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Home Is Where the Heart Is - Part Three

A father toiling beneath a sky of gruesome darkness 
Merciless sun on his back, a storm in his heart. 
A mother burying her child with dignified acquiescence, 
Body too beat-down to spare more than a single tear. 

A child marching with a village song in his heart 
Cold comfort found in a loaded carbine on his back. 
A country raped, blood seeping from her every pore, 
A land at war, a land of dearth, a people dying to survive. 


***

“Luke…”

He stood with his back to me, staring out at the garden that only a week ago Claire had tended with loving care. I did not miss the way his shoulders squared and his back stiffened at the sound of my voice, but he did not turn to face me.

“Luke… I’m so-“

“Don’t, Nic.”

“I know that you’re hurting, Luke, but…”

I reached out to touch his arm; he flinched at my touch and turned to face me. There was no mistaking the pain in his eyes, or the dark controlled anger that felt like it was directed at me.

“I just buried my wife. I put her in the cold, hard ground, Nic. Give me a few minutes to grieve before you try to entice me again.”

“I… I wasn’t…” I was too shocked to respond.

“Weren’t you?” He laughed; it was a cold, cruel sound. “You’re so good at feigning innocence, you always were. I hope you can manage pretending that you did not kill your best friend.”

He turned and walked from the room. His words stabbed at my heart like a poison tipped dagger, numbing me to my core. I knew that he had to be hurting, so I tried to justify his accusation. Everyone who knew her had loved Claire, but his resentment toward me had not been fair. I accepted my role in the tragedy that led to her death, but I had not been the one to tell her about what Luke and I had shared. I had never gotten the chance to talk to Claire after she had asked me to leave their house, so I would never know the truth. A speeding car had run her down as she ran from their house later that same night.

The house was still full of people who were clearly overstaying their welcome, the sound of their hushed tones pressing down onto me, buzzing inside my head like a nest filled with angry hornets. I could not see Luke anywhere, which I counted as a blessing. I was not sure I wanted to see him after the accusation he had levelled at me.

“You should not have come here.”

Her voice arrested me as I was slipping out the back door. I turned to face her, my heavy heart weighing me down like an anchor as I looked into the smiling blue eyes of the baby she was cradling. Rebecca gurgled and stretched her chubby little arms out for me to take her. It warmed me that at least someone was happy to see me. Jolene clutched the baby tighter, turning her so she faced away from me.

“She was my friend, Jo. Why would I not be here?”

“I know that, Nicky. That is the point. She was your friend and you killed her as sure as you had put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger.” Her voice was barely above a whisper, but the vehemence came through clearly.

“How can you say that? I loved her. I would never have hurt her.” Why was everyone blaming me for Claire’s death? It had been an accident. “I’m not sure what she told you, but-“

“She. Told. Me. Everything.” Unchecked tears flowed down her cheeks, her voice a shaky, scathing rush as the words gushed from her quivering lips. “She… she trusted you. You were more her sister than I ever was. I was so jealous of you for the longest time… and… and now she is gone.”

“Jo… I know that it’s too little too late, but I am sorry. If I could take back everything I’d done to hurt her, I would.” My lie sounded hollow even to my own ears. I did not want to change anything that had happened between Luke and me, they were the most beautiful memories I had and I wanted to treasure them.

“They were fighting about you. Did you know that? Did your lover tell you that? That night, right before she ran from the house, they were fighting about you. I hope that knowing you were probably the last person she was thinking about helps to comfort you at night. I pray that one day, when your time comes, you will exit this world feeling as alone and unloved as she did.”

She was crying openly, her body wracked with sobs, clutching the struggling baby hard to her chest. I did not know what to do, comfort her or flee like the spineless coward I had become. Naturally, I fled and six years later, I was still running.

***

I leafed through the magazine, pausing on each page without really seeing anything, just streams of words linked together and flowing across vividly photographed settings in an elaborate manner that seemed to be taunting me with their perplexity. The drive to the clinic had not been much different; in fact, the entire morning had taken on a foggy quality that was hard to explain. Jason’s text had not said much, just that my results were in and that he had an opening at 2pm.

“Miss Landry. Doctor will see you now. Please follow me.” I wondered if the young nurse might have had her face cosmetically altered into having a permanent smile.

Jason was waiting for me when I entered, and for some reason I got the feeling that he had chosen to sit behind his desk at the far end of the room so he could put some needed distance between us.

“Nicole.” He nodded. His expression was sombre, a polite smile on his lips. “You sleep well?”

“Yes. Yes, I had a good night. Thanks.” I did not attempt a smile, not even a weak one. I was there for matters that did not warrant smiles.

He stared down at a folder that I assumed held the results to my tests, the fingers of one hand drumming his desk absently. Nothing about his demeanour inspired any confidence that the results were good.

“How bad is it?”

“It’s not good, but it’s not hopeless either.”

He pushed the manila folder toward me. I did not miss the way he averted his gaze as he blinked back the tears welling up in his eyes. The knot in my stomach tightened as I read the words ‘Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia’, every other word on the sheet faded into the background. I fought to keep my rioting emotions from showing as I looked back up at him.

He cleared his throat before looking at me. “I want to do a CT before we discuss treatment.”

I nodded.

“I’m sorry, Nicky-“

“Why? It’s not your fault.”

Finding out that I was sick did not come as a surprise; I was after all a doctor and the symptoms had not gone to great lengths to disguise themselves, but the diagnosis was more serious than I’d anticipated. Unlike most cancers, ALL was not diagnosed in stages, it was either there or it wasn’t. It was an aggressive form of leukaemia that could kill you within weeks if left untreated.

“I will schedule a spinal tap as well, I don’t need to tell you that time is a luxury we don’t have. RNA tests should be able to determ…”

“You’re the oncologist, Jay. I trust you. Arrange whatever needs to be done.”

“I can book you for tomorrow morning. Give you time to discuss this with your family.”

“Can it be done today?”

“You’re not going to tell them, are you?”

“Tomorrow is good if you can’t today.”

“You can’t do this alone, Nicky. You need to-“

“I’m not alone, I have you.” I looked up at him, challenging him to defy me.

“Of course, you will always have me.” He ran his fingers through his hair; he seemed to have aged a decade overnight. “I will shuffle a few things; get one of the other doctors to cover my patients. We can do the scan now. There are a few other tests I’d like to run as well.”

I spent the next two and a half hours being prodded, poked and scanned for various maladies that might be silently destroying me from the inside out. Over the years, I had helped treat many cancer patients, so I knew what I had to look forward to, it was not a prospect I relished. I was amazed at how skilled Jason had become at his craft, the ease with which he handled his job was an art that could only come from years of experience in his field.

“There’s a lovely little Thai place not too far from here, I think we could both do with a late lunch. Don’t you?”

I did not have the heart to tell him that the very thought of Thai food made my stomach lurch of late, so I agreed to accompany him for a meal. My trepidation growing as we entered the restaurant. I was not sure if it was because I had not eaten a proper meal in days or if it was the good company, but I soon found myself relaxing and enjoying the exquisitely prepared food.

“You don’t have to stay at the hotel; my place is big enough for the both of us. It will be a while before you can return back home, it might be more comfortable for you to be somewhere… erm… else.”

I nodded.

“Just think about it. Okay?”

“I will. Promise.” I smiled, but deep down, I knew that moving in with him would be a mistake.

***

Earlier that morning I sent an e-mail to one of the doctors back home, asking him about our patients and the state of affairs in the country – you learn early on that news reports are hardly ever accurate when it came to matters of political unrest in Africa. His reply was waiting for me when I got back to the hotel and logged into my e-mails.

Hey Landry,

Finally. Hot-damn, woman! I was beginning to worry about you. You haven’t replied to any of our mails yet, did you arrive there safely? Have you seen the doctor yet? Any news? Good news only please, there’s a severe shortage of that around here lately.

So here’s the weekly report you asked for – not sure it’s what you need right now, but knowing you, it will do you more harm if I try to keep anything from you. And I’m guessing, ultimately more harm to me as well.

Good news is that our first shipment of the 5-in-1 kiddie vaccine finally arrived. Contra-good news is that a convoy of heavily armed rebels rolled through here two days ago and took all of it, along with some other med supplies and a third of our food. More good news is that no one got hurt, aside from Daleel being bashed on the head with the butt of a rifle. He’s fine, didn’t even need stitches. And before you start worrying again, more supplies are already on its way, should be dropped in a day or two.

We buried Istar yesterday – as you know, it was just a matter of time before she went. Her mother was with her at the time, I don’t think there was a dry eye here as she rocked her daughter and sang to her – you know that song the village children always sing while they wait for their meals? She still had a smile on her face when we called it.

We have two new doctors for you to torture once you get back – both from Brazil. The older one is seasoned, you can tell that she’s seen a lot and knows exactly how to handle herself – and others. Everyone’s warming to her already – even Asad – so I hope she stays. The other… let’s just say that for her sake, I hope she leaves before you get back. She does have a nice arse though, also something in short supply over here – no offence to you, boss.

You wanted to know about Buuxo and Quman. Both their pregnancies are progressing well, still administering the ARVs as you prescribed (okay, here comes the BUT), but we may be in a spot of trouble if they go into labour over the next few days. The thugs took all the Nevirapine when they hit here and that’s one of the drugs that will only be arriving here two weeks from now. Good news – yes, there’s always a bit of that – they didn’t touch the Zidovudine.

Sad to say, but there’s no juicy gossip this time. We’ve been overrun with patients over the past week, so not much time for any of us to do anything other than work, eat and crash.

You’re always in our thoughts, even the patients keep asking after you. It’ll be good to finally have something to tell them when they ask how you’re doing.

Stay strong, Nicky. Everyone misses you. I miss you.

Buzz

I had hoped for better news, but not much in the mail had surprised me. While quiet and mostly out of harm’s way, it was not unusual for our village to be targeted by thugs. There were no riches to be found in our small village, but food and medical supplies were more valuable than gold in a starving, disease-ridden country, so it was not uncommon for rebel forces to plunder unarmed villages to help fund their side in a war no one could win.

My tears flowed freely as I thought about little Istar, she deserved to be mourned and remembered. I recalled the day her mother first brought her to the clinic, over a year ago. She begged us to help her little girl – she had buried a four month old baby weeks before – and we promised to do all we could for the child. None of the staff had the heart to give the mother the prognosis – her seven-year-old daughter had miliary tuberculosis and by the time she came to us, the disease had ravaged both her lungs and liver. Later tests revealed that in addition to that, she had also contracted tuberculous meningitis. In the end, I had to be the one to tell an already grieving mother that the only thing we could do for her last surviving child was make sure that she suffered as little as possible. Istar became a part of our family, a bright child who always wore a smile. When she turned eight, she had her first ever birthday party at the clinic, complete with cake and presents. I thought about her young mother. How do you find the will to go on after every reason you had for living has been taken away from you?

Dr Matt Brolin, better known as Buzz, was right; I did not like the odds of either of the HIV positive girls giving birth without the necessary drugs. We had done all we could to prevent the disease from spreading from mother to child, but it was imperative that the newborn babies be given the drugs that we now no longer had available. It always left me baffled how a country filled with so much natural beauty could also be a place of infinite pain and suffering.

My reply to Buzz was brief. I sent my condolences to Saafi, the young mother who had lost her child and advised on how I thought the situation with the pregnant girls would be best handled. I also asked him to pass on a welcome message to the new staff. In my heart, I knew we were doing the best we could with the few resources available to us, yet the weight of every death at the clinic continued to bear down on my soul.

I was pouring over some of the stats Buzz had attached to the mail when my phone buzzed. It was a text message – “I need to see you. On my way over. xoxo”

I did not want to see him. I did not trust him. Truth be told, I did not trust myself. I deleted the message and called up my dad in the hopes he’d be free to meet me.

***

The coffee shop was abuzz with patrons dropping in for supper. My father had already ordered a light meal for me by the time I arrived and despite having eaten earlier with Jason, the smell of the prawn chaat was hard for me to resist.

“Mmm… oh I’ve missed this.” I had all but forgotten how good South African cooking was, how hard it had been for me to get used to the simple village meals.

“I knew that you wouldn’t order anything to eat and I have very strict instructions to make sure you eat a solid meal. We don’t have to tell her that it was just a little something off the starter menu.” He winked at me.

“I will be staying a bit longer than I planned, Dad. It was supposed to be only a few weeks, but now that I’m here, it feels too good to be home. I can’t stay indefinitely, but it will be another two months at least.”

“Two months?” My dad had never been an easy man to fool. Not much had changed.

“I’ve not taken much of my leave over the past few years, so to be honest, they are making me use up the accumulated days. I guess they think I might reach burnout if I keep going without a break.” Tiny prickles of guilt threatened to poke holes into my half-lie, so I broke a bit of naan bread and nibbled it absently to avoid looking up at my father.

“Your mother will be pleased to hear that. That you’re around for a while longer, not that you need to go back eventually.” My dad continued to stir his tea; he had been stirring it ever since the waiter had brought it. “Will you be staying at the hotel the entire time?”

“No, that wouldn’t be practical. Jason’s offered me one of his guestrooms and I accepted.” I had not considered accepting Jason’s offer until that very moment, but it seemed the best way to thwart any attempt of an offer for alternate accommodation – I did not see myself sleeping in my old room in my parents’ home for the duration of my stay. “It will be fun rooming with him again, I’ve missed him. I’ve missed all of you.”

“He’s missed you too, Nicole. I am glad you’re reconnecting with one another.”

“Yes, you always liked Jay.” I patted his hand; there was something in his demeanour that troubled me, a sadness in his eyes.

“I always thought that you… you and him… it was a comforting thought.” He sighed. “Nicole, why did you come back?”

“I… I needed to see all of you. I missed home, dad.” I squeezed his hand gently. “Is it so hard to believe that I missed my family and friends?”

“No. I believe you. It’s just that… the timing is just…” He sighed again; a sound that echoed hopelessness that tugged at my heart. “I’m glad you’re home. We missed you too.”

***

I stopped at the reception desk on my way in to inform them that I would be leaving in the morning. I needed to discuss cancellation fees, as my room had already been paid up for the entire two weeks I had expected to stay, and it was unlikely that the hotel would allow a full refund for the remaining week.

“You have a guest. A gentleman was here earlier asking for you, I told him you were out. He said that he would be in the lounge. Asked me to let him know when you arrive.” She looked at me questioningly, undoubtedly awaiting my approval.

“Thank you. Would you please tell him that I’ve checked out.” It wouldn’t be a lie. I had just checked out, he didn’t need to know that I would only be leaving in the morning.

I sat on the balcony of my room, the city lights a glittering invitation beckoning like outstretched arms for me to come explore its charms. Jason was right; I could not stay at the hotel, it only served to make me feel like a tourist in my own hometown. I took a sip of my Glenfiddich, savouring the malty flavour before allowing it to trickle its way slowly down my throat. I had never been much of a drinker, but the love of a good single malt scotch was one more thing my father and I had in common. It had been six years since I touched hard liquor, the scotch felt like liquid fire going down my throat, making me sputter and my eyes tear up.

I set my glass down and lifted my phone, just as I had several times before in the past hour. I scrolled through my contact list and paused at his name, just as I had several times before. I threw the phone down onto the wicker table, just as I had several times before. A siren wailed in the distance, someone on the street below peddling flowers sang of blushing roses, a ship’s horn signalled its approach into port and a woman cussed loudly as a street sweeper splattered her shoes – even the once familiar city seemed to be taunting me with its quaint simplicity. Life was never meant to be this complicated, was it? I lifted the glass and downed the scotch, grimacing as it burned its way down my throat.

There had been very few times I had acted on impulse, but I could trace every one of them back to him. No more. It was time for me to let common sense navigate as I prepared for a perilous journey fraught with uncertainty and turmoil. Admittedly, I had not given much thought to what would happen once I was back home, thoughts I had consciously avoided, but the one certainty was that contacting him ranked high on the list of things I was planning not to do. I wasn’t sure if it was the scotch or the haunting image of a little blonde girl that I borrowed courage from, but soon I was listening to his phone ringing in my ear.

He answered on the third ring. “Hello, Nicky. And to what do I owe the pleasure?”

I got up and walked over to the balcony rail, one of those awkward moments when the thoughts swirling around my head failed to make their way to my lips.

“You there?” Damn his voice and the things they were doing to me.

“I’m here…” I took a deep breath, the cool night air irritating my suddenly dry throat. “I erm…” I cleared my throat. “I want to see her.”

The line went silent for what felt like an eternity before he spoke again. I hadn’t even realised that I was holding my breath until I let it out with relief.

“Sure. How would you… when?” He sounded nervous. “I don’t know how to do this, Nicky. You have every right to see her, but what do I tell her?”

“I don’t know. She doesn’t have to know who I am, Luke. Just allow me to see her. From a distance, if you think that’s best.”

“She knows who you are. She’s known you all her life, Nic.” I heard him sigh; it added weight to the already weighted line between us. “Look, she’s a smart kid, there are pictures, she asks a lot of questions. I’ve never lied to her, Nic. I won’t start now. I’m not always proud of the man I’ve been… the man I sometimes still am… but I am a good father. She’s all I have left that’s worth a damn in this world.”

“I know. I know and I’m sorry for… for everything.” I hung up the phone before he could respond.

What the hell was I thinking? He was right. Was I being fair to her? I was allowing my selfish need for forgiveness to guide me.

Hours and half a bottle of scotch later my phone buzzed. It was a text from Luke – “Join us for lunch. Pick you up at 11.”

This story is protected by International Copyright Law, by the author, all rights reserved. If found posted anywhere other than storiesspace.com with this note attached, it has been posted without my permission.

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