Posts tagged “purpose

Sanctuary, Chapter 12

Posted on 04/07/2017

Two weeks flew by quickly once the never-ending workshops finally ended and the volunteers got a chance to serve the families. Trinity Cross Missions had developed strong bonds with the communities, encouraging the families welcome the volunteers with open arms. Some even invited them to eat dinner at their homes.

As with the children in Kibera, Karen was equally humbled and blessed by the children of Kampala. Her experience with them only strengthened her resolve to get into missions once she returned home. Her smile was wobbly as she hugged the last of the children, having grown fond of every single one.

“Bye bye, Aunty Karen,” they said in unison, smiling happily.

If only she could bottle up their joys as she did memories of them. Karen opened her arms wide for one last embrace. No matter the stress of her stay, Karen wouldn’t trade this wonderful experience for anything.

“We will miss you, Sister Karen,” one of the Ugandan teachers said, giving Karen a hug also.

“I’ll miss you too,” Karen said, holding the woman close. Though they were of the same age, their life experiences matured them differently. Though Uganda had its share of trials and pain, joy emanated from the native teacher’s smile as it did with the children.

Karen wished she could feel that type of joy, even if it was birthed from trials.

“Come see us again.”

“I will,” she vowed, loosening her hold. “Keep in touch. Remember to write me and I’ll do the same.”

“Of course.” The native teacher giggled as the children swarmed Karen, not wanting to let her go.

An hour later, Karen tamped a sigh as she and Jennifer took a cab to the airport. The warm feeling instantly faded once she met Jennifer standing near the sidewalk outside the center, awaiting their cab. Two weeks since the controversial workshop and Jennifer had yet to say more than two words to her.

It hadn’t bothered her in the beginning but Karen was slowly losing her patience. She shifted in her seat.

“Where are you going after this?”

Jennifer flinched and glanced over, confusion etched in her brow. “What?”

“You heard me. Where to next?”

Jennifer eyed her warily and then answered. “Djibouti.”

“I see.” Karen refocused on organizing her wallet contents.

There was a moment of silence and then Jennifer sighed before facing her own window.

Karen paused with a frown. “No seriously, what is your problem?”

The younger girl turned slowly, brow furrowed. “My problem…?”

“Yes, your problem,” Karen answered. “You’ve been sulking for two whole weeks. Avoiding me like the plague although we share the same room. C’mon, what’s that about?”

“I thought you hated me.”

“Hated…” Karen’s jaw slackened at the glimmer in Jennifer’s eyes. “Huh?!”

Jennifer sniffed noisily and lowered her gaze. “The way you looked at me after the workshop, and then you ignored me the whole time.”

“Oh come on,” Karen interjected. “Don’t be silly—”

Jennifer suddenly burst into sobs. Alarmed, Karen glanced once at the driver eying her suspiciously from the rearview mirror. Clamping down a retort, she cautiously put a hand on the younger woman’s shoulder. “What on earth are you crying about?”

Jennifer’s wails got louder and she turned her face to Karen’s shoulder. Tossing an exasperated glance at the car ceiling, Karen reluctantly pulled the inconsolable girl into her arms.

Gratefully, by the time the cab had pulled in front of the airport, Jennifer’s sobs abated to sniffles. Handing the cab driver his fare and a few more dollars as tip for minding his business, Karen then turned back to Jennifer who stood by their luggage with her head bowed.

“Let’s get checked in and get some lunch. Okay?”

To Karen’s gentle suggestion, Jennifer snuck a peek at her companion and nodded.

“Alright,” Karen sighed and reached for her suitcase. “Check-in’s that way.” Leading the way through the busy airport, she rehearsed a kinder way to relate with Jennifer. If that was all that resulted from their time together, she planned to make what was left of it a teaching moment.

“Two sub sandwiches and salted fries!”

“I’ll get it,” Karen said, gesturing for Jennifer to remain seated. With some free time between their flights, the two women relocated to the corner of a sandwich café.

Returning with their meals, Karen reseated. “So you do understand that we’re allowed our personal convictions, right?”

Jennifer paused in mid-bite and looked up at Karen, expression dubious.

Karen managed a smile. “Sure I was surprised by your view on illegal adoption, but never once did I think you evil or terrible… Neither did I express any feelings of hate toward you.”

The girl chewed her sandwich in silence, mulling over Karen’s words.

Encouraged to continue, Karen did just that. “What I did feel was disappointment that a mother’s rights to her child could be ignored for someone’s gain—let me finish, please—if someone dared to take away my niece and nephew, I wouldn’t take that sitting down. In fact, I might get pretty violent to protect them.”

Something flitted in Jennifer’s eyes and she swallowed hard.

Karen sighed deeply. “It pisses me off that there might be children out there, missing their mothers and growing up without their birth siblings. Who knows if their adopted parents are even taking care of them as they promised? Disputing a birth parent’s right to justify that of illegal adoptions is unacceptable—”

“I’m adopted.”

The softly-spoken outburst stilled Karen’s tongue. She blinked at the young woman before her.

Jennifer wiped her mouth first and set down the rest of her sandwich. “My parents adopted me when I was six. I didn’t know my mother, and my father made it clear he didn’t want me. Yeah sure he said otherwise but his actions didn’t match his words. I obviously can’t say I regret being stolen from him.”

The forlorn expression on Jennifer’s eyes stole Karen’s breath and rendered her speechless.

“Not everything is black and white, Karen. Not every parent wants their children and not every parent is good or selfless. My birth parent wanted a freedom he couldn’t have with a child. And my adopted parents would do anything to have me.”

Karen swallowed painfully, watching the sadness in Jennifer’s eyes.

“Unlike you, I’ve been on many of these mission trips. I’ve seen ugliness in families than your mind can even imagine. Kids are abused and neglected because their parents are hopeless or frustrated. People can be evil. You can’t tell me different when I’ve seen children sold to prostitution by their own parents.”

“That’s not—”

“Let me finish,” Jennifer said softly. “When there’s desperation, we are all capable of doing anything and everything to survive. To win in life.”

Karen didn’t dare ask what her adopted parents were willing to do to win their child. She had a feeling it wouldn’t be a good story. Appetite lost, she fiddled with the wrapping of her untouched sandwich.

“It’s every man for himself out here.” Jennifer’s lips turned in a sneer. “Yes, some are considered good because they might die for their children. Yet some are not at a point where they must choose their lives over that of their kids, but some will… and the number of parents in that category is significant.” Jennifer lifted her sandwich to her lips and bit down, eyes on Karen.

The weight of Jennifer’s stare forced Karen to lower hers. There was nothing left to say and that was troubling. With a deep sigh, she nudged her plate aside.

And with a heavy heart, Karen said goodbye to Jennifer while feeling like she’d failed her somehow. If she’d known Jennifer harbored such feelings, she would’ve spent the time they had together to prove otherwise… or at least show her that parents were prone to make mistakes.

Karen’s parents, though strict, loved and cared for their three children. She couldn’t remember a time when either her mother or father placed their needs before that of their kids. Instead, she recalled the sleepless nights her parents spent nursing a sickly Samina or the troubled days when her brother Obadiah needed to be disciplined over a stupid mistake or two. Her father’s struggle to punish Obadiah for his reckless behavior was plain to see. And though they easily pointed out her faults and reprimanded her for each one, Karen had no doubt they cared for her too.

As Jennifer disappeared around the corner, Karen heaved yet another sigh. There was nothing else she could do for Jennifer, and she despised harboring regrets. So resigned, Karen turned around and started the long walk to the assigned gate for her flight.

“I won’t lie to you,” Ejigu prefaced as Clement read the morning paper. “It doesn’t look promising.”

“But we have to do it,” Clement answered, flipping the page. He was calm and collected in the midst of their growing irritation.

Ejigu silently beseeched Dula to convince Clement otherwise. Dula sighed. “Brother, listen to him for a change. He is the one nearest the capital. He hears what happens there.”

“It’s true,” Ejigu added. “The government is working to strengthen their laws on child kidnapping. Priscilla says it could happen sooner than—”

“Okay,” Clement finally looked up with a frown. “What’s the matter with you two? Since when do you start listening to Priscilla?” He couldn’t help the sneer as he said her name, still annoyed with her meddling. Ever since she returned, she wanted a say in everything.

“Her father is in Parliament,” Dula replied. “You know she has his ear. Let us wait for her to talk with him.”

“And every time she promises to talk with him, we wait and wait,” Clement answered with derision and folded the paper. “Well I’m done waiting. The bad guys keep doing what they do best while we sit here like fools, waiting for a government too afraid to make the bad guys pay.” He shook his head and stood. “I won’t ask you to go, Dula. As I said before, you’ve got a family to take care of.”

“I have one too,” Ejigu inserted, agitation clear in his voice. “Why must I risk my life but not Dula?”

The two men stared at each other, stunned by Ejigu’s outburst. Then Clement’s brow furrowed. “I never said you should come along, did I?”

“Clement—” Dula started.

Clement held up a hand, though his hard stare remained on Ejigu’s face. “You volunteered to come with me, and I’ve always given you the chance to back off.”

“But you can’t go alone,” Ejigu insisted.

“Yes I can,” Clement countered firmly, though his expression softened. “I know your sister and mother are in a tough spot. I realize you need to keep your job so you can provide… and I know you want to get married.”

“And you don’t?”

Clement quietly considered Ejigu’s softly-spoken question for just a moment and then shook his head. “Putting a woman through this life would be cruel.”

“You don’t have to live this life,” Dula reminded him gently. “We can involve the government.”

“A government too busy managing petty conflicts?” Clement rolled his eyes. “They have their hands full.”

“As do you,” Dula protested. “You are a pastor, Clement. Your duty is to preach and lead your sheep.”

“When half my sheep is stolen and sold to slavery or worse, how can I confidently preach God’s love and care for them?” Clement frowned. “What mother or father would listen to a message like that when their child is nowhere to be found? Could you listen if Meko suddenly went missing?”

Dula’s lips thinned.

“And you.” Clement’s gaze skipped to Ejigu. “Could you listen if your niece was sold to prostitution?”

Ejigu’s gaze lowered.

“Didn’t think so.” Clement heaved a sigh. “I have seven nephews and nieces, and one more on the way. The thought of any exposed to that kind of danger makes me sick. The thought of our kids here vulnerable to attack at any point of time makes me lose sleep at night. And that mother’s cry… I still hear it every night.” Clement trembled with pent-up indignation. “How can you expect me to ignore that and mount a pulpit every Sunday to say Jesus loves you?”

Both men slowly looked up and met Clement’s gaze. They looked conflicted, their silence louder than words.

Clement nodded. “You have done more than enough and I thank you for supporting this crazy mission of mine. You’ve put your lives on the line enough times and I wouldn’t ask you to do more than that. But please don’t try to convince me otherwise. I’m still going.”

“How would you explain my absence?” Ejigu asked. “That woman will be suspicious if I’m not with you. You’re not supposed to understand the native language.”

Clement frowned and Dula heaved a sigh at his friend’s momentary silence. “This is dangerous, Brother.”

The door creaked open and Wubit stepped inside with Meko propped at her hip. Clement’s frown melted away as the young boy beamed at the sight of his father. When Dula took Meko from Wubit’s arms, Clement determined never to put his friends through such danger. He would go it alone and make sure they need not worry for anything while he was gone.

“Are you through with your discussion?” Wubit asked, eyes on Clement. “The play is about to begin, and the children are asking for their guest of honor.”

Clement’s lips twitched a smile and put a hand to his chest. “Me?”

“Who else?” Wubit giggled. “Come on before they get restless waiting on you.”

“Well let’s not keep them waiting. Should I pretend to be surprised even though I saw them practicing?”

Wubit laughed. “Please do.”

As Clement and Wubit walked out of the pastor’s office, Dula and Ejigu stalled a minute longer. They exchanged wary glances, worried that their friend was too committed to this dangerous mission.

“Will you go?” Dula asked, bouncing his baby boy on his hip.

Ejigu looked remorseful as he shook his head. “I can’t. My mother’s health is worsening, my sister just lost her job at the hotel and I have to make more money.”

“Oh no! You should’ve told us, Brother. We could’ve helped with some—”

“I can’t ask you to do that,” Ejigu protested. “You barely have enough to feed everyone. And Clement…” he heaved a sigh. “He’s using his own money to buy back the children.”

Dula swallowed hard. “This is too dangerous. If he gets caught, they could kill him.”

Ejigu dragged a hand over his face, his frustration palpable. “But we can’t stop him. No one can stop him.”

“He believes this is the best way—” Meko suddenly smacked his father’s face and Dula let out a laugh as he held back his face from attack. “This boy.”

Ejigu managed a smile. “He wants to see the play too.”

“Then let’s go,” Dula answered and led the way out of the office, down the hallway into the compound that looked different from how it looked a day ago.

Clement sat on the floor, cross-legged, with the younger children seated around him. Some leaned against him and giggled as he kept them entertained with his stories. Wubit and Priscilla were near the back, making popcorn while the other two volunteers stood with the older children dressed in makeshift costumes for their play. Joining Wubit and Priscilla by the popcorn station, Dula leaned in to give Wubit a kiss on her cheek.

“Smells delicious!” Ejigu said, smiling brightly at Priscilla.

Priscilla’s smile was wan, distracted as she watched Clement. “He’s still going, isn’t he?”

Ejigu’s smile slipped and so did Dula’s. The awkward silence lasted only a moment before Meko smacked Dula’s cheek.

“Oow!” Dula protested with a short laugh. “Where is he learning this?”

“Who knows,” Wubit answered, giving her son a kiss on his soft cheek. “Why don’t you guys have a seat? The play is about to begin.”

Priscilla watched with a frown as the two men readily fled from the table. “Maybe I should talk to—”

“Leave it be, Priscilla,” Wubit said softly, pouring a scoopful of freshly-popped corn into a newspaper cone. “The more you push him, the faster he runs in the other direction.”

“Can’t he see that I still care about him?”

“I know you care but you ran away when he needed you.”

Priscilla snorted derisively. “Does that man need anyone?”

Wubit glanced over where Clement was now tickling a few of the younger children. She smiled wistfully. “The right woman will make him need her.”

“…Wow Wubit,” Priscilla said, frowning. “So you’re saying I’m the wrong woman?”

“Sister.” Wubit looked back at her, smile still in place. “One day you’ll meet the right man that will value and cherish you the way you deserve to be treated.”

“And Clement isn’t that man?” There was pain etched in her face.

“No Priscilla, he isn’t.” Wubit abandoned the popcorn to embrace her friend. “Not for you.”

<<Chapter 11 || Chapter 13>>

Samina’s Chance: Chapter 50

Posted on 05/06/2015

southerncharms4

With a smile on her face, Samina watched the girl sharpen the colored pencils meticulously, her brow furrowed in concentration. A week had passed since Talitha worked under her supervision and Samina barely had time to think of her own issues, her curiosity of Talitha growing by the day.

The Talitha at work was deferential and respectful. Any assignment Samina gave was done without complaints. She worked hard and often had to be reminded to pause for a lunch break. It was as if she truly enjoyed the work. Samina’s smile waned, watching Talitha’s deft yet small hand as she sharpened yet another colored pencil. The petite girl before her probation officer stood defiant and unyielding.

Staring at the girl’s lackluster chestnut hair that hung limp on her small shoulders, Samina recalled the contents on Talitha’s file. Born in El-Paso, TX. Resident of Juvenile Justice Center for two years, in foster system for thirteen. Known for insubordination and acts of violence.  No interest in trade or college.

“Talitha,” Samina spoke up.

The girl shifted her hazel eyes to Samina’s face, her thin brows lifted in question.

“What do you want to do when you’re… free to go?”

A wrinkle appeared between the girl’s eyes.

Samina held her breath, watching for the switch in her expression.

Instead, Talitha looked down and kicked up a shoulder. “Dunno.”

“Do you like to draw?”

Talitha looked up, a mix of suspicion and curiosity coloring her gaze.

Samina felt a flutter in her stomach and smiled. “I have a project I want to discuss with you. You interested?”

Kyra sauntered into the main office space a few hours later and frowned at the two of them sitting in a circle table near the break room. “What’s going on? I thought we were going out for lunch.”

Samina lifted her head and smiled at Kyra. “Sorry, got busy.” She gestured wordlessly to Talitha who didn’t raise her head to acknowledge the secretary, her left hand guiding a colored pencil over the canvas.

Kyra gasped sharply and leaned in to study the artwork on the table. “My word!”

Samina beamed, excitement tingling her nerves.

Who would’ve thought it? Talitha, an artist!

“Isn’t she incredible?” She watched the perfect lines Talitha drew and shook her head incredulously. The only other time she’d felt this way was when she’d painted at the flea market with Topher’s friend, Elias. Her smile waned.

“Would you look at that?” Kyra breathed, perching on the table. “She’s talented.”

Samina grinned as though the compliment was for her.

Talitha paid them no mind, her eyes focused on her artwork. Samina swallowed hard as tears threatened. There was a yearning in Talitha’s gaze that Samina recognized all too well. This wasn’t just about passing time while making posters for the building. Talitha’s defiance only showed up when the probation officer tried to stifle her or the records claimed she had no dreams of a promising future.

Instead, Talitha fought for meaning in her life and a reason to belong in this society. She desperately needed a dream to believe in.

Samina could understand this feeling of yearning for a purpose more than anyone else. Her heart squeezed tight as realization hit her like a freight train.

Everything suddenly made sense.

Getting laid off from Yates Academy and getting rejected from every job she applied for, was to steer her in this direction. To prepare her to meet someone that she could relate to, and eventually help.  She’d been sent here for Talitha.

Kyra nudged her shoulder, pulling her out of her daze. “Your phone’s ringing.”

Samina glanced once at Talitha before grabbing her phone. She stood from the circle table and moved to the back of the room by the men’s bathroom door. She frowned at the unknown number and held the phone to her ear. “Hello?”

“Samina?”

She raised a brow at the slightly-familiar voice. “Yes… this is she.”

“It’s me, Principal Forrester.”

Samina choked out an incredulous laugh. “Yes, hello…”

He cleared his throat. “Is this a good time to talk? I wanted to discuss an opportunity with you.”

Glancing over her shoulder to the table where Kyra openly gushed over Talitha’s fine work, Samina smirked. “Actually, sir, this isn’t a good time.”

“Oh… well, is there a good time I can—”

“I don’t think so.” She smiled as he blustered in response. “I’m busy right now, so let me say one thing. Thank you.”

Static answered on his end before he sighed. “For what?”

“For firing me.” She grinned despite how absurd she sounded.

“I-I didn’t fire you,” Principal Forrester protested. “It was the board’s decision. I was just the messenger!”

Samina dipped her chin. “Of course. Either way, thank you for carrying it through. I’m right where I need to be.” She watched as Talitha mumbled a response to Kyra’s question and smiled. “Good luck finding someone else for your opportunity.

He breathed out a deep sigh. “No hard feelings?”

She shook her head. “None at all. Goodbye, Principal Forrester.” Disconnecting the phone, Samina breathed out a sigh of relief. She could feel a weight had slid off her shoulders.

Delay is never denial.

Her father’s words echoed in her mind as she walked back to the table with a brighter smile. “Ladies… let’s get some lunch.”

As they walked down the steps to the main street, Samina gave Talitha a smile. “Lunch is on me.”

“It’s always on you,” Kyra interjected, winking at the quiet petite girl between them. “Where are we off to?”

Samina fished out her keys as they started for her car parked on the side street. “You can pick, although I’m in the mood for quesadillas.”

Kyra’s eyes flitted over her shoulder and she paused in step, a smile twitching her lips. “Um, how about we order pizza and stay in?” She nudged her chin over Samina’s shoulder and all three turned.

Her heart skipped a beat as she spotted Ezekiel standing by the stairs, staring at her. One hand in his pocket, the other resting on the steel banister, he wore a rueful expression on his face.

“What a gorgeous man…” Kyra muttered as Ezekiel started toward them.

Samina bit the inside of her cheek, recalling the way Ezekiel slighted her in anger and stormed out of her apartment. The excitement from earlier fizzled as he came to stand before her.

“Hi,” Ezekiel said, expression somber.

Samina looked past his shoulder. “Hi.”

Kyra cleared her throat and placed a hand on Talitha’s shoulder. “Let’s you and me find something to eat.” She nudged the quiet girl along with her, leaving Ezekiel and Samina to stand in awkward silence.

Ezekiel sighed. “I didn’t mean to interrupt your lunch time. Should we get something to eat first?”

Samina suddenly didn’t have an appetite. She glanced back at him, frowning. “What do you want, Ezekiel?”

He eyed her somberly. “Can we talk somewhere quiet?”

She heaved a sigh but shrugged her shoulders. “Fine. Let’s sit in my car.” She noticed something akin to disappointment flicker in his eyes and almost felt bad. Then she remembered his stormy glare and tightened her jaw. “I parked here.” She started for the car, not waiting to see if he followed.

Once they were settled in the car, the traffic muted and the minutes stretched as they sat in silence, Samina stared forward in wait.

Ezekiel shifted in the seat to face her. “You’re mad at me now?”

Samina rolled her eyes. “Nope.”

He grunted. “Please look at me when I’m talking to you.”

She wanted to tell him to stop talking to her like he did with Adelaide and Beulah but chose to remain quiet as she dragged her eyes to his face.

Ezekiel frowned. “I didn’t realize you could be this cruel.”

His words were like a dagger lodged in her chest.

He continued. “You didn’t tell me about your surgery and I had to find out while hiding from your mother. Don’t I have a right to be angry?”

Pangs of guilt stung and she looked down. “I was going to tell you…”

“Oh, when exactly? After you and I get married, and I realize you can’t conceive?”

His derisive tone pricked her nerves. She tilted her chin. “And what makes you think I would marry you?”

Ezekiel’s brows slammed in a deep V, his eyes silently warning her from speaking out of turn.

Heart hammering, Samina started to retract her statement. “Look Zeke…”

He held a hand. “No, wait… You knew about Winsome, right? About the condition she had, don’t you?”

Samina hesitated. She’d only heard snippets when her mother and his spoke of Winsome’s inability to conceive and how hard it was on their marriage.

Ezekiel nodded. “Winsome had endometriosis and although I was okay with us not having any children, she insisted that we try.” He swallowed hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing. “Though I’m grateful that she convinced us to have our girls, I wished I could’ve had both of them.”

Her heart twisted in pain, realizing what she’d done. Discovering the truth of her surgery only ripped open wounds he thought were healed. Made him think of who he’d lost.

“I don’t know, Sam…” His eyes flitted back to hers, his expression grave. “The thought of you undergoing the pain Winsome went through, terrified me. I won’t lie to you, I’m still scared.”

Samina sought his hand and squeezed it gently. “I’m going to be okay, Ezekiel.” She managed a feeble smile when he eyed her dubiously. “You heard all of it. After the treatment is done, I’ll be okay.”

“Don’t you want children, Sam?”

She frowned.

“I see the way you are with the girls… I know you want to be a mother.”

Pain seized her breath, eyes stinging with tears held at bay.

His gaze softened and he squeezed her hand. “Let me take you to lunch. We can talk more comfortably there.”

Samina shook her head, tugged her hand from his. “I can’t. Working…” A tear rolled down her face and she quickly ducked her head, swiping at it with one hand.

Ezekiel blew out a breath. “What about dinner then?”

She lifted her head, staring at the gentle smile that eased the wrinkles off his handsome face.

“Come on, Sam… Let’s talk this through.” He cupped a hand over her cheek, his thumb caressing her face. “You can do all the talking for a change. I’ll promise to listen this time.” He flashed a rueful smile. “Please?”

Samina sniffed back the tears. At one point, long ago, Ezekiel’s boyish smile made her feel warm from the inside out. Now, all she felt was regret for the pain she’d caused him. She stifled a groan and lowered her gaze.

Why did everything in her life have to change so dramatically?

Topher rolled his eyes heavenward as he trailed after the newlyweds. He eyed the lit sign above the front door of the Brazilian restaurant. “Guys, really… I’m not in the mood.”

The smoky, tangy scents tickled his nostrils but he scowled all the more.

“Eating with us or eating, period?” Ada countered, hooking an arm under Jaxson’s.

The two men exchanged glances, and then Topher sighed. “This is nothing against you Ada. I’m just not in the mood to stuff my face with meat tonight.”

Ada smirked at him. “Don’t starve yourself just because you’re lovesick.”

“Ada,” Jaxson mumbled, squeezing her arm.

Topher scoffed and he turned his gaze, scanning the bustling restaurant. He’d rather eat a can of sardines than subject himself to Ada’s teasing banter.

“Let’s go.” Jaxson gave Topher a kind smile before following Ada and the hostess to their seat.

Topher scowled, not wanting to be the third wheel but seeing he had no choice. All day, Ada pestered both he and Jaxson to indulge her unprompted craving for red meat. At some point during the day, Nadine demanded they leave the hospital room so she could sleep in peace. He made a note to reprimand her for throwing him to the wolves.

The hostess skirted around the patrons, stopping before a table positioned in the middle of the room.

Topher quickly sought out a corner table where he could easily direct his attention out the window while Jaxson and Ada flirted with each other all evening. His gaze snagged on an attractive couple sitting in a corner booth and his mouth tightened.

Jaxson’s smile faltered at the discomfited look on Topher’s face. His eyes sought out the cause and he heaved a sigh. “Oh boy.”

“Two sweet teas and one unsweetened.” Ada smiled as the hostess turned to go and turned to see both men still standing. “Uh fellas, what’s going on…?” Eyes widened, immediately recognizing Samina and Ezekiel sitting a few feet away.

With the soft candlelight glowing between them, the scene looked entirely too cozy. She snuck a look at Topher and immediately cursed her odd craving for meat. “Hey, we can go if—”

Topher choked out a laugh.

Ada and Jaxson exchanged worried glances. That didn’t sound like an amused or cheerful laugh. In fact, there was little humor witnessing one’s love in another man’s company.

With a sigh, Topher looked away and tugged back his chair to sit down. “Did we order drinks yet?”

Ada hesitated before answering. “I ordered your unsweetened tea. Topher, maybe we should—“

“Sounds good,” Topher interjected, flashing an all-too-bright grin. Draping his arm over the back of his chair, he smirked at Jaxson still standing. “You gonna stand and eat, man?”

Glancing once at his wife, Jaxson hesitantly took his own seat across from Topher.  “We can trade seats?” he volunteered, aware of Topher’s line of sight.

Topher arched a brow. “Why?” He kicked a shoulder. “Ain’t no skin off my back.”

Ada frowned. Jaxson hesitated, worried by the cool and detached expression on Topher’s face. “You okay, man?”

Topher smirked. “Fantastic.” He leaned into his chair and bobbed his head to the rumba music playing overhead, drumming his fingers idly.

Before he could say anything, Jaxson felt a nudge under the table and glanced over at Ada shaking her head. Smothering a sigh, he leaned back in his seat and waited for their drinks.

A plate of seared pork and a basket of fried plantains later, Topher finally broke his silence with a low, dry chuckle.

“Fate is a petty little thing,” he muttered, gaze riveted to Jaxson’s right shoulder. “Rinse and repeat, they say.”

Ada and Jaxson paused at eating.

“I mean, of all places…”

Jaxson put down his fork. “Seriously man, what happened?”

“Yeah,” Ada piped in. “What went on at the camp?”

Topher eyed the two of them. “What do you mean?”

Ada leaned forward. “I thought you two were getting closer.” she paused when he smirked derisively. “What’s going on?”

He smirked derisively, turning the fork around his fingers. “Nothing really. Just have to accept my fate and move on. I’m not in the mood for a lifetime of regrets.”

The waiter returned at that moment, a pitcher of tea in his hand. “Refills?”

Topher wordlessly held out his glass and watched the waiter fill it up.

“I’m full,” Ada announced once the waiter moved to another table. “Let’s get the check and get out of here.”

“Great idea,” Jaxson mumbled, pulling out his wallet as Topher reached for his.  “Topher, put that away. It’s on us… Besides you barely touched your food.”

Topher hesitated briefly before pushing the wallet back into his blazer. “Thanks…” His right brow twitched, now avoiding Jaxson’s right shoulder.

Across the room, Samina mulled over her decision as Ezekiel’s expensive dinner sunk into her belly like a block of lead.

Ezekiel reached across the table and took her hand in his. “You enjoyed your food?” His thumb caressed her palm.

“Hmm.” Samina managed a smile, feeling uneasy and not just from the heartburn bubbling in her throat. “Everything was delicious…”

“I’m glad.” Ezekiel smiled back, gaze probing into hers.

She lowered her head, feeling the guilt sweep over her. Suddenly, her tongue felt glued to the roof of her mouth, her throat constricting with every breath. Her gaze flitted to the glass of water and she tugged her hand from his to grab the drink.

Ezekiel tucked in a smile as Samina gulped down the drink.

Evading his eyes, she scanned the room just as Ada rounded a table toward her, Jaxson and Topher lagging behind. The heated glare Topher directed at her face shocked her. She swallowed the water the water too fast and lowered the glass.

“Hey, isn’t that your friend Ada?” Ezekiel cupped a hand over his mouth before Samina could stop him. “Hey Ada!”

Ada turned slowly, her smile as stiff as her walk to their table. “Oh hello!” she greeted in an overly bright tone.

The two men behind her remained quiet; Jaxson resigned, Topher brooding, .

Unable to meet Topher’s censuring glare, Samina lowered her eyes just as a tickle scratched her esophagus.

Unware, Ezekiel smiled in greeting as his eyes swept over the two men behind Ada. “What a small world, seeing all three of you here.”

Ada’s smile was a bit stiff. “I forgot you’ve met Topher.” She giggled louder than she should’ve and Jaxson placed a hand on her arm.

Ezekiel’s smile waned and he nodded. “By the way, congratulations. I apologize that I wasn’t able to join in the celebrations.”

Topher stared past her, eyes cold now. Detached.

Samina felt the cough, felt her eyes water. Her throat began convulsing as she struggled to hold it in.

Jaxson offered a polite smile. “It’s not a prob—” his eyes narrowed at Samina. “Hey, are you okay?”

All eyes jerked to Samina who was now convulsing in a choking cough. Ada gasped, hurrying to Samina’s side. Ezekiel reached for her water as Ada pounded on her back until the coughing ceased.

Clearing her throat, Samina held out a hand to assure them she was fine. She didn’t dare look up and see Topher’s withering look.

“Drink, Sam,” Ezekiel urged gently, pushing the glass into her hand.

With shaking hands, Samina held it to her mouth and sipped the water this time.

“Better?” Ada asked soothingly, rubbing Samina’s back instead.

Samina nodded mutely, unable to look at any of them. She felt so silly.

“Don’t scare me like that …” Ezekiel berated her softly, taking the glass from her and squeezing her hand.

“Excuse me,” Topher mumbled, stepping away from everyone and strode quickly toward the exit.

Jaxson nodded his farewell and hurried after his friend. Ada turned to Samina with a weak smile.  “We’ll talk later. Goodnight, you two.” She hurried after Jaxson, meeting him in front of the restaurant. Topher was stalking quickly across the parking lot. “That didn’t go so well…” Ada hooked an arm under Jaxson’s as they trudged slowly behind him.

She had to tell him now. If nothing else had convinced her, Topher’s quick escape from the restaurant told her it was time. She couldn’t delay this any further.

Samina jumped visibly as Ezekiel’s hand grazed over hers.

“Are you okay?” he asked, his voice tender and full of concern. He’d watched her eat like a hawk, verbally noting how fast she swallowed her food. As though she was Beulah with little experience of eating on her own.

With a sigh, she tugged her hand from his and gripped her seatbelt. “I’m fine.”

“Perhaps I’m too late…”

The statement sounded more like a question and Samina looked down in silence.

Ezekiel blew out a breath. “I didn’t think it was possible that I’d have a second chance at love. A second chance with you.”

Her heart fluttered rebelliously, her mind screaming in protest. She didn’t need confusion, not after she’d rehearsed what she would say to him.

“Truth is I always thought you were too good for me. Too innocent, too sweet…” He rubbed the back of his neck. “And then when I finally decided to take a shot, I pushed too fast, too hard.”

Now she could just stare at him, at a loss for words. Was he saying he’d always had feelings for her and not just recently?

“Sam, what I’m saying is I want to be with you. It doesn’t matter if you may not be able to conceive, just as long as you are alive and with me, everything will be fine.”

Sam. It was the only word that pulled her back to her purpose. She drew in her bottom lip and stared at his shadowed features. “Why?”

He cocked his head. “Why what?”

“Why, after all these years, did you decide to date me now?”

Ezekiel leaned back into his seat, the engine rumbling in his silence.

Samina sighed. “It doesn’t matter… really it doesn’t.”

“Then why ask if it doesn’t matter?”

His tone was low, as reproachful as Topher’s glare from earlier. Troubled and convicted, she couldn’t find the words.

“This isn’t about me, is it?” Ezekiel ventured. “It’s about him, isn’t it?”

“No.” Her stomach gurgled with anxiety. “It’s about me.”

“I don’t understand…” Even in the dark, Samina could feel the weight of his gaze on her face, could picture the wrinkle in his brow.

She nodded; the revelation still fresh in her mind. “For years, I’ve been so confused about everything because I didn’t know who I was. Didn’t know understand what I really wanted out of life for so long that I settled.”

Ezekiel inhaled a harsh breath. “And you’re settling with me?”

Samina rolled her eyes. “You said you’d only listen.”

He heaved a sigh and folded his arms across his chest. “Alright, continue.”

She hesitated briefly, summoning what she’d rehearsed and finding that she didn’t want to say any of it. Instead, she closed her eyes and began from her heart. “I can’t learn to love someone when I don’t know how to love myself.” Her eyes watered. “I can’t be someone’s wife, someone’s mother or someone’s anything when I barely have a clue how to love myself for me or, have the courage to make my dreams a reality.” She sniffed noisily. “Adelaide and Beulah deserve to have someone that can inspire them, not stifle them with her own self-inadequacy.”

Ezekiel sought her hand in the dark. “I’ll help you. We can do this together.”

She pulled her hand away. “No, Ezekiel. This is something I have to do on my own. Without distractions or confusion.”

He was silent for a moment that felt like a lifetime to Samina. Then he blew out a breath. “What are you saying, Sam?”

Heart racing a mile a minute, Samina took in his shadowed features. This would be the last chance she had to rescind her words, act like nothing was wrong. Was it fair to give up this relationship before trying to see if it could work, to believe that his love couldn’t sustain her?

“Tell me plainly so I can understand.”

Drawing in a sustaining breath, Samina grasped onto her fleeting courage before speaking out. “Let’s break up.”

The shrilling sound of her alarm clock jerked her awake and Samina snapped her eyes open. Blinding sunlight from the open curtains made her cower under the covers. She froze, her heart stopped.

Was it a dream?

She jerked the covers down and reached her phone, pushing out of bed to stand. Scanning the phone list, there were no text messages from Ezekiel, which could mean anything.

Her phone rang in her hand, Ada’s caller-id flashing on the screen.

Samina pressed talk before the second ring. “Ada, did we see each other yesterday?”

Ada hesitated before replying. “Is this a joke?”

“Just answer the question.” Samina heard her own breathless voice and fought to calm herself down. “Were you there with Jaxson and Topher last night?”

“Are you still asleep? Yeah, of course we saw you and Ezekiel on your date.” Ada scoffed. “Dang, Samina, it would’ve been nice if you’d given me a heads-up about dating Ezekiel. Why did I have to hear it from Topher? You bad girl.”

So last night wasn’t a dream. Topher’s angry eyes, her choking on water and breaking up with Ezekiel really happened. Her stinging eyes should’ve been a clue that she’d cried all night after the breakup. She sighed. “I was going to tell you.”

“Yeah whatever, bad girl…” Ada huffed impatiently. “Look, Jax took Topher and Nadine to the airport for their flight. Not that it matters since you’re all coupled up, but I thought you should know.”

Samina’s chest tightened and she gripped the phone. “What airport?” she heard herself ask.

“Hobby. They leave within the hour. I can call them to stall.”

Her smile was wobbly as she walked quickly to the bathroom. “Thanks, Ada.”

“We’re even now, at least until it’s your turn to get married.” Ada’s voice betrayed a smile. “Don’t get caught speeding though. I can’t afford to bail you out.”

Samina rolled her eyes as she disconnected the call and shimmied out of her clothes to take a quick shower, all the while summoning the courage to face Topher one last time.

Topher scowled as Nadine took her time sipping the iced latte. “I thought you hated coffee.”

Nadine met Jaxson’s eyes and tucked a smile when he winked at her. She turned back to her nephew and kicked a shoulder. “It’s growing on me.”

Jaxson clapped a hand over Topher’s shoulder. “Relax, you still have a few hours before the flight. Get a croissant or something.” His smile waned when Topher huffed and crossed his arms. “Why the rush, man?”

“He wants to run as far away as possible so he can forget about her.” Nadine sipped noisily on her drink, ignoring Topher’s withering glare. “Because he’s a coward just like his dad.”

Jaxson winced as Topher stiffened. “Nadine, come on… Give him a break.”

“Like he’s doing me any favors with his whining and pining with regret?” Nadine scoffed derisively. “I don’t think so.”

Topher squinted at her, his jaw hard as stone. “Are you done?”

“Actually, no, I barely got started.” She put down the cup with force and glared at him. “Did anyone ask you to let her go? To not chase her? That’s the problem with you. Your pride is just a cover for your hurt feelings.”

“Nadine…” Jaxson warily eyed the entrance, praying Samina would appear in the doorway. “Maybe you shouldn’t.”

“Oh shush,” she interjected, glaring at her nephew. “Get over your stupid pride and go to her. I don’t want a martyr for a nephew.”

Topher folded his arms across his chest, turning his gaze to the security line. “Hurry up with your drink or I’ll leave you behind.”

Nadine scoffed. “Go right ahead. I won’t last another minute with your whining and griping.” She turned to Jaxson. “Take me back to the hotel.”

Just then, Samina entered through the automatic sliding doors, her eyes frantically scanning the crowd.

“No need for that,” Jaxson smiled and shot to his feet. He waved until Samina spotted him. “Topher can have his chance.”

Topher eyed him suspiciously.

Nadine peered over and a smirk twitched her lips. “Well, I’ll be…”

Samina crossed the lobby to meet them, her hair windblown, her hoodie sweater barely on her shoulders as if she’d hurried to catch them.

Dumbfounded, Topher stood to his feet.

Winded, Samina gazed up at him. “Hello Topher…”

<<Chapter 49 || Epilogue>>

  

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