Topher pinched the bridge of his nose, reluctant to step inside the room and find Nadine laying in the hospital bed. Blinking back tears, he chose instead to pace the empty hallway.
They were running out of time, he already knew that. But hearing it from the doctor was a pill too hard to swallow. Nadine was far too sassy and headstrong to be sick.
But that dreaded four-letter word haunted him, drawing the thought of his aging Nadine back to the front of his mind and Topher clenched his jaw against the prognosis. C.O.P.D.
The word suffocated what little hope he had for a future planned with Nadine in mind. Someday, he’d hoped to finally get married and give Nadine the grandchildren she pestered him for all these years. Then she gotten sick without little warning.
He wasn’t prepared for the overwhelming sense of fear that paralyzed him and snuffed out his hope. Nadine was the only family he had and Topher was desperate to keep her with him for as long as he could.
He never would’ve believed that his invincible aunt could ever get sick. She never took days off from the factory, working endless hours to provide for her only kin. She was intolerable to self-pity, forbidding Topher from feeling shame or sadness for their station in life.
With Nadine as his ever present source of strength, Topher put his whole heart into studying hard just so he could make a better life for Nadine. To think that all that couldn’t prevent her falling sick angered him.
Now if he could only hope that Nadine’s condition wouldn’t evolve into emphysema or severe chronic bronchitis.
Topher gritted his teeth at the terrifying image of Nadine gasping for air, her caramel eyes wide with fear. Trepidation snaked around him, a cold sensation resting on his shoulders.
Just then, the door to Nadine’s room slid open and the grave-faced doctor stepped out. Topher hurried to meet him. “How is she?”
The doctor eyed him warily. “She’s stable and resting. We’ll take her to the cardiology department for some tests in the morning. For now, we’ll keep her comfortable.”
“Thank you,” Topher replied, his shoulders drooping in relief. And as the doctor walked away, Topher turned to the open door.
The droning sounds of the EKG machine interrupted by sharp gasps of a ventilator pulled his attention to the hospital bed. His gut clenched at the sight of tubes snaked around Nadine’s fragile body. Breathing out a withering sigh, Topher stepped into the room and slowly closed the door behind him.
Samina eyed Karen warily as she picked up yet another silk blouse and folded the sleeves. “I don’t see why you’re getting worked up over this… It’s my life, not yours.” She placed the blouse inside a laundry basket stacked with folded of clothes.
“And I don’t see why you’re not.” Karen snorted, tossing a pair of jeans into another laundry basket. She frowned at Samina’s placid expression. “Be honest, you’re not insulted by the offer?”
Samina frowned down at the basket. “How odd.”
“I could’ve sworn I bought Tide yesterday.”
Karen slapped her hands on her thighs in annoyance. “Are you even listening to me?”
“I’m trying not to.” Samina ducked with a smile as Karen hurled a shirt at her. “Actually, I’m strangely flattered that Aunty Sheena trusts me to take care of her granddaughters.”
Karen scoffed, arms folded over her chest. “Need I remind you that these are also his children?”
Samina’s smile waned.
“See? You can’t do this.”
Samina eyed Karen’s scowl. “Why are you so mad about this?”
“Because you don’t have the sense to be. Samina, the mere idea of it is insulting.”
“But why are you insulted? I’m the one doing it and I think it’s fine.”
Karen shook her head, incredulous. “So you somehow developed amnesia after all these years huh? Samina, you loved this guy since high school. You were devastated for months when he got married. You practically locked your heart away and were miserable for years.”
Samina’s brow furrowed. “Thanks for the reminder.”
“You’re welcome. And now you’re going babysit kids he had with his dead wife!” Karen scowled at Samina’s silence. “Don’t tell me you didn’t even consider this before.”
Samina lowered her gaze.
She sighed heavily, wringing the shirt in her hands.
“Sis…” Karen started, her tone beseeching. “You have to move on from this guy. Enough pretending that you’re okay with all this. It hurts me to see you in pain…” Her fingers curled into fists. “I despise him for even suggesting you’d do it.”
Samina lifted her head. “Enough, Karen. It wasn’t him who asked me.” Her eyes welled with tears and she looked away, blinking rapidly.
“I know, Sam, but–” the sound of the front door opening interrupted Karen’s words.
Both girls glanced up just as Ada sauntered in, lugging two large gift bags. “Oh there you are,” she said, walking over to the laundry corner.
Karen grabbed a shirt from the pile. “Whose bright idea was it to give her the spare key?”
Samina managed an apologetic grin and turned to Ada. “What’s up?”
“Great, I came on laundry day.” Ada wrinkled her nose at the pile of clothes and propped the gift bags against the wall. “Did you guys forget I was coming?”
“Not everything is about you, Ada,” Karen drawled, dropping the folded garment in the basket.
Ada rolled her eyes and turned to Samina. “I called you a billion times today. Where’s your phone?”
Samina shrugged. “Probably in the room. What’s going on?”
Karen heaved a sigh. “I’m attempting to discourage her from accepting Ezekiel’s proposal.”
Ada gasped, holding a hand over her mouth. “Ezekiel proposed?!”
The two sisters eyed her in silence and Karen shook her head in disgust. “I really wonder what’s in that head of yours…”
Ada pouted, folding her arms. “Well, you shouldn’t use the word propose around a woman getting married.” She turned to Samina, brows raised. “Are we still going on about this home-schooling gig?”
Karen’s jaw dropped. “Home school–that was your idea? Why am I not surprised? Of all the dumbest, foolish ideas–”
“That’s enough, Karen,” Samina cut her sister’s words off.
Karen was too disturbed to sit still and stay quiet. She scowled at Ada. “So you conveniently forgot all those years Samina suffered because of him. How could you encourage her to walk into a den of lions? Are you insane?”
Ada’s face fell, chagrined. “Gosh, I didn’t think of it that way.” She then turned to Samina with a rueful expression. “Maybe you shouldn’t do it.”
Samina scowled. “Not you too.”
Ada bit her bottom lip. “With all that happened between you two, it’d be awkward. I’m sorry I failed to realize that. Your feelings come first.”
“I’m not a child.” Samina squinted at the two of them. “I’m getting over those feelings so I don’t see what the problem is. We already agreed it would hold me off until I get a real job.”
“You’re getting over those feelings. You’re clearly not over them yet.” Karen shook her head. “I’m against this completely.”
Ada nodded in agreement. “If you are really trying to forget him, seeing those girls won’t make it any easier.”
Samina merely pursed her lips and averted her gaze.
“You only will get attached to them and just like with Ezekiel, it’ll be just as devastating letting go.”
Both Karen and Ada quietly watched for Samina’s response. For many years, Samina adamantly defended about her feelings for Ezekiel even though he didn’t deserve it. They held their breath as she then lifted her eyes drowning in tears.
“Sammie…” Karen whispered, moving to her sister’s side. Ada inched closer.
Samina sniffed at the tears falling down her cheeks. “I don’t know what to do.”
Sitting alone in his office shrouded with darkness, Ezekiel stared listlessly at the screen on his phone. It was almost 10:00 pm in Houston and he found himself wondering if his daughters missed him as much as he missed them.
An image of Samina’s shy smile drifted to his mind and he sat up. Ezekiel leaned back in his seat and draped a hand over his eyes. “Feelings for Samina…” he muttered, his jumbled thoughts leaving him confused.
He was still reeling from James’ candid and colorful account of Samina’s crush on him. Ezekiel shook his head in disbelief. How could he have never noticed any of that?
Ezekiel’s lips twitched, reminiscing their childhood together. Although he was eight years older and well into middle school, he spent his summer holidays with Samina and her siblings. Back then, he’d grudgingly accepted her teatime and playing house requests. His smile widened at the memories of playing house; he the stern father and Samina the doting mother to her siblings, Karen and Obadiah.
As his body warmed and tingled with nostalgia, Ezekiel suddenly sat up in his chair. The memories faded as the vision of Samina in white appeared before him. He could almost touch her, the image was so vivid.
“Zeke, you’re crazy.” He squeezed his eyes, chasing away the apparition of Samina.