African StoriesEditor's ChoiceLife and General FictionNaija Stories

The Prodigal Mother

As Onyinye came out of the airport, she inhaled the familiar Lagos air, and became ambivalent about coming back home after almost seven years in the US. On one hand, she loved being back to her home country, and hearing the familiar buzz of people going about their daily lives, brought back so many memories.

Which brought her to the other part of the equation—the reason she wasn’t so glad about coming back when she thought of it.

Her dad. Ever since she traveled to the US for her Masters degree in journalism, she hadn’t seen him nor talked to him. And she would have preferred it that way if the person who had paid for her flight ticket hadn’t maintained that it was pertinent she came back. According to him, her father’s life was in danger and she was the only hope he had of getting out of whatever quagmire he was in alive.

She got a taxi, and as the forty-something-year-old man behind the wheels was navigating through the infamous Lagos traffic, she dialed Frank Bello’s number; the man had insisted that she called him only when she had gotten a taxi.

“Hello,” she said as he picked up the phone. They talked for two minutes, during which he instructed her to lodge in a hotel of modest charges. It rankled her that he was giving her commands anyhow, but he was the only lead she had about her father.

Initially, when he had contacted her about her father, she was sceptical about the whole thing; she had heard of cases where people were kidnapped, raped and killed through such schemes. So the man had sent her a video her dad had made before he went off grid. In the video, he talked about going under as some people were after him and his experimental work.

A little over two hours later, she finally landed on her hotel bed with a dull thud, and without knowing it, she slept off. It was the incessant ringing of her phone that roused her from her glorious sleep and she was instantly mortified when she saw who was calling.

“Frank, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to—” she began explaining when the man cut her off.

“Open your door,” he simply said.

She was surprised. She was sure that she hadn’t told anyone the hotel she checked into. So how was he able to get the location?

Shaking her head in wonder, she went to the door, and through the peephole, saw the hulk of the man blocking her view. She immediately straightened her hair, ran her hand over her body as she tried to look presentable in her haggard state. Then she opened the door.

And her father walked in, with the man she recognized as Frank behind him.

Her shock was so complete, so numbing, that she couldn’t even breathe properly. Her mouth hung open in wonder as she tried to piece the whole thing together.

“Dad—I mean Mr. Okoro—what are you doing here?” she queried immediately.

In response, the sixty-five year old man strode to the plush sofa in the room and sat down, beckoning on her to join him. She slowly sauntered to the sofa and perched on it, making sure to be as far away from him as possible.

Her father then said, “You haven’t stopped calling me ‘Mr. Okoro’? I thought you would have grown out of the habit of addressing your own father so formally.”

“As I’ve told you before, I don’t take you as my father. Not after you killed mom.”

At that, he sighed. He tried taking her hand, but she fixed him with a cold stare that made him withdraw his hand and settle for tapping his index finger on the sofa.

“Your mother is actually the reason I’m here,” he finally said after some minutes of silence. “She’s still alive.”

“W–what do you mean ‘she’s alive’?”

“Your mother was never dead. She is alive,” he repeated.

“How?”

Before he could reply, Frank whispered something into his ear, and immediately he sprang up, straightened his clothes and said to her, “Sadly my dear, I have to go now. But if you want to meet your mother, come to this place tomorrow afternoon and everything will be explained to you.” He gave her a piece of paper with an address scribbled on it. Then he turned on his heels and left, with Frank following him.

After he left, Onyinye was perplexed. She didn’t know what to make of the whole situation; she had known that the manner she was made to come back was fishy, but the turn of events was totally beyond her imagination. Firstly, her father had stormed into her room, and had made himself comfortable. And then secondly, he had made outlandish claims about her mother—may her soul rest in peace—being alive! Was there no end to the man’s abilities to deflect blames?

She thought about her family and how happy they were then. They’d been one happy family; she had loved her parents very much, especially her mother who had always been there for her. Everything had been going well for them, until her father got a secret government job. He had refused to divulge the details of what the job entailed, and he started staying out late; most times he would not even come back home at all.

One day she had come back home (during those days she was still staying at home after her NYSC programme), and she was surprised with the quietness of the house. Normally her mother would have been around as she normally didn’t go out on Saturdays, but she was nowhere to be found. She went to her mother’s room, but everything was in place.

It was when she turned and was about to go out of the room that her eye caught a piece of paper which was pinned to the wall of her, close to the bathroom. She took the paper and what she read in it made her eyes pop out of their sockets.

It was a suicide note, in which her mother apologized for having to go that way, saying that she was unhappy with her life and that she found no joy in her life and marriage. She further pleaded with Onyinye to forgive her and move on with her life.

She had done that, of course. Immediately she got her scholarship to study in the US, Onyinye had cut off all ties with her father, who she had believed was that cause of her mother’s death. She had maintained that if he had been there for his wife, he would have noticed that she was depressed and would have helped her.

“Come to think of it,” she suddenly said out loud, “how am I sure that he wasn’t cheating on mom all in the guise of working for the government?”

Thinking about the past wasn’t going to do her any good, she finally admitted, and went about arranging her room. She decided that inasmuch as she hated her father, she would go to the place he asked her to come to tomorrow. Maybe… just maybe, he had answers to her many unanswered questions.

By 1.30pm the next day, she stepped out of the hotel, found a cab and headed to the place her father had asked her to come to. It was a long and arduous one hour drive that left her tired as she came out of the car. She went into the eatery and immediately saw her father, Frank and one other person who was immediately recognizable—her mother.

She gasped in shock and stood still, not knowing what to make of the situation. So he was saying the truth, she thought.

She gently approached their table and her father stood up and brought out the chair for her. She slowly sat down, all the while staring at the woman she had believed to be dead for four years now. Her mother, on the other hand, found it hard to look at her in the face, preferring to stare at her nails as her lips quivered in silent cries.

“Hi, Onyinye,” her mother greeted shyly.

“Hey m–mom,” Onyinye stuttered. “You’re alive!” she breathlessly added.

In response, her mother pleaded for her forgiveness, saying that she never meant to hurt her or her father.

That was when her father spoke up with a cold anger that was his trademark. He told Onyinye the whole truth, deciding to leave nothing unsaid.

Her mother had been cheating on him with a much younger man, who happened to work for a pharmaceutical company. At that time, her father was engaged in a serious experimental work on cancer. One day, her mother had found the details of the research and had given it to her lover. Two days later, she filed for divorce, but her father didn’t want Onyinye to go through the pain of witnessing her parents’ separation, so he’d done everything in secret and had written the note she found on the wall.

After she left him, that was when he discovered that she had stolen his secrets and as Onyinye was studying abroad, her father was languishing in prison because the people that employed him for the research did not believe his tale of his work being stolen.

What saved him was when her mother had finally confessed to the police when her lover had left her for a Brazilian woman. By that time, it was already too late; she got to pay a fine of ten million naira and the boy was nowhere to be found. After his release from prison, her father set out to find her and had employed Frank who was a private investigator to track her down.

“The rest you already know,” he concluded, whispering the words as if he was afraid of talking too loudly.

After he was done, Onyinye opened her mouth to talk, but no word came out. She tried so hard not to cry, but little choking sobs escaped from her throat. Her mother reached out to her tentatively, held her hand and said:

“Please my daughter, I know that nothing I say will take away the pain of the past. But I just need one thing from you—your forgiveness.”

Onyinye looked at her father and didn’t know what to say to him. She had hated him for so long for a crime he did not commit; he had actually shielded her from the true nature of things and she had turned against him for that.

“Dad, I don’t know how to ask for your forgiveness. I’m so sorry—” she said before he cut her off.

“It’s all right, my daughter. I understood your hate for me, and with how you saw things, it was justifiable,” he replied and took her hand.

She then turned to her mother. “I’ll forgive you only if Dad forgives you,” she said. She looked at her dad, and surprisingly, he nodded his consent. “Since he has forgiven you, I also forgive you. But I do not want to have anything to do with you.”

Amidst tears, her mother nodded her head in understanding, and was about to say something before her father held her mother’s arm. “It’s better if I tell her,” he said to her. She nodded and he continued, this time facing Onyinye, “Your mother has cervical cancer and has two months left to live. Don’t you think it’s best she spent the rest of her days with her family?”

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