“I don’t like her,” Priscilla announced, hands propped at her hips.
Dula and Wubit glanced once at each other before watching the agitated doctor grow even more unsettled. Clement had still not yet returned from settling his friend Karen in his room, deciding to bunk with Ejigu in one of the small rooms near the back of the church building.
“I should’ve known she’d be trouble,” Priscilla continued, pacing the small space in the kitchen. She came to a stop and faced her friends. “Did you see the way she looked at him? Like he was some piece of meat!”
“I remember you looking at him like that,” Dula reminded her, earning a dig in his side from Wubit. Eddie who stood by the stove, dishing out the meal into small bowls, muffled a giggle.
Priscilla scowled at him. “Of course I did because he was my boyfriend!”
“Even before that…” Dula swallowed the rest and held up both hands. “I’ll go see where he is.” He stepped off the stool and hurried out of the kitchen in search for Clement. He slowed to a stop, finding Clement and his lady companion strolling toward them. Planting a smile, he narrowed the distance between them. “Hello.”
Karen looked rueful as she bowed again. “Salam.”
“You can speak English,” Clement said gently. “He understands well.”
Dula smiled for good measure. “With an accent, of course, but my college insisted we learn.”
He’d meant to assure her but the pained look on her face proved otherwise. “I didn’t mean to sound like an arrogant foreigner thinking no one else knows English besides Americans or the British. I’m sorry.”
“That’s okay, Ms.…”
“Please call me Karen.” She offered Dula a genuine smile. “You must be Dula, Clement’s oldest friend.”
“Old as in age and duration, yes,” he joked, pleased when she giggled. So she had a sense of humor. Good. “Please, come. My wife has made you some dinner.”
Karen grinned openly. “I’ve been dreaming of Ethiopian cuisine for weeks.”
With a smile, he gestured for her to go ahead and then clapped a hand over his friend’s shoulder. “Good job,” he whispered in his native tongue.
Clement’s smile froze and he turned from watching Karen to giving Dula a quizzical stare. “What?”
Dula wriggled his brows. “I thought you’d never move on from Priscilla but…”
“Hey calm down,” Clement protested half-heartedly. “We’re just friends.”
“Uh-huh,” Dula slung an arm over Clement’s shoulder and when Karen paused in step to look over her shoulder, he grinned and waved. “Let’s not keep the ladies waiting.”
Priscilla’s scowl was a bit distracting but Karen focused her attention on Eddie’s bright smile and Wubit’s warm expression. Wiping her mouth, she set her fork down. “So how long have you all worked with Clement?”
“We were at this orphanage before Brother Clement joined us in 2004.” Wubit tossed Clement a grin. “I remember he was such a know-it-all.”
Clement scoffed but continued eating.
“I can see that,” Karen teased, winking at him. “He does act like he knows everything.”
Wubit and even Eddie nodded, surprised that she could relate with their struggles. Clement shook his head. “No, I was excited about my new assignment and they wanted to stay in the past.”
Dula grunted in disagreement. “No, you were a know-it-all.”
Wubit, Karen and Eddie giggled when Clement growled. Priscilla rolled her eyes and crossed her arms.
Karen peeked at her once and then spoke. “You must be the one I talked to on the phone earlier right?”
Wubit and Dula exchanged questioning glances. Clement lifted the glass of water to his lips, gaze volleying between the two women. Priscilla arched a shapely brow. “Pardon?”
“Yeah, I think it was you… You said you were Clement’s girlfriend,” Karen merely blinked when Clement choked on his water. “Was there a reason for the lies?”
Priscilla frowned in Clement’s direction. “You told her I was lying?”
Karen noted the wrinkle in Clement’s brow. “Wait… it isn’t a lie?”
Clement swallowed the water and looked chagrined as he turned to Karen. “I can explain.”
Karen choked on an incredulous laugh and lowered the fork to the plate. Then she gave Wubit and Dula a smile. “It was nice meeting you and thank you for the delicious meal. I think I need to go to bed now.”
Dula and Wubit nodded, their smiles strained. “Goodnight,” Wubit said gently.
Ignoring Clement, she also gave Eddie a smile before standing to her feet.
Clement rose with her, placing a hand on her shoulder.
“Clement,” she said in a falsely-calm tone. “I don’t want to embarrass you or myself in front of your lovely friends. So kindly let me get some rest.”
“Brother,” Dula interjected gently and when Clement glanced his way, he shook his head imperceptibly. Wubit also nodded, silently willing him to let Karen go for tonight.
Reluctantly, Clement released Karen’s arm and she hightailed out of the kitchen and down the hall to his bedroom for the night. Heaving a deep sigh, Clement dragged a hand over his face.
“You were wrong for that, Priscilla,” Wubit berated her friend softly.
“She provoked me first.”
Clement scowled in Priscilla’s direction and stormed out in the other direction, to the small room he and Ejigu would have to share for the evening. He didn’t understand why he was so frustrated with how Priscilla behaved and Karen’s reaction, but he dropped on the bed exhausted and annoyed. Even though he was beyond exhausted, Clement tossed and turned on the cot until Ejigu dragged himself inside hours later.
“You’re still awake, Brother?”
“Hmm,” Clement muttered, tucking one hand under his head. He stared up at the ceiling, sleepless.
Ejigu chuckled, shrugging off his backpack. “Priscilla is such a pain.”
“Uh-hmm. I also heard your lady friend is a fireball.”
“Firecracker,” Clement corrected softly and sighed heavily. “And yeah, looks that way.”
Though exhausted, Karen couldn’t sleep for long. She’d spent the night drifting out of sleep and tossing in bed. So after a few hours of trying to stay asleep, she gave up and left the room. The chapel was empty, so Karen claimed the first pew. An oak podium mounted the altar and a stained glass cross etched on the wall behind. Imagining Clement standing there with light casting a halo around his head made Karen smile.
The smile quickly eased away and Karen sighed deeply. “What am I doing here?”
She was a long way from home, with no way to reach her family. No doubt her family worried after not hearing from her for so long. She needed to call them soon.
Then her thoughts shifted to the children whose parents were undergoing the same turmoil or worse. She imagined their bitter and despondent cries, and wished she could do more to help.
Closing her eyes, Karen bowed her head and folded her hands. “Lord, I don’t know what else to do. I’m just one person and the bad guys are… they’re out there, doing really bad things to innocent people. But I know you are much bigger than any of them put together. Even when the wicked is mighty, you’re mightier.” She sighed deeply. “And please protect these children. Help us get them back safely to their families. Let us not lose any child to the wicked…”
Her brow furrowed. “And protect Clement also. He’s got a lot on his plate, serving as a pastor here and now having to go undercover as if he’s some James Bond…” She sighed. “I guess I did the same, so yeah. Forgive us for putting up pretenses to save the children. It’ll be great if you could provide a better way, one that we can safely bring them home and not have to sin against you.”
Karen’s eyes snapped open and she jerked about to see a man sitting in the shadowed pew a few rows hers. She spun about, ignoring the quick jump in her pulse and closed her eyes. “Anyway, Father, please help me be able to locate Ashon so I can get back my passport. And keep him safe also. Oh, and help him find his daughter. In your precious name I pray. Amen.”
She frowned and glanced over her shoulder at him. “It’s rude to eavesdrop on someone’s prayer.”
“Sorry.” He draped his arms around the back of the pew. “One of your prayers has been answered.”
Karen merely gave him a hairy stare and Clement chuckled in the shadows. “I see you’re still mad at me, but for the life of me, I can’t understand why.”
“Which request, Clement?”
Karen sat up. “Really?” She left her seat and walked down toward him, perching at his side. “Is he okay?”
“Hold on,” he answered with amusement in his tone. “My friend Ejigu, you’ll meet him at breakfast, he was able to get in touch with the cab your friend works for. Apparently, the day he picked you up was his last day. He no longer works for them.”
Karen frowned. “Okay, but did they have his contact information?”
“That’s why it’s a prayer answered.” Clement shifted, pulling out a sheet of paper from his pocket. “Here.”
She snatched the paper and unfolded it, although she couldn’t read it legibly.
“It’s his phone number. I doubt he’ll be awake now so let’s wait until sun-up to call him.”
“Yeah okay.” She folded and tucked the paper in her shirt pocket.
“Hmm.” Clement gestured to her. “We’ll need to get you a change of clothes.”
Karen glanced down. “No wonder your girlfriend made such a fuss. I’m still wearing your shirt.”
He heaved a sigh. “For the umpteenth time, she’s not my girlfriend.”
“Whatever.” Karen started to stand when Clement grabbed her hand. She sighed. “How many times do I have to tell you not to grab my hand whenever you like, without permission? Let go.”
“Not until you tell me what’s wrong.”
“Nothing’s wrong.” Karen lowered back onto the seat. “Let me use your phone.”
“You can’t call your friend, Karen. It’s late—”
“I need to call my family. Hand it over please…”
“Bossy woman.” Holding her with one hand, the other held out his phone. “I have an app that allows you to call without a calling card.”
“Yeah, I had one for mine. Let go, Clement.” She yanked her hand from his the minute he loosened his grip. Then standing, she relocated to her original seat and dialed her sister’s number first.
Samina picked on the second ring. “Finally! My goodness, Karen, where have you been?”
“I’m sorry, sis. It’s been a hectic week.”
“Are you okay?”
“Better than okay.” Karen dragged one foot on the cement floor. “How are you?”
“Nu-unh. You don’t get to divert attention to me when you’re the one whose been missing for a week.”
“I recall someone going off the grid for a week also, for surgery no less…”
Her sister cleared her throat. “That’s different. I was still in Houston, not some foreign place doing God knows what. Are you alright? What was hectic about your week?”
“I’ll give you details when I get home. Is Mom okay?”
“She’s pissed but that’s normal. I’ll tell her you called. Actually, it’ll be better for you to call her yourself.”
“And risk getting my ear bitten off? Nah, I’ll let you relay the news.”
Samina snorted derisively. “Anyway, when are you coming back? You’re still set for next week?”
Karen frowned, realizing that her trip was drawing to a close a little too soon. “Um, about that…”
Clement had abandoned his shadowy post to perch beside Karen. He smirked when she scooted an inch from him and found himself narrowing the gap between them. Something about her made him want to tease her, and he couldn’t figure out what or why he didn’t want to stop.
Karen scooted an inch more, teeth dragging against her bottom lip. “I might have to extend my trip.”
“What… Karen, you’ve been gone for a month and a half!”
“Yeah, I know but…” Karen sighed in exasperation as Clement scooted close, his thighs brushing hers. She tossed him a warning look which he responded with an innocent smile. She scowled. “What are you doing?”
Clement maintained his innocence and shrugged, refusing to budge.
“What am I doing?” Samina replied. “You’re the one being vague. Why do you need to extend your trip?”
“Just because…” Karen’s hip bumped into the wooden edge of the pew. She couldn’t move another inch away, pinned between Clement and the end of the pew.
“From your itinerary, I’m guessing you’re now in Ethiopia, correct?”
“Yeah, so?” Karen gestured for Clement to move. She scowled when he merely crossed his ankles and draped an arm behind her shoulders.
“You’re with that pastor guy, aren’t you? He’s the reason you’re staying, isn’t he?”
Karen stiffened and snuck a glance at Clement. He stared her down, one brow arched in silent question. She fought a grimace at Samina’s loud voice. There was little doubt in her mind he’d heard every word.
“Hey Sam, let me call you back.” She disconnected the call over her sister’s protests. “Did you hear her?”
“Not if you don’t want me to.” He drew back the arm draped behind her and eased back an inch.
“It’s fine. I have nothing to hide.” Karen lifted her chin, staring at him straight on. “Well it’s true. I like you. It’s the reason why I was pissed off last night.”
Clement remained silent, merely staring at her. It took everything in Karen to keep from not looking away. She continued. “I think it must’ve started at your sister’s wedding or maybe before that… It doesn’t matter when it happened. All I know is that I like you, Clement Teka.”
“Hey!” Clement exclaimed, rubbing the sore spot Dula had smacked him. “What was that for?”
“For being a fool.”
“I agree,” Ejigu said, folding his arms across his chest. “A woman tells you she likes you and you say what? That you’re a celibate priest?”
Clement frowned as both his friends muttered their disapproval. “Would you have preferred I led her on?”
“Admitting your feelings is not leading someone on. Don’t you like her?”
“This isn’t about liking her,” Clement countered, still rubbing the back of his head. “I already told you how difficult it is to be in a serious relationship right now. She’s saying she likes me now but she’ll be like Priscilla after a few months and end up resenting me.”
“That sounds like an excuse,” Dula groused. “A terrible one at that.”
“Not everyone is like Priscilla,” Ejigu refuted. “I haven’t met your lady yet but from what I heard, she seems very different. You’re always preaching about giving people a fair chance and not to discriminate, but you’re putting her in the same category as your ex-girlfriend. How fair is that?”
Clement regarded his friends warily. “Why are you all so invested in my love life?”
“Because you deserve to be happy,” Dula replied easily. “Marriage will do you good.”
He rolled his eyes and gestured to Ejigu. “Get him married first then. I’m fine—” He scowled when Dula smacked him upside the head. “Will you stop that?”
“Not until I knock sense back into you.” Dula shook his head and turned to Ejigu. “Never mind with him. Let’s get you married first. Maybe we can introduce you to Ms. Karen today at breakfast.”
Ejigu nodded, sneaking a peek at the frown forming on Clement’s face. He hid a smirk. “What a brilliant idea. Is she a beauty?”
“She’s beautiful.” Dula draped an arm about Ejigu’s shoulders. “Maybe you could teach her Amharic.”
“Hold on a minute,” Clement interjected. “Ejigu’s too young for her.”
“Age isn’t but a number. Besides, I like older ladies,” Ejigu tossed over his shoulder and flashed his friend a cheeky smile. Then turned to Dula. “Come introduce me to the beautiful Ms. Karen.”
The two smiling friends strolled out of Clement’s room and upon hearing the telltale growl behind the closed door, gave each other a fist bump before walking toward the kitchen.