Sami's

 Special Blend

By

Jennifer Keogh Armstrong

 

 

 

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, 171 Second Street, Suite 300, San Francisco, California, 94105, USA.

 

First Edition Print V1.1 2012

 

 


Part One


 

 


Chapter One

Nigeria

present day

 

N

othing,” said the man.

“But I can see the food,” Sami protested.

The man at the entrance of the warehouse shrugged, indifferent. “No food for Christians.”

“But you have enough flour!” The bags were so abundant and so close that Sami could read “Product of Canada” stamped on each one.

It really didn't surprise Sami. He had walked two days in the hope that he would be able to get something from the warehouse that distributed flour and other essentials to the victims of the drought. The contents of the warehouse had come from well-meaning westerners who probably didn't realize how unequal the distribution could be, depending on where it ended up.

The famine in his country wasn't the kind that made it to the news, just a local one that came about as a result of two years of drought. The agency that stepped in to fill the need was neither Christian nor Muslim. But in a Muslim-dominated area, the locals determined who received the essential supplies. Most Christians in Nigeria lived in the south where they were the majority. Sami's village was one of the few in the Muslim-dominated north.

“Move on!” said the man sharply. There was a long line behind Sami.

Sami had been prepared for a two-day walk home carrying a 50-pound sack of flour on his shoulders. Now the walk home would be easier. But the arrival in his small village would not be. He would have to face his mother and sister and tell them that he had nothing for them to eat.

As he turned away, he reached into his pocket for the one constant assurance, his Rosary. The Blessed Mother would be his companion for the journey home and he hoped fervently that her prayers for him would make a way where there was no way.

 

Los Angeles

present day

 

The bran muffin was calling out to her.

Inside Abril Sanchez, a battle was raging. A battle for her soul. The devil wanted her fat. In fact, some would say, he had already succeeded.

She was not particularly hungry, but she wanted that muffin.

Raisins. It had raisins. She loved raisins in a bran muffin.

Everyone else around the board table was having a muffin and an herbal tea. All Abril had was the herbal tea. Unsweetened. No one would think any less of her for taking the muffin. Except for Carlie. Carlie was an ideal 127 pounds, the perfect Christian, the perfect Ambassador for Christ. Beautiful and slim for Him. Abril rarely stepped on a scale but she knew the line was closer to 150 pounds for her. If she took the muffin, Carlie would give her that look. Carlie would know she wasn't hungry. And God would know. And the devil would know. And the devil would win.

God is jealous of my love for food, she reminded herself.

“Well, obviously the Jews aren't going to let us buy up their wheat fields,” Simon was saying. They all worked for a Christian food company. Their brand of breads, cereals and dried fruits boasted that they were identical to the type of food that Jesus had eaten.

The only drawback was that all of it was American-produced.

I desire God, not food.

“We need to have that 'Product of the Holy Land' stamp,” Jessie was insisting. Jessie was the latest addition to the Food for Him team. He was young, dynamic and clearly moving up. He had been the one to point out that if they were going to convince people that they were eating just like Jesus, the food should come from the same region as Jesus.

“What do you think, Abril?” said Simon, bringing her back into the discussion and getting her away from the battle over the muffin. She and Simon had started the company seven years ago after each of them had obtained a two-year degree from a local business college. Although it would be more accurate to say that Simon had started the company with her encouragement and support. They had known each other since the days of their church youth group. And food had always been a topic of interest to Abril.

Simon's mother was one of the foremost dieting queens in Christian circles. She had written several books on the importance of being thin for Jesus; to not be a stumbling block to the Gospel with one's body; to present a clean, healthy, vibrant Christianity to the world. She had a ministry with over three million followers receiving her weekly emails of encouragement and reading her daily online devotions for fellow dieting Christians. She didn't call it dieting though. She called it engaging the devil in the battle for your body.

“Makes sense to me,” said Abril. She had done very little thinking about the topic, but a sudden inspiration hit her. “Didn't Jesus cross over the Jordan a lot?”

There was a murmur around the table. Someone grabbed a Bible from off a shelf of books, mostly filled with things written by Simon's mother or about food in the days of Jesus.

“It's still considered the Holy Land, isn't it?” said Abril. “I mean, my mother did a tour of the Holy Land a few years back and they spent some time in Jordan. There's Petra and there's a lot of other old stuff . . .” Her voice petered off.

But everyone around the table was already nodding their agreement. In addition to Simon, Jessie and Carlie, there was also Ted, the company accountant and Heather, Jessie's administrative assistant.

Jessie was now reading out of the Bible.

“Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan, followed him.”

“And didn't Jesus cross the Jordan to where John had been baptizing?” said Carlie, who always had to get her two cents in. “I read that somewhere.”

“It works for me,” said Simon, starting to look excited. “I think I read somewhere that Jordan is looking for investors. I bet the labor there is pretty cheap too.” Simon usually had a pile of marketing and entrepreneurial magazines on his desk.

Respectfully, everyone let him think. Simon strode the length of the long table and then turned and went back again to his spot at the head of the table.

“One thing's for sure,” he said. “One of us will have to go.”

“To Jordan?” said Carlie.

Simon nodded.

“We have to cultivate a personal relationship in Jordan. We have to build from the ground up. This isn't a short-term investment. This is the future of our company.”

“Your mother could lead groups through the Holy Land,” said Carlie. “She could show them where the food is grown. The kind of food Jesus ate.” Everyone in the room knew that Carlie was a favourite of Simon's mother. She often included the young woman in her DVDs. It was also no secret that Carlie and Simon were seeing each other outside of office hours.

“I like it,” said Simon. “I think she'd like it too. But I'll have to talk to her first before we pursue that line of business. For now, we need to send someone to talk to the, I dunno, Minister of Agriculture, or maybe Foreign Relations.” His eyes were surveying his small team. Tim, obviously wasn't a candidate. Simon's eyes paused on Jessie.

“Do you think you could work in a trip to Jordan, buddy?” he said.

Jessie shook his head.

“I'd love to. It's my baby and I'd love to run with it. But things are touch-and-go with Herbal Health. I'll be flying out there in a week to try to close that deal.” Herbal Health was a successful secular Colorado company that sold over-the-counter herbal remedies. Food for Him was hoping to work out an arrangement for a special line of Christian products.

Simon's eyes continued moving. They passed right over Carlie. He wasn't going to send his beautiful blond girlfriend into the unknown. His eyes stopped at Abril.

Abril!” he said. “You'd be perfect! You know the business inside and out.”

“Uh, sure, Simon.” Jordan? Where exactly was Jordan? On the other side of the Jordan, obviously, but she wasn't sure she had ever really paid attention to it on a contemporary globe.

“Thank you, Abril,” said Simon, gratefully. “I'd go myself, but I promised my mother I'd speak at her upcoming convention.” Simon's mother had an annual convention in Los Angeles that attracted thousands, some who came halfway across the country to hear her encourage and exhort them to a higher level of living through more than just healthy living, but Jesus-centred eating. “I think you're the best one to go anyhow.”

Jordan. She was off to Jordan. Abril, who had never gone any further than Ensenada, Mexico. But at least she had a passport. Simon, a man of vision, expected all his employees to have passports, even if it was just to cross over the border to interview migrant farm workers for their Food for Him wheat fields.

What would her mother say about her upcoming trip? Not that her mother would worry or anything. Her mom was remarkably adept at committing things to God and then carrying on with a carefree heart. In fact, she'd probably make a celebratory dinner.

And that's what she and Abril really divided over, the food thing.

Her mom weighed 230 pounds. Though both she and Abril had grown up in Los Angeles, Abril's father had been from Tennessee. So her mom usually had a southern-style dinner when Abril returned to their small apartment. Chicken dripping in oil. Biscuits made with lard. Green beans and bacon. Cherry pie and vanilla ice cream for dessert. Not that any of it was forbidden exactly.

Simon's mother was quick to tell everyone, this wasn't a diet, it was a way of life. No food was off the list. But the big rule was that you couldn't eat past the feeling of being satisfied.

And Abril was usually satisfied long before the piece of pie was put in front of her. Not that her mother would have minded if she refused it. It's just that she never did.

Tonight, when she arrived home after work, her mother was in the kitchen, as usual.

“I have something to tell you, Mom,” she called out, taking off her jacket and going into her bedroom to hang it in the closet. “Something big.”

By the aroma in the small apartment, Abril could tell dinner was a spicy beef casserole, a favourite of her father's, but thankfully, never of Abril's. She returned to the living room.

“So what's this big news of yours?” her mother asked, coming out of the kitchen and settling back on the couch with her tall glass of iced tea. Abril went into the kitchen to get a glass of water before coming back out to answer.

“I'm off to Jordan, Mom,” she said.

Her mom's eyes widened.

“Well, that's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! You're going for the company?”

Abril nodded.

“All alone?” her mom asked, with a slight smile. She could not be dissuaded of the idea that Simon was really interested in Abril. Just because he had started out with her and they had known each other for so long. Her mom had never met Carlie.

“Yes,” said Abril firmly. “Everyone else has something on their plate.”

“Speaking of on their plate,” said her mother. “I found a wonderful Mexican bakery just down the street from my Bible-study group.”

Abril nodded absently.

“They make an incredible sopapilla cheesecake,” her mother continued. “I've already eaten half of it. But I've saved some for our dessert.”

“Oh Mom, you shouldn't,” said Abril.

“But you love cheesecake!” said her mother. She looked at her daughter. “Or do you mean, I shouldn't have eaten half of it?”

“Both,” said Abril, looking down at her water glass.

There was a pause.

Then her mom sighed, a heavy sigh. She leaned forward and put her iced tea on the coffee table.

Abril, honey,” she said. “I'm going to tell you something I am absolutely convinced is true. God does not care what size I am. He looks at my heart. A little extra fat doesn't get in the way.”

“But Mom, we're supposed to honour God with our bodies.”

 Abril,” her mom said, “I loved the conversations I had with your dad. We used eat and talk.”

Abril nodded. That's about all her family had ever done.

“But now I talk with God and I love the conversations just as much, maybe more. I wish they'd never end. They do only because I am a finite creature and my mind wanders and at some point I'm thinking that maybe I should go into the kitchen and make that recipe I found on the internet.”

Abril shook her head.

“See, there's food coming between you and God!”

Her mom laughed, that lovely merry laugh Abril had always known.

“I think all I'm saying is, the promise that he and his Father would make their home in me is real to me. And that's my proof that this fat body is no offence to him.”

 

After leaving a half-eaten plate of casserole and finishing a whole piece of pie, Abril had returned to her room. Her mom's discussion about Jesus had only gotten worse over dinner. She had gone so far as to say that maybe Jesus himself was chubby.

“After all,” she had said, “his enemies called him a glutton and a drunkard. Maybe for good reason.”

Sensing that that was about all her daughter could take, her final comment on the subject had been, “In any case, I can hardly justify going on a diet for his sake. In fact, I think I'm nicer when I'm fat. More humble. Which means I'm more like him. Pass me another litre of ice cream.”

She had laughed at the expression on Abril's face. But she had promised to pray every day for the success of her business in Jordan. And, weight or no weight, Abril had always been sure that God heard her mother's prayers.

“Whatever you do, do it all for him,” her mom said to her later as she hugged Abril goodnight.

Her mother was well-meaning.


 

 


Chapter Two

T

he next day, she got a phone call at home.

Food. It was always about food.

Abril was leaving on an evening flight and Simon had promised to take her to the airport but now he was calling to say that his mom needed him.

“She's starting another DVD series and she needs me tonight. This one is about how you can still pray for your daily bread even when your cupboards are full. I mean, the prayer makes sense when the cupboards are empty. But what about us rich snots in the west who have enough canned goods to survive a nuclear winter?” Simon could talk this way with her because they had been friends for so long.

“She says that the secret is to really only think of the meals for the day and not worry too much about the week ahead.”

“Well that sounds right,” said Abril, looking down at her half-packed suitcase. She would need to take a cab to the airport.

Simon read her mind.

“Catch a cab and the company will cover the cost,” he said. “Keep all your receipts, OK?”

She agreed and after wishing her a pleasant trip, he hung up.

Packing wasn't easy. According to the internet, Jordan was hot and people dressed modestly. So she was going through her closet for anything light, but on the long side. And reasonably fashionable. She didn't want to go looking like a nun. She wanted to look good.

Her mother wouldn't worry about such things, she thought with annoyance. It was beyond comprehension how her mother could completely neglect her outward appearance and call it faith.

Simon's mother would go so far as to label it greed, greed for food. And according to the Bible, greed was a form of idolatry. By that line of thinking, maybe her mother wasn't even a true believer. Abril turned back to her closet. She didn't want to go there.

Half of her closet was now on her bed, mostly being rejected for her suitcase.

OK, OK, try to make this work. Focus.

Soon she had a wardrobe, of sorts. Maybe she could buy some things in Jordan. After all, she wanted to look just right when she met with the Minister of Agriculture. Simon was working on that end of things and promised her he'd call her on her cell phone as soon as he had an appointment. If she had some time on her hands, she would head for the nearest shopping mall. If Jordan had shopping malls. She hadn't had time to check it out on Google Maps.

She glanced at her watch. And she didn't have time now. She had an evening Turkish Airlines flight from LAX to Chicago's O'Hare and from there, it was on to Amman, Jordan. Carlie had said she was pretty sure there was a stop in Istanbul, but not long enough for her to get off and see the city. It was going to be a long flight, but hopefully she would be able to sleep through most of it.

 

Abril was hoping for what Simon's mother called a “Divine Encounter” on the plane but ended up seated beside two teenagers, both boys, and both not the slightest bit interested in her. They looked Turkish, or maybe Arabic, and they each had their own mp3 player.

Abril's first trial occurred when the meal was served shortly after take-off. It was an impressive meal served by a friendly flight attendant. The only problem was, Abril wasn't hungry. She looked down at her chicken, roasted potatoes, mixed vegetables, salad, whole grain roll, and chocolate mousse. There was even a package of crackers and an herb spread to accompany it. The guys beside her were already halfway through their food.

She wanted to eat it so badly, but though the aroma was heavenly, she just couldn't feel that pang of hunger.

The guy right beside her noticed.

“No hungry?” he said, grinning.

“Uh, no,” she said.

English was his second language but he easily conveyed to her that he was willing to eat whatever she didn't want.

Simon's mother would call that God's provision, a way of escape from the temptation.

And so the young man ended up with all of her hot food. His envious brother ended up with her salad and mousse. She saved her crackers, putting them in her purse in case she got hungry later.

The second test came when the in-flight movie started. The guys beside her exchanged their mp3 players for headphones. Abril smiled and shook her head as the flight attendant handed her a pair.

Simon's mother said that what you put in your mind was even more important that what you put in your body. The world could not provide the spiritual nourishment that believers needed.

So she pulled her slim Bible out of her purse and read that instead. But her eyes kept wandering to the screen where two young men seemed to be getting into an outrageous amount of trouble. The law was chasing them, a case of mistaken identity, and the young men were committing all sort of crimes to elude the police – stealing a moped, stealing a motorboat, and then finally, stealing an airliner.

Afterward, a flight attendant came around with a soft blanket for everyone, as well as a pouch containing several courtesy items – a toothbrush, a sleeping mask, even a pair of slippers.

The young man who had eaten her hot meal grinned and handed her his slippers, as a thank you for the meal.

She nodded and smiled, adding them to her purse. They would make a nice souvenir for her mother.

It turned out she wasn't good at sleeping in an upright seat, although the young men beside her were. With envy, she could see the first-class passengers through the curtain that separated them from coach. Their seats reclined significantly further back than hers did. Had she been Simon's mother, Carlie would have booked her seat up there. And Simon's mother would have been smart enough to skip lunch so she would be truly hungry to eat dinner on the plane.

Now Abril was feeling hunger pangs, but with so many sleeping people around her, she did not want to reach into her purse and start crunching on crackers.

When morning came, Abril had had an uncomfortable night of sporadic sleep. She joined the long line for the lavatories and by the time she returned to her seat, the flight attendant was coming around with small steaming cups of Turkish coffee. She received hers with gratitude. Simon's mother had never made an issue of caffeine. In fact, everyone who knew Simon knew that his mother refused to even get out of her pyjamas until she'd had a morning coffee.

And then it was breakfast. This time, the young men didn't get any of it and Abril gobbled down the whole thing - cheese omelette, spinach pie, cucumber and tomato slices, whole-grain roll, generous slices of cheese, some olives. Only the yoghurt muesli was saved for later. The young men didn't seem interested in it. But they were congenial this morning. Their mp3 players were stowed away and they were talkative.

They told Abril they were travelling home with their parents who were somewhere in the back of the plane. They had been visiting an aunt who had married a man who lived in San Diego. When they learned that Abril was from Los Angeles, they enthusiastically told her that they had really wanted to go see Hollywood but their mother had wanted to spend all the time with her sister, so they hadn't gone any further north than Del Mar. But the zoo had been really cool.

Abril listened, nodding attentively. Simon's mother said any situation could be a Divine Encounter, a chance to win someone to Christ, or maybe even an angel on a mission from God. Simon's mother had had her own experience of sitting beside someone on a plane who she was convinced was really a heavenly visitor. He had helped her work out some business strategies that she had been having trouble with.

But now Abril couldn't help noticing that the plane seemed to be descending.

“Are we, er, going down?” she asked.

The young man nodded.

“We are here. Lagos, Nigeria,” he said.

Nigeria?” said Abril, trying to see out the window across him and his brother. Carlie hadn't mentioned anything about Nigeria. Even more astounding, when they touched down in Lagos - and the passengers had all clapped - the flight attendant announced in Turkish, Arabic and English that all passengers must disembark. The young men beside her did not seem surprised, but Abril was. Disembark and do what? And for how long? She thought she was on a direct flight to Amman. If they simply had to refuel, it wasn't necessary that they all disembark.

The young men were still in front of her as they went down a long tunnel from the plane into the building. They turned and wished her all the best and then disappeared with their parents into the crowded terminal.

Abril looked around. Africa! She was actually in Africa!

The airport was modern and spacious, but with a definite international feeling. But where was she supposed to go? Everyone else on her flight seemed to know what to do and where to go. After passing through Customs and Immigration, some were even being greeted by relatives, which showed they had never intended to go any further than Lagos.

She would have to find an information desk. But apart from a big signboard welcoming the traveller to Lagos in many different languages, there was nothing to direct her.

Maybe the Departures level would be better. She took an escalator up one floor and joined a long line of people checking-in to Turkish Airlines. They all had their luggage piled around them. Abril hoped her luggage was safe somewhere.

Despite the number of staff checking in passengers, the amount of people and luggage made it a long and slow line.

When she got to the front and showed him her ticket, the man was puzzled. He glanced at his watch.

“But this flight is a direct flight from Chicago to Istanbul,” he said. “Why are you here?”

“Uh, because I was told to disembark,” she said.

“But you should be in security area,” said the man. He glanced at his watch again. “Lounge provided.”

Abril was getting increasingly nervous. There had been a lounge right by where she had disembarked. What had thrown her off was the way the young men had just headed off into the terminal. But, come to think of it, they had never said they were from Istanbul or Amman. Just because they looked Middle Eastern didn't mean they lived in the Middle East.

“Your flight changed planes here in Lagos,” explained the man. She didn't like the way he glanced at his watch yet again, or that he used the past tense.

“I should get back then,” she said.

He nodded.

“You might make it.”

Might.

She turned around and was in such a hurry that she bumped into a man who had moved forward when he saw she was finished.

“Sorry,” she said, now almost falling over his large duffle bag. “Sorry,” she said to his wife, when she had navigated the duffle bag only to have an encounter with a hard suitcase.

She limped off, her toe still recovering, heading for the escalators again. Back downstairs. But it wasn't so easy now. She had left the secure area and needed to join a line to pass through security again.

There seemed to be a lot of people setting off the metal detectors today, thus needing a follow-up search by the security guards. The x-ray machine went a little faster, but not enough to make Abril think that she had made up for lost time.

Then she was running. Past all the other lounges filled with people who had been smart enough to stay put, until she came to what looked like the one she had so recently passed through. And once again, it was empty.

A lone Turkish Airlines employee was standing at a little kiosk, powering down a small laptop.

Puffing slightly, Abril pulled her airline ticket out of her purse and handed it to the lady.

The lady looked at it and then smiled pleasantly. “I am sorry, miss. The plane has just pulled away from the boarding gate.”

Abril groaned.

“It is best to wait in the lounge area when disembarking,” said the lady. A diplomatic rebuke, but it had come too late. Why hadn't anyone told her this before she had wandered off?

“Can I reschedule?” Abril asked.

“Of course,” said the woman, smiling again. “You must book another flight.” With that, she left with her laptop.

Abril sighed and looked around. It was almost too much. Simon was not going to appreciate this glitch. Since Abril was clearly at fault, the airline wasn't exactly going to give her a free ticket to Amman.

She ran a weary hand through her hair. Maybe she could just claim sleep-deprivation.

As she was walking away - back up to Departures - a thought occurred to her. Her suitcase! It would be in Amman while she was still stuck in Lagos. And she had worked so hard to pack all the right things.

The long line to check-in was still there.

But this time, she was in no hurry. It occurred to her that now that she had missed the flight, it really didn't matter when she got into the line again. Simon hadn't called her yet with an appointment in Amman, so what was an hour or two when it came to getting back on track? In fact, in the short walk upstairs, she had decided that this flight from Lagos to Amman would go on her own credit card. She didn't want to have to explain to Carlie how she had managed to botch a direct flight from Chicago to Istanbul. Had it happened in Istanbul with the stopover, everyone would have been more forgiving.

The thought of everyone's disapproval had the effect of creating a momentary rebellion.

She was in Africa! Maybe she should take some time to check out Lagos. After all, this might be her only chance to see a bit of Africa. Why not do it right now?

Though her purse had Jordanian dinars in it, she had nothing for Nigeria. She stopped at a kiosk and exchanged all of her American dollars for, as it turned out, something called the naira. The man helpfully explained that each naira was divided into 100 kobo. With that crash course in currency, she headed for the main doors.

Outside was sunny and hot. Not unlike Los Angeles. At least her sunglasses were in her purse and not her suitcase. She slipped them on and looked around. Like the outside of any airport, this one had taxis, taxis and more taxis. The one in front of her was obviously eager to take her wherever she wanted to go, but she turned away, hoping to get some idea of where would be an appropriate place to start. A quick jaunt around the city, perhaps.

Of course, an airport was not a city centre.

She walked the length of the Arrivals level until she came to the end. There were no taxis here. Just one lone shuttle bus with some faded writing on it that looked like “ - - gos Airport Hotel.” There were no passengers, no driver.

A tired-looking young Nigerian man came out of some sliding doors.

“Lagos Airport Hotel?” he asked.

“Uh no,” she said. “I was just trying to figure out what to do.”

“You need a hotel?” he asked, slightly puzzled. She could understand why. A lone female at the end of a long platform, no luggage.

“No, I just thought I could see a bit of the city.”

He smiled now that he understood.

“I could take you,” he said.

“I don't need a hotel,” she said, glancing at the shuttle bus.

“No, this is not my bus,” he said. “I have a taxi.” He pointed to an exceptionally dilapidated vehicle beyond the bus. Abril had thought it was an abandoned car.

Perhaps he sensed her reluctance at travelling in such a vehicle.

“I am Sami,” he said, smiling. And Abril had to admit, when he smiled he inspired confidence. But it was more than confidence that he projected, it was warmth.

So she followed him and climbed into the back seat of his taxi.

It took two tries for the engine to turn over, but the car started and when they were off, it wasn't the car, as much as it was the potholes in the road that made the ride uncomfortable.

But she was soon looking around, taking it all in.

Many of the buildings were modern, with a European flair. Most were a clean-looking white, with some colourful trim on the windows. Others were older-looking stone structures that seemed to suggest a time of European colonization. But in between the buildings were dilapidated plots of land, some of them with shacks made of corrugated iron. Children were running around between the shacks, the only thing lightening the sense of poverty being the abundance of green uncut grass.

“A church!” said Abril, twisting around to look. It was a creamy yellow building, an unusually-built structure due to its sharply slanting roof. On the high end was a muted red steeple with a large cross.

“You are Christian?” said Sami, smiling at her in the rear-view mirror.

She nodded.

“Me too,” he said. “I came here because there are more Christians here. Not so many in the north.”

“Oh,” said Abril, digesting this. She had never thought much about it, Christianity in Africa. But then she noticed the Rosary on the rearview mirror. It was something she hadn’t taken in at first because Rosaries on rearview mirrors were so common among the Latinos of California. She and her family were some of the few Evangelical Latinos.

As they got closer to the city centre, the traffic became more congested. By the time they were in the heart of Lagos, it was at a standstill. All around them were other taxis, bright orange buses decked out in African colours, open trucks carrying produce. Mopeds and bicycles wove between them all.

Although there was a lot of honking, Abril didn't see how anyone was supposed to get out of this mess of traffic. There were even more people than cars. Pedestrians just walked among the vehicles, carrying their baskets of produce, children following along behind their mothers. One man passed by with a live chicken under each arm. Some of the people were actively selling to the people in cars. One man had a small cart stocked with soda pop. He was the only one who was doing any business. The others were shooed away by the drivers.

From where they were, Abril could see that like any major city, Lagos had its skyscrapers. What made it different was that any empty lot seemed to have been turned into a place of temporary housing. Structures were constructed of anything ranging from cardboard to tarpaulin to more corrugated iron. Some of the nicer ones were constructed of wood and Abril wondered if they passed for legitimate housing.

In the meantime, Sami was having trouble with the engine. It seemed that idling wasn't good for this particular engine. As the traffic inched forward, Sami was trying to start the engine again, but this time it was refusing to turn over.

From the back seat, Abril was concerned. Here she was, in the middle of a strange city, in a strange car with a strange man. OK, the man wasn't strange. In fact, he seemed the nicest part of the whole situation. But it was distressing as the cars behind them honked. The honking had been incessant, but now it felt directed toward them.

Despite his best efforts, Sami wasn't getting anywhere with the ignition. He stepped out of the car, but then stuck his head back in the window.

“Do not worry,” he said, smiling. “It will be OK.”

It wasn't optimism. It was just reassurance. Sami lifted up the hood and was cut off from Abril's sight. All around them, traffic was moving extremely slowly, but it was moving. Abril was glad she didn't have a flight she had to catch. The entire situation would have been unbearable.

Sami put the hood down and returned to the driver's seat. But whatever he had done under the hood hadn't helped and the engine still refused to ignite.

Sami turned around to look at Abril, his large brown eyes showing concern, not just for the car but for her as well.

“I will go and make a phone call. You will stay here?”

Abril looked around her, taking it all in, and instantly made a decision.

“Would it be OK if I came with you?”

“Of course,” he said, getting out quickly to open her door for her.

She stepped out onto the street.

“I mean, no one will take the car, or anything, will they?”

Sami laughed and looked at his car.

“This thing? I do not think so.”

They shared a smile. They joined the throngs weaving through the traffic and made it to an equally as crowded sidewalk. There were apartment buildings with shops at street level, wares spilling out onto the sidewalk. Just like the shanty homes, there were also shanty enterprises – stalls selling produce or flip-flops or shampoo or bags of rice or bales of colourful fabric. Other merchants had just set up their goods on crates on the sidewalk.

Though her eyes wanted to take it all in, she stayed as close to Sami as possible in the crowds. Sami turned in to a small sidewalk café where patrons were seated at plastic chairs and tables sipping juice or tea or coffee. In the back of the restaurant was a battered phone. Pulling a piece of paper out of his pocket, Sami dialled a number.

He let it ring . . . and ring and ring.

“No answer,” he reported, hanging up the phone receiver.

“What are you going to do?” asked Abril, concerned as much for him as she was for herself.

Sami was thinking.

“I do not know,” he finally said.

Abril looked around. The café looked dingy, but not dangerous.

“Let's have a drink,” she suggested. “Then you can try back later.”

Sami hesitated. Abril realized that money was probably an issue.

“I have some money,” she said quickly. “I don't mind paying. I mean, I was going to look around Lagos, anyhow and I'd appreciate the company.”

Sami still didn't look convinced.

“Really,” she said, trying to persuade him that there was no reason to be uncomfortable. Her mind was racing, trying to think of a way to make this work. “Hey!” she said. “We're both, Christian, right?” As he nodded, she kept speaking. “So this is what Christians do for each other.” She looked up at him and hoped that it would work.

To emphasize her point, she plunked herself down in one of the chairs. He sighed and took the chair opposite her, but then he was smiling and the awkwardness had passed. He was a man, she was a woman. This was his country, she was a foreigner. He was the taxi-cab driver, she was the customer. But when you were both Christian, it all didn't really matter. When the waitress came, he ordered them both a coffee.

“So,” she said after the waitress left, “you're from the north?”

Sami nodded.

“I came here to work.”

“How long have you been in, er . . .” Abril temporarily couldn't remember where she was. “Lagos?”

“I came here a week ago and this was my first day driving.”

Abril's eyes widened.

He nodded ruefully.

“Not a good first day, huh?” she said.

“No,” he said. “I am new. I am not from here, so they gave me the worst car to drive. Then I was sent to the airport, but the other drivers told me to get out because there are already too many taxis at the airport.”

Understanding it all now, Abril nodded sympathetically. She had been Sami's one and only customer!

The coffee came in a tall glass. It had dark coffee on the bottom and frothy milk on the top. Sami was watching her for a reaction.

“Very good,” she said, nodding as she tried it. It was. The coffee was strong and robust. It occurred to Abril that Africa was probably one of those places that produced coffee. Satisfied that it had her approval, Sami then took his first sip.

She wanted to ask him more about his life, but he seemed to be a quiet man with a lot on his mind. That was understandable. Maybe after today he wouldn't have a job.

The situation hadn't changed after the coffee. Sami tried the phone number in his pocket again. No one answered at the other end.

Abril felt like she should offer some sage advice, except that she couldn't think of any. Sami seemed equally as lost.

And then it occurred to her. Maybe this was her Divine Encounter! Maybe this was all for a reason!

Except that as soon as she had the thought, she didn't know what to do with it. Sami didn't need to be won to Christ. For Simon's mother, a Divine Encounter had given her some free accounting advice. So maybe it was a case of Sami being sent to help Abril.

But at that moment, they both seemed to be equally in need.

 


Chapter Three

I

t is no good,” said Sami. “I am just going to have to return home.”

“To the north?” said Abril. They had sat down at their table again, despite that their glasses had been taken away and the table cleaned. The waitress returned, clearly sending them the message that if they were to stay, there would have to be another order.

“Uh,” said Abril, looking around for a menu or some indication of what food was available. She could honestly say that she had felt a hunger pain. “Maybe a sandwich . . .”

The waitress stared at her.

Sami smiled.

“Maybe you could try the beef stew,” he suggested.

“OK, then,” said Abril. “Beef stew for two.”

Sami smiled and nodded his thanks.

“Now,” said Abril, leaning forward on the table. “Please tell me more.” It wasn't something she would have said in Los Angeles to someone to get the conversation going, but it seemed to work in Lagos.

Sami started slowly, but as he began speaking, it came out, all of it – the drought that had slowly eaten away into their surplus food, a hungry mother and sister who couldn't get food just because they were the wrong faith, the long and uncertain road to the south in the hope of getting some work and being able to send money back to his family. Or better yet, to bring them down here with him. The hope that he had felt when he had been given a job. How the hope had evaporated at the sight of the car he was supposed to drive. It was clear that the owner was just getting the last little bit out of this vehicle before selling it for parts and scrap metal. If Sami managed to attract a customer, most of the fare would go back to the owner and what was left over would hardly be enough for Sami to live on.

Abril shook her head. She had always thought that her family had it hard in Los Angeles, sharing a small apartment in East L.A. But not once had she or her mother faced starvation, even after losing a father. In fact, her mother had gained weight after her father's death.

She was almost ashamed when it came her turn to tell her story. The stew arrived, temporarily postponing it, but Sami was persistent, and over the bowl of beef, pepper, tomatoes and some serious spices, she told him about Food for Him and the need to get a “Product of the Holy Land” stamp on the line.

From the expression on Sami's face, she could tell he had never heard anything like it, especially when she got nervous and started babbling all about Simon's mother.

Food is not my master.

I am not truly hungry.

I am hungry for God, not for food.

I do not worship food.

I do not obey food.

Abril realized that all these little adages that Simon's mother liked to bless her North American audience with didn't work in Nigeria.

Sami just shook his head as if this brand of Christian understanding was completely beyond him.

“So you really do not want to be in Lagos?” he said, grasping that much.

Abril looked down at her food. She was two-thirds of the way done and starting to have that satisfied feeling that indicated it was time to stop. Simon's mother always said that it didn't help anyone in Africa if you didn't finish your plate. It was funny how it had made sense at the time, but here, now actually in Africa, the whole thing had to be re-evaluated.

“I'm glad I'm here now,” she said honestly, returning her eyes to Sami's face. “And I'm feeling kind of full. Do you want the rest?”

Sami nodded.

She pushed the bowl across the table and watched him finish it. He ate with the appetite of a hungry man who had little regard for things like germs.

Yes, she thought. Things will definitely have to be re-evaluated.

 

At the same time, Sami was re-evaluating his life.

Lagos was the worst decision he had ever made. The city was over-crowded already. It was made for people who could hustle, who could make it work for them, who could take the chaos and confusion and turn it into a pocket full of naira. Sami was not such a person.

And for those who couldn't handle it, the city just swept them away like the dust on the sidewalk.

At least the car wasn't his. Only a mild pang of conscience prevented him from completely abandoning the vehicle. But now he had Abril to think of.

She was a customer, yes. But there was something more. She was . . . a friend, a fellow Christian. He would have liked to have been in a position to show her around Nigeria. His Nigeria. But here he was, as much of a stranger as she was in this city. And he had no money. He had come to Lagos with only the few naira his mother had tucked away in a coffee tin. But that was all gone now.

He looked across the table at Abril. She had a kind face. An honest face. In its own way, it was even a beautiful face. And she looked healthy and well-fed and attractive for being filled out in all the right places. It was puzzling that American Christians seemed to think that God wanted them to be thin. Let them all come to northern Nigeria. They would get thin pretty quickly.

He helped Abril sort out how much naira to pay for their stew.

The question was, what to do now?

“I should return to the car,” he said, hesitantly. It was the only thing he could think of.

Abril nodded.

“I'll come with you,” she said.

That was good news, but he had to be honest with her.

“I may not be able to get the car started,” he said.

“That's OK,” she said, standing up and slinging her purse across her chest. “I don't have to be anywhere in particular.”

She had told the Customs official that she would only be in Lagos for a few hours. But she doubted they would track her down. The official had barely glanced at her passport.

They headed back out into the crowded street.

But where would she stay for the night? If this day with Sami went on for long enough, it would be something she'd have to consider. She didn't want to run up huge credit card bills and she could hardly expect Simon to pay for her own mistake.

The traffic looked just as congested as when they had left it. Their car continued to sit in the middle of it all.

This time, Abril took the passenger seat while Sami got into the driver's seat to try to start the vehicle again. But nothing had changed.

“It's a small car,” she said. “We could easily push it.”

He nodded, gratified that she was sharing the situation rather than treating him like just a taxi driver.

“But of course . . .” Abril looked all around. The problem was obvious. How do you push a car in such a gridlock?

Sami sighed.

“I will just tell the owner where it is.”

“You probably won't have a job after this though, huh?”

Sami nodded.

“It is OK,” he said. “I think I should have never come here.”

They sat in the car, both quiet, both thinking.

Sami was imagining somehow getting Abril back to the airport and then heading north, hitching a ride out of the city with any one of the trucks heading in that direction.

Abril was thinking about her last conversation with Simon and his mother's idea of “give us this day, our daily bread.” Simon had mentioned the idea that it really only made sense when the cupboards were empty.

Well, she didn't need Sami to lay it out too obviously. The cupboards in his life were empty. For that matter, they weren't exactly full in hers either. She only had about $60 worth of naira in her purse and she had already spent some of that for their meal. Putting a hotel on the credit card wasn't God's provision, it was just debt.

An exciting and scary thought was starting to form in her mind.

Maybe this was it! A chance to practise real faith! Faith when it really counted.

“Uh, Sami,” she said, turning to him.

“Yes?”

“Umm, have you ever thought of God in terms of how he provides for us?”

It was a startling question.

Sami wasn't sure if he had heard her correctly.

“But it seems like he hasn't, right?” she continued.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, you're here trying to make money to feed your mother and sister and you've already been through so much.” She didn't have to elaborate. “I've been coming at it from a completely different angle,” she said. “I've always had enough. Too much, really. I've always been faced with a full plate and had to tell myself to stop eating at some point.”

Sami shook his head at this unfamiliar worldview.

“But here we are,” she said. “We're both in need of faith. We both really need the basics right now. Like food. And I need shelter.”

Sami didn't say anything, but he needed shelter too. His home since arriving in Lagos had been a box that once contained a refrigerator and his morning wash-up had been out of a bucket.

“I think maybe we should trust God to take care of us.” She spoke hesitantly. The words sounded flat coming out. Would Sami be able to read her heart and know that what she wanted to do was step out and really live faith, not just hear Simon's mother talk about it?

“I think I know what you mean,” he said slowly. It hadn't been an easy week. That day he had walked home without a bag of flour for his family, he had had time to think. Why was he even a Christian? Because his mother was. Why believe in a God who didn't feed you? But something had responded to that with the idea that maybe God didn't feed him because Sami didn't really believe in him.

His mother believed.

Somehow, despite the famine, she had managed to put a little food on the table each night. An underfed chicken would provide them with a few eggs. A neighbour would stop by with a handful of nuts to share. A passing U.N. truck would stop with an over-heated engine and end up sharing some of the things in the back of the truck. These small incidents had kept them from starving. But for Sami, it hadn't been enough. He had wanted to do something to provide a steady source of food for his family. And so, he had come to Lagos - and proven that he could do absolutely nothing.

“Yes!” he said suddenly. “Yes. I will do it.”

Neither of them really knew what they were agreeing to, but Abril held out her hand and without hesitation, Sami grasped it firmly. The driver/customer relationship was past. They were now partners, fellow Christians in an experiment that both knew needed to succeed. Desperately needed to succeed.

We won't starve, Abril thought. Will we?

 

They ended up walking to the taxi dispatch centre, a fenced-in yard with cars and a small trailer office. An indifferent woman manning the phone in the office told Sami that the boss who had hired him that morning had already left for the day.

“I must know what to do with the car,” he said.

“I will call him,” said the woman, half-heartedly reaching for a phone book. The phone call did not go well. Abril and Sami exchanged glances as they could hear the man yelling on the other end. The woman was holding the receiver away from her ear and giving Sami a baleful look for bringing this upon her.

“He says you owe him 7000 naira.”

Sami just stared at her.

“Where am I going to get that kind of money?” he asked.

Abril opened her purse. She had exchanged $60 at the airport and been given 9000 naira. Even after paying for the lunch, she had about 8500 left.

“Here,” she said, pulling the money out of her wallet and handing it to the lady. Her eyebrows went up but she took the money and started speaking quickly into the phone in a language Abril didn't understand.

Sami looked as if he was going to say something, but then he changed his mind.

“He will be right over,” said the lady, hanging up.

Sami and Abril sat down in some vinyl chairs up against the wall. For the next fifteen minutes, they watched the young woman pick up the ringing phone. When Sami's boss arrived, he was given the money.

He counted it carefully, occasionally glancing at Sami and Abril with curiosity. But he didn't say anything. He just shrugged and then left.

“Why did you do that?” Sami asked when he and Abril were once again outside and past the gates of the taxi service.

“Honour,” she said. “God wants us to be ambassadors for him. He has an abundance and he wants us to give out of our abundance.” It was something Simon's mother said. But now it had better work.

“But where does that leave us?” he said. “You just gave away more than a month's wages!”

“Well, on the plus side,” she said. “We now own a car.”

He hadn't thought about that.

“Yes, I guess we do,” he said.

“Weren’t we supposed to sign some papers or get a title to it?” Abril asked.

“I think the papers are in the glove compartment,” said Sami, who had looked the car over when he had first taken possession of it.

“Well, how 'bout we go back and see what we can do with it?”

It was late in the day and the traffic was flowing a little bit better. They had to be more careful about navigating through the moving cars to get back to theirs, sitting forlorn in the middle of it all.

The engine still wouldn't start.

“We'll push it,” Abril decided. This might be Sami's country but she wasn't going to walk away from her only investment in it.

So they pushed.

It was easy enough to keep pace with the traffic and soon they had come to a point where they could contemplate negotiating a turn to get off the street.

“I'll steer,” said Abril. Sami nodded as they paused in their pushing. They were both sweating but it was an adventure. Being a car owner had cheered up Sami somewhat.

Abril took the driver's seat, wondering if a California driver's license counted in Lagos, and with a lot of shouted communication between her and Sami, they managed a lane change and then finally, a right turn in to a service station.

“Now what?” said Abril. She was pretty sure she did not have enough naira for a repair job. They had rolled the car over to where you could fill your tires with air. Abril slid over to the passenger seat to let Sami take the driver seat again.

Sami was staring thoughtfully at his dashboard. The fuel gauge said Full. But it had said Full all day.

“Perhaps it just needs more petrol,” he said.

Abril glanced at the fuel gauge.

“You think it might be stuck?”

He nodded.

“It's worth a try,” she said, as she took her spot in the driver's seat again, so that she could steer while Sami pushed them to the fuel pumps.

The tank had been empty.

That much was evident the longer Sami stood there holding the pump. Abril stepped out to crouch down and look under the car.

Smart girl, he thought. Checking to make sure there wasn't a leak.

Abril paid. She was down to just over 1000 naira, but it was astounding how far money could go in this country. You couldn't get a car, a tank of gas, and a meal in L.A. for $60. You'd be lucky just to get the meal.

“Where to now?” he asked.

This was the moment of decision. Should she ask him to drive her back to the airport? She could leave him with a car, a full tank of gas and the remaining naira in her purse. A Divine Encounter, to be sure. He could start his own taxi service or go home to the north. Either way, it would be a good deed to be proud of.

But it wasn't that easy.

When they had clasped hands, something had stirred inside of her. Back in L.A., she was always the plump, but capable, co-owner of Food for Him. There had always had an easy rapport between her and Simon, even if at times, she seemed more like his assistant than his partner. But Carlie had slowly been taking over her position. And Abril knew exactly why.

It was Simon's mother. Carlie was just way more attractive on video. Simon's mother had never even considered the possibility of having Abril appear in any of her DVDs, but as soon as Carlie had been hired on at Food for Him, she had started appearing as a regular in the productions that were intended to encourage people in their walk with Jesus.

Simon had accepted the whole situation with his usual deference to his mother.

But Sami was completely different. When he had taken her hand, he had held it for a moment, as if he wanted to hold it longer. Did she really want to just move on to Jordan, a meeting with the Minister of Agriculture and a return home to life in Los Angeles? A safe life, certainly, but it would be missing something . . .

“No,” she said, out loud, even though that didn't answer his question. “I'm going with you.”

Sami couldn't believe what she had just said. It was with sadness that he had asked her where to go next. Of course she couldn't stay. It was crazy to even let the thought enter his mind. She had a life somewhere else. A life where you never had to worry about food. No that wasn't quite true. It was a life that was so full of food that you had to worry about eating too much. The hunger pains in his stomach testified that he had never had such a worry.

“Do you like Lagos?” he asked. He would go wherever she wanted to. Even if it meant staying in this crowded, overworked city. His mind was already moving forward. Of course, he couldn't show her that he had been living in a box in a lot shared with about twenty other families. But she surprised him.

“Let's go north,” she said.

The thought of returning north with her was, maybe, even more unsettling. Lagos, at least, was tolerant of Christians.

But with all his heart, he wanted to show her his home. If she could accept his village, then she could accept him. But he had to be honest with her.

“It is not safe,” he said. “I could not keep you safe.”

It was an unexpected reply. What was so dangerous about the north? Hey! She was from L.A. East Los Angeles, in fact. If you could make it there, you could make it anywhere.

But his eyes were serious. It warmed her heart that he cared enough to be concerned.

“I don't expect you to be God,” she said, smiling. “If you're going north, that's where I'll go.”

He had to admit, he didn't have too many other options. With his own car now, he might even be able to start a taxi service back home. Certainly, Lagos wasn't calling to him.

“OK,” he said, turning the key in the ignition. This time, there was no hesitation. The car's engine started. “We will go north.” That solved the problem of finding a place to sleep. There would be no return to the lot. There would be no shame in sleeping in the car.

Soon they were on the outskirts of Lagos, on a highway that took them past the airport.

Sami glanced at Abril, wondering if she would have second thoughts and suddenly announce that she wanted to be dropped off there. But she didn't and they kept going.

For her part, Abril was taking it all in, seeing it through the eyes of a person who would be staying awhile. The palm trees made her think of L.A., as did some of the more colourful buildings. Many properties were fenced in, some even with barbed wire on top. Others had solid-looking concrete walls with metal gates.

But even in front of the wealthier homes, garbage was just dumped against the walls.

Hydro wires ran in all different directions, some of them just dangling down at street level.

Once they got away from the city centre, most of the single-story structures had corrugated iron roofs and were in varying stages of decay. Some of the businesses were nothing more than a tarp stretched out on poles. Chickens and children ran in between houses.

But some of the two and three-storey apartments weren't that much different from the poorer sections of Los Angeles. And though many cars on the road were like the one she and Sami shared, some were also exactly what you'd see on any freeway in California.

But what surprised Abril was how even in the midst of the most glaring poverty, people made an effort to dress nicely. She had noticed it with Sami. He had on a short-sleeved dress shirt, slacks and polished brown shoes.

Now they were on a highway. The buildings were thinning out.

They passed a Christian billboard advertising a church that prayed 24-hours a day. Sami hoped they were praying for peace in the north right now. More than anything, he wanted Abril to enjoy her stay in Nigeria.

The paved road turned into a dirt road. It was still the highway north, but now it had a village feeling. An added feature was that soldiers were out, stopping cars. Sami and Abril's car was not one of the recipients of a spot check. The road narrowed as they passed through a village.

Remembering the reason that had brought Sami to Lagos in the first place, Abril said hesitantly, “Would it be OK to stop here? I'd like to bring a gift to your mother and sister.”

“That is very generous of you,” said Sami. She was a thoughtful girl, though he expected that she would pick out something that his mother and sister really did not need – a scarf or some scent or some baskets. When he had parked by the edge of the marketplace, she surprised him by going straight to a woman selling large baskets of produce and sacks of rice and beans.

“What would be best?” she asked, turning to Sami.

The woman found Sami and Abril very interesting. It wasn't often that a woman like Abril passed through the small village.

“Beans and rice,” Abril decided, while Sami was still standing agape. She was pulling her remaining naira out of her purse and showing them to the woman. In the end, they walked away with some small pink apples, some mangos, a guava, as well as two huge sacks of rice and beans.

“We can eat the fruit on the drive,” she said.

He nodded.

The rice and beans were wedged into the back seat and they continued on the road. The fruit was devoured right away. Abril didn't even bother to consider whether she was crossing the line of a satisfied feeling. She was hungry and she wanted the hunger to go away. That was all. But the fruit was also fresh and delicious.

But from this point on, she was truly living on faith for her next meal. She had some Jordanian dinar in her wallet, but she doubted the average merchant would accept them. Even her credit card wouldn't help her in this wild land. Nobody in the market seemed to be in a position to accept credit cards.

The road turned again into a paved one and they continued to pass through busy villages. The roads were lined with small businesses that resembled nothing more than glorified lemonade stands, but were selling piles of flat bread, small cups of coffee, bottles of murky liquid.

White stucco buildings with red roofs reminded her of California, but everything was in a state of deterioration and there was little to make one think that prosperity was within reach. Some of the buildings were as clean and well-kept as L.A., but they were behind fences and well-guarded.

At some points, it was all forest. Sami pointed out how they were forestry reserves or national parks. He admitted that he did not know too much about the south. But it didn't matter to Abril. Mostly they talked about faith.

He admitted that his Christian faith was something he had just been born with and hadn't questioned.

“But when I came home empty, no flour, I think it was a real crisis for, not only me, but for my sister too,” he said. “We had always lived on mother's faith and now, here we were, with nothing to eat. My mother was just sitting there serene, saying God would provide. And my sister screamed at her and said, 'But I am hungry!'”

Abril's eyes widened.

“No one had ever talked to my mother that way. We never raised our voices with her.”

Abril, who had the same relationship with her mother, nodded.

“My mother said to my sister that the righteous do not beg for bread and that God would provide,” Sami continued. “Of course, it is in the Bible and we could not argue with her. But my sister said she would believe it when it happened.”

“Did it?” asked Abril.

“I do not know,” said Sami. “I left for Lagos the next day.”

“That must have been hard for your mother.”

“I think it was,” Sami agreed. “But she hugged me and gave me all the naira she had put away. I did not want to take it, but I hoped I would be able to send it all back and more once I made it to Lagos.” Sami shook his head. “All I did was spend it and return home with nothing.”

Abril was tactfully quiet. She did not point out that he had a car and two sacks of food, far more food than he would have gotten that day he went to the warehouse.

For his own part, Sami was thinking that he wasn't exactly going home with nothing. There was this woman beside him. A woman who he knew he would have a hard time saying goodbye to.

“Sometimes my mother is not easy to talk to. She has too much faith, if you know what I mean.”

“I do,” said Abril, thinking of her own mother.

“But still,” said Sami. “I am glad I am going home.”


 

 


Chapter Four

E

ven from a distance, Sami knew something was wrong.

It was the smoke.

He stepped on the gas, momentarily forgetting Abril beside him, his mind so focused on the horizon.

The north was a violent place. He knew that. He had heard stories of Christian families waking up to find their churches in the process of being burnt. If they were lucky, they weren't killed themselves. Sami knew of a man who had been murdered trying to protect his family.

Was it possible the violence had come to his small, quiet village?

At first, Abril didn't realize anything was out of the ordinary. Last night, they had spent an uncomfortable six hours by the side of the road sleeping in the car. It had seemed a sensible decision considering the poorly-lit road and the fact that both headlights on the car were not working. But as soon as the sun had risen, Sami was off again.

No breakfast, of course, but Abril figured they could leave that in God's hands. Maybe there would be a coffee for them at Sami's.

Sami's acceleration suggested that they were getting close. It had been a miracle that they had not run out of gas. The fuel gauge continued to read, “Full.”

Now there was smoke on the horizon. Maybe there was a factory coming up.

She turned to ask Sami how much further, but changed her mind when she saw the look on his face. Concern. More than concern. Fear.

She looked back at the horizon.

Smoke.

Maybe it wasn't a sign of industry, but of something worse.

“Sami?” she asked. “Is that your village up ahead?”

He nodded, hardly able to speak.

His mother. His sister. Totally defenceless because he had to go to Lagos on a fool's mission. Plateau State had had outbreaks in the past where a Christian village would be destroyed by passing Muslim herdsmen – homes burnt, people fleeing for their lives. But his village had been peaceful, probably because it was so tiny. In fact, most of their contact was with the Muslims in a larger neighbouring village. He could not imagine that the people there had anything to do with the smoke he saw on the horizon.

Now Abril was worried.

Nigeria. Why had she never paid attention to Nigeria before? She didn't know anything about it. To be quite honest, she couldn't even picture it on a map of Africa, and yet, here she was, driving along one of its dusty roads.

They were bumping over potholes. If there were any loose parts left on the car, they lost them in the jolts. As it was, the car seemed to have already been stripped of all non-essential parts.

The closer they got to their destination, Abril could see that to the west, in the distance, was a large village. But right in front of them was a small village. And that was where the smoke was coming from.

There was too much debris and grey haze to continue on the road into the village itself. Sami braked abruptly at the outer perimeters, had his door open and was jumping out before Abril could even remove her seat belt.

Running through the smoke, Sami almost choked as he took in the devastation. Homes were in various stages of destruction – some were burnt right to the ground, others were still smouldering. Contents of the homes were strewn along the paths. Both victims and culprits seemed to be gone, although, there was one person sitting, in tears, surveying the ruin.

Sami recognized Emmanuel, the village's oldest inhabitant. He was just sitting on the road staring at what was left of his house. When Sami went over to crouch down and talk with him, he just shook his head and muttered.

It took Sami a minute to realize that he was reciting a Psalm from the Bible.

Looking around, Sami realized there was also Joy and her two young children. Like Sami, Joy's husband had gone to Lagos to make a living. Unlike him, he had gotten a job with a Christian construction company and was now sending back a steady income to his family. Joy was gathering up some cloth that was on the path in front of her home.

“What happened?” he asked, hurrying over.

Like Emmanuel, she seemed to be in shock and just shook her head. Her small daughter was clutching a doll and sitting on the dirt, rocking it back and forth. Her other child, a boy, was trying to help his mother.

“They came so quickly,” was all Joy seemed to be able to say. It was the only answer Sami got from her.

His hut was five down from Joy's but even from here, he could see that it was one of the ones that had been completely burned to the ground.

“My mother?” he said to Joy.

She shrugged. Not indifference, but to indicate she did not know.

“They came so quickly,” she repeated.

So there was a chance his mother was still inside. She was older. She would not have been able to move as fast as Joy and her small children.

With dread, Sami walked slowly to his home. There was no sign of any of their neighbours. Where had they all fled to? How far did one have to run to escape such violence? The nearest Christian village was forty kilometres away.

Despite the complete devastation, it was impossible to start moving rubble around. Everything was scorching to his touch.

“Mother?” he called out hesitantly. “Naomi?” But there was no sign of either his sister or mother, only of their possessions. He recognized a piece of fabric in the debris – a dress of his sister's. He hoped desperately that his sister hadn't been wearing it today.

Some things had survived the fire. There was the large black pot that was used for rice, the smaller one that was used for coffee. A clay mug lay on its side. It had been Sami's favourite. He picked it up since it had had time to cool as it lay on the path. Other pieces of pottery had been smashed on the ground. Had the culprits done this before or after the fire? Had his mother and sister had time to flee before facing the men who had done this?

He returned to Joy. She was in the process of retrieving everything that had not burned. He had to know the truth.

“Joy,” he said, hesitantly. “Did the people who did this . . . did they . . . hurt you first?”

She understood his meaning.

“No, Sami,” she said.

Well, that was a mercy, at least.

“Who did this?” he asked. Now that she was talking, maybe he could get some information and find out where everyone had gone.

Joy paused in her work. She stood, staring on the horizon. At least, that's what Sami thought at first. Then he realized she was looking in the direction of their nearest village.

“But why would they do this?” he said, bewildered. “They have been our neighbours for so long and nothing like this has ever happened.”

Joy shook her head.

“It was because of Naomi,” she whispered.

Naomi. His sister.

“What do you mean?” he asked, bewildered.

“She became engaged to a Muslim man from there. Audu.”

Sami almost couldn't believe it.

Audu? The man who delivers firewood?”

Joy nodded.

How could this be? He had been gone a week and his sister had become engaged to Audu? Audu was a pleasant young man who came around to their village every week or so with firewood or cans of petrol or kerosene, important items in a village without electricity. But as far as Sami knew, Naomi had no special relationship with the man beyond purchasing kerosene for their lamps.

“I do not know the whole story,” Joy continued. “I just know it broke your mother's heart. Naomi packed her bags and went with him one day.”

For food. That could be the only explanation.

“Then yesterday, she came home. I do not know what happened. Then the men came today and burned our village and took Naomi away.”

Sami's eyes widened with the horror of understanding. It was obvious that his strong-willed sister had had a change of heart, but somebody in the large village had decided that it was an insult to their honour.

He had known his sister was on the edge of despair to the point of questioning their mother's God's ability to provide for the family. He should have seen this coming, and yet he had gone to Lagos instead.

“And my mother?” he asked.

“I do not know,” said Joy, glancing in the direction of Sami's former home. “I never saw her. They came so quickly,” she repeated.

So there was a good possibility that his mother had still been in the house when it went up in flames. Sami could only barely remain standing with the grief that that thought created in him.

“What will you do?” he asked, turning back to Joy.

“I will go to Lagos,” she said.

She had used the cloth to bundle some of the possessions she had salvaged.

“How will you get there?” he asked.

She shrugged. Obviously she was taking things one step at a time.

Abril had been watching and standing close enough to hear everything, although she could hardly believe what she was hearing.

She moved forward toward Sami. He had completely forgotten about her, but now, here she was, a lovely reassurance that even in this darkness, there was a friend.

“Uh, we don't really need the car now that we're here, do we?” she said to Sami.

Sami stared at her.

It was both her generosity and her willingness to stay stranded here in this burnt-out village with him that stunned him.

“No we do not,” he agreed. He turned to Joy. “If you can find some petrol, you can take that car over there . . .” He waved.

Audu was our petrol man,” said Joy grimly.

Sami nodded.

“We will find some,” he said, picking up a stick and poking around in the debris of the house beside Joy's. It took several hours, but they found a couple of cans of petrol, enough to fill up the tank of the small car. Then Joy and her children were on their way, hopefully to a better life in Lagos with their husband and father.

By now, Abril was hungry. Really hungry. This wasn't the kind of hungry she debated over back in Los Angeles. Am I really hungry? Or do I just want some food because I'm bored? This was the real thing, hunger pangs and all.

Understandably, Sami was more concerned with his family than with his stomach. They had given Joy some of the rice and beans, but there was still enough leftover to feed Sami's family, should they ever find them.

Sami was using a stick to try to go through the rubble of his home.

It was completely outside of her comfort zone, but Abril retrieved a pot from the street and although it was gruesome, used the smouldering remains of one of the homes to make a small fire. Water was a problem, until she noticed a well in the centre of the village. It was old but it seemed to be functioning. She had never used a well but she didn't want to bother Sami. Someone had obviously been at the well when the arsonists had arrived because there was a tin can just sitting there, abandoned. She cranked the handle of the well until water spurted out of a faucet. She returned to her fire and put enough in for some rice and beans. The rest, she drank. Then she returned to the well to refill it and bring some for Sami.

He looked at her, dazed, then nodded.

Slowly, he picked up the clay mug that he had returned to the ground. Abril filled it for him. He drank, silent.

So far, there had been no sign of his mother. That was good. But where was she now? On a dirt road somewhere? Collapsed of exhaustion?

Abril was tactfully quiet, returning to the water that was now boiling. She added some rice and beans. There would only be a simple salt seasoning for this meal and yet, she was greatly looking forward to it. She had found the jar of salt when they had been looking for the petrol.

Abril, who had always let her mother do the cooking back in L.A., was hoping that she was getting the ratio of water to rice right. It seemed her mother used two cups of water for every cup of rice. But Abril didn't have a measuring cup. In any case, the meal worked. With no utensils, they had to let it cool down enough so they could eat with their fingers. But when they were done, they both felt more cheerful.

“I cannot find my mother in the house,” said Sami. “I think she may still be alive.”

Abril, who was grateful that there had been something to satisfy the hunger pangs, nodded.

“Let's try to find her,” she said.

“I need to know where she went,” he said, looking around. Except for old Emmanuel, they were the only ones in the village. And Emmanuel was still reciting his Psalms, seemingly unable to do anything else, though Abril had made a point of filling up a battered plate and taking some rice and beans over to him. The meal sat untouched by his side.

Sami was having second thoughts about giving away the car. If they had the car, he could drive the roads, looking for his mother. He didn't want to say it out loud to Abril though, lest she blame herself for them being without a vehicle. But she had her own thoughts on the situation.

“I'd better go to that village there in the morning,” she said, nodding in a western direction.

“What do you mean?” he asked, hardly believing his ears.

“That's probably where your sister is,” said Abril. “I don't know much about how it works around here, but it seems to me that if you go and try to get her back, you'll be killed. I'm just a foreigner. Maybe they'll think I'm with the U.N., or something.”

“I don't know,” Sami said, slowly. “It is not so easy . . .” He didn't want to admit it to Abril, but he had kind of planned to abandon Naomi to her fate. It was a difficult decision but he didn't think he had any options. His mother was his concern now.

“What do you mean?” asked Abril. The sun was going down, but it was still warm. No worry about freezing in Nigeria.

“If she is married, it is a legal contract and there is very little a family can do.”

“But if she's married against her will . . .” said Abril.

Sami shrugged. It was hard to explain Sharia law to someone who had grown up in the West. In the Muslim communities, it was binding. But in any case, it was a remarkably brave offer from this woman who had no reason to put her life in danger for his family.

The sun dropped below the horizon. The time that should have been spent constructing a rough shelter for them was spent in thinking. Then Sami made a decision.

“I will go with you,” he said. “We will go together. Tomorrow.”

 


Chapter Five

A

 half-charred mattress was Abril's bed for the night. Sami just slept on the ground.

Emmanuel hadn't moved all night. In the morning, he was in the same position as the day before. Sami recalled hearing some story when he was young about how Emmanuel's first wife and young family had been killed in a similar incident, a village burning, but somewhere farther north. Then, still many years ago, he had married a woman who was friends with Sami's mother and together they had had a new family in this village. Though most of the children were grown and had children of their own, it seemed the shock of having to experience a loss all over again was too much for the old man.

The food on the plate beside him was gone, either eaten by Emmanuel or licked clean by some animal.

Abril got water from the well, while Sami started a fire.

Again, there was a meal of rice and beans. And now that the houses had cooled down, Sami was able to rummage through the debris and find some coffee grinds and sugar. They were living on the few worldly goods his fellow villagers had been able to maintain during the famine.

Sami didn't want to tell Abril, but he was terrified.

He had always considered the people in the larger village to be his friend, granted, in a guarded kind of way. There was always the sense that the camaraderie depended on the goodwill and benevolence of the stronger group. But, never, in all their history, had anything prepared Sami for what had happened to his village. The fact that it had been brought upon them by his own sister was something he could hardly believe and, yet, he could believe it all too well.

Why hadn't God just heard Naomi's prayer and sent them some food? Something to keep her from turning from her faith in order to have a meal.

But these were thoughts he didn't want to share with Abril.

Besides, she was over sitting beside Emmanuel now. She had brought him over a plate of food and this time the old man had seemed to notice her for the first time. He had nodded his thanks before devouring the plate of food with his fingers. Now he and Abril were having a quiet conversation. Emmanuel was pointing out things with his finger, no doubt drawing her attention to the fields that had once produced food for the village. Abril was nodding, taking it all in. Sami just watched her.

Who was this girl? Why did she seem so willing to sit here in this burnt-out village and share in their suffering? Why would someone from such a prosperous nation like the United States sit here amid all this devastation?

Because she was a Christian.

It also occurred to Sami that God had known she'd end up in Nigeria, bewildered by the airport, and had indeed answered their prayers for food. There were two enormous sacks of rice and beans just sitting there on the ground. And who knew what else God had planned for him and his family after that?

But for now, the immediate concern was to get his family back. He didn't allow his mind to dwell too much on, back to what? The ruins of a house?

Now that he had met Abril, he was feeling a little more optimistic about the future. He didn't dream that he could somehow get his family to the United States, or anything along those lines. He just was beginning to hope that this was all part of a bigger plan.

Abril, still listening to Emmanuel, was at the same time wishing she had a change of clothes. Her suitcase was now somewhere in Amman. Why hadn't some seasoned traveller warned her to bring a spare outfit along in her carry-on bag?

Would the Muslim village accept Jordanian dinars? If so, maybe she could get something simple there.

Emmanuel spoke slowly and quietly, but he had conveyed to her that at one time, this had been a good village to live in. Then two years of drought had destroyed their crops and caused them to eat the seeds for next year's planting. Now it would be necessary to borrow money for more seeds, if the drought ended and if anyone ever returned to this village.

Abril nodded.

The situation sounded hopeless. She felt helpless just listening to the man talk. But he seemed to appreciate her company.

If only Jesus had visited Nigeria, she thought ruefully. Then she could get Simon to fund some irrigation project here and get this place on its feet again, all in the name of Food for Him. She had checked her cell-phone this morning and observed that it had run out of power. So she was temporarily out of contact with Simon and everyone back home. That was putting it lightly. Who knew when she would be able to recharge the thing? Could you even use your cell-phone in rural Nigeria? Sami, she had noticed, had had to use a pay phone in Lagos.

Then Emmanuel had fallen back into silence, and then into a slow, steady chanting of the Psalms. Abril thought of the day ahead. A trip to a Muslim village to negotiate, somehow, for Sami's sister. Would it go well? Or would it lead to more violence? She didn't want to contemplate that it might lead to violence against herself. Simon's mother said that if you were living in fear, then you weren't living in love. But at this moment, she didn't care much about what Simon's mother said, on the other side of the world, unable to help in any way. Truth was, she didn't help Abril much even when she was in L.A.

But God could.

This was the first time in a long time her prayer contained no references to food – no request for self-control, no request that she wouldn't delude herself into thinking she was hungry when she wasn't, no request that high-caloric temptations presented by her mother would somehow disappear from the earth. It was just a request for help for the day to come and the hope that she could do more for these people, something that would make a long-term difference.

Feeling it would be diplomatic to leave Emmanuel to his own prayers, Abril got up, taking the plate and returning to Sami.

Before they left, Sami put the sacks of rice and bean under some debris in what had once been his home. If they ever did find Naomi and his mother, he wanted to have something to feed them.

The day was already warming up as they set out.

There were hundreds of workers in the fields around the village. Most were carrying buckets of water that they were using to irrigate their fields. Sami pointed out how the wealthier people in the village had long since turned to drip-irrigation to water their crops. Their fields, with slitted pipes running through them, were green despite the lack of rain.

It was hot by the time they reached the larger village. Here, the roads were dry, hard-baked dirt. Commerce was thriving despite the famine. There were buildings like in Lagos, made of brick or concrete or corrugated iron. What Abril probably didn't realize, thought Sami, was that his village had been one of the older traditional ones, where the houses were circular, made of mud and straw. They had been entirely dependent on their own resources. This larger village had connections to the outside world and life could go on, albeit, without excess.

For example, the fruit for sale in the baskets in the marketplace hadn't come from any orchard nearby, but had come in by truck. Sami and Abril both looked longingly at the produce for sale.

“Now,” said Abril, resolutely turning her eyes away from the busy stalls. “How do we go about finding this Audu?”

Although Sami had been to this village many times, he had never asked Audu where he lived. His guess was that it was in the poorer section of the village. He sighed. His sister had not exhibited good sense. If she was going to bring destruction to her whole village, why do it for a man who sold wood and petrol? Why not select a doctor or lawyer or engineer?

“I will ask,” said Sami. He went up to a man selling bananas. Abril stared at the bananas. She had often let bananas back home just sit on the counter until they turned too brown to eat, all because she had not felt a hunger pain. If she ever made it home, she'd eat a banana just for the fun of it. After a quick conversation, Sami determined that Audu probably had a stand at the outer perimeters of the market.

But nothing prepared him for the surprise to come.

Reaching the edge of the market, there was a stall made of corrugated iron. It had shelves lined with petrol cans. The back of it was stocked with firewood. Manning a small cash box was a tired-looking young woman.

“Naomi!”

He hurried over to her.

Joy flickered across her face and then turned to fear.

“Sami! What are you doing here?” she hissed.

“I came to look for you!”

“Well you have to go.” Naomi was looking around, obviously worried.

“Naomi, what is going on?”

Abril was standing back to allow Sami to reunite with his sister. But even a few feet away, she could feel the tension. Naomi was fearful that someone might return or someone might see them.

“I came to bring you home,” said Sami, when his sister didn't answer.

“I can't,” she said. “There is no home to go back to.”

“We can rebuild the village.”

Naomi shook her head.

“Do you think I could face anyone after what happened? I am here now. I have to stay here.”

“But Naomi . . .”

“Get out of here!” she said urgently. “Do you want him to hurt me?”

“Of course not.”

“Then get out of here!” she repeated. “Now!

He had no choice. Sami turned away. And saw Abril. Her face was concerned, sharing both the sorrow and the horror of the situation. Hesitantly, Sami reached for her hand. He had no sister anymore. He hoped she could understand how desperately he needed a friend right now.

She did.

She gave his hand a squeeze and they turned and headed back through the marketplace. Sami glanced back only once to see his sister, her eyes still on him. Hesitantly, she raised a hand and waved. The expression on her face, longing, remembering other times, almost made him run back to her. But instead, he knew he had to turn away. As if to cover up the wave, she was now hurriedly bundling some firewood.

Sami doubted he would ever see his sister again.

 

“I forgot to ask her about Mother,” he said, when they were back at his village, preparing coffee for them and Emmanuel.

“You didn't really have a chance,” said Abril.

“True.”

“In any case, she may not have known what happened to your mother,” said Abril. She was stirring some sugar into Emmanuel's coffee. They had found other clay mugs in the wreckage, though Sami was still clinging to the one that had always been his favourite.

When Abril took the coffee over to Emmanuel, she stayed for about fifteen minutes to talk, leaving Sami alone with his drink and his thoughts.

Naomi.

Like him, she had been bright and optimistic when they were young. They had played here, never dreaming hunger or violence would come to their simple little village.

Abril returned with some startling news. Emmanuel had not seen his mother flee with the others, nor had he gotten the impression that the men who had taken Naomi had also taken his mother.

“But . . . but . . .” Sami put down his mug. “She cannot be dead. I found nothing to indicate that . . .”

“She may have been in another home when the attack took place,” said Abril gently.

Sami nodded slowly. That was certainly a possibility. His mother was friends with most of the village.

“Only one thing to do,” he said, now feeling weary. He stood up. He would have to search the debris of every home.

“Can I help in any way?” asked Abril.

He shook his head. It was not her responsibility to look for the body of his mother. He didn't expect her to and in fact, it was something he wanted to do alone. Abril seemed to understand because she didn't push it. Instead, she found some shade by a shrub that had lost most of its leaves due to the dry spell.

He started with the home of his mother's closest friend, but quickly determined there were no bodies in the remains of the hut. Good.

The second hut he searched was more unsettling. Faith and her young baby had obviously not made it out before it went up in flames. His mother often visited Faith, a new mother, helping her adjust to life with a baby. But though he found the burnt remains of Faith and her daughter, he did not see anything to indicate his mother had been there that day.

He stopped to consider his mother's frame of mind. It would have been a stressful time for her, with Naomi running off and then returning. As if life wasn't distressing enough. If she were not at home praying, where would she be?

There was only one answer.

Emmanuel's.

Emmanuel's wife was the only other woman in the village with the same kind of faith as his mother's – the kind that could sustain one through a famine. The two women often prayed together in either Emmanuel's hut or Sami's mother's hut.

Slowly, Sami approached Emmanuel and sat down beside him.

Emmanuel no longer had the disposition of a man in shock. His face was sad, but his eyes were now aware of their surroundings.

He nodded at Sami.

“Were you here when it happened?” Sami spoke hesitantly.

Emmanuel shook his head.

“Out,” he said. “Looking.” He didn't have to say for what. Food. Anything to sustain the body. “When I saw the smoke, I returned.”

“Did you see my mother?” Sami asked.

Emmanuel shook his head again.

“I saw some people, running, but not your mother.” Emmanuel's eyes were on the remains of his hut. “My home was already gone.”

In other words, he had returned to find his home burned with his wife in it.

“Is it possible my mother was in there with Sophy?” asked Sami.

Emmanuel's head was in his hands.

“Anything is possible,” he said, his voice muffled by tears.

“Would you permit me to look for my mother?”

Emmanuel nodded.

Sami stood up. No doubt he would discover Sophy and so he would have to be very careful how he did this, showing respect for both the dead and for the living. Carefully, he began to sift through what remained of Emmanuel's home. Yes, Sophy was there. He did not want to disturb the body, but if his mother had been with her friend, they would have been close together. Cautiously, he cleared the area around Sophy.

Yes, it was as he had feared. His mother had been with Sophy that day.

Sami sighed and straightened up.

The only consolation was that the women had died in prayer. There was no doubt in his mind that they were rejoicing with their Father in heaven right now.

“We will bury the dead,” he said gently to Emmanuel. Emmanuel nodded.

It took the two men the rest of the day to dig a grave-site for their wife and mother. Abril brought them water from the well halfway through and when they were done, they all stood around the fresh dirt and Emmanuel recited a Psalm, or at least, a variation on one.

It was a particularly heartfelt rendition.

“O God, take up my cause!

Defend me against my enemies!

Rescue me from those who would do me harm!

For you God, are my safe haven.

Why have you tossed me aside?

Why must I wander in darkness,

Oppressed by my enemies?

Send out your light and your truth.

Let them guide me in a parched land.

Let them guide me to your holy mountain,

The one you rest upon.

There will I go to the altar of my God,

To God, the source of my joy.

I will praise you there.

O God! Oh my God!

Why am I so discouraged!

Why am I so sad!

I will put my hope in God!

I will praise him again,

My saviour and my God!”

After this brief funeral, Emmanuel seemed inclined to sit in the dust until God chose to bring his life to an end too. But Sami felt an emotion that he was almost ashamed of. Hope.

His sister was beyond his help. His mother was safe. Not out on a dusty road, slowly starving, but where she had always known she would be once this weary life came to an end. His life was his own now.

Glancing over at Abril, he thought, it was more like his life was God's. After something like this, one had to make a decision. Naomi had made hers and he would always pray that there would be a way out for her. But he was going to make his right now.

He was a Christian.

He would live, and if necessary, he would die, a Christian.

And he would not leave again. The lure of the south with its Christian population and its lack of drought was gone.

What he wanted to do right now was rebuild his village. It sounded insane. Here he was, in a village that now had only him and an old man. And what he wanted to do most was start rebuilding his hut.


 

 


Chapter Six

A

n idea was forming in Abril's mind.

It was exciting and almost too big. She didn't know if Simon would go for it. She would have to think it through some more – and pray – before presenting it to her partner.

And she would have to somehow find a way to recharge her cell-phone in this village that had no electricity.

In the meantime, more than anything, she wanted to change her clothes. She didn't know how to convey the idea to Sami that perhaps they could go through the charred homes and try to find some kind of garment that had survived, anything that could be worn while they washed out their current clothing. But as it turned out, Sami was on the same wavelength.

“We must clear away the rubble, put aside what is useful and start rebuilding,” he said. Although he had said “we” it really wasn't his intention that Abril do any of this labour. In fact, now that it had been determined that his mother was dead and his sister was beyond help, he braced himself for her decision to return to her familiar world, one that didn't include Sharia law and slow starvation. After all, she lived in a country with so much abundance that people got angry with themselves for eating too much. It was still beyond his comprehension.

But Abril surprised him by whole-heartedly joining in. She didn't question the idea of rebuilding. And she seemed eager to go through the rubble.

Abril very quickly realized that fabric didn't survive fire. What Joy had been able to save had ended up strewn on the street before the hut went up in flames.

But there were other items – canisters with a few coins, some metal gardening tools, some pots and other cooking utensils – that could all be salvaged.

“Should we save these for the people who return?” she asked, hesitantly. It would be callous to suggest bartering anything for a change of clothing if the people who owned these items came back.

Sami was starting to feel the same sense of shame over his unwashed state as Abril and was also contemplating taking some items to the nearby village for an exchange.

But it was Emmanuel who answered.

“They will go to the nearest Christian village, which is over three day's walk from here. Most will be too afraid to ever return.”

It was true. Now, having tasted violence, the village would never feel the same. Yet, ironically, Sami knew that a larger Christian village was more likely to be a target spot for an attack. If it hadn't been for Naomi, their village would still be standing.

Even Emmanuel joined in the clean-up. Anything that could be used to rebuild was put in one pile. Anything that was beyond being useful was put aside to burn as fuel. But it was slow-going. The village had only had twenty huts, or so, but each one had to be sifted through and anytime a body was found it had to be buried. By the time it was dark, all three were worn out.

Abril had given up on personal hygiene, choosing instead at midday just to dump water all over herself and her clothing. The clothing dried in the sun while still on her, and they felt stiff at first, but it was better than the intense body odour. Sami did the same and by the end of the day, they agreed that they would go to the village tomorrow for a change of clothes, using some of the coins found in the rubble.

But in the morning, after some more rice and beans and coffee, Emmanuel surprised them by saying he would make the journey to the larger village for something to change into.

“I am an old man,” he said, to explain. Sami understood. Of the three of them, he was the slowest at clearing away debris.

With Emmanuel gone, Sami felt that maybe he could open up to Abril and tell her that it was his heart's desire to rebuild a village, even if no one returned to it. But she seemed lost in her own thoughts. The work was hard and the morning passed with very little conversation. But it was still pleasant working together.

Pleasant? Sami couldn't believe he had used that word, even in the privacy of his thoughts. His village was burned to the ground and he was finding it pleasant to rebuild it? But the factor making it such was Abril. He glanced over at her, dust on her nose, a streak of ash on her face. She saw him watching her and smiled. He returned the smile. Yes, she was pleasant.

By afternoon, Emmanuel had not returned and they were ready for a break. They had found some dried fish that had survived in a hut that was only partially burned. While Sami made some tea that he had found in his own hut, Abril added the fish to the pot of rice and beans.

“There he is,” said Sami, seeing the old man on the horizon. He had been starting to worry that harm had come to him in the marketplace, an attempt perhaps to destroy the final living inhabitant of the destroyed village.

Emmanuel returned, tired and hungry, but successful with three cotton robes. The two for the men were a basic cream. Abril's was green with some feminine trim. She appreciated the elderly man's consideration.

Even more exciting, his coins had been enough to buy a small crate of mangos.

After two mangos each, they took turns washing and changing, using the only hut that had partially survived, the one that had contained the dried fish. Then their clothing was washed and hung on the branches of a nearby parched tree that had lost all its leaves.

“I saw Naomi,” said Emmanuel, when they were having a late evening meal.

Sami nodded slowly.

“She is not well,” said the old man. He was leaning against the trunk of the tree that their clothing hung on. The sun was going down and there would be no further work for the day.

Sami leaned forward, his plate of food forgotten.

“She was selling firewood,” Emmanuel continued.

Sami nodded. He knew that much.

“From door-to-door,” Emmanuel finished.

Sami groaned.

His sister clearly had not realized what she was getting herself into.

“Where was her husband?” Sami asked.

Emmanuel shrugged.

“Nowhere to be seen. But she did not want to talk to me.”

Sami nodded. Even if Audu was not in sight, Naomi probably expected that any one of the other villagers would report her activities to her new family. She had already tried to escape once. And as a Christian, they would watch her with additional suspicion.

“I think we should do something for her,” said Emmanuel. The old man's eyes were half-closed, either in thought or from weariness.

“It would be a matter of honour to Audu's family to not allow such a thing,” said Sami.

“I do not mean to abduct her and bring her here,” said Emmanuel, his eyes now closed entirely. “We must work out something with these people, a way so you can stay in contact with her. But not in a way that threatens them.”

It was an interesting idea, to find a smaller solution rather than a large one.

“They do not expect us to forgive them,” said Emmanuel. “So that is the first thing we must do. We must stay close to them and continually let them know they are forgiven.” With that, the old man curled up on the ground and was soon snoring.

Sami sat in the darkness, gratified that Abril was keeping him company. He had a lot to think about. Yes, forgiveness. Emmanuel was right. But he had been living more with guilt, guilt because it was his family who had brought the destruction to their village and perhaps he could have prevented it by staying home.

The time had come to forgive himself. That was the first step in helping his sister.

Sami yawned before he could think of the second step. Probably best to leave the next step to Emmanuel's wisdom anyway.

“I'm tired too,” said Abril, smiling.

Sami returned the smile.

He looked forward to the day he could offer Abril more than a charred mattress on the ground. If she did choose to stay a little longer, she could have her own hut. It would be the first hut he built, he decided.

 

There was a surprise visitor to the burnt village the next day.

Audu.

He did not come to sell petrol, nor did he have any firewood.

“I heard you were visiting Naomi,” he said sharply, directly in front of Sami. Sami was a head taller and more filled-out, but it was Audu with the threatening tone.

Sami nodded, grateful that they had discussed forgiveness the night before. Otherwise, he would not have known what direction to go with this encounter.

“It is the only town now,” he said.

Audu acknowledged this obvious new reality with a slow nod. He was only a few years older than Sami. Sami had been a farmer since the loss of his father when he was thirteen. But it was Audu who had had a harder life. Sami admitted to himself that he had never really paid attention to the man. Before the famine, Sami had been proud of his family's fields and their ability to sustain themselves.

“She looks well,” said Sami boldly.

“She is well,” said Audu, almost defiantly.

“She will be well taken care of,” said Sami, trying to keep a hint of threat out of his voice.

Audu didn't reply. Instead he took in everything around Sami – the burnt village, old Emmanuel leaning against a garden hoe, Abril.

Abril stared back. Audu turned back to Sami.

“Naomi says you went to Lagos,” he said.

“I did,” said Sami. “But I have returned to stay.”

Audu surveyed the village again, including Abril.

“I hope we can continue to be good neighbours,” said Sami politely.

Audu nodded slowly.

Sami was tempted to add that he would also like to be able to visit with his sister, but he didn't want to push for too much in this first encounter after the fire.

“This is no home for Naomi to return to,” said Audu.

“Why would she want to when she can be with you?” said Sami mildly.

Audu looked at him with suspicion but could detect no sarcasm in his manner.

There was a moment of silence as the two young men stared at each other. And then Audu turned.

“You are welcome in my village,” he called over his shoulder. “Whenever you need anything.”

“I thank you,” said Sami, again keeping his voice neutral.

While Audu was still within earshot, they silently returned to their work. But when Audu had disappeared into his village, Emmanuel said quietly, “Well done, Samuel.”

 

It can't be easy, thought Abril, watching Sami.

She had never admired someone as much as she had Sami when he had been talking with Audu. She almost got the sense that Audu would have liked the confrontation to turn violent. But it hadn't, thanks to Sami's strength. That's how she saw it. Strength of character. And it confirmed her opinion that he was the right man for the job she had in mind.

But what about Simon and the Food for Him gang at home?

Would they see it the way she did? They weren't here. And she knew it would be impossible to convey in words what she was seeing here. There was only one hope that her plan would be adopted by Food for Him and that was the Holy Spirit.

By evening, they had made significant progress in clearing away the rubble. It was sadly easy due to the paucity of possessions in each home. Anything made of wood or cloth was gone, leaving only a handful of items in each hut.

“I have never been so tired in my life,” said Abril, stretching out on her mattress while they waited for the rice and beans. She was grateful that Emmanuel had knocked off work early to start on the dinner – a kind gesture.

“I am sorry you are working so hard,” said Sami, sitting down beside her.

“It's a good kind of tired,” she assured him.

“A good kind of tired?” he said. “Is that an American saying?”

“I guess it is,” she said, grinning.

The importance of coffee to Americans, and the world in general, was reinforced when the next morning there were no more coffee grinds in the tin.

Ohh!” groaned Abril. Without coffee, her day would be off to a drowsy start, not something you wanted when you were doing hard labour.

Emmanuel volunteered to take the few remaining coins up to the village and get more. Sami and Abril both agreed that that would be money well spent.

“Might as well work while he's gone,” said Abril, getting to her feet.

Sami smiled.

“Is there an American saying to describe a very noble person?” he asked.

She laughed.

“You could say I'm a real trouper,” she suggested. It was something her father used to say to her when she was younger.

“OK, Abril,” he said, also getting to his feet. “You are a real trouper.”

They agreed that today would be a good day to start rebuilding the first hut. The logical hut to start with would be the one that was still partially standing.

Sami, who had helped his neighbours erect new huts, was the expert, but Abril soon got the hang of it.

It was first necessary to construct a wooden frame. Sami had had the foresight to put aside any sticks that had survived the fire.

When she saw Emmanuel in the distance emerging from the village, Abril hurried to get some water from the well, while Sami started a fire with some of the remaining straw and kerosene. By the time Emmanuel was back, they had the boiling water ready.

He smiled at their eagerness.

The coins had bought three tins of coffee, plus another crate of mangos and a few bananas. The fruit was saved for later and the coffee was ready in about ten minutes. Then it was back to work.

Once they started it was hard to stop, so they had a late lunch.

It was a heavenly lunch – the mangos and bananas. At home, it would have felt like deprivation. Abril would have longed for a burger and fries. But here, after a steady diet of rice and beans, the sweet fruit was bliss.

With Emmanuel helping in the afternoon, the construction of the frame sped up. But it was a big project and by the evening, they still had a day's work to go before completing the frame.

The following evening, Sami informed Abril with a grin that the next day would be messy. The frame was finished and now it was time to build the mud walls. It was a job they could all do. Emmanuel nodded slowly. Abril noticed that he was already settling in for his night's sleep despite that they had barely finished their dinner. Concluding that he knew better than her what the next day held, she said she'd make it an early night too. Sami nodded as they carried the pot to the well to give it a scrub before putting it away.

“It will be your hut,” he said abruptly. It hadn't been his intention to blurt it out like that, but it was hard to translate the words of his heart. He wanted her to love Nigeria like he did - the tall grasses that grew up when the rains came, the woodlands of the savannah, the antelope in the distance that could be hunted for meat if one was skilful, the occasional baboon that wandered into the village and had to be shooed out but not before it had made all the children laugh. But most of all, he missed the birds that had not been seen since the second year of the drought – the colourful bee-eater, the soaring black kite, the gentle red-eyed dove, the elegant stork, and his favourite of all, the kingfisher with his blue feathers and majestic red beak.

“My hut?” she said, startled. “Really? Sami, that's wonderful! Thanks so much!”

Her own hut! It settled an issue in her mind, the one of how long she would stay. With her own hut, she could start thinking long-term instead of short-term. The only concern now was how to get a hold of Simon. They had to talk. They sooner she made her pitch, the better. In fact, it felt like the future of this village depended on whether she could somehow get connected to Simon.

Sami couldn't have been more thrilled by her response. She had shown no hesitation, only appreciation. He didn't dare think that it could be taken personally, but it was a hopeful idea nonetheless, Abril in Nigeria.


 

 


Chapter Seven

D

ue to his early night, it was Emmanuel who woke them up with a pot of coffee and some leftover fruit for breakfast.

Then Abril discovered why Sami had warned her that it would be messy. He and Emmanuel dug a pit while she carried buckets of water to turn the hole into mud. Then all three were barefoot in the mud, working it to the right consistency. While Sami continued to make mud and monitor the consistency, Emmanuel and Abril carried buckets of the ooze to the frame. There, Emmanuel showed Abril how to build a wall. It was mostly a matter of starting low and working your way up. Abril soon had her own rhythm and was slinging mud at the wall at a steady pace. Emmanuel smiled his approval.

The technique of making the walls with mud made her think of the Israelites and their bricks. Nigeria, in her opinion, should count as a Bible land. The people in this village had lived more like Jesus than the Jews of Jerusalem did these days, she was sure.

The African sun did the work of drying out the mud. At the end of the day, the mud all over her arms and legs was dry too and it took a long time at the well for them all be clean enough to sit down to dinner.

They had skipped lunch in order to keep working and now the meal of rice and beans, though monotonous, was devoured.

Abril had decided that she would have to try to use her Jordanian dinars. Perhaps someone in the town would be willing to exchange the money. For one thing, she wanted to buy chocolate. She was craving chocolate. In Los Angeles, she always denied herself chocolate on the basis of once she started eating it, it was too hard to stop. But her thinking had shifted. If she could afford some chocolate, she would divide it equally between her, Sami and Emmanuel – and enjoy every second of eating it.

It was back to mud the next day. A whole village, or even a large family, could make the mud walls in a day, but it took the three of them until the end of the third day to finish.

“Well, that's done,” said Abril, lying back and staring at the stars. They had worked late and were now resting. Emmanuel had already fallen asleep, but Abril was almost too tired to stand up and return to the hut that was now hers. The charred mattress had been moved in, along with her one change of clothes.

“Let's have a holiday tomorrow,” said Sami, sleepily.

“I agree,” said Abril absently. The stars were incredible. The darkness was like black velvet and the stars were so bright she felt like she could pull one right out of the night sky. The only other light came from their dying fire and from the village in the distance.

That reminded her - she propped herself up on an elbow.

“I think I should try make a phone call tomorrow,” she said.

“People might be worried about you,” Sami agreed.

“Is there a phone anywhere nearby?” she asked.

“In the village,” he said. “Somewhere.” He had never bothered to find out where exactly, but he knew that phone and hydro lines ran throughout the larger village.

Abril lay back, the stars temporarily forgotten. Tomorrow, she would have to make a collect call to Simon. She closed her eyes and said a prayer. Oh God, let me get him at the right moment and in the right state of mind!

 

After breakfast, Emmanuel said he wouldn't join them in their excursion, but rather, would stay behind and gather some sticks for the frame of the next hut.

Abril grabbed her purse from her hut and said to Sami, “If I could get someone to take my Jordanian dinars, I'd love to buy some chocolate!”

“Ah, chocolate!” he said nodding and smiling. “It is one of my favourites too.”

His hands in his pockets, he began to whistle. It was a beautiful day with a cooling breeze. It wasn't the thought of chocolate that had cheered him, but Abril's willingness to part with her Jordanian dinars. Perhaps she had given up all idea of going on to Jordan.

“Let's go to Audu,” suggested Abril when they had arrived at the outskirts of the larger village.

Sami raised his eyebrows.

“Didn't he say we could come to his village whenever we needed anything?” she asked, her eyes sparkling.

“Yes,” said Sami, nodding slowly. “Although I am not sure he really expected us to . . .”

Abril took his hand. It was more of a gesture to drag him along, but he was hoping she wouldn't let go.

It was a long walk from the one end of the village to Audu's firewood stand and Abril held onto his hand the whole way. It was only when they were within sight of the small stall that she let go. It wasn't Naomi today manning the family business, but Audu himself. He was startled at the sight of Sami and Abril approaching.

Assalamu alaikum,” said Sami. Peace be upon you.

Audu hesitated.

Wa alaykum assalam,” he replied. And upon you be peace.

“My friend, Abril, needs to use a telephone,” said Sami politely. “We wondered if you could direct us to one.”

Audu just stared at him as if suspecting there might be more to this encounter. He looked first at Sami and then at Abril. She tried to smile pleasantly.

“And is there anyone in town who might accept Jordanian dinars?” she asked.

“Jordanian dinars?” Audu repeated. “I think I can help you with both. The old Arab.”

“The old Arab?” said Sami.

Audu nodded.

“The old Arab. Abu Salem. The one from Palestine. He has the coffeehouse.”

Sami recalled there was a particularly popular coffeehouse in the village, although he'd never been to it.

“I think he has a phone in the back,” said Audu. “Here, I will take you . . .” He came out from behind his small counter.

“I do not want to take you away from your customers,” said Sami.

Audu shrugged.

“Business is slow today.” He called out to his neighbouring merchant. “Keep an eye on the stall for me, eh?” The man nodded.

It was a winding route through busy streets to the coffeehouse of Abu Salem and when they arrived, Abril knew she would stand out. All the patrons were men.

A few people called out greetings to Audu, which he returned, while at the same time, they stared at Sami and Abril. Audu nodded his head in the direction of the back. Sure enough, there was an old rotary dial phone. A little piece of paper taped to it told her to dial 0704 for the operator. Simon's cell number was on her own cell phone, of course, but with it being dead, she would have to go from memory. If she got it wrong, there would be one angry person in L.A. receiving a collect call from Abril Sanchez. And probably in the middle of the night. She had no idea what time it was in L.A.

Thankfully she got it right on the first try and was soon talking to a sleepy Simon. He woke up pretty quickly when she told him she was actually in Nigeria.

She had to go through the whole thing with him, candidly telling him how she'd accidentally missed her flight to Amman. He listened, interrupting to ask if she was in trouble. No, she assured him. Everything was fine. But she had some new thoughts she wanted to share with him. Listening was never Simon's strength and he interrupted again to say that he hadn't been able to work anything out with the Jordanian Minister of Agriculture, something about him being out of the country at some conference, but he had Ted trying to work something out with a man who might have a connection with someone in the Jordanian embassy in Washington . . .

“But that's just it,” said Abril. “I think I've got an idea. Another way of going at it.”

“OK, talk to me,” said Simon.

Abril took a deep breath. This would have to work. Launching out on her own was not an option. Food for Him's success was partially because of all the promotion they received from Simon's mother. She was not a big advocate on behalf of any special food herself. Her followers could eat brownies made in China, for all she cared, but Simon had a way of using his mother's success to launch his own products. Food for Him products were always at his mother's functions and a lot of people went home with grocery bags full of crackers, dried fruit mixes, whole-grain cereals and other items evocative of what Jesus might have eaten in the first-century.

She and Simon had always agreed, though, that there was big money in tea and coffee. Americans loved tea and coffee and even if Jesus had never touched the stuff, it would be a big seller if packaged by Food for Him. But then Jessie's Herbal Health deal had come up and any further talk of expanding their product line had gone in that direction. But at the time they had talked about it, both of them could imagine Food for Him tea and coffee being served at Simon's mother's seminars. What a boon to sales that would be!

She reminded him of how they had been going in that direction before Herbal Health.

Not surprisingly, he was hesitant at first. But since this phone call was costing him, not her, Abril pushed it.

She described Sami and without mentioning any of his particularly attractive qualities, explained how the drought had affected the Christian farmers and to add to their problems, they couldn't even get any aid to tide them over.

“There is water here,” she said. “The well isn't dry. But the resources aren't here to explore the possibility of irrigation . . .”

“OK, OK,” said Simon, who was never one for long explanations. “I'll bring it up tomorrow with the rest of the Food for Him guys and if they like it, we may go that route. Call me back, OK?”

She agreed and he hung up, presumably to resume his sleep.

Abril put the phone down thinking that that was about the best she could hope for. She wished she could be there to pitch the idea, but now she would just have to pray and leave it in God's hands.

Returning to Sami and Audu, she found them drinking small cups of coffee. A young boy brought one over for her. It was the Turkish-style coffee that she had had on the plane ride – sweet and strong.

Sami gave her a smile.

“Did you get through OK?” he asked.

She nodded. She had just remembered that she had forgotten to ask Simon to call her mother and let her know she was OK. But maybe it was just as well. By the time the message got through to her mother that she was really in Africa, who knows how garbled it would be? She'd be better off sending her mother a postcard and explaining everything that way.

“I'll have to call back tomorrow, though,” she said. “Business.”

Audu was looking at her, impressed.

“You are a business woman?” he asked.

She nodded. Of sorts. She certainly wasn't a woman of leisure.

“You are blessed, Sami,” said Audu, clearly envious. With amusement, Abril noticed that, if it was possible, Sami blushed. But Audu was now entirely focused on Abril. “Business is good?” he asked.

“Yes,” she answered carefully. “The business is doing well. But I have an idea that I want them to implement. That's why I have to call back tomorrow, to see if it goes over with the rest of the team.”

Audu was nodding vigorously, as if he was familiar with all the ins-and-outs of business.

“And business is going well for you?” Sami asked Audu.

Audu turned back to him. He shrugged.

“It has been better.” He sipped his coffee and sighed. Momentarily energized by being in the presence of a money-maker like Abril, he had now returned to despondency.

They sat in silence. Abril would have liked to have sampled some of the pastries offered by Abu Salem, but since she didn't know who was picking up the bill, she refrained.

“It hasn't been good since the fire,” said Audu, abruptly. “Your village was my main source of income.”

Sami and Abril looked at one another, surprised by this candid admission.

“Since then, I try to sell in the marketplace,” said Audu, shaking his head. “But it is the ones who sell door-to-door who make the money.”

Audu stared down at his now-empty cup.

“But everyone already buys from someone else.”

Sami nodded as he took this in. Audu had had a good thing going, finding a new market in the Christian village. No one else had ever bothered with them. He wondered how well his sister was eating these days. It was quite possible that he and Abril and Emmanuel were eating better than her.

Food seemed to be on Audu's mind too.

“You can use Jordanian dinars to buy sweets here,” he said.

Abril smiled. She turned to Sami.

“Would you be so kind as to order us some pastries?” she said.

“Of course,” he said, also with a small smile. He had detected the hope in Audu's voice. The young waiter was called over to refill all their cups, as well as to bring over a plate of pastries.

“And some to go,” added Abril, thinking of Emmanuel.

The young boy nodded.

Sweet and sticky, these pastries would have caused guilt in L.A., but not here. Abril ate two before feeling full while Sami and Audu both devoured three. Abril added the remaining one to the full paper bag they had been given.

Abu Salem, who had been playing chess with one of his patrons, was called over to handle the Jordanian dinars. He sat down with them, expressing his pleasure at their company. He confirmed, yes, he could take dinar for payment. Though not a young man, he still liked to travel and Jordan was one of the places he planned to visit again.

He accepted two dinars, saying they were welcome anytime, before returning to his chess game.

Audu also wished them well as they parted outside the coffeehouse. Sami was tempted to tell him to pass on his well wishes to his sister, but refrained. Now knowing Audu's situation, there was a possibility that with time, relations with his sister could be restored. But he didn't want to do anything this early on to jeopardize it.

 

Emmanuel received the pastries with a stoic acceptance of both the good and the bad that life offered. But Abril thought that she saw a glimmer of appreciation in his eye as he bit into the first one. He had done a marvellous job of assembling sticks for the next hut. They could start building the frame tomorrow.

With interest, he listened as Sami told him about the meeting with Audu and the news that his business had dropped drastically after the fire. Emmanuel nodded, as if such justice should be expected.

That night, Abril was able to sleep in her hut for the second time. It lacked the grandeur of sleeping under the stars, but it was comforting to have her own space, a place to change clothes and settle down for the night. In the remaining light, she looked around at the bare walls. Something about having her own place made her want to acquire a few possessions for it – a lamp, maybe a table or a small trunk. She shook her head ruefully. The night before last, she had been content with the open sky. Now she was turning materialistic again. Maybe she should just settle for a small clothesline.

The next morning, she joined Emmanuel and Sami by the fire for a breakfast of coffee and leftover pastries.

It was on her mind that sometime today, she'd have to call Simon again. Maybe morning would be better. He might still be awake. But Emmanuel and Sami both seemed eager to start on the next hut, so Abril figured, if she put the phone call off until the end of the day, she might get Simon before he headed off to the office.

Emmanuel, after his days of silence, turned out to be a talkative man, Abril discovered. Despite adversity, he had a retained a cheerfulness and today, he taught her some songs to sing to make the work go faster. They were traditional songs of Nigeria. Then he switched over to hymns and Abril could sing along without needing to be taught the words. Sami sang along too, while quickly tying together the sticks to keep them upright. He was a fast and skilled worker. The work was hard, but clean compared to the days of mud. Abril felt she was getting in the way half the time, but he often smiled and encouraged her that they couldn't do it without her.

Very gracious of him, she thought, entirely confident that the two men could have rebuilt the village without her.

But his smile made all the hard work worth it. And it made her almost forget about life in Los Angeles.

Her mother hadn't been far off when she had asked about Simon accompanying her on this trip. There had been a time when Abril had hoped that something would work out between her and Simon. And it hadn't been entirely one-sided. Relations had been warm between them when they had first started Food for Him. They had spent many long hours outside the office, working out the details of the company over potato knishes at Doughboys in Los Angeles. Simon could eat and eat and never put on weight. Abril was pretty sure he didn't follow his mother's teachings about eating only when you were hungry. And he didn't seem to care that the knishes went straight to Abril's waist. That is, until Carlie had come along.

Carlie had been a graduate of Azusa Pacific and had answered an advertisement in Christianity Today for a job opening as an administrative assistant to a CEO of an up-and-coming Christian food company. From that point forward, she had had Simon's ear on nearly every point, although Abril had continued to command a certain respect by being the matriarch of the company. But no one doubted who would sit beside Simon when they all went out together after work for nachos and sangrias.

But Sami was making her feelings for Simon seem rather tame. Here she was, side-by-side with Sami, building a hut from nothing more than sticks and mud. And it worked! There was no doubt that Simon knew how to run a business, but she thought about how his apartment had all the comforts of civilization – big-screen TV, plush couches, cappuccino machine. Simon always had to have a morning cappuccino before he could function. But Sami could make coffee over an open fire. Simon seemed delicate by comparison.

Still, Simon was essential to the future of this village. Thank God there were no hard feelings between her and him. The disappointment she had felt when Carlie had arrived, she had squashed down - telling herself that if she didn't have such an obsession with food, Simon wouldn't have turned away from her. Now it seemed silly. Carlie was really the better one for Simon. It was that simple. They were both good at what they did.

Until now, Abril hadn't known what she wanted. She had been too blinded by the continual need to monitor her food intake to realize it. But now she was realizing that there was a greater adventure than life in the office.

Lunch was rice and beans, but after they finished working for the day, Abril suggested that they go to the village for dinner.

“I need to make a phone call,” she said. “And we could eat at Abu Salem's.”

“I like that idea!” said Sami grinning.

Emmanuel shook his head, declining the offer.

“You young people go ahead,” he said, leaning back against his tree. “I will stay here.”

He closed his eyes to indicate his firm resolution not to move.

Sami looked at Abril and shrugged.

“I guess it is just you and me,” he said. But he didn't look disappointed.

After a quick wash-up at the well, they headed for the village.

“Are you phoning a special friend?” he asked.

Abril smiled to herself. She detected concern in his voice.

“Nope,” she said. “Simon's my business partner, but he has someone in his life.”

Sami's answer to that was to take her hand. They were the only ones on the narrow dirt path. He began to whistle.

“That's a pretty tune,” she said.

He nodded.

“My mother used to sing it to me when I was little.”

“I think it's nice not to have television and all the distractions of the world,” said Abril. “I like singing, but we only really do it at church.”

“We used to all sing out in the fields,” said Sami. “Especially at harvest time when there was so much to do in a short time. Singing makes things easier.”

“It does,” agreed Abril, thinking of how their work was more pleasant for Emmanuel's songs.

“Those were good times,” says Sami, remembering.

Abril nodded. She could imagine. A village filled with people. Fields to harvest.

It was impossible to hope that her plans, the ones she had prayed about again last night as she drifted off to sleep, would restore to Sami what had been lost. But she did hope that with forgiveness and faith, the future could still be one filled with joy.


 

 


Chapter Eight

T

hey entered the village as the sun was low on the horizon.

Electric lights were coming on in some of the establishments that stayed open late. Abu Salem's coffeehouse was one of the places. Abu Salem stood up and welcomed them personally.

“What will it be for you, children?” he asked, gesturing toward an empty table. His coffeehouse had even more patrons in the evening than during the day. All watched the arrival of Sami and Abril with interest.

“What do you recommend?” said Sami. He knew Abril had a wallet full of Jordanian dinars so money was not a concern.

“We have the best falafel this side of the Nile,” said Abu Salem with a broad smile.

“Sound's good to me,” said Sami as Abril nodded her agreement.

The same young boy brought them two coffees while they waited. After Abril had finished hers, she excused herself to go back to the phone. She took a deep breath and said a quick prayer as she picked up the receiver. She was prepared to go as far as it took to push this idea through, including pointing out to Simon that she had been there right from the start and he owed it to her to give this proposal more than a fair chance.

When Simon picked up, it was hard to tell whether he had been sleeping. In any case, he was to the point.

“They like the idea,” he said. Abril was surprised. That was easy.

“Mostly it's because the Jordan thing doesn't seem to be working,” Simon continued. “So if you can get this thing up and running, like, right away, there'll be no turning back. OK?”

“OK,” she said, grinning. She glanced over at Sami who was watching her. Wait until she told him! “How much do I have to work with?” she asked.

There was hesitation.

“Five thousand.”

“Fifteen,” she said boldly.

There was silence on the other end. She had never negotiated like this in the past.

“Ten,” he said.

“Done,” she said. “I'll get back to you about it.”

“There's just one stipulation,” he said. “It has to be entirely Christian. If we say we're helping Christians, we can't do anything which might cause a scandal for us or for Mother.”

“Absolutely,” said Abril. “No problem.” She didn't tell him that there were only three Christians in the area at the moment. “What about parts? Can we buy what we need to start up from non-Christians?”

“No, we'd probably better keep this Christian from start to finish.”

“OK, fair enough,” said Abril. She still couldn't believe she had the approval to go ahead.

“So do what you've got to do on that end to make it work,” said Simon. “Then call me back when you've made some progress.”

Abril agreed and they ended the call.

The falafel had arrived, but Abril was almost too excited to eat it.

“I have got the best news!” she said.

“What is it?” said Sami, amused at how pleased she looked.

She explained the proposal she had put to Simon. Tea and coffee was a huge market in the United States, particularly in Christian circles where every church event had the beverages. She had put the idea to Simon that maybe they could forget about the Holy Land tag and instead, promote the idea that their products were grown by Christian farmers.

Sami just stared.

“We could be those Christian farmers!” she explained. “I have ten thousand dollars to spend on some kind of an irrigation system. Then we would have to start growing the plants . . .Abril was thinking about this. Her plan was vague, but surely Sami would have the skills to make this work. “I mean, we'd have to get more workers, of course. The only limitation is that everyone has to be Christian. Simon was pretty insistent on that . . .”

Sami's mind was spinning.

Ten thousand dollars? Irrigation? That would certainly put an end to the vicissitudes of seasonal farming. But it might also make them the envy of some of their neighbours. The ones whose fields were as barren as his. And envy wasn't good. The last thing some of the people of the large village would want is to see the little village that they had burned rise from the ashes and outdo them with prosperity. Because that's what Abril was proposing. Coffee and tea. Selling to a foreign market.

And Christian workers? Where were they going to get Christian workers? They were the only Christians for forty kilometres. Who would want to come and live in his tiny village after the conveniences of the larger ones?

Abril could tell that Sami wasn't as excited as she was. In fact, he looked stunned.

“What is it?” she asked.

He tried to think it all through and put it in a way that was coherent.

“It is wonderful,” he said slowly. “I mean, wonderful that you would do this for me. But I do not think I can accept.”

“But why?” said Abril.

Sami was silent.

“It's not charity, or anything,” Abril burst out. “It's a business deal. We'd be doing this for Food for Him.”

He liked the fact that she was saying we. But did he really want her to be with him when the hotheads decided that the Christians were getting too prosperous for their own good?

“And it's not a loan,” Abril continued. “It's a business venture. We're working for Food for Him. You're working for Food for Him.” She reached across the table for his hand but then realized that it might not be appropriate in this café of men who were all watching them with varying degrees of interest.

Sami nodded slowly.

“What is it, Sami?” she asked again.

He looked down at his falafel and picked it up to take the first bite. If he didn't, Abu Salem would be over to inquire whether it was to their liking.

Should he say it? Did he dare to speak his heart to this woman, this woman who had bravely followed him back to his village and stayed even when it had been burned to the ground?

“I am afraid,” he said, suddenly.

“Of what?” Her eyes widened. “Because I think failure isn't very likely. With all the sun you get here, we're going to have crops like crazy. You have the water. It's just a matter of getting it to the fields. The way I see it,” she continued. “The biggest challenge is the Christian end of things. We have to buy our system from a Christian and we need Christian workers . . .”

She realized she was flying ahead.

“I'm sorry,” she said. “I don't understand. What do you mean?”

They had been speaking quietly, but now he lowered his voice even more.

“I think that we would be on the receiving end of a lot of envy if this were to succeed,” he said.

Abril glanced around the coffeehouse. There may have been hostility in some of the eyes, but to her it mostly looked like curiosity.

But then again, Sami's village may have been burned by some of the very men sitting here.

She took a deep breath.

“From what I understand, it wasn't an issue of Muslim and Christian as much as it was a family issue,” she said. “I think we can go forward and build a future . . .”

“But even a family issue can become an excuse for violence,” said Sami. “And if everyone takes sides, there are three of us and three thousand of them.”

“I see what you mean,” said Abril, picking up her falafel and biting into it. It was delicious and she was enjoying it absentmindedly. “But I think I have the solution.” It had come to her in a flash.

“What?”

Audu.”

Audu?”

“Yes,” she said nodding. “We have to get Audu on our side. If he's on our side, not a single man in this village can complain if we rebuild and do it even better.”

Sami thought about this. It actually made sense.

“OK,” he said. “But how do we get Audu on our side?”

“Petrol,” she said. “We'll probably need a generator and generator's run on petrol.”

“That's true,” said Sami. “But I thought you could only buy from Christians.”

Abril was quiet. It was true. There was only one solution to that.

She lowered her voice and whispered across the table.

Audu has to become a Christian.”


 

 


Chapter Nine

S

ami laughed.

“You can't just make someone a Christian in order to make him your petrol supplier.”

“I guess not,” said Abril. Perhaps it was a momentary insanity. “But why shouldn't we? Audu needs salvation, doesn't he?”

Sami shrugged.

“I guess. But if he's a convert he'll face even more persecution than we would. You see, it's not bad to be born a Christian. You can't do anything about that. But if you become a Christian after being a Muslim, it's like saying Islam is wrong.”

“Yes, I see what you mean,” said Abril. Her lovely plans were starting to crumble.

“But we still have a contact in the village!” said Sami, suddenly. “Naomi!”

“Of course!” said Abril, leaning forward.

“But she's probably Muslim by now,” said Sami.

“Not in my books,” said Abril. “She tried to return home. That means she had a change of heart.”

Sami nodded. He was feeling bad for his initial response to Abril's wonderful news. She had done all this, for him and for his village, and he had answered with fear. But hadn't he been the one who had had that strong to desire to rebuild his village? What did he think God would do then? Let him sit in a hut and slowly die of starvation?

“So we'll buy the petrol through Naomi,” said Abril. “But what about the generator and the irrigation system?”

Sami shook his head.

“There is nothing like that here. For that, we will have to go back to Lagos.”

Abril finally gave her full attention to the falafel. There were too many details to work out at the moment.

“What's the best way to get back to Lagos?” Abril asked, when they had finished eating and were having a final cup of coffee. An extra falafel, as well as some pastries, had been ordered for Emmanuel.

“We would have to take a taxi from here. Either that, or hitchhike.”

“You can take a taxi all the way to Lagos?”

“Well, it's more like a small bus. You have to sit and wait until it is filled-up and then the driver leaves for Lagos.”

Abril thought about that. Now that she had a budget, she could think long-term.

“Maybe we should get another car,” she said. “We need to be able to bring everything back and I don't want to have to rely on a taxi.”

This is different, thought Sami. A woman who can just talk about buying a car.

But Abril didn't really want to buy a car. It would cut into their budget and she wanted all the money to go to the irrigation system and the tea and coffee plants. Plus, they would need enough money to live on until the first harvest . . .

Oh God, she prayed. Make this work, please! It was already getting a bit overwhelming.

“Do they take VISA in the village?” Abril asked.

Sami's reply was to laugh.

“Guess not,” she said, ruefully. That would mean that Abu Salem would have to help them. Would he be able to secure them a car for roughly the equivalent of $300 worth of dinars? Once in Lagos, she could use her VISA at an ATM to get some more cash, but in the meantime . . .

The walk back in the dark was quiet. They both had a lot to think about. Emmanuel was sleeping in the shelter of the half-constructed hut and they whispered their goodnights to keep from waking him. Abril was too unsettled to sleep. It was obvious that Sami foresaw trouble with this plan. Ironically, though, his fear was based on the possibility that they might succeed. Her fear was based on the possibility that they might run out of money before they even started.

 

The noise of an engine woke Abril. And then there was the sound of a car door slamming. She came out of her tent half-asleep to investigate.

It was Joy and her two children.

Joy, who had seemed fairly composed right after the destruction of the village, was now a broken woman. Her eyes were red and she looked like she had been driving all night.

She took in the new hut and the partially-finished one with blank incomprehension.

“Joy!” said Sami, hurrying forward.

“Don't talk to me!” she said, sounding as if she were going to cry. Judging from her eyes, she had already done a lot of crying.

“What is it?” Sami asked. Her two small children still stood by the car looking lost and scared. Abril hurried over and put her arms around them.

“It's that no-good husband of mine,” said Joy, collapsing onto the ground. Sami and Emmanuel looked at one another. “I go to Lagos and what do I find? Him in an apartment with another woman!” Now she was crying beyond consolation.

Abril held the children’s hands and led them to her hut. She still had the bag of pastries they had brought back for Emmanuel the night before. The children sat on the mattress and silently put away two each, then curled up for a nap. Outside, Sami set to work making coffee and soon Joy was sipping her mug and looking almost defiant.

Once the tears were past, Joy was a strong-willed woman. Nearly right away, it was established that the hut in progress would be hers and the kids. And after a proper meal of beans and rice, prepared by Joy herself, she joined in the work of building her new home.

When Sami told her about the plans to grow coffee and tea for a Christian food company in America, she nodded and said that was fine with her. They could count on her and the children. She would never be returning to Lagos. Unlike Sami, she showed no fear that they might become too prosperous.

By afternoon, Joy was having a nap in Abril's hut and the children were playing with some leftover sticks.

“Well, I guess we have our way back to Lagos,” said Sami, grinning at Abril as they lounged under the shade of Emmanuel's tree. It was the heat of the day and a good time to take a break. Emmanuel had been told the news of Abril receiving funding for irrigation so they could cultivate tea and coffee plants. Like Joy, he had pledged himself to the project without any sign of fear. Sami was now thoroughly ashamed of his initial reaction. The arrival of the car back in the village seemed to be the final sign that God was with this project.

Abril nodded.

“I'm eager to get started, but we should probably stay until the huts are done.”

“You should set out tomorrow, children,” said Emmanuel, who they thought had been sleeping. Leaning against the tree trunk, his eyes had been closed and his breathing had been steady. “Me and Joy and the children will have the huts finished by the time you are back.”

Judging by Joy's strength and knowing children's proclivity for slinging mud around, Abril could believe it.

“Tomorrow it is,” said Sami, lying back on the grass with his hands behind his head. It was in God's hands now. No longer would he worry about the future.

 

Before a trip to Lagos, there was a trip to Audu's little market stall to buy petrol for the journey. Audu was pleased to have customers and was even willing to accept dinars knowing he could use them at Abu Salem's coffeehouse. Sami doubted his sister would benefit from this purchase, but the future, at least, was good.

“We have a business proposition for you,” said Sami.

“Oh yes?” said Audu, looking at both Sami and Abril. “Your business?” he asked her.

She nodded.

“We will need more petrol in the future and we would like you to be our supplier,” continued Sami.

Audu was nodding.

“The only concern is that Abril's company is a Christian one.”

Sami let that sink in. Audu was watching, still interested.

“So they must have Christians working for them.”

Audu nodded slowly.

In L.A., it would have been a bigoted statement. But Abril was learning that religion played a big role in the everyday lives of people here. So it was not surprising to Audu that a Christian company would hire Christian employees.

“So we will buy the petrol through Naomi,” said Sami.

“But she is Muslim now,” said Audu.

Sami just looked at him.

This was the critical moment.

This was what it had been leading up to. Naomi. Christian or Muslim?

The two men stared at each other.

“Naomi will work for you,” said Audu finally.

Abril exhaled. She realized she had been holding her breath.

Sami nodded, both an acknowledgment as well as an agreement.

“Good,” said Sami. The two men shook hands. “We will keep in touch.”

Carrying back the petrol and filling up the car took until the middle of the day. But Sami and Abril both agreed that they wanted to get going and they would buy something along the roadside, if necessary. As it turned out, there was half a crate of apples in the back seat of the car, leftover from Joy's journey. Some of the apples were looking a little sad, but there were enough good ones to make a filling meal.

“Sami?” she said, once they were on the main road. It was bumpy but Abril was getting used to it.

“Yes?”

“Do you like this idea?” she asked, hesitantly. “I mean, the farming and all?”

Sami nodded.

“I have always loved farming. My father farmed and I used to help him. I never wanted to leave the village. I only left when I thought I could make some money in Lagos, but with all my heart, I did not want to.”

“How did you learn to drive?” she asked, thinking of the small village with no cars.

Sami laughed.

“It was not always like this. When times were good, our family had a small car. I would take people where they needed to go, if they wanted to visit relatives, that sort of thing. Audu sold more petrol then.” They laughed. “The car was the first thing we sold when the drought started. We did not know it would last this long. We needed more seeds and in the end, all we did was eat the seeds. We should have spent our money more wisely, bought some hose to water the fields. . .”

“How could you know it would last this long?”

Sami shrugged.

“You do know that it takes about three years before you have a mature coffee or tea plant?” he said.

“Really? I had no idea!” This was news to Abril.

“What about herbal teas?” she asked, after some thought.

“Herbs grow very fast,” said Sami. “And they grow in abundance.”

“That's great!” said Abril. “We'll grow those too. That'll tide us over until we have the real stuff. Let's see, camomile, of course. Mint . . . what else?”

“Thyme is good for a sore throat,” said Sami.

“I didn't know that,” said Abril.

Sami nodded.

“My mother used to make it.”

“OK, that would be good. I heard somewhere that lemon balm is full of antioxidants. Ginger might be good . . .”

“If you want something healthy, try pelargonium,” Sami interrupted. “It's a Zulu remedy and is good for colds and flu and trouble breathing. It heals you and makes you strong.”

“And it's African?”

Sami nodded.

“Wonderful! I've never heard of it. So that means it'll sell well.”

Sami shook his head at this logic.

“Everybody gets colds and flus but a lot of people don't like to take medication for it,” said Abril. “They want something natural but effective.”

“Pelargonium is effective,” Sami assured her.

Abril was pleased. This line of herbal teas could end up with a bigger market share than even the regular stuff. Already she could imagine the design of the boxes. The herbal teas could potentially be Food for Him's most successful venture yet.

 

“This system is far more efficient and uses less electricity,” the man was saying. “With this . . .” He pointed to the center-pivot system he had just shown them. “Most of your water evaporates before hitting the ground. With this center-pivot system, the water sprayers are smaller and the nozzle is low to the ground. 90% of the water will make it to the crops.”

It was the next day.

Sami was nodding as he handled one of the water sprayers. But Abril was in despair. Unlike food and second-hand cars, irrigation systems were not cheap in Nigeria.

They had looked at all sorts of methods, including the basic pipes for a drip-irrigation system. But Sami had mentioned that they had come from the north and the man at the farmer's co-op, a Christian company, had insisted that they would need a more efficient system.

“When water is scarce, you will appreciate the efficiency of this,” he said, running his hand over one of the large pipes that carried the water.

It was going to end up costing them most of their money. A drip irrigation system would leave them with over half their money, but Abril had to agree with the salesman. They would have to think long-term and use the system that would best work in times of drought. But that would leave them without money for a generator.

She made a quick decision. The generator would come out of her own savings. Living at home with her mother, half her salary had gone to household expenses, the other half had gone to savings. She took a deep breath. So this what she had been saving for.

This whole venture was going to be a step of faith. The co-op sold both tea seeds, camellia sinensis, and coffee cherries. They had a wide selection of herbs too.

What would she do, though, when she had her first crop? Where would the tea and coffee be processed? What kind of infrastructure would be required . . .

Never mind all that, she thought. Let Simon, Carlie, Jessie, Ted and Heather work all that out. As soon as she had her first crop and they had dried it all out, or whatever you did with herbs, she would UPS it all straight to Food for Him.

The main thing now was that Sami seemed to understand how this irrigation system worked. The way his eyes were following along the length of the pipes, as the salesman showed him all the details, she knew this was the system.

What she hadn't known was that the price wasn't fixed and Sami was not only able to negotiate the price down by about a third, but also to have all the seeds thrown in for free. Furthermore, the irrigation system came with it's own fuel-run pump, thus eliminating the need for a generator.

“I am in awe,” said Abril, as they carried pipes out to the car. “That was amazing how you got all that stuff!”

Sami grinned.

“No negotiating in Los Angeles?”

“Not like that,” she said.

Thankfully, the irrigation system came in about a thousand pieces, otherwise there would have been no way they could have brought it home without renting a truck. As it was, two enormous boxes, now wrapped in plastic, were being tied to the roof by Sami. Another huge box was hanging out of the trunk, also affixed by rope. The back seat was piled to the ceiling with more boxes. The pump was at Abril's feet.

The system had been paid for by Abril's VISA, but now she needed to have some naira. The salesman had told them where the nearest ATM machine was. Thankfully, they had never entered the heart of the city so they weren't subjected to the traffic gridlock. But it was still slow driving and it was another hour before Abril had a purse full of naira. She had thousands of naira now.

“You should take, maybe a thousand naira in small bills,” said Sami, pulling out of the parking lot. “And put that in your wallet. That way, if we are stopped, you will be able to show that you have very little. The rest, you should hide.”

Abril thought of the soldiers and the other uniformed men they had seen on the ride down. Many of the cars had been stopped and she had observed an exchange going on between them and the driver. Sami had explained that their car was too dilapidated for anyone to hope for a “gift.” But now that they were carrying an irrigation system home, the situation might be different.

Abril nodded. Going through her purse looking for a good hiding place, she settled on the case for her sunglasses. The bulk of the money went in there while the sunglasses went on top of her head.

“Hungry?” she said.

“Always,” he said, grinning.

They were back on a relatively smooth four-lane highway lined with businesses. A lot of the businesses looked industrial but amid the more utilitarian structures were colourful homes and small eateries.

Sami took an exit ramp and pulled into the parking lot of a small restaurant with blue concrete walls and a thatched roof. Beside it was a mud-brick church.

“Christians,” he said.

Abril nodded. A Christian neighbourhood.

Plastic tables and chairs spilled right out into the parking lot - so they could park and sit right by their car. It was the middle of the afternoon and there were many people, just drinking coffee, talking and keeping an eye on what was going on around them.

With only a breakfast of apples, the smells coming from the inside of the restaurant were almost making Abril dizzy. She let Sami order for them both. They sipped some bottled water while they waited.

“Well,” she said, smiling. “We're officially farmers now!”

Sami nodded. For her, it was a new thing. He had always been a farmer, since he was a young boy. But now it was much more. A farmer working for a business in America! He wouldn't be growing the food for his family, but for profit. It would be strange to take his naira and go up to the Muslim village and shop for his food in the marketplace. His small village had bartered among themselves, of course, but it had always been limited. Joy had always had chickens, he recalled. He hadn't seen them recently. They must have been carried off in the attack.

“We should get some chickens,” he said, out-loud.

“Chicken?” she said. “I thought we ordered beef pie.”

He smiled.

“No, I mean, we should get some chickens for Joy. She used to have them, before . . . Naomi.”

Abril nodded, comprehending.

“Chickens would be good,” she said. “That means eggs, right?”

“Yes,” said Sami. “Joy always fed her family eggs.”

“Where do you buy chickens?” Abril asked.

“In any village,” said Sami.

Abril recalled the abundant diversity of the village marketplace and could believe that you could get chickens somewhere in the midst of it all.

The late lunch was devoured and then it was time to move on. Now that he had thought about chickens, Sami was eager to pick some up in the next village. Not only would it be good for all of them, but it would restore part of the loss created by Naomi.

The highway very quickly turned into a hard mud-packed road with potholes. It was jarring but one just had to be patient. Abril surreptitiously glanced at Sami. She knew his mind was on his village and its wellbeing. Although Emmanuel was the village elder, the village they were returning to was his. He would be the leader now, meeting their needs, even if he deferred to Emmanuel as long as the elderly man lived. It was humbling to realize that, perhaps, she was just an instrument in God's hands to bring life back to this small Christian community in northern Nigeria.

Had Sami been Simon, he would have been talking right now. Simon was always talking. Ideas were second-nature to him. It was his mother's success that had allowed him to turn his ideas into a business. Sami, she sensed, was a hard-worker more than a talker. But that was OK. How many hours had she spent talking with Simon only to be replaced by Carlie?

When they came to a village, Sami pulled off the main road and manoeuvred the car through the narrow streets, getting as close as he could to the marketplace. He parked the car beside a hut that sold metal basins.

Abril reached into her purse and pulled out the sunglasses case. She opened it and held it out to him. He grabbed some of the bills.

“I will be right back,” he said.

She nodded. They couldn't leave the irrigation system by itself. Sami disappeared into the late afternoon crowds.

Abril watched a man up a palm tree dropping coconuts to a man below. In a small patch of dirt between two mud huts, another man was weaving an enormous basket while children scurried around, bringing him more straw to work with. A woman was manning a large pot, stirring its contents. Turning in another direction, there was a factory of sorts, where several men were working on posts and headboards to assemble into bed frames. Everywhere, despite the poverty, there was industry.

Someone taped on the glass. She jumped. But it was just an old man with a basket of seashells. An odd item for an inland village. She smiled and shook her head. He moved on. If it had been something edible, she would have considered it, but seashells were hard to work into her plans.

It was funny how she wasn't nervous. Had the car been parked in some parts of downtown L.A., she would have been. But here, she felt safe, though not exactly at home. It was too exotic for that.

She laughed when she saw Sami coming. He was balancing a large cardboard box covered in some kind of netting, a pile of bread and a flat of bottled water. She reached across the seat to open the door for him.

He handed her the bread, put the water temporarily on his seat and then looked for a flat surface for the chicks. There was none.

“I'd better take that too,” she said grinning.

“Are you sure?” he said. “It could get messy . . .”

“I'll survive,” she said, taking it and putting it on her lap. Peering into the box, about twenty little chicks looked back up at her.

“They are soooooo adorable!” she said.

“They don't stay adorable,” said Sami, knowledgeable about such things.

“I don't care,” said Abril, her eyes still on them. “I've never seen anything so cute in my life!”

Sami shook his head, but he was smiling. He was sliding water bottles under his seat, the only space left in the car.

Back on the main road, they had only travelled for twenty minutes before they encountered a checkpoint patrolled by armed men. This time, they were signalled to stop.

“We wish you a warm and healthy National Day,” said a man, his head in the driver's window, taking everything in.

“We wish you a warm and healthy National Day too,” said Sami, glancing at Abril and nodding slightly. She shifted the chicks and got out her purse. Opening her wallet, she riffled through it. Pulling out one bill she held it up questioningly. Sami nodded for her to get another one. Then he took them and handed them to the man.

“Here is a gift to celebrate.”

The man hesitated, glancing at Abril, her wallet and then the rest of the car interior. Then he shrugged and said, “And a safe journey to you.”

“Thank you,” said Sami.

Abril exhaled as they drove away.

“Nothing like that in Los Angeles?” asked Sami.

Abril shook her head.

“No, but we have toll booths where you have to stop and pay. It's to cover the cost of the highway.”

“It is sort of the same thing. Except they do it to increase their wages.”

They both laughed.

“Yes, I guess it is the same thing,” said Abril. And she had probably paid a lot less here at this stop than she did at any toll booth.

 


Chapter Ten

S

ami, eager to return home, drove most of the night with only a brief stop by the side of the road for some bread and water. The chicks got their share too. And then after a brief nap, they were off again. By the time the sun was up, they were pulling into the village.

Joy was pleased to have the chicks and immediately started making a small pen for them. Emmanuel and the children got the leftover bread for breakfast. Abril went straight to her hut to lie down. But outside, she could hear Sami animatedly telling Emmanuel all about the new irrigation system. She drifted off to sleep while the two men unloaded the car.

When she woke up, it was the middle of the day. Sami and Emmanuel had the pieces of the irrigation system all spread out, and with the help of an owner's manual, were assembling it. Joy's children didn't know which was more interesting – the new chicks or the sprinkler system that was starting to take form.

Despite Emmanuel's boast, Joy's hut had not been entirely finished and in the afternoon, Abril joined her and the children in adding more mud to the walls. Joy clearly had experience in making huts out of mud. At first they worked in silence. But then Joy spoke.

“Why do you do this?” Joy asked.

“I don't know,” said Abril, honestly. She glanced down at Joy's children who were getting more mud on themselves than on the frame. “I kind of got here by accident but found out that I liked it.”

Joy stared at her.

“Emmanuel says you are from Los Angeles in America?”

Abril nodded.

“Will you go back?”

“I dunno,” said Abril. Her eyes automatically went to Sami and Joy noticed.

“Sami is a good man. He deserves a good woman.” Joy was serious.

“Yes, I know,” said Abril.

“Do you have a man back home?”

“No, I don't.”

Joy nodded. That was the answer she wanted to hear. After her own heartbreak, no doubt she was sensitive to the idea of someone having two lovers.

After that, they talked about Joy's children, Isaac and Christiana. Isaac was six and Christiana was four.

“Does Isaac go to school?” asked Abril.

Joy shook her head.

“Emmanuel teaches the children how to read. All the children in the village learned to read from him.”

“That's good,” said Abril, looking over at the two men. So it was thanks to Emmanuel that Sami could read. “That's a wonderful thing to pass on to the children.”

Joy nodded.

“So maybe he will teach Isaac when we are done building. But all the books in his hut are gone.”

“Do they have books in the village over there?” Abril asked.

“I do not know,” said Joy. “But I would like Isaac to read the Bible.”

“We'll pick up some Bibles next time we're in Lagos,” said Abril. “And I have a Bible in the meantime.”

“That is very kind of you,” said Joy.

More mud had to be made and Joy mixed it up while Abril kept working on the hut. It would be easy to let this go to her head – generous woman from the West shows up and lavishes all sorts of material benefits on struggling Africans. But she was too humbled by their acceptance of her to even let thoughts like that stay in her mind for more than a few seconds. Back home, she had been chubby Abril Sanchez. Poor Abril. That's how people at church treated her. No man. Still living at home.

Despite that she had co-founded Food for Him, Simon's mother had never met with her socially. Unlike Carlie, Abril had never been to the white-columned manor where Simon's mother ran her ministry. Carlie was a regular visitor there. No doubt, they all nibbled a few carrots and bites of chicken before declaring themselves full. Abril could imagine. Then a mouthful of brownie before announcing that that was sufficient to experience God's grace and wonderful provision. Truth is, Abril would have never fit in there and here she did. She was grateful to be part of this village. Even the fact that she had her own hut now was an indicator of how she was treated with more concern here than she ever would be in L.A.

Over the next few days, under Joy's expertise, one hut was finished and another one was built. Now Sami and Emmanuel could share a hut. And the irrigation system was assembled and arranged.

Audu came for a visit, curious about the progress of their “business.” The irrigation system, with its pump, impressed him. Sami also mentioned that they would need more petrol for the car too.

“We will return tomorrow,” Audu promised.

Sami watched as he walked back to his village. By evening, the larger village would all know of the tiny Christian village's expensive irrigation system. But hopefully, by making Audu their petrol supplier, there would be no cause for further attack.

That night, he couldn't sleep. It wasn't just Emmanuel's snoring, nor the fact that they hadn't gotten around to making themselves some woven mats to sleep on yet. It was the fear.

Sleep should come easily. He had worked hard all day. Tomorrow, they would all plant the seeds. But all he could think about was how it could all be destroyed by another attack on his village. They were so vulnerable.

He stood and went outside. In the blackness, there was no place to look but up. He stared at the stars for a while.

If God could make stars he could protect them, he finally decided. But it was an abstract idea rather than one he felt in his heart. Even Joy seemed to have more courage than him right now. She seemed content with her new hut and her chickens and her new start.

And Abril. Abril who should be living a comfortable life in the land of plenty, was here, putting all her hope in the future of this irrigation system and the coffee and tea that it would produce. He didn't care so much about the money which had come from the distant Simon. But for Abril's sake, he wanted it all to succeed.

And yet, she had seemed interested in Nigeria even before there had been plans to start this new business.

So really, it all came back to him. Everyone in this village was living with faith, except him. His mother's faith and prayers had brought him to this point. He was on the verge of something, maybe even something great, and he was almost too afraid to go forward.

He was startled to hear a noise. At first he thought it was a baboon, or a hyena. And then he saw it was Abril, leaning against Emmanuel's tree.

Abril!” he whispered, not wanting to wake up the village.

She jumped.

“I am sorry,” he said, hurrying over to her. “I did not want to startle you.”

“That's OK,” she said. She had been looking out at the field where the irrigation system had been arranged. The whole village was surrounded by fields but the irrigation system only covered one of them, the one that belonged to Sami and his family.

They were so close, there was a moment of awkwardness. And then Abril grabbed Sami's hand and said, “This is only the beginning! If this works, we can expand to the other fields.”

Sami hesitated. He wanted to share his fear with her, to have her understand him completely. But then it occurred to him, maybe in this case, it would be better to try to understand her completely.

“You have faith in this?” he said.

“I have faith in God,” she said, squeezing his hand. “This system is great. I love it and I love the idea of what we're going to do. But I came here and learned something that I never thought about before.”

“What's that?”

“Give us this day our daily bread,” she said simply. “I never understood that prayer before. Now I do. It's all about today. Food. Everything.”

In the dark, Sami nodded slowly. Yes, there was truth to that.

“I'm excited about today,” she said. “I was never that way in L.A. I don't know what's going to happen with all of this,” she said waving toward the field. “But I'm not thinking much about the future anymore. Just the moment.”

She hesitated slightly and then her head leaned against his chest. It was all the excuse he needed to put his arms around her and hold her.

Yes, she was right. There was today. His mother had always known that and that's why she had been able to live through a famine without fear. It had been the fear of the future that had taken him to Lagos where he had discovered that he couldn't make it on his own. And God had sent him Abril. His heart had said to rebuild the village but really, without her, what would it have amounted to? Instead, here they were looking out at what had once been the fields that had sustained a village, but that now God seemed to have even bigger plans for.

 

This was the first time Sami had seen Naomi in their village since Lagos. She didn't show any interest in her surroundings – the huts being rebuilt, the new irrigation system. Her whole demeanour had changed.

His sister, who used to spread her opinions around the whole village on the smallest of issues, now stood silent beside her husband. Audu was carrying the petrol tanks but it was Naomi who received the naira from Sami. She looked at his hands rather than looking at his face.

Sami hardly knew what to do, except give her arm a squeeze and hope that she saw his smile.

Audu stayed to see the petrol go in the pump and the first beads of water drop through the sprayers to the ground. He nodded his approval.

Joy wasn't interested in renewing her acquaintance with Naomi, but Emmanuel made an attempt to greet her. Joy's children also danced around her and tugged at her hands, but she didn't respond.

Watching, Abril thought how hard it must be to come back to the village that had been destroyed because of her actions. Audu, on the other hand, was interested in the sprinkler system and was enjoying himself, asking questions.

Sami was pointing out the various components and how they worked. The water was coming out at a steady drizzle now. It would have been impossible to plant seeds in the dry dust that the fields had turned into.

At first, Sami couldn't help thinking that Audu was asking so many questions because he planned to take a report back to the larger village. A team would be sent out to sabotage the whole system before they would even see a seed sprout. But the longer they talked, the more he was sure the man was genuinely interested. Something occurred to him. Audu had always chosen to make his living among the Christians. He had only turned to trying to make a living in his own village when he had lost his customers. He had even been willing to marry a Christian. And now he was here, supplying them with their petrol for this new venture. Was it possible Audu had always felt more comfortable with the people of this small village?

If so, Sami was finally sure he had nothing to fear. It would have only been Sami’s desire for revenge that would have destroyed his future here. And God had sent him Abril to keep that desire from ever turning into any kind of action.

Audu proved Sami's new theory about him by showing up the next day, not with petrol this time, but with a heavy load of the kind of sticks needed to build the frame of a house. He was paid in naira but he stayed to watch the seeds being planted, even helping. Everyone was helping to plant the seeds today, even Joy's children.

He had left Naomi in charge of the marketplace stall, he told Sami.

If Naomi ever got her spunk back, Sami was sure the marketplace stall would become a moneymaking enterprise. But as long as his sister was sunk in the darkness he had seen yesterday, her life would be a futile and empty one.

Audu shared in the evening meal of rice and beans, promising that tomorrow he would be back with more sticks. Clearly he had no problem with the village being rebuilt.

“Well, that was quite the day's work,” said Abril, after Audu had left. She and Sami were leaning against what they now both called Emmanuel's tree. All because the old man had favoured it briefly when he had no hut to sleep in. He had gone to bed right after dinner, as had Joy and her children.

The trunk of the tree was wide enough for both of them to lean on, as long as they were close together. Abril put her head on Sami's shoulder. What made her so bold like this? At home, she would have never leaned against a man like this. But it was something that came easily with Sami and she knew that if she didn't make the first move, he might be too hesitant to. As competent as he was with his farming, she got the impression there hadn't been too many eligible young women in this village for him to have spent time with. At the same time, she could tell he missed his sister. She had seen it in his eyes yesterday.

Sami took her hand.

“Yes, there are many days like this,” he said. “Especially with planting and at harvest time. It is not an easy life,” he added, waiting for her reaction.

“I know,” she said. “But there's a lot of satisfaction to it.”

He was glad she understood. That's exactly how he had felt before the drought when he looked out at the fields. Satisfied.

“But we can't live on tea leaves,” said Abril. “So I guess, at some point, we'll have to plant crops so we can eat.”

Sami shook his head, enjoying the way their fingers were entwined.

“These crops will make so much money we will not have to worry. Even if your company abandons us, these plants will outlive me and be making money for the children of this village.”

Abril understood right away. Any further expansion should be more coffee and tea plants. After all, if you went by the number of patrons at Abu Salem's coffeehouse, people needed their caffeine even in times of drought.

“Besides,” he said. “Soon we will have chickens. Joy only kept two chickens and they kept her family in eggs. Now this village has twenty.”

Abril laughed.

“I thought you were just replacing them.”

Sami shook his head.

“I thought it would be good to think of the future.” And he hoped the future would have Abril in it.

 

Sami watched with amusement as Abril hurried out to the edge of the village to survey the fields.

She turned away, disappointed.

“Nothing's come up yet.”

“It takes awhile,” he said.

Joy was up early feeding the chicks, indifferent to the fields.

“What about all those other fields?” said Abril, surveying the land that bordered the village. They had used Emmanuel's fields for the herbs and Sami's fields for the tea and coffee plants.

“They belong to the other people,” said Sami. “They may come back after the drought and want to cultivate them.”

Abril nodded.

“Does Joy have fields?” she whispered.

Sami shook his head, taking her hand and pulling her close. Emmanuel was out of sight at the well. Joy was ignoring them. Sami just wanted to be able to hold Abril for a moment, before the day's work began. There was still a hut to build. He and Emmanuel were sharing one, but it would be good to have another one, either so the men could each have their own hut or for any family that might return.

“Her husband was an electrician. When he was here, he always did work up in the village.” Her head was on his chest and his head was resting on her hair. Her arms were around his waist. If only they could be like this every day.

“Speaking of the village,” she said. “Tonight, I should probably go up there and make a phone call.”

“OK,” he murmured, not wanting to let her go, but seeing Emmanuel return, gently releasing her.

“Dinner at Abu Salem's?” she said, grinning.

He nodded.

“It's a date.”

 

The frame was half-finished when they splashed some water on their faces, and headed out for the village. The field workers of the larger village watched them as they passed by. It had not gone unnoticed that something was happening in the smaller Christian village.

“What are you growing down there?” one of them, a young man, called out.

“Herbs,” Sami called back.

The man nodded. The Muslim village mostly grew staples like millet and cowpeas and sorghum. One of the fields of the wealthier farmers had cocoa. Things like rice and sweet potatoes and fruit came by truck from other regions.

Abril looked at her watch and decided the later she called Simon, the better. She'd rather catch him after his first cappuccino.

“Mind if we stroll through the marketplace?” she asked.

He shook his head, curious to see what she had in mind. A new robe for everyone in the village, as it turned out.

“I don't know about you,” she said. “But I'm getting tired of having to wash an outfit every night if I don't want to walk around naked the next day.”

Sami's eyebrows went up at this thought.

A lamp for each hut was next.

Audu will be pleased,” said Sami, nodding toward the lamps that he was now carrying in a box. “More fuel sales.”

“Yes, we need to keep Audu happy,” said Abril smiling. “Should we get mats for our huts too?” She pointed to a pile.

“Joy would kill us,” said Sami grinning. “She made the best mats in the village before everything. When she has some time, she will make us all one, you will see.”

Abril nodded at the wisdom of leaving this task to Joy.

“OK,” she said. “Food. Let's see what we can do to liven things up . . .” They still had rice and beans so they ended up with a basketful of yams.

“When you shop, you like to shop!” said Sami. They were both loaded down as they entered Abu Salem's.

“Greetings, children,” said the proprietor, with a wide smile. “You have been to the marketplace, I see.”

He led them to a table for four so they could spread out with their purchases. The young boy brought them coffee before they had even figured out where to put the lamps.

“So you are growing herbs?” Abu Salem said, pulling a seat up to their table.

Abril and Sami exchanged amused smiles. News had made it to Abu Salem's in the short time they had been in the marketplace.

“And coffee and tea,” said Sami, deciding that Abu Salem might as well know the full scope of their plans.

Yallah!” said Abu Salem, slapping his knee. “I will be your first customer, yes!”

They both grinned and nodded.

Abu Salem told them he had received a truckload of beef today and that he strongly recommended the kebabs. When Sami and Abril agreed he stood up, called out “two kebabs!” to his young waiter and then returned to a backgammon game in the corner.

Abril glanced at her watch. Hopefully this wouldn't be too early to call Simon.

“I'll see if I can call Simon,” she said, standing up.

Simon answered right away.

“Oh hi, Abril,” he said. “I was just heading out the door. Talk to me.”

“Well, things are going well here,” she said. “We have the irrigation system set up. The plants are in the ground. We thought we'd do some herbal teas, in the meantime, until the other plants mature. It could take awhile . . .”

“I like it,” Simon interrupted. “We got the Herbal Health line of vitamins. Did you hear? The two would go well together.”

“They would,” Abril agreed. That thought had crossed her mind.

“Listen, Abril,” said Simon, sounding rushed. “I need you to get back here, OK? There are a lot of details to work out.”

“Oh, I know,” she said. “But I was hoping I could stay a bit longer, see the plants come up . . .”

“You said they'd be awhile,” said Simon. “And you're probably in the country illegally. So come home and we'll take it from here. We've got to work with our current suppliers to get this off the ground and you're the best one to handle it.”

She couldn't argue that. Carlie or any of the other Food for Him team members could hardly be expected to throw themselves into a project that had been her idea.

“OK,” she agreed reluctantly.

“The Jordan thing is a complete write-off,” said Simon. “So forget about that and just come straight home. I'm kind of glad things worked out this way. Otherwise, you would have been stuck in Jordan with no one to talk to. So I'll see you soon, OK?” He hung up before she could reply.

Abril returned to the table knowing she was about to impart bad news. Sami could tell she wasn't happy.

“What is it?” he asked, reaching across the table for her hand, regardless of the other patrons.

“I have to go back,” she said slowly. “There's a lot to do on that end. You know, to get things off the ground . . .”

Sami looked down at their hands. He had been expecting something like this.

“I want to come back though,” she said.

He nodded.

“I suppose there will always be a reason to visit . . .”

“No, not just to visit. To stay. I love it here!”

The look on his face told her that it was exactly what he wanted to hear. But instantly, his face changed.

“You will not want to come back once you are home with the people you love,” he said. “You will forget.”

It was going to be hard to convince him.

“Sami,” she said, squeezing his hand and smiling. “I'm going to come back! And my hut better be waiting for me!”

He acknowledged this with his own smile but he didn't say anything.

“I'm going to have to get a lot of work done to get this project going,” she continued. “There'll be the packages to design and all that. But then I'll see what I can do about getting a work visa of some sort so I can stay longer . . .”

“You won't have to do that,” said Sami, looking her in the eyes. “That is, if . . .”

Her heart started beating faster. She knew what he was going to say.

The kebabs arrived, delivered by Abu Salem himself. Sami quickly let go of Abril's hand.

The plates of meat and rice were put in front of them with a promise that his boy would be back with some garlic sauce.

Sami stared down at his plate. It had been awhile since he had had such a fine meal. But he wanted to get back to what he had started trying to say to Abril.

Trying was the right word. He didn't quite have the words yet.

Abril hadn't started eating.

Sami opened his mouth to make another attempt. The boy arrived with the garlic sauce and a promise to bring them more coffee.

After he thanked him, Sami's mind went completely blank.

“Please come back, Abril,” was all he could say.

“I will,” she promised.

 


Part Two


 

 


Chapter Eleven

Y

ou look amazing, Abril!” said Simon, greeting her with a quick kiss on the cheek. He looked her over. “Did you lose weight?”

“Not intentionally,” she said, surprised. Though thinking about it, it made sense – all the work she’d been doing.

Simon looked around for a suitcase, but of course, her suitcase was probably in some lost-and-found in Amman.

She was weary. Sleep hadn't been easy on the plane. She had been expecting to just grab a cab and go straight home to bed. But here was Simon waiting for her at LAX.

She quickly found out why.

“Listen, I know you probably just want to get home and rest, but would you like to come with me to Mother's for dinner? She's really interested in this whole Christian farmer thing. If she's with us from the start, we could get a lot of promos from her.”

“Sure,” said Abril, listlessly. Meeting Simon's mom. Having dinner there. What she wouldn't have given to do that before Africa. But now there was Sami. And saying goodbye at the Lagos airport hadn't been easy.

While they were driving through the late rush hour traffic Simon asked her more about what she had done in Africa.

“Well,” she said, leaning her head back and closing her eyes. “Apart from planting fields, I built a mud hut and did some shopping in the marketplace.”

“You built a hut?”

Abril nodded.

“It's not that hard. You just need a frame and then some mud and then you cover the whole thing with thatch.”

“Wow!” said Simon, impressed.

It had been ironic how it had ended where it had started, almost at the same spot. She and Sami had pulled up to the airport in the same battered car they had started in. And any doubts she might have had about his feelings had been dispelled by the way he had held her, as if he never wanted to let her go.

Except for the outfit she was wearing, she had left behind everything in her hut – her robes, her Bible, even her sunglasses. She wanted Sami to continually know she would be back. He now had the sunglasses case with the naira, to use to support the village until the first crop came in.

“Jessie's still trying to work out the Holy Land tag,” said Simon. “Maybe with Palestinian farmers. Olive oil is a definite possibility. But my mom's really excited about the idea of a line of products grown by Christian farmers. She's hoping to combine it with a series on Isaiah 58 about God's true fast, namely to share your bread with the hungry.”

“Sounds good,” said Abril, massaging her eyes. If anything, she wanted to be going home to her own mother, to talk things over, to tell her about Sami and how she was seeing things a bit differently now.

They were passing the exit ramp that would have taken them to the overcrowded neighbourhood of Abril and her mother in East Los Angeles. Simon had also grown up in that neighbourhood but as soon as his mother's ministry had taken off, his parents had moved to the Valley.

Simon, loquacious as ever, continued to discuss everything she had missed while in Africa. His mother had finished another DVD. The recent conference in L.A. had been a magnificent success. Not only had the Food for Him table sold-out each day, his mom had moved over two thousand books and over four thousand DVDs. The only drawback had been that his mother's hand had started cramping from signing so many books.

His mom was now musing about a praise-and-worship DVD, something with a theme of overcoming, perhaps. His mom had some singing talent. Simon didn't. Carlie had tried out but didn't have as much talent as his mother had hoped.

“How 'bout you, Abril?” Simon asked, making a lane change.

“Huh?” Abril woke with a start. She had drifted off. “No,” she said, recovering. “No, I don't think I could do that . . .”

“Oh well,” said Simon, philosophically. “We'll just have to recruit some outside talent. Mom wants to get this one going right away, to be done in time for the next conference . . .”

The truth was, Abril was an excellent singer. Her father had played the guitar when she was young and taught her every folk song he knew. She had never had the courage to actually sing in public though, but it had been soul-lifting to sing again in Africa. To just sing for the enjoyment of it, to pass the time, not to perform . . . She rubbed her eyes. She wished she were back in her hut sleeping, knowing she'd see Sami the next morning. How long would she have to stay here? Long enough to get the project off the ground and then she'd go right back . . .

Simon kept talking.

“It'll have to be a mix of contemporary and classic hymns. But with that overcoming theme. You know, everyone in my mom's circle seems to be overcoming something. They need inspiration . . .”

Abril drifted off to sleep again.

 

“I'm simply thrilled to meet you,” said Simon's mother. From anyone else, it would have sounded insincere. But her warm slim hand was still holding onto Abril's. “What an exciting venture! I'm sure it was all Spirit-led.”

Abril was gratified that her little accident in the Lagos airport had been turned into a Holy Spirit-led expedition.

They were all making for an enormous mahogany table in a spacious dining room. Simon's father, a tall, slim quiet man took a chair at one end with Simon's mother at the other. Abril received the seat of honour at her right hand. She and Simon had arrived just in time for the meal. There were other people at the table – Simon's older sister, her two young children and her husband; a cousin visiting from Sacramento; a couple of older women who oversaw the daily administration of the ministry.

A maid brought in bowls of different kinds of salad, a large loaf of ciabatta bread, some olives and some bowls of cheese.

Abril was not too tired to take note of how Simon's mother ate. It was fascinating to watch her fill her small salad plate with a few lettuce leaves, a couple of olives and some cubes of cheese. A small crust of bread was on a side plate. Was it possible that Simon's mother was truly satisfied with this meagre meal?

Thinking of the people in Nigeria, Abril shook her head and loaded her plate with lettuce and olives and cheese. Food was no longer an issue. Sami had been fine with her when he had first seen her and it seemed crazy to hold back for the sake of appearances.

“Water?” Simon's mother held up a crystal jug of ice water with lemon slices.

“Sure,” said Abril, holding out her glass. “And I'd love a coffee, if you have it.”

“Of course,” said Simon's mother, glancing at the maid, who nodded and returned to the kitchen. “I'm so sorry, bringing you out like this when you should probably be home resting. But we wanted to hear all about this new venture.”

For the sake of Sami and their success together, Abril forced herself to smile despite exhaustion and say, “Of course.” Though it wasn't hard to become more animated as the story went on. Sami's willingness to forgive the men who had burned down his village impressed everyone at the table. They all enjoyed the part about rebuilding the huts and especially about how Audu had arrived with sticks to contribute to the rebuilding.

“God's grace,” someone murmured.

Even though he had been paid for the sticks, Abril privately agreed.

Simon's mother approved of the initiative to plant herbs in the interim and agreed that it could end up being an even bigger venture than the regular tea.

“The irrigation system will make year-round farming possible,” said Abril. “It's an extremely productive land when the water is managed properly.”

My, didn't she sound like the farmer's advocate? She smiled to herself.

“It wouldn't be necessary to provide every field with a center-pivot system,” said Abril. “At least, not right away. My vision is that we use the profits to slowly expand. We could start with a drip-irrigation system for each field and work our way up . . .”

“Sounds good,” said Simon. Abril noticed that his plate was mostly cheese and bread.

The conversation turned to the cousin from Sacramento. He was in his early thirties and Simon's sister and her kids had taken him to Disneyland for the day. He was a shy man, but Simon's mother told Abril that they were hoping he would come work for “The Ministry.”

“Don is a genius with computers,” she said, smiling at her nephew who ended up smiling back at Abril instead.

Abril returned the smile absentmindedly, but she was waiting for dessert. Simon's mother was always saying how God didn't mind if his people ate ice cream or pastries or any of the other fabulous creations of talented men. What you ate didn't matter as much as how much you ate. She was curious to see what they had here at the headquarters mansion.

But dessert never came. No one, except Abril, even had a cup of coffee.

“Well, I should get you back,” said Simon to Abril, as the table broke up.

She nodded, disappointed. She had been expecting something luscious and decadent. Even some fruit would have been nice.

Simon's mother had already disappeared somewhere upstairs.

They went out into the night air, down the steps that led to the courtyard where Simon's Camaro convertible was parked. Despite the coffee, she still wanted to just get home and sleep. She almost tripped on Simon. He had stepped in front of her to open the passenger door.

“Oops, sorry,” she said.

“I should be the one apologizing,” he said, grinning. “You're always too nice, Abril.”

She climbed in and put on her seat belt. Simon was rolling back the top of his car. That was a surprise. It had been a long time since she had been in Simon's car and he usually only rolled the top back for the weekends—the weekends with Carlie.

She had to admit though, after hot Africa, the balmy California night air was refreshing.

“So,” said Simon, as they drove down the long gravel driveway to the road. “What did you think?”

“About what?” she asked.

“Everything,” he said.

“Well,” she said, thinking. “I was surprised your mother doesn't have dessert.”

Simon laughed.

“Not about dinner, silly,” he said. “About Mom supporting everything. I think we're really onto something here. Your idea of using Christian farmers is a great one.”

“Thanks,” said Abril. She was actually surprised that everyone around the table had accepted the idea. Most Christians were Holy Land-obsessed. But how many times had she heard Nigeria mentioned in a sermon? Never.

“So this farmer, what did you say his name was . . .?”

“Sami.”

“Sami. We can rely on him?”

“Definitely. He loves his village. He loves his people. I can see a future there.”

Simon was nodding. “That's good. I have Ted looking into tax laws there and everything. He told me it's a pretty lawless sort of place and the infrastructure is poor.”

“I felt perfectly safe there,” said Abril. “Everyone was kind and helpful.”

“Well, you can't believe everything you read on the internet,” said Simon agreeably. “And I'm not so worried about the infrastructure because it sounds like with that irrigation system, you don't need electricity or phone lines or things like that.”

“Exactly,” said Abril. “In fact, I found it inspiring how the people used what they had. It was very Biblical the way they lived and worked.”

“Hey, that's good,” said Simon, nodding as they turned onto the ramp to the freeway. “Sort of the way Jesus lived.”

“That's what I was thinking.”

“We could really emphasize that,” said Simon, musing out loud, obviously working out ways to make this new idea profitable. He continued to think out loud. But Abril's mind was on her mother. Her mother didn't even know she'd gone to Nigeria. She was expecting her home from Jordan. And here she was coming home, no suitcase, but with a hut in Africa waiting for her return. What would her mother have to say about it all?

“Listen, why don't you catch up on your rest tomorrow and I'll pick you up for dinner?” Simon was saying. “We can work out some more of the details.”

It had been a long time since they had had a working meal together.

“Sure,” she said. She was too tired to even think at this point. Just enough strength left to make it up the short flight of stairs to the second-story apartment.

Simon didn't need to ask directions to her place. He had dropped her off there many times in the past and even visited it in the days of the youth group. Of course, she had been twenty pounds lighter then. The weight had come in her twenties when she had become less active. Ironically, it was because she spent most of her time at her desk at Food for Him that she wasn't out walking and playing softball and swimming like when she was younger.

Tonight, he even walked her right up to her front door.

Abril?”

“Uh huh?” Abril, her keys still in her hand, already had one foot in the door. She turned back. Simon reached out for her hand.

“It's good to have you back,” he said.


 

 


Chapter Twelve

T

he previous night was a blur, a strange memory that seemed less real than Nigeria.

After sleeping in until noon, Abril woke up to a breakfast of coffee and waffles made by her mom - over which they had gotten caught up.

Abril's mom found the whole story delightful, although there had been points when she had shown parental concern. But if some people had issues about interracial relationships, Abril's mom didn't. Of course, her mom had never looked at the world like everyone else.

“Mom,” said Abril, hesitantly. “I really want to go back. I mean, go back to stay. But would you be OK with that?”

“Of course, sweetie. If it's God's will, you should be there. I don't know if it would be an easy life, but I can tell you this, it's not an easy life anywhere.”

Abril nodded.

She looked around at their comfortable apartment. It seemed shabby compared to Simon's mother's mansion, but luxurious compared to Nigeria. Maybe coming back was a mistake. It invited comparison. Maybe she should have just told Simon they would have to work out the details from a distance . . .

Abril returned to her bedroom to go through her depleted closet. What would she take back with her when she went to Nigeria? Only the men wore pants, from what she'd seen. Shorts were out of the question. So it was back to dresses, most of which were in her suitcase somewhere in Jordan.

Abril sighed. She might as well just buy what she needed in Africa. Money would be the best thing to take. But she had already considered how moving to Nigeria would mean that she wouldn't have a steady income from Food for Him. She would be like Sami. The money would come from selling the crops to Food for Him. That would be one of the details to work out with Simon tonight.

In the meantime, what to wear?

For a dinner of potato knishes, jeans would be fine, she decided. She changed out of her pyjamas but then lay back down on her bed and rubbed her eyes. Glancing at the alarm clock beside her bed, 3:00, she wondered what Sami was doing. Probably sleeping. Which is why she felt like sleeping some more. She drifted off again, first saying a prayer for all the people of the small village she had left behind – Sami, Emmanuel, Joy, Isaac, Christiana - and even some of the people in the large village – Abu Salem, Audu, Naomi. A knock on the door woke her.

Her mom's head appeared around the door.

“Hello, sweetie,” she said. “Sorry to wake you. Just got a call from Simon. He says to dress up a bit.”

Dress up a bit?” This was supposed to be a working dinner.

Her mom nodded.

“That's what he said.” The door shut again.

Abril looked down at her jeans and white shirt. Obviously they wouldn't do. Back to the closet. Well, the choices were few. She settled for a slimming navy-blue sleeveless dress. She was surprised to find that it wasn't as tight-fitting as it had been the last time she had worn it. Africa had definitely been good for her waistline. In case it got cool, she grabbed a delicate black sweater with silver thread around the wrists.

“You look lovely, dear,” said her mother when she came out.

“Thanks, Mom,” she said, giving her mom a kiss on the cheek.

She went into the bathroom to do something about her hair and was surprised to come out and find Simon, at the door, talking to her mom. She expected a light honk to alert her to his arrival.

Abril, you look great!” said Simon, when he saw her.

He looked pretty good too. He had put on a dark blazer over his usual white shirt and dress pants. He even had a tie on. She hadn't seen him in a tie since the days when one of their youth pastors had insisted that all the young men show their respect for God's sanctuary by wearing a tie when they were in it. That particular youth pastor hadn't lasted for long.

“Thanks,” she said. “So do you.”

“Well,” said her mom. “You kids have fun.”

“I'll bring her back safely,” promised Simon. He took Abril's elbow as they went down the stairs. What was going on? Where was all this brotherly protection coming from?

“So where are we off to?” Abril asked, after he had held open the door for her.

“Thought we'd go to La Traviata,” he said, walking around the front of the car to get in on his side.

La Traviata? That was an elegant restaurant in Long Beach that Abril had only been to once when her parents were celebrating their anniversary. The decor was reminiscent of the opera of the same name, with crystal chandeliers, rich amber walls and heavy wooden furniture. It was fine dining, but at the same time, comfortable and intimate – not the type of place Abril ever expected Simon to take her to.

“How was work?” she asked, as they were driving.

He shrugged.

“The usual. I think Ted has got all the details worked out for Nigeria. If you go back, we'll get you a work visa and you can stay up to a few months if you have to . . .”

She opened her mouth to say she'd be staying a lot longer than a few months and that in reality, she may not need a work visa if she and Sami got together. Until he brought up the idea, she hesitated to use the word married, even in her own mind.

But as it turned out, the topic of Nigeria was over. Simon was already discussing his mother's upcoming East Coast tour.

“It's gorgeous out there,” he said. “Especially this time of year. Have you ever been?”

Abril shook her head. The farthest east she'd been in the States was a visit to meet her father's family in Tennessee.

“If I could swing it,” said Simon. “Would you be interested in coming along with me? I'll be going along to do some promo stuff for Food for Him and I sure could use the help.”

“Won't Carlie be going with you?”

“Uh, she can't make it,” said Simon.

So she was a substitute for Carlie who obviously had something important keeping her from going. Family problems, maybe.

“Sure,” said Abril, looking out the window. So much prosperity and yet, poverty too. That's why Africa didn't scare her. In some ways, it was better off there than here. She and her mom had had a comfortable life, and still did, because of her hardworking father. They owned the apartment they lived in. But so many people ended up on the streets because they couldn't keep up with the rent. But in Nigeria, you built another hut and started over. OK, OK, maybe that was a broad generalization. Lagos, obviously, had not been kind to Sami. But the village life seemed to be self-sustaining, unlike here, where you were always dependent on something . . .

Simon was enthusing over the things they'd do while out east.

Out east? She'd just agreed to go on an East Coast tour with him! She'd never even been invited to one of his mom's conferences as a Food for Him rep and now, here she was going on a whole tour!

Oh well. It wouldn't hurt to do a bit of travelling before settling down in Nigeria. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

From the sounds of it, they would be travelling right up to Canada, ultimately flying home out of Toronto.

The restaurant was at a busy intersection and they parked in a lot on the opposite corner. Going inside the restaurant was a different world. Luxury furnishings, dim lighting and soft music all created an ambience of sensuality. For a moment, Abril felt dizzy. She steadied herself on Simon's arm and found that, he in turn put his hand on her arm to keep it there.

Instead of going straight to a table, Simon opted for the lounge. Abril was already light-headed. Did she really need a glass of wine?

They took a table for two and while she was still trying to get a grip on herself, Simon ordered a bottle of champagne.

A bottle of champagne?” she said, when the waiter had left. “What are we celebrating?”

“New beginnings,” he said, smiling.

“Ah,” she said. “The new line of coffee and teas.”

Simon leaned forward and took her hand.

“It's more than that, Abril,” he said. “I've been doing a lot of thinking while you were in Africa.”

Why was he holding her hand? What would Carlie say about all of this? In fact, shouldn't Carlie be here with them?

Simon was still holding her hand, but now he seemed to be searching for the right words. The champagne came before the words did and the waiter was opening the bottle and pouring a sample for Simon's approval. Simon nodded and they both had their glasses filled with the sparkling drink.

“So what is this all about?” Abril asked, trying to sound brisk and businesslike, as she took her first sip. Even in their early days, before Carlie, they had never celebrated like this. “I mean, in terms of the coffee. It's just one field at this point. A large field, certainly. I'm hoping when I go back, we can expand. The only issue is water and we've got that more-or-less sorted out . . .”

“It's not just coffee, Abril,” said Simon who was now ignoring his flute of champagne. “It's about this whole company and where I want it to go. I need someone I can rely on by my side and I know who that person is.”

Yeah, Carlie, thought Abril. It occurred to her with a horrible clarity that this over-the-top invitation to dinner was a way to soften the inevitable blow that was to come. Why hadn't she seen it before? Although she and Simon had started the company, it would be Carlie who would be the matriarch when they got married. Maybe Abril would get some sort of compensation for her loss. . . . In any case, it really didn't matter. She had Sami and she had Nigeria. Carlie could rule Food for Him for all she cared. Abril would have her farm – and her man – in Nigeria.

Why make this embarrassing for Simon?

“I understand,” said Abril, trying to give him her best smile. Why hadn't she stayed in Africa? This type of luxury was not to be hers and she didn't need it anyhow.

“I'm glad,” said Simon. “Because I think I'm finally seeing things the way I should have all along.”

“That's nice,” she said absently. The champagne was good but she really wanted some food to go along with it. “Let's order something to eat. I'm feeling a bit hungry.”

“Of course,” said Simon quickly, looking around for the waiter. A menu was brought to them and Abril quickly skimmed the appetizers. Might as well enjoy herself. There wouldn't be food like this in Nigeria. But there would be other things. Fresh guava and mango. A greater appreciation of the simple pleasures.

“How 'bout the mushroom strudel?” she said.

“Sure,” said Simon, who had hardly glanced at the menu. Abril closed the menu and the waiter returned to take the order.

“Now,” said Abril, leaning forward and folding her arms on the table. She had gotten her hand back from Simon when the menu had come. “I think we need to talk about the design of the packaging. The herbal tea packages are the first priority . . .”

“Yeah, we can take care of all that,” said Simon.

“OK, that's good,” said Abril. “We'll go through our usual suppliers, then?”

Simon nodded.

“But that's not . . .”

“I have a few design ideas I can show you,” said Abril. It had been a long flight back to the States and she had done some doodling on airline napkins. “But, of course, we can leave it to the professionals.”

“Right, right,” said Simon, reaching across the table for her hand again.

Whatever, thought Abril. She wanted to get everything sorted out before her return to Nigeria. “I think my biggest concern is what to do with the crops when they come in. I mean, I know you have to dry tea leaves and herbs and all that. Sami will know what to do, I'm sure. But then what do I do? Mail it to you guys?”

Simon nodded.

“We'll get Sami all set up with some vacuum-sealing machinery. Then we'll package it on this end. It won't be a problem. But what I really want to talk about . . .”

The mushroom strudel arrived and Abril smiled her thanks at the waiter. He had thoughtfully brought two small plates to go along with it.

“Yum,” she said, after her first bite. “This is good.” She didn't want to talk about Carlie. She didn't want Simon holding her hand to cushion the blow. Probably the engagement had been announced while she was gone. If only she had her own engagement to announce! But only her mother would know at this point her true feelings for Sami. Until she could go back to him and they could have a real talk, it would be something she would keep to herself.

Simon grinned.

“What?” she asked.

He reached across the table and with his finger, wiped some cheese from her face.

She shook her head, chagrined. Bet he never had to do that with Carlie.

But what did it really matter? she thought, pulling herself together. She wasn't here to make a good impression on Simon. She was here to have a meal, enjoy the ambience and then go home to plan for a very different future.

The bottle of champagne was stretched out over a dinner of appetizers in the lounge. Live music played gently in the background.

Mostly, they talked about the past, reminiscing about different people in their youth group. Simon, the networker, had kept in touch with all of the ones who were now successful in their careers. Abril, the more compassionate, had kept in touch with the ones who were still struggling with issues that had brought them to youth group in the first place. Not surprisingly, none of them attended Simon's mother's up-and-coming church in the Valley. Many of them were still in the East Los Angeles congregation where they had all met in their younger days. Apart from the Food for Him team, they were Abril's only friends.

“I should make it back there sometime,” said Simon, leaning back in his chair. “For old times.”

Abril nodded.

The champagne had mellowed her and made her nostalgic for the days when everyone thought she and Simon were a couple. He lacked the physical strength of Sami, she thought, watching him look around the lounge. He was naturally slim, fair-skinned, with sandy brown hair. His features were attractive but his strength came from his energy. Simon could work a crowd and anytime his mother had a convention, she had been told that he could be seen surrounded by attentive older women all taking in his every word. That ability had come from his mother, not his quiet unassuming father.

“So we're going to the East Coast,” said Abril, hoping she didn't sound tipsy. She certainly felt drowsy, like she hadn't quite caught up on her sleep.

Simon nodded, instantly animated.

“Yes! And I think you're going to love it! It'll bring Food for Him to the East Coast.”

“Wish I had my coffee line up-and-running,” said Abril. Coffee. That was a good idea. She caught the waiter's eye and when he came over, ordered them each a coffee.

“Everything worth doing takes time,” said Simon. He was watching her. “Even relationships.”

“True, true,” said Abril, absently glancing at the dessert menu. The dessert here was probably awesome but she could hardly eat another bite. At the rate she was going these days, the dress she was wearing would be tight-fitting again. She put the menu back and focused on Simon.

“So when do we leave?”

“Next week.”

Her eyebrows went up.

“What day is it today?”

He laughed.

“Wednesday. We leave on Tuesday. But Friday, you and I need to be over at Mother's to make sure all our Food for Him supplies are loaded on the truck. We'll be flying, but all the merchandise is going by truck.”

Abril nodded. These conventions meant thousands of sales of books and DVDs for Simon's mother.

Simon glanced at his watch.

“I should probably be getting you back. Will you be OK with coming in tomorrow?”

“Of course,” she said, trying not to sound like a woman who had had too much champagne. From the sounds of it, she would only have one or two days to get started on the packaging for the tea and coffee. She wanted it to be special. And she could price some vacuum-sealing machinery . . .

Simon was paying the bill. Probably a hefty bill.

She didn't object when he took her hand as they left the restaurant. He was probably feeling pretty mellow and nostalgic too.

When they arrived back at her apartment, he walked her right upstairs to her front door again. For one crazy moment, Abril thought he was going to kiss her, but then, the outside light came on and her mother was swinging open the door.

Whew, thought Abril. Saved by Mom! Whatever wave of emotion Simon had been feeling would have been embarrassing the next day at work.

“Did you have a good evening, dears?” her mom was saying to a startled Simon.

“Yes,” said Abril honestly. “It was absolutely lovely. Thanks so much, Simon!”

Simon nodded.

“I'll see you tomorrow, then.”

Abril agreed as her mother shut the door behind them. Sleep. That's what she needed. Sleep and plenty of it to handle the challenges of the next few weeks.

 

Abril went straight to her desk. The office of Food for Him was an entirely open concept. Even Simon didn't have his own closed-in space. It created the sense of being a team that Simon said was essential to the success of the company.

Heather was staring at her. Abril caught her eye and smiled. Heather was Jessie's administrative assistant and they had very little to do with each other but she liked the petite redhead who reminded her of Jesus's comment about Nathaniel, “Behold, an Israelite in whom there is no guile.”

Abril's desk had a pile of phone messages and unopened letters that had to be handled right away. But none of them seemed important compared to Sami. Sami had her cell number, her work number, as well as her home number, but so far she hadn't heard from him. It was understandable that he might not be so willing to call her collect as she was to call Simon. Plus, if he were busy, he might not have time for a trip to Abu Salem's. Oh well.

Dutifully, she took care of all the miscellaneous things that had ended up on her desk when she was gone. By lunchtime, she was free to devote her attention to the tea and coffee project. For that, she would have to talk to Jessie, who was the one who handled the suppliers who did their packaging.

Passing by Simon's desk, she gave him a quick smile. He returned it. There seemed to be no regret about the affection last night. She looked around. Carlie wasn't at her desk. Maybe Abril's theory of family issues was correct and was the reason she couldn't make it on the East Coast trip.

Jessie wasn't at his desk so she turned to Heather who sat across from him.

“I've got to talk to Jessie about packaging my line of tea and coffee,” she said.

Heather nodded.

“Right,” she said. “Simon mentioned that. It sounds exciting, Abril.”

“I think so,” Abril agreed. “I'm eager to get it off the ground.”

“Jessie's not in today,” said Heather. “It's the Herbal Health thing. He'll be back on Tuesday.”

“Tuesday?” Abril glanced at Simon, who was on the phone. “I won't be here on Tuesday. I'm going to the East Coast.”

Heather's eyebrows went up.

“The East Coast tour with Her Highness?” It was the office nickname for Simon's mother.

Abril nodded. She was still standing.

“This is deeply unfortunate,” she said, thinking out loud. “I need to get this settled as soon as I can and now it's going to take weeks . . .”

Heather stood up.

“Why don't we get a bite to eat?” she said. “I can take down everything and have it done by the time you get back from the East Coast.”

“Would you?” said Abril, gratefully. “Bless you, Heather! You don't know how much this means to me!”

Heather grinned and grabbed her purse.

The two women headed out of the office which was in a low-rise building in the Valley. The bottom level of the office building had a coffee and bagel shop that was always full at lunch. After each getting a large caramel latte and a salmon bagel, they took a small table for two in the corner.

“So what I envision is a rustic kind of packaging,” said Abril. She opened her purse and showed some of the doodles she had done on the plane – a simple landscape of the Nigerian horizon, a sketch of her hut, Emmanuel's tree. The napkin doodles had now been transferred to paper.

“I love them,” said Heather, taking a sip of her latte and looking over the pictures. “That's lovely,” she said, pointing to the one of the tree.

“I did them from memory,” said Abril. “The village I stayed in was very picturesque. I'd like to capture that.”

“OK, I think I know what you mean.”

They talked about the line of tea and Abril scribbled down all the different herbs they had planted.

“We could have sketches of the herbs on the boxes,” said Heather.

“That's good,” agreed Abril.

“I think every box should have the African landscape though,” said Heather. “Maybe with the hut and the tree incorporated into it.”

“Yeah, that would work,” said Abril, thoughtfully. “We could do that for both the tea and the coffee packaging. I'd like to create a sense of unity with the whole line.”

Heather nodded.

“This is fairly easy,” she said. “I can do this for you. Half the time Jessie makes me meet with the suppliers anyway.”

Abril laughed.

“Men! I bet Carlie could do Simon's job too.”

She expected a laugh but Heather was just staring at her.

“What?” said Abril.

“You didn't hear?”

“Hear what?” What had she missed?

Carlie quit.”

Carlie quit?

Heather nodded.

“She's working for TBN now.”

Trinity Broadcasting?

“Yep.”

 

It was hard to believe. TBN was huge. It was a 24-hour Christian station with satellites that sent it all over the world. Its headquarters was in Santa Ana.

“She said she was sick of doing all this free stuff for Her Highness and wanted to do something for herself for a change,” said Heather.

“Well, she's had enough exposure from doing all that free stuff that I guess she could easily move on . . .” Abril was still trying to take this in.

“It's not like she's on her own, or anything, though,” said Heather. “She's working for Dr. . . .” Heather named a well-known Christian doctor who had his own television show on TBN. “She's not even on TV. She's just his research assistant, really.”

“It's just a matter of time,” said Abril, thinking of Carlie with her perfect figure, supermodel features and short, wavy blonde hair. “How did Simon take it?”

“Not good. He took it like a personal betrayal. He said he'd never make that mistake again. From now on, he knew who he could trust.” Heather was watching her carefully. “And now you're going to the East Coast with him,” she concluded.

No! The implication of all of this was settling in and Abril was horrified. It was all clear to her – last night, the hints about a woman by him that he could trust, the reminiscing about the past.

Except that Simon couldn't rely on her! Not if she was going to have a future with Sami.

She ran her hand across a warm forehead. Heather was taking all this in. She had to get focused.

Abril took a deep breath. It wouldn't do to give anything away. Not yet, anyway. Nothing was certain.

“Well,” she said, trying to smile pleasantly. “The most important thing to me right now is this line of tea and coffee.”

Heather nodded.

“I understand,” she said. “There's a future in it. Especially if Her Highness lets you sell it at her conferences.”

“I know,” said Abril. “I wish I had this line right now to take to the East Coast. Oh well.”

They took their last sips of latte and returned to the office.

Now Simon and Ted were gone, probably for lunch. But there was a note on Abril's desk from Simon saying that they would have to be at his mother's tomorrow at around nine. “Truck comes at ten, but we'll have to do a bit of organizing. Hope that works for you. It'll be a lot of grunt work, but we'll do something in the evening to make up for it. Simon.”

They would do something in the evening to make up for it. That was presumptuous of him. Yet, had this all happened before Africa, her heart would have sped up slightly at that last line.

Would she go out with him? Yeah, she probably would. The alternative was to go back to the quiet apartment with her mother. No. Even there, her mom had a more active social life than Abril and she'd be out at her Ladies Bible-study – all older Spanish women who liked to bring plates of baked goods and go through books like Ruth and Esther.

Her message light was flashing. Could it be Sami? The timing would be perfect! She really needed to talk to him before the East Coast trip. Of course, she would take her cell phone with her, but if he called her at the office or home, it would be weeks before she talked to him. She hit the button and played the message. But it wasn't Sami, it was a lady calling about a church fundraiser. If they sold Food for Him products, could they take a share of the profits? Abril sighed but picked up the phone to return the call. It was a large church and it took some time to work out the details of such an arrangement. It would yield only a slim profit for Food for Him, but if people liked the product line, they would buy it again in the future. She was sure Simon would approve.

After that, she went online and browsed the vacuum-sealing machinery. Something durable. You could get one for $800 but the models she liked were closer to $1500. If Simon thought that was too much, she would make up the difference with her own savings. It would be worth it. The one machine she favoured even came with spare parts and a repair kit. She picked up the phone and called their 1-800 number and talked with a sales agent. He assured her that they used UPS and could continue to supply her with pouches, tray seal film and extra parts, even in Nigeria.

Abril printed out the specs for the machine to show to Simon on the plane.

Then, feeling like it was a slightly hopeless undertaking, she did a Google search through Nigerian phone numbers, looking for Abu Salem's. But even knowing the name of the large village didn't help. The search yielded nothing. Abril exhaled. She would just have to leave it with God.

Heather was getting ready to go.

“Have a good evening,” she called out to Abril.

“Thanks,” said Abril, glancing at her watch. It was five o'clock already. Since Simon and Ted had never come back, she locked the door of the office on her way out. Just as she had returned the key to her purse, she could hear the phone ringing. Sami!

She hunted through her purse for the office key. It had disappeared into the depths and she almost had to dump out her purse just to retrieve it. She turned the key in the lock and found she was having trouble. Something was sticking. The phone was still ringing. About the eighth ring. Unusual for an office since people usually gave up after four, knowing that if the person wasn't at their desk, they probably weren't going to answer. But Sami might let it ring for longer.

Finally, the lock clicked and she was opening the door. Leaving the key still in the lock she hurried to her desk. But it wasn't her phone. It was Simon's.

She sighed and picked it up, identifying herself.

“Oh hello, Abril,” said Simon's mother. “Is Simon still there?”

“No ma'am,” said Abril. “He's been out of the office all afternoon.”

“Oh well,” said his mother. “I'll talk to him tonight.” She hung up. Abril returned the phone to the receiver.

She locked the office again. The drive home in her Toyota Camry gave her a chance to talk out loud to God about the whole thing. She had her whole list of requests – a call from Sami before she left for the East Coast, blessings on the whole line of tea and coffee, that the irrigation system would keep going for years to come, that there would be peace in the village, and most important of all, that she could go back and be there for Sami.

But what was most distressing now was that Simon needed her too.

And she couldn't pretend she didn't find him attractive. She did. But that was history. She had stoically accepted Carlie's hold on Simon and kept her feelings for Simon strictly business when it had become obvious that he had chosen someone else. Sami had been the first man who had come along and made her feel something again.

But she knew it was completely different with Sami. In every way. He would never be able to take her to a place like La Traviata. But when she had been in Nigeria, Abu Salem's had been enough.

It was impossible to sort out her feelings in the drive from the Valley back to East Los Angeles. In some ways, she didn't want to sift through them anyway. There was only one way that Simon and Sami were similar – they both provided her with work. Tomorrow, she would be doing inventory and loading boxes into a truck. When she went back to Africa, she would be working in the fields. Both suited her in different ways, but somehow, Nigeria seemed to offer her more, give her a chance to go beyond what she had done in the past. But then again, with Carlie gone, who knows how far she and Simon could take Food for Him?

Her mom had a chicken pot pie in the oven when she got home.

Abril had mentioned the night before how Simon wanted her to accompany him on the East Coast tour. At the time, she had noticed her mother's eyebrows go up. Now, over dinner, as she told her mother about how Carlie was gone, it was unmistakable.

“Do you think it's wise, sweetie?” she said. “Jumping back into things with Simon?”

“I'm not really jumping back into things,” said Abril, who would have been offended before Africa by her mom's tone. “Simon and I were never together.”

“You were,” her mother said. “In every sense except saying so. You started a business together!”

Abril nodded.

“And that's why I need to go on this East Coast tour. He needs me because he's going through the loss of Carlie. And the success of Food for Him matters to both of us. And now it matters to Sami too. The better Food for Him does, the better things will go for me and Sami with the new line.”

There, now she had justified the East Coast trip.

“I see what you mean,” her mom said, nodding slowly, persuaded. “You'll just have to be very careful. Emotions, you know.”

Abril knew.


 

 


Chapter Thirteen

D

ressed in jeans and a t-shirt, Abril was passing boxes up to Simon, who was standing in the trailer of the enormous Mack truck. The Food for Him warehouse had been nearly emptied in anticipation of the East Coast sales. Simon's mother, out standing in a silk bathrobe and holding a mug of coffee, had her own two muscular men loading boxes filled with DVDs and books.

The work was repetitive and monotonous, keeping her mind off of Simon, Sami and everything to do with her new product line. But she did wonder if had it been Carlie in her place, would Carlie have been passing up boxes like this or would she have been sipping coffee with Simon's mother?

They took their own cappuccino break in the middle of the morning. Simon, wearing khaki shorts and a long-sleeved t-shirt, flopped down on the stone steps that went up to the house. A maid had brought out a tray of mugs for all of them. Over the cappuccinos, Abril found out that the other two workers were sons of some of the ladies who manned the phone lines in Simon's mother's ministry office. Neither of them had much interest in the idea of eating or over-eating but they both appreciated a chance to earn a little extra money. Normally, they were in the warehouse, one of them driving a forklift, the other working in the mailroom that sent out all the products.

Simon didn't seem to appreciate her efforts to be friendly to Sam and Josh and she sensed some sulkiness on his part when they continued talking as they all went back to work. Oh well. He would have to deal with it.

At around lunchtime, Simon's mother came out of the house and down the steps, looking attractive in a trendy crocheted sweater, white shirt, and cowgirl-style skirt. She blew Simon a kiss before climbing into her SUV.

“She's got an interview with a news station,” said Simon as they went into the house. Sam and Josh had brought bagged lunches, but Simon seemed eager to get Abril away from them. Unlike her last meal here, this time she and Simon went straight to the kitchen where they made their own lunch of cheese and turkey sandwiches from what was in the refrigerator. The cook hardly took notice. He was too busy preparing some kind of pastry.

“She's been getting a lot of publicity lately,” said Abril, once they were seated on stools at the island, out of the way of the cook.

“Yeah,” said Simon, biting into his sandwich. “I think it's starting to sink in with the media that she's really got something here. People are losing hundreds of pounds.”

Simon didn't have to tell Abril how much Americans enjoyed the topic of weight loss. She had spent enough evenings in front of the TV watching different doctors or diet gurus telling people how to lose weight and presenting them with examples of people whose lives had been transformed by following their advice. Her mom didn't mind watching the shows either, but she usually ate a bag of Cheesies through them.

“But you're looking great,” said Simon, glancing over at her. “You should have gone with Mom and talked about Africa. What's your secret?”

He didn't have to spell it out.

“It was a famine,” said Abril, adding some mustard to her sandwich. Suddenly she didn't feel like eating. With Sami, she would have scarfed down the sandwich and enjoyed every minute of it. But it occurred to her that if she put back on all the weight she'd lost in Africa, she'd hardly be a good representative for Food for Him on the upcoming tour.

Simon, his mouth full of sandwich, acknowledged this with a nod.

“Guess not too many people would want to hear about that diet,” he said. They grinned at each other. It was a moment of understanding and Abril didn't like how good it felt, that connection.

“Your mom's changed her hair,” she said quickly. She had noticed how puffed and teased and sprayed Simon's mother's hair had been today.

Simon nodded, getting up to go to the fridge. He came back with two cans of iced tea.

“Yeah,” he said. “She's a real California blonde now, isn't she?”

“Exactly,” said Abril. Simon's mother used to have a more conservative look, almost motherly. She had always been slim and blond and attractive, but now she was looking more like a Hollywood celebrity.

“It's all the interviews,” said Simon, flipping the tab to open his drink. “She goes to the hairdresser all the time now. I mean, it was different when it was just local stuff, and all Christian, but now the news stations are nationwide.”

Abril got it. Small Christian groups hadn't changed Simon's mom. It was the acceptance of the secular media.

Sam and Josh were already back to work when they returned outside. They both gave Abril a grin.

“Hey, boss's son!” Josh called out to Simon, a couple of hours later. “We're all done.”

Abril snickered and got an appreciative glance from Josh.

Simon wasn't as amused but he acknowledged their hard work and thanked them. The two young men headed out in Sam's battered pickup truck.

Simon looked at his watch.

“I wanted to pick up some more business cards,” he said. “But the printer's probably closed by now. I guess it can wait until Monday.”

Now that it was just the two of them, the work slowed down. Abril realized that Simon had been hustling to keep up with his mother's two brawny workers. Now Simon actually sat down on one of his mother's boxes and went through his cellphone messages. Abril, who hadn't switched off her phone, knew she had none.

After another hour's work, Simon said, “Well, that's about it. How 'bout we call it a day?”

Abril agreed. Her muscles were aching. The boxes weren't overly heavy but she wasn't used to the continual physical exertion. She'd better get used to it, though. It was probably similar to harvesting tea leaves and coffee beans.

“Where do you want to go for dinner?” Simon asked.

Abril laughed, looking down at her dusty clothing.

“Preferably a drive-through,” she said.

Simon grinned his agreement.

“OK, hold on a sec,” he said, taking the front steps two at a time. He disappeared into the house. If this were before Africa, she would have followed him to use the bathroom and try to make herself more presentable for an evening out. She wasn't going to bother with things like that anymore. But if he went inside and fixed himself up a bit, she would kill him.

He didn't. He came out a few minutes later looking just as dishevelled as when he had gone in.

She thought at first that he was taking her someplace close to home, but they kept driving past East Los Angeles. He was talking about business cards. He had just ordered 5,000 to take with them to the East Coast, but he was thinking of maybe, redesigning the company logo when they got back.

Abril's mind wandered to her new line of coffee and tea that would have the African landscape as its logo. Maybe she should have her own cards made up.

“What do you think?” Simon was asking.

“I dunno,” she said. “Maybe it's not good to change the logo. People are starting to recognize it.”

“Well, that's just it,” he said. “We're small now, so if we're going to change it, we should do it now.”

Abril nodded, neutral on the topic.

“Mom's ministry is just getting bigger and bigger,” Simon continued. “So I'm thinking that we should be prepared to go national on a big scale . . .”

She let him go on. In the end, he decided on his own not to bother with a logo change.

They passed innumerable fast-food restaurants, all with drive- throughs, but to her surprise, they ended up in Hollywood, at Doughboys. Their old hangout.

“Simon,” she said. “I don't think I really want to go in . . .” Even Doughboys had standards and she was pretty sure she had dust in her hair.

“We're not going in,” said Simon, pulling into a parking spot in front of the restaurant, a lucky break since there was a strip of restaurants along this street and they were filling up with the Friday evening crowd. Simon hoped out of the car, ignoring the meter, and hurried inside. He came back out before any traffic cop could notice the infraction, now carrying a basket. Abril recognized the Doughboys picnic basket, although they had never ordered one before. It was for couples on their way to a romantic picnic or an afternoon baseball game.

Simon put the basket in the back and got back in the driver's seat.

“Now,” he said, grinning. “The question is, where to eat it?”

This was alarming. This was something he would have done with Carlie, not with her.

“Along the water, I guess,” she said, knowing her smile was weak.

“The water it is,” he said, starting the engine. Someone was already impatiently waiting for their spot.

It was a short drive on the freeway to Santa Monica. From there, it was another short drive to Venice Beach Park and the Ocean Front Walk. They parked in a large lot and Simon carried the basket. One side of the walk was lined with small shops offering everything including skateboarding supplies, Chinese massages, sandals, handmade jewellery, henna tattoos, caps and bandannas. There were sidewalk cafés and other eateries, but they took the hamper to the grassy area with palm trees that bordered the beach.

“Is the grass OK?” said Simon, stopping at a point where they had a clear view of the water and were a little way from the crowds.

“Sure,” said Abril, plunking herself down. After sleeping on the floor of a mud hut on a charred mattress, grass was luxury.

She opened the basket. Having left most of her lunch sandwich on the plate, she was now starving. OK, not starving in the African sense. But definitely in the North American, Abril Sanchez sense.

The hamper provided a tablecloth, plates and utensils. It had a large baguette with various spreads. There was also a sandwich to share, a salad, some fruit, a brownie, a cookie, as well as two bottles of orange soda.

“This looks delicious, Simon,” she said.

“I'm glad you like it,” said Simon smiling. He wasn't reaching for the food like she was. He was watching her. “We should have never stopped doing this.”

She paused, about to dip a chunk of bread into some type of mayonnaise.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Getting together,” he said. “You know, outside the office.”

She bit into the bread. Should she state the obvious? If she had wanted to hold onto him, she would have just accepted it as a wonderful change of events. But since she didn't, she might as well say what she was thinking.

“But you had Carlie to do things with,” she said, now chewing.

He exhaled and nodded slowly.

“Yeah,” he said, looking over her shoulder. “I think that was a big misjudgement.”

“What do you mean?” asked Abril, curious.

“I think she was just using me to get to Mom,” said Simon.

Abril tried not to show surprise – or amusement. From what Heather had said to her, it didn't sound like Carlie had used Simon to attempt to rise to the top with Simon's mother. It was more like Simon's mother had used Carlie as she rose to the top. But if Simon's pride had to be soothed with a reinterpretation of past events, so be it. The truth was, Simon had fallen for Carlie and Carlie had turned out to have bigger ambitions.

Now Simon turned his attention to the food, choosing the sandwich after first offering to split it with Abril. Abril shook her head. She would have enough with the salad and fruit. She felt herself slipping back into that awareness of her weight.

Simon's mother said to eat whatever you wanted, just to stop when you were satisfied. But Abril couldn't trust herself to stop when satisfied, so she'd have to also stick to the low-calorie items, to increase her hope of success. Not that a Caesar salad loaded with cheese and dressing was necessarily low in calories. But it had lettuce and Abril told herself that that was practically no calories at all.

After they finished the meal and returned the basket to the car, Simon suggested a walk along the oceanfront. Abril hesitated. It wasn't a good idea. The sun was going down. The oceanfront was a favourite place for couples to stroll along. But she found it hard to say no.

Things got even more complicated when Simon took her hand. She couldn't just passively accept this. Hard as it would be, she had to tell him about Sami.

But words failed her. What could she say? She wasn't engaged to Sami. But she had hope. Lots of hope.

Before she could find the right words, Simon was suggesting a sidewalk café for a coffee.

That, at least, got her hand back. And they could focus on the sun setting rather than talking. The right words would come at the right time, but in the meantime, she had to make sure she didn't commit herself to anything beyond the partnership in the business.

Some shops were closing up for the night, including a nearby one that sold all sorts of African ornaments - masks, statuettes and an assortment of bongo drums.

“I think we should really emphasize the African quality of the new product line,” said Abril out loud. “And, of course, the fact that it's grown by Christian farmers.”

Simon nodded. He was back to just gazing at her in that unnerving way. It was like he was seeing her with new eyes. It would have thrilled her before Africa, but now it was a huge complication that had to be sorted out. Better get some things straight right away.

“Simon,” she said, trying to sound firm. “I really liked Africa. In fact, I want to go back and I want to stay longer . . .”

“You should,” he said, nodding. “You're the best one to oversee this project.”

“I don't want to just oversee it,” she said. “I want to share in its success.”

“And you will,” he said agreeably. “To be honest, I don't know why we didn't do coffee and tea right from the start. We would have each been millionaires by now, the amount of coffee my mother's followers drink. She's even gotten people so slimmed down that they've started drinking coffee again.”

Abril nodded. She was familiar with the testimonies. People who had weighed over 200 lb. and started experiencing chest pains had stopped drinking their favourite beverage, but now praised God and Simon's mother that they could enjoy it again.

“In fact,” Simon continued. “You're onto something good here. The grown-by-Christian-farmers tag may be even better than the product-of-the-Holy-Land tag. I was thinking that maybe we could expand this a bit and find Christian farmers in other parts of the world, you know, India or China, or wherever and see what we could do with them. It has that global connection thing, you know, family around the world, sort of idea.”

“I understand,” she said, carefully. “Though I think there's still room for growth in Nigeria . . .”

“And I was thinking you could head it up,” said Simon, hardly hearing her. He took her hand again. “It's amazing how you were able to just go into Africa and get this thing started. I was really impressed.”

So that was it. Abril, who had always lived and worked in the shadow of Simon, had done something daring. And while she was at it, she had lost weight.

But there was no way she could take credit for any of it. Sami had been her motivation and without him, it would have never happened.

“I couldn't have done it alone,” she said. “Sami is an extraordinary man. Very strong. They all are.”

Simon nodded agreeably. “They must be,” he said. “Considering all they've been through.”

“Exactly,” said Abril. “And that's why I want to go back. It's real. It's life. Not that this isn't . . .” She looked around. “But I found something there. I guess you could say, I found myself.”

“I think I know what you mean,” said Simon. “Sometimes it's good to get away and see things with fresh eyes. Although, in my case, I think it was the other way around. You were gone and I realized how much I missed you.”

“But you had Carlie,” said Abril, though it felt catty to say so.

Simon looked down at his coffee.

“I did,” he said. “But I don't now. And in all honesty, if I had a chance to get back together again with her, I wouldn't.”

It was quite the admission and Abril wasn't entirely sure she believed it. In any case, it didn't matter. She wouldn't be filling in for Carlie.

“It would probably be a good idea to take some time out and think about things,” said Abril, pulling her hand back as he reached across the table for it.

“I know why you're saying that,” he said. His eyes were back on her. “It's been my fault. I missed what was right in front of me and I'm sorry about that. But I don't think that's any reason not to go for it now.”

Go for it now. Like she was a missed business opportunity.

“Listen,” he said, still looking her in the eyes. “Let's go to the East Coast and see how it goes and when we get back, maybe we can talk.”

She tried to keep her eyes and her voice steady.

“I'm going with you to the East Coast because it's the right thing to do for Food for Him,” she said.

“Well, it is,” he agreed slowly. “But it could be right for us too.”

There it was, out in the open. Unavoidable. The waiter chose that moment to refill their coffees. Abril focused on the black liquid pouring into her mug. When he was gone, she looked back at Simon, but his eyes weren't on her anymore.

He was waving to someone. It was Ted out on the walk. Beside him was Heather.

“Well, well,” said Simon grinning. “Love is in the air.”

Abril had to admit, she too was surprised to see Food for Him's accountant out with Jessie's administrative assistant. Although Ted looked chagrined, they came over and joined Simon and Abril. Abril felt the same way as Ted, like they'd been caught. But Heather was smiling at both of them, genuinely happy to see Simon and Abril out socially. More coffee was ordered and in the end, they all went to a late-night movie together.

The upside to it all was that it kept things from getting too personal. The downside, thought Abril, was that the whole thing had cemented the sense that she and Simon were becoming a couple.

 


Chapter Fourteen

I

 had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. The Equator runs across these highlands, a hundred miles to the North, and the farm lay at an altitude of over six thousand feet. In the day-time you felt that you had got high up, near to the sun, but the early mornings and evenings were limpid and restful, and the nights were cold.

“What are you reading?” Simon asked, as he nearly fell into the seat beside her. With his whirlwind energy, he always did things last minute and he had almost missed the flight. His mother was turned around in her seat, watching him with annoyance. But she was in first-class and her glare didn't make it all the way back to coach where Abril and Simon had their seats.

It was Tuesday morning and they were on a direct flight to Boston. Abril had gotten herself there by cab since Simon had said that he had to pick up the business cards on his way to the airport and didn't have time to swing by her place first. Well, that was no problem, as far as Abril was concerned. She was an experienced traveller now and didn't need someone escorting her onto a plane.

Out of Africa,” she said, showing him the cover. “Isak Dinesen.”

“Wasn't that a movie?” said Simon, snapping together his seat belt.

Abril nodded. She and her mother had watched it over the weekend and Abril had ended up buying the book at the mall while she had been shopping for a few items to replenish her wardrobe for the East Coast trip.

She hadn't seen Simon since their evening together. He had spent all of Monday out of the office, but Ted had given her an embarrassed grin and Heather had given her a warm smile.

Abril put away the book for takeoff, but immediately pulled it out again when they were in the air. A farm in Africa. Isak Dinesen described an Africa that was familiar to Abril, “a landscape that had not its like in all the world. There was no fat on it and no luxuriance anywhere.” Like her, Isak had seen an Africa that was “dry and burnt, like the colours in pottery.” Just reading her description of the trees made Abril ache. Emmanuel's tree. It was what she and Sami called it, but she wasn't there with Sami now. Who would he have to talk to, to share the hopes they had for the future? Joy? She had children and her past to think about. Emmanuel? Emmanuel was an old man, who would give all his energy to the day's work, but with his own private sustaining thought that he would soon be with his God.

“Everything that you saw made for greatness and freedom, and unequalled nobility.” That was a perfect summary of her own Africa.

Simon was going through some computer printouts and she should have probably taken an interest in the upcoming events, but she continued to read.

When the flight attendants came around with trays of food, she politely declined. Simon raised his eyebrows and looked like he was going to say something, but she stayed with her eyes on her book. She was in a mood. He couldn't help but notice. But what could he say? Normally, Abril's feelings were a mystery to even herself, but this time, she knew what she was doing. She was desperately trying to hold onto Africa by reading the memoirs of a white woman who had gone before her and done the same thing she wanted to do – find a new life and a new freedom in Africa. Isak Dinesen had also had a coffee plantation. Her love had been a fellow European, a game hunter named Denys. Abril’s was an African farmer. The two men could not be compared, but Isak's love and appreciation of her farm made Abril ache to be able to say the same words, except in the present tense, “I have a farm in Africa.”

But, in the meantime, she knew she was being sulky and difficult. Mostly she was annoyed, annoyed at Simon for discovering that he wanted a relationship with her after she had met someone else.

Her mother had sensed the conflict that was playing out and had gently suggested that choices were a good thing. But to Abril, choices were to be resented at this moment. The future had been clear when she had left Sami. Now she was feeling things she didn't want to feel. She couldn't honestly say she didn't want to be with Simon. She had always found him attractive. But she had found ways to ignore the feelings of jealousy generated by Carlie and just concentrate on the business arrangement.

She put her book away and decided that, no matter what, she would at least be Christian.

Simon, noticing she was now available, turned to her and showed her what he had been going through – an itinerary of the upcoming tour. Two nights in Boston would be followed by one night in Providence. Then it would be two nights in Philadelphia, two nights in Pittsburgh, one big event in Buffalo followed by some rest time. Buffalo was the only place where they had rented a large public facility, the First Niagara Center. It could seat over 18,000 people. Outside of California, the Buffalo/Rochester area was where Simon's mother had the biggest following. The other events would be held in large churches. Simon's mother's program was a workshop that was being used in churches around the United States. The churches had no problem with her message that if you put God first, you'd lose the weight. Some of them had been slightly concerned, particularly the ones in California, when Simon's mother started her own church in the Valley and had even discontinued the program in their church. But since places like Buffalo were too far away to lose members to the new “Church in the Valley,” the program continued to go strong.

Then, after Buffalo, they would head up to Canada for two nights in Toronto at one of the larger churches.

Simon was musing about currency exchange in Canada. They could hardly hand back American change to Canadian customers.

“Maybe we'll have sold out by then,” said Abril, stifling a yawn. She was both tired and slightly bored. Half of this company was hers, but Simon tended to like to talk it about it more than she did. He seemed to genuinely enjoy anticipating possible problems.

“That's another concern,” said Simon nodding vigorously. “I won't be able to get more stock here in time if we do . . .”

Abril let him talk. She wasn't overly concerned. People weren't coming to these events for Food for Him. They were coming to hear Simon's mother. It was Simon's mother who should be worried about running out of products.

Besides, Abril was hungry now. She glanced up and down the aisle, but there was no flight attendant. Besides, could she really expect them to serve her something to eat when they would be doing other things at this point?

“How does your mother do it?” Abril burst out.

“What do you mean?” Simon looked up from his laptop. He was going through the list of inventory, dividing the merchandise up according to the number of conventions and musing out loud that maybe it would work out OK after all.

“Well, I can never time it right. I'm hungry now. I wasn't hungry before. How does your mother only eat when she's hungry if she's out all the time?”

Simon grinned.

“She doesn't, as far as I know. Mom doesn't really eat.”

“What do you mean?” said Abril.

Simon shrugged, turning his attention back to his laptop.

“She just doesn't eat,” he murmured, not really interested in the topic.

Abril stared up ahead, hoping for a glimpse of Simon's mother through the crack in the first-class curtain that separated it from coach.

Simon's mother's DVDs featured her telling believers how she loved hamburgers, when she was hungry; how she loved fresh strawberries and cream, when she was hungry; how she loved a morning mochachino, when she was hungry. To listen to her, you would think life was a feast of good things.

Was it possible her secret to weight loss was really that she hardly ate?

An inflight movie came on, getting Abril's mind off of her hunger.

It was a classic love story – a slim older woman still living with her family accidentally meets an attractive lifeguard when she’s signing her mother up for swimming therapy. It meant abandoning her faith, but a love affair followed.

It was making Abril ache.

And it made her glad that she had skipped the inflight meal.

Simon was only glancing at the movie now and then.

Why? thought Abril. Why do I feel like I have to be thin to be loved?

But she'd never had that feeling with Sami, like she had to stay a certain way, or even lose ten pounds, to hold onto his interest.

Maybe the movie was affecting Simon more than she realized because he reached for her hand and held it as the movie wrapped up. The characters had found meaning in their love for one another.

But where did that leave Abril? Could Simon offer her the depth that her heart desired? Could Sami, for that matter?

Simon's mother, up there in first-class, was telling people that what they really desired was God, not food, or cigarettes, or alcohol. The heart longed for God. Abril certainly longed. But how could she take it all and make it work with the cool self-assurance that Simon's mother was offering her disciples?

She couldn't, she decided.

It just didn't work.


 

 


Chapter Fifteen

I

f Simon thought he was going to win her heart in Boston, it wasn't going as planned. So far, all they'd seen was the inside of their hotel. They had landed at the Logan International Airport and taken a short taxi ride to the downtown Doubletree Hotel. Actually, it had been two taxis – Simon's mother had her support staff with her.

Simon's mother had hosted a dinner for all of them in the hotel restaurant and then ordered them to get a good night's rest. Abril was sharing a room with Sheri, a woman her own age who was Simon's mother's personal assistant.

Simon was sharing with Jamie, a man in his early thirties who had been recently hired to handle the convention events that were now becoming a regular part of the ministry.

Now, the next day, after breakfast, they were all conferencing in Simon's mother's room. Simon's mother was the only one with a suite, but it could easily be justified by the number of people she had to entertain. Already, the pastor of the church and some of his staff were there, sipping coffee and eating pastries. It was obvious that the pastor didn't follow any kind of diet that limited his intake. But his two female assistants, both older, were clearly followers of Simon's mother, watching her every move and taking it all in with looks of awe.

It was officially a prayer meeting about the night. The pastor said there would be at least two thousand people attending the meeting. And that was only the people he knew of. Thankfully, being one of the largest churches in Boston, they had room for twenty-five hundred people in the main sanctuary, with overflow rooms if necessary.

Simon and Abril were invited to attend the prayer meeting, but Simon's mother's comments were all directed to the pastor or Sheri or Jamie.

The pastor and his small team left just before lunch. Then came all the ladies who headed up the various workshops in the area. A typical workshop consisted of nine or ten people, although it could go as high as forty or fifty people, who met weekly, to listen to a DVD by Simon's mother and then go through the accompanying workbook together. Most meetings were in churches, but the number of house meetings was increasing. As a result, Simon's mother had about fifty women crowded into her suite.

Like the pastor's assistants, they had looks of awe on their face at being so close to Simon's mother. But Simon's mother, after a quick welcome to them all, got down to business.

They would be the “personal counsellors” to the people who came out to the meeting and needed additional help, one-on-one attention.

Room service arrived with platters of cheese and crackers and fruit. There was also coffee and tea. All the women watched Simon's mother to see what she would do. But she ignored the food and kept talking. At the back of the room, Simon helped himself to coffee and reached for some cheese. Abril grabbed some strawberries and a couple of crackers. She noticed one of the older women watching her with what seemed to be envy.

The women were being told that they would be in some of the Sunday school rooms, offering private counselling to those in need.

Simon's mother held up her latest book.

“Ask them if they have this yet,” she said. “It will have the answers to most of their questions. You'll be supplied with copies of this book and the cost is an even $20. It's unlikely you will have to offer change. Most people have a $20 bill in their wallet.”

Sheri was distributing forms to all the ladies.

“Each counselling booth will have ten copies of this book, as well as five copies of the latest DVD series, also for a low price of $20. You can emphasize that these are tour prices, not what they would pay in a bookstore or even online.”

Simon's mother held up one of the forms and pointed out the features.

“Check here when you've sold a book. Check here when you've sold a DVD package. Don't worry about totalling anything. We'll do that later. On the back of the form, an envelope has been stapled. Put the cash in there. If someone wants to pay with a credit card, you'll have to direct them to the booth selling the products. Do not let them walk away with a book in that case. Tell them they can pick up a copy at the sales booth.”

The women were examining their forms and turning them over to confirm that there was indeed an envelope attached.

“Now, “ said Simon's mother, handing her form back to Sheri. “The question you're going to get asked the most often by people is, why am I not losing weight even though I've been following the program?”

The women in her audience were giving her their full attention. A couple of them even had small notebooks out to write things down in.

“The answer to that is, their heart is not right with God. They can't get by that, folks. God blesses obedience. And if they aren't losing the weight, they have issues in their life. Greed. Seeking food for comfort. All the things that come before God. Don't molly-coddle them.”

“Should you, er, speak the truth in love? Gentleness, I mean?” One of the younger women spoke up.

Simon's mother just looked at her.

“I think that the issue here is, are you willing to speak the truth? Are you courageous enough to speak on behalf of God? Ladies, listen to me. These people are coming to you. You have to be willing to tell them what they need to hear. No one else will. Their churches won't tell them. Their churches are full of obese people who are happy living in their sin of gluttony. All they'll get from the people around them are false messages. Love yourself. Take diet pills. Turn to the doctors rather than to God.”

Simon's mother surveyed her group.

“The issue here is more than just weight loss. It's sin. And sin is serious. I don't know if you've thought this through, but sin leads to death. But if you put to death the flesh, you will live. That's our faith and that's our message and that's what we're bringing to these people here.”

Most of the women were now nodding and Simon's mother could move on, having won them over. But she had one final comment for the woman who had presented the idea of speaking the truth with love and gentleness.

“You can't just suck in your gut to get into the kingdom of heaven, dear.”

To the general group she said, “You'll be dealing with people who have made their stomachs their masters. You'll have to lead them, in some cases, back to Jesus. In other cases, for the first time, to Jesus.”

The women were nodding. Some of them looked excited. But others were looking at the food. That's when Simon's mother seemed to notice it and welcomed them to help themselves.

Abril watched as the women tried not to pile their plates high. Then, as they settled around the room with their food, they ate slowly, appreciating every mouthful like Simon's mother had taught them. Except that Simon's mother wasn't eating. She was talking to Jamie. Abril had noticed that all she had had for breakfast was a cup of coffee and a slice of toast. Of course, it was possible Simon's mother was the only one actually practising her own teachings that you should only eat when you were hungry.

Abril, who had had scrambled eggs and potatoes for breakfast, really didn't need the strawberries she was now consuming, but they were sweet and fresh. Simon was the only person in the room who had a full plate of food.

After the food, all of the ladies were eager to have a personal word with Simon's mother. But Sheri opened the hotel room door and began gently nudging them out. Simon's mother had disappeared into the bedroom.

Some women were miffed, others were more understanding.

“She has a big night tonight,” said one of them, as she was passing Abril.

But most of the others were disappointed. There probably wouldn't be another opportunity like this one.

“I came all the way from Portland,” one woman complained.

When the room was quiet again, Simon turned to Abril.

“Want to have a look around this place?”

“Sure,” said Abril. Sheri and Jamie were ignoring them, both of them sitting at a round table looking at something on a laptop. Abril had the impression that they might like each other.

She and Simon took the elevator down to ground level and went out on the busy street.

“Well,” said Simon, looking one direction. “That's a medical centre, I think.”

Abril nodded. She had noticed that in the taxi.

“So let's go that way,” said Simon, turning in the other direction. They walked to the next block which had a community health centre.

“It's kind of ironic,” said Abril. “We're surrounded by medicine and health and your mother tells people they won't need medication or to worry about their health once they get their hearts right with God.”

It was also ironic that Food for Him was popular with the ladies who attended the events. They were free to eat Twinkies on Simon's mother's diet, but they still enjoyed buying the product line that was supposedly much like what Jesus ate. Abril could never really understand why they were allowed to sell Food for Him products at these events, except that Simon's mother was like any mother, she wanted her son to do well. Not that Simon hadn't put in many long hours doing things for her ministry.

They crossed a bridge over a highway.

“It's not very scenic around here, is it?” said Simon, who had taken her hand again.

It didn't get any better on the other side of the bridge, so they just turned around and went back to the hotel, which had a Starbucks at ground level.

Apparently, the crackers and cheese hadn't been enough for Simon, because, in addition to the coffee, he ordered a ham & swiss panini and then turned to Abril to see what she wanted.

“Uh, make mine a roasted vegetable,” she said. That would reduce the calories somewhat.

As they sat eating, it occurred to her with clarity that Simon's family was just naturally thin.

It was something that Simon's mother vigorously denied, that genetics had anything to do with weight gain. But at the moment, it was incontestable to Abril. Simon's mother was thin. Simon's father was thin. And Simon, who could eat all day, was thin.

On the other hand, Abril's father had been large. Abril's mother was large. And Abril was large.

Abril knew how Simon's mother handled that. She said that the sins of the fathers were passed onto the children. Overeating parents passed their bad habits onto their children. But was it really that simple . . . ?

“What?” said Simon, smiling and looking up from his sandwich. He had just realized she was watching him rather than eating.

“Are you really hungry?” she blurted out.

What?

“I mean, are you really hungry?” she asked again.

“Oh, you mean like how Mother defines it?” said Simon, getting it. “No, not really. But all that matters to Mother is that Dad and I don't get fat. That would ruin her testimony.”

That's for sure, thought Abril. She looked down at her sandwich. She wasn't really hungry either, but it looked good. She was going to eat it anyway.

After Starbucks, Simon wanted to head over to the church to start setting up the Food for Him booth. They had been told that the truck was already there.

A taxi took them to the large church in the suburbs. Sure enough, the Mack truck was parked by a side door and two young men were carrying boxes inside. Abril recognized Sam and Josh.

“Well, hi there!” Josh said, pausing and grinning.

Abril grinned back. They must have come in the cab of the truck.

Simon ignored Josh and Sam and was hopping in the back of the truck to check on the Food for Him supplies.

“OK,” he said, passing a box out to Abril. “We'll take a few of these . . .”

He disappeared into the back of the truck and Abril decided one heavy box was enough for her.

“Here! Let me take that!” said Josh, reappearing.

“Thanks,” she said.

“I'll show you where your table is,” said Josh. She followed him inside. They were in a hallway with a large office on one side. Another hallway probably led to Sunday school rooms. Josh turned in the direction of the front of the church and the sanctuary. The products would be sold in the huge front foyer. Simon's mother had two long tables for her products. Food for Him had one.

“There you go,” said Josh, putting the box on the table. With a wink, he was back down the hallway.

Simon appeared, precariously balancing two boxes.

Abril decided that rather than return to the truck with him, she would begin to set up the table.

“Wait, wait,” said Simon. He dropped the boxes on the table and then reached for the shoulder strap of his laptop case. “Before we put any product on the table, we have to enter in the amounts . . .”

He fired up the computer and then opened the program.

When Josh returned with more boxes containing books, Simon paused only to glare at his back.

Jamie appeared at some point. He had been in the sanctuary setting up the stage. The local church was providing praise-and-worship music for the event and a few of the musicians had arrived to practise. A sound crew was running checks on their equipment.

The pastor came out of his office, dressed casually in slacks and a sports shirt, to exchange pleasant words with everyone. He took an interest in the Food for Him table now filling with packaged items. He said his wife would like the figs-dates-almond mix and he would have to come back later to purchase some.

About half an hour before the doors opened (Abril could already see the line of women forming outside the church), Simon's mother arrived with Sheri. Everyone who was part of the evening's worship service met together onstage for a group prayer.

Abril and Simon stayed behind the Food for Him table. Products would be on sale all throughout the evening. Sam and Josh were now in white shirts with the ministry logo and black pants, manning the tables with the books and DVDs. Abril noticed that the product line had been expanded to include sweatshirts, tote bags and key chains.

The members of the praise-and-worship band took their places and instrumental renditions of contemporary praise songs were playing as the doors were opened. The people surged inside. A few went straight for the product tables, most went into the sanctuary and some disappeared down the hallway in search of the bathroom.

Abril noticed Sheri moving among them, greeting them and talking earnestly to some of them.

Only a few women showed a passing interest in the Food for Him products. Those who were interested in purchasing something wanted Simon's mother's latest book or DVD set. It was all new to Abril, but her guess was that the bulk of the sales would come afterwards.

“God is raising up a righteous generation,” Simon's mother announced dramatically, after the praise-and-worship band's music had receded into the background. “He is calling women to be like Mary, to sit at Jesus's feet, to get out of the kitchen like Martha and to start to focus on things that are everlasting.”

She had her audience's attention. Tonight, she was looking petite and lovely in a pink suit and matching heels, with bold gold jewellery. In contrast, many in her audience were wearing over-sized shirts and stretch pants.

“Just like the crowds that gathered to hear Jesus, we gather here tonight to hear his voice,” said Simon's mother. “And after three days of teaching, Jesus hesitated to send them home without a meal. And who better to feed them than the true manna from heaven? God's son, who had come down as the bread of life.”

This was from her new book, Bread from Heaven.

“And that day, before his astonished disciples’ eyes, he multiplied the bread and the fish to feed thousands.” Simon's mother surveyed her audience. “And he will do the same for you.” She let that sink in. “You never have to fear being hungry when you have bread from heaven. You never have to fear that he will let you faint from hunger. Jesus had compassion on the crowds that followed him and he fed them himself. Folks . . .”

Simon's mother was holding the microphone and she came out from behind the podium.

“God wants to feed you but he can't feed you if you're stuffing yourself. God wants to bless you but he can't bless you if you're trying to bless yourself . . .”

Abril tuned it out. She had read Bread from Heaven the same weekend it came out. Besides, it was kind of hard to focus with Josh grinning at her like that. Simon was talking to the pastor who had stayed on to see how the whole event went. As he had promised, he had purchased the date-fig-almond mix, but Abril almost got the sense that he had done it to be nice. Nonetheless, Simon had given him a business card and they were now talking about the make-up of the pastor's church.

“Hey there!” said Josh. He had crossed the foyer to the Food for Him table.

“Hi!” said Abril.

“Slow sales,” said Josh.

Abril nodded.

“I figure it will pick up.”

Another table was being set up in the foyer by two church ladies, for coffee and tea. It boded well for people milling around afterwards.

“So,” said Josh conversationally. “You're with Food for Him?”

Abril nodded.

Pretty much everyone in Simon's mother's ministry knew about Food for Him. What they probably didn't realize was that Simon had a partner in the business.

“Been with it for a while?” asked Josh. He was a few years younger than her and had a charming smile.

“Since the beginning,” she said.

“Oh,” said Josh, taking this in. “My mom's been with the ministry pretty much since it started too. On the phones.”

Abril nodded.

“It's an important job,” she said.

“Well, I dunno,” said Josh. Abril had noticed that Simon kept glancing their way. She decided to ignore it.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Well,” said Josh slowly. “My mom keeps putting the weight back on. I mean, she loses it again. She's scared she'll lose her job if she doesn't, but if you ask me, the program doesn't really work.”

That was interesting.

“I mean, she buys all the books and reads them religiously. She plays the DVDs over and over . . .” Josh shrugged.

“I think I understand,” said Abril quickly. Josh seemed to appreciate it.

“Well, don't tell anyone I said so,” he said.

“I won't,” said Abril, not quite ready to share her own feelings that Simon's mother's program had failed her as well. “To be honest, my mom has weight issues.” That was the closest she could get to opening up at that moment.

“I think we all have issues,” said Josh. “Everyone.”

“I agree,” said Abril.

Simon returned to the Food for Him table and Josh nonchalantly strolled back to the ministry merchandise.

Simon didn't say anything and Abril didn't give him a chance. She went over to the open doors to hear her favourite part of any of Simon's mother's presentations. The testimonies of success. Sheri was escorting an older woman to the front.

“Hi,” she said, shyly when Simon's mother handed her the microphone. “I'm Jean from Medford. Five years ago, I started the program. I had put on weight after my mother died and I had gone up to 175 lb. Now I'm back down to 155 and I just thank God . . .”

There was polite applause from the audience.

The testimonies continued with a woman who had gained a hundred pounds when she was pregnant, a man who had put on fifty-seven pounds after being unemployed for a year, a teenager who had been sad and lonely and depressed until she had found God – and weight loss – through the program.

Then Simon's mother talked some more, holding up her new book and encouraging people to be filled with the word of God, not with food. To whet their appetite, she read some excerpts. She encouraged people to return tomorrow night and to bring a friend who needed to hear this message.

There was more praise-and-worship, applause for Simon's mother and then an announcement.

“We have trained counsellors standing by to talk with you tonight,” said Simon's mother, now starting to wrap up. “They'll pray with you and encourage you . . .”

“Is she talking about those women in the hotel room?” Abril whispered.

Simon nodded absently. He was scrolling through the program that kept track of all their sales.

Trained counsellors?

Then it was over. Most women were at the front of the sanctuary trying to have a brief word with Simon's mother, but a few of them started to trickle out for the coffee and to check out the merchandise.

An older, heavy woman carefully looked over the Food for Him line. She selected two boxes of cereal and paid Abril. Simon entered the data into the laptop. Another woman had some questions about the crackers. She had a wheat allergy. Was there anything without wheat? Abril showed her the line of corn crackers based on Matthew 12:1. It was written on the package, “At that time on the Sabbath day, Jesus went through the fields of corn, and his disciples were hungry and began to pluck the ears of corn and to eat.”

The lady liked that and purchased three boxes.

After that, things sped up. More people came out and although the ministry merchandise tables were always busier, Food for Him was left with almost an empty table by the time the church doors were being locked for the night. What was left was packed into a box for the next night and stored in the truck. Simon's mother had already gone back to the hotel with Sheri. Jamie was left to manage any dissembling of the stage. Josh and Sam left, after first asking Abril if she wanted to join them for a beer and a burger. It was a tempting offer, but she said no. Not for the sake of Simon, as much as for the sake of Sami.

But it was Simon who held her hand in the taxi all the way back to the hotel.

“Think we'll do as good tomorrow night?” she asked, trying to keep it neutral.

“We might,” he said. He seemed to be relaxed now. The laptop was in its bag and he wasn't tallying up sales.

When they got back to the hotel, he suggested a drink in the lounge.

“Sure,” she sighed. It was harder saying no to Simon than it was to Josh. Simon was her oldest friend. She barely knew Josh.

Of course, the same could be said for Sami.

 


Chapter Sixteen

I

 only want testimonies from people who have lost 75 pounds or more,” said Simon's mother, clicking and unclicking the end of her pen. “Twenty pounds, Sheri? That was ridiculous.”

Jamie nodded. Sheri glared at him, but Simon's mother didn't notice.

“And where was the singing?” Simon's mother turned to Jamie. “I don't know how anyone can have a praise-and-worship team without vocalists! I had to do it myself! It would have been nice to have a bit of support!”

Now it was Jamie's turn to look chagrined.

“I had two women lined up, sisters, but they got sick at the last minute. Strep throat.”

Simon's mother continued to look annoyed.

“What about for tonight?” she demanded.

“The pastor's gotten me another vocalist,” Jamie assured her.

Simon's mother nodded and checked something off in a small notebook. Despite Simon's best efforts, she was still a low-tech person who preferred pen and paper to a laptop or an iPad or an electronic organizer.

Abril and Simon weren't really needed for this meeting but Simon's mother wanted to touch base with him and get his impressions of the night before. Since he had been breakfasting with Abril when he received the royal summons, he had brought her along.

Simon had assured her that everything had gone well, she had been in top form and that everyone had loved her. It seemed to be all she wanted to hear, because after that she had turned on her two assistants, leaving Simon and Abril to have another cup of coffee in the small kitchenette.

Last night, Simon had downed three beers while Abril had sipped one screwdriver. She hated the fuzzy feeling in her head the next morning if she drank too much. Simon had become almost amorous when he was walking her back to her room, his arm around her waist.

The thought that he had probably been this close to Carlie left Abril cold, however, and she had wished him a brief goodnight before hurrying into the room she shared with Sheri. This morning, Simon was all business.

Abril, on the other hand, wanted to explore Boston a bit. Sheri had told her that there was a nearby Chinatown worth checking out. She had also recommended taking a taxi ride and asking the driver to show them some of the historical sites – the Boston Tea Party ship, Paul Revere's House, the Old North Church where the two lanterns had been held to warn that the British were coming by sea. But when she mentioned it to Simon, he said he had emails to answer and that they would have to get to the church earlier today.

“Maybe we can have a quick bite in Chinatown,” he said, when he saw the look on her face. She was hoping she looked annoyed, not disappointed. She didn't want to play the part of the girlfriend deferring to an overworked boyfriend, but that of a peeved business associate whose partner won't take a break.

“Sounds fine,” she said briskly.

“Could you do me a favour?” he asked, his voice low. His mom was still conferring with her assistants. “Mom's a bit down. I don't know why. Could you go out and buy her something to cheer her up?”

“Uh, sure,” said Abril. That was more something Carlie would do as his administrative assistant. “What does she like?”

“Books about tea,” said Simon. “She loves those books about tea, you know, English-style high tea . . .” He was reaching into his pocket for his wallet.

“Something about the Boston Tea Party perhaps?” she said, smiling mischievously.

“Definitely not,” said Simon, grinning. He was pulling some twenties out of his wallet and handing them to Abril. “Is that OK?”

“Sure,” she said. It would give her something to do, an excuse to look around Boston, even if it was on a mission for Simon.

While Simon seemed happy to stay in his mother's suite, Abril slipped out the door without anyone noticing.

Taking the elevator down, she approached one of taxis outside the hotel.

“Where to, miss?” said the man, who had been leaning on the taxi, having a smoke. He tossed the cigarette into the gutter.

“A bookstore,” she said. “Any one.”

“Sure,” he said, getting into the driver's seat. “I know a nice one.”

It was a short drive, through Chinatown, as it turned out. Then they were downtown, a picturesque mix of modern and old. The street with the bookstore had a redbrick sidewalk. Outside the store itself, full bookshelves lined a stone wall. She paid the driver and thanked him, pretty sure that she could make her own way back to the hotel.

As it turned out, it was a second-hand bookstore, but full of old world elegance. Within minutes, she was browsing an extensive food collection and had found several books on tea. One of them, in particular, seemed promising. It looked as old as the Boston Tea Party and had elegant pencil sketches of fashionable tea settings to accompany the recipes. The only other contender was a more modern book about the culture of American tea. It included pages about tea in the South – both hot and iced. There was a photo from the 1950's of tourists in Florida having key lime pie and tea. A whole chapter was about a West Coast herbal tea company and their innovative recipes.

A slim blue book caught Abril's eye. Manufacturing Tea. It was one of the older ones, from the early 1900's, and yet it was only $5. When Abril opened it, she could see why. It was a dry read. It discussed from start to finish how to raise tea plants and bring them to market. Temporarily forgetting the other two books, Abril started reading. In its chapters, it discussed the steps after harvesting, starting with withering, followed by rolling either by hand or machine. Then oxidation, drying and finally, grading. She stood reading for so long she lost track of time.

“May I help you?” asked a young man.

“Uh, yes,” said Abril startled. Her mind had been in Africa, with the first crop of tea leaves. This book was giving her an idea of what could be done by hand and what equipment they would need. “I'll take these three.” She handed him the tea books. She couldn't decide which one was best for Simon's mother so she'd give both to him.

The salesclerk rang up her purchases and she handed him most of Simon's twenties. She'd add five dollars to the change to pay for her own book.

Then she was out in the street again. She wanted to get back to reading the book. Walking out to the main road, a business district, she spotted a Starbucks in the distance. She walked along the moderately crowded street to the busy coffeehouse. They were featuring their annual Pumpkin Spice Latte so she ordered a grande and sat down to read.

It only took an hour to finish reading the whole book. And in the end, it didn't sound too hard. In fact, the more she thought about it, the more she would rather complete the whole process at the Africa end. What if they could even do the packaging there too?

She glanced at her watch. It was well past lunchtime. Time to get back to the hotel and persuade Simon to have a quick meal in Chinatown. Although it had been her plan to walk back, she used her cellphone and a phonebook provided by an obliging Starbucks employee to call a taxi.

In ten minutes, she was back at the hotel. Simon wasn't in his room, so, with some hesitation, she returned to the suite. Thankfully, the door was ajar. Visitors were coming and going to meet with Simon's mom. From what she could gather, they were members of the church hosting the event, all who were on the program.

Simon was exactly where she had left him. Extracting her own book from the bag, she handed him the tea books and his change.

He looked the two volumes over and said they were perfect.

“Let's check out Chinatown,” she said. She hadn't sat down.

“Are you hungry?” He had absently put the books beside him on the love seat and his eyes were back on his laptop. “Why don't you grab something to eat?”

He was referring to the table that was now held platters of crackers and cheese, fruits and vegetables and cookies and squares. Abril sighed. She should have gotten something at Starbucks if he was going to be this way. She filled up a plate and sat down in an empty chair. Not surprisingly, Simon's mother wasn't eating, but many of her visitors were. Abril watched to see if they chewed every mouthful and enjoyed every bite. Most were like her, their eyes moving around to see how everyone else was eating.

“OK, let's do this,” said Simon, shutting his laptop and standing up.

“I've been on the program for years!” Abril heard one woman saying to Simon's mother as they headed out the door. “I can't thank you enough . . .”

 

“Don't blame your weight on genetics,” said Simon's mother, shaking a painted fingernail at her audience. “Don't resort to crutches to hold onto your fat, to excuse yourself. Face the fact that you have an addiction to food and any addiction is an idol that separates you from God. I know what it's like. I used to be where some of you are today – overweight and unhappy.”

Standing beside Abril at the Food for Him table, Simon snickered.

“What?” whispered Abril.

“She used to be 17 lb. overweight,” Simon whispered. “And that was right after she had my sister.” Simon shook his head. “Of course, it was Dad who told me that, not her.”

“I know what it's like,” Simon's mother repeated. “I know how hard it is to turn from the refrigerator and to seek God instead. When I was fat, my mind was always on food. Rarely on God. I did my devotions in the morning and then I forgot about him. My mind was on my true love, food.”

They were standing up in the back of the sanctuary tonight. Even more people had come out for the second night. There were more men too. Abril's impression was that after coming out last night, wives had dragged their food-loving husbands to hear this life-changing message.

Some of the men were so bored that they had even come out into the foyer and looked over the Food for Him table. Simon was handing out business cards like crazy. Anyone who purchased something and anyone who just looked mildly interested received one. The card had the company website where products could be purchased online. In fact, it was far more likely that, in the long run, it would be the website that increased their sales. The table at the conferences were just a way to introduce the products.

“I've been following the program now for three years” a woman in the sanctuary was saying. It was time for the testimonies. “I've lost 76 lb. and I thank God . . .” The audience applauded and the lady paused. Then she turned to Simon's mother. “And I thank you for this wonderful ministry that brings hope and healing to so many people.”

Simon's mother smiled and pointed a hand upward, as if to say, all the glory goes to God. The lady returned to her seat in the audience.

Abril was just staring at Simon's mother. Why did it all seem so contradictory?

If you love God so much, why do you want to do this? she thought, looking around at all the women in the audience. Her eyes returned to the stage and the woman on the stage. In her hotel room, Simon’s mother had been wearing a pink bathrobe. Now she had on a bohemian yellow blouse, a long white skirt and matching three-inch heels. A local reporter had come out to snap some shots of the event and report on this budding ministry empire, as he called it.

A ministry empire. It was almost the opposite of what Simon's mother preached. She talked about a heart-to-heart relationship with God, a private, intimate connection. And yet, all this tour had been about was selling the books and DVDs. Granted, that's how she made her living and she never pretended to be a non-profit organization. But it presented a dilemma for Abril.

All the testimonies of people who had successfully lost weight were about how they had turned from food to God.

But how could the system continue to work if they then turned to Simon's mother to sustain the weight loss? If Simon's mother had directed them to turn to God, they should stay focused on him, and not on Simon's mother. And yet, that's what everyone was doing. And Simon's mother was subtly encouraging it.

And in the middle of it all, she and Simon were making a living from the trust these women had put in the whole program.


 

 


Chapter Seventeen

I

t was the second day in Pittsburgh.

The one night in Providence and the first night in Pittsburgh had been identical to Boston – most of the time spent in the hotel. The Food for Him table did well in both cities and Simon was all business. It was only in the late evenings, when they were back at the hotel, that he was eager to spend time with Abril over a drink in the bar.

Today had been distinguished from the previous days by Simon's mother waking up with a headache. Her headaches were more of a migraine than just something that could be chased away with a couple of aspirins.

While she was resting in a darkened room, her support staff, including Josh and Sam, were all praying that God would deliver her from the pain before the evening event.

Simon was expected to be by her side, reading her scriptures or providing her with cold wet cloths for her head.

Abril was left in the kitchenette with Simon's laptop. This was news to her that Simon's mother suffered from migraines. Her own mother had had the same problem when Abril was younger, but she had turned to a practitioner of homeopathy who had told her that migraine sufferers were typically low in magnesium and selenium. She had also recommended B12 and the herbal remedy best known for migraine relief, feverfew. Since then, Abril's mother had rarely suffered from migraines. And when she did, she would drink apple cider vinegar with honey and hot water, which would help to ease the pain.

But Simon's mother had a whole lecture in her DVD series devoted to why you should listen to your body and follow natural cravings rather than resort to the quackery of vitamin cures.

“God knows your body better than you do,” was what she said in the DVD. “So why shouldn't you listen to what it's telling you? People in America are spending a fortune on so-called cures for their headaches, stomach-aches, backaches. The solution is simple, folks. When the pounds come off, the pain stops. Turn to God, turn away from the food and the pain will stop.”

It had sounded good at the time. But now Abril was ashamed of how she had looked down on her mother for all the vitamin bottles in their medicine cabinet.

Jamie, Josh and Sam had left to go to the church. Abril got the impression there would be a meeting no matter what. Poor Simon's mother. She remembered the days when her own mother would lie in bed, unable to get up for the pain. If it happened on a weekend, her dad would take her to the park and they would spend long hours out of the apartment to let her mother rest in peace. If it happened on a weekday, Abril would come home from school and be permitted to watch television, with the volume on low, until her father came home and could throw something together for dinner.

Right now, while she waited for Simon, she was using the time to go online and learn more about coffee production.

Simon came out of his mother's bedroom, closing the door behind him.

“Listen, Abril,” he said softly. “Mother's resting now. I can't leave her. But could you go and set up the Food for Him table?”

She stood up and nodded.

“Of course.”

“You can probably get Josh to get the product out of the truck.”

She nodded. She wasn't going to take the bait.

“You know,” she said. “My mom used to get migraines too. If you take some apple cider vinegar with honey and hot water, the pain starts to ease up a bit. I could go out and get some for you . . .”

“I'll keep it in mind.” With a wry smile, Simon returned to his mother's room.

She closed the laptop, put it in its case and slung it over her shoulder.

So once again, Abril was down in a hotel lobby and out on her own, taking a cab. She didn't even know the way, but the cab-driver knew where the mega-church was.

She watched out the window as the cab drove her from the airport hotel into the suburbs where the church that seated over 5,000 had its spacious property. The Mack truck was parked in one corner of the parking lot. Going inside, she found out that Simon's mother's products had already been taken inside and the truck was now locked. But Josh found a dolly and went out with her.

As he loaded the dolly with Food for Him boxes he chatted with Abril.

“I felt like such a hypocrite standing around in a circle praying for the boss like that,” he said, shaking his head. “My mother would have loved it though.”

“Do you pray?” asked Abril, curious.

Josh shrugged as he added the final box to this load. “As much as anyone. But I don't expect instant results. I mean, they're all standing around praying for healing, like now, and I'm thinking maybe the woman should just stay in bed and get some rest.”

Abril laughed.

“Too many people counting on her, I guess,” she said.

“Yeah, but that's the fear of man,” said Josh, now wheeling the dolly toward a side door with Abril beside him. “Isn't she always preaching about the fear of man and how people don't fear God, they're just worried about what other people think?”

“That's actually true,” said Abril, thinking about it. “It's funny how it's one thing to preach it and one thing to actually do it.”

“Exactly. But living it is the test, isn't it?”

Abril held open the glass door for him and he thanked her with a nod.

“And like, look at how she dresses,” Josh continued, his voice lower now that they were inside. “Doesn't the Bible say something about women dressing a certain way? You know, not the fancy hair and the expensive jewellery and the beautiful clothes. I mean, this lady teaches that women should be all accepting of their husband's authority. You should see my mom, always biting her tongue not to tell my dad what she's really thinking. All because her precious teacher tells her to obey him. But I read the Bible too and I know that lady isn't teaching - or living - everything in it.”

It was quite the speech.

And Abril agreed with every word.

“You make a good point,” she said.

Josh shrugged modestly.

“Yeah, well, I get paid so I don't care too much. But it's my mom. I see her taking it all in and thinking the woman's a prophetess . . .” He shook his head as he unloaded the boxes by the Food for Him table.

“I know what you mean,” said Abril.

She thanked him with a smile and after he returned the dolly to a cupboard, he joined Sam at the other table. The doors would be opening soon and she had to work fast to get everything set up. She barely had time to fire up the computer program before the people were surging in, eager for front row seats.

Simon's mother, along with Simon and Sheri, arrived only minutes before the scheduled start. Instead of going up on stage to participate with the praise-and-worship band as she usually did, Simon's mother sat between her two escorts in the front row. She looked tired and pale. Abril felt sorry for her. But she was impressed that she had still made it.

Abril doubted anyone in the audience would have guessed that the main speaker was suffering from a migraine. She was less animated than usual, but she still preached her powerful message of turning away from the idol of the refrigerator to a lasting relationship with God.

“Sensuality is for the world,” she said to her audience. “Indulging the flesh is for the world. Why shouldn't they? They have nothing better to do with their bodies. But you need to use your bodies to serve and honour God.”

She wasn't pacing like she usually did and she actually returned to her seat in the front row when the testimonies were going on. Jamie must have found all the testimonies tonight, since Sheri hadn't had the time. He had done well. No one had lost less than one hundred pounds and a few of them were men for a change.

Even Josh and Sam were both listening even though neither of them looked like they had any weight to lose. Everyone enjoyed the testimonies, especially when people opened up and shared how they had often turned to drugs, sex and food to fill the emptiness in them, like one man did.

The whole thing was starting to become routine though. Now it was time for some praise-and-worship and a few closing words by Simon's mother. Then she would stand at the front and meet her followers.

Tonight, however, Simon's mother just said a quick goodnight and “God bless” before disappearing out a side door with Simon and Sheri. There was a buzz in the crowd. The women who had pushed forward were now milling around, some of them waiting in case she came back. But when she didn't, Abril could overhear their comments as they passed through the foyer.

“It's not right,” one woman was saying as she and another woman paused in front of the Food for Him table. Neither of them even glanced at the products. “I drove six hours to be here tonight. I just wanted to say hello and let her know what the program's done for me.”

“Oh, I know,” said the other lady. “I've been leading a workshop in my house for four years now. I think I'm entitled to at least meet her . . .”

“Can I interest you ladies in our product line?” Abril said, leaning forward. They were blocking most of the front of the table for any other interested customers.

Uhhhh . . .” The lady who had led a workshop for four years was looking over the contents of the table. “No.” They both moved away.

Although many people stayed for coffee and some fellowship, Simon's mother's early departure made a dramatic difference in sales. Last night, many of the ladies who had met her and talked to her had then come out to the tables to purchase books, DVDs, sweatshirts, tote bags and Food for Him items. Tonight, a lot of women left right away, looking irritated that they didn't get to meet their teacher in person.

The result for Abril, Sam and Josh was that they got leave about half an hour earlier than the night before.

“C'mon,” said Josh to Abril, grinning. “Come have a beer and a burger with us. I won't tell the boss's son.”

Abril laughed.

“A burger and a beer sound great.” They'd be sharing a cab back anyhow. The Mack truck would stay in the church parking lot. When the taxi came, Josh said, “Something with a little class, where you can still get a decent burger.”

The driver laughed and started the engine.

“OK, I think I know what you want.”

He drove them from the suburbs into a busy commercial area that was lined with restaurants and car dealerships. He pulled into the parking lot of one of the restaurants, a bar and grille.

“Thanks,” said Josh, handing him a $20. “You can drive us back to our hotel in two hours if you want.”

The man agreed to be back then and the three of them went into the busy eatery. A hostess led them to a booth in the grille portion of the restaurant.

“Thank God that woman doesn't have a problem with alcohol,” said Josh when they all had a beer in front of them. “Cheers!” he said to Abril, holding up his glass.

She returned the gesture.

“It's because she drinks wine with every meal,” said Sam, quietly. He was beside her and Abril almost didn't hear him.

“Really?” she said.

He nodded.

“There are three crates of the stuff in the truck. Don't know when she drinks it, but every city we come to, there are a few more bottles missing.”

“I had no idea,” said Abril.

Sam shrugged.

“It's because she makes the rules,” said Josh, leaning forward. He was across from Abril. “Alcohol, fine. Coffee, fine. She drinks them both. Overeating. Very bad. But she doesn't overeat anyhow. I don't really see how it's a spiritual thing. She just tells people not to do the things that she's not tempted to do. Have you ever heard her pornography talk?” Josh shook his head before taking a swig of his beer. “She goes on and on about it. I'd like to hear her talk about the evils of clothes shopping.”

Abril smiled. She couldn't help it. But Sam was nodding, serious.

“My mom does everything that woman tells her to,” he said, still speaking quietly.

“I've always wished my mom would listen to Simon's mother,” said Abril. “Instead, she sits and eats Cheesies.”

“I wish my mom would do that,” said Sam softly. “At least then she'd be happy.”

“Amen to that, brother,” said Josh, now almost finished his beer. Abril didn't mind. They had a taxi-cab to take them home.

An enormous plate of burgers and fries arrived for each of them.

“Tell me the truth, Abril,” said Josh looking at her. His face was serious but his eyes were full of amusement. “Are you really hungry?”

Abril looked down at the steaming plate of melted cheese on a half-pound of meat, with crispy fries and a dollop of coleslaw.

“No,” she said, smiling, as she picked up her fork and began eating.

 

“Where were you?” Simon demanded, sitting down across from her at the small table.

It was morning and she was having a quiet breakfast alone in the hotel restaurant. They had a late morning flight to Buffalo. The Mack truck would have left at sunrise.

“Well, I've been here . . .” Abril said slowly.

“No, I mean last night!”

“Oh, last night!” she said, pretending to understand. “We got a bite to eat before heading back.”

“With Josh?” he said.

“With Josh and Sam,” she said. “We shared a cab back. It would have been silly to get a separate cab.”

Simon rolled his eyes but a waitress came to the table and asked him if he would like to order something.

“Coffee, scrambled eggs, toast, potatoes, bacon,” he said, without looking at her.

Abril smiled pleasantly. She was not going to shrink under this. He had no right to be this way.

Then Simon relaxed.

“Yeah, it would have been silly,” he agreed.

“How's your mom?” she asked. “Did a good night's sleep help?”

He shook his head.

“It never does. It's just time. It'll go away, but it's a bitch while it happens.”

Abril nodded. She remembered the same thing with her mother. All that helped was to sleep the time away.

“Sales were down,” she said, reaching down to hand him his laptop. “I think it's because your mom left early.”

“I was afraid of that,” said Simon, taking the laptop case and opening it up. “It always works that way.”

He was firing up the computer and then checking the stats.

“Yeah, it was pretty bad,” he agreed as his eyes scrolled down the screen.

“I handed out a lot of business cards, though,” she said.

“Well, that's good,” he said, closing his laptop and putting it away as his coffee arrived. “Might get some future business out of it.”

“It's too bad your mom had to get her migraine before the biggest event,” said Abril.

“I hear you,” Simon agreed, adding some sugar to his coffee.

“If she'd gotten her headache tomorrow, she'd have had some time to rest it off.”

Simon nodded.

“But she wouldn't have gotten the migraine then.”

It took Abril a moment to get it. Simon's mother had gotten a migraine because of the pressure she was under.

It was like Josh said, the fear of man's opinion versus God's opinion. But Simon's mother was continually preaching that there should be no concern for what people thought about you, only what God thought about you. It all tied in with weight loss and a life of obedience to God. But had it become hard for Simon's mother to keep practising it when she had become so successful?

Abril sipped coffee while Simon ate his breakfast quickly, in complete contrast to his mother's teachings that one should chew thoroughly and sip between bites.

Abril's suitcase was already packed and by her feet, but Simon, who typically flew by the seat of his pants, had to return to his room to finish packing after breakfast. They had ten short minutes before the hotel's courtesy van was taking their party to the airport.

Abril waited in the lobby. Everyone was late today. Jamie was the first to arrive with a knapsack on his back and the two large suitcases filled with delicate electronics and laptops. He gave Abril a brief smile and headed out to the van. Abril followed.

Then it was Simon's mother, wearing sunglasses despite the overcast day, with Simon and Sheri on either side of her. Jamie was sent back up to the suite to get all the luggage left behind.

Ignoring the driver who was standing by the open door, Simon's mother took the back seat and Sheri sat down beside her.

Abril was directly in front of Simon's mother but she got the sense the woman didn't want her to turn around and wish her a cheery good morning.

Simon had gone back upstairs to help Jamie.

Abril glanced at her watch and observed that they were already running late. Oh well. It would be disastrous for Simon's mother if they missed their flight. Buffalo was going to be BIG. To Simon, it would also be disastrous. But Abril didn't care.

She was staring out the van window but it was the future she was thinking about. The future wasn't here in this grey overcast city, or any other city in the States. It was in sunny Africa. And just like an idea had begun to form in her mind in Africa, a new idea was forming here in the States.

It was something Sami had said. Something along the lines of, even if Food for Him abandoned them, the plants would still yield crops for future generations. The irrigation system was an accomplished fact.

And then there was what Abu Salem had said, “Yallah! I will be your first customer!”


 

 


Chapter Eighteen

T

his time, Simon got to sit in first-class with his mother. Normally, it would have been Sheri beside Simon's mother, but she seemed glad to be with Jamie in coach for a change. That left Abril to go through her plans in her mind. It was a bold plan. But first, she had to do the math.

Even though she had been the passive partner, Food for Him belonged to her and Simon. Over the years, they had both invested in the company, either by forfeiting their salaries when needed, or by putting in more hours than anyone else, particularly at the beginning. The only thing that obscured her part in the company was the phenomenal success of Simon's mother, which had spilled over to Food for Him. But that was an intangible asset that Simon had contributed to the company.

The flight was short and she had scribbled down all the numbers that she could think of by the time the plane began to descend. In the end, her piece of paper more than justified the proposal she was going to make to Simon.

The pilot came on to announce that it was a cool but sunny day in Buffalo, with a temperature of 65 degrees.

Since first-class disembarked first, Simon and his mother were already on their way to the hotel by the time Abril, Sheri and Jamie made it to the luggage carousal.

“I guess I'll have to get Her Highness' luggage too,” said Jamie, sighing.

“You shouldn't call her that,” said Sheri.

Jamie went off to get a baggage cart.

Sheri gave Abril an embarrassed smile. Maybe she was afraid Abril would pass the remark on to Simon. Abril tried to smile reassuringly.

Jamie came back with the cart just in time to hoist his own two huge black suitcases off the luggage carousal. Simon's mother's luggage was a matching designer set, easily identified. It filled the rest of the cart. Simon's duffle bag was balanced precariously on top. Abril and Sheri were left to carry their own bags out into the bright autumn day in Buffalo.

No taxi could handle all of their luggage.

“Let's take the courtesy van,” said Jamie, surveying the hotel vans that lined the outside of Arrivals.

“There it is,” said Sheri, pointing to the Holiday Inn van.

“No, it's not,” said Jamie. “We're staying at the Hilton.”

“No, we're not,” said Sheri. “I should know. I booked it.”

Jamie rolled his eyes but he followed Sheri.

“Which hotel?” said the driver, after they had loaded all of their luggage in the back.

Sheri looked blank.

“Holiday Inn Express or Holiday Inn Hotel?” the driver said.

“I don't know,” said Sheri.

“You booked it,” Jamie pointed out.

Sheri glared at him.

“I just booked it online. I didn't know there were two.”

“What's your name?” said the driver, picking up his mobile radio.

Sheri gave Simon's mother's name and soon the driver had established that they were booked in at the Holiday Inn Express.

Being a five-minute drive, the scenery was limited to the neighbourhood surrounding the airport. While Jamie and the driver unloaded the luggage and got it all into the foyer, Sheri went straight to the front desk. She returned to Abril and Jamie, now standing by the pile of luggage, not with hotel room keys, but bad news.

“Simon and his mom haven't checked in,” she said, looking worried.

Abril scanned the foyer. Several businessmen were standing around with paper cups of coffee, talking. A family with small children, all wearing swimsuits, were obviously on their way to the hotel pool. But there was no Simon or his mother.

Jamie grinned.

“Bet you anything, they're at the other Holiday Inn.”

“Don't say that,” groaned Sheri.

“Well c'mon, girl,” said Jamie, glancing at his watch. “Get us our keys. I need to get going to the convention centre.”

Abril pitied Sheri. Looking numb, she returned to the front desk and came back with keys. Jamie hurried off with his two large suitcases. Abril and Sheri were left with the rest of the luggage.

Sheri was in a semi-state of shock.

“Why don't you tell the front desk what happened,” Abril suggested. “They can phone up the other Holiday Inn and send a van over for them.”

Sheri nodded while Abril went to find a cart.

“They're not there anymore,” Sheri reported to Abril who had now loaded everything onto the cart. “The front desk on that end figured out the problem and they're on their way over. I'd better wait here,” she added bravely.

Abril nodded, accepting some room keys from her. The suite was, of course, for Simon's mother. On a floor below, Abril would again be sharing a room with Sheri.

Jamie was already heading for the glass doors by the time Abril was pushing the cart to the elevators. He gave Abril a nod and paused only to squeeze Sheri's shoulders and give her a quick smile before leaving. She was standing by the doors, waiting for Simon and his mother.

Abril didn't see the arrival of Simon's mother, but judging by the drained look on Sheri's face when she joined her in the room, it hadn't been easy for the personal assistant. Abril went back downstairs to look for Simon.

“I have your bag in my room,” she told Simon.

Simon nodded absently, looking at his watch.

“Is your mom OK?” she asked.

“She's puking in her bathroom,” he said. “Hopefully she'll feel better afterwards. We have to get going.”

Abril knew this would be the biggest night for Food for Him sales, and more importantly, for handing out the business cards that would lead to even more online sales.

Simon's mother didn't look much better when she stepped off of the elevator, but the taxi was waiting to take them to the First Niagara Center.

Apart from telling the driver the destination, no one talked on the ride. Only at the end of the ride did Simon's mother speak.

“The other hotel was closer,” she said sharply, as she stepped out of the cab.

Getting out behind her, Sheri looked like she was going to cry.

Simon was oblivious to it, now walking alongside his mother.

Abril tried to convey some sympathy to Sheri but Sheri was just staring straight ahead as they walked inside.

Inside the convention centre was activity. A local church with three weekly workshops had been recruited to run concessions, as well as set up the stage. Through one of the open doors leading into the arena, Abril could see Jamie up on stage, directing the setup. The church was also providing a twenty-woman choir along with instrumental accompaniment.

Several older women greeted Simon’s mother like a celebrity. She gave them weak smiles before asking where her dressing room was. Again, Abril saw dashed hopes as Simon led her in the direction that one of them pointed. It was always the same. She told them to look to God to meet all their needs and then they crowded around her and were disappointed when she couldn't give them her full attention. It was the golden calf all over again. Give us something we can see to worship!

Except that Simon's mother wasn't Moses. She was selling books and DVDs to lead her people.

Sheri was trailing along behind Simon and his mother. They had entered a side door. Abril was left to go figure out where the main foyer was.

Josh and Sam had already set up the product table for Simon's mother. Josh was happy to help Abril bring in the Food for Him boxes.

“She still got her headache?” he asked.

Abril nodded as they went outside to where the Mack truck was still parked near the entrance.

“What I can't understand,” said Josh, “is, she talks to God and he talks to her and yet, she gets these headaches. If she's doing the work of God, why does he do this to her?”

Abril smiled.

“To build character, I guess.”

Josh snorted as he hopped aboard the back of the truck and effortlessly started moving Food for Him boxes around.

“But that's not what she teaches,” he said. “She says that when you follow God, it's blessings, blessings, blessings. I mean, think about it. That's very old covenant, isn't it?”

“I guess it is,” said Abril, accepting a light box of crackers. “I never really thought about it.”

“Well, I read my Bible without anyone telling me what it means,” said Josh, picking up a heavier box of granola. “And what she's saying doesn't line up with the new covenant. There's no getting away from it. There are troubles in this world. But our lady up there is teaching that if you follow God, you'll be blessed. But she's always talking about physical blessings, good health and prosperity and all the stuff that God promised Israel if they would keep the law. Except they didn't.”

“I guess you're right,” said Abril, giving it some thought, as they walked back into the center. “She sort of jumps around, doesn't she? Old covenant and new covenant scriptures.”

“Exactly,” said Josh. “That's why it doesn't work. That's why she gets headaches and has to hide them. Because she's selling a package, but it ain't the real thing.”

“Wow,” said Abril, taking a deep breath. “I don't think I've ever heard anyone put it like that.”

Josh shrugged.

“I never bought into it in the first place.”

“I did,” admitted Abril. They were back at the Food for Him table. “But I've been doing a lot of thinking lately.”

“Good for you,” said Josh, approvingly. “Don't just take it all in. Think about it a bit.”

They made a few more trips out to the truck and by the time they had all the boxes in, Abril was left with twenty short minutes to set up before the doors opened. The Mack truck was rolling away to park in some distant corner of the lot that was now filling up with cars.

Simon and his laptop arrived at the table ten minutes after the doors had opened and the surge had occurred.

“Any customers?” he asked.

Abril shook her head.

“All for your mom,” she said. Across the foyer, Josh and Sam were busy handling the women crowding around the two tables.

Simon nodded philosophically as he opened the laptop and fired up the program that kept track of sales.

After purchasing their books, DVDs, sweatshirts, totes and key chains, many of the women made it over to the Food for Him table. Simon was kept occupied by one slim young woman who wanted to know which of the products were organic. (None. But Simon didn't want to lose a customer and was pointing out the health benefits of each product to the woman.) Abril was in the process of selling several boxes of crackers, a half dozen boxes of cereal, as well as two bags of cranberry-orange-chocolate trail mix to two women who said they were, “starving” since they had skipped dinner to be here.

Abril nodded pleasantly. Whether they were feeling hunger pangs would have been more of interest to Simon's mother, not her.

By the time the choir started singing in the arena, they had sold more products than they had in all the previous cities combined.

“Buffalo is going to be good,” said Simon nodding and smiling as he scrolled down on his laptop.

Across the foyer, Josh gave Abril a wink. She grinned back.

People were still coming in, but they hurried straight into the arena, not pausing to look at the tables set up in the foyer.

Abril focused on the show on the stage. This one was being filmed. The other events had also been filmed and edited versions would make it to Youtube. But this was the one that would make it to DVD. The choir was of professional quality. They obviously did a lot of rehearsing. Jamie and Sheri would be moving through the crowds right now, looking for people willing to give their testimonies.

Abril felt sorry for Simon's mother. She said a quick prayer for her. But at the same time, she remembered something Simon's mother had said in her first DVD.

You look this way because of decisions you’ve made. You've brought yourself to this point.

Well, Simon's mother had brought herself to this point. A guru among Christian dieters. A guide. One who had gone ahead and discovered the path.

Except that she wouldn't admit to her followers that the path was covered with thorns.

Still, when she came to the stage, Abril had to admire her. Her smile was wide and her mannerisms were almost normal. Most of what she said came from her latest book, which she encouraged her audience to purchase. Someone would have to know that she had a migraine to detect that something was a bit off, a bit forced. And Jamie and Sheri did their bit – providing many testimonies about how Simon's mother and God had changed lives, giving Simon's mother a chance to just sit on the stage and listen and pretend to be thrilled by it all.

Some of the ladies were shaking at being in front of such a large crowd, but with Sheri's arm around them, they managed to tell their stories of dramatic weight loss and lives changed by obedience to God and not to food.

One woman, once she got going, gave a particularly long testimony about how God had shown her that not only was she a slave to food, but that she was a slave to all sorts of other sins as well – addiction to romance novels, disrespect toward her husband, poor role model to her children, unfriendly at church, even indifferent to the needs of small animals that frequented her property.

The audience was loving it. Simon was smiling. Josh was outright laughing.

Despite Sheri's gentle attempts to bring this testimony to an end, the woman wasn't budging, but was admonishing her audience to get right with God and start with the food.

“Normally Mom would hate this,” said Simon, shaking his head and returning his attention to the laptop.

Then there was more singing by the choir.

Simon's mother was up on the stage, swaying to the music, eyes closed. Abril hoped she wasn't about to collapse with pain. Her mom used to have dizzy spells along with the head pain.

“Did you try the apple cider vinegar?” she asked Simon, already knowing the answer.

Simon shook his head.

“Mom's into healing, not herbal remedies.”

“But maybe someone doesn't need a healing if they can just have a drink to make it go away . . .”

Simon wasn't listening. His mother had managed to stay up on stage for an hour and a half – long enough for a respectable DVD - and was now wrapping things up. Soon the crowds would be back in the foyer and it would be busy.

For Buffalo, Simon's mother stayed up at the front for over an hour, meeting people. Not that Abril had time to watch. The Food for Him table was busy from the moment the crowds started trickling out right up to when the doors were being locked. In two hours, they sold everything on the table, as well as everything in the extra boxes under the table. Simon handed out hundreds of business cards and talked to as many people as were willing to listen about the merits of the Food for Him product line.

Except that Abril rather suspected that had Jesus lived in the 21st century, he probably wouldn't have eaten their cereals and crackers. He would have eaten just like everyone else.

But Simon was in a celebratory mood. They got their own taxi back to the hotel, while Josh and Sam went off to explore the nightlife of Buffalo. There was a holiday feeling now that they had a few days off.

“I just want to check on Mom,” said Simon. “Then let's go out, you and me, OK?”

“Sure,” she said. Maybe this would be a good time to drop some hints that she was thinking of a different future than one with Food for Him. See what kind of a reaction she got. It would take the grace of God for it all to work, though.

Abril stayed outside in the taxi while Simon hurried into the hotel. He returned five minutes later to report that his mother was sleeping and didn't want to see anyone for the next 24 hours, including him.

“What would you like to eat?” said Simon, as he climbed into the back seat with her.

She shrugged.

“A burger's fine.”

“Hey!” he said. “I've got an idea! Let's go to the Falls!”

“Niagara Falls?”

“Yeah, it's around here somewhere, isn't it?”

The driver confirmed that it was and said he could take them to a nice restaurant by the Falls.

Simon leaned back and focused his attention on Abril.

“Feels good to relax a bit.” He reached for her hand.

“Uh, Simon,” she said.

“Yep?”

They were driving now, but Abril wasn't taking any of it in.

“I've been thinking . . .”

“Uh huh?” Simon had closed his eyes and was leaning back, still holding her hand. He looked tired.

Abril just stared at him. This was part of the problem. It was all wrong. There was this sense that they had all put on a good show and now they could just relax and enjoy themselves. But Simon's mother taught that when you turned to God, you were His, always, at all times. She meant it in the context of you couldn't get up and have a midnight binge.

But for it to work, it had to work all the time. And that wasn't what was happening. Simon's mother carried a load like any other celebrity.

It wasn't working for Abril anymore. It felt too much like the world's definition of success and not like the teachings she had leaned on to guide her out of her relationship with food and into a relationship with God. And in the end, she had exactly the same relationship with both God and food that she had had at the beginning. Only Africa had shaken her out of her rut.

Abril sighed and leaned back, staring out at the night, the dark buildings. It was a long drive, at least long enough for Simon to doze off. Then the driver was pulling into the parking lot of a hotel right on the edge of the Falls, assuring them that the restaurant offered fine dining.

Simon nodded sleepily, thanking him and paying him.

“This is beautiful,” said Abril, walking to the edge of the parking lot. The Falls were lit up at night and this was the first time she had seen them in person. The ones on the American side were almost right beneath them, but the ones on the Canadian side offered a magnificent view of thousands of tons of water pouring over the horseshoe-shaped falls.

They appreciated the view together and then went inside the hotel, through the lobby and into a large bar and restaurant with a panoramic view of the water.

The lighting was subdued. Most of the patrons were on their dessert or coffee. Simon and Abril were led to a window table and Simon ordered a bottle of white wine before even sitting down. The maitre d' nodded and said a bottle would be sent to their table right away.

Abril waited until they had each had a glass of wine before she spoke. And when she did, it came out more abruptly than she expected.

“I'm going to fly from Toronto back to Africa.”

“So soon?” said Simon. He was still mellow, but it had taken him by surprise.

She nodded.

“I want my life to be there,” she said. The wine was helping.

Simon was just staring at her.

Abril, I don't think we can have a life in Africa. I mean, it's an important product line . . .”

“I want the product line,” she said, quickly pouring herself another glass of wine. “I want out of Food for Him.” Simon's eyes widened. “I want my own business. This tea and coffee thing.”

“But you can't,” said Simon, leaning forward. “It's a Food for Him . . .” The wine and exhaustion were combining as he searched for the right word.

“I know it's a Food for Him subsidiary, or whatever,” said Abril. “But I've done the numbers. I'm more than entitled to walk away with it. In fact, I'm probably entitled to more. But it's all I want.”

“I am so not following this . . .” said Simon, shaking his head.

“It's easy,” she said. “I found myself in Africa. I think I found God's life for me. It's not here, that's for sure.” She looked around. “Here is confusing. Theology. It doesn't make sense to me. Everyone's saying different things . . .” Now she was babbling and she didn't care. “Eat like Jesus. Eat when you're hungry, stop when you're full. Be slim for him. I've tried it all and it doesn't work. But Africa worked.”

“Fine,” said Simon, throwing up his hands. “We'll go to Africa. Somehow we'll try to make this work in Africa . . .”

“No,” she said. “I'm going alone.”

Sami was too precious to throw out on the table in the semi-drunken state she was in.

Simon just stared.

“I don't understand,” he finally said.

“It doesn't matter,” she said. “The point is, I understand.”

Stay in North America. Be dependable Abril Sanchez. Be held in the same arms that had held Carlie. Probably gain back all the weight she had lost in Africa because she had never figured out how to make it work.

Or . . . go back to Africa where her weight had never been an issue. And fall back into Sami's strong and waiting arms.

“Simon . . .” She reached across the table and took his hand. This would be the first and last time. “I've never wanted anything the way I want a farm in Africa. It's not anything I want to explain. It just is. And I could never have taken this step without all that I've learned from you and seen you do with Food for Him. But Food for Him is your baby. This is mine. And I'm going to do it.”

It seemed to get through. The wine had gone to both their heads, but it had also left them with a feeling of understanding that a sober state might not have.

“OK Abril,” said Simon, looking down at their hands. He took a deep breath. “It's yours. Whatever you've put into Africa. I should have held onto you and never let you go. The mistake was mine.”

She smiled.

“No,” she said. “There weren't any mistakes.”

They smiled at each other and a waiter arrived to ask them what they wanted to order.

“Whatever,” said Simon. They both laughed. Wine. Exhaustion. Emotion. Even the waiter smiled.

“I will see what I can do,” said the waiter, taking the unopened menus and disappearing.

Abril knew it would be her last dinner with him. With it all out in the open like this, she wouldn't be able to hang around in Buffalo for the next few days and then spend two days in Toronto. Tomorrow. Tomorrow. Tomorrow she would be going back to Africa.

 


Chapter Nineteen

H

uts were everywhere. The fields were full of plants.

“What happened?” She stepped out of the rusty taxi and surveyed the village. It had been quiet when she left. Now there were people everywhere, some along the paths in the village, others out in the fields.

Sami, who had seen the taxi arrive while out in the fields, had rushed back to the village at the sight of her. It was hardly to be believed. Abril! Here again! Then he was laughing, hugging her, lifting her right off her feet.

When she was back down on the ground, he explained.

“The rains came and people returned. I used the money you left me to buy them more tea and coffee plants. They all want to do this.”

His arms were still around her.

“I hope nobody's in my hut!” she said, looking around, almost overwhelmed by it all.

“Nobody,” he said grinning. “That's one hut that we were saving.”

This time, she had two large suitcases. He picked both up at the same time, hardly feeling the weight. She had come back to stay! His heart was light.

The people of the village were watching, exchanging smiles. So this was the woman who had taken Sami's heart! Sami, normally so serious, was now radiating happiness. Most had found life in other villages to not be as agreeable as the life they had left behind. They had returned, cautious at first. Now, inspired by Sami and Emmanuel, they were willing to forgive and carry on.

There was a beautiful mat on the floor of Abril's hut.

“From Joy?” she said, smiling.

Sami nodded.

He put the suitcases on the ground, piled one on top of another, so they could both sit on the mat and lean against them. Sami's arm went around her shoulders and she leaned into his chest.

“What did I miss?” she murmured. This was so different from how she had felt with Simon. It wasn't a matter of one being right and one being wrong, but more a matter of feeling with Sami that they could build a different life together – something new and beautiful. To create together rather than to tag along behind.

“Nothing,” he said, lost in his own thoughts, his relief at having her back. Hardly believing it. “Everything.” They laughed.

“How's Naomi?” she asked.

“Better,” said Sami. “Her husband is here often. She comes too sometimes. Things are better.”

“That's good,” she said. Now their fingers were intertwined. “Sami?”

“Yes?”

“I want to stay.”

His smile, in the dimness of the hut, was broad. It was everything he had hoped for. But he couldn't help teasing her a bit.

“I want you to stay too,” he said.

She waited.

She waited for him to ask her, to ask her to stay with him, to get married.

“But what about the hut?” he said, trying to sound earnest. “It was built for you. It is a small hut, but it is a nice hut. This is Abril's Hut. That is what everyone calls it.”

She didn't know whether to hit him or to laugh.

“The hut, eh?” she said. “It's really important that someone be in this hut?”

He nodded solemnly, but she noticed that his eyes were sparkling.

“OK,” she said. “If I can find someone for this hut, someone who doesn't mind that it's called Abril's Hut, can I, perhaps, move in with you in your hut?”

His answer was a kiss and the intensity of it took even him by surprise. It was followed by a more solemn proposal of marriage, which was received by Abril with all the pleasure and spontaneity of a woman who wasn't expecting such a wonderful surprise.


 

 

 


Epilogue

Four years later

 

A

bril's mother yawned as she stepped out of what was still affectionately referred to as Abril's Hut. She was carrying a drowsy young child in her arms.

“C'mon Mom!” Abril called out, waving her mother over to the fire outside of her and Sami's hut. A pot of water was already boiling.

The dozing child woke up as she was put down on the ground on a special mat made for her by Joy.

“Good morning, Mama!” said Sami, returning from the well, pausing to hug his mother-in-law. He loved this larger version of Abril with all of her idiosyncrasies and her never-failing willingness to share of herself with the people of his village. And Emmanuel's life had perked up considerably since the arrival of this lovely lady.

Nowadays, Abril's mother and Emmanuel spent a large portion of their time together, watching over the latest addition to the village, the young and active two-year-old plump little girl now sucking her thumb and watching everything with alert eyes. Her father, Sami, had named her Iretomiwa. It meant, blessing has come to me. Last night, Iretomiwa had spent the night in Abril's Hut with her grandmother.

Sami scooped up his daughter and tousled her hair, making her giggle.

“We have a big day ahead of us,” Abril reminded him.

“I know,” he said, grinning and sitting down beside her. “I'm wearing my best shirt, aren't I?” Today, they would be taking the car and making another delivery of their coffee. Their line of tea was already a favourite in the marketplace of the nearby village, as well as in restaurants, some as far south as Lagos. But their line of coffee was already outselling the tea and concerned restaurant owners had phoned her cell phone to order more.

Abril reached for one of the packages of coffee. It still filled her with pride, this product line. It was all processed and bagged right here in the village. And this particular blend was her favourite. It was also the most popular brew at Abu Salem's coffeehouse. It was a distinct combination of aromatic beans, rich and robust. The farmer who had grown these beans seemed to have a special skill and love for the plants he was growing. And his wife had a skill for designing just the right bag for the beans – an African sunset landscape with a hut and a distinctive tree.

And at the top of the bag, in a simple scrawl - Sami's Special Blend.

 

 

THE END

 


Other novels by Jennifer Keogh Armstrong

 

The Society for the Betterment of Mankind

Revolution in C Minor

Somewhere between Longview and Miami

Last King of Damascus

The Unlikely Association of Meg and Harry

Death Among the Dinosaurs

A Good Man

Among the Sons of Seth

 

The Kent family adventures

 

The Treasure of Tadmor

The Strange Sketch of Sutton

The Hunt for the Cave of Moravia

The Search for the Sword of Goliath

The Buried Gold of Shechem

The Cache of Baghdad

The Walls of Jerusalem

The Missionary’s Diary

 

Non-fiction by Jennifer Keogh Armstrong

 

Some of my Best Friends are Going to Hell

(And it Makes me Want to Weep)