Samina wrung her fingers tightly as she forced herself not to look to her left at her father. But with the heavy silence between them as they drove home, she couldn’t help but glance over.
His jaw was clenched so tight, she was afraid he would break his teeth. Her fingers twitched to put over his but the deep furrow in his brow made her rethink it.
The memory of his intense glare directed at Topher loosened her tongue. “Dad…”
He stiffened as if he’d forgotten she was in the car with him. His lips pursed, his hands squeezed the steering wheel.
Samina frowned, nonplussed by his unbridled fury and sharp reaction. His earlier performance didn’t line up with the man she’d admired and trusted for all her life. “Dad, I’m thirty years old.”
He scowled, fingers pressed tightly against the leather. “I know that.”
“Then why did you—”
Her frown deepened. “What’s complicated about it? Am I not old enough to make my own decisions? You said as long as I was happy with what—”
Gabriel groaned, cutting her off again. “Please, Samina… just stop. Please.”
Samina drew in her lips, staring at the tense lines on his face. He’d always supported her, had just given her a speech about being happy for her in whatever she chose to do, so what was the meaning of this? “Dad…”
“Samina,” he barked out.
She flinched, gaping at him.
His jaw worked a tick, his eyes focused on the road. “Enough. I don’t want to hear another word about this. Understood?”
Frustrated and unnerved, Samina jerked in her seat and faced the window, glaring at the buildings that zoomed past them as Gabriel drove them home.
Nadine’s eyes snapped open to the white tiled ceiling. She knew this place. Wincing at the hollow pain in her chest, she tilted her head sideways on the pillow and stifled a moan. Topher sitting quietly near her bed, face turned to the window.
She cleared her throat and still he didn’t move.
Nadine bit the inside of her sore mouth and coughed a little louder.
Topher turned his head and her heart skipped several beats at the forlorn glint in his gaze. His eyes swept over her, inspecting her no doubt.
Nadine wanted to hold him but feared he would pull away. Instead, she shifted her gaze to the window. They were back in the hospital. In Houston. Her chest tightened and she placed a hand over it, rubbing away the tension. “What… happened?”
“We missed the flight.”
Nadine closed her eyes briefly, told herself to breathe first. “Oh?”
Topher sighed and reached for her other hand, enveloping it between his warm ones. “It’s okay, Nadine.”
Even though he would never admit it out loud, Nadine knew he’d been scared. She heard him right before blacking out; the terror in his voice echoing in her ears. Nadine pursed her lips, holding back from crying. “Sorry.”
“Don’t say that.” He squeezed her hand gently.
She blinked back tears, eyes downcast. “You missed the flight because of me.”
“How could I board the plane without you? When you fainted, I—” he drew in a shaky breath, his eyes shimmering with tears.
Her gaze lifted to his head and she placed her other hand there, her fingers disturbing the shorn curls. “Topher…”
He sniffed, Nadine’s heart breaking a little more. “Hmm?”
Nadine drew in a sustaining breath and released it slowly. She didn’t want to hurt him, never wanted to hurt him. “There’s something I must say. And I hope you will hear me out?”
Topher lifted his head, brow furrowed with concern, uncertainty in his eyes as he stared up at her.
She swallowed hard, the words lodged in her throat. She had to continue, for his sake. For hers. “You know I’ve always wanted you to be happy, right?”
A line appeared between his eyes as his frown deepened.
Tears tingled at the back of her eyes and she blinked to clear them. “You… can’t be with Samina.”
Something akin to hurt flashed in his eyes and Topher sat up. Her hand fell to the mattress and he shoved to his feet, moving to the window. “I know.”
Nadine knew he didn’t but he would. Her chest tightened with pain that she’d have to be the one to show him why. The tears fell unbound, and she shifted in the bed. “Do… you have my Bible?”
Without a word, he trudged to the suitcase leaning against the wall and pulled it open, tugging out her thick Bible.
She quickly brushed away the tears before he turned with the worn Bible sandwiched between his palms.
With a blank look, Topher held it out to her.
Nadine shook her head. “Sit with me.” She waited until he perched tentatively on the bed. “Y’know, that was your Mama’s Bible.”
His eyes lifted to her face.
She managed a wobbly smile. “Open Nahum 3… Please.”
Air grew sparse with every page he flipped over. He’d been taught the word of God pretty early in life, memorizing the books of the Bible at a young age. She knew he would find the passage quickly but wished he would go slower.
His jaw was tight, his fingers deftly thumbing through the dog-eared pages of his mother’s Bible. As he released a breath on the page before the one he sought, Topher paused, feeling the indentation of a squared paper. With a quick glance at Nadine’s tensed features, he flipped the page as his heart flipped over.
A worn photograph was stuck in the bind. Even before he could pick out the faces, Topher knew his mother would be there… and maybe.
He pushed out a breath as his lungs constricted. His fingers trembled as they skimmed over the faded photograph, his eyes scanning the faces there.
Five students stood facing the camera, with the beach at their back.
He squinted at each face, three men and two women. He didn’t recognize anyone but a younger version of Nadine sandwiched between two men. Curiosity prodded him to pull out the photograph from its bind.
Words were few to none as he gazed at his mother, Odetta, a softer version of Nadine. Her eyes were kinder, warmer, and calmer. Something in him wished he’d known her.
Topher drew in a breath and shifted his gaze to the men adjoining her. In fact, all three men towered over both women. He squinted at the man his mother leaned into with her arm tucked underneath his. His breath caught.
Tall and lean, this man wore a confident smile. His gaze, direct and honest, was as if staring at him long enough could reveal much about the man. Without warning, his pulse quickened. He held the photograph closer, eyes honing in the man’s face. Could this be him?
“The year is 1969,” Nadine finally spoke. “This picture was taken two years before you were born.”
Air rushed through his ears. His mind started to race, grappling to piece things together; the picture, her words.
The man who his mother held had to be his father. He drew in his lips, agitated and fascinated all at the same time. Topher couldn’t look away. His expressive eyes reminded him so much of someone.
Samina’s stunning gaze flashed in his mind. As did Nadine’s solemn words that they could never be.
The turbulent countenance of Samina’s father appeared in his mind’s eye.
Topher jerked his gaze to Nadine who stared at him with tears in her eyes. Pulsing heart lodged in his throat, he dropped his eyes to the picture.
The young man’s features lined up with the older Gabriel’s weathered lines. His heart throbbed violently as he took in the man’s confident smile, matching it to the paternal half-smile of Samina’s father when they were introduced hours earlier. Even his svelte form was the same, though age bowed his shoulders, making a bit shorter than in the picture.
Words failed him. He suddenly felt lightheaded.
Pain slashed across his torso. Topher choked out a breath and leaned forward, thumb and finger pressing the picture as realization hit him like a freight train. He could hear every labored breath in his ears.
“M-My father…” His tongue felt heavy as he formed the words. His vision blurred. “Is he in this picture?”
Nadine’s silence was as if she shouted it from the top of her lungs.
His lungs squeezed out what little air it held in and Topher shot to his feet. The photograph and Bible slid off his lap to the floor. Eyes blinded with tears, he staggered toward the window and gripped the ledge.
Gabriel’s sharp glare and Nadine’s firm but contrite words juxtaposed against Samina’s lovely face. Topher choked on a sob and pressed a hand over his mouth. Tears slid down his cheeks and he bent over the windowpane, knees and shoulders trembling.