“I know a fever of any kind can be really scary in an eight-month-old. But this is a completely normal thing when it comes to teething. Baby Keenan is perfectly healthy, albeit irritable because of his sore, scratchy gums.”
Ainsley smiled at the visible relief spreading across Keenan’s dad’s face.
“Thanks, Dr. Clay. This is the first time my wife has been away on a work trip since Keenan was born.”
“And you were worried you broke the baby, right?”
The man’s nervous but relieved laughter was the perfect end to this very long day.
“Sounds like a lot of dads go through this.”
Ainsley shook his head. “I can assure you, every parent goes through this. Don’t doubt your parenting skills. Your instincts to protect him are what brought you here. That tells me all I need to know about what kind of a parent you are.”
“Thanks for not making me feel like a clown.” The father planted a kiss on his baby’s cheek, smiling wide when the little one squirmed and squealed with laughter.
A light tap on the door pulled Ainsley’s attention away from the cooing baby and his adoring father. Zaire poked her head into the examination room and entered. Ainsley raised a questioning brow. This was his fifth day working at the clinic, and his fourth since he’d started seeing patients solo without Zaire shadowing him.
“Dr. Clay, when you’re done, can I see you for a moment?”
Curious, Ainsley scribbled his signature across the bottom of the chart he was holding before turning to his patient’s dad.
“Do you have any questions for me, Mr. Lewis?” When the younger man shook his head, Ainsley extended his hand. “It was nice meeting you and your beautiful boy. Give him Infants’ Tylenol every eight hours to keep the fever down. Freeze his teething ring or cloth and let him gum on it as much as he wants. If it gets really bad, you can give him some over-the-counter teething tablets. If you’re still concerned, you can always call the clinic’s on-call service.”
Mr. Lewis nodded as he took the post-care notes Ainsley handed to him. Ainsley gave baby Keenan a quick tickle and stepped toward the door, closing it behind him as he and Zaire moved into the hallway.
“You were great with him.”
“I know I haven’t been at a bedside in a while, but I still remember some of how this clinical thing goes.”
“That wasn’t a shot at your clinical skills, Ainsley. You’re a great doctor. It’s one of the things I’ve always admired about you.”
It wasn’t the first time she’d complimented him on his work. This time, however, it seemed to mean so much more. Maybe it was because they were still on uncertain ground where their relationship was concerned. Maybe it was the fact that after seeing how she rolled up her sleeves and dove into the mountain of work here at the clinic, he wanted to know he could do something as necessary and worthwhile too. Whatever it was, knowing she believed in him was everything in that moment.
“Thank you. But you didn’t just drop by to stroke my ego. What do you need?”
She didn’t hide her amusement as she gave him a nonchalant shrug. “Today is the fifth day of Kwanzaa—Nia. It means purpose, as in we collectively build together to improve our community. Tonight, your purpose is to help the rest of the staff and me get things set up for tomorrow’s celebration.”
For the past five days, she’d educated him on the principals of Kwanzaa. To say his time at the clinic had been educational was an understatement. Setting aside the things he was learning about practicing in a facility such as the clinic, what he was learning about Kwanzaa broadened his experience and understanding, forcing him to reflect on who he was, as well as who he wanted to be.
Shaking his head, he thought back to what she’d said about planning for the party and raised a finger to make a point. “You’re more than welcome to snatch my Black card for asking this question, but if Kwanzaa is seven days, why is the culminating celebration happening on the sixth night instead of the seventh?”
She chuckled and gave him a patronizing smile. “Your Black card is safe, Ainsley. Not all Black folks celebrate Kwanzaa, and that’s perfectly all right. Kwanzaa ends on New Year’s Day. With so many celebrations already going on for that, the sixth night is usually when the Kwanzaa party happens. To be clear, there are no hard-and-fast rules. You can have a celebration every night if you want to. But since we invite the entire community, we reserve the sixth night for our celebration.”
He nodded. It made sense. Reassured that she didn’t think less of him for his question, he clapped his hands together. “Okay, so when do we get started?”
“As soon as you take off that lab coat and meet me in the waiting room.”
Zaire walked over to the electric kinara, admiring the black, red and green candles that represented Black people across the diaspora, their struggles and their hope for a brighter future.
When she pulled her gaze from the kinara, her eyes instinctively landed on Ainsley. He was currently across the room on a ladder hanging large swatches of Ankara fabric on the walls.
He’d changed out of his scrubs and into a pair of fitted jeans with a V-neck sweater. His outfit accentuated his chiseled physique in just the right way. The sight of Ainsley innocently hanging decorations was more erotic than it should be.
“You are so far gone.”
The sound of her mother’s voice in her ear while Zaire was ogling Ainsley was akin to a bucket of ice water being dumped over her head.
She turned around to find her mom standing not too far behind her. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I was just checking his work, making sure he was doing it right. That’s all.”
Her mother nodded as suspicion glowed in her eyes. “I’m sure that’s exactly what you were doing.”
When Zaire refused to come clean, her mother moved closer. “There’s no sin in changing your mind, baby. He’s a good, kind man. Are you sure you’re ready to let him go?”
Zaire sighed deeply, her chest heavy with so many conflicting emotions. “I love him, Mama. I always have. But the Clay family is just so much. I don’t want to be consumed by it. Especially if it means having to forget about my own legacy. I don’t want to just show up for a week or two out of the year. This place deserves better than that from me. So do you.”
Her mother laid a gentle hand on one of her shoulders and gave it a good squeeze. “Are you saying you want to come home for good?”
Zaire couldn’t answer that. Coming back home to work at the clinic had been the initial plan when she’d left for medical school in San Francisco. Now that she’d gained so much, she had to wonder if giving it all up—Ainsley, the Clays, and her career—was really what she wanted.
“I love working at UCSF. I love my job. I just don’t know if me loving my job is more significant than the important work that needs to be done here on a daily basis.”
Orisha smiled at her, warming Zaire’s heart only the way her mother could. “Baby, you do the most important job here—you get us the funds we need to continue providing care to the people in this community. If you never saw another patient here again, that would be more than enough.”
“Maybe before,” Zaire responded. “But this year, I haven’t been able to secure nearly enough to meet our annual needs. If I can’t figure out something, your and Daddy’s dream will die.”
Her mother tugged on her shoulder, drawing her into a tight hug before pulling away slightly to look into her eyes.
“You are the only dream your daddy and I had. You’re all that matters. You’ve made the two of us so proud. And even if we have to close our doors tomorrow, the work that you’ve done to support this clinic would have that man puffing his chest out so far. You’re our greatest dream come true, Zaire. Never forget that. So if this clinic is the thing standing in the way of you being happy with that handsome young man, don’t think twice about reaching for what you want. Don’t sacrifice your heart out of some unnecessary sense of obligation.”
Zaire hugged her mother close, laying her head on Orisha’s shoulder as she relished all the love her mother was surrounding her with while simultaneously wallowing in her guilt. She wished her conflict was as noble as her mother was making it out to be. But deep down, she knew her petty insecurities about belonging in the Clay world weighed just as heavily, if not more, than her desire to help the clinic. As much as she didn’t want to admit it, her pride, her need to feel significant was driving her just as fiercely as her benevolence. In her head, that made her a terrible person and an even worse daughter.
“Everything all right here, ladies?”
Zaire stepped out of her mother’s embrace to find Ainsley standing beside them with concern dancing in his eyes.
She smiled at him and gave him a soft nod. “Yeah,” she replied. “Things are looking good.”
Ainsley leaned against his car in the parking lot, watching the clinic door as he waited for Zaire to lock up. Her mother and the rest of the staff had left over an hour ago, but Zaire wanted to put the final touches to the decorations, and he’d volunteered to help.
Not that hanging decorations was such a joy after being on your feet for more than twelve hours seeing patients. It wasn’t. But any time he could spend with Zaire was always worth it, especially when he worried that their time together was coming to an end.
As if on cue, his phone rang and his mother’s number flashed across the screen.
“Hello, Mother. I trust you’re well.”
“I am. I should be arriving in New York tomorrow afternoon. I’ve hired a car service, so you don’t have to worry about picking me up.”
“And you’ve taken care of everything I’ve asked you to?”
“Ainsley, you asked for my help and I promised I would give it. Trust me to take care of things. Have I ever let you down?”
“Well,” he responded. “There was that time back at my third-grade bake sale.”
“I run an entire hospital,” she groaned. “Why on earth would they demand the baked goods had to be homemade. And besides,” she continued, “the school staff definitely appreciated those cupcakes flown in from a Parisian patisserie.”
He chuckled. Knowing she would forever be annoyed by this memory, he often found a way to bring it up just to hear her go off.
“Calm down, Mother. You’ve always had my back. I know I can depend on you to help me help the woman I love.”
“Zaire is family. We always, always help family.” She was quiet for a moment before speaking again. “One question, though. Are you certain this is the best way to help her?”
“It’s the only way I can think of. How else do we pull the clinic out of this bind?”
“There are other options,” she replied. “But I’ll wait to talk to Zaire before I suggest them. I just don’t want her to feel I’m stepping on her independence. She’s a proud woman.”
That was the absolute truth. Proud, stubborn, self-sufficient to the point it was almost a detriment, the woman didn’t know how to accept help.
“She might be upset at first, but she’ll get over it.” There was no might about it. He knew damn well she was going to be livid. Yet the one thing he’d learned from working next to her in the clinic was that whatever sacrifices were necessary to help the clinic always outweighed what the individual wanted. Zaire was going to be angry when she discovered his plans. But that didn’t mean this wasn’t the right thing to do.
“I hope you’re right. I would hate to see you lose her over trying to do a good thing.”
He would too. But with their time together winding up, what choice did he have?
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