“Enjoy your stay in Lagos,” the flight attendant said cheerily.
Zoey tamped a sigh, knowing Eli was watching her every move, and stepped off the plane.
The feelings upon landing in the international airport was often the same every time she stepped off the plane; a mixed bag of anxiety, annoyance, trepidation, and nostalgia.
Eli stayed so close behind her as they walked up the narrow hallway, the bags he held lightly hitting the back of her legs.
As usual, there was noise everywhere and the hallway was warmer than the plane. Lights overhead flickered as they walked down the ramp.
Passengers brushed past them, scurrying toward the growing line in front. Zoey pulled out her phone and re-adjusted her bag over her shoulder.
“Should we be walking faster? Everyone’s rushing to the front.”
Zoey glanced over her shoulder, spotting the wrinkle in his brow. “There’s no need for that, actually.”
“You sure?” He frowned and looked over her head. “That line’s kinda long.”
“You’ll be alright. Got your passport right?”
“Yeah…” His tone betrayed hesitation and she looked at him, noting the furrow deepening. “I just saw a guy from U.S. get on that line. Isn’t it for foreigners–”
“You’re with me,” Zoey countered, cringing at her haughty tone.
Eli must’ve noticed because one brow arched. “Okay…?”
Zoey sighed. “Don’t make this weird–” her phone rang and she promptly answered. “Hello?”
A smile formed at the familiar voice. “Aunty! Are you here?”
“Of course. Where are you?” Voices and the sound of bustling traffic filled the air.
“Walking up now. We’ll see you in a bit.” Zoey grabbed Eli’s wrist and tugged forward. Thankfully, Eli didn’t resist and followed her forward.
“So, your oyinbo boyfriend came too?”
“Excuse me.” Zoey manuevered around a group of travelers. “Aunty, you’re sounding like Nwando. Yeah, he’s with me.”
“Okay, I’ll let Cyrus meet you there. C, they’re waiting.”
Zoey circled around a family with their stacked boxes. “Aunty, who’s Cyrus?”
“Leave me, jor,” her aunty laughed.
Two uniformed men stepped forward just as Zoey approached the express lane.
“Madam,” one of them said with a stern expression, holding up one hand.
Zoey fought the urge to roll her eyes. “I’m a citizen.” She turned the back of her phone to flash her passport.
The two men looked her up and down, then lifted their curios gazes to Eli behind her.
“He’s with me.” Zoey started forward, still holding to Eli’s wrist.
“Hold small,” one said, putting a hand between them. “Na him citizen?”
The skepticism in his voice almost made Zoey laugh.
“Z,” her aunty’s voice sounded in her ears. “Wait for Cyrus. He’s coming.” A horn honked loudly and she shouted her annoyance in the distance.
“All foreigners go to that line,” one of the officers said, pointing at the growing line behind them with his chin. “You can wait here for him.”
Zoey gritted her teeth. “We’ll just wait here. My uncle is coming to get us.”
The two officers glanced at each other, silently communicating their next plan of action. Zoey looked past them, searching for this uncle Cyrus.
Eli tugged on her hand. “Maybe I should just–”
“Don’t move a muscle,” Zoey answered sternly, spying the crowd for a familiar face. “My aunty said we should wait.”
A tall, bespectacled man dressed in fitted native clothes emerged from behind the immigrations barrier and strode towards them. Zoey didn’t have time to inspect the man and pointed at him. “There’s my Uncle Cyrus.”
The two officers turned toward the man and immediately straightened their relaxed stance. “Sir,” they said in unison, walking up to meet him as he stepped forward.
Zoey watched in curiosity as the man murmured something to them and reached into his pocket for his wallet. The officers shifted their bodies to cover the transaction and Zoey sighed heavily, turned to Eli who watched the scene with widened eyes.
“Did he just …?”
“Don’t ask questions.” Over Eli’s shoulder, Zoey could see some travelers gawking at the transaction with open scorn. She pulled her gaze back to Eli.
She turned around to see only the tall man standing where the officers stood. Zoey took in his salt-and-peppered beard. “Uncle Cyrus?”
The man smiled, his eyes hidden behind his sunglasses. “Is that what Soph called me?”
He resembled a Cheshire cat with his grin. Zoey frowned. “Not really but…”
Cyrus chuckled. “It’s okay. Ready?” He didn’t wait for her to respond and turned toward the immigration barrier that seemed to part as he walked forward.
Zoey followed, still holding onto Eli’s hand.
“My boys are getting your bags,” Cyrus instructed, leading the way past the crowd milling about in the airport’s lobby. “We’ll meet your aunty up front.”
The tension in Zoey’s shoulders eased up a bit. “Thank you,” she replied, relieved to avoid the chaos of baggage claim. Falling a step back, she presented a smile to Eli. “Saved by Aunt Soph.”
The reluctance remained in his expression. “Is this the only international airport?” He shifted to avoid bumping into a traveler barreling past them.
“There’s one in Abuja also. Why?”
Eli shook his head. “Nothing.” He gestured for her to look forward and she did, noting that Cyrus greeted another officer with a handshake before walking through the double doors.
Zoey followed and drew in a sharp breath. She halted in her steps and gaped at the sight before her. “My goodness!”
Distracted by two officers standing in the entranceway harassing a visibly-troubled woman carrying a clear bag jam-packed with loaves of bread, Eli walked at a short distance from Zoey.
His footsteps stalled a bit, watching the woman gesticulate with one hand while the other kept the bag propped on her head. He couldn’t hear what they were saying, but he was sure the officers barred her from entry and demanded that she turn back. From where he stood, he could see desperation on her face that shone with sweat from standing out in the sun too long.
Eli frowned, quietly counting how much bread was in her bag.
He glanced over to where Zoey stood on the other side of the door, gesturing wildly for him.
He looked once more to where the officers crowded the bread peddler and hurriedly made his way over to Zoey. “Hey, how much is…” the rest of his words fell off as he took in the scene before him.
Three cars lined the sidewalk; all expensive even in America. He recognized the latest model of a Mercedes SUV sandwiched between two Jeeps and whistled.
Zoey tucked a hand under his, pulling his attention back to her. “Eli, this is my aunt Soph.”
He blinked, only just noticing the couple beside Zoey. Their escort Cyrus stood beside a curvaceous woman with a bemused smile on her face. Her black eyes focused on him. “Hello Eli.”
Eli’s face burned. There was no doubt she’d watched him gawk at that peddler. “Hello Mrs. Sophie.”
Zoey nudged him with her elbow. “Aunty Soph, Eli. She’s my dad’s youngest sister.”
The woman laughed, revealing a slight gap between her front teeth–a feature Eli loved on Zoey. “You can call me whatever you want, dear. You’ve met my beau, Cyrus?”
“Beau indeed.” Zoey looked slightly annoyed. “Aunty, why are three cars necessary?”
Aunty Sophie’s shapely brows arched. “Because one belongs to Cyrus, the other belongs to me and the other is for you.”
“Aren’t we going to the same place?”
“And so? Will we stay there with you?”
Eli glanced over the cars, watching the peddler hobble across the street. “Excuse me, how much is bread here?”
Zoey frowned. Cyrus squinted at him. Aunty Sophie smirked. “Are you hungry, Eli?”
“Not really.” He pointed to the peddler standing on the other side of the traffic. “But how much is that?”
“Oh dear, if you want bread we can get it on the way.”
Zoey sighed. “He’s not asking to eat it.” Her eyes moved over Eli’s face, her expression clearly amused. “My guy’s a local hero. How much is the whole thing, Aunty?”
Cyrus arched a brow. Aunty Sophie clucked her tongue and shook her head. “That bread looks too old. She’ll probably take less than 100 Naira just to get rid of it.”
Eli looked to Zoey and she smiled gently. “Give her whatever you want, babe.”
He nodded and reached in his pocket when Cyrus put a hand over his to stop him. Then he looked over Eli’s head, gesturing for one of the officers responsible for chasing off the peddler.
The young officer jogged to meet Cyrus. “Yes sir,” he answered, glancing once at his companions.
Cyrus pulled out a few bills and handed it over to the officer, gesturing to the peddler across the street.
The young officer blinked, obviously confused.
“Go and give her,” Cyrus said firmly and pointed to the street with his chin.
Nodding, the young officer reluctantly turned away.
“Thanks C,” Aunty Sophie said, patting her beau’s arm.
“Yes, thank you Uncle Cyrus,” Zoey answered with a smile in her voice and she squeezed Eli’s arm.
Cyrus merely grunted, pocketing his wallet.
Eli didn’t respond yet, watching the officer flag down the peddler who hobbled to him, thanking the disgruntled officer who shoved the money in her hand. He frowned and turned back to his companions only to find them staring expectantly at him. “Uh, thanks… thank you, Mr. Cyrus.”
The man eyed him curiously. “This is your first time in Nigeria?”
“Yea.” Zoey’s hand tightened on his arm. “Yes sir,” Eli corrected himself.
Cyrus nodded. Aunty Sophie smiled. “That was very nice of you, Eli. Are you usually this kind-hearted or is this a show for us?”
“Aunty,” Zoey interjected before Eli could ask what she meant. “Eli’s a bleeding heart. In fact, his whole family is. Remember they allowed a stranger like me stay with them during the hurricane, no questions asked.”
“I remember,” Aunty Sophie responded and smiled at Eli. “We are truly indebted to you, Eli. You won’t believe the wahala watching the news about Houston. Thank you for taking care of our girl.” She draped an arm around Zoey and pulled her into a hug. “My precious girl.”
Zoey smiled up at Eli. “Basically they were frantic watching the news about Harvey.”
Eli nodded. “It was nothing.”
“It was everything to us.” Aunty Sophie smiled. “Her parents are looking forward to meeting you, no doubt about that. Speaking of, let’s be going. Eli and Zoey, you’ll ride with us. The drivers will get our cars to the house.”
Cyrus rounded the front of the Mercedes SUV to take the driver’s seat. Two men appeared from behind Eli and Zoey, towing their luggage to the trunk of the SUV.
Aunty Sophie opened the front passenger door and paused to enter. “My friend Eli, do you have any idea what you’re getting into by coming here?”
“Aunty, please don’t scare him. We barely made it here,” Zoey interjected and grabbed Eli’s hand. “Don’t mind her, E. Everything’s gonna be fine.”
Except that Aunty Sophia’s ominous words echoed louder and longer than Zoey’s reassurance and as Eli settled in the backseat, he couldn’t shake off the strange feeling that he wasn’t the least bit prepared for what awaited him at the end of this long drive across town