This story is by Adiechieng’ Odhiambo and was part of our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Abigail looked out into the night sky but couldn’t see much. The clouds were thick and the drumming rain against the window was drowned out by the sounds within the cabin; the chatter of the couple in front of her, the music from the earphoned youngster beside her, a fussy child somewhere behind her.
When the plane touched down, she caught the first glimpse of the city she called home over six years ago. Before she could stop it, a wave of bittersweet nostalgia washed over her like an angry flood. This is where it all happened, she thought. This is where Ted proposed in a way only he could, atop a skyscraper and in front of a crowd. This is where I started my family…and where I lost it all.
She shook off the monsters that threatened to pull her back into the Dark Place and walked towards a bored-looking customs officer who absentmindedly waved her past. She soon discovered that there was nobody there to pick her up. Thank God. The last thing she wanted was strained conversation with anyone. Besides, this way she could catch up with some work in the back seat of a taxi.
At the hotel she gave the bellhop a stiff goodbye and clicked on the TV, her reservations fading away through the droll commercials. Her phone rang and startled her back into reality.
“Hello?” she said.
“Hi Abi. You sound like you’re already at your hotel, that was fast! Any issues checking in?”
It was Michael.
“Mikey. Hi. Yeah, Nairobi traffic isn’t what it used to be I guess. No trouble at all, thanks.” She was a little surprised how glad she was to hear his voice.
“Oh great, I hope you’re not too beat. The gang is meeting up at The Cave. You know, for old times’ sake. Can you make it?”
She was exhausted. 16 hours on a plane will do that to you. She paused a tad longer than she intended to.
“You remember how to get there? Everyone would love to see you Abi. Say you’ll come?”
His voice was an earnest plea but what he didn’t say spoke volumes more. In the silence they both knew that she needed to see everyone just as much as they needed to see her. She knew she couldn’t say no.
“Let me have a quick shower, I’ll be there in an hour.”
The Cave may have lost some of its sparkle but was still a popular bar that pulled a younger crowd. I wonder if their chicken wings are still the best in town, she thought.
She spotted the gang easily enough. A sombre-looking six-some of forty-somethings stuck out like a sore thumb in this place.
For a moment it was easy to believe that nothing had changed, that he was still there. After a round of hasty hugs, it was time to join their reminiscing of the past and of him. It was like reopening an old wound. They tried to laugh, mostly because they knew that’s what he would have wanted, but Abigail couldn’t bring herself to feign cheerfulness. Still, this is nice, she thought.
An hour or so in, she got up to go to the bathroom and June, unfolding her long, lean legs from underneath her, announced that she was leaving. “I’ll walk with you that way”, she said addressing her and blowing everyone else a kiss simultaneously. June, still the stunning clinical psychologist Abigail remembered, was one of those fascinating people who were as intriguing to talk to as they were to look at. Even from across a room she had an uncanny way of piquing one’s interest.
As June fell in step beside her, Abigail wondered how she was taking it.
“How’s your family dealing with everything?” she asked instead.
Just like that the smile that had been plastered on her face all night faltered slightly then faded.
“Mikey’s taken it pretty well considering how close they were. Mum’s still not said a word. It’s just her way of handling the grief. But we hope she’ll snap out of it after tomorrow.”
Tomorrow. The thought terrified her.
“I’m so sorry June.” Abigail knew how little those words helped in times like those, but she could think of nothing else to say to comfort her once closest friend.
“Yeah. I’m just glad you could make it. We know how hard this was for you. After Ted’s accident…you…it was so hard on you. Nobody was sure you’d ever come back.”
Abi nodded. She could feel the cold talons of anxiety closing in on her, and she desperately fought back the tears that threatened to fall. Why did she have to say it? The monster comes out of his shadows when people say it!
“Abi, I have something for you” June said as she fished a small, black, leather-bound parcel from her big bag.
“This was Ted’s. I found it with my brother’s stuff. I think you should keep it.”
Abigail wanted to pick it up, but she hesitated. The black, leather-bound parcel was in fact a photo album. It now that lay ominously on her bed. Eventually, she picked it up and slowly flipped through the photos. As the floodgates of emotion she was fighting to keep shut threatened to burst open, a small handwritten note fell gingerly from the album.
She recognised Ted’s rushed, slanted handwriting immediately.
Suddenly he was right there with her, goading her to read it. She picked it up and froze.
Does this mean June knows? Do they all know?
The next morning Abigail was groggy. The shrill 7am wakeup call from the front desk did little to clear the cobwebs in her head. A shower and coffee should help. As she stepped out of the elevator, Michael called.
“Hi. Good, you’re up. Umm…do you have a ride to the chapel?
I was going to call an Uber.”
“Okay. You also seemed a bit distant last night, are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine just jet-lagged.”
“You know what, forget the Uber, I’ll come by your hotel” and he hung up.
She hardly had an appetite but managed to force down a chapati and a strong cup of black coffee. I almost forgot how good Kenyan coffee was. Just then, in walked Michael with a determined look on him. Something was wrong.
He plopped down into the chair across from her and blurted, “my brother was gay Abi. All this time he was struggling with this he never felt safe enough to tell me. Why Abi?” She reached out and touched his arm. The torment on his face and the pain in his eyes reflected her own masked guilt. She was never able to move on from the shame of it. Perhaps this very moment was why.
“I…I don’t know why Mikey, but I have to tell you something.” He looked at her in a way that suggested he hadn’t quite seen her before then. She had to purge herself of the guilt. It was time.
When she opened her mouth, the words poured out. “Ted was gay too, Mikey. He came out because he couldn’t pretend any longer.” She avoided his eyes and kept going, the words tumbling out with a life of their own: “I felt betrayed, we were about to separate when I found out I was pregnant.” Did he remember how long we were trying for a baby? wondered Abigail.
“I broke the news to him on the day of the accident. He was so excited to be a dad. But after the funeral I lost the baby. I couldn’t stay here anymore Mikey, I had to leave.”
“Abi, I…I didn’t know.” Now Michael was the one comforting her. She wasn’t done yet. Let me finish.
“Soon after that, your brother reached out. Mikey, your brother and Ted… were in love. Ted wanted to come out, but your brother wasn’t ready.”
Michael’s hand fell limply away from hers. In a whisper she answered his unasked question, “yes, I knew.”
Michael didn’t say a word.
“He never recovered from Ted’s death and I knew that. I knew he was struggling with all this all this time. I’ve been so guilty ever since he took his own life. I’m so sorry Mikey.”
Michael sat dumbfounded as relief and sobbing rocked Abigail’s petite frame in the middle of the breakfast service.
When she got onto the plane a week later, she felt sure she had confronted the ugly, frightening creatures of her past and that they would remain in Nairobi. The secret prevented her from moving on, from finding peace. I needed this. I’m glad I came.
Two months later when she woke up in the psychiatric wing of the Nairobi West Hospital, Abigail knew the ugly, frightening creatures of her past were still lurking in the shadows, far from gone.
– The End –