Posts tagged “worry

Sanctuary, Chapter 17

Posted on 13/07/2017

Karen shifted in her chair and hissed in pain. Her hands moved to her throbbing knees from landing on them when the man dropped her. Sitting in a car for more than five hours was taxing on her joints, and even though Ashon had graciously stopped at any rest area available, her body was screaming for relief.

“You okay, Missi?” With one glance at her, Ashon started to veer onto the shoulder of the road.

She held out a hand. “Keep going. We’ll be too late if you keep stopping.” Then she chuckled, glancing once at him. “Did you just shorten my nickname?”

One corner of his lips twitched upwards. “Missionary is too long. Are they broken?” he gestured to her knees.

“Or you could call me Karen, my real name. That’s short.” Touching her knees gingerly, she held back a grimace. “Nah, probably more bruised than anything else… I just need to soak them soon.”

“There’s nowhere to soak your knees.”

“I know that, just wishful thinking…” Karen heaved a sigh and turned her face to the vast expanse of land before them. The road was empty except Ashon’s sedan and the occasional truck that zoomed past them every thirty kilometers. “Are we at the border yet? This A2 highway is making me dizzy. How can people do road trips?”

Ashon chuckled, drumming his hands on the steering wheel. “Most don’t drive it all at once. They usually take their time, see the sights—”

“Excuse me, what sights?” Karen swept a hand over the bare scenery. She pouted when he laughed loud.

“Our east mountains are breathtaking,” Ashon said amid chuckles. “Take a picture before you miss it.”

“No phone, remember?”

“Ah yes…”

“And how would I miss it when we’ll be seeing it for the next ten hour—” Karen gasped and sat up. “Oh no, oh no!” she slapped hands to her cheeks; the face of sheer horror. “Oh noooo!!”

Alarmed, Ashon guided the car to the right shoulder. “What’s wrong? Are you hurt?”

“My passport, my stuff!” She groaned. “I lost it!”

Ashon was quiet, watching as Karen dissolved to sobs for the first time since he found her on the field. He’d expected that she was much braver and stronger than most since she didn’t cower in the face of her attacker. Yet, here she was weeping over a passport.

“H-how w-will I-I get home?!” she wailed, eyes filled with tears. How could she have been so stupid to carry all her things to that shady place? Because of her foolishness, everything she owned was gone.

“Missi, don’t cry.”

“How can I not cry?” Karen whined, big fat tears falling fast and free. “I’m alone in this foreign place, injured and unidentified. Can we even cross the border if I don’t have my passport—oh God, why?!” She choked on her sobs and pressed her forehead against the window, despondent and angry at the same time. “Why did I come here?! Why didn’t I just stay home and mind my own business?”

Ashon remained silent, his stare heavy on her.

“Let’s go back,” she said amid a hiccup. Dragging a hand over her face, Karen looked at him. “You were-hic-right, this is stupid. I can’t-hic-save anyone when I’m a-hic-hot mess myself.”

“Missi…”

“No, you were right. I can’t-hic-do this.” Her face twitched as another wave of despair swept over her. She would never go home now. “I have to go to the em-hic-bassy.”

“Missi.”

“I don’t even know what to tell them. Without-hic-proper ID, they’ll-hic-think I’m lying and-hic-put me in jail. I’ll get deported, but the U.S. will-hic-disown me and I’ll have nowhere—“

“Missi!!”

Karen flinched at his loud firm tone, and blinked at the man. “What?” she eked out in mid-hiccup. “Don’t you know you’re not-hic-supposed to yell when someone’s—“

“Your passport isn’t lost.”

She scowled. “How’re you gonna tell-hic-me when I definitely lost-hic-along with everything…” Karen bit her trembling bottom lip. It wasn’t like a Well to cry, and she usually prescribed to that saying until now. Everything, absolutely everything, except her checked-in luggage back in the airport was gone forever. And even the luggage wouldn’t be hers without proper ID. Karen groaned and covered her face, overcome with grief. This was, by far, the worst day of her life. Worse than that time she’d gotten dumped via a text.

“I said your passport isn’t lost.”

His firm conviction had her looking up. The look in Ashon’s stare had her trembling and she frowned. “What-hic-are you trying to say, Ashon?”

“I said your passport—”

“Yeah, what do you-hic-mean it isn’t lost?”

Ashon sighed. “Now you want to listen.” He held up a hand when she started to scowl. “There were two reasons I came back for you. Number one reason was I remembered that clinic had been abandoned for demolition a year ago. No one but government is allowed…” He paused when she squinted at him. “Okay, number two reason was because I found something in the backseat after you left the car.”

Karen drew in a sharp breath, and her pulse quickened as Ashon reached across the dashboard and popped open the compartment. A familiar leather pouch slid in view, perched on top the stack of papers. She caught it before it fell to the floor. “Oh…” she whispered reverently, turning the pouch in her hand.

“Is it yours?”

“I can’t believe…” she unzipped the pouch and peered it inside. Her breath caught and a lone tear fell. A sanitary pad, a roll of dollar bills, and a pack of unopened gum nested her American passport. “…this,” she whispered the rest of it and lifted her eyes to Ashon.

“So it’s yours?”

“It’s mine,” Karen said softly, looking back at the pouch she thought she’d never see again. Zipping it close, she held it against her bosom. “Oh thank you God!”

Ashon snorted, guiding the car back onto the road. “I found it, not your God.”

“He helped you find it,” Karen countered with a laugh. “And let me forget it here so you’d come back for me. My goodness, how did it slip out of my bag?!”

“Maybe when you made me take your money.”

“Yeah, maybe…” Karen nodded and then bit her bottom lip. “Is it too late to ask for it back?”

“Missionary!” Ashon said in mock disapproval and chuckled.

“I’m kidding,” Karen said while laughing. Then she released a sigh and sat back, relieved and grateful. “Man, you have no idea what a Godsend you are. Twice, you’ve saved my life. How can I thank you?”

He chuckled. “By not crying anymore. So what’s your plan when we get to Finch’awa?”

She nibbled her bottom lip. “I don’t actually have a plan. I just know I want to save the children.”

“And how do you plan on doing that, Missionary? Sure you can tackle one bad guy but an army of them?” Ashon shook his head. “I don’t think so.”

“I’ll wing it.”

“…wing it?”

Karen nodded. “Yeah, just like with the glass bottle.”

Ashon frowned. “But do you really know how to gut someone?”

“In general terms, maybe, but I wasn’t actually going to.” Karen shrugged. “Big guys like that are scared of dying painfully. They’d rather take a bullet to the head because it’s quicker than bleeding out. Anyway, I figured he’d croak before I really had to give it a shot.”

Incredulous, he blew out a breath and shook his head. “You’re one scary woman.”

“Only under life-threatening circumstances. How many more kilometers before we get to the border?”

Ashon’s lips twitched at the excitement in her voice now that she had her passport back. “Too many to track now. Why don’t you tell me about yourself, your family… anything to pass the time?”

Karen groaned but shifted in her seat to get more comfortable. “Where to start?”

“Anywhere. We’ve got a long way to go.”

Ashon chuckled when Karen whined in protest, and stepped on the accelerator to speed up their journey.

“Still nothing?” Clement asked over the speakerphone.

“No. She wasn’t in the afternoon or evening flights, Brother.” Ejigu answered. “I don’t think your lady friend even left Nairobi.”

He heaved a sigh. “That’s what troubles me.”

“She’s still not answering her calls?”

“It won’t even go through. Says the phone has been turned off.”

“Oh no.”

“Exactly.” Clement squeezed the steering wheel. He’d hoped for good news concerning Karen but this kind of silence wasn’t good for him. He had too many things to worry about. “And I have no information on the NGO she’s working with so can’t call them either.”

“Maybe she didn’t charge her phone. Don’t worry for nothing yet. You need to concentrate, Brother.”

His eyes scanned the mountains in front of him. “Nothing else to concentrate on, Brother.”

“Will you get there on time?”

Clement nodded, though Ejigu wouldn’t see it. “Hm. Just passed the 450-kilometer mark. Maybe get there by eight. Should give me time to freshen up before I meet Madame Deville.”

“Madame who?”

“Nevermind.” Clement drummed his fingers on the steering wheel.

“Dula is angry with you.”

“He’s always angry. What’s new?” Clement glanced at his rearview mirror and frowned. A dump truck had been tailing him for more than 100 kilometers.

“He says you’re reckless and inconsiderate. Oh, and childish for not answering his calls.”

“I can see that,” Clement switched to the next lane and watched as the truck zoomed past him. He released a breath and switched back to the faster lane, speeding up also. “What else did our big brother say?”

“He said your brother called.”

Clement stiffened in alarm. “Which one?”

“Eli or something… I didn’t get the full message because—”

“I’ll call you back,” Clement interjected and pulled the car onto the left shoulder. Without hesitation, he redialed Dula’s cellphone and waited, eyes on the road and the cars that zoomed past him. The delay was worth it if he got a chance to talk with Eleazar.

“How kind of you to finally call me back,” Dula answered sardonically.

“Yea, sorry about that. Did someone call for me?”

Dula snorted but answered anyway. “He said he’s your brother.”

“Youngest one. I’ve been trying to reach him for weeks now.”

“Well he called.”

Clement’s pulse skipped. “Did he leave a message? How did he sound?”

“How’s he supposed to sound?” Dula sighed. “He said he’ll call back later.”

“Did he leave a number?”

“Hm, no. I guess he figured you’ll call him.”

Clement worried his top lip between his teeth. “Okay. Yeah, that’s fine. I’ll call you back.”

“Are you—” The rest of Dula’s inquiry was cut off once the call disconnected.

Dialing out one of the few numbers he memorized, Clement eased back onto the road and waited for the ringing to stop and for Eleazar to answer. He gripped the steering wheel when it kept on ringing and he feared that he’d missed this rare opportunity to—

“Hello?” Eleazar’s hesitant voice filled the silence.

Clement almost slammed on the brakes, surprised and relieved. “Hey!”

“Junior?”

“Yea, hey!” He could barely contain the excitement nor the grin that brightened his face. “What’s up?”

Eleazar blew out a breath. “Thought you were Sally or something…”

“Sally, who’s that?”

“Nevermind. Are you driving?”

“Yeah, what’s up?” His smile softened, grateful that Eleazar sounded like his normal self. “Where you at?”

“Home.”

Clement arched a brow. “Home as in…?”

“I moved back home.”

He punched the air with his fist but contained himself to answer casually. “Oh yeah? When?”

“Father’s day.”

Clement grinned. “That’s… nice.” He had much to say but didn’t want to bombard his elusive sibling with too much all at once. “Everyone okay?”

“Yeah, they’re fine. I’m fine.”

“That’s good…”

Eleazar sighed. “Hey, I want to come stay with you. Abe said I should ask first. ”

Clement’s smile waned. Father’s Day was less than a month ago and he was already seeking an escape. “What’s going on, Eli? You just got home.”

“You can say no, if you want. It’s no big deal.”

His voice didn’t match the nonchalance in his words and Clement’s brow furrowed. “I’m not saying no…” his eyes made note of Finchawa exit sign. “It’s just a little crazy around here.”

“I won’t cause trouble, I swear. I’ll be useful. Whatever you need me to do, I’ll do it. C’mon Junior, please?”

Clement hesitated, wanting to understand the urgency in his brother’s tone but didn’t have the much needed time for it. “Why don’t we talk about this when I get back—”

“Whatever, it’s fine. Forget I asked.”

“What? Now wait a minute, I didn’t say no.”

Eleazar heaved a sigh. “Not yet. You want to think about a nice way to say it. I get it, I know I’m a burden.”

“Now where on earth did you get such…?” Clement paused and a scowl formed as realization hit. “Don’t tell me that’s why you moved out from home. Eli, I swear to God, I’ll whoop your a—backside if that’s why you’ve been avoiding us for months.”

When Eleazar didn’t answer, Clement gritted his teeth; his suspicions confirmed. “Yeah, you know what? Let’s talk later before I say something you and I will both regret.”

“Fine.”

Clement’s scowl darkened. “Stop acting like a self-entitled brat, Eleazar. A burden–what kind of stupid thought process is that?”

“I thought you said you didn’t want to say anything you’ll regret.”

“Eli!” Clement snapped. “You better be lucky I’m more than a thousand miles from home.”

“So that’s a no then? I can’t come stay with you?”

The uncertainty in Eleazar’s tone reminded Clement of his little brother at a very young age. He sighed deeply, his annoyance waning. “Later I said… We’ll talk later, okay?”

“Okay…”

“I love you, Eli. We all do. You’re not a burden, never have and never will. Hear me?”

“… I hear you.”

Clement shook his head, knowing his brother wouldn’t believe it and that grieved him. They’d given him everything, especially Abe and Phoebe who raised him as their first son. To think that Eleazar thought he was a burden would break Abe’s heart. It certainly broke his. “I’ll call you when I get back, okay?”

“Alright. Drive safely.”

“Will do. Take care, bro.” Clement waited until Eleazar disconnected the international call and then slammed a fist on the steering wheel. He felt helpless, not knowing how to help his family from clear across the world. He would give anything to be home to spend time with his younger brother, to assure him that he was well loved and show him how fortunate he was compared to abandoned children.

But he could understand Eleazar’s fear, especially since both of them had been abandoned by their mothers. Yes, he was three when his mother dropped him off at a police station saying she couldn’t handle him anymore while Eleazar was abandoned near a garbage can by his drugged-up mother. Clement knew early on that his mother resented him for blocking her future and didn’t hesitate leaving him behind.

She was still alive, the wicked woman, and had the audacity to have more children with her new husband. Even though she’d supposedly repented and sought him out through emotional letters when he was a teenager, he tore every single one. He didn’t care to know her; not about her whereabouts or her new family. He was a Teka now, and readily left his past behind.

Unfortunately, Eleazar didn’t and couldn’t have that closure since his mother died shortly after abandoning him. The sad part was Eleazar had no idea he wasn’t only one abandoned by his birth parents, and Clement vowed to make him see the truth once he returned to Bichena.

But for the next day and a half, he was Mr. Austin Legesse who had an auction to crash and a nefarious scheme to disrupt. Hitting the gas pedal hard, Clement guided his rented SUV toward the Fincha’wa exit.

“Relax,” Ashon mumbled as they inched closer to the border. Along the road were armed officers, their watchful eyes shielded behind dark sunshades, their faces stern and unfriendly.

Vehicles lined up, bumper to bumper. An open truck in front of Ashon’s cab contained restless cattle that protested the cramped space. Unfazed by the giant flies that flew around them, the soldiers strolled casually alongside and inspected each vehicle.

“Don’t worry,” he reassured his restless passenger. “We won’t have any problems.”

Karen watched a soldier peek into one of the other covered trucks. “How were they able to pass a truck full of children across the border?”

“They probably took a backroad. There’s one that cuts through a hill in Marsabit…” he paused as one of the soldiers paused in front of their car. “Stay calm.”

“I can’t,” Karen hissed, clutching the pouch that held her passport. Fear gripped her throat as one soldier rounded the back of their trunk, and she wished for the second time that day to be back in the comfort of her apartment in the United States. “Who sent me here…” she mumbled under her breath.

Ashon chuckled low, not the least bit fazed that soldiers were inspecting his cab.

She frowned. “I really don’t see what’s funny here, Ashon.’

He lifted one shoulder. “For someone who claims to trust God, you are a scared kitten.”

The conviction slammed her like a punch in the gut and she gaped at him, gutted.

Ashon glanced once at her, then smirked unrepentantly. “We are not criminals, so there is nothing to fear.”

A tap on the window pulled his attention from her and he rolled down to address the soldier. Answering in a language she didn’t understand, Ashon reached across her to open the glove compartment. Pulling out his passport, he held out a hand for hers.

Karen swallowed the lump lodged in her throat and quietly surrendered her passport to him. Giving her a gentle smile, Ashon handed both passports over to the soldier who studied them quickly.

And true to his word, Ashon received both back without any trouble. Soon they were on their way across the border toward Fincha’wa.

Karen settled in her seat, quietly mulling over Ashon’s keen assessment of her.

<<Chapter 16 || Chapter 18>>

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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>>

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