, baby.” Miss Mabel waved, watching until Grace made it up her back steps.
In the car on the way to the Delta Pride Primary Care Clinic, Felicia’s sobs echoed in Grace’s memory. Maybe Grace shouldn’t have told her about Porky. Maybe Grace shouldn’t have brought Porky to Delta Pride six months ago. But what other choice had there been? OooWee had been in no shape to take care of him. After the death threats started, she could barely take care of Felicia. Grace came to a stop at a red light, wishing she’d brought Felicia to Delta Pride too. But OooWee had insisted she knew best. The light turned green. Grace drove the next two blocks ten miles over the speed limit. She turned into the parking lot, whipped her car into a spot near the back entrance, then grabbed her purse.
“You’re late,” said Melinda, the receptionist, as soon as Grace entered the clinic.
“Dr. Hemphill been around?”
“Dancing on one foot, then the other.” The phone at Melinda’s desk rang. “Message for you.” Melinda answered the phone with one hand and extended a yellow slip of paper toward Grace with the other. “Delta Pride Medical Center…”
Grace took the note, then slipped around the corner to her office. She closed the door, still staring at the paper. “Gulf Coast Health.” Grace’s fingers trembled as she dialed the number.
“Gulf Coast Health,” a female voice said on the other end of the phone. If Grace had had to guess, she would have said the woman was white.
“This is Sister Mary Grace,” Grace said. “I received a message from this number.”
“Ah, Sister Mary Grace.” The woman spoke as if saying Grace’s name gave her a sense of relief. “I was calling to let you know that the job is yours if you want it. Can you start next week?”
Grace gripped the phone tight. It was time for a change. All her life she’d been OooWee’s caretaker and her mother’s whipping boy. She could get on the road Saturday, after Porky’s memorial. Grace took in an audible breath, glanced at her rosary beads on the desk near her keyboard, and said, “Yes, I can start on Monday.”
Felicia had almost finished her French fries when they arrived at the pink house. It was more crowded than usual. People stood on the sidewalk, yelling and holding signs. Felicia couldn’t make out their words. Women covered their faces as they tried to enter the pink house. Horns honked, and people yelled from cars. Felicia saw Patches pushing Ella toward a gray-haired woman, who rushed her into the clinic. When Patches spotted OooWee, she ran over to the car.
“Get down,” OooWee said to Felicia.
Felicia loosened her seatbelt, then crouched in the floorboard behind the driver’s seat. She eyed the bat across from her.
“What the hell?” OooWee let the window down.
“We got to keep the entrance clear,” Patches said.
“Inside. She’s going to stay with Ella.”
“Looks like all the pro-lifers are here.” OooWee lit a cigarette.
A woman screamed. Felicia knew not to move.
“Oh, shit!” Patches said before she left the car.
OooWee rolled her window up and wheeled the car forward a few feet. She put the car into park, set the emergency brake, and said, “I’ll be right back, baby.” She left before Felicia could respond.
“Get back! Get back!” OooWee’s voice rose above the crowd of angry voices swirling around the car.
“Baby killers…” “Let me show you how to love your baby…”
Felicia covered her ears, but the voices were loud. She thought her eardrums would split. She heard more of the crowd and less of OooWee. Somebody screamed. Punches and curses followed.
“Abortion is murder!” The words rang out from a single voice, then grew into a unified chant. The words pressed hard against Felicia’s ears, making her heart beat so fast she thought it might beat right out of her chest.
“Women have the right to choose!” The rival chant cut through the other voices, but the words weren’t as audible or as powerful.
All the voices collided, exploding into a jumbled, indistinguishable mass of noise. Felicia couldn’t hear OooWee anymore. Then the car door opened and slammed. The driver’s seat slid backward, almost pinning Felicia.
She heard OooWee’s voice again. “My baby!”
The car went backward with a jolt. “Shit!” said the man behind the wheel. He sounded young to Felicia.
A shift in the crowd’s voices scared her. The chaotic sounds moved toward the car.
“My baby is in that car!” OooWee cried.
Fists pounded on the trunk as the driver shifted into drive. Someone grabbed the back door handle on the driver’s side.
“Embryos before hos!” a man said. His voice sent chills up Felicia’s spine.
“Get the hell outta my face!” OooWee shouted.
“You’ll never see the light!” a woman said.
The car moved forward. The door handle snapped as it slipped through a hand. The driver let down the window.
“Oh, God, no!” OooWee yelled just before the gunshot.
The car sped away with Felicia, leaving the voices of the crowd and her mother’s bloodcurdling screams behind. OooWee always kept the child lock set, so opening either back door wasn’t an option. Felicia eyed the baseball bat on the floor next to her, wondering when she should use it. OooWee wasn’t there to give the signal.
The car bounced along the Jackson streets. Felicia’s fingers curled around the bat. A surge of power rose in her as OooWee’s voice echoed in her head: “Hit ’em where it hurts.”
“Shit!” the man said when he saw Felicia rise from her hiding place.
She didn’t have much swing room. Cars passed as the driver swerved all over the road. Horns honked when he crossed into oncoming traffic. Felicia got the bat into the front seat. One partial swing. She hit his right hand as it clutched the steering wheel.
“I’m gonna kill you, you little bitch!”
Felicia flipped over into the front seat. As she found the door handle, she heard a loud pop. Pain burst into her arm, then moved through her body. Her entire being was on fire.
Another shot exploded in Felicia’s ear. She cried out. Red, warm blood soaked her Hello Kitty shirt like the warm pee that had soaked her thighs during one of her secret meetings with Old Sammy.
“Mama,” Felicia whispered as she felt her consciousness slip away.
Pregnant after a brutal rape, Sister Mary Grace faces the difficult decision of whether to keep the baby or terminate the pregnancy. Her world turns upside down when she is forced to seek help from her estranged sister, OooWee Collins, who works as a madam at the local brothel. As the two sisters struggle to build a relationship amid jealousy, trauma, and small-town gossip, Detective D. G. Stone, newly appointed to the Delta Pride Police Department, works to bring Grace’s rapist to justice. The plot thickens when the ladies of Delta Pride demand that the Delta Pride Police close the brothel and Grace finds herself in the middle of a dangerous protest.
Set in the small fictitious city of Delta Pride, Mississippi, Saving Grace tells the story of two sisters who took different paths in life. As the novel unfolds, the narrative uses multiple points of view to explore abortion, rape, poverty, and the media’s role in social issues.
As a visually impaired African American woman living below the poverty line, I’ve encountered many situations in which a political agenda comes first and facts second, and humanity is often never considered. With this mystery/thriller, my goal is to focus on humanity. The plot pushes diverse characters into a sea of devastating experiences as it examines the idea of subjective perception and the notion of reality. As the secrets that have ruled Grace’s and OooWee’s lives come to light, the two sisters face choices that could bring them together or push them apart forever.
Katrina Byrd is a recent MFA graduate of the Mississippi University for Women. A writer/ playwright, she has had work published in Disappointed Housewife, Black Magnolias, and Paper Planes. Several of her short plays have been produced by the Vicksburg Theatre Guild, the MOJOAA Performing Arts Company, and Bay St. Louis Little Theatre. She lives in Jackson, Mississippi, where she is known as The Boa Flouncer, a hot-steppin’ diva who wears feather boas and speaks her mind.
Embark, Issue 8, April 2019