Previously on THE RETURN…
22 Years Ago
His mind was a storm, unsettled by the disturbing wave of thoughts that surged through it. Thoughts that he prayed were not true. They couldn’t be true. For his sake. For her sake!
Through the rearview mirror, he caught a glimpse of his eldest child, Michael. The eight-year-old was completely absorbed with his handheld video game, furiously jabbing away with his thumbs at the keypad of the small device. He moved his hand this way and that, mimicking the gestures with his head as if he were controlling the game with his head and not his hands. The drive was a lot quieter now that James, who was strapped to the passenger seat on Dike’s right, had fallen asleep. The three-year-old had had to be moved from the backseat to the front because he wouldn’t stop provoking his older brother. James was much too fiery-tempered to be in Michael’s personal space, and Dike had had to stop the car and instruct the boy to get into the front. To his elder’s brother dismay, he’d intermittently turned around on his seat to stick his tongue out at him, an act of defiance that had progressively irritated Michael until their father barked a reprimand at James. The little boy had smoldered him with a look, before slumping down into his seat and crossing his chubby arms over his chest, maintaining a surly expression that slipped when his inactivity and the car’s steady motion rocked him to sleep.
Now, as Dike studied the sleeping boy’s face, a cherub in repose above a shirt front that was rumpled and smeared with the ice cream he’d had several minutes earlier, the troubling thoughts surged faster, the storm battering away at the recesses of his mind. He gave a quick shake of his head, as though the light motion had the power to dispel the darkness brooding inside him.
It didn’t. The darkness stayed.
He took his eyes off the road again and glanced more studiously at his son. He observed the features he’d never bothered with beyond appreciating what a Lothario they’d make him someday when he was all grown up. He had Cynthia’s colouring, a caramel complexion that was determinedly untainted by the dark cocoa colour he shared with Michael. His lids lay still beneath thick, dark eyebrows, his lashes fanning his cheeks like feathers. Cynthia had sometimes never had any use for any artifice to enhance her eyes; her naturally thick brows and lashes did all the magic. But then, that was where the similarity between mother and son stopped. James’s stub nose was like a button above the swell of his mouth, vastly different from the straight slope Cynthia shared with Michael or the broad nozzle he had. James’s ears had pointy ends, a characteristic no other member of the family possessed.
The nose…the ears…they don’t matter. He’s yours. He’s your son.
Dike wished he could believe that. Once the seed was sown that afternoon a month ago that his older sister visited their modest apartment in London, it had slowly but progressively flourished.
“James, eat your food!” Cynthia’s voice and the exasperation that tightened it came clearly to him now, as vivid as the memory of the mother caught up in a battle of wills with her youngest son.
“NO!” the boy had muttered, his lip turned down in defiance as he looked away from Cynthia, his arms characteristically crossed over his chest. His shoulders were hunched as he scowled at the plate of spaghetti that was set in front of him.
Dike watched his wife turn her exasperated look in his direction. “Dike, please tell this boy to eat his food now.” Her voice was grating with annoyance. “He’s not listening to me.”
He gave an indulgent chuckle. “Leave him alone. He’ll eat when he’s hungry.”
”What do you mean he’ll eat when he’s hungry?” she queried sharply. ”He’s not eaten any proper food all day! It’s 3pm and all he’s had is a breakfast of bread and eggs and biscuits, biscuits and more biscuits.”
”Well, why not give him some of the cookies I brought for him and his siblings?” Mariam, Dike’s elder sister, interjected. She was a sedate looking woman, a decade older than Dike, with short dark hair shot through with premature silver and a bespectacled gaze.
“No, no, no…” Cynthia shook her head as she repeated the words in a soft tone that took the sting off her rejection of her sister-in-law’s suggestion. “He has been eating junk all day. It’s time for him to eat actual food.”
“Ok o,” Mariam drawled in response, good-natured in her recognition of Cynthia’s maternal authority in her home. “You are his mummy. Two of you should settle your quarrel yourselves.” She grinned at her own joke.
Cynthia refocused on her son. Her expression was one of reinforced steel as she barked, “Eat your food, you this boy!”
“I don’t want!” James demurred with a pout.
“Oh you will want!” She picked up the fork, rolled a bit of the spaghetti in its tines and lifted it toward James’s mouth.
James recoiled from the looming invasion of the pasta-bearing cutlery, but his mother grabbed his head back around and attempted to force the food into his mouth. But James had a will that everyone in the household had soon come to realize was inviolable. He clamped his mouth shut, and when Cynthia, imprisoning his head in the crook of her left arm, reached her hand forward to pry his mouth open, he began thrashing his legs about wildly, struggling to bulldoze his body from Cynthia’s firmly embracing hold. For a three-year-old, he had undeniable strength. With an explosively expelled breath, Cynthia gave up, heaving up from him and dropping the cutlery with a clatter on the plate. Her expression was richly wrathful as she glared at James, clearly wondering what she’d do with him. From the adjoining parlour, Dike and Mariam looked on in silence, seemingly enjoying the spectacle.
“I told you to leave him,” Dike said, cocking his head as if to say ‘I told you so’.
Cynthia whirled around, instantly rounding on him. “Eh-eh, eh-eh!” She wagged a finger at him. “Don’t even start, you hear? Instead of you to join me in teaching this boy how to behave, you are there talking nonsense.” Then she turned her ire back to James and snapped, “As for you, you will eat this food, whether you like it or not!”
“No, I won’t!” The boy’s defiance amazed her, even in her anger.
“Yes, you will!” she shouted. “I’m your mother, and you will listen to me!”
Dike attempted to speak, but relapsed in silence upon a second thought.
“NO, I WON’T!” James screamed loudly in response to his mother. “I don’t want to eat! I don’t want to eat –”
“I don’t want to eat! I don’t want to eat!” He began kicking out with his legs, and then reached his hand forward and swept it over the table. The arc knocked the plate clean off the table. Cynthia leaped back in time to dodge the trajectory the dish plotted before it landed on the ground with a shattering sound that caused the adults to jump, startled. Cynthia stared at the mess of broken ceramic and pasta, and felt a tidal wave of fury rock her inside.
“You stupid boy!” she roared and lifted her hand, a backhand blow intended for James’s face.
“Cynthia!” both Dike and Mariam called out.
Their holler stayed her hand, and she stood there, arm in the air, glaring at her son, who glared back at her, his eyes sparkling with electricity that unnerved her.
From across the room, Dike watched his son too, observed the fury that had hardened his cherubic face. At three years old, how can you have this much temper? he found himself wondering. Aloud, he said, “James.”
The tension that held mother and son in their locked stare broke, and the boy turned to him.
“Go to your room,” he instructed.
There was silence as James jumped down from his seat and scampered out of the room. Cynthia watched in resentment as he exited the room. She was trembling.
“Mother and son, Part One,” Mariam commented with wry amusement in the ensuing tenseness that took hold of the room after the boy was gone. She smiled and then sobered up just as quickly. “But this boy has such a temper o.”
“He does,” agreed Dike.
Cynthia let out a sigh, an exhalation that seemed to draw her anger out of her, leaving behind mild frustration. “I don’t even know what to do with him,” she complained. She threw her hands to the air. “I’m tired sef. He won’t eat when he’s supposed to eat. He won’t bathe when he’s supposed to bathe. He constantly annoys Michael. And his father” – she stabbed the word and her glare like an accusation at Dike – “is not helping matters at all.” She hissed and then added in a wailing tone, “Why can’t he just be like Michael? How did he turn into… into… this – when he used to be such a quiet, gentle baby?!”
“So was your husband o,” Mariam cut in. “Very gentle, my Dike.” She turned an affectionate look to her brother. “He was the kind of younger brother you’d love to babysit or be an older sister to. Never gave me any trouble.” Returning her slightly bewildered look to Cynthia, she said, “And this makes me wonder where this one got his temper from. Except of course he got it from you.” There was an inflection that turned the statement into a question.
Dike was chuckling as he turned to look at his wife. She ducked her head as she said quickly, “I don’t know where he got it from too o.” There was a forcedness to the sound of laughter she made.
Miriam twitched her nose in a mocking manner at her answer. “I’m sure he’s all you. See how he resembles you sef. I’m certain he has your temper too! Like mother, like son.”
Cynthia chuckled again, a quick sound, oddly lacking humour. “Yes,” she said, not looking in her husband’s direction. “I think I remember being quite the temperamental child when I was growing up.”
“You were?” Dike’s brows crocheted in puzzlement. He couldn’t remember that about the woman he’d courted and married.
“I was,” Cynthia reaffirmed.
“You see?” Mariam declared with extreme satisfaction, as though she had just cracked a particularly knotty case. “I knew it! Jamie is clearly one hundred percent you, and zero percent Dike. If you two weren’t married ehn, I would have said James was a product of divine visitation.” She said this flippantly, bearing no malice.
Dike recognized this and was starting to laugh at his sister’s witticism, when he caught sight of what looked curiously like horror descend on Cynthia’s face.
Don’t mind Sister, she was only joking, he’d wanted to say reassuringly to his wife, when he saw a shift of emotions fleet across her face – fear, sadness and something else unfathomable. He didn’t know why, but it disturbed him, this countenance of his wife.
That’s because she looks like a woman who is hiding something.
The words hit him with a sudden clarity that almost had him gasping for breath. And that was when he fathomed the other emotion he’d captured on Cynthia’s face. It was guilt.
But guilt over what?
Images from the past fired through his mind like synapses. He remembered Nigeria, their lives there, their marriage. He remembered little things, too minutiae to raise any real concern.
“Baby, I called you several times a few minutes ago. Why didn’t you pick?”
“Sorry, my love, I was in the market. You know the noise, there’s no way I could have heard my phone ring…”
“You went to the market when we have house helps who could have done that for you?”
“It was some shopping I decided to do on the spur of the moment…”
“I don’t like you stressing yourself…”
“You worry too much…”
Clearly, he hadn’t worried enough. And now, the bite he felt inside him as he steered his car into the hospital environs accused him for not being more attentive.
He pulled up inside the hospital’s parking lot. The slight jolt of the car braking to a stop roused James from his sleep. He began simultaneously yawning and rubbing his hands over his eyes as Michael leaned toward their father from the back.
“Daddy, what are we doing in the hospital?”
Dike unsnapped his seatbelt and reached toward James to do the same. “Daddy wants to pick up something from the doctor,” he said. “Come on, boys.”
Several moments later, the trio was walking into the hospital’s small but luxuriously furnished reception. It had a warm feel and a soothing bluesy music strained quietly through the atmosphere from unseen speakers.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Obiorah,” a Caucasian nurse said cheerily from behind the reception desk, mangling his name in the process.
“Good afternoon. Is Doctor Coker around?” he said, nodding in the direction of the inner section of the hospital.
“Yes, he’s expecting you.”
“Boys,” Dike said, turning to his sons, “sit and behave.”
“I always behave, daddy,” Michael said proudly.
“Of course you do, my darling boy.” Turning to James, he said with reinforced sternness, “You too, Jamie. Better behave and don’t give your brother any trouble, or else, I will be very cross with you.”
“Yes, daddy,” he said with a nod.
“Good. I’ll be back out soon.”
He turned and made his way down the hall and up the stairs. He stopped in front of the first door to his right when he got upstairs, and then entered without knocking. Once he got in, the doctor seated behind the desk, a reedy, unassuming-looking man, waved him over to the seat on the other side of his table.
”I’ve been waiting for you, my friend,” Doctor Coker said.
”I know, I know,” Dike said, sounding apologetic. ”I first took the kids to buy ice-cream.”
”Alright. Anyway, the result of the test is out.”
Dike felt his heartbeat accelerate. The moment of truth was here.
”So? What does it say?” he asked anxiously.
There was no give in the doctor’s expression as he dropped a sealed envelope on the table. ”There it is. You don’t need me to tell you what’s in there.”
The opalescent morning light played at the windows as Michael paced the room, his phone in his hand. He thumbed the Call Button on Sandra’s number for the umpteenth time. The call was on speakerphone, and the buzzing sound of the calling tone was audible to the other two people in the room.
“What is wrong with this girl?” he huffed, his impatience wearing his voice thin. “Why won’t she pick up her phone?”
Joseph answered from where he was lounging, “Because it’s too early in the morning for her? Because she likes her beauty sleep? Because she doesn’t like you?” He shrugged as he added, “Take your pick.”
Michael scowled at him. “You’re a real joy, Joe.”
“I aim to please, bruh,” he snarked back.
The call ended without connecting. Michael blew out an exasperated breath and glanced quickly at his mother who was sitting quietly on the sofa opposite Joseph. She was focused on neither one of her sons, simply staring at her hand, her countenance a placid mask for whatever storm was going on inside her.
Michael sighed again as he called his sister again, bringing the phone to his ear this time. The call connected and a sleepy voice said with familiar asperity, “Yes?”
“Hello? Sandy?” Michael said, seeking to confirm.
“No, it’s not Sandy. It’s the girl next door she recently became a lesbian for so they can wake up in the morning together.”
And then there was the biting sarcasm. Michael didn’t need any more confirmation. “There’s a problem,” he said flatly. The acrimony between the two of them was mutual.
“You don’t say,” Sandra snapped, getting more awake with each syllable she uttered. “You calling me is already a problem.”
He ignored the barb. “I’m currently with mum. Joe is here too.”
A thread of wariness shot through her voice as she said sharply, “Well? What is the problem? Or do you need a drum roll to tell me?”
Her causticness grated on Michaels’s nerves. He’d planned to ease her into the news, take her emotions into consideration, maybe even get her here to the circle of her family before breaking the news to her. He gave a to-hell-with-it shrug and said flatly into the phone, “Dad is dead, Sandra.”
A sharp intake of breath was all he heard from the other end, before the connection was eclipsed with silence.
“Hello? Did you hear me?”
She didn’t answer.
“Sandra, I said our father is dead. Are you there?”
Still there was silence.
“Sandra – hello? Say something goddamnit!”
And all the answer he got was more silence.
Written by Toby