Previously on THE RETURN…
James spoke haltingly at first, hesitant with his narrative. Then as the words came out of him, pushed forth by the stirring of his memories of the past, he began speaking without any reserve, recounting in details his growing up to the man seated close to him. He spoke painfully about the physical abuse he suffered in the hands of the man he’d called father for so many years, and how he never really could comprehend what fuelled the man’s despisal of him. He talked about Dike’s swift brutality and Cynthia’s quiet consolation. He talked about his decision to run away, and how he had confided in a friend who lived alone in a London apartment his own father got him because he wasn’t getting along with his stepmother. He talked about the day he left the security of his home, sneaking out of the house with nothing but a carryall containing his worldly possessions, taking determined steps into the unfamiliarity of the unknown. He hadn’t even looked back, felt no tug of melancholy as he put yards of separation between him and the house he’d grown up in. At sixteen, he wasn’t obligated to further his studies, and began to work in the same factory his friend did. Living together had gone well enough until there had been one altercation too many, and so James was forced to leave. It was this friend of his who informed him of a shelter for homeless people where James could spend his nights after work. He did this till he saved enough to get a place of his own. And then, he quit from the factory in order to further his studies just the year before.
With the progression of his story, Dare sat there, next to him, his eyes reddening and growing mistier with every aching account. Around them eddied the subdued bustle of the restaurant they’d chosen to meet at, and yet, they remained oblivious of the activity, so wrapped up as they were in the poignancy of the moments they were sharing. By the time James was done, on the face of the older man was a look that expressed pain, pity and regret all at once. Dare shook his head continually, murmuring audibly enough for James to make out the words.
“I should have been there. I should have been there for you. To protect you, to love you, to be your father…”
James smiled and stretched out his hands to meet his father’s balled fists on the table. “There’s nothing you could have done,” he said kindly. “You didn’t even know I existed until recently.”
The words were intended to comfort Dare, but they must have had the opposite effect, because then, Dare took in a deep sigh and withdrew his hands from James’s grasp. He brought them up to flick away the tears that were beginning to form in his eyes. James fumbled for his handkerchief in his pocket and was handing it over, when Dare dismissed the gesture with a slight wave of his hand.
“I’m so sorry, my son…” he choked out. “I truly am.”
“You have nothing to apologize for,” James insisted. “What my mother did is not your fault. Moreover” – he smiled a smile of hope and promise – “you’re here now, and that’s what matters.”
Dare stared at him for a moment, and then looked sideways toward the window next to them, his expression wistful.
“Ah your mother,” he said gently. “She still won’t see me, will she?”
James followed his father’s gaze to the window, staring beyond the bolted glass to the parking lot outside, at the not-so-distant highway with cars that sped by at a blur. It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon, the sun shining its warmth on the earth, as though trying to dispel the gloom of Dike’s funeral from the previous day. His head still ached, but not as much as before. Somewhere in the parking lot, Cynthia’s car was parked. He wondered what was going through her mind at that moment. He didn’t much care.
“I was very surprised when she found me on Facebook and sent me a message. It was a pleasant surprise, of course.” Dare’s words snapped James out of his momentary absentmindedness.
He smiled a crooked smile. “Well, I was very insistent on finding my real dad.”
“I hope you’re impressed with what you found.”
James shrugged. “After having Dike as a father for years, I’d take anything as replacement, really,” he said facetiously.
Dare chuckled, a mirthful sound that was so infectious, James joined in. both men laughed low and for awhile, with James’s being louder and lasting longer. Then he sobered up.
“I don’t understand how she could be possibly mad at you. She took me away from you.” There was a sudden hint of bitterness in his voice.
“You can’t blame her for that. She did what she did to save her marriage.” Dare’s voice held a tone that was genuinely free of judgment.
“It was selfish of her!” James spat, unwilling to grant his mother any reprieve.
“Perhaps,” Dare conceded. “Still, Cynthia always made it clear to me that she loved her husband.”
James scoffed. “Really! She cheated on him with you.”
“It doesn’t matter –”
“It doesn’t matter.”
James lapsed into a brooding silence. He couldn’t understand why he had begun to feel a sudden resentment towards his mother. And even though he tried to fight this ill feeling, the thought of what could have been, of how much better and stable his upbringing would have been, rid of all the aggression he suffered as a child, made it difficult for him to feel otherwise.
“Life isn’t black and white, son. I’ve learned that over the years,” Dare intoned. “Perhaps, sometimes, love isn’t enough.”
James was growing weary of the conversation. It made the mood somewhat gloomy. He decided to change the topic.
“I can’t wait to meet my siblings,” he said with some anticipation. “I have siblings, right?”
Before he replied, the expression on Dare’s face already gave away the answer. He shook his head before lowering it. The pained look was back and he trembled slightly as though rocked by his own memories.
He lifted his head and glanced again at the window, vacantly, his stare fixed in the past as he talked. He started from the day Cynthia ended the affair with him. He had gotten home that afternoon, exhausted emotionally, not realizing until Cynthia walked away from him how much he’d grown to love her. He walked into his living room to meet his wife pacing the room, her body seeming highly strung with impatience. She saw him walk in and stopped to stare at him with eyes that were reddened with anger, eyes that accused him.
“How dare you, Dare?” she’d spat then, her fists clenching and unclenching at her sides. “How dare you do this to me – to your daughter?”
He hissed his response, still chafing from his loss of Cynthia to deal with his wife’s hysterics. He simply didn’t have the patience to deal with this woman. He dropped his car key on the glass table between them, and proceeded to take a seat.
“You ungrateful bastard!” his wife shot at him, advancing. “This is how you repay years of love and loyalty? You lying, cheating bastard!”
Dare began sternly, “Look, Funmi, I don’t have time for this nonsense –”
“I didn’t want to believe it,” Funmi cut him off, speaking as though to herself. “I wouldn’t have believed if I didn’t have you followed.” She walked over to where he sat, eyeing him angrily. “You’ll regret this. I promise you, Dare. You’ll regret ever cheating on me.”
Another hiss met her outburst. “So that’s what this is all about? I slept with another woman – so what? Am I the first married man to do that?”
Funmi rocked back at the callousness of his words, her eyes widening with outrage. Then she reared forward, raising her hand to strike him. But Dare’s icy stare stayed her hand mid-air. She let it fall, but the fire still simmered in her eyes.
“You!” she hissed as she jabbed a finger at his face. “You’ll definitely regret this. I’ll ruin you for this. l ruin you. I won’t stop until I’ve destroyed everything you have. Believe me!”
As though her threats had triggered something in him, Dare stood up suddenly, the ice in his eyes melting away into burning heat that matched his wife’s.
“You’ll ruin me?” he said darkly. “Are you threatening me in my own house, woman?” His eyes flashed with an ugly expression that was familiar to his wife, but which terrified her no less. She started to back away, but he grabbed her quickly by the arm. And just as quickly, his other hand shot out to her neck, grabbing the long column in a choke hold. Funmi whimpered as she wrenched her hand free from his grasp and raised both hands to the hold he had on her neck.
He tightened his grip as he snarled, “You want to ruin everything? Will you still ruin me after you’re dead? Eh? Tell me. Tell me!” His voice rose with his anger. He ground his jaw, his grip still tight as his wife choked out the words, “Stop…you’re…hurting…me –”
It was his daughter’s voice that loosened his hold on his wife’s neck. His fingers instantly slackened and Funmi staggered back from him, coughing and wheezing as she snatched at precious air. Dare turned to face the five-year-old who had woken from her siesta and walked into the living room with neither of them noticing. Funmi dropped to a settee, still gasping for air, a hoarse rush of respiration that shortcircuited into a flurry of sobs.
“Hey sweetie,” Dare said, forcing smile for his daughter. “You’re awake. Come here.”
“NOOO!” Funmi roared as she regained her composure just in time to leap to her feet and run to the girl, grabbing her to her body and stopping her from joining her father. Her glare was back and she stared hatefully through her tears at her husband as she spat, “Don’t you dare touch my child! Don’t you dare lay your filthy hands on my child!” She wrapped the girl in an embrace as if to protect her. “We are leaving. We are leaving this house for you…” she cried out in between sobs, as she hefted her daughter up into her arms.
“Mummy, don’t cry,” the girl said, reaching out to wipe the tears dribbling down her mother’s face.
Dare was still too irritated to care about anything. He shrugged his shoulders and sat back down as his wife took their daughter upstairs. He sat in brooding silence as moments later, she bounded out of the house, a car key and travelling bag in one hand, while the other held their daughter.
They’ll be back anyway, he thought with silent antagonism.
But they didn’t come back. That same afternoon, the distraught Funmi, who’d been in no right state of mind to drive, had crashed into a commercial bus. Both woman and child didn’t survive.
Dare wiped at the tears that slid down his worn cheeks before fiddling with his phone to produce a picture of his deceased wife and daughter, both of them round-faced with extremely wide smiles. “They took that in Johannesburg,” he said as he turned the phone screen to James.
James stared at the sunny beams of the two females in the picture. There was something so filled with abandon in their obvious happiness, and yet something so fierce in the love he saw in the way the woman held the child and the way they stared at the camera – at the man who’d been behind the camera, taking the picture.
“They look so happy,” he observed.
Dare nodded. “This was before Funmi and I began having problems, before we stopped trying, before I met your mother.”
James looked up at him, his gaze discerning. “You loved her, didn’t you?”
He didn’t mean his wife, and Dare knew that.
He nodded again. “I did. And it devastated me that I lost three things I loved on the same day.”
“I’m so sorry.” James sounded forlorn.
A weak smile wobbled briefly on Dare’s lips. “It’s all in the past now. And that is why I’m happy I have this opportunity of meeting –” He broke off as he was suddenly seized by a coughing fit. James stared at him with some concern. This was the third coughing fit since they met that day. They were loud and wracking, unending sounds that rushed upward from his chest with the kind of force that was almost painful to watch. Dare fumbled for some tissue from the tissue box James had fetched for him when he’d first started coughing and placed it over his mouth until the fit subsided.
“You really need to see a doctor about that,” James said.
“I have. I’ve been treating it for the past month,” Dare said, his voice coming out hoarse from an over-tasked throat.
“Okay.” The concern still lingered on James’s face. Then seeking to change the subject, he glanced down at the table, at the untouched plates of fried rice and chicken that’d been placed before them a bit over an hour ago. The food had undoubtedly turned cold.
“It appears we’ve forgotten that people come to restaurants, not just to dig up past lives but to eat as well,” he said with a wry smile.
His father chuckled, and then, as if he’d simply been waiting for James to say this, he picked up his cutlery and dug into his meal. James followed suit.
Cynthia sat in her car, silently hating her ex-lover. The war of words raged on in her head.
He did this to me!
No, you did this to yourself!
He ruined my marriage!
It was you who ruined your marriage! You cheated on your husband. You brought home another man’s son. You betrayed his love and trust. It was all your doing!
She quelled her thoughts with a heavy exhalation. Then she leaned back in the car seat, letting her mind to continue marinating in the past. She’d loved Dike tremendously, she was sure of that. In spite of the affair, she’d loved him too much not to feel powerful guilt every time Dare touched her. And still, she’d gone back to Dare repeatedly. There’d just been something about him that had made it difficult for her to stop the affair sooner.
It was the things he did to you, the voice in her head reminded her.
And even now, Cynthia found herself shifting uncomfortably at the thought. More than she cared to admit, she had enjoyed Dare’s unbridled passion in bed. She’d enjoyed it when he cuffed her to the bed handles and lashed at her with his whip. She’d been delirious with pleasure when he pulled her hair, slapped her and made her call him “Daddy” or say “Yes sir” “Please sir” “Harder sir” to his every whim. She’d panted with gripping need when his tongue ravaged her vagina, or his manhood had invaded her ass hole, all the depraved things that her husband was too dignified to do to her. Dare had woken a lustful side of her she hadn’t known she’d possessed, and stoked it so masterfully, she’d been helpless to his desire.
It is all my fault, she admitted now to herself.
She lowered her head and sobbed into the steering wheel. Everything that happened till now – James’s abusive childhood, Dike’s death – were directly or indirectly the consequences of her actions. If only she could make things right, right her wrongs, undo every bad thing that had resulted from her mistakes. Her conscience pricked at the sense of helplessness that overwhelmed her. and she sobbed even louder.
You did this. You brought it upon yourself.
And for all the time she’d sat waiting while father and son bonded in the restaurant she’d driven James to, she wallowed in her guilt.
By the time the two men stepped out of the restaurant, she had gotten a hold of her emotions. She observed as they talked for a few moments in front of the building, sharing a laugh, their countenances seeming in tune, like they’d known each other their whole lives instead of just two days. She watched them hug each other and felt a tug of pain at the tenderness with which James held his father, an emotion she was seeing less and less of him toward her. Dare spared one look in the direction of the car, before getting into his car and driving away. Cynthia had a small smile ready for James as he got into her car.
“How was it?” she ventured.
“It went well,” James answered. His tone was carefully blank, as though he was reluctant to infuse his voice with any emotion that would betray his reconnection with his father to Cynthia.
She felt another jab of pain. Dare had just met him twice and she was already losing her son to him.
“I’m glad it went well,” she said, maintaining her smile.
“He wants us to meet again in four days. Oh, and he sends his regards.”
Cynthia did not respond to this. There was some silence in the car, tense with unspoken emotions. Then in a bid to dispel it, Cynthia reached for the ignition.
“Mum,” James called softly then.
Her hand stayed on the ignition as she turned to him. “Yes?”
“There is something I’ve being wanting to tell you.”
Her eyebrows ascended slowly. “What is it?”
“I don’t know if it’s proper to talk about this now.”
She gave a light scoff. “We got rid of a body together, Jamie. Nothing is improper between us anymore.”
She had intended the levity to lighten the awkwardness between them, but it fell flat as James tensed at her reference to the morbid experience of the night nearly two weeks ago.
“You see, that’s the thing. It’s about that night, the murder…the body…”
“It’s done now, James. What could possibly be bothering you?”
James sighed. “That night…I don’t know how to say this, but… I don’t remember…much.” He said this and watched his mother, as though trying to gauge her reaction to his revelation.
Cynthia’s eyes narrowed a bit. “You don’t remember much?” she asked even though she had heard him clearly the first time.
“I really don’t. It sounds crazy, but –”
“What exactly do you remember?” she interrupted.
“Well…I know I was there. I remember dad – Dike and I had a fight. He said some really mean things to me. But then…I don’t remember much after that. I don’t remember killing him. I don’t even recall what we did to the body.” He let out an explosive breath and made an impatient gesture with his hands. “I feel like a whole chunk of my memory has been cut off, and I need to patch it back together.”
Cynthia sat there, feeling her heart race. Her breathing slowly accelerated.
Tell him. Tell him now.
She knew she had to do what she did next – for his sake, to free him from his suffering. She had to tell him. She heard the loud, rapid thundering of her heart. She saw the way he looked at her now, the confusion etched on his face. It was now or never.
“Jamie…” she started, her chest swelling and falling as she spoke, “you don’t remember because you did nothing. It was I who killed him.”
Written by Tobi