J.R. gritted his teeth as Darah’s monotonous voice message played for the fifth time, this time he didn’t wait and disconnected the call. Then he blew out a breath.

“What, she’s not answering?”

Glancing once at Hana beside him, J.R. shook his head and started re-dialing.

Bhaiyaa, I really don’t think harassing—”

“I’ll be back,” he answered curtly and stood. Putting the phone to his ear, J.R. exited the room without hearing her response.

Though acutely aware of his brusque attitude with Hana, his growing frustration with Darah’s evasiveness left no room for patience. Three days had passed since he’d last seen Darah; terrified and trembling in front of his father’s hospital room. And since not even Clement was gracious enough to tell him what happened, he had to play phone tag until someone picked up—

“Teka House, may I know who’s speaking?”

J.R.’s face lit up at the sound of Abe and Phoebe’s eldest child. “Isaac, hey. It’s Uncle J.R.”

When there was a pause on the other line, J.R.’s brow furrowed. “Hello?”

“Uh, yeah… Uncle J.R., hello.”

Pausing, J.R. imagined what or who could cause awkwardness in his reply. “She’s there, isn’t she?”

Isaac peeked once at Darah gesturing wildly for him to keep her presence unknown. His eleven-year-old mind didn’t understand why telling a lie was right, no matter how many times his aunty reassured him. More troubling was why she didn’t want to talk to Uncle J.R. “Um….”

J.R. would’ve laughed if he wasn’t ridden with anxiety. This woman would be the death of him; that much was for sure. Dragging a hand over his face, he exhaled a breath. “Okay, don’t say anything but yes or no. Is your aunt sitting next to you right now?”

Again, Isaac peered over at his aunt who shook her head as though reading his mind. He worried his bottom lip, very much like his mother did when unsure. “Yes.”

“Is she okay?”

The pre-teen arched a brow when his aunty kept gesticulating wildly, as if he contemplated whether or not she was in her right mind. He sighed again and nodded. “Yes.”

J.R. breathed out a sigh of relief. “Okay, good… That’s good.”

“What’s he saying?” she mouthed to her nephew who merely shrugged, his brow knotted in confusion.

Deciding it was much easier hiding out in the room than making the kids lie on her behalf, she headed for the stairs. Upon descent, her legs were like jelly and tingled with every step. She had to hold the banister to guide her. Topping the last step, she heard Phoebe clucking her tongue in disapproval by Eli’s bedroom door.

“When will you stop playing phone tag with this poor man?” Phoebe came to stand before her, arms folded. “And it’s not cool to have the kids do your dirty work, Darah.”

“If he’d stop calling, I won’t need to do that.” She moved around her to enter the room. “I don’t have anything to say to him.”

“Yeah right. Weren’t you the one just begging Clement to take you to him? I don’t buy it.” Phoebe perched beside her. “What happened at the hospital?”

“I don’t have anything to say about that either.” She quickly turned away so her sister-in-law couldn’t read her face. The tingling sensation still remained, traveling up her legs to her hips. Instinctively, she wrapped a hand over her stomach and closed her eyes.

“In any case,” Phoebe spoke after a moment of silence. “The next time he calls my phone I’ll answer. If you won’t give me a reason for why we have to avoid him, I’ll have to do what is necessary.”

“Please don’t meddle.” Darah winced as the tingle morphed into a piercing pain across her stomach. She pressed fingers against her lower abdomen.

Phoebe scoffed. “When you’ve got the kids involved, how could I not?”

Darah didn’t respond at first, her body taut until the wave of pain eased off. She drew in a breath and released it, grateful for the reprieve. The painful pangs only came once in a while, and could easily be solved by eating. Realizing both breakfast and lunch had been forgotten today, she pushed herself up on her elbow. “Hey, is there any food?”

“So now you’re ready to eat without me begging?”

She ignored the derisive tone, well aware of the fact that Phoebe almost force-fed her for three straight days. She rolled her eyes. “My appetite is back. Look if there’s nothing, I’ll go get it myself.”

Phoebe smirked. “Okay then. What are you craving?”

As another twinge of pain squeezed her stomach, she stifled a grimace. The urgency to eat something couldn’t wait for Phoebe’s meticulous cooking. “Actually, never mind. I need some fresh air, so I’ll get something from the store.”

“Hope not fast food,” Phoebe said, following her out the door. “You’ve got to be careful about greasy stuff now, okay?”

“Got it,” Darah answered without exasperation, slightly distracted by the tingling in her stomach. Reaching the bottom of the step, she passed Isaac still on the phone. “Hang up the phone, Isaac!” she called over her shoulder, grabbing the car keys from the console table on her way to the door.

“Where’s she going?” Isaac asked his mother who placed a hand over his shoulder. He gladly relinquished the phone to her when she held out a hand and hurried back upstairs to play video games before it was time for homework.

“Hey J.R.,” Phoebe spoke into the phone, watching from the window as Darah climbed down the porch steps to the driveway. “How are you?”

Grimacing fully now, she rubbed her belly and walked up to the minivan. “What’s wrong, baby? I’m about to feed you so—”

“Darah?”

At the familiar voice, her face darkened and she turned to see Tess standing in the driveway.

With a sheepish expression, Tess waved. “Hey.”

Darah’s scowl darkened and she folded her arms across her chest. “What do you want? I’m busy.”

Her smile slipped off her face and Tess lowered her hand, tucking it behind her. “Can we talk?”

With the tingling in her legs resuming, Darah readied herself to reject the request. She didn’t have time for unpleasant chats with traitor ex-best friends.

“Maybe a café somewhere near. It’s on me.” Her expression turned plaintive. “Please?”

On cue, Darah’s stomach growled and Tess’s eyes dropped to it. Darah pursed her lips in thought. As much as she didn’t want to talk with Tess, it would be foolish of her to pass up free food. She cleared her throat and tilted her chin as haughtily as she could. “Where to?”

A ghost of a smile twitched Tess’s lips but faded quickly. “Uh, how about the Thai café you like, the one across the library?”

Apparently the baby wanted Thai food as much as she did, her stomach twisting and turning violently and loudly too. She cleared her throat to mask the gurgling sounds and shrugged. “I guess.”

“Uh, okay…” Tess paused, noting Darah’s legs trembled visibly. “Are you okay?”

“Yup.” Darah placed hands on her hips, adopting a casual air in spite of her wobbly legs. “Go ahead, I’ll meet you there.”

“You sure? We could drive together if—”

“That won’t be happening.” She threw Tess a withering look that brooked no argument. “Go on ahead.”

Tess nodded, her eyes volleying between Darah’s flat stomach and face. “Guess I’ll see you there then.”

“Right,” Darah answered curtly, keeping her face void of emotion until Tess finally turned away. Leaning back against the car door, she glared at the car blocking her passage. “Annoying wench.”

Her suspicion was confirmed moments later when Darah glanced at the rearview mirror and spotted Tess’ car trailing hers. In a moment of pettiness that would disapprove Phoebe, Darah suddenly braked hard and despite the niggling ache in her stomach, she grinned when brakes screeched loud behind her.

Then a car bleated impatiently behind Tess’s car and Darah’s smile disappeared. She immediately stepped off the brakes, deciding to hear Tess once she’d filled her restless belly.

Minutes later with an unsettled stomach, Darah wished she’d ignored Tess altogether. Even with an appealing plate of pad Thai before her, the smell of curry and peanut made her mouth water for a different reason. She pushed the nausea down and nudged the plate away.

“Don’t you have anything to ask me?” Tess took a sip of her water before reaching for her spoon. “I mean, I’m sure you have plenty questions about Jeremy and I.”

Darah dragged her eyes to the middle of Tess’s forehead. “I actually don’t.”

Tess didn’t look convinced. “You seriously don’t want to know how it happened?”

“Not really. Look, I’m not in the mood for small talk if that’s why you lured me here.”

Tess frowned at Darah’s untouched plate. “Isn’t Pad Thai your favorite, or do you want something else?” She turned her head and signaled for the waiter.

“Don’t bother with the fake courtesy either,” Darah replied, rubbing the tension in her stomach. “And don’t look at me like that. We have no reason to sit together and eat like we’re friends or something.”

One brow arched, Tess snorted. Then she lowered her gaze to her green curry dish and giggled.

Darah scowled. “And what’s so funny?”

“Everything…” Tess placed her fork down and folded her arms across her chest. She looked up at Darah, eyes dancing with mocking laughter. “It still boggles my mind how we ended up here, like this.”

If they weren’t in a public place, Darah would’ve tossed her cold water in her face. Instead, she bunched her free hand into a fist under the table.

“All these years I thought we’d be friends forever,” Tess continued, leaning back in her chair. “That we’d each get married to the loves of our lives, have children who’d be friends and we’d grow old together, sharing memories…”

“What nonsense. How could you even dream that up when you’d so easily betray my trust in you?” Just the mention of the betrayal made her stomach turn.

The wistful smile on Tess’s face disappeared. “I was only relevant when you needed to vent to someone, or needed advice that you didn’t want your family knowing about. Admit it Darah, you used me.”

Darah rolled her eyes. “How typical of you, acting like the victim.”

Tess gaped at her. “I’m the victim when you’re the one always mentioning your hard-knock life with meddlesome brothers and no parents—?”

“Shut your mouth!” she snapped angrily. “Shut your dirty mouth, you backstabber.”

“Oh, calm down…” Tess paused when the waiter suddenly appeared at their table, refilling their water glasses. She sighed in exasperation. “Could you come back later?”

“No actually, please pack this up for me,” Darah said, nudging the plate aside.

“Sure thing,” the waiter answered, reaching for the plate. “Will this be on the same order or—”

“Separate checks please!” Tess answered.

Darah laughed incredulously, unfazed. “Someone’s petty.”

“… I’ll be right back,” the waiter said awkwardly and hurried away.

“How funny, I thought you agreed to foot the bill.”

“I changed my mind.” The gleam in Tess’s eyes made Darah bristle. “Since I only pay for my friends.”

“Of course you—” Darah gasped inwardly as a sharper pain sluiced through her stomach, down to the spot between her legs. The hand on her belly clenched her shirt, and she pressed the heels of her feet against the chair legs. It took longer than a second to catch her breath.

“Well, I’ll just tell you that it was an honest mistake,” Tess sniffed, picking at invisible dust on her shoulder. “I certainly wasn’t expecting to fall for anyone while in grad school, but it happened. We saw each other and hit it off. I only found out he was with you after I saw a picture of you together. It would’ve been good if you’d told me about him beforehand.”

Darah ignored her, the sudden urge to use the toilet compelling her to leave the table. Plus, she wasn’t in the mood to hear any lame excuses for Tess’s betrayal. Except that her feet tingled, and she imagined herself falling on her face in front of Tess.

Then the waiter returned with the takeout box, and Tess turned to ask him about ordering another dish for her fiancé.

Using this chance to escape, Darah pressed her palms against the arms of the chair and pushed to stand. Suddenly, warm liquid gushed down her leg. Freezing to a stop, Darah’s eyes widened in astonishment. Then dread. Her heart started to race in panic as she looked down at her light-colored joggers.

Tess looked at Darah suspended between standing and sitting, noting her wide-eyed expression. “What’s the matter with you?”

Petrified, Darah dropped to her seat, her tingling legs and the spinning room knocking her off balance.

“Oh my God, is she bleeding?” someone behind her whispered, confirming what she’d seen.

“Is she okay?” another called out to their table.

“Darah!” Tess’ voice rang loud in echoes. She quickly pushed away from the table to reach for Darah whose body drooped forward.

The sounds of panicked voices drowned the violent thumping of her pulse. Once the waiter caught her head from landing in the plate of warm pad Thai, everything faded to black.

<<Chapter 22 || Chapter 24>>

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