Posts tagged “travel

Sanctuary, Chapter 28

Posted on 09/08/2017

An hour after Karen left with Ejigu, Clement paced the length of the empty chapel. Though he believed sending Karen home was the best decision for the two of them, he felt anything but peace. She hadn’t even looked at him, ready to leave after he’d walked away from her. Back then, he’d convinced himself it was better this way, before things got serious between them. Now he wasn’t so sure; he missed her already.

A rumble sounded on the roof and Clement groaned. Nothing like rain to darken his mood.

His phone rang and Clement tugged it free from his shirt pocket. The caller ID was unknown but he accepted the call anyway. “Hello?”

“Junior, hey.”

It was Darah, his only sister. He smiled, grateful for the brief distraction. “Hey. Back from your honeymoon?”

“Been back for weeks now. I guess you’ve been too busy to call home?”

Clement walked to the altar and sat on the steps. “Yeah, my bad. How’s married life?”

“Wonderful. You should try it soon.” She giggled when he snorted derisively. “So when are you coming to visit? Your nephew’s gonna burst out any minute.”

Clement smirked. “Sounds more like wishful thinking. You being for real right now?”

“For real,” Darah laughed. “I’m ready now but he’s taking his precious time to move… just like his dad.”

“I just returned from Houston a month ago. Can’t leave for a while.”

“Aww. Yeah, I guess that’s true… missionaries can’t be gone too long.”

“Glad you understand. Don’t worry, I’ll make it up to you and my namesake.”

Darah laughed. “Who said he’ll be your namesake? Any-hey, is Karen still with you?”

His smirk eased away. “Not anymore.”

“Oh, she left already? Did you get to spend some time with her? Hope you treated her well.”

“Sort of.” He rubbed his right earlobe. “Why are you all up in my business anyway? Don’t you have better things to do, like get ready for motherhood?”

Darah laughed. “Ooh, I can hear you getting defensive. You want the truth? I’m trying to set you up.”

Clement tossed an exasperated glance to the ceiling. “And why would you do that?”

“Because you two look cute together and it’ll be another fine Teka couple for the win. I’m never wrong about these things. Abe and Phoebe, Bart and Geri, and now you—”

“Oh please. All you did was nag ‘em to get together.”

“I recall you doing the same with Bart, so hush. Any-hey, it’s my turn to nag you to get a move on.”

“But why bug me when you should be taking care of yourself and J.R.?”

“I can multitask. Besides, if you marry Karen, you’ll be coming home more often.”

Clement scoffed. “That’s unlikely. There are people I’m responsible for here…” he trailed off, recalling the same words he’d spoken to Karen on their drive to Bichena. Except he’d rescinded on his promise and sent her away. Dragging a hand over his face, he sighed heavily. “Speaking of, how’s Eli?”

“Nice transition, Junior… Not.” Darah sighed. “He’s fine. He mention how he wants to come live with you?”

A furrow formed in his brow. “I thought he’d forget about it if I didn’t call back.”

Darah snorted. “Well he didn’t. He’s begging for his birth certificate to go get a passport.”

Clement rubbed the tension between his eyes. Just as he’d finally sent Karen back to America and away from the impending danger, his baby brother wanted to come. “I can’t deal with him right now.”

“He won’t leave us alone, Junior,” Darah bemoaned. “Maybe he can come stay for a month and see—”

“A month?!” Clement shook his head. “No way. What about school?”

“I guess he didn’t tell you. He wants to take a break from school for now. Abe and Bart blame you.”

Clement scowled. “Of course they do. Which is probably why they’ll let him come for a month or longer.”

“Well, they’re holding out right now because Phoebe says no.”

He sighed with relief. It was no wonder Phoebe was his favorite sister-in-law. She was reasonable.

“But she’s gonna cave. Geri already gave in. Y’know Eli’s relentless and won’t take no for an answer.”

“He’s being a brat.” Clement dragged a hand over his face, frustration mounting. Having Eleazar underfoot would complicate matters.

Just then, the chapel doors swung open and Clement looked up, his brow furrowed as a lone figure stumbled out of the darkness. Recognizing Ejigu, Clement stood abruptly. “Hey Darah, let me call you back.” He disconnected the phone and hurried to him.

Clothes soaked from the downpour, an injured Ejigu staggered toward Clement. Once Clement caught him from stumbling, Ejigu sagged against him and sobbed openly.

“What happened?” Clement glanced behind him, alarm seizing him. “Where’s Karen!?”

The younger man only groaned and turned his bleeding face to Clement’s shoulder. At that moment, Dula hurried into the chapel with Ashon at his heels. “What happened?” Dula asked, helping to hold Ejigu up.

“Where is Karen, Ejigu?!” Clement demanded, grabbing his collar tightly.

Ashon stepped forward, alarm etched in his features as he took in the younger man’s bruises and the blood. He turned toward Clement. “Where is Missy?”

Ejigu’s battered face did nothing to calm the mounting panic in Clement. “Answer me, man! Where is she?!” he demanded, jostling the injured man. He ignored Dula’s attempt to calm him down. “Ejigu, talk!”

“K-Kutfi.” Ejigu dissolved into sobs, the heart-wrenching cries echoing in the chapel.

Clement’s grip loosened and Ashon stiffened beside him, both equally stricken.

“The Kutfi are here?” Dula looked understandably terrified. “How did they find us?”

“It’s my fault,” Clement said in a daze. “I sent Karen with Ejigu to the capital an hour ago.”

“Why would you do a thing like that?” Ashon demanded, anger displayed in his face. “It’s dangerous!”

“No,” Ejigu said, sniffing loudly as he righted to his feet. “It’s my fault. I led them here.” The young man lowered his face in shame and regret. “I’m sorry.”

Anger surged through Clement, the extent of Ejigu’s betrayal hitting him like a freight train. And true to his impulsive nature, he lunged at Ejigu with avenging hands before anyone else could recover.

Ejigu was a double agent; working for both the government and the Kutfi. He’d served as an Agazi Commando officer near Somalia and some parts of Djibouti for many years when his mother suddenly became gravely ill. His sister was too young to take care of their mother by herself and even though she’d dropped out of college, her job wasn’t enough to sustain them. The money Ejigu made as an officer was not enough. He became desperate and couldn’t refuse the offer to serve as an informant for the Kutfi.

Grim-faced, Clement and Dula stared in stunned silence as the young man moaned bitterly, tears falling down his bleeding face. Distraught and afraid, this former soldier broke down as he divulged the details of his treachery to his nation and his friends.

“I just have one question…” As Ejigu lifted red-rimmed eyes, Clement continued. “Did you approach me on purpose? Were you aware I was a pastor of a church and an orphanage before you approached me?”

There was a flicker in Ejigu’s eyes and this time, it was Dula who swung his fist at Ejigu’s face. Only Ashon pulled off the older man from pummeling Ejigu to death. “Hold off,” Ashon gasped, holding his son-in-law by his arms. “We won’t be able to find out the truth if you kill him.”

“Traitor! Coward! Devil!” Dula even hurled insults in Amharic, each word a visible blow to Ejigu. “How could you do that? You put our lives in danger to save your skin? What about the kids? What about my family?!”

Ejigu lowered his head, ridden with shame and regret.

“Ashon is right,” Clement said, sounding surprisingly calm. “I would like to kill you with my bare hands but God wouldn’t like that. Besides, keeping you alive will help us more than hurt us.”

Dula threw a glare at Clement. “He’s the reason why Karen was captured!”

“And he’ll be the reason we find her again… and get rid of the Kutfi for good.” Clement narrowed his eyes at the younger man. “That is if you want to be forgiven?”

“I will never forgive him!” Dula seethed. “What if he’d lured the Kutfi here?”

“Calm down, son,” Ashon softly said, though his hardened gaze remained on Ejigu. “Listen, I’m barely holding back 180 pounds of muscle, young man, so you better talk or I’ll join them to kill you.”

Fear flickered in the young man’s eyes and the other three marveled at how he’d managed to live a double life for so long. His Adam’s apple bounced as his eyes darted from one man to the other before settling on Clement’s face. “I didn’t plan on—” he paused when Clement held up a hand.

“I don’t want your excuses or apologies. Just tell me where they’re taking her and why.”

Ejigu’s face twisted in pain. “It’s you they want, not her. If you go, she’ll kill you.”

Clement frowned. “She?”

“Mrs. Badri. Her husband controlled the Kutfi until his death—”

“I don’t need a history, Ejigu!” Clement snapped, his calm quickly slipping away. “Mrs. Badri has Karen?”

Ejigu nodded, bowing his head. “She must’ve recognized me somehow. I’m sorry.”

Clement felt like air was knocked out of him and he rested a hand on a pew to keep from teetering backward. He was the reason Karen had been kidnapped. Him, not Ejigu, was the real culprit.

Ashon clamped a hand over Clement’s shoulder. “Now is not the time for that. We need a plan.”

“He’s right,” Dula said begrudgingly. “Brother, we need to work together if we want to save your lady.”

Clement tucked away the guilt and regret and turned to Ejigu. “Where are they headed?”

“Djibouti.” Ejigu grimaced from the blows he’d suffered from not just the Kutfi but also both Clement and Dula’s avenging fists. He met Clement’s unrelenting stare. “I will come with you.”

Dula snorted disdainfully. “We can’t trust you. Just tell us the way.”

Ashon placed his other hand on Dula’s shoulder. “We take him with us since he knows where they are.”

Baba,” Dula protested. “He worked for those who took Wubit from you.”

He nodded, squeezing his son-in-law’s shoulder. “But he wouldn’t have come back to tell us what happened to Missy if he didn’t regret what he did. Isn’t that so?”

A despondent Ejigu dissolved in sobs while Dula and Clement scowled. Ashon turned to Clement. “What’s your plan, Missionary?”

Karen tried moving her right foot and grimaced at the sharp pain that shot up her leg. She hissed and clutched her calf, freezing until the pain subsided. A leg cramp; for the third time since she’d been transferred from Ejigu’s wrecked vehicle into a van full of scary armed soldiers.

Frisson shot through her and Karen silently scanned the metal rods barring her from escaping. The armed soldiers had tossed her unceremoniously into this dank cell an hour ago, and refused to acknowledge her or the questions she screamed at their backs as they left her here.

Groaning, Karen bowed her head and closed her eyes. “What is this?” she whispered, tears falling from her cheeks to the cold cement floor. They couldn’t even provide a blanket or a pillow. Even the small window that let in some light wasn’t enough to calm her down. “Why is this happening to me?”

The bravado that sustained her through the cramped plane ride in a tight cubicle had dissolved the minute the sickening sound of metal locking in place sealed her fate.

A sob caught in her throat and Karen choked on it, her shoulders shaking as she wept loudly for the first time since she left home. This wasn’t at all what she signed up for, never in her wildest dreams could she have imagined such a terrible end to her adventure. The thought of many innocent children having to face such a terrifying experience made her weep even louder, her despondent cries echoing against the stone walls.

Fear painted a horrifying image of her stripped to her undergarments and her thick hair shaved to the scalp. Karen trembled uncontrollably as she imagined herself being doused with cold water before the tranquilizer needle was shoved into her arm. The life in her eyes dimmed and her head lolled forward.

Screaming, Karen held her hands over her ears and shook her head to clear the ghastly images.

I am with you always.

The voice, though softly-spoken like a whisper, sounded louder than her screams. As though someone had spoken over her shoulder. Karen jerked around, coming face to face with a wall. She hiccupped, scanning the markings on the wall. Some were from the uneven and unpolished stone surface, but some were purposeful etchings on the stone.

Sniffing back tears, she scooted closer and squinted. The etchings looked like some kind of language but it might as well have been hieroglyphics. Karen sighed and pressed her head against the cool stone. She closed her eyes, ready to give up. But in that moment, she thought of her family; of her parents, her sister and brother, and her niece and nephew. She recalled the last night she’d knelt beside them in bed for night prayers and listened as they softly recited the Bible verse she and their mother had taught them.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” Karen whispered, her voice trembling. “I will fear no evil for You are with me.” A lone tear fell down her cheeks as revelation hit home. “Father, please protect me from evil.”

A metal door slammed open followed by the echoes of footsteps approaching her cell. Karen shifted around and crawled toward the bars, prepared to plead her case. As the person came in view, Karen froze in shock at the familiar face of the woman standing on the other side of the bars.

A grim-faced Jennifer, her once-colleague, stood with a tray of food. “Hello Karen.”

Karen could only stare, her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth.

Jennifer approached the gate and sighed when Karen scooted closer to the back wall, her eyes wide with fear. “Don’t look at me like that,” she mumbled, bending to place the tray right in front of the bars. “Eat.”

As Jennifer turned to go, Karen’s tongue loosened. “Wait!” Her voice rang along the walls. When Jennifer turned back with a blank expression, Karen’s mouth moved but nothing came out.

“You want to know why I’m here,” Jennifer supplied, walking back to the gate. “Or maybe why you’re here?”

Karen nodded, still unable to form the words bouncing in her head.

“It’s a long story…” Jennifer folded her arms. “And I doubt I’ll have enough time. My mother’s coming soon.”

Mouth agape, Karen gawked at the young woman as she quietly connected the dots; starting from the story about how Jennifer’s mother had abandoned her. “Why…?” she croaked out in disbelief.

“I came here to Djibouti because of her, y’know.” A sad smile twitched her lips. “The minute I saw her picture in some artsy-farsty magazine, I had to know where she was. I had to see her, had to know why she left me.”

Karen didn’t know what to say. It was clear that Jennifer still battled with the hurt of being abandoned, but it didn’t explain why she was part of child kidnapping.

“It made sense when I got here,” Jennifer said with a sneer. “She’s got a good life here, people waiting on her hand and foot, treating her like a queen. It’s no wonder she’d stay here instead of with a broke husband…” she paused when Karen’s brows furrowed. Then sighed deeply. “Look, I was surprised to see you here. She’s very angry with you. How’d you get involved in this mess?”

“I…” Karen shook her head. “I don’t know why I’m here.”

Jennifer glanced over her shoulder and then looked back at Karen, her own brow furrowed. “She’s coming so hurry, eat this.” She reached into the cell, handing Karen a bread roll. “I’ll come back when she’s gone.”

Karen obediently shoved generous pieces of the roll into her mouth, chewing fast as Jennifer collected the tray and hurried out the door. Swallowing the dry bread, Karen waited anxiously.

The metal door swung open and heels clicked loudly as her second visitor entered the prison quarters. Pulse pounding loudly in her ears, Karen willed herself not to tremble and kept her eyes on the approaching figure. The woman came to view and Karen swallowed a gasp.

There was a clear resemblance between mother and daughter; both with the oblong features and high cheek bones. This woman was darker, from many years in the eastern sun, and features harsher than Jennifer’s.

Her dark eyes narrowed. “You are Austin Legesse’s woman? Or is it Pastor Clement Teka?”

Chiils sent shivers down Karen’s spine. Still, she steeled herself against the fear that threatened to crumble her. “I-I don’t know what you mean. Who is that?”

The woman smirked although there was a wicked glint in her eyes. “It won’t do you good to lie to me, young lady. I have eyes everywhere and already know who you are, Karen Wells from Houston.” At Karen’s silence, the woman’s eyes swept over her. “No matter. I’ll soon have who I want. Rest for now.”

At the woman’s exit, Karen sagged in defeat. The evil woman had discovered Clement’s identity, which meant that this abduction wasn’t a mistake. She’d been captured in order to lure Clement here, to his demise. The bread stuck in Karen’s throat suddenly pushed upwards and she expelled the contents forcefully.

Jennifer hurried inside and halted in front of the cell, grimacing at the sight. “Are you alright?”

Groaning, Karen wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and tossed Jennifer an accusing glare.

“She’s a piece of work, isn’t she?” Jennifer said with a wry smile. “Don’t worry. She won’t kill you.”

Not yet she won’t, a disturbed Karen thought, her hope dissipating fast as Jennifer set the tray before her.

<<Chapter 27 || Chapter 29>>

Sanctuary, Chapter 27

Posted on 08/08/2017

Clement was both annoyed and intrigued as Karen rushed past him to greet the man standing by the doorway. Not caring that she had the audience of adults and children, she’d flung her arms around the man’s neck and clung to him as if he was a long-lost friend. He had no idea Karen could be so… enthusiastic.

Ejigu snickered beside him. “She seems excited.”

Clement threw him a glance askance.

“I’m so glad you’re okay.” Karen pulled back to gaze at him from arms’ length.

The man chuckled. “Of course! I’ve lived on this earth for forty-something years. Not much troubles me.”

Ejigu whistled in awe. “He’s forty—” he paused as Dula came to stand beside him.

“I trust you.” Karen paused in mid-laugh and looked down at the children standing quietly behind Ashon. She sighed, recognizing each one from the quarantine tent. “They’re okay too. Thank God.”

“I told you, Missy, your God didn’t save them.”

Clement arched a brow but said nothing. He and the others waited for Karen’s acknowledgment.

Finally noticing the curious bystanders, the man looked their way. For a middle-aged man, he had youthful features and reminded Clement of his eldest brother Abe. Then the man’s gaze landed on Clement and his almond-shaped eyes wrinkled in the corners as he smiled in greeting. “You must be the missionary man. He looks just as you described him, Missy.”

Both of Clement’s brows lifted at the nickname. “And you must be Ashon. I’ve heard quite a bit about you.”

Ashon nodded. “I hope good things.”

“Of course,” Karen said, sounding flustered. Her gaze skipped over the men. “Where’s Wubit?”

“Putting Meko to bed,” Dula answered, extending a hand to Ashon. “Pleased to meet you, sir. I am Dula.”

Ashon nodded in response and accepted the younger man’s handshake. He also greeted Ejigu before putting his hand down for the youngest boy to hold.

Clement noticed that the four children used the man’s lanky frame as a shield to hide behind, their eyes wide with suspicion and fear. Tamping a sigh, he returned his attention back to Ashon. “You must be famished.”

“I could eat,” the older man answered, one corner of his lips twitched upwards.

“Then let’s go.” Clement noticed Karen reserved her warmest smile for Ashon. From the corner of his eye, Dula and Ejigu wore unabashed grins. He ignored them also and turned toward the kitchen. “Follow me.”

Wubit and Eddie bustling about in the kitchen as they prepared dinner. Eddie looked up from kneading dough to smile in greeting as the adults entered. Noticing the children, her expression softened. Dula left the group to round the counter, walking up to his wife standing by the stove.

With a soup ladle in one hand and a pot lid in the other, Wubit turned with a welcoming bright smile. Her gaze taking stock of the group and it stopped in front of Ashon. Her smile slipped instantly.

“This is my wife, Wubit,” Dula said. “Wubit, this is Karen’s friend Ashon.”

The pot lid dropped from Wubit’s hand, landing on Dula’s sandaled feet. As her injured husband hopped on one foot, she gawked at the man standing before her.

“Goodness, are you alright?” Karen’s gaze bounced between the couple.

“I’m fine,” Dula said through clenched teeth and looked to his wife. The shell-shocked daze made him forget about his injured foot and he limped back to her side, placing a hand on her trembling shoulder.

Deaf to her husband’s attempt to calm her down, Wubit stepped forward with eyes fixed on Ashon. “Baba?”

When Ashon inhaled sharply, Karen turned toward him. His eyes were wide in disbelief. His Adam’s apple bobbed with great difficulty as he tried to form the word he hadn’t uttered in years.

Thinking back to her conversation with both Wubit and Ashon, Karen suddenly gasped and held a hand to her mouth. Her eyes bounced between the two and she shook her head in disbelief.

Baba,” Wubit whispered, taking yet another step toward Ashon. There was no question in her tone, as if she didn’t need reassuring that this man knew her well.  Tears streamed down her face as she came to stand before Ashon, and it was as if there was no one but the two of them. “It’s me, Baba.”

Tears brimmed Ashon’s eyes. It’d been almost two decades since he’d lost his wife and his little girl. Yet, this girl-woman standing before him strongly resembled the wife he’d lost.

Clement exchanged worried glances with Dula now standing beside Wubit, protective over his young wife. They both knew the tragic story of her childhood and how she’d lost both parents to a fire. Yet she stood, tentative but certain, that this stranger was her father.

Karen’s heart ached for both. Wubit needed Ashon to acknowledge her and Ashon lived an entire life believing he would never see his daughter again.

She put a hand on Ashon’s trembling shoulder. “Wubit lost her parents in a fire when she was very young.”

Ashon’s face crumbled, letting out a heartwrenching sob. His broad shoulders shook as he cried openly. Wubit whimpered, catching her sob with one hand to her mouth.

Confused and helpless, Dula just watched with a frown etched in his brow. Clement and Ejigu did the same. Uneasy, the children silently inched away from a weeping Ashon. The teenager Eddie abandoned the kneaded dough and quietly ushered the children out of the kitchen.

Baba…” Wubit said as Ashon’s sobs quieted.

Ashon’s lips moved as if struggling with the word he hadn’t spoken in years but longed to say.  “Asma?”

Wubit’s lips trembled at the name and fresh tears rolled down her cheeks. She closed the distance between them, standing inches from him. She held out both hands to him. “Baba, it’s really you.”

“Asma,” Ashon said, awestruck as he took her hands in his. Then tugging her into his arms, he held her tight. Wubit wrapped hers around his slim frame and buried her face in his shoulder, weeping all over again.

Standing a few feet off, Clement and Ejigu watched as a beaming Wubit proudly re-introduced her husband to her father while Karen aside him. The two women embraced while the two men acquainted themselves.

Ejigu clucked his tongue. “I still can’t believe it. Your lady friend’s friend is Wubit’s father. Wow!”

“God works in mysterious ways…” Clement couldn’t say anything else, perplexed by the series of events since he ran into Karen in Finch’awa. She managed to surprise him at every turn, and life certainly wasn’t boring when she was around.

“You brought him back to me,” Wubit finally released Karen before returning to her father’s side.

Karen shook her head. “Nope, we just happened to be at the right place at the right time. It was God who did it, not me.” She smiled as Ashon hooked a brow. “Yes, Ashon, God did this.”

“I didn’t say anything,” the man drawled, his gaze returning to Wubit at his side. His expression turned wistful. “You look just like your mother when I first met her.”

Wubit leaned into him, reveling in the warmth of her father’s embrace.

“I don’t know about you but this calls for a celebration,” Dula announced. “My wife’s father and my father-in-law has been found. We must throw a party.”

“The children are asleep,” Wubit protested half-heartedly, hooking an arm around her father’s narrow waist.

“We’ll be quiet,” Dula assured, a twinkle in his eye. “What do you think, Baba?”

Ashon’s smile was gentle. “I would like to try my ibna’s cooking.”

“She’s a great cook,” Karen assured her friend and was rewarded with one of Wubit’s heartwarming smiles.

“I trust her,” Ashon replied, gazing down at his daughter. “If she’s anything like her mother…”

A bashful Wubit pressed her face against his chest, near his beating heart. Ashon smoothed a hand over her curly hair, as if they relived a time when Wubit was still his little girl.

“Then food first,” Dula inserted. “And tomorrow you’ll meet your grandson, Meko.”

Ashon blinked and he peered down at Wubit. “I… have a grandson?” Tears pooled in his eyes.

“Baba, don’t cry,” Wubit lifted a hand, brushing a tear from his cheek.

The scene made her think of her father and she swallowed against the tears. In all honesty, she missed home.

Wubit’s gaze shifted and her smile returned fully. “Baba, come meet our friends. Brothers, this is my Baba.”

“Pleased to meet you again,” Clement said. “You are welcome to stay as long as you need.”

Ashon nodded with a smile. “Thank you, Missionary.”

“Just call me Clement.”

Karen smirked. “Don’t bother. He still refuses to call me Karen.”

Wubit’s smile eased a little. “That’s because Mama’s name was Karen.”

“Oh no!” Karen’s smile slipped altogether. “Ashon, I’m so sorry.”

His own smile was faint but present. “It’s alright. I’m thankful for you, Missi. I wouldn’t be here with my daughter if you hadn’t dragged me across the border with you.”

“Nu-unh, you chose to go on your own! I didn’t force you to do anything.”

The adults laughed and Dula clapped his hands. “On that note, let’s eat!”

 “Actually,” Clement interjected. “I need to steal Karen away for a second.” His eyes settled on Karen and he held out a hand to her.

Cheeks warm, Karen nodded and placed her hand in his.

“Eat without us,” Clement said as he gently tugged Karen to his side and the two walked out of the kitchen hand-in-hand.

Even after they left the church and stepped into the courtyard, Clement had yet to release her hand. He led her up the sloping hill to the gazebo and she tucked back a smile as he gestured for her to be seated first.

Once they seated, Karen glanced once at him. “For someone who doesn’t want a relationship, you sure enjoy holding hands like you’re in one.” She fought a smile when he quickly released her hand. “Well what was so pressing that we couldn’t talk after dinner?”

“I want you to go home.”

Karen gaped at him. “Excuse me?”

He nodded. “Your friend is here now, which means your passport is here. Ejigu can take you to the capital tomorrow and you’ll take a flight back…” he slowed to a stop when Karen chuckled low. “What’s funny?”

“You are. You’re nothing but hilarious.” Karen stood from the bench and moved to the nearest post. She looked out at the expanse of land before turning to face him. “You’re running away.”

He frowned. “Pardon?”

“Technically you’re pushing me away but the problem is the same. You’re scared.”

Clement narrowed his eyes at her. “I’m not scared of anything. You don’t know what you’re saying.”

“Actually I do.” She leaned against the wooden post and folded her arms across her chest. “Just be honest, Reverend Teka. If not with me, at least be honest with yourself.”

“I’m not a reverend.”

She scoffed incredulously. “Missionary, pastor, reverend, bishop, whatever. A man of God never lies, right? Although I’m sure you’ve broken the rules several times already.”

Clement squinted at her. “What do you want?”

“The truth, Clement. I want the truth. Stop giving me these tight-lipped responses and be real.” She retraced her steps back to the bench. “I didn’t ask you to say you liked me back. I didn’t ask for anything except to acknowledge my feelings, even if you rejected it flat-out. Instead you tell me you’re a celibate monk.”

“Priest, and I am—”

“Just cut the crap and say you don’t like me back. I’m a big girl. I can take it.”

Clement frowned. “Karen, listen…” he paused when she snatched her hand back.

“You can’t touch me if you want to continue this monk priest nonsense. Don’t lead me on.”

“I’m not…” He heaved a sigh. “You don’t know what you’re asking me to do.”

“What am I asking you to do, Clement?” She scooted close, their thighs touching. “I don’t say things casually. I think before I act, even if it seems like I don’t. It took me a while to realize what I felt for you. And I wouldn’t have said it if it was some passing fancy. Clement, I really—”

“Stop!” Clement rose abruptly and took a step back. “Just… stop.”

Karen stared at him, dumbfounded at his rebuff.

The wide-eyed stare on Karen’s face made his chest ache and Clement drew in a shaky breath. “Look, I can’t be a serious relationship right now. Too many things are uncertain. I can’t even take care of those I’m responsible for; I’m barely here. I couldn’t even keep my ex-girlfriend happy.”

Her expression darkened. “I’m not your ex-girlfriend.”

“I know that,” Clement assured her more gently. He regretted raising his voice at her; she didn’t deserve that. “That’s why I don’t want to subject you to this kind of life. You’ll constantly wonder where I am, wonder where my head is at when I’m with you. Things won’t change just because I put a ring on your finger.”

“I’m not asking you to—“

“Hold on.” Clement returned to sit beside her. “I’ve watched my brothers and their families. They put in all they have and it’s still not enough sometimes. Why would you be okay settling with a guy who can’t even give you fifty percent of himself on a daily basis? Is that the kind of marriage you want?”

Her brows furrowed, her expression soft. “I’m not asking for marriage yet…”

Clement averted his gaze. “Yet but it’ll come. What happens when I keep holding it off because of what I do?” He looked up. “Could you honestly stay and wait for me, worried that I might not return one day?”

Karen bit her bottom lip, mulling over the question and what it could mean for her.

The silence was torture. Clement knew the answer was no but he still watched the emotions play on her face.

Then she shook her head and his stomach sank a little. Her brown eyes skimmed his features. “No, I won’t stay and wait. I’ll go with you.”

Clement’s shoulders dropped and he blew out a sigh. “Karen…”

She grabbed his hand before he could stand. “Don’t run away after saying your piece. Let me say mine.”

“There’s nothing else to say. I’m not going to risk your life and that’s the end of that.”

Karen scowled as he brushed her hand aside and stood. “You’re such a coward, Clement Teka.”

“Yeah well, this coward is taking you back to the capital first thing tomorrow. Get ready.”

“I’m not going anywhere!” Karen stood as he turned his back and started down the hill. “Coward!”

The insult didn’t hurt as much as the scolding he gave himself for being such a fool. A woman like Karen was hard to come by; brave, considerate, beautiful and willing to risk it all for a chance with him. He shook his head, blocking his ears to both his inner voice and Karen’s protests at his back, and stalked inside.

Seeing as Clement didn’t even so much as turn back, Karen dropped to the bench. Dazed, she stared at the wooden boards of the gazebo floor.

She’d gotten her rejection alright, and it stung worse than any past breakups. Maybe because she really wanted this with Clement and he didn’t. Karen placed a hand over her trembling mouth. “Don’t you dare cry…” she warned herself, pressing her lips together.

A gentle wind caressed her cool face and Karen swiped a thumb over her wet cheeks. She laughed softly. “Get a grip, Karen. He doesn’t want you.” Tears fell and she covered her face, crying silently.

It was clear Clement wanted her gone, and she couldn’t stay longer since her flight was in a few days.

Karen wiped her face and stood. She’d leave with Ejigu back to the capital tomorrow, done with delaying the inevitable. Clement didn’t want a relationship with her and she wouldn’t try to convince him otherwise.

Saying goodbye wasn’t as hard when everyone but Clement and Ejigu were fast asleep. Mumbling a half-hearted farewell to Clement, she walked ahead to Ejigu’s parked van. It was better this way, or she’d hesitate leaving her new friends and the children she’d promised to help.

Karen refocused her attention on Ejigu as he climbed into the driver’s seat. “Thanks for taking me…”

His smile was faint. “It’s no problem.” An hour before dawn, Ejigu’s van pulled out of the courtyard and started up the road to the capital. Karen swallowed hard and allowed herself one more glance at Clement’s fleeting figure in the side mirror.

The five-hour drive began in complete silence, with Karen staring forlornly out the window. Although Ejigu wanted to check on her, he remained quiet. Then his phone began ringing nonstop. After a few minutes of Ejigu not answering the calls, Karen looked his way. “You can pick it up, y’know.”

“It’s nothing,” Ejigu answered stiffly, eyes darting to the rearview mirror and back down to the road ahead. His foot pressed on the accelerator, the van picking up speed.

Karen squinted against a flashing light reflected against the side mirror. Her stomach fluttered, thinking it was Clement. She turned back to alert Ejigu, when a blinding light shone ahead. Her eyes widened, realizing it was an incoming car in their path with no plans of stopping.

Abruptly, Ejigu jerked the steering wheel, sending the van swerving off the road. A yelp caught in her throat as the van tilted on its right wheel and Karen clutched the side of the door, eyes wide with horror.

<<Chapter 26 || Chapter 28>>

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