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Demola rode quietly beside Tomilola. They were in the open now. The morning was quickly warming up as the sun rose steadily above the horizon.
“I thought you’d like it here. It’s one of my favourite spots. Was one of your dad’s, too.”
She grimaced. “Can we not talk about him today?”
His gut clenched. The pleasant ride was over. “Unfortunately, we need to talk about him. Him and your mom.”
Her gaze snapped back to him, her lips pressed into a thin, hard line. “You jerk. You didn’t bring me out here for fresh air. You brought me out here to ambush me.”
“I brought you out here because I thought you might enjoy some fresh air while we talked.” She snorted at his excuse.
He sighed. “Fine. I ambushed you. But, this is a mountain we have to get over. And it’s been my experience that when you’re facing something unpleasant, sooner is better than later.”
“Not today it isn’t.”
“Running away won’t make the problem disappear.”
She shot him a black scowl. “No. But it might make you disappear.” She turned to leave.
“An ambush is used when you want to take something from someone or hurt them. I don’t want to do either. But we have some hard things to talk about, and I need you to stay around while we do. So yes, I stacked the deck in my favor. Shoot me.”
“I told you yesterday I didn’t want you trying to justify my father to me. I haven’t changed my mind.”
“I’m not going to justify anyone to you. I’m simply going to relate the story your father told me about what happened twenty-two years ago. What you want to do with that information is up to you.”
“I already know what happened. On a dark, rainy night, my father kicked my mother and me out of his house and told her he never wanted to see us again.”
“Correction, your father kicked your mother out, he never intended she should take you with her. And. . .”
“And you think that’s okay? A man kicking his wife out of their house in the middle of the night with nothing but the clothes on her back?” Outrage sounded in her voice. Outrage she had every right to feel.
“No, I don’t. It was a bad decision. One made in a drunken rage. One your father regretted every day of his life from that night forward.”
“Oh, please. If the man regretted his actions, he had plenty of opportunity to make up for them. Do you have any idea how many times my mother called him, asking for help?”
This was the lie at the center of Tomilola’s anger for her father. The misconception he had to break. The misconception that was going to send her world spinning. He braced himself for the fight and shook his head. “She never called, Tomilola. That’s what I was trying to tell you in the truck yesterday when you cut me off. After your mother took you that night and left, your father never heard from her again.”
“That’s a lie. She called. Time and time again, asking for money. Asking for help. And Wale Adeyemi always told her to get lost.”
“Were you ever in the room when she called? Did you over hear the calls? Or did she just tell you about them?”
“Of course I heard them.” Righteous indignation sounded in her voice.
But he suspected she’d answered more out of anger and reflex than truth. “Are you sure? Think hard.”
She sent him another fuming stare, but he could see the doubt sweeping into her thoughts.
He let her ponder a bit, praying her mother hadn’t put on some charade where she’d talked into a phone with God knew whom or what on the other end, making her daughter think she was talking to her dad. It would be a harder lie to combat. Not that he couldn’t combat it. But he’d like to use as small a hammer as possible.
He sat quietly, the sound of grass and the soft creak of leather wafting on the warming breeze. A hawk’s lonely cry drifted down from the clear blue sky. He glanced up, spotting the majestic bird gliding playfully on the thermals overhead.
Tomilola followed his gaze, spotting the bird immediately. She smiled, a smile that momentarily erased the shadows from her eyes. The hawk suddenly dove toward the ground, his beak leading the way, his wings tucked tight against his body. Just before reaching the grass, he flared his wings and reached forward with his feet. A split second later he was winging toward the sky again, a mouse dangling helplessly from deadly claws.
Tomilola lowered her gaze to his, the shadows flitting back into her eyes. “It’s never quite as idyllic as we want to believe, is it?”
He shook his head. “No.”
She exhaled a long sigh. “I don’t actually remember if I heard any of my mother’s calls or not. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t. My mother died seven years ago, and we’d given up on my father coming to our aid a couple years before that. It was a long time ago. But what could possibly have been the point of her lying to me? She needed help. Desperately. We needed help. Why wouldn’t she have called?”
“I don’t know. But from what your dad told me your mom had issues. Ones your dad said kept her from thinking rationally sometimes.”
Pain and anger slashed across her face. “She might have had ‘issues.’ And she might not have always thought ‘rationally,’ but she wasn’t delusional, for pity’s sake. She was together enough that she never turned back on her little girl. Unlike the man you’re trying to paint as a bloody saint.”
“I’m not trying to paint anyone as a saint Least of all your father. God knows, he’d turn over in his grave if he thought I was. I’m just trying to tell his side of the story.”
“Then tell it. But don’t expect me to believe every word out of your mouth.”
“All I’m asking is that you listen with an open mind.”
“Fine, my mind is open.”
If the underlying anger in her words was any indication, her mind wasn’t open. But since it was likely all he’d get, he’d best get to it. “Did your mother ever tell you why he threw her off the estate?”
Her lips twisted in disgust. “Said he found someone new. Someone younger, prettier. Someone without a toddler to take care of.” Pain sounded in her words as she voiced her belief that her father didn’t want her. He locked his gaze on hers. “Your father never considered you anything but the most wonderful of gifts, Tomilola. Never.”
Tears gathered in her eyes. “How would you know? You weren’t. . .”
“No. I wasn’t there. But I know because I saw the pain and longing in your dad’s eyes every time he spoke of you. Heard the pride in his voice when he’d tell one of the memories he had of you. Memories that were old and few, but more precious to him than anything in this world.”
More moisture filled her eyes, but she didn’t let the tears fall. She might want to believe her father had missed her. But the anger underneath those tears told him she didn’t. Not yet. And it would take a lot more talking on Demola’s part before she’d even consider opening her mind. “It wasn’t your father who found someone new, Tomilola. It was your mother.”
“Oh, come on, you can come up with something more original than just flipping the story around, can’t you?”
“Yeah, I probably could if I was making it up. But I’m not making it up. I’m going to tell you exactly what your father told me. No embellishments to make your father sound more innocent. No assumptions about what I think anyone was thinking that night. You’ll have to decide for yourself what you want to believe and what you don’t.”
“Fine. So my mother found someone new Who was that?” Pure sarcasm sounded in her voice.
“I don’t know his name. He was one of your father’s workers.”
“That’s convenient for the story.”
He ignored the comment and pushed on. “It was a Saturday night and your father had let half the workers go early so they could enjoy themselves while he worked late with the other half. When he finally got home, he found you in your crib, Mariam, the housekeeper, watching you, and your mother gone. When he asked Mariam where your mother was, she said she’d headed to town with the first half of the workers. He wasn’t worried at first, too worried, anyway. It wasn’t the first time your mother had gotten impatient with him for being late and headed into town early to drink and dance with some of the workers.”
Her lips pressed into a thin line.
Did that mean she recognized the behavior? And didn’t approve? Wale had said Nike was a big party girl. That she craved attention. Especially male attention. There was no reason that would have changed after she left Wale. In fact, it very possibly could have gotten worse.
But speculating about what Tomilola was thinking wouldn’t get him anywhere. “When he got to the bar, your mom wasn’t there. Just a bunch of guys doing their best to avoid your dad. When he finally pinned one down, the man reluctantly told him your mom had left with one of the new workers. Supposedly just to check out a bar farther down the street, one that played disco instead of rock music.
Tomilola raised her chin in defense. “Maybe they did. My mom never did like rock music.”
“No, your dad said she didn’t. But as much as he wanted to believe the two had left simply for the music, he didn’t. And he didn’t think the other workers believed it, either. But, since your mom had told the hands she and the guy would be back after a quick dance or two, and since your dad didn’t want anyone to know he doubted her, he sat down, pretended everything was fine – and started drinking.”
She rolled her eyes. “Now there’s the perfect solution. Why didn’t he just go looking for her?”
“Eventually he did. But he didn’t find them at the bar down the street. He found them at the hotel at the edge of town.”
She closed her eyes, pain and sadness washing across her features. “Oh, Mom. What were you thinking?”
The words were whispered so softly he barely heard them. But he heard. Had her mother brought an endless string of men home? Had she left a young girl home alone while went man-hopping?
But however sad or dark the memories were, Tomilola didn’t let them suck her down. With a determined shake of her head, she pulled her shoulders back and opened her eyes to meet his gaze. “Okay, so my mother made a mistake. A big one. But you’re not going to convince me it was okay for dear ol’ dad to throw her out on the street and tell her to get lost because of it. He wants to divorce her. Fine. But they had a kid together. He owed her child’s support, dammit.”
She shifted in the saddle. “Do you have any idea how my mother had to compromise her living standards because she had to support me all by herself? She didn’t have any skills. How the hell did Dad think she was going to put a roof over our heads? Food in our stomach? And later, when she got sick. How did he think she was going to pay for her medical expenses when she had to feed and clothe me?”
Not only had Tomilola had to endure the hardships of poverty, but she blamed her very existence for putting her mother in that ugly situation. Dammit, dammit, dammit.
But he couldn’t back down now. “No one knew better than your father that he made a mistake that night. Unfortunately, he didn’t confront your mother at the hotel, when he was only half-drunk. At that point, maybe he would have been thinking clearly enough to make a better decision. But he drove home instead and proceeded to get rip-roaring drunk.
“By the time your mom wandered home, he was completely out of control. The second she walked through the door, he told her to pack her bags and get out. Told her he didn’t ever want to see her again. Then he stormed into his study, locked the door and drank until he passed out.”
Tomilola looked at him with disbelief and outrage, “And what? He expected her to go and leave her child behind? He thought a mother would walk away from her child because some drunken guy told her to leave?”
“I think it’s fair to say with alcohol in his system, he probably wasn’t thinking beyond his wounded pride or the pain he felt at your mother’s betrayal, period.”
Her lips thinned into a hard line. But she didn’t say anything.
“When your dad came to the next morning, he realized that as mad as he was at your mum he didn’t want her to leave. He’d known when he married her she’d had emotional issues. He’d wanted to work it out with her. But when he went looking for her, hoping she’d ignored his drunken tirade and stayed, he realized not only had she left, she’d taken you with her. Desperate to find you both, he raced to town hoping to track you down at one of the local hotels. Or at the bus stop.”
“But we were already gone.” Her words were whisper soft.
He nodded. “A man at the barber shop had seen your mother hitching a ride out of town with a couple who’d stopped at the petrol station. The man didn’t know the car or the couple in it.. He thought it was probably a couple just passing through on their way to who knew where.”
“Okay, so you have a story that suggests my mum was the one who played around on my dad instead of the other way around. That hardly proves my mum never called my dad after they split up. It doesn’t prove he didn’t refuse to take my mom’s calls.”
“No, it doesn’t. But now that you know your dad’s story, I think these will convince you.” He brought out papers he’d put in there earlier and held them out to her.
“What are those?”
“Read them and find out,”
She looked at the papers as if they might turn into a stake and bite her. But then, determination straightening her spine, she snatched the papers from his hand and gave the top one quick read. “So, it’s some private investigator’s bill made out to my father. So what?”
“It’s a private investigator’s bill from the search your father started the day you and your mother left. A search to find you both.”
She looked back at the bill, studying it more carefully. “Even if my father did look for my mother in the beginning, that doesn’t mean he didn’t change his mind later. My mother told me she didn’t try to contact him until I was about five. By then, Daddy dear might have decided he had better things to spend his money on.. Like the estate,” she said pointedly.
“Look at the dates, Tomilola.”
Her gaze moved to the top of the page.
“You’ll notice the top one is from twenty-two years ago. The month after you and your mother disappeared, to be exact. The second one is from five years later. The third five years after that. And the last one is from last month.”
She flipped through the pages, verifying the dates. But when she looked up there was nothing but stubbornness on her face. “Four bills over twenty-two years doesn’t constitute any great search. So his conscience kicked into gear now and then. That doesn’t mean it was in working order when my mother called for help.”
“God, you’re tough.”
“You bet I am. Watching my mum struggle to keep a roof over our heads and food in our bellies when I was young, and taking over those chores after my mum got sick, made me that way.”
Yes, it would have. And while he admired the loyalty that made her cling to the belief that her mother had called, that her mother had done everything possible to provide for her daughter, he couldn’t let her go on believing it. “I brought only four bills out this morning, but there’s a stack of them a foot high in your father’s office. Bills from every month for those twenty-two years. I’ll show them to you when we get back if you need more proof.”
“I don’t want to see them,” she snapped.
No, he didn’t imagine she did. But. . . “Sooner or later, you’re going to have to admit your mother wasn’t telling you the whole truth. That your mother might have been responsible for keeping you in such poverty and misery.”
Panic filled her expression. Panic and anger and. . .pain. Tears pooled in her eyes. “Why would she do that? What possible reason could she have to keep my father out of our lives, to withhold medical attention for herself?”
“I don’t know. Like you’ve pointed out on several occasions. I didn’t know your mum. But you did. Can you think of any reason why she wanted to keep your dad out of your lives? Because it seems pretty obvious to me that she did. Why else would she change her name from Adeyemi to Daniels if she wasn’t trying to hide from him?”
“Oh, come on, the change of name doesn’t prove anything. Women change their names when their marriages don’t work out all the time.”
“Back to their maiden names, yes. Or they marry again and take the name of their new spouse. Sometimes women will even take the name of an old spouse, but Daniels isn’t any of those things.”
A little more panic crawled into Tomilola’s expression. “No, it isn’t.”
“Do you have another explanation for the name change?”
She shook her head, confusion and frustration taking over her face. “Until yesterday I would have told you my mother did it to protect me.”
“Protect you from what?”
She grimaced. “Hearing from my own father’s lips that he didn’t want anything to do with us.”
He gave her a questioning look.
“When I first found my mum’s marriage certificate and my birth certificate after her death, discovered that my last name hadn’t been Daniels, I thought she must have realized early on that eventually I’d get old enough to look up my father. So, she’d changed our name to make sure I never found him. That way she could control whether I contacted him or not. Control whether or not I hear him tell us he didn’t want anything to do with us.”
“And now what do you think?”
She looked into the distance her expression getting beaker by the moment. “Now, I don’t know what to think.”
Great, he’d taken a life he suspected had been difficult on the best of days and removed the one pin of stability from it. Now he had to see where the pieces fell.
And pray to God he could put them back together before she decided jumping out of another plane or some deadly stunt was a better way to spend her time. Because he suspected the Angels’ penchant for extreme sports was as much about four troubled young women pushing back at an unfair world as it was about making money for those in need. And that was a dangerous path he didn’t want Wale Adeyemi’s daughter travelling down.
To Be Continued…