If not for the gravity of the moment, Eleazar would’ve laughed. Certainly not out of humor. Darah had warned him about Nigerian parents and it seemed she wasn’t far off. Mr. Smith’s approach may have been more civil from his wife’s, but the animosity for him was veiled in logic as twisted as his wife’s. And Eleazar wouldn’t sit down and let it be; Zoey’s dad or not.

Mentally affixing Abe’s disapproving mug to this man’s face, Eleazar continued talking. “I respect that you are Zoey’s father and you want what’s best for her. I’ve got nieces, one whose already eighteen and probably making questionable choices of her own. I would give my right arm and leg to make sure none of them are hurt by some idiot with no sense. But I’m not an idiot, Mr. Smith.”

The other brow arched inquisitively.

“I really don’t know what Zoey has said or hasn’t said about me. I may have made the choice not to go to college, but it wasn’t because I was stupid.”

“Education is important, young man.”

“Education shouldn’t be limited to a classroom, sir.” His gaze didn’t waver. “I have high school classmates who went that route with some successful and some still without a job, neck-deep in debt. And for what reason? So someone can qualify a piece of paper and say you’re intelligent?”

Mr. Smith’s brows furrowed.

“Not saying going to college is a waste. My two eldest brothers went and made a name for themselves, but Junior’s a missionary and doing just fine without a college degree… I know Zoey’s a very intelligent young woman. She can do fine in college and I have no doubt that she’ll succeed in whatever she does…”

“But?”

Eleazar paused. “Why do you get the right to judge my ability as Zoey’s man just because I’m not a college degree holder?”

Mr. Smith chuckled. “That is not why I don’t want you as Zoey’s man.”

He knew it already but hearing it again felt like a punch in his gut. “Oh?” he managed.

The older man folded his arms. “Can you see yourself making a life here in Lagos? Do you think you can survive the hustle of this place?”

Eleazar frowned. “I don’t follow.”

“Zoey is going to take over the family business, which means she’s returning home after graduation. Any ties to the United States ends the minute she boards that plane.”

He couldn’t help it; his jaw dropped open. “Does… Zoey know this?”

“She knew this before leaving home.” The older man shrugged. “It’s a possibility that she may have forgotten since meeting you…”

Eleazar closed his mouth and swallowed hard. He looked away, to the street where the car was parked. He wondered what Zoey was thinking—did she have any idea what her dad was doing? Was this part of the plan all along? Did she want to break up?

“Nonetheless, young man, this is a question I already know the answer to and I’m sure you know it as well. You’re different, and you don’t belong here. Tonight proves it for you and me both. And Zoey.”

Eleazar smirked. “Sounds like a line from one of those trash soaps Darah watches.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“My bad, thinking aloud.” Eleazar dropped the toothpick on the table and scooted his chair back. “I’ve heard you, sir. And I’m ready to head back when you are.”

Mr. Smith sat in silence, staring at the young man. Then he spoke. “Has anyone mentioned how ill-mannered you can be?”

Eleazar only smiled. “Sure. They’re entitled to their opinions and so am I.”

“And what is your opinion?”

He smirked. “Yeah, don’t think you’d want to hear that.”

“Go ahead.”

Eleazar could hear Abe and Phoebe, begging him to shut up and leave it alone. “Well…” He sat up and stared the man straight in his face. “A father is bound to dislike his only daughter’s boyfriend from the jump and I was prepared for that. But from the moment you saw me, you’d judged me. Pretty much labeled me some illiterate, rude and spoiled brat from America. Well, you’re dead wrong. I was practically raised by my adopted siblings—our parents died when I was only six years old, and we fought hard to make life work for us all. And we did a great job too. Before I was even a teenager, some woman suddenly shows up saying she’s my grandma and wants to be part of my life, with no say from anyone—certainly not me. Went through unnecessary hell because of someone’s useless guilt for not being there for a grandson she didn’t really want but felt bad yet didn’t want the full responsibility of raising him. Inserting her opinion about how I was raised before she came into my life, criticizing my siblings for every little thing, putting a rift between us every chance she could get. Don’t get me wrong, she tried, I guess. But it took my siblings and me—I, years to close that gap between us.

“Took a summer trip to visit my brother in Ethiopia, to serve alongside him, to realize who I am and what my purpose in life is. Didn’t need some college professors to help me figure that out when I had six teachers at home, showing me, correcting me, guiding me. Definitely won’t trade that for no stupid college degree that isn’t guaranteed to give me anything but endless loans. But you don’t know that and you don’t care.”

His body felt hot and not even the evening breeze could cool him down. “And with all due respect, Mr. Smith, I don’t really care if you approve of my existence. You and your wife weren’t there to stop my mom from dumping me in a garbage can or watch me endure multiple hospital stays so I could fight to overcome the consequences of stupid mistakes she made—mistakes a college graduate made, mind you. You weren’t there to help my brothers who left their great livelihoods to raise their younger siblings. You weren’t there when we almost lost our parents’ house or lost each other because of some–” He drew in a breath and released it. “Stop labeling people just because you don’t understand them. Stop inserting your opinions in a life you had no right to. You don’t know me and if you don’t think I’m worth having your daughter’s heart, that is your business. Zoey is grown enough to decide for herself if I’m worth it.”

He chuckled low. “And well if she agrees with you, that’s her decision to make. I don’t need any approval from you about the life I have lived, because I know I’m doing well for myself.” He arched both brows. “Is that clear enough, sir?”

The older man was quiet for a moment, scratched the side of his face and then sighed. “It sounds like you’ve had a tough life, son.”

“I didn’t tell you that for pity, sir.”

“Not at all. I understand you. More than you know. ” Then he sighed, scooting back his chair. “It’s getting late. Zoey will worry.” He stood and Eleazar did too. With one long look at the young man’s scowl that revealed his distaste for the entire evening, Mr. Smith grunted under his breath and turned toward the street.

Convinced he wouldn’t be allowed to spend the night at the Smith’s residence, Eleazar trudged after him.

Once inside the car, Mr. Smith took a moment before starting the ignition. He made no move to drive but just rested his hands on the steering wheel while the engine rumbled on. Eleazar held his breath, waiting to be told he was no longer welcome in their house. Although he’d said the truth, he’d said too much.

“You remind me of myself long ago.”

Eleazar frowned. “Huh?”

“Yes,” Mr. Smith laughed. “Hard to believe but yes. I remember when I came to see him and ask for his daugher’s hand in marriage. He finished me that day until even I almost scolded my audacity for thinking I could be worth his daughter.” He sighed. “Hearing you today, I could hear myself again… and my father-in-law. To be honest with you, I didn’t like him much, especially how he treated those that weren’t his family. How he treated my wife and her sister like they were pa…” He suddenly quieted.

Eleazar noted Mr. Smith’s hands tighten around the steering wheel.

“It would appear I owe you an apology, son. It seems you were right about me after all.”

Truth had never hurt so much. Zoey gaped at her mother. “I have an elder brother?”

Her mother averted her gaze. “It was a long time ago…”

“Mom, that doesn’t make it easier to hear. How could you do that?!”

“Don’t raise your voice at me.” It should’ve sounded like a scolding but all Zoey heard was a diminutive plea that didn’t match her mother’s fiery personality. Her head was bowed and shoulders drooped as though she was the one being scolded.

Zoey heaved a sigh. “I just don’t understand. Why…?”

“Your aunty had barely escaped our father’s wrath. He beat her so bad she almost lost the baby.” Her mother shuddered visibly and Zoey inched close, though not reaching out to hold her. “I couldn’t… not after seeing that.”

“So to escape Grandpa’s beating, you gave up your child?” Zoey grimaced, the taste of the words so bitter in her mouth. The countless times her mother pointed out Paula’s illegitimate birth was humiliating. “Mom, seriously?”

Her mother remained silent, posture limp.

“Okay, fine. We’ll talk about that later. But what does he have to do with Eli?” A scowl formed. “Wait, don’t tell me you think Eli’s your son—”

“Be quiet! I didn’t say that!”

Zoey folded her arms across her chest. “Then what is it?”

Her mother pinned her with a narrowed glare. “Don’t get sassy with me.”

“I’m sorry Mom, but you and Dad have been ragging me all night about my American boyfriend when your colossal secret is way worse—!” She reared back when her mom raised a hand.

“You’re not too big for me to spank you, Zoey. Watch your mouth.”

Zoey gritted through clenched teeth. “Sorry.”

Her mother sighed deeply and turned toward the balcony. “I just don’t want you to be influenced like how I was. Those boys are very wild.”

All boys without home training could be wild—even Law had his bad moments. Zoey refrained from rolling her eyes, choosing silence instead of sass.

“The way they approach girls, especially ones who are too young to know who they are, it’s scary. You won’t believe the sleepless nights I had while you were away. I even had to take something to help me sleep through the night…”

“Mom…” Zoey stared at her mother’s lonely back. “I was okay.”

“The only saving grace for me was that you were doing well in school. I thought you couldn’t possibly be doing anything with any boy while acing your classes. And you would tell me if you were… to know now that I was wrong is beyond painful.” Her mother turned around, squinting at her daughter. “Are you intimate with him?”

Zoey frowned. “No, Mom. Eli respects my boundaries as I do his.”

Her mother snorted. “Does that one have boundaries?”

“Yes he does, Mom. We haven’t done anything.” She couldn’t believe this type of questioning when her mother’s faults were grave in comparison.

“No smashing?”

Zoey choked in disbelief. “Excuse me?!”

Her mother rolled her eyes. “I’m not some illiterate village person. I know that’s what you people do in the dance clubs, pressing on each other while dancing?”

Zoey’s face burst into flames and she sputtered. “I…” An image flashed in her mind of Eli holding her against him while they slow-danced. She shook her head. “I-I already said we’re not intimate.”

“It all starts with a dance, Zoey. Always.” The knowing glint in her mother’s eyes told her everything she needed to know about her first brother’s beginning.

Zoey groaned. “Does Dad know about this…?”

“About you smashing?”

“Mom please stop… I’m talking about my brother. Does Daddy know?”

Her mother grimaced. “Can you not change the subject?”

“He’s not a passing subject like the weather. How old is he? What does he look like? Where did you leave him and who with?”

Pain flitted her mother’s features. “I don’t know anything about him.”

“Didn’t you care to know? To find him?” The silence was like a slap. “Mom, why—?”

A car horn sounded from downstairs. Both peered over the balcony to see the vehicle carrying both Zoey’s father and Eli enter past the open gates.

“We’ll talk about this later,” her mother spoke and brushed past her before she could respond. Zoey watched sorrowfully as her mother escaped the room and turned to watch her father park the car.

The taillights came on and off. The driver’s door opened and her father exited, pausing briefly before walking into the house. The passenger door remained shut.

Zoey frowned, wondering what Eli was thinking and contemplating whether to go to him. Then the door opened and he stepped out, shutting the door behind him. She lifted two fingers to her lips and blew.

Eleazar looked up, following the sound to the lit balcony where Zoey stood.

“We need to talk?” Zoey called out.

What a strange question to ask—of course they did. He nodded and she stepped away from the balcony, disappearing into the room. He released the breath he’d been holding and turned to the gate, staring out at the shadowed expanse of land behind it.

A tap on his shoulder shook him from his reverie. He turned. Zoey stood there, a shy smile on her face. “Hey…”

He didn’t return it and faced the expanse of land.

“Penny for your thoughts?”

“No need.” Eleazar faced her again. “Do you want to break up?”

<<Chapter 11 || Chapter 13>>

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