trbraxton

exciting author of suspense and the supernatural

EVEN Toothless Lions sometimes Roar

Tarik Baxter exhausted the last of his tolerance on a cold winter afternoon.

His dismal journey toward that moment began in early 2008, when his supervisor at the New Horizons Computer Learning Center informed him that he'd be laid off in 30 days.

"That is, unless enrollment increases," Mr. Kathuria said, deliberately slowing his speech to lessen his Indian accent. "But I don't see that happening, with the way the economy is turning. People are having a much more difficult time in paying for schooling."

"So it has to be me?" Tarik asked, voice toneless in shock.

Mr. Kathuria nodded. "You are a fine instructor. But, our layoffs are based on seniority."

"Alright, then," Tarik said, still stuck in monotone. "Well, at least I have a month to find a new job."

Despite his impressive qualifications and a sterling recommendation from Mr. Kathuria, he couldn't manage one interview in that time.

"Oh,well," he said to his wife, trying to remain optimistic, "At least have unemployment. And you still have your job."

"I'm pregnant, Tarik," Maliah reminded him. "I'm pregnant and my position is grant funded. What if it doesn't renew in six months? Then, we'll both be unemployed and we'll have no medical benefits. That's not a good situation to bring a child into."

Tarik remained unemployed for two months after that discussion. He applied to just about every technology related job opening he could find, tirelessly trolling the internet and newspapers. His only responses were occasional one sentence rejection e-mails, thanking him for expressing interest in the position.

Tarik sprang from his couch on the couch when the house phone rang, hoping the call was a job contact. He sighed when he saw Maliah's cell phone number on the Caller ID, wondering what chores she had for him to do today.

"Baby, something's wrong!" she screeched in his ear. "I think my water broke."

Her water had broken. At 20 weeks, the baby never had a chance. Tarik couldn't find the words to comfort his wife as hospital staff removed the stillborn fetus. He could only think to hold her as she cried.

Maliah returned to work a week later. She put in long hours, longer than she needed to. She became manic at home, always busying herself with some meaningless chore.

She spent the summer burying her misery in a grave of nonstop activity. Then she found out that the grant funding for her job would not be renewed.

"Why did God take our baby?" She asked Tarik, on her first full day home with him. "Why is he doing this to us?"

Tarik wrapped her in his slender arms, allowing her head to rest on his shoulder. "God didn't take our baby, Maliah," he said. "It just happened. Everything our jobs- the baby- it just happened."

"I don't accept that!" she howled, tears falling down her husband's shirt. "Things like this just don't happen!"

"But they do," he whispered, holding her tighter. "They do and we just have to carry on living as best as we can."

Tarik spent 18 months chaining his emotions, trying to be a rock for his wife. He went to grief counseling with Maliah until her benefits expired, sold his car, started substitute teaching, took on a part-time job at a bookstore, and took on seasonal research assistant jobs with Johns Hopkins. Tarik encouraged Maliah to take on hobbies while benefiting from the grace of President Obama's extended unemployment benefits.

He focused on the positive, on the fact that they managed to always pay the mortgage and keep food on the table.

He thought he'd gotten a handle on riding out these tough times, for however long they might last. That was before this particularly nasty winter came.

A great white bear of a snowstorm mauled Baltimore the week before Christmas, leaving 18 inches of snow on the ground, causing schools to close for a week. Tarik also lost bookstore hours due to the impassable roads. Christmas break followed, meaning no substitute jobs for an additional six days.

That was when the outrage first began to well up within Tarik. He forced it into a mental safe and locked it away.

"It's okay to get angry," Maliah said one afternoon as they sat aimlessly on the couch, not wanting to brave the iced over streets and having no particular reason to.

Tarik shrugged. "It might be okay, but it's pointless. Me being out of work will just eat up our savings a little. We'll be okay."

Maliah's lips bloomed into a wistful smile. "I never realized that you were quite this much of a stoic before I married you."

"I never knew I'd have to be this strong before I married you."

Tarik felt ecstatic to return to work after the Christmas holiday, to get back to working with little kids who lacked respect for those who were not "real teachers", and to being altogether ignored by "real" teachers and administrators. He knew that a day of being ignored, cursed at, or even having objects thrown at him meant money in the bank. Besides, not all of the kids were rotten little bastards. Some of them were actually nice.

He returned to his rightful position as a rock, comforting his wife as best he could when she was passed over after two job interviews. "The key is to give up hope that you'll ever succeed," he said, as he held her. "To believe that things will never change. That way if things ever do change, you'll be pleasantly surprised. But if they stay the same, you won't have the pain of disappointment."

So things continued, until the second snowstorm. This one attacked the city in early February, outdoing its predecessor by two inches of accumulation. Sub freezing temperatures turned Baltimore's roads into a polar landscape. Those who dared to drive after digging their cars out often found themselves trapped in one of the now ubiquitous ice ditches.

Tarik dug the household's remaining car out after the nearly two day storm ended, but he had no need to drive anywhere. Schools were closed for two unscheduled weeks, two weeks of him earning no money. Tarik drank copious amounts of liquor during that idle time. He did not lose his temper.

Tarik's mood bordered on sunny when road conditions improved enough for school to resume. Halfway through the second day of a long-term assignment in a fifth grade classroom, he looked up and saw one of his meaner spirited charges regarding him with a mixture of curiosity and contempt.

"Whatchu smiling about?" the boy said, "You not even a real teacher. You shouldn't be smiling."

"I'm smiling because it's such a pleasure to be in your presence, Jameerion," Tarik said.

"Whatever," the kid said, then looked away, his interest returning to scrawling on his desk.

Mailiah arrived to pick Tarik up about 20 minutes after school ended.

"I'm sorry," she said, after Tarik dodged a snowball fight among lingerers in the school courtyard on his way to the car. "I left earlier than I did yesterday, but traffic is even worse than this morning."

She exited the driver's side and handed him the keys before navigating the ice packed curve to enter the passenger side.

"I would drive you home, but I'm too frustrated," she said.

A foul part of Tarik wondered what his wife had to be so frustrated about. Driving to and from work with him and otherwise staying in the house? Tarik rebuked that part of himself, recalling the hundreds of jobs she'd applied for since being out of work. Drawing unemployment was no more her choice than substitute teaching was his. He tried not to consider the fact that her extended benefits would expire in six weeks.

Because most side streets were poorly plowed, hives of automobiles swarmed the major thoroughfares. To make matters worse, the main roads were now slick because of runoff from melting roadside snow. Tarik knew that it would take an eternity of stop and go traffic to get to his home in Northeast Baltimore.

"This is some bullshit," Maliah grumbled, about a third of the way through the arduous journey.

"We'll get there, Liah," Tarik said, slowing down to move into the left lane, at the intersection of Liberty Heights Avenue and Druid Park Drive. A white Department of Public Works truck equipped with a green plow zoomed into his lane from the right, without warning. The Honda's tires screeched in concert with Tarik's leaping heart as he mashed the brakes to a sliding stop. He and Maliah both shouted obscenities at the oblivious city employee as the truck's bumper waved goodbye.

"I swear this day can't get any worse," Maliah said.

"Sure it could," Tarik said, completing his turn. "At least we didn't actually have an accident."

Maliah smiled as she shook a fist at him. "That is just so- obnoxiously- positive!"

More than 30 minutes (and a seeming eternity later), Tarik reached the overloaded intersection of Erdman and Mannasota Avenue. To their delight, traffic started to move at a reasonable pace.

A big yellow school bus turned onto their street two blocks from home, approaching from the opposite direction. The already narrow street was reduced in width by hills of dirty ice that lined each side of the street. Lawn chairs and buckets lined the few curbside gaps, making it impossible for the car and bus to pass each other without some major maneuvering.

Tarik shifted the Honda into reverse as the bus bore down. He backed the car as far to the right as he could, stopping with the passenger side just a few inches off a mound of ice.

Instead of angling as far to the left as he could, the bus driver continued down the middle of the block. He drew within inches of the Honda before realizing that he couldn't get past.

The middle aged man looked down from high, motioning for Tarik to back up.

Tarik rolled his window down and leaned across it. "I can't back up anymore," he said. "You'll have to back up."

The driver did as requested, the bus sounding the alarm that large vehicles like it always do while in reverse. Tarik shifted into drive as the bus neared the end of the block.

He thought that he would get past, but then the bus driver started forward again, once again coming directly down the middle of the street.

Maliah cursed to express her incredulity. Tarik unleashed his own profanity to comment on the bus driver's apparent lack of recognition that they were not, in fact, on a one way street.

He maneuvered the Honda to the right this time, all the while trying to stay calm, trying to focus on the positive notion that they were almost home. That was when the truck stopped behind him.

The presence of the F-150 eliminated the option of Tarik reversing when the bus nearly forced him into another mountain of hardened precipitation. He and Maliah were now stuck between a huge yellow bus, a pile of dirty ice, and a great blue monster of a pick-up truck. Their block waited over the rise, but it didn't seem as if they would ever get there. The heat of anger began to flow through Tarik, starting at his ears.

The truck driver stood on his horn. Maliah rolled down her window in response, yelling, "Wait a minute!"

A slurred voice with distinct Dundalk intonations bellowed from the truck, "Mooove the fucking car!"

Tarik and Maliah leapt from the car in concert, assailing the now departed occupants of the truck with curses. They gave no thought to being shot, since the men weren't black. The rearmost pair of the quartet cursed back, a drunken one with few teeth being the most vigorous.

Tarik grabbed his crotch with enough gusto to cause slight discomfort. He raged on, saying things that a man shouldn't say to another man unless he was in fact, homosexual. At first, the two drunks in the rear gave as well as they got, while the driver just looked embarrassed at the whole scene. The ruddy faced man at the passenger side whined that Tarik had enough room to move the Honda. Halfway through the exchange, Tarik saw something change in the faces of his adversaries. They tired of the exchange, while he felt as if he had only just begin.

"Come on, buddy," The driver said, "We're jus' tryin' ta get home.

Can't you try to move the car?"

"I don't do nothin' for people who disrespect me, bitch," Tarik said, smiling. Maliah ceased her own torrent of obscenities to watch him work.

The man who stood at the truck's passenger side clapped in sarcasm.

"You're lovin' every minute o' this, aintcha? You feel like a big man- holdin' everbody up?"

"I'm having a great time!" Tarik said, eyes a mixture of mirth and malice. "Y'all feel like big men, disrespecting my wife?"

Just then, a shrill voice called from the school bus. "Could you stop making a scene and try to move your car?" the bus aide said. "These children need to get home."

Tarik whirled on her. "This is all your driver's fault, anyway! Tell him to back up, again!"

"You don't have to yell at me, sir," the woman said.

"Shut up and tell him to back the damn bus up!" Tarik bellowed.

"I should call the police," the woman threatened.

"Call them! Maybe they can send someone out to teach your driver how to drive!"

The woman closed the window. The bus began to back up, its alarm announcing the maneuver.

Tarik smirked as he locked eyes with the truck driver, telling him that he would move now, provided that the driver and his friends shut the fuck expletive up.

"I guess you showed us didn't you, buddy?" The man standing at the passenger side couldn't resist.

"I sure did," Tarik said, turning to Maliah. "Come on, Liah. Let's go."

"We showed them," Tarik said, after maneuvering the Honda into their "reserved" parking space.

"No, baby," Maliah said, watching him in wonderment. "I said a few things, but that was all you." She laughed. "That was a ghetto mess."

Tarik chuckled. "Whatever. I'll tell you one thing- I feel great, right now!"

Maliah's eyes danced with delight. "I see. It feels good to let it all out sometime, doesn't it?"

Tarik considered the question for a moment. "Damn right it does," he said.