No one openly challenged Honorable Festus Smith except his wife and sister, sparingly. Everyone else knew better than to exchange superfluous words with the man who didn’t have time for irrelevance. His comrades both in work and church kept their conversations brief since Festus didn’t like ‘drama or frivolities.’ Never mind his wife of thirty-five years was a major drama queen, Festus made up for it with his stoic personality.
Festus Smith didn’t make friends, he just knew people. A paragon of justice and integrity, he was the wet blanket often removing himself from gatherings or town meetings occurring in secret or shaded areas. Festus readily cut ties with any so-called comrade compromising or upending their moral compass. In their community, there was a rumor that he’d once told a former councilman to stop imbibing with devils for support. Many with ties to higher levels in the government had little to no involvement with Festus Smith and his family.
From primary to secondary school, her classmates evaded visiting Zoey at home during the weekends. Expressing her disappointment once some friends declined visiting after JAM exams, they finally gave their answers.
“I’m sorry Zoey but your dad is too scary,”
“He’s no joke,” another said. “My dad says he can even put the president in jail if he could!”
“I mean, is your dad the only one with morals? Why is he acting like Jesus or something?”
But for every criticism of her father, Zoey refused to respond in kind. Instead she accepted that despite her amicable personality, her friends would be few and that was more than okay with her. Nwando, her oldest friend from before elementary school, knew the man behind the stern expression. “Uncle Festus”, as she called him, was a man who fiercely loved his family and had a soft spot for his only daughter.
As long as her moral standing or safety wasn’t jeopardized, Festus let Zoey and her few friends get away with many things. ‘Respectable’ parties and trips around the country were fully sponsored by Daddy Dearest, and he didn’t mind sending a well-crafted reprimand to her school if a professor was ‘out of line’ or ‘overzealous’ in discipline. Those closest to the Smith Family could attest that Festus Smith strongly believed in his children’s futures and readily dealt with anyone who would jeopardize their success.
“Relax,” Nwando’s voice drifted to Zoey’s right ear. She came around to lean against the railing of the balcony in Zoey’s bedroom. “He’ll be fine.”
Zoey shook her head. “I don’t know.” Her eyes looked past the swaying trees to the highway dotted with only a few lights of cars. “They’ve been gone a while.”
Nwando glanced over her shoulder. “I wonder how long it will take to kill him and bury the body…”
Zoey’s glare shortened her friend’s uncanny cackling. “Don’t even joke like that.”
“Zo, relax. Your teddy bear of a dad won’t hurt your boyfriend. He probably just wants to talk with him in private, without your mom screaming like a banshee.”
Zoey grimaced, reliving the horrified look on Mother’s face when Papa laughed in response to Eleazar’s threat to leave for America. “I just can’t understand it.”
“Your mom or your dad?”
She didn’t respond, staring past the highway to the shadowed hills in the distance. The answer was both surprised her tonight and not in a good way. She’d always prided in having fair and reasonable parents but their behavior proved otherwise. Perhaps there was some truth to what her classmates said.
Nwando’s hand covered her shoulder, pulling her back. “Don’t overthink anything just yet. Yes, Eli is rightfully upset but he agreed to go with your father. They might come back the best of friends.”
Zoey stared at her friend of twenty years. “I really hope you’re right.” Eleazar leaving for America now didn’t bode well for their relationship or that of her and her parents.
The two childhood friends sat staring at a sky blanketed with stars, wondering to themselves how years had flown by but things still remained largely the same. Nwando and Zoey glanced at each other and burst into laughter at the same time.
“Did you think what I was thinking?”
“How little has changed?” Zoey drawled, tucking a braid behind her ear. “Yeah.”
Nwando smirked. “I mean your dad’s chilled out though. Remember when he threatened to lock up that one secret admirer from Oniru for following us home?”
“He was a stalker. I still can’t believe you gave him your number after that.”
“He was cute.”
“And you’re a psycho.” Zoey rolled her eyes and propped her elbow against the railing. “I admit Papa’s more laid back but Mom… she’s…” She shook her head, unable to find an adequate word.
“There’s probably a reason for it.” Nwando paused when Zoey straightened. “What?”
“What do you mean by that?” She frowned when Nwando looked away and her heart skipped a beat. “Hey, Nwando. What is it?”
“I didn’t say there’s a problem—”
The girls jumped at the voice from behind. Zoey’s mother stood there, arms folded across her chest. She pinned a stern look on Nwando. “Give us a minute.”
“Yes Ma.” Nwando sounded like a ten year old caught lying.
Zoey watched in silence as her best friend practically bolted from the balcony and past her mother out the door. She shifted her gaze from the door to her mother. “Mama?”
Her mother looked past her to the sky and the first smile since Eleazar’s reveal appeared, softening her features. “I love being out here,” she remarked, stepping out into the balcony and standing by her daughter’s side. She drew in a breath and released it with a sigh. “Before I hated your father for dragging me here like an exile… well maybe not hated, but we certainly had fights over it.”
Silent, Zoey stared at her mother’s profile.
“Do you know why I didn’t want you going to America in the first place?”
“Do you?” her mother turned to look at her. “I know you think I’m always trying to control your life but do you know why I was against you studying in America?”
With a sigh, Zoey shook her head. “I really have no idea, Mom.”
“I went to America when I was young, years ago.”
Zoey arched a brow. For some reason, that didn’t sound too far-fetched. Most wealthy Nigerians, even back then, had sent their children to study abroad. Her mother’s family wouldn’t be any different. “Okay…?”
“And it was the worst time of my life.” Her mother’s eyes glistened from the light. “I hated living there and couldn’t wait to come back. Then I met someone.”
Something about the way her mother’s gaze shifted and her tone changed made Zoey’s stomach clench. It was like something from one of her mother’s cheesy soap dramas—the ones where everything went wrong before it got better at the very end.
Zoey swallowed the bile forming in her throat. “Mama, what are you trying to say?”
Her mother sighed deeply. “I was a very stupid girl in America and in the end, I came home disgraced all because of the mistakes I made.”
Air rushed through her ears like she stood inside a wind tunnel. “I don’t… understand.”
“I had a child in America, Zoey, and I left him there to come home.”
Eleazar had never been in a bar quite like this. The hole-in-the-wall bars back home actually had walls and not some column holding the roof up. He shifted uncomfortably in the wobbly stool that threatened to give way under his weight, grabbing the edge of the circular metal table held up by cinderblocks.
Folk music played from a rusty speaker held up by rope to the makeshift ceiling. Aromatic meat roasted a few feet away where Mr. Smith stood in line.
Despite the enticing smell wafting under his nostrils, Eleazar’s stomach was tight with knots.
Mr. Smith turned, carrying a black translucent bag in one hand and the necks of two green bottles in the other. Eleazar sat up as Zoey’s father approached their table and curiously eyed the contents.
“You drink?” Mr. Smith asked, taking a seat opposite him.
Eleazar hesitated at the foreign label and shook his head. “Not really…”
Mr. Smith nudged one of the bottles closer. “Have you had suya before?” he opened the bag, releasing the sweet aroma of roasted meat. “I’ve heard they sell it in America.”
“If it’s what I think it is, I have had some before but it didn’t smell as good as this.”
Chuckling, Mr. Smith unwrapped the oil-stained newspaper to reveal strips of roasted meat and onions. “And won’t taste as good. Eat.” He stabbed one with a toothpick and tossed it in his mouth.
Eleazar followed suit, stuffing his mouth with the juicy meat.
“Wow,” Mr. Smith laughed openly. “You can handle spice?”
Though his tongue tingled, he stabbed yet another piece and dropped it in his mouth. “My sisters cook with spices all the time.”
“I see.” Mr. Smith nodded. “I remember Zoey mentioning your sisters, although she was rather discreet about you…” He shrugged. “I admit being too distracted to ask.”
“Same here. I didn’t know what to expect when I agreed to come here,” Eleazar confessed, swallowing the bit about her family’s affluence.
Mr. Smith took a sip of his drink. “My little girl is probably the only Nigerian who despises being rich. Didn’t really like what it did to people. I haven’t either.” He hid his grimace by tossing back the rest of his drink.
Eleazar looked down at the meat, contemplating another piece.
“Please excuse the drama with my wife.”
He looked up and quickly back down, jarred by Mr. Smith’s black eyes fixed on him. “It’s… okay.”
“It’s not.” Mr. Smith set the empty bottle down. “My wife lets her experiences color how she views people. I’m glad Zoey isn’t like that.” He sighed deeply. “Really glad.”
Eleazar didn’t respond, not wanting to talk about Zoey right now.
“I want to thank you for helping my girl during the hurricane. What you and your family did is something I won’t ever take lightly. I’m glad I can express my thanks in person.”
Eleazar didn’t reply, simply waiting for the inevitable ‘but.’
“I know you must be a solid young man or my daughter wouldn’t look twice at you…” He sighed. “But, it’s best that you two end this here.”
Although everything about the night foretold this outcome for him and Zoey, hearing it from Mr. Smith felt like a punch to the side of his face. Eleazar looked up finally and stared at Mr. Smith while he continued.
“Now I know you’ve spent money to come for my niece’s wedding and I don’t plan to end your trip just because of this new development. If you’re fine with it, you are more than welcome to stay with us until the wedding is over. There’s plenty of space, and Lawrence seems to be your size so we can get you suited.”
“Sir, if I may…” Eleazar cut in, his tone as calm as humanly possible. Phoebe would be proud. “With all due respect, I’m not fine with it.”