The man jumped out of his car with a pistol in his hand and anger in his eye. Camille froze at the sight of the gun and gasped for air. The man looked to be over three hundred pounds and growing the closer he got to her car.
“Hey, you old bitch!” the man yelled, right outside her window and gripping the pistol harder than ever. “You got a problem or something?!”
Camille, still frozen at the sight of the gun and the size of the man could only stammer out her response. “N-n-n-noooo. I d-d-don’t have a problem, sir. I-I-I-I’m just trying to get to the h-h-hospital. My granddaughter is about to be released from the maternity ward. And if I’m not there… they’re going to ship her to Public Housing. And her parents are out of state.”
Still gripping his pistol but softening his look, the man answered. “Public Housing? She had a Program baby?”
“Y-y-yes sir. And I’m sorry for honking my horn at you. I’m just in a hurry and I can’t let her get caught up in Public Housing. I just overslept. I’ve been at the hospital the last three nights and I haven’t been able to—”
The man raised his hand and put his pistol away. “I’m sorry for losing my temper, ma’am. I really am. I just lost my nephew to The Program. I guess I’m on edge myself. I really do apologize. Let me get out of your way. Seriously. I apologize. And I’m sorry for your loss.”
“It’s okay, sir. I understand,” Camille said, finally breathing easily for the first time in minutes. “I’m sorry for your loss as well.”
The man returned to his car and Camille let her foot off the brake. The man’s Ford F-150 turned left and Camille turned right to head towards the hospital.
She pulled into the parking lot and headed towards the attendant’s desk, just as her granddaughter was rounding the corner.
“Hey Mommy, it’s me,” she said into the phone. “I’m about to get discharged, but I still haven’t heard from you. I hope you’re okay. Call me when you get this, okay?”
“No answer?” Camille asked, after signing her out at the attendant’s desk.
“No, I guess she’s still working on getting Kamaye back.”
“I guess so. Do you want to go get some food or something? You’ve gotta be hungry. Look at you - you’re all skin and bones! Wallace ain’t feeding you?”
“You think everybody is skin and bones,” she said with a laugh. “I’m fine, Grandma. I promise.”
“Hmph, I guess I could use some breakfast myself now that I think about it. Crayola’s?”
“That’ll work, I guess. I’m not that hungry though.”
“You will be once you get inside.”
They made the short drive from the hospital to Crayola’s Diner. Once inside, Camille ordered a short stack, grits and sausage, while her granddaughter ordered orange juice and toast.
“That’s all you want?” Camille asked.
“I’ll be fine. My stomach still feels weird.”
“Probably a side effect of from all those medications they pump you with. I’m so glad I wasn’t still pushing out babies when The Program started.”
“How old were you, Grandma?”
“I was over forty. Way too old to still be having children. It was right around the time your Mama had you, I believe.”
“Do you think it actually works?”
“I’m sure it does. Just not for the people trapped in it.”
“I wish there was another way. What was it like was before?”
“Things were a little more civil back then, but not by much. To be honest, the first few years were great. It did just what they said it would – reduced teenage pregnancy, saved money on civil programs. The mayor used that money to build education halls and schools, programs for the arts. It seemed harmless enough,” Camille took a sip of Coke and cleared her throat before she continued. “But once they saw how much money there was in it? Whew. It was over just that fast. But that’s what’s it’s always about… money. They never talk about the people that have been lost. All those poor babies just… just gone.”
“My friend Randy had to give up his son too. He hated it. He still talks about him every day… it’s like he’s still here.”
Camille recalled the moment from earlier in the morning with the man and the pistol. Although she was terrified at the time, she immediately understood his anger once he revealed what had happened to his nephew. The trauma of The Program was already beginning to set in after less than two decades.
“His son will always be here as long as he believes it,” Camille said with a smile. “And, so will Kamaye.”
“What if Mommy can’t get to her in time?”
Camille kissed her granddaughter’s forehead and gave her a hug. “We’re not going to worry about that until we hear from your mother. In the meantime, let’s talk about something much, much more important. Like where is that Samuel?”
“No. Where is he? Because if it weren’t for him, you wouldn’t even be going through this mess in the first place.”
“It’s not his fault.”
“How ain’t it?”
“He didn’t create The Program.”
“But he sure benefitted from it, didn’t he? They all do. Men don’t want to raise the babies they make anymore, so now, they just ship them off to Bakersfield or Chicago or Pittsburgh – just wherever The Program decides they’re needed. That ain’t right!” Camille said, banging her fist against the table. “Single mothers raised babies alone for decades! And of course, it was hard, but we did it. We don’t need people telling us we have to send our babies off to become slaves in order for us have a better life. Or them, for that matter. Men didn’t make it easier on us – they made it easier on themselves!”
“Oh my God, Grandma,” her granddaughter said with a laugh and a wave of the hand. “You’re so dramatic. They just do like landscaping and trash collection and stuff. They’re not slaves.”
“Oh please. This country has survived off slave labor the entire time we’ve been here. They don’t make wages, they don’t have rights and they don’t get to vote. They just do what they’re told from the day they’re born until the day they die. Now what do you call that?”
She grew quiet as she thought about the weight of it all for the first time and began to weep. “That’s what’s going to happen to Kamaye?”
Realizing her mistake, Camille embraced her granddaughter again. “I’m sorry baby. I’m just over here running my mouth. I’m sure Kamryn is going to get her back here, safe and sound.”
She looked out the window at the mountains of traffic racing by on the expressway. “I hope you’re right.”
The waitress brought their food and set it down in front of them with a smile. Camille tore into the piping hot food, while her granddaughter casually sipped at her juice, still lost in thought. Once she was finished, Camille placed her fork on the plate, still attempting to calm her granddaughter’s fears. “Are you going to teach Kamaye the song?”
She smiled weakly. “Yeah, when she’s old enough, I guess I should. It always helped me feel better.”
“Your great-granddaddy taught me that song. And his daddy taught him. And his mother taught him.”
“Really? Who sang the song first?” she asked.
Camille thought about it for a second and then gave a soft laugh. “You know, that’s a good question.” Her granddaughter gave another weak smile and continued to sip her juice. “I’m going to run to the bathroom and then we can head out, yeah?”
Camille rose and walked to the bathroom, while her granddaughter continued to watch the traffic. Suddenly, her phone buzzed loudly, but from a number she didn’t recognize.
“Mommy? Mommy? Is that you?”
The voice sounded muffled on the other end. “Baby! Baby? Can you hear me? I have Kamaye! We’re on our way to come see you right now. Where are you?”
“Me and Grandma are at Crayola’s, having breakfast. Well, she did. I just had orange juice.”
“The Crayola’s on Grand and Fifth? We’ll be there in ten minutes. We’re on the way, baby!” and the called ended with a click.
She hung up the phone, not wanting to scream too loud in excitement. As soon as Camille sat down, she noticed her granddaughter’s change in demeanor.
“Mommy, just called,” she said with a smile. “She has Kamaye. She’s going to be here in ten minutes.”
“Ten minutes? Where is she?” Camille asked with an upraised eyebrow.
“I don’t know, she didn’t say. She just asked where I was and that she was bringing her.”
Camille grew suspicious. “Your mother has been in North Carolina for three days and didn’t think to call you the first moment she got a chance? She waited until she was ten minutes away?”
Sensing Camille’s suspicion, her granddaughter began to second-guess the voice from the phone. “It really sounded like her. She even said the name ‘Kamaye.’ Who else would have known the name?”
“Call the number back,” Camille said. The girl did as she was told, but there was no answer. “We need to go,” she said, grabbing her coat and purse. “We need to go right now!”
Camille jumped up from her seat and started making her way towards the door, scanning each face inside the restaurant for the first time, trying to see if anyone reacted suddenly to her movements. As she walked towards the front door, a young woman from behind the counter tried to get her attention.
“Ma’am?” she called out, with an artificially adhered customer service smile.
Camille and her granddaughter continued to walk faster.
“Ma’am!” the young woman shouted again, her smile now vanished.
Camille and her granddaughter began to pick up the pace and had almost made it to the front door when a man came from the back of the kitchen and stood in their way, blocking the door.
“We can’t let you leave,” he said with a stern look, crossing his arms. Camille looked at her granddaughter and didn’t know what to do. He was twice their size put together and there was no way they’d be able to get past him. Without thinking twice, Camille took a small step back, cleared her throat and kicked the man in the groin before grabbing her granddaughter’s hand to run past him as he slumped to the ground in a heap.
They ran to the car and got inside before the young woman came bursting through the door. Camille backed the Ford Explorer out of the spot and sped out of the parking lot.
“YOU DIDN’T PAY YOUR BILL-LLLL!” they heard the woman yell before pulling towards the expressway.
“Grandma, you forgot to pay?”
“I guess I got so caught up in the moment,” Camille said with a laugh. “No time to go back now.” Camille drove up an exit before turning off the expressway and pulled into an IKEA parking lot across the street. It was high enough and far away for her to see Crayola’s clearly without being identified. They sat beneath a large tree and Camille kept her eyes trained on the parking lot. After a few minutes passed, a black van pulled in. After a few moments, the front doors opened and a woman who appeared to be Kamryn, jumped out the front seat. She opened the back door and reached inside. For a few moments, it appeared that she was struggling with something, but finally, she was able to free it – she reappeared, holding a newborn.
“It was her, Grandma. We have to go back. We have to go back right now! She has Kamaye!”
Seeing all they needed to see, Camille and her granddaughter hopped back in the car and returned to the parking lot. Knowing they couldn’t go inside after skipping on the bill, they pulled beside the black van and called the number from earlier again, hoping to tell Kamryn they were out front, but there was still no answer. Before Camille could stop her, her granddaughter hopped out of the truck and made her way to the door.
“Mommy?! Where are you?” she asked once inside. She didn’t see her mother or anyone who resembled her. She searched the diner for a baby and didn’t see Kamaye either. The only people she recognized were the waitress and the man her grandmother kicked in the groin.
“Hey you!” the waitress said. “You and that old bag owe $14.48. Plus tip!”
She turned to run and almost knocked over her mother as a result. “Mommy!” she said, embracing Kamryn. “You found Kamaye!”
“This’ll cover it,” Kamryn said, tossing a twenty-dollar bill on the counter. Camille walked into the small diner, just in time to see Kamryn place her great-granddaughter into her granddaughter’s arms. “And the next time you call my mother an old bag, I’ll make sure you regret it, you little pancake fuck!”
“I’m sorry about earlier,” Camille said to the waitress sheepishly. “And about my daughter. She can be a little tough sometimes.” She turned to Kamryn, giving her a tight hug. Halfway expecting bad news, she asked, “Everything go okay?”
“No worse than last time, I guess,” Kamryn said with a weak smile.
“Yes, but not for anything in here,” Kamryn said with a chuckle. “This is old people’s food. Plus, I don’t care for the shitty service I’ve received.”
“What would you prefer?” Camille asked.
“How about King’s on First?” her granddaughter suggested.
“Now that works for me,” Kamryn said with a smile.
They walked out of the entrance door and made their way to the vehicles, still elated that everything had worked out in the end. Just as they were about to step inside, a black Lincoln Navigator pulled up and three white men in navy suits hopped out and walked up to Kamryn.
“Is your name Kamryn Slaughter-Wayne formerly known as Kamryn Abigail Wayne, also formerly known as DaVita Kamaye Sinclair?” one of them asked.
“Excuse me?” she asked with fire in her eyes.
One of the men returned to the black Navigator and opened the back door. A thin, frail woman with grey locs came around the side.
Kamryn continued to grow angry at the mentions of her former full names, while Camille stood there as if she’d just seen a ghost. “J-Janet?” she asked, visibly shaken. “Wh-what are you doing here?”
Janet walked over to his sister and kissed her on the cheek. “It’s time, Camille,” she said simply.
“Time for what?” Kamryn asked.
Janet grabbed Camille’s hands and held them tightly. “Why do you look so shaken, Camille? We knew this day was an inevitability.”
“You can’t do this now, Janet! You just can’t!” she pleaded. “I’ll go instead. Just take me. Please!”
“We both know that isn’t how this works. It has to be her,” Janet answered with a sick smile, pointing at Kamryn. “And… her,” she continued, pointing at Kamaye.
“No!” Camille yelled. “You can’t take her! We just got her back.”
“Grandma, what’s going on?” her granddaughter asked, growing terrified. Camille, still too shaken to answer, said nothing.
“Say something, Ma!” Kamryn demanded. “What is going on?”
“I’ll tell you all about it once we get there, my love,” Janet said with another sick smile, cupping Kamryn’s face in her hands. “Your mother made a deal with me years ago, thinking she’d never have to pay the penance. And now that I’ve come to collect, she doesn’t want to hold up her end of the bargain. But that will be her gravest mistake, isn’t that right, my lovely Camille? And now you, my gorgeous, gorgeous niece… I need to come with us.”
“But why are you taking the baby?” Kamryn asked. “She doesn’t have anything to do with this!”
Janet walked over to Camille and stood with her eye-to-eye. “Because… I can,” she said simply, before turning on her heel and returning to the Navigator. The men grabbed Kamaye and placed her in Janet’s arms as Camille and her granddaughter begged, cried, and tried everything they could to return the newborn to safety, but they were no match for the heavily-armed security detail. Kamryn, still unsure of what was going on, was forced into the car by security as they returned to their seats.
Before the vehicle pulled off, Janet met eyes with her sister a final time. “If you ever want to get them back, you know what you have to do, Camille.” She gave a final sick smile and the vehicle sped off down the expressway.
Camille’s granddaughter stared at her, waiting for an explanation to what had just happened, but Camille could offer none. She walked back to the car silently and took a seat behind the wheel. Her granddaughter slumped into the seat next to her, a ball of emotions.
Camille turned the car over and the engine roared to life. She let down her window and cleared her throat before lighting a cigarette.
“It’s time for you to learn everything about The Program,” Camille said solemnly.
“What does Aunt Janet have to do with The Program? I’ve never even seen her before.”
“Unfortunately, your aunt has everything to do with it.”
“What are they going to do with Mommy? Where are they taking Kamaye?”
Camille looked at her granddaughter with concern and then blew smoke out her window. “Put your seatbelt on. We have a long drive.”
“What? Where are we going?”
“Home,” Camille said simply before heading down the expressway.