Clement was both annoyed and intrigued as Karen rushed past him to greet the man standing by the doorway. Not caring that she had the audience of adults and children, she’d flung her arms around the man’s neck and clung to him as if he was a long-lost friend. He had no idea Karen could be so… enthusiastic.

Ejigu snickered beside him. “She seems excited.”

Clement threw him a glance askance.

“I’m so glad you’re okay.” Karen pulled back to gaze at him from arms’ length.

The man chuckled. “Of course! I’ve lived on this earth for forty-something years. Not much troubles me.”

Ejigu whistled in awe. “He’s forty—” he paused as Dula came to stand beside him.

“I trust you.” Karen paused in mid-laugh and looked down at the children standing quietly behind Ashon. She sighed, recognizing each one from the quarantine tent. “They’re okay too. Thank God.”

“I told you, Missy, your God didn’t save them.”

Clement arched a brow but said nothing. He and the others waited for Karen’s acknowledgment.

Finally noticing the curious bystanders, the man looked their way. For a middle-aged man, he had youthful features and reminded Clement of his eldest brother Abe. Then the man’s gaze landed on Clement and his almond-shaped eyes wrinkled in the corners as he smiled in greeting. “You must be the missionary man. He looks just as you described him, Missy.”

Both of Clement’s brows lifted at the nickname. “And you must be Ashon. I’ve heard quite a bit about you.”

Ashon nodded. “I hope good things.”

“Of course,” Karen said, sounding flustered. Her gaze skipped over the men. “Where’s Wubit?”

“Putting Meko to bed,” Dula answered, extending a hand to Ashon. “Pleased to meet you, sir. I am Dula.”

Ashon nodded in response and accepted the younger man’s handshake. He also greeted Ejigu before putting his hand down for the youngest boy to hold.

Clement noticed that the four children used the man’s lanky frame as a shield to hide behind, their eyes wide with suspicion and fear. Tamping a sigh, he returned his attention back to Ashon. “You must be famished.”

“I could eat,” the older man answered, one corner of his lips twitched upwards.

“Then let’s go.” Clement noticed Karen reserved her warmest smile for Ashon. From the corner of his eye, Dula and Ejigu wore unabashed grins. He ignored them also and turned toward the kitchen. “Follow me.”

Wubit and Eddie bustling about in the kitchen as they prepared dinner. Eddie looked up from kneading dough to smile in greeting as the adults entered. Noticing the children, her expression softened. Dula left the group to round the counter, walking up to his wife standing by the stove.

With a soup ladle in one hand and a pot lid in the other, Wubit turned with a welcoming bright smile. Her gaze taking stock of the group and it stopped in front of Ashon. Her smile slipped instantly.

“This is my wife, Wubit,” Dula said. “Wubit, this is Karen’s friend Ashon.”

The pot lid dropped from Wubit’s hand, landing on Dula’s sandaled feet. As her injured husband hopped on one foot, she gawked at the man standing before her.

“Goodness, are you alright?” Karen’s gaze bounced between the couple.

“I’m fine,” Dula said through clenched teeth and looked to his wife. The shell-shocked daze made him forget about his injured foot and he limped back to her side, placing a hand on her trembling shoulder.

Deaf to her husband’s attempt to calm her down, Wubit stepped forward with eyes fixed on Ashon. “Baba?”

When Ashon inhaled sharply, Karen turned toward him. His eyes were wide in disbelief. His Adam’s apple bobbed with great difficulty as he tried to form the word he hadn’t uttered in years.

Thinking back to her conversation with both Wubit and Ashon, Karen suddenly gasped and held a hand to her mouth. Her eyes bounced between the two and she shook her head in disbelief.

Baba,” Wubit whispered, taking yet another step toward Ashon. There was no question in her tone, as if she didn’t need reassuring that this man knew her well.  Tears streamed down her face as she came to stand before Ashon, and it was as if there was no one but the two of them. “It’s me, Baba.”

Tears brimmed Ashon’s eyes. It’d been almost two decades since he’d lost his wife and his little girl. Yet, this girl-woman standing before him strongly resembled the wife he’d lost.

Clement exchanged worried glances with Dula now standing beside Wubit, protective over his young wife. They both knew the tragic story of her childhood and how she’d lost both parents to a fire. Yet she stood, tentative but certain, that this stranger was her father.

Karen’s heart ached for both. Wubit needed Ashon to acknowledge her and Ashon lived an entire life believing he would never see his daughter again.

She put a hand on Ashon’s trembling shoulder. “Wubit lost her parents in a fire when she was very young.”

Ashon’s face crumbled, letting out a heartwrenching sob. His broad shoulders shook as he cried openly. Wubit whimpered, catching her sob with one hand to her mouth.

Confused and helpless, Dula just watched with a frown etched in his brow. Clement and Ejigu did the same. Uneasy, the children silently inched away from a weeping Ashon. The teenager Eddie abandoned the kneaded dough and quietly ushered the children out of the kitchen.

Baba…” Wubit said as Ashon’s sobs quieted.

Ashon’s lips moved as if struggling with the word he hadn’t spoken in years but longed to say.  “Asma?”

Wubit’s lips trembled at the name and fresh tears rolled down her cheeks. She closed the distance between them, standing inches from him. She held out both hands to him. “Baba, it’s really you.”

“Asma,” Ashon said, awestruck as he took her hands in his. Then tugging her into his arms, he held her tight. Wubit wrapped hers around his slim frame and buried her face in his shoulder, weeping all over again.

Standing a few feet off, Clement and Ejigu watched as a beaming Wubit proudly re-introduced her husband to her father while Karen aside him. The two women embraced while the two men acquainted themselves.

Ejigu clucked his tongue. “I still can’t believe it. Your lady friend’s friend is Wubit’s father. Wow!”

“God works in mysterious ways…” Clement couldn’t say anything else, perplexed by the series of events since he ran into Karen in Finch’awa. She managed to surprise him at every turn, and life certainly wasn’t boring when she was around.

“You brought him back to me,” Wubit finally released Karen before returning to her father’s side.

Karen shook her head. “Nope, we just happened to be at the right place at the right time. It was God who did it, not me.” She smiled as Ashon hooked a brow. “Yes, Ashon, God did this.”

“I didn’t say anything,” the man drawled, his gaze returning to Wubit at his side. His expression turned wistful. “You look just like your mother when I first met her.”

Wubit leaned into him, reveling in the warmth of her father’s embrace.

“I don’t know about you but this calls for a celebration,” Dula announced. “My wife’s father and my father-in-law has been found. We must throw a party.”

“The children are asleep,” Wubit protested half-heartedly, hooking an arm around her father’s narrow waist.

“We’ll be quiet,” Dula assured, a twinkle in his eye. “What do you think, Baba?”

Ashon’s smile was gentle. “I would like to try my ibna’s cooking.”

“She’s a great cook,” Karen assured her friend and was rewarded with one of Wubit’s heartwarming smiles.

“I trust her,” Ashon replied, gazing down at his daughter. “If she’s anything like her mother…”

A bashful Wubit pressed her face against his chest, near his beating heart. Ashon smoothed a hand over her curly hair, as if they relived a time when Wubit was still his little girl.

“Then food first,” Dula inserted. “And tomorrow you’ll meet your grandson, Meko.”

Ashon blinked and he peered down at Wubit. “I… have a grandson?” Tears pooled in his eyes.

“Baba, don’t cry,” Wubit lifted a hand, brushing a tear from his cheek.

The scene made her think of her father and she swallowed against the tears. In all honesty, she missed home.

Wubit’s gaze shifted and her smile returned fully. “Baba, come meet our friends. Brothers, this is my Baba.”

“Pleased to meet you again,” Clement said. “You are welcome to stay as long as you need.”

Ashon nodded with a smile. “Thank you, Missionary.”

“Just call me Clement.”

Karen smirked. “Don’t bother. He still refuses to call me Karen.”

Wubit’s smile eased a little. “That’s because Mama’s name was Karen.”

“Oh no!” Karen’s smile slipped altogether. “Ashon, I’m so sorry.”

His own smile was faint but present. “It’s alright. I’m thankful for you, Missi. I wouldn’t be here with my daughter if you hadn’t dragged me across the border with you.”

“Nu-unh, you chose to go on your own! I didn’t force you to do anything.”

The adults laughed and Dula clapped his hands. “On that note, let’s eat!”

 “Actually,” Clement interjected. “I need to steal Karen away for a second.” His eyes settled on Karen and he held out a hand to her.

Cheeks warm, Karen nodded and placed her hand in his.

“Eat without us,” Clement said as he gently tugged Karen to his side and the two walked out of the kitchen hand-in-hand.

Even after they left the church and stepped into the courtyard, Clement had yet to release her hand. He led her up the sloping hill to the gazebo and she tucked back a smile as he gestured for her to be seated first.

Once they seated, Karen glanced once at him. “For someone who doesn’t want a relationship, you sure enjoy holding hands like you’re in one.” She fought a smile when he quickly released her hand. “Well what was so pressing that we couldn’t talk after dinner?”

“I want you to go home.”

Karen gaped at him. “Excuse me?”

He nodded. “Your friend is here now, which means your passport is here. Ejigu can take you to the capital tomorrow and you’ll take a flight back…” he slowed to a stop when Karen chuckled low. “What’s funny?”

“You are. You’re nothing but hilarious.” Karen stood from the bench and moved to the nearest post. She looked out at the expanse of land before turning to face him. “You’re running away.”

He frowned. “Pardon?”

“Technically you’re pushing me away but the problem is the same. You’re scared.”

Clement narrowed his eyes at her. “I’m not scared of anything. You don’t know what you’re saying.”

“Actually I do.” She leaned against the wooden post and folded her arms across her chest. “Just be honest, Reverend Teka. If not with me, at least be honest with yourself.”

“I’m not a reverend.”

She scoffed incredulously. “Missionary, pastor, reverend, bishop, whatever. A man of God never lies, right? Although I’m sure you’ve broken the rules several times already.”

Clement squinted at her. “What do you want?”

“The truth, Clement. I want the truth. Stop giving me these tight-lipped responses and be real.” She retraced her steps back to the bench. “I didn’t ask you to say you liked me back. I didn’t ask for anything except to acknowledge my feelings, even if you rejected it flat-out. Instead you tell me you’re a celibate monk.”

“Priest, and I am—”

“Just cut the crap and say you don’t like me back. I’m a big girl. I can take it.”

Clement frowned. “Karen, listen…” he paused when she snatched her hand back.

“You can’t touch me if you want to continue this monk priest nonsense. Don’t lead me on.”

“I’m not…” He heaved a sigh. “You don’t know what you’re asking me to do.”

“What am I asking you to do, Clement?” She scooted close, their thighs touching. “I don’t say things casually. I think before I act, even if it seems like I don’t. It took me a while to realize what I felt for you. And I wouldn’t have said it if it was some passing fancy. Clement, I really—”

“Stop!” Clement rose abruptly and took a step back. “Just… stop.”

Karen stared at him, dumbfounded at his rebuff.

The wide-eyed stare on Karen’s face made his chest ache and Clement drew in a shaky breath. “Look, I can’t be a serious relationship right now. Too many things are uncertain. I can’t even take care of those I’m responsible for; I’m barely here. I couldn’t even keep my ex-girlfriend happy.”

Her expression darkened. “I’m not your ex-girlfriend.”

“I know that,” Clement assured her more gently. He regretted raising his voice at her; she didn’t deserve that. “That’s why I don’t want to subject you to this kind of life. You’ll constantly wonder where I am, wonder where my head is at when I’m with you. Things won’t change just because I put a ring on your finger.”

“I’m not asking you to—“

“Hold on.” Clement returned to sit beside her. “I’ve watched my brothers and their families. They put in all they have and it’s still not enough sometimes. Why would you be okay settling with a guy who can’t even give you fifty percent of himself on a daily basis? Is that the kind of marriage you want?”

Her brows furrowed, her expression soft. “I’m not asking for marriage yet…”

Clement averted his gaze. “Yet but it’ll come. What happens when I keep holding it off because of what I do?” He looked up. “Could you honestly stay and wait for me, worried that I might not return one day?”

Karen bit her bottom lip, mulling over the question and what it could mean for her.

The silence was torture. Clement knew the answer was no but he still watched the emotions play on her face.

Then she shook her head and his stomach sank a little. Her brown eyes skimmed his features. “No, I won’t stay and wait. I’ll go with you.”

Clement’s shoulders dropped and he blew out a sigh. “Karen…”

She grabbed his hand before he could stand. “Don’t run away after saying your piece. Let me say mine.”

“There’s nothing else to say. I’m not going to risk your life and that’s the end of that.”

Karen scowled as he brushed her hand aside and stood. “You’re such a coward, Clement Teka.”

“Yeah well, this coward is taking you back to the capital first thing tomorrow. Get ready.”

“I’m not going anywhere!” Karen stood as he turned his back and started down the hill. “Coward!”

The insult didn’t hurt as much as the scolding he gave himself for being such a fool. A woman like Karen was hard to come by; brave, considerate, beautiful and willing to risk it all for a chance with him. He shook his head, blocking his ears to both his inner voice and Karen’s protests at his back, and stalked inside.

Seeing as Clement didn’t even so much as turn back, Karen dropped to the bench. Dazed, she stared at the wooden boards of the gazebo floor.

She’d gotten her rejection alright, and it stung worse than any past breakups. Maybe because she really wanted this with Clement and he didn’t. Karen placed a hand over her trembling mouth. “Don’t you dare cry…” she warned herself, pressing her lips together.

A gentle wind caressed her cool face and Karen swiped a thumb over her wet cheeks. She laughed softly. “Get a grip, Karen. He doesn’t want you.” Tears fell and she covered her face, crying silently.

It was clear Clement wanted her gone, and she couldn’t stay longer since her flight was in a few days.

Karen wiped her face and stood. She’d leave with Ejigu back to the capital tomorrow, done with delaying the inevitable. Clement didn’t want a relationship with her and she wouldn’t try to convince him otherwise.

Saying goodbye wasn’t as hard when everyone but Clement and Ejigu were fast asleep. Mumbling a half-hearted farewell to Clement, she walked ahead to Ejigu’s parked van. It was better this way, or she’d hesitate leaving her new friends and the children she’d promised to help.

Karen refocused her attention on Ejigu as he climbed into the driver’s seat. “Thanks for taking me…”

His smile was faint. “It’s no problem.” An hour before dawn, Ejigu’s van pulled out of the courtyard and started up the road to the capital. Karen swallowed hard and allowed herself one more glance at Clement’s fleeting figure in the side mirror.

The five-hour drive began in complete silence, with Karen staring forlornly out the window. Although Ejigu wanted to check on her, he remained quiet. Then his phone began ringing nonstop. After a few minutes of Ejigu not answering the calls, Karen looked his way. “You can pick it up, y’know.”

“It’s nothing,” Ejigu answered stiffly, eyes darting to the rearview mirror and back down to the road ahead. His foot pressed on the accelerator, the van picking up speed.

Karen squinted against a flashing light reflected against the side mirror. Her stomach fluttered, thinking it was Clement. She turned back to alert Ejigu, when a blinding light shone ahead. Her eyes widened, realizing it was an incoming car in their path with no plans of stopping.

Abruptly, Ejigu jerked the steering wheel, sending the van swerving off the road. A yelp caught in her throat as the van tilted on its right wheel and Karen clutched the side of the door, eyes wide with horror.

<<Chapter 26 || Chapter 28>>