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They hadn’t held hands in ages. At thirty-years old, it didn’t seem all that necessary as it was when she was ten years old. But when Gabriel grabbed hold of her hand and led her down the winding path, Samina felt a peace she hadn’t felt in years. In introspective silence, they listened to the crickets providing an evening melody, the croaking bullfrogs complementing the tone. Gabriel whistled a tune.

 “Oh my darling, oh my darling, oh my darling Clementine.”

Her nose wrinkled before he whistled the next stanza. “Dad, that’s a terrible song …” She raised a brow at him. “It’s about a man losing his daughter to drowning.”

Gabriel choked a laugh. “Oh wow.”

She shrugged, leaning into him as they walked the woven path. “I looked up the lyrics when I was fifteen. It changed my life forever.”

He nudged her shoulder. “Drama queen.”

Samina sighed and propped her head against his shoulder. “You heard everything?”

“Not if you didn’t want me to.”

She twisted her mouth. “Do you… think she’s right?”

Gabriel didn’t answer at first, mulling over his daughter’s words. The silence stretched for a few moments before he released a sigh. “I always used to think you were like your mother; headstrong and frustratingly independent.” He chuckled lowly. “In a way, you are… but I see a lot of myself in you too.”

Samina managed a smile. For so long, she always felt closer to him because they were so much alike. “I’m your mini-me.”

He peered down at her. “You’re my mirror.” He squeezed her hand. “Even when you were just a baby, your eyes always watched me, doing as you saw me do. Funny thing was you took your cues from me.”

She remained quiet, knowing he was right. A memory of a trip to the beach, walking in her father’s large footsteps, came to mind.

“I’m grateful that you are our firstborn, Samina,” he continued. “You set the temperature for the house based on how your mother and I were feeling. Your uncanny ability to moderate and set the mood of the family, it amazes me.”

Samina bit her bottom lip as he stopped walking. He turned to face her, his face shrouded and unreadable under the half-cast moonlight.

“But I’m seeing now, that you took on more than a child should have to. Because I got too comfortable with you and your mom being assertive and strong women, you took on a role you shouldn’t have.”

She blinked, wary of his grave tone. “Dad…”

“It is not your job to be your mother’s husband or your siblings’ father. That’s my job. You’re not supposed to be my mirror, or the family’s thermostat.” His thumbs brushed the back of her hands. “You don’t have to be strong or invincible. Even I can’t. Only God can.”

Tears welled up in her eyes. “Dad…”

“Embrace your weaknesses as well as your strengths, Samina. They are what make you special, what make you beautiful.” He lifted a hand and cupped her cheek. “It’s okay to say that you don’t have all the answers, or that you’re confused with your life’s journey, or that you’re not perfect. No one is perfect.”

Samina drew in her bottom lip, gnawing at it.

“You’re not me, your mom, Karen or Obadiah. God made you special, unique, beautiful in your own way. There’s no need for you to be someone He hasn’t created you to be.”

She nodded, looking down. “I know that…”

“If you know that, why are you confused?”

Samina looked up, her brow furrowed. “I’m not… confused.

“Ok… what is it then?”

She stiffened. He wouldn’t understand; no one ever did. Her eyes tingled. Don’t you dare cry again.

Gabriel’s hands let go of hers and moved to cup her shoulders. “Samina… Everything you’ll ever need in life, God has provided it for you.”

She refrained from rolling her eyes. “Dad…”

“Delay isn’t denial, you know that, don’t you?”

Samina held her tongue. It sure felt like everything in her life was a loud and firm denial, but arguing with him and God didn’t seem appropriate.

He squeezed her shoulders. “In due time, everything you need, will be met. Stop stressing about what will happen and live for today.”

She smiled wryly. “You sound like a fortune cookie, Dad.”

Gabriel chuckled softly. “Don’t think for a moment that I don’t know about you collecting notes from fortune cookies…”

Her cheeks warmed, recalling the box of rolled-up fortune cookies slips under her childhood bed, representing dashed hopes and dreams. ‘Your future is looking bright’; ‘Love is waiting at the next corner’; ‘Keep on believing.’ She’d been a fool to believe in it all.

He sighed, draping an arm around her shoulders and pulled her closer. “My mini-me…”

Samina leaned into him, warmed by the endearment. “Yes, Daddy?”

“Enjoy your life. Don’t dwell on the past, on things you can’t change. Live for today because you can.”

There was a soft wistful lilt to his tone that had Samina peeking up at his shadowed face.

He sighed. “For more than thirty-something years, I lived with regret and wished I could turn back time. I wished I could’ve told Odetta that I feared failing her, or not being the man she thought I was. That’s why I worked hard, knowing that if I didn’t, I might lose her to Jeremiah.”

She frowned. “Uncle?”

Gabriel grunted. “I knew he loved her too, maybe even more than I ever could… and it ate at me every time she talked about what a great and smart guy he was. In a way, I’d made him my yard stick on how to be a man. And even long after Odetta, I still found myself doing that. Seeing how he treated Sheena like she was his precious gift and finding myself wanting.”

Samina bit the inside of her cheek.

“And because I had my eyes on what he was doing, I hurt your mother with neglect.”

Samina had a sneaky suspicion that this was beyond fatherly advice and more so overdue contemplation over his past failings. She slipped an arm around his waist. “Daddy…?”

“Hmm?”

She hesitated. “You… love Mom, don’t you?”

“Of course I do.” His voice shook a little. “It’s a matured love that endures in spite of frustrations and insecurities because she’s my precious gift. No matter what, we’ll face every circumstance and struggle together.”

Samina swallowed hard.

“I wish I could say it was love at first sight or that I was head over heels in love with your mother… But I wasn’t. I was still hurt from Odetta’s betrayal and didn’t trust women. But your mother was enduring, patient and stubborn.” He chuckled dryly. “It’s funny; the very thing that attracts you to someone is often the very thing that drives you nuts.”

Samina paused, wondering what about Ezekiel attracted her and drove her nuts at the same time. Gabriel’s hand on her cheek caught her at mid-frown.

“Your sister is right, Samina.” Gabriel brushed her cheek with his thumb. “I rather you wait until you’re sure before you jump into anything in life. Career and in love. Even if you have to wait a while, wait and decide what you really want. When times get tough, and you’ve taken that much-needed time, you won’t regret waiting.”

The peace that had settled in her at the beginning of their walk was long gone, an unsettling feeling resting on her as they made their quiet walk back to the camp. She watched as Gabriel crossed the camp fire to where Deidre sat with Sheena and Jeremiah. With a wistful smile, she watched Gabriel reach for Deidre’s hand and tug her to her feet.

Deidre cocked her head curiously as Gabriel took the seat and patted his lap. Jeremiah and Sheena chuckled, Deidre smacking Gabriel’s shoulder before perching on his lap.

Tamping down a sigh, Samina turned away once the elder couples continued their murmuring and turned to where Karen and Ezekiel’s girls sat together, Beulah leaning into Karen as she re-braided her plaits while Adelaide nibbled on a graham cracker.

Samina snuck away to the tent she shared with Karen, intent on sleeping the cramps and fatigue away. A twig snapped to her left and she hurried into the tent, snapping the flap close. It could be Ezekiel, seeking her response. Or Topher…

She couldn’t face either one right now; not when her thoughts were a discombobulated mess.

Wiggling into the sleeping bag, Samina turned her back and squeezed her eyes tight. The last thought on her mind before drifting off to sleep was what Odetta must’ve felt making her decision.

Topher stood at the bank of the river, his brow furrowed slightly as he took in the orange and pink hues in the sky. The night passed too slowly and with Samina on his brain, he couldn’t sleep. It didn’t help that Obadiah’s guttural snoring was way worse than Nadine’s wheezing. By three in the morning, he’d given up trying and took a long jog around the river, trying to organize his thoughts and his feelings.

He wished to forget what he’d seen earlier that evening; the picture of Ezekiel kneeling before Samina.

“I thought I was the only one who couldn’t sleep past five.”

Topher’s jaw hardened. Though he didn’t know the man long enough, he found himself recognizing the voice of Samina’s boyfriend Ezekiel.

The man stifled a yawn as he came to stand at Topher’s side.

In the wake of their silence, bullfrogs hiding in the reeds along the bank croaked out their melodious beat.

“There’s nothing quite like the great outdoors,” Ezekiel continued, his voice light and cheery.

Topher grunted. It was too early in the morning for merriment.

After a brief pause, Ezekiel spoke again. “I heard about your parents. I’m sorry for your loss.”

He kicked a shoulder, not wanting this man’s sympathy.

“The older I get,” Ezekiel mused aloud. “The more I realize what a small world we live in. It seems everyone is connected somehow.”

He rolled his eyes. What did Samina see in this talkative, annoying fellow?

“That we’re all related in some way, it’s bizarre.” Ezekiel chuckled. “To think that Samina’s friendship with you allowed you to meet our fathers who were your parents’ friends… It’s definitely God.”

Topher bristled inwardly, wishing the man to leave.

Ezekiel then turned to face him. “I’d like us to be friends.”

Topher arched a brow. Did this guy think they were in kindergarten?

“I can see Samina cares for you. A friend of hers is a friend of mine.”

He wanted to laugh. Even with Ezekiel’s warm expression, Topher knew better than to take this man’s words at face value. Just as he stood at Samina’s side, occupying every moment of her time since they arrived at the camp, he was now verbally staking a claim over Samina. Topher felt his lips curl upwards. He did always like a challenge. “And if I don’t agree?”

Ezekiel’s smile froze. “Agree to what, Samina’s feelings for you?”

Topher grinned wider. “The latter. Do we really need to be friends to co-exist in her heart?”

Ezekiel’s smile changed. “I’m not good at sharing.”

“Neither am I,” Topher answered easily, shoving both hands in his pockets. “But this isn’t about sharing a cookie or a toy. Samina’s heart isn’t a toy.”

Ezekiel’s face hardened. “Samina loves me. Always have, always will.”

Topher smiled effortlessly. “Good for you.”

“I plan to marry her.”

He nodded. The image of Ezekiel kneeling was clear as day in his mind. “I know.”

“She will be my wife.”

Topher cocked a brow at Ezekiel’s face now taut with increasing irritation. The self-assuredness he’d assumed earlier was now absent in his expression. “Is that merely an assumption or a known fact?”

Ezekiel narrowed his eyes then, lips pursed tight. “Don’t confuse her.”

“What, you’re scared she’ll refuse?” Topher raised both brows. “That she has a better option than the one you’re proposing?”

Ezekiel scoffed. “You’re joking. Do you know her at all?”

“Do you?” Topher smirked as Ezekiel’s smile waned. “So what she had a crush on you? Does that give you full reins of her heart?”

Without warning, Ezekiel grabbed hold of Topher’s collar, face darkening with a scowl. “Who are you to say that? What do you know?”

Unaffected, Topher just stared down at him. “And who are you to decide what she wants?”

Ezekiel’s fists tightened on Topher’s t-shirt. “Shut your mouth.”

Topher breathed a laugh. “I’m not in the mood to repeat history here. Let go or I’ll make you.”

A round of claps alerted both men, the raging fires within sizzling as they turned to see Samina standing in the clearing. Ezekiel’s hands loosened around Topher’s shirt and he quickly stepped away. Topher didn’t blink as Samina walked forward, clapping her hands slowly.

“A round of applause,” Samina drawled out, stepping fully out of the shadows. “What an awesome performance, gentlemen.”

“Sam, I can explain…” Ezekiel stepped forward.

“Explain what exactly?” Samina glared at both men. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you two were kids fighting over a toy.”

Topher swallowed a curse. Ezekiel inhaled sharply. She’d heard everything.

She folded both arms across her chest, her brow furrowed. “So what were you going to do, fight knowing your daughters could walk in on you two?”

“No one was going to fight,” Ezekiel insisted, his tone growing agitated. “I was just…”

“Warning him off? Making veiled threats?” Samina turned to Topher before Ezekiel could explain but could only shake her head. “I don’t recognize either of you.”  She turned away, hand to her head.

Ezekiel stepped closer but Topher grabbed his shoulder to stop him. He scowled when Ezekiel shrugged him off and closed the distance. He glared at Ezekiel as the man draped an arm around Samina’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry, baby,” Ezekiel murmured, loud enough for Topher to hear but soft enough to sound contrite.

Topher wanted nothing more than to grab Ezekiel by the collar and push him away from Samina. Instead he stood and waited in silence. It wasn’t his place to interfere, even if he desperately wanted to.

Samina elbowed Ezekiel to keep her distance. “Stop.” She glared up at him. “Even now, you’re still doing it. Stop it, for goodness’ sake.”

Dumbfounded, Ezekiel gaped at her. “Sam…”

“I’m not a toy, Ezekiel.” Samina snapped, indignant. “I decide what and who I want, not you.”

Ezekiel’s mouth opened and closed, eyes blinking.

“What do you want then?” Topher heard himself speak.

Samina turned to him, eyes sizzling. “I thought I knew but now… I don’t know.”

Ezekiel frowned. “But—”

“And until I’m sure, I don’t want to talk to either of you about it.” Samina hitched her chin. “And don’t you dare follow me or try to change my mind. Punch your stupid heads in for all I care. Good day!” She spun on her heels and stormed off.

Ezekiel puffed out an exasperated breath in her wake and dragged a hand over his face.

Topher slowly released a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding all this time.

Grunting, Ezekiel turned to him with a ‘now what’ expression and Topher did everything he could to keep from laughing. He was not in the mood to fight anyone, especially not now.

With a sigh, Topher turned to face the lake just as the sun rose above the trees.

<<Chapter 47 || Chapter 49>>

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