At the sight of his son stepping into the room, Lalana-Joel’s smile only widened at the wake of Clement Teka’s anecdote of chasing wild pigs on the outskirts of Addis Adaba. His eyes swept over his only child’s handsome face, grateful he was alive to see it again.
He started to speak when J.R. stepped close and then he spotted the petite girl right behind his shoulder. Her eyes lit with joy when their gazes met and his smile waned. He quickly swung his gaze back to his son whose eyes danced with an identical expression, and L.J.’s brow furrowed slightly. What was it?
“Babu,” J.R.’s voice trembled as he leaned in.
L.J. accepted the kiss to his forehead, warmed by the tenderness of his son’s greeting. When J.R. leaned back, he lifted his eyes back to his son. “Where were you?” he dared not look at the girl who had kept his son from being in the room when he opened his eyes.
Chagrin dimmed the light in his son’s eyes and he looked down, his hand seeking L.J.’s. “The chapel.”
The gentle whisper of his son’s words pierced him, and instantly a memory rushed into his heart. He remembered years ago—too long ago—scouring the hospital for his ten-year-old child, only to find him weeping at the foot of a cross over a mother who died in the emergency hall. He watched in silence as J.R.’s fingers curled around his and he dared not look at his son’s face, ashamed that he’d once again invoked a fear in his son.
“Bhaiyaa,” Hana addressed J.R. over the tense silence. “You just missed the doctor earlier.”
J.R. sniffed back tears. “Oh yeah? What did he say?”
Unable to help himself, L.J. raised his head. His son faced Hana as she divested what the doctor shared already, but all L.J. noticed was Darah standing at his side with her arm around J.R’s waist. He arched a brow when her eyes met his and narrowed his eyes when she winked.
What a minx!
He sniffed and looked away, only to meet Clement’s amused expression. He frowned, wondering if these two were in cahoots. Perhaps this bearded missionary man had purposefully entertained with stories of his adventures while his little sister sedu–
“Babu,” J.R.’s low baritone pulled L.J.’s attention back to him. His brow was furrowed. “Are you sure?”
For a moment, L.J. had no idea what he meant. His eyes bounced between J.R. and the minx behind him and wanted to shake his head, ready to deny whatever their relationship was. Instead he sought Hana’s guidance with a lift of a brow.
Her lips twitched a smile. “We’re discussing your request to return home.”
“Ah yes.” L.J. nodded and swung his gaze back to J.R. Then he sighed as his son’s brow furrowed deeper. “Don’t look at me like that. I will not spend the rest of my life in this hospital bed.”
“Babu,” J.R. shook his head. “Our only hope is the radiation.”
“And what good help that’s been so far.” L.J. grimaced when his son visibly flinched. “Beta, I know you mean well but this isn’t what I want. The time I have left, I want it to be with you.” His eyes cut to Darah who had the decency to keep her gaze lowered and he faced J.R. once more. “Let me spend the rest of my life preparing you.”
J.R. frowned. “Preparing me for what?”
L.J. hesitated answering, sensing his son was going to argue with the many plans he’d set in place once he was gone. Yet his throat tightened at the thought of leaving his son, and he swallowed hard.
Clement cleared his throat. “Ladies, why don’t we leave the two to talk?”
Thankfully, the two women agreed without protest and followed Clement out of the room. Once the door closed behind them, J.R. sagged into the chair by the bed with his hand still clutching L.J.’s.
“I’m not going anywhere, Beta.”
“Not yet,” J.R. muttered, tightening his hold on L.J.’s hand. When his father grimaced, J.R. quickly loosened his hold. “Does it hurt?”
“Raju…” The pain in his son’s face made him ache and L.J. put his other hand over his. When he spied a glimmer of tears in J.R.’s eyes, L.J. groaned. “None of this, please.”
J.R. sniffed back the tears and lowered his face. “Sorry…”
Chagrined, L.J. lifted his hand and rested it on J.R.’s ruffled mane. The touch broke the dam, and L.J. watched and listened helplessly as his grown-up son wept as though he was ten years old again.
Outside, Clement accepted a call from the house—Phoebe wanted updates, leaving Hana and Darah seated on the wall across L.J.’s hospital room. The women sat in silence, Clement’s voice echoing down the hall. Darah clasped her hands together, replaying the look on Lalana-Joel’s face when she caught his eye. She grimaced and scolded herself for winking at him. It was certainly not in good taste.
Hana chuckled softly. “He wears his emotions easily, doesn’t he?”
Darah peered up at the young woman beside her, not sure she was speaking to her. When she met Hana’s eye, she raised a brow. “Who, my brother?”
Hana shook her head and pointed her chin at the closed door. “Uncle L.J.”
Darah grimaced, causing Hana’s smile to widen. “I don’t think he likes me.” It took a lot for her to admit that; she rarely cared what people thought about her—but for some reason, the opinion of J.R’s father mattered. Her cheeks warmed as she replayed the tender kiss J.R. had given her earlier. Of course his father’s opinion of her mattered. If they got married, he’d—
“He’s really stingy with his heart.”
Frowning, Darah looked back at her. “What do you mean?”
Hana’s smile held secrets Darah needed to know. Leaning back, Hana crossed her arms. “J.R. is his everything, has been ever since he was born. I’m not sure he wants to share him.”
Well he’ll have to, was at the tip of Darah’s tongue but she curbed the remark, deciding to listen first.
“It’s a wonder that he agreed to let Bhaiyaa get married.”
Darah’s heart skipped a beat. “T-to you?”
Hana arched a brow when Darah’s voice squeaked. “Well, not anymore.” Her pointed gaze pierced Darah.
This time Darah didn’t look away. “I ruined his plans. No wonder he doesn’t like me…”
Hana chuckled dryly. “It’s not that he doesn’t like you. He just doesn’t know you.”
Darah shrugged. “Then he should get to know me. I’m a nice person.” It sounded quite silly in her ears but she meant every word. “And I… I love J.R.”
The smile on Hana’s lips faded, and her pointed gaze swept over Darah’s face. “How old are you?”
“Twenty-five,” Darah frowned. “I thought you knew.”
“Oh right… we’re almost age-mates.” Her smile was strained, as though that wasn’t a good thing.
Darah didn’t smile back. “So why does his father like you?”
Hana’s smile eased away, her expression turning cold. She was silent for a moment before answering monotonously. “He owes my father.”
The words were colder than her expression and Darah wrapped her arms around herself. “How?”
Hana’s gaze lifted to the closed door. “He stole my father’s first love and ruined her.”
Breath caught in her throat, Darah’s eyes widened.
When J.R.’s sobs eased away and only the hiss of the humidifier filled the silence, he let out a sigh. The hand that stroked his hair stilled and raised from his head.
“You okay now?”
J.R. smiled grimly. His father was always the worst at comforting, from his earlier years. Nodding, he wiped the stray tears from his cheeks before lifting his eyes to L.J.’s.
L.J. sighed with relief though concern etched lines in his brow. Leaning back against the propped pillow, he closed his eyes and sighed again. “I hate this.”
His strong and capable father looked frail in the flimsy hospital gown, his tanned skin a sharp contrast to all that white. The image of his pale mother encased in the cushioned coffin-bed crossed his mind and he shook it away, along with the cold shiver trickling down his spine. “Me too,” he croaked out, the tears pooling.
“I wish to go home,” L.J. confessed after a few moments of silence. “I hate hospitals.”
J.R.’s lips twitched a wry smirk. “Me too.”
L.J. opened his eyes to meet his son’s wary stare. “So sign the papers and let’s spend the rest of my life at home, Beta. I beg you.”
The desperation in his father’s eyes broke him. His father had never begged him for anything before, and the reality of his father’s frailty sobered him. J.R. swallowed the lump in his throat. “I don’t want to lose you, Babu.”
His father reached for his hand and squeezed it. “And I don’t want to leave you.”
The tremble in his father’s voice pulled J.R. from his chair. He reached for his father, gathering him in a tight hug.
“I’m sorry,” L.J.’s voice was muffled in J.R.’s shoulder, his hand rubbing J.R.’s back as the tears fell silently. “I’m so sorry.”
J.R. squeezed his eyes tight. They’d wasted too many years hiding their shared hurts and their affection toward each other. He’d been a fool for not forgiving his father, for silently fighting his father’s will for him. He sniffed back tears and tightened his hold around L.J. “I’m sorry too.”
Darah splashed water on her face, still jarring from Hana’s earlier revelation. J.R.’s mother had been the betrothed of Hana’s father. But then she met J.R.’s father in university and the two decided to elope without their families’ consent, causing an uproar. With Hana’s father swearing to avenge his family’s fragmented honor and for fear that he and his now-pregnant wife were in danger of being killed, L.J. relocated his new family to the United States as listed refugees.
Years after Hana’s father married another woman from their village and J.R. was born, the families at home reconciled without their children. Because of their refugee status, J.R.’s mother couldn’t return to her family and became increasingly homesick to the point of depression. Letters home weren’t enough to ease her growing anxiety and even her husband’s devoted love and attention wasn’t enough to heal her sickness. Then she sent letters to Hana’s father, seeking for ways to be connected with her family. At first, Hana’s father wished to forget his painful past and left the letters unanswered, but he read every note–each from J.R.’s mother more desperate and hopeless than the previous one.
Cold frisson skittered down Darah’s spine. The last letter revealed that J.R.’s mother hated her husband for taking her away from the home she longed for day and night. She admitted resenting her son whose impending birth had caused her husband to seek asylum in the United States. Tears pooled in her eyes, imagining a very young J.R. wishing for a mother’s love and aching from her abandonment.
Eyes on her reflection, Darah’s hand moved over her stomach as she wondered if she’d be a better mother to this unborn child than J.R.’s mother had been to him.
The toilet flushed and Darah quickly brushed away the thought as Hana stepped out of the stall. They exchanged strained smiles and Hana came to the sink beside her, turning on the faucet.
Darah lowered her hand from her stomach and turned off the faucet she’d left running.
“Can I ask you a personal question?” Hana asked, lathering her hands with soap.
Peering at the young woman’s bent head, Darah nodded though hesitant. “Sure.”
Hana peeked up at her reflection. “Is J.R. the father of your baby?”
Darah swallowed a gasp and maintained a straight face though her pulse was hammering in her throat. “What are you talking about?”
Hana stared at her dead-on. “I noticed how protective J.R. is with you, and how you sleep with your hand curved over your stomach.”
“Y-you were watching me sleep?”
“You were just touching your belly earlier.” The slow smile spread on Hana’s lips but didn’t reach her eyes. “I’m a doctor. It’s natural for me to be observant. You’re pregnant, aren’t you?”
Darah gaped at this woman who was L.J.’s choice for J.R.’s future, and knew she was in deep trouble.
J.R. gaped at his father. “What did you just say?”
Their hands still joined, L.J. sighed. “I said you have my blessing.”
He swallowed hard. “A-about what exactly?”
L.J. threw an exasperated glance to the ceiling. “You’re gonna make me say it?”
“I think you should.”
“You can have your refugee center.” He lowered his gaze to his son’s. “I won’t fight you any longer.”
J.R.’s shoulders sagged with relief at his father’s confirmation, though grieved that his father was giving in. “Why are you—”
“Raju, come on,” L.J. grumbled. “What good will my fighting you on your dream do? It’ll only drive us further apart when we need to be closer than ever. There isn’t much time.”
At J.R.’s silence, L.J. squeezed his hands. “I will have Preethi and the others support you once more.”
J.R.’s stomach turned, knowing his father’s friends would readily support him due to their friend’s impending departure. He squeezed his eyes tight, not looking forward to their piteous stares. “Babu…”
“And I’ll have a meeting with the partners. We’ll need to reorganize the—“
“Babu, please… later.” J.R. felt sick to his stomach, afraid of the void his father would leave behind.
“Fine, later.” L.J. pinned his son with his pointed gaze. “Is this thing with that girl serious?”
J.R. blinked at the change of subject. “Who, Darah?”
L.J. nodded, his brow furrowing deeper with concern.
J.R. drew in a breath and squeezed his father’s hand. “Yes it is.” His lips twitched when his father narrowed his eyes at him. “I love her, Babuji.”