Sanctuary, Chapter 7

Posted on 22/06/2017

Fatigue cleared from Clement’s mind as he pulled into the open veranda of the church compound hours later. Seeing the weather-beaten path that led to the sturdy oak double door brought back warm memories of his first few years as missionary pastor of Bichena Community Church. It was too early in the morning for the children to be outside, playing soccer or what other trending game they’d discovered. The sun had not yet peeked over the mountains in the horizon, and only the dim headlights of Dula’s truck lit the compound.

Crickets and birds chirped their welcome as Clement put the car in park and shut off the engine. Snoring halted, Dula shifted in his seat before letting out a great yawn.

With only a snort as his response, Clement climbed out of the car and shut the door. Dula’s followed and both men walked up the path, their footsteps crunching loose pebbles on their way to the oak door.

It swung open the moment they stepped onto the porch. A woman stepped out with a lit lantern. “Welcome Brother,” she greeted Clement with a genuine smile which he returned.

“Thank you,” he answered and watched her move to Dula’s side. This was Wubit, Dula’s wife and the cook for the orphanage situated a short walk behind the church building. She and Dula, along with Clement, lived within the church quarters.

Draping an arm around his wife’s slender shoulders, Dula tapped the kerosene lantern. “No light?”

“Windstorm knocked a tree on the generator,” Wubit answered, concern clear in her voice.

“How are the children?” Clement asked, leading the way inside the darkened church. Their footsteps echoed as they walked to the altar lit with candles.

“Rachel and Priscilla are with them. All is well.”

Clement clenched his teeth, having just remembered Priscilla had returned.

“Are you hungry?”

Both men turned to Wubit and she raised the lantern to study their expressions before laughing, the soft sound barely making echoes in the chapel. “Come, I made injera and kitcha fit-fit…” She turned toward one of the doors without saying another word.

Both men followed willingly, their empty stomachs leading the way.

Clement’s mouth watered as the sweet smell of sautéed onions, toasted bread, garlic and other exotic spices assailed his nostrils. He craved meat also, and knowing Wubit was the doting wife of a self-professed carnivore, there was no doubt she’d prepared seasoned beef as well.

His wish became a reality as Wubit set a plate with bread, spices and meat in front of him. He didn’t wait for Dula’s plate and bowed his head for a quick prayer before digging in. The couple chuckled in amusement as Clement ate with gusto.

“It seems someone missed my cooking,” Wubit said with a pleased smile.

“Among other things,” Dula said between bites and snuck a look at his wife who responded with an imperceptible nod. Shaking his head, he returned his focus onto the delicious meal before him.

Fifteen minutes later, Wubit handed glasses of water to both men and collected their empty plates. “The generator and anything else you have planned can wait. Rest first.”

Clement rubbed his stomach and smiled gratefully. “I think I’ll do just that.” Scooting out of the chair, he shuffled out of the kitchen toward his bedroom situated near the back stairs.

The back door swung open just then and Clement paused, his gaze colliding with that of a sleepy-eyed woman with her hair tousled and unbound about her shoulders. He steeled himself for the onslaught of emotions at seeing her again within arms’ reach.

“You’re back,” she said, stepping inside. Her lantern lit the corridor and her oval-shaped face.

Seeing her now, Clement marveled that he felt little but annoyance at being delayed from his much-needed rest. “Yes… excuse me,” he said stiffly, turning toward his bedroom door.

“We need to talk, Clement.”

He wanted to remind her of their last conversation. “Later,” he replied instead and opened the door.

“Priscilla?” Wubit’s voice sounded just before Clement stepped inside and shut the door. Her voice was now muffled, and so was Priscilla’s reply as they made their way to the kitchen.

Clement leaned his head back against the door frame and closed his eyes. So much for a peaceful night. Tamping a sigh, he stepped away from the door and shuffled to his double bed leaning against the wall. He couldn’t avoid her for too long, she was annoyingly-persistent when her mind was set on something. At one point, he was drawn to her strong-willed nature. Now, it was a sure way to incessant headaches.

Falling on his bed, Clement didn’t bother taking off his shoes and closed his eyes. Sleep came easily and the troubling thoughts of Eleazar and Priscilla faded.

Rough jostling jarred him from the shortest nap he’d ever had, and Clement groaned loudly in protest. “What—” he sputtered at the cotton towel shoved into his mouth. His eyes snapped open and he blinked at a toddler’s face hovering his own.

All annoyance eased away and a sleepy smile stirred his lips. Lifting a hand, he cupped the little boy’s head. “How’d you get in here–?”

The boy’s pudgy fingers smacked his mouth and gave Clement a toothy grin. Clement sat up and hoisted the boy up in his arms, causing him to giggle and squeal.

“What a perfect picture,” Dula remarked from the open door. “Meko and his godfather…”

Clement peered over the boy’s head, watching as Dula approached the bed.

“Dada!” the toddler greeted Dula and held out his arms to be picked up.

With a short laugh, Dula obliged his son and lifted him from the bed into his arms. Placing a kiss on the boy’s head, he looked down at Clement who’d propped himself by his elbows. “Told him not to wake you.”

“Yeah, I’m sure he understood none of that…” Groaning, he lowered his head back onto the pillow. “What time is it?” He could’ve sworn he’d just fallen asleep before being awakened by Dula’s six-month-old Mekonnen.

“Half-past seven,” Dula answered, nuzzling his son’s cheek. “The kids are up and asking for you. Only Meko had permission to come in here. But I don’t think we can hold back the others for too long.”

“It’s alright, I’m up.” Clement groaned again as he rolled to one side and watched as Meko played with his father’s beard. Absentmindedly, he rubbed his clean-shaven face. “You think they’ll recognize me?”

Dula glanced down at him and then laughed outright. “Thought you said it won’t be a problem.” He lowered Meko back onto the mattress and watched with a smirk as his son crawled over to Clement.

Clement gave his godson a smile as Meko patted his cheek. “Well, Meko recognizes me, right little guy?”

Responding with a toothy grin, Meko continued smacking his face.

“Ow,” Clement half-protested with a laugh and smoothed down Meko’s downy curls.

Dula folded his arms and chuckled. “You’d make a great father, y’know?”

Clement paused and glanced up at his friend. “…okay?”

“Just saying.” Dula lifted his shoulders. “I know of a certain female doctor willing—”

“Alright, chill…” Clement shook his head and made a face at Meko who frowned slightly at him. The toddler’s frown eased away, replaced with another toothy smile.

“But in all seriousness, why you think she’s back?”

“Your guess is good as mine,” Clement said, allowing Meko to play with his face. “But I suppose it’ll be good to have her around… y’know to care for the children’s health.”

“Even if it’ll be awkward between you two?” Dula arched a bushy brow. “You know she’s not gonna leave you alone.”

Clement stifled a groan. “I—we’ve—got no time for distractions.” His stern gaze fixed on Dula’s face. “Did you tell Wubit yet?”

Dula’s pained expression already answered the question before he released a sigh. “She refuses to hear me out. Thinks we’re crazy.”

“Well if crazy keeps our children safe, then so be it.” Clement softened the harshness in his tone with a smile when Meko’s big brown eyes flitted to his. “Any word yet?” he asked, adjusting the toddler’s sleepshirt.

“Not yet,” Dula muttered, a frown marring his forehead. “And that worries me.”

“Silence is never good.” Clement tamped a sigh. “Give it one more day and I’ll drive over.”

“But you just got here.”

“And I’ve got work to do.”

“What if the parish hears—?”

“Who will tell them? You?” Clement lifted a stare to challenge the worried church custodian and orphanage director.

The two men stared at each other in silence; friends and comrades in this secret mission that only a few like them knew about. Even Dula’s wife knew very little, and that was because she believed her knowledge would mean support for this dangerous fight against the kidnapping of orphan children. Even Priscilla fought against Clement’s heavy involvement, and was the main reason she broke off their long-term relationship.

“You’re fighting with fire, Clem,” Priscilla said adamantly. “I won’t sit back and let you get burned.”

“I’m going, Priscilla, and nothing or no one is going to stop me.”

“Are you that selfish not to see what you’re asking me to do? What you’re asking of Wubit, the other wives and the children? What do we say if their husbands or fathers don’t come back?”

“These men made the same decision I made to save the children kidnapped every day, get sold to slavery or become child soldiers. There’s nothing to think about. We fight for them any day.”

“See to reason. We can talk to the government, get them to under—“

“Every letter we’ve written for years goes unanswered. We do this ourselves and have saved hundreds of kids. I don’t see why I’ve gotta go back to writing stupid letters that will be ignored. No. We fight.”

“But it’s illegal, Clement. If you’re lucky, you’ll be deported or imprisoned for a long time. If not, dead! What good are you to anyone if you’re not here?”

“Priscilla, I’ve made up my mind.”

“And I’ve made mine. It’s either me or this foolish mission.”

“Are you kidding me? An ultimatum? That’s childish.”

“I guarantee you this isn’t a joke. I won’t watch you jeopardize all we’ve worked for. Make your choice.”

“I already made it, and I’ll make that choice every day. I won’t sit back and watch another child die. Keep your ultimatum.”

“Then we’re done. You and I are done.”

“Bro,” Dula’s voice pervaded Clement’s thoughts and his expression was wary. “Where did you go?”

Clement shook his head and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “Somewhere I shouldn’t.” Memory lane was best left untraveled. He looked back to Dula. “What were you saying?”

“I was saying—“

“Mama wait!” The door slammed open with such force, it gave Meko such a fright. The boy jerked in surprise and then began crying. Both men turned to see a crying woman chased by Wubit and Priscilla into Clement’s chamber.

Dula hoisted a wailing Meko in his arms and Clement quickly stood from his bed, meeting the woman whose eyes were red from crying. Her head-tie and clothes was in disarray, and one bare shoulder was bleeding openly.

Alarm shot through Clement and he jerked his eyes to Priscilla. “What’s going on?”

Wubit reached for her crying son and took him out of the room, worry in her eyes as she glanced over her shoulder at the three she left behind.

The woman was inconsolable, her knees so weak she sagged against Priscilla holding her by her arms. She was led to sit on the edge of Clement’s bed and he crouched in front of her.

“Mama, what happened?” he asked, not sure if she could hear him above her wailing.

“Her son,” Priscilla spoke up as she too perched on Clement’s bed. When Clement lifted his eyes to her face, there was regret in hers. “He was taken from their home along with five others from the compound.”

Both Clement and Dula stiffened. The woman wept bitterly, clutching her head as if she would go mad from the grief.

The woman began talking, her words barely comprehensible as she stumbled over the account.

Her son and five of his classmate friends were playing soccer in the compound while she and the other mothers prepared dinner together. One of their own was graduating from primary school and they wanted to celebrate. Except there would be no celebration that night as a series of cries pierced through the air. She and another woman scrambled to the compound just in time to see two brawny men dragging two children at a time toward an open truck. The other mothers arrived to their children’s rescue, throwing themselves at the men and the truck. Some were badly injured, kicked or thrown off the truck. All were unsuccessful in saving their young children and watched in growing despair and horror as the truck carrying their children faded in the distance.

“What village?” Clement gritted through clenched teeth, his body trembling with mounting fury.

“It’s close to Motta Air Market,” Priscilla answered with a pained expression.

Dula swore under his breath. Clement abruptly rose to his feet, meeting Dula’s stare with a glare. His jaw tightened and he bunched a fist. “They’re moving inward.”

“It’s only a matter of time before they get to our turf,” Dula said, concern etched in his face.

Anger surged through Clement in waves. “Not on my watch. We move now.”

Dula nodded, of the same mind. Then he crouched in front of the bereft mother, asking her to provide any information about the children. She weepily described each of the six children with their names.

As much as their names matter, Clement wanted details on the kidnappers. After fighting against one particular group for years now, he needed to know if they were behind this latest attack and get the permission he needed to begin this next phase.

Nudging Dula aside, Clement crouched in his place and met the woman’s teary eyes. “Did the truck have any markings? Did the men have uniforms?”

Confusion filled the woman’s eyes and she lifted her eyes to Priscilla. Clement belatedly realized in his urgency that he’d spoken in English, his native tongue.

Priscilla translated the urgent query and the woman nodded adamantly, returning her eyes to Clement. “Black and red,” she said in Amharic, fear and indignation in her eyes. “Marking here,” she sneered in disgust, tapping both cheekbones.

“Kutfi,” Dula whispered fiercely.

Clement bunched his fists. The Kutfi was an extremist group in the Northeast, infamous for raiding villages and terrorizing citizens and road travelers. They’d expanded their despicable acts to kidnapping children from these villages; either selling them to the highest bidder or training them as child soldiers. They were ruthless and dangerous, killing their enemies upon sight in the most treacherous way.

The average person hoped to never cross paths with the Kutfi. Clement prayed he’d meet them face to face. Especially now armed with the right weapons this time around.

The distraught mother succumbed to a fresh wave of sorrow and Priscilla drew her into her arms, although her gaze searched Clement’s.

Evading Priscilla’s stare, he rose once more and met Dula’s worried expression. “We must go.”

Dula flinched. Something had changed since Wubit gave birth to their only child six months ago. The man who fearlessly defended the orphan kids with him from road robbers was now hesitating to enter a dangerous fight. Clement didn’t blame him.

“I’ll go by myself.”

“Clement!” both Priscilla and Dula protested in unison.

Clement’s stare was steely as his resolve. “You stay here with the church, I’ll go and come back.”

Conflicting emotions played in Dula’s features, both men knowing a solo mission was beyond dangerous. But a new father like Dula couldn’t risk going or he’d never return.

“Maybe we should wait until Ejigu—“

Clement shook his head. “We can’t afford to wait. A day’s delay means any of these six children can’t come home…” he paused as the woman wept against Priscilla’s shoulder. He tamped a sigh and met Dula’s searching gaze. “I’ll need the keys to the jeep.”

“Clem…”

“It’s alright,” he assured his friend and brother. “God is with me.”

Both Priscilla and Dula didn’t look convinced. “Do you have a plan?”

Clement nodded, one forming in his mind. He extended a hand. “Keys.”

“Clement, this is insane,” Priscilla protested as Dula reluctantly handed him the keys to his jeep.

Ignoring her, Clement crouched back down to the weepy woman. “I’ll bring your boys back. Trust in me.”

<<Chapter 6 || Chapter 8>>

Sanctuary, Chapter 6

Posted on 21/06/2017

For as long as Clement had been a pastor and a servant of God, he had come to the realization that God’s way of doing things and answering prayers was never his way. Sitting in the emergency waiting room with distraught members of Reginald Browser’s family was not Clement’s idea of an answered prayer. But indeed it was. After Reginald fainted, the officers were forced to end their search of the van and Ejigu gratefully directed the van toward the nearest hospital in Addis Ababa.

Since Ejigu had identified Clement as a pastor, Reginald’s wife insisted that he stay with them until the doctor gave word about her husband’s condition. Clement couldn’t refuse, not with a good conscience. After all, God had answered his prayer. They hadn’t gotten caught and the weapons were safely secure in the trunk of Ejigu’s tourist van.

A door opened and everyone but Clement stood to their feet. Belatedly, he realized that the doctor just entered the room and quickly stood also.

“Please tell me he’s alright,” the distraught wife pleaded with the solemn-faced man. She held back a whimper and her female friend drew her close. “Is my husband alright?”

The doctor nodded and Clement released a breath of relief as did the others. He could not afford a casualty because of his prayer.

Then the doctor’s solemn expression gave way to a gentle smile meant to comfort. “He was under duress because of heat exhaustion and dehydration. We’ve put him on fluids but will have to keep him for another night.”

“It’s just dehydration, Doctor?” the other male American asked, hesitance in his tone. “She mentioned that he had chest pains earlier.”

“We’re going to observe him tonight and find out what we can.” He gave the wife one last fleeting look before stepping back into the room.

“Should we trust his words?” the other woman spoke, worry etched in her brow. She rubbed her friend’s back while looking over at her own husband. “Maybe an American doctor would be better. You never know with these quack—”

“Mom!” her daughter hissed, mortification in her expression as she snuck a look at Clement.

Her father looked penitent as he turned to Clement. “Please don’t mind my wife. She’s… tired.”

Clement begged to differ that fatigue or jetlag was the woman’s only problem but he managed to rein his words and merely nodded. “It’s been a long day for us all.” And the sooner he could leave them and go about his scheduled program, the better. Patience with ignorant people was never his forte, and what he had left of it was rapidly running thin.

“Brother!” Etigu called and Clement gratefully turned away before he said something he’d regret. A burly man with a thick beard that covered half of his face and a wide smile walked behind Etigu toward them.

Clement grinned in welcome. “Dula,” He quickly stepped away from the tourists and caught the newcomer in a firm hug. “You are well*.”

What he really meant was gratitude that Dula was alive! His friend and brother had returned safely from the borders and from what he could see, without scratches or injuries. Pulling back, Clement studied Dula’s weathered features. “Please tell me you have come to rescue me,” he said in Amharic, earning a chuckle from both Ejigu and Dula.

“That I have,” Dula said, clasping his friend’s arm once before releasing him.

Satisfied and relieved, Clement faced the curious Americans. “I must leave you now. It was… a pleasure meeting you.”

Reginald’s wife smiled gratefully. “Thank you for helping us.”

“It is the work of God,” Clement said easily and turned to Ejigu, clapping his free hand over the man’s skinny shoulders. “I leave you in my brother’s care and hope you have a great stay in Addis Ababa.”

“Hopefully we’ll see you again,” the American man said, one arm draped over his daughter’s shoulder.

Clement only smiled. “Goodbye.” Then he patted Ejigu’s shoulder, shared a pointed look that promised they’d see again in the nearest future, before leading the way out with Dula following closely behind.

The moment they exited the building, the sky was dark and the streets relatively quiet. Clement stopped in his tracks and turned to Dula. The bearded man chuckled and pocketed his hands. “Everything is fine. It was a safe transfer from the van to my truck. The rest is easy from here.”

Clement blew out a breath and passed a hand over his shorn locks. One obstacle down, a million and one to go. His eyes noted Dula’s on him. “What?”

“You look different without a beard. Younger.” Dula wore a perturbed frown. “Will they recognize you?”

“I am young,” Clement countered with a smirk. “And they will, don’t worry. It grows back fast enough.”

“Well you behave like an old man.”

“My brother, you mistaken wisdom for age… something you’ve got lit—”

“Don’t even…” Dula growled. Clement burst out laughing and Dula joined in, their laughter filling the empty parking lot. Dula had stashed Clement’s duffel bag and the guns in his old and dusty jeep, and with night to aid and conceal them from watchful eyes, Clement relaxed in his seat as Dula maneuvered the jeep out of the parking lot and into the night.

The ride to Bichena would be long but relatively peaceful, especially since Dula knew all the back roads void of police surveillance. Clement rolled down the window and smiled as the warm breeze caressed his bare face. He would soon grow out his beard, so he relished this time of bare skin to air.

“Sister Priscilla has returned,” Dula said after a few moments of silence.

Clement’s eyes dragged open and he stared at the open road ahead. Priscilla James was the resident doctor at the church and his ex-girlfriend. She’d also resigned from her position shortly after their breakup months ago, and Clement didn’t think he would hear from her again. The news of her return was surprising but he merely released a breath. “When?”

Dula glanced over at him before returning his eyes to the road. “Two days ago. She asked about you.”

A vague memory of Priscilla came to Clement’s mind with her angrily forbidding him to even breathe her name before she stormed out of his office. Clement merely closed his eyes. “She’ll see me soon.”

A long stretch of silence followed and then Dula snorted. “Just when you think the drama is ov—”

“Leave it,” Clement said gently.

Another stretch of silence before Dula cleared his throat and shifted noisily in his seat. “On second thought, I’ve been driving for almost a day. Let’s switch places.”

Clement opened his eyes as Dula pulled the jeep to the side of the road. He dragged his gaze to his friend’s face and cocked a brow. “I just got to town… Jetlag, remember?”

“Spare me,” Dula shot back, not the least bit concerned for Clement’s plight. “You’re the same guy who drove a straight trip of eighteen hours north. You’ve got a mind of steel.” He put the car in park and pushed open the door. “Five hours is nothing for you.”

Groaning, Clement practically rolled out of the car and shuffled past a grinning Dula to the driver’s seat. “If we get in an accident, it’s your fault.”

“We won’t,” Dula said confidently. “But just in case…” he added with a glint in his eye as he strapped on his seatbelt.

Clement scoffed as he put the car in drive and eased onto the road. In truth, he wasn’t as physically tired as he was mentally. Mounting worry of Eleazar’s whereabouts and state of mind was doing a number on him. He had a feeling that his long absence from home strained their otherwise close relationship, and that was his only regret for becoming a missionary pastor to East Africa.

Dula’s snoring pervaded Clement’s musing and Clement glanced over at his friend who had his head dropped back, mouth open. No doubt he’d run himself ragged doing a two-person job while Clement was visiting his family in Houston.

Deciding he was responsible for his friend’s fatigue, Clement focused his attention on the road. He kept his thoughts from conjuring memories of Priscilla or he’d drive them off a cliff. Getting them safely to the church home was of most importance, for the sake of Dula’s wife and the children that couldn’t wait to see him. Even if Priscilla would also be waiting, Clement sped up on the empty highway to Bichena.

“Hey Karen,” Shonda said between bites of her burrito. “Your sister’s Samina Chance, right?”

Under the afternoon sun, the volunteer team and the children took a much-needed break in the open veranda of a local school in Kibera to eat their lunch. Some of the local children ate their rice and beans lunch under a tree while some playing a makeshift soccer game with a few volunteers. The other volunteers, including Karen and her roommates, sat on benches to eat their lunch.

At the unexpected question about her sister, Karen paused at scooping beef stew into her mouth and arched a questioning brow at Shonda. “Yeah, why?”

“I kinda stalked your profile and saw you were tagged in some of her pictures.”

Karen and Jennifer exchanged glances before Karen returned her attention to Shonda. “…okay?”

Shonda laughed and waved off her concern. “I’m not a creep.”

“Right,” Jennifer muttered and ducked away when Shonda tossed a glare at her. “You just admitted to stalking the woman’s profile…”

“Oh come on, like you don’t do that.”

Karen had definitely checked out a couple of profiles in her day, but never admitted—

“Anyway, about your sister…” Shonda’s eyes widened slightly as it did when curious about a particular gossip subject. “How’d she get to be Operating Director at House of Hope?”

Subconsciously, Karen’s shoulders drooped slightly. She eyed Shonda warily. “Providence.”

Shonda’s thick brows raised. “… what does that even mean?”

As much as she loved her sister, Karen didn’t particularly like talking about her with strangers. She sighed. “She got laid off from her job as an art teacher, decided to work as a volunteer at House of Hope. They gave her a part-time position after a few months of volunteering. Then a full-time. Then after the sitting director resigned, she was referred for the position.”

Jennifer whistled in awe. “Wow. That’s awesome.”

Shonda nodded with a grin. “Yeah. She’s lucky.”

Karen frowned. “You haven’t answered why you’re asking about my sister.”

“Oh,” Shonda started to lean back, realized that the bench was backless and quickly righted herself. “I applied for an intern position to work under your sister.”

“So you’re moving to Houston?” Jennifer asked before gulping down her coconut water.

“I have to pass the interview first but yeah, hopefully.” Her eyes skimmed Karen’s face.

“So you’re asking me instead of doing research on your own,” Karen drawled, returning her attention to the beef stew that was no longer appetizing. She couldn’t count how many people approached her just to get close to some member of her family. Being a middle child was the absolute worst.

“Don’t be offended,” Shonda said in a placating tone. “I didn’t mean to make it sound like I’m using you.”

Thankfully for Shonda, the whistle blew to signal the end of lunchtime. Karen swallowed her retort and quickly stood from the bench. There was no need making a fuss about a job Shonda might not even get.

“It doesn’’t hurt to use her as a resource,” Jennifer offered, grating Karen’s nerves.

“Yeah well…” Shonda paused and then chuckled. “Uh-oh, look who’s coming this way. Karen’s not-so-secret admirer.”

Against her better judgment, Karen glanced over her shoulder and immediately groaned. A wiry man with caramel skin, a bright smile, and a spring in his step sauntered toward them. He waved at Karen who turned away with a scowl.

Jennifer giggled. “You can’t avoid him for much longer, Karen… Might as well deal with it once and for all.”

The man came to stand near her and Karen sighed, turning back around. “Yes Reed?”

As if his smile couldn’t get any wider, he grinned fully. “Hey you.”

Karen’s stomach turned at his flirtatious tone. “Can I help you?”

“In a sec.” His eyes shifted over to Jennifer and Shonda both wearing amused expressions. “Hey ladies, enjoying your lunch?”

“Hey Reed,” Shonda said, mirth clear in her tone. “Saw you playing soccer. You’re pretty good.”

“Yeah thanks.” He swiped the sweat on his forehead. Then he returned his attention to Karen and smiled. “So can we talk?”

Not returning his smile, Karen folded her arms across her chest. “Sure. Talk.”

Shonda cleared her throat. “Uh, we’ll let you guys talk. C’mon Jen.”

Karen gritted her teeth as Shonda grabbed Jennifer’s arm and dragged her away. “What is it Reed?”

A slight wrinkle appeared between his brows and uncertainty flitted his features. He lifted a hand to the back of his head. “Am I making you uncomfortable?”

She refrained from rolling her eyes. “Not much makes me uncomfortable. Go ahead, talk. How can I help you?”

His smile returned. “That’s why I like you. You’re so down-to-earth and friendly.”

Not for long. “Thanks. Now what is it?” From the corner of her eye, she noticed both Shonda and Jennifer giving her thumbs-up. She wanted to throw something at them, shameless traitors.

He nodded, lowering his hand to his pockets. “So I know in two days, you’re heading to Kampala. Time went by so fast, right?”

It was no secret that Karen’s stay in Kenya was drawing to a close. She and Jennifer were traveling together, and the younger nurse had planned a going-away dinner at their hotel room tomorrow night. Exhaling a breath, she nodded. “Yeah, so?”

“So… I was wondering if I could get your phone number? Y’know so we can keep in touch after you leave.”

Karen couldn’t help the short laugh that escaped her lips. “I thought I said no the first time, Reed… or did you not hear me?”

“You said that but I was hoping you’d change your mind,” Reed said with a boyish smile that did absolutely nothing for Karen.

Her sister often spoke of her husband’s dogged persistence in courting her, and how it drew her to him in the end. But Karen always retorted that Topher’s good looks and charming personality won Samina’s heart, not his persistence. In fact, Karen did not prescribe to the notion that a woman could be won by just any man’s consistent pursuit. If anything, it made a woman want to run in the other direction or be more blatant in her rejection.

“Well I didn’t,” Karen answered. “No is no, Reed. Plain and simple.”

His smile eased away, followed by a frown. “How old are you again? 34?”

Karen snorted. “33 and I won’t even begin to explain why what you’re about to say is problematic.” She glanced over his shoulder, noting that the volunteers and children were walking toward the school.

“Well it’s true,” he continued. “How long you think you’ve got playing hard to get?”

She jerked her attention back to him. “If I was playing hard to get, even you’ll see that. But I’m not the slightest bit interested in you. Now if you’ll excuse—” she paused as he grabbed her arm. Karen glared at him. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Just hear me out first,” he said as firmly as his grip on her arm.

“Let go of my arm, Reed.” Her eyes hardened on his face. “My brother is twice your size and I’ve knocked him to his senses many times. Let go while I’m being civil.”

His expression darkened. “Why are you trippin’? Can’t someone just talk to you?”

“Well you’re doing more than talking. And I haven’t started to trip but you’re about to taste my fist if you don’t let go.” Karen jerked her hand from his loosened grip and glared at him. “I’ll say this since you’re confused and obviously don’t know any better. When a woman says she’s not interested, leave her alone. There’s nothing else you can do but mind your business. And obviously, keep your hands to yourself. Understand?”

“Just watch.” He eyed her warily. “You’re gonna end up a single, bitter old lady.”

Karen neither blinked nor flinched. “And you’re gonna end up in jail or in the hospital if you don’t take my advice. Keep your hands to yourself.” Then brushing past him, she sauntered off into the school.

Just outside the open door of the classroom, her roommates waited for her. Jennifer stared with mouth agape. Shonda wore an amused smirk and clapped dramatically.

Karen frowned, slowing to a stop. “What?”

That was beyond brilliant,” Shonda said. “That putdown was Oscar-worthy and oh-so-necessary.”

“Was it though?” Jennifer asked, just now recovering. Her brow furrowed slightly. “He didn’t mean any harm.”

“Being a bugaboo is harmful,” Shonda countered with a laugh. Then tossed over her shoulder to the open classroom. “Ain’t no one mess with Karen. She a firecracker!”

Karen refrained from rolling her eyes and moved past the two of them to enter the classroom. She needed to calm down and rearrange her expressions before she scared the innocent and sweet children of Kibera. They didn’t deserve the annoyance she felt for certain members of the volunteer team, and they were the main reason she’d come all the way from Houston… not to get involved in unnecessary drama and unwarranted romance. She didn’t have time for any of that.

“Miss Karen!” one of the children called out and Karen plastered a smile as she made her way to them.

<<Chapter 5 || Chapter 7>>

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