By the end of the play, the adults and the younger children applauded with gusto while the other children bowed dramatically. Some of the kids jumped and waved their arms about, as if bribed by the others to do so. The adults wouldn’t put it past the older siblings to come up with such generous support but had a feeling the younger siblings were genuinely thrilled for the fun show.
“Bravo!” Clement cheered, clapping the loudest. He was like a proud dad, watching his children deliver their lines with the right kind of emotion. Some tripped over their words and some forgot them altogether, but in Clement’s eyes, they were just perfect!
Walking to the edge of the temporary platform, Clement greeted each child with the gifts prepared. “Congratulations,” he said, handing them one bag at a time and earning a breathtaking smile from each.
Yes, it was worth him putting his life on the line so each of these children go grow without fear, to graduate from primary academy as they did now and put on impromptu plays for their family. He would give his time and compromise his safety if it gave another child a better life.
A bell undercut his musing and Clement refocused his attention toward the back of the compound. Wubit held a triangle in one hand and a soup ladle in another. “Dinner!”
As the children bum-rushed past him toward the delicious food awaiting them and Clement smiled wistfully at the domesticated scene. He immediately thought of his family back home in Houston; of his eldest sister-in-law Phoebe who could cook anything and everything, and his other sister-in-law Geraldine who wasn’t so bad at cooking either.
His mouth salivated at the mental picture of peppered ribs and cornbread, and warm coconut pecan cookies his eldest niece Joselyn was a pro at baking.
“Brother!” Wubit called out to him. “You’re our guest of honor. Come get your food.”
With a smile, Clement tucked away the nostalgic thoughts of home and hurried to join his new family.
At the edge of the table, Priscilla’s pensive expression wiped the smile off Clement’s face and he braced himself for an argument. Instead, she held out an empty plate and gestured to the bowl of rice.
“Thanks,” Clement mumbled, accepting the plate. He still braced himself though, knowing fully well that she always wanted the last word.
To his surprise and relief, Priscilla dished out two scoops of rice and shifted her gaze to the child on his right.
Dula balanced Meko on his hip and a pair of tongs with his free hand. “Injera?”
“Of course,” Clement said with a grin, accepting a generous serving of the Ethiopian spongy bread.
Once everyone was seated, with Clement balancing a young boy on his lap while sharing his food with him, they listened to Ejigu tell an animated folk story.
“He’s such a good liar,” Dula said, tearing a piece of the bread with his teeth. His wife nudged his side and pointed with her chin to the young boy eating Clement’s rice. “It’s true,” Dula insisted, earning another poke in his side.
Meko whined in Dula’s arms and reached with his pudgy fingers for the bread.
“You’ve already eaten my rice,” Dula complained, tearing off a little piece and placing it in his son’s mouth.
Clement smiled. “Looks like you’re raising a future giant.”
Wubit shook her head in exasperation. “He won’t stop eating. It’s Dula’s fault.”
“No way!” Dula scoffed incredulously, making a face at his delightful son.
“It’s good for him to eat,” Priscilla answered, spreading sauce on her own bread. “He has a good appetite.”
While Wubit smiled at Priscilla, the two men exchanged wary glances as though they were not quite used to Priscilla’s docile behavior. The old Priscilla would’ve reprimanded Clement for calling a child or anyone for that matter oversized, but this Priscilla kept her eyes on her food while stating her thoughts casually.
In fact, she did not indulge in their usual ribbing and teasing, content on eating and watching the children with a serene expression. To the ordinary eye, it was no big deal.
To Clement, it was unsettling. Like the calm before a very dark storm.
Except, the storm never came. Once the children were sent off to get ready for bed, Wubit and Dula in tow, the other adults were left to clean up the compound. Clement and Ejigu stood off to the side, watching Priscilla give instructions to the other volunteers that worked with the children. She was patient in her orders, offering a helping hand when needed.
“She’s acting strange,” Ejigu noted aloud as Priscilla shared a laugh with one of the younger volunteers.
Clement smirked. “Really?”
“You didn’t notice? She hasn’t argued with you once.”
“Give it a few hours. She’ll find something.” With one more glance at her, Clement turned and headed for the church building. Once he was sure Ejigu followed, he sighed. “When do you head back to the capital tomorrow?”
“By dawn, latest.”
Clement nodded. “I’m coming with you.”
Ejigu’s footsteps halted. “For what?”
“Relax. A friend of mine’s coming in tomorrow morning and I’ve gotta be there to pick her up.”
Both brows shot up. “Her?”
Clement rolled his eyes and moved past him to the darkened hallway. “Yeah, her.”
“She is single?”
For some reason, Clement did not like that question. Yet, he forced himself not to look back with a frown. “What, you interested?”
“Not for me,” Ejigu said, mirth in his voice. “For you, my brother.”
This time, Clement paused. “Me?”
“Uh-huh. I don’t believe you have never considered marriage once. You dated Priscilla for a long time.”
Too long. Clement grimaced. “It’s not that I never considered marriage. I just don’t see any woman willing to put up with me or the life I’ve chosen to live.” And before Ejigu could respond, he turned and walked into his bedroom.
“What if there was one, though?” Ejigu inquired, stepping inside behind him. “Yes you’re the most hardheaded pastor I know, but you’re a good man. If I had an unmarried sister, I wouldn’t mind you being my brother-in-law.”
“As flattering as that thought is, I’m sure your nonexistent sister would curse you for allowing her to marry me.” Clement sat on his bed. “I’d never be at home—”
“Some ladies like that,” Ejigu inserted.
Clement snorted. “As you said, I’m hardheaded.”
“Then you just have to find someone willing to handle you, or can match your hard-headedness.”
“Priscilla was as stubborn as me and look how that turned out.”
Ejigu’s brows furrowed in thought. “Good point.”
Clement shook his head. “As I said, no woman is willing to put up with all this and still stay sane. Take Priscilla for example, she’s been through a lot with me and is slowly losing it…”
The two men chuckled and Clement lay back in bed, eyes on the ceiling. “I used to think that I too could have a life like my brothers. Have a beautiful and loving wife, and kids that looked like me… but God has something different in mind.” He propped his hands under his head and closed his eyes. “As his servant, I’ve got to accept that the life of a missionary pastor may be one without the dream of marriage and kids.”
“Maybe… maybe not. Tell me about this friend of yours.”
Instantly, Karen’s demure smile and the impromptu kiss to his cheek appeared in his mind. His eyes snapped open and Clement tamped a groan. “You’ll see her tomorrow. Go to sleep.”
Ejigu chuckled, not the least bit deterred by Clement’s grouchy command. “Goodnight, Brother.”
He only grunted his response and waited until Ejigu shut the door behind him before releasing a moan. He’d already berated Priscilla for lying about their relationship status, but it didn’t change the fact that Karen had misunderstood. And he couldn’t explain why that bothered him more than it should have.
Clement shifted to his side and stared at the wall. He’d have to figure out what to say once he saw her. “Hey Karen! Long time no…” He halted and shook his head, turning onto his other side.
“This is dumb,” he mumbled and closed his eyes. As with any other mission, he’d just have to wing the conversation with Karen and hope for the best. It was all he could do for now.
Karen arrived in Nairobi hours later than she’d expected, which meant her flight to Addis Ababa was a bust. Staring helplessly at the screen that showed her flight had barely just left, Karen heaved a deep sigh. “What now?” she mumbled, staring at the useless flight ticket to Addis Ababa.
Her stomach growled, reminding her of the untouched sandwich from lunch. So relocating to the nearest bench, Karen unpackaged her sandwich and bit into it.
Her mind ran a mile a minute while she chowed down on the sandwich, wondering if she had enough money to buy another ticket. It would leave less money to gift the children at the end of her stay, but what other option did she have?
Clement’s gentle smile crossed her mind and Karen slowed her chewing. No doubt Clement would readily offer help, but Karen wasn’t sure she should accept any from a cheater like him.
Okay, that wasn’t entirely fair since it was the woman’s word against his. And a part of her did wonder if Clement was telling the truth about being single. Yet her pessimistic side warned against wishful thinking.
Ignoring both, Karen lifted her phone from her purse and stared pensively at the blank screen. One call wouldn’t hurt. Even if it was just a sympathy reply, it was better than pitying herself. Before she could think to regret her decision, Karen redialed his number and listened to the dial tone with baited breath.
It stopped on the third ring and Karen’s stomach flipped as a husky male voice responded with a confused or perhaps surprised ‘Hello?’
She sat up. “Hey Clement, it’s Karen… I know it’s really late. Did I wake you?”
The sound of rustling could be heard in the background, most likely Clement sitting up in bed. “Uh yeah but we’re even now. You okay?”
Karen bit her bottom lip. Even the concern in his sleepy voice was adorable. She pressed the phone to her cheek. “I’m okay… hmm actually, I’m not. I’m stuck in Nairobi.”
“What?” The rustling sounded again. “What happened?”
“My connecting flight left without me.” Karen’s bottom lip jutted out in a pout.
“Oh man.” Clement heaved a sigh. “Are there any later flights available?”
Against her will, butterflies fluttered in her gut. She distracted herself by scanning the TV screen. “Uh, looks like there’s one in two hours.”
Karen worried her bottom lip between her teeth.
“What’s your account? I can send you money to book the flight.”
She almost dropped her sandwich and her phone. “Uh what?” she managed to say, brain short-circuiting although this was what she’d expected from him. It was becoming harder to dislike him.
Clement chuckled. “Give me your account number, I’ll send it within ten minutes. There’s a nifty app for it.”
The smile in his voice only invoked hers. “You have no idea.”
“I have a feeling that doesn’t happen often.”
Was he flirting with her? Karen’s smile widened. “It doesn’t.”
“Well I guess that’s a good thing, making you speechless.”
Oh, he was definitely flirting. And against her better judgment, she didn’t mind it one bit. Karen crossed one leg over the other. “Don’t get too excited. It probably won’t happen again.”
“Then I’ll make that a personal challenge to make you speechless all week long.”
Her breath caught and warmth creeped up her neck, flooding her cheeks.
He laughed, a delightful laugh that rocked her. “I did it again, didn’t I?”
Karen shook her head, although her smile only grew. “Shut up.”
His laugh only deepened and she too giggled, like a schoolgirl with a crush. If Samina could see her now, she wouldn’t live it down for years.
Once his laugh eased to low chuckles, Clement continued. “Alright, let’s get you on a flight over here. What’s your account number?”
She smiled, excited to see him again; potential cheater or no. “7801—uh, hey I’m getting another call. It might be the center. Hold on a sec?”
“Sure, I’ll be here.”
Karen quickly tapped a button to switch calls. “Hello? Yes, this is Karen We… No, I haven’t left Nairobi yet. Actually I missed my flight so…” She glanced up at the screen. “The next flight is in two hours.”
Folding the rest of her sandwich, Karen nodded in response. “If it’s not far from here, I can stop by for a bit. What is the address?” Placing the sandwich to one side, Karen tugged a pen from her purse and quickly jotted the address on her palm. “Yep, got it. Yeah, no problem. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
With a sigh, she tapped the button to switch calls. “Sorry about that. Where was I?”
“Your bank account details. I’ve got 3469-7801 so far…”
“Right. 4502-8567.” Karen propped the phone against her shoulder while gathering her belongings. “You know I just gave you access to my entire bank account, right? I must really trust you or I’m the most desperate person ever.”
“A little bit of both?”
Karen snorted a laugh and stood from the bench. “Oh shush.”
“Yes Ma’am.” He chuckled. “I’ll send it to you now. Ping me once you get it, alright?”
“I will. Thanks Clement. I’ll pay you back as soon as I can.”
“Just get here safely. I’ll see you soon.”
Karen smiled, hoping not to miss this flight either. “Bye.”
The good vibes of the conversation with Clement carried her out of the airport and into a cab she hailed minutes afterward. Giving the driver the address inscribed on her palm, Karen leaned back against the old leather seat and couldn’t hold back the stupid grin that lifted her lips. Clement Teka was indeed a charming man, and the fact that he’d managed to charm her out of suspicion was noteworthy. She couldn’t wait to see him again, that much was certain.
Less than twenty minutes, the cab pulled up in front of an empty school compound. “Are you sure this is the place?” Karen asked, presenting her palm for the driver to read.
“Is the place Madam,” the driver assured her. “Looks empty. You sure you have it right?”
Karen nodded, scanning the darkened windows of the one-story building. Her stomach fluttered with anxiety. “Please hold on a second,” she told the driver before redialing the unsaved number.
Karen sat up as a woman answered on the first ring. “Hi, this is Karen Wells. I’m here but it looks like no one is here…” She glanced over her shoulder, squinting into the distance. “Yeah, I see lights but… uh, yeah you gave me address to the school not to whatever building that is in the distance.” Her frown deepened. “Okay but…” She tamped a sigh and reached in her purse for the cab fare. “Yeah, I can walk.”
“I can drop you off, Madam.”
Karen frowned, relaying the woman’s words. “She said it’s better I walk over.”
“It’s not safe around here,” the driver insisted. “I won’t charge you.”
“Okay, she said you can drive me to the front.” Karen released a sigh as she disconnected the call and sat back in her seat, holding onto her seat as the driver made a U-turn around the bend. The road was bumpy but Karen didn’t complain. “Is it really that dangerous around here? Much more than Kibera?”
The driver snorted. “Anywhere is dangerous to a woman traveling alone at night. You should be careful.”
Karen managed a smile. “If I wanted safe, I’d be home in Houston TX. Missionary work hardly is safe.”
“You a missionary?”
She glanced up at the mirror. “I’m thinking about it.”
“That is nice.” There was a strain in his voice, as if he wasn’t so sure. “You a Christian?”
“I am. You?”
“No. I am nothing.”
Karen nodded. “Well to God, you’re something.”
He snorted derisively. “You speak like a missionary.”
She grinned. “Well I’ll take that as a compliment. Thank you.”
The driver didn’t reply, only slowing to a stop. The flutter in Karen’s belly returned, realizing they’d reached her final destination. He shook his head and nudged the cash away. “Please keep your money. I am doing a favor for you.”
Karen shook her head. “I can’t allow that. Please accept it for your help.”
He reluctantly accepted the cash without counting and placed it on the dashboard. Then turned to regard her carefully. “If you are in danger, call my number. I will come quickly.”
Though she hoped her anxiety and the concern in his voice wasn’t warranted, Karen readily scribbled his number on her other palm before exiting the cab. “God bless you!”
He insisted on waiting for her to enter the lit building, and Karen was thankful for it. She waved once and turned toward the short steps to the main floor. Drawing a calming breath, Karen walked up to the heavy double doors of this old building.
The minute she stepped inside, she could hear voices of children and adults alike. Some of the nerves eased away as she walked into a lobby and immediately saw workers in white coats rushing back and forth. Sidestepping one before she tripped them over, Karen edged a wall.
“May I help you?” a male voice echoed down the hall.
Karen turned to see a woman and a man dressed in white coats. She smiled and started over to them. “Hi, I’m Karen Wells. I received a call—”
“Ah yes,” the woman interjected, her British accent familiar. She offered Karen a welcoming smile. “We’re so glad you could make it. We’ve got so much going on with so little help. Sorry I couldn’t come get you from the airport. I’m Alice and this is my husband Franklin. We’re the administrators of HopeWell Ministries.”
“HopeWell Ministries…” Karen echoed, searching her memory bank for the name. She came up short. “I’m sorry, I did some research before coming to Kenya and your organization doesn’t sound familiar.”
The man stiffened visibly but his wife placed a hand on his shoulder, her smile unwavering. “It’s okay if you don’t recognize us. We just got accredited recently, although we’ve been in operations for decades. Have you heard of Wellington’s Haven?”
Karen hadn’t but she could tell that this silent, brooding man woudn’t take it well. “Oh yeah!” she exclaimed with a snap of her fingers. “I remember someone mentioning it to me. Sorry it’s been a long day… I beg your pardon.”
Franklin’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. But Alice smiled fully, revealing her crooked bottom teeth. “Oh it’s no problem. Wellington was my husband’s father’s orphanage before we took it over a few years ago.”
“I see…” Karen paused as she heard a child shrieking in the background. “Uh, so what was it you needed from me? I’ll have to head back to the airport soon.”
“Oh of course.” Alice stepped in front of her husband. “Let me show what we need help with.” She gestured in front of her. “Was it hard to find?”
“A bit confusing but I’m here so…” Karen peered over her shoulder, arching a brow at the empty spot. Mr. Stone-faced Franklin had skulked away. She turned back around and hurried to Alice’s side as the woman led the way to one of the open rooms.