The walk there was painfully quiet. Kaila, who usually found herself having an opinion she was more than willing to state about everything, found herself at a loss for words and remained silent as they made their way along city streets. Her father – no – Jeffrey was equally mute. Kaila was sure it was because he had as many thoughts and emotions rolling about within him as she did. What she wondered was the nature of these emotions. His first reaction to the news of having a long-lost daughter had been less than stellar. Would his thinking change in the time it took to get to their destination?
As they made their way through the city, Kaila began to recognize a pattern among the people they walked by. They were getting younger. No longer were they passing housewives, children, businessmen. Rather, everyone around them looked to be about Kaila’s age. Jeffrey noticed Kaila’s intent eyes and explained, “We’re nearing the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. I teach classes on botany and environmental conservation here. The place we’re going is on campus.”
They crossed the street toward the entrance to the university. As they did, one car took a little too long to notice the red light. As its screeched to a halt, Kaila took a surprised step back. She felt something touching her and realized that Jeffrey had placed a protective arm in front of her. It was only for a moment, then things returned to normal as they shot an annoyed glare at the clearly unapologetic driver then finished crossing the street. Kaila wanted to dwell on that instant, but forced herself not to. She wasn’t letting her hopes up at all this time round.
They made their way into the interior of the campus, passing impressive buildings and architecture. Did Theo go to school here? Did he write as November Skies from a computer lab on campus, penning his emails to her while finishing his latest assignment. If they had time later, Kaila would like to ask. After all, he’d been the one whose behavior she’d been analyzing for so long. It seemed that Jeffrey had found the place he wanted to stop, so Kaila turned her attention outward once more.
A garden lay before them. It was a rather impressive size, with rows of plants going about a hundred feet down from where they stood: flowers, hand-grown crops and all sorts of varieties she didn’t recognize. A shed sat in the corner of the field, and random pots and buckets were scattered throughout. The warmth of the day brought forth the smell of the garden even more potently: the heady, rich smell of the soil, the sharp scent of fresh leaves and the sweet aroma of tropical flowers.
“This is the communal garden my students and I work on,” Jeffrey explained, stepping amongst the rows and examining some of the plants. “Part of their final grade depends on their ability to maintain their plot and produce healthy crops. What we don’t eat as a class we donate to families in the area.” He picked off a tomato and handed it to Kaila. “Go ahead and try it. It’s pesticide free, so you don’t need to wash it off first.” Kaila took a hesitant bite. The tomato was sweet and juicy, more flavorful than most tomatoes she’d cut up for BLTs now and again. She took another, larger bite.
Jeffrey led her down another row. All sorts of flowers filled the garden with their vibrant colors. Kaila recognized a few of them: begonias, hibiscus, magnolias… but there were many beautiful blooms she didn’t know by name. Jeffrey stopped in front of an orchid, turning to her.
“The Corsage Orchid is the national flower of Brazil. I always try to include a few in our garden, even though they can be so temperamental.” Kaila felt a smile flit across her lips. She could tell how much he cared about the garden even as he chastised its inhabitants. This place was important to him.
They continued down the rows, Jeffrey explaining different facts and trivia about the plants in the garden and the climate of Brazil. Kaila listened quietly, nodding and giving the occasional word to show she was engaged, but all the time wondering where this could be heading. They stopped in front of the shed and Jeffrey unlocked it, reaching in for a pair of trowels and gardening gloves. He offered a set to Kaila. “I just got some chrysanthemums that I want to plant in the northwest corner of the garden. Care to join me?” Kaila nodded and took the gloves and trowel.
They made their way over to the plot Jeffrey was talking about, and he directed Kaila through the steps, showing her how to safely remove the flowers from their pots and pack them in gently but firmly. As they got to the third chrysanthemum, Jeffrey sighed and cleared his throat. “I guess I’ve been dodging the subject for long enough, haven’t I?” Kaila remained silent, waiting for him to go on. “I wanted to show you a little bit of my life, of the work that I do here. It’s not much compared to my old adventures, but it’s good to have my hands in the earth and teach my students to do the same.” He reached up to adjust his glasses, almost took them off again, then stopped himself.
“It was wrong of me to say the things I did, to ask for a paternity test. Even though I was shocked, my reaction was cruel. I’m sorry.”
“I suppose it’s to be expected,” Kaila managed.
“That doesn’t excuse me. I shut you down from the start. I didn’t give you a chance to tell your story. I’d like to hear it now if you’re willing,”
Kaila swallowed hard. “I… I don’t know where to begin,” After all the scenarios she’d run through in her head, all the imaginary conversations, now she was drawing a blank.
“Did you – have you had a good life?”
Kaila nodded. “It’s been good, pretty much what any kid could ask for. I always had anything I needed, probably more than I needed. A big house, plenty of food, the best education money could buy. My mom did a good job,”
“Is she happy now? Your mother?”
“I think she’s pretty happy. She married when I was in 6th grade. His name’s Robert. He’s a good man. I have two siblings: Clarissa and Robby. Well, three now I guess with Samuel,” She paused. “He looks like a good kid,”
“He’s a wonderful kid. I wish you’d been able to meet under different circumstances.” Jeffrey packed the dirt around another chrysanthemum. “When I said that if I’d known your mother was pregnant I would have done the right thing, I didn’t just mean child support. I would have married her. I would have been there for you both for the long haul,”
“But you weren’t willing to come back just for her?”
Jeffrey sighed. “After a couple tense ‘discussions’ with your grandfather, I began to doubt that I was the best choice for your mother. Eamon said that if we married he would disown Aileen completely, and I… I didn’t think she could take that. She’d been raised in a world with no hardships and my life, well, when the adventure of it all fades away at times it could feel like nothing but hardship. I didn’t think she’d want to be with me through that,”
“You were selling her short,” Kaila said firmly. “Yeah, she’s a country club girl and she’s always baking something or going to the latest women’s meeting, but there’s more to her than that. She would have stuck with you. She never gave up on me, even lately… when I’ve sort of been a jerk to her,”
“I’m sure you’re right.” Jeffrey sighed. “I was young and stupid back then. Unfortunately, Aileen caught me at my worst: when I was too cocky to realize that people weren’t expendable, that there was more to life than the latest article,” He grabbed the last chrysanthemum and took it from its pot. “Shortly after leaving your mom, I got hurt pretty badly on a research mission, so badly I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be the same again. It took several months to recuperate. By the time I was back to some semblance of my normal self, the world believed Jeffrey Oliver was dead, and I was inclined to let them keep thinking that,”
“You didn’t want to be a journalist anymore?”
“I didn’t want to do the sort of dangerous, undercover journalism I’d done before. I used to believe that the truth was the most important thing to a journalist, worth everything to find. That still may be true in some cases, but after coming so close to death, I didn’t want to face it anytime soon,” He turned to look Kaila in the eyes. “Theo said that you’ve been doing some journalism work of your own, some of the same stuff he’s been working on.” He paused. “Theo tends to be a bit like I used to be, taking on riskier subjects than his family would prefer. Have you put yourself in danger since you’ve been searching for me?”
Kaila looked down at the ground. She shouldn’t lie. “I’ve been in some trouble, especially with my family,”
“I’m sorry to hear that. The last thing I want to do is separate you from the people who raised you,”
“I definitely owe my mom an apology, but my grandfather… you know what he’s like. He’d never accept anything less than a full apology.” Kaila’s jaw set. “And I don’t feel like apologizing to him at all. I always knew he was harsh and controlling, but now that I’ve seen his work, been on the site of his headquarters in the UAE… it’s unforgivable. And he doesn’t even care! He’s heartless and evil, pure evil!” Kaila could feel herself seething and tried to inwardly pull back. She didn’t want Eamon Arthur to take over this conversation as well.
Jeffrey was silent for a few moments, picking his words carefully. “I understand how you feel. When I first met Eamon, I thought he was the incarnation of evil as well. But still, you’re his family. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with him, but if he doesn’t have you and your mother, then I don’t know who he has. I don’t agree with his methods, but I understand why he wanted to hold onto Aileen. She was his only child,”
Kaila didn’t respond. She wasn’t in a place to even consider her grandfather’s wellbeing right now.
Jeffrey sighed. “I’m sorry, I have less right than anyone else to be lecturing you right now. I want to get to know you, but there’s so much to cover… what do you like to do? What makes you excited?”
“Well, I mean, of course there’s the typical white girl stuff: shopping, keeping up with TV shows. When I was in high school I played tennis and was on the debate team. Since starting college I’ve felt a bit lost. I hadn’t really found my thing… but then I started reading your articles, and they got me excited. I felt like I was going to all those countries with you, experiencing what you saw. It made me feel connected to you.” Kaila fiddled with a leaf, too embarrassed to look up. “I guess technically they were Theo’s articles, but I went back and read more of your older stuff too. I could hear your voice in it all. When I figured out what November Skies meant, I just had to see you for myself. I couldn’t spend my whole life wondering,”
“Theo said you travelled all over the world searching for me,”
“Not all over. Just, like, four countries,”
Jeffrey laughed, and Kaila heard his voice catch a bit. “You really are my daughter, aren’t you, jumping straight into the unknown, not caring about the consequences….” He turned to Kaila, and this time they locked eyes. “I’m proud of you. Even though I’ve known you less than an hour, you’re exactly the daughter I would have wanted to raise,”
Kaila felt her eyes burning. She reached up to wipe them, then realized she had just wiped planter soil all over her face.
“Crap,” She looked up at him, laughed, then the waterworks started. Her shoulders were shaking and her chin was already wet with tears, but she was still giggling like crazy. Jeffrey put a hand on her shoulder for support, murmuring some words of encouragement, then suddenly wrapped his arms around her in an awkward hug. Kaila buried her face in his shoulder and rode out the emotional storm. It took a full minute before she started to breathe steadily again. Unsure whether it was OK to stay in the hug, she reluctantly pulled away.
“Sorry for that. It’s just, you can’t know what those words mean to me. That’s-” she coked a little bit. “That’s exactly what I’ve always wanted to hear,”
Jeffrey took his hand in her own. “I’m glad. I want this to work. I may not know what I’m doing, and I guess you don’t either, but I want to be your dad from now on. I want to be there for you.”
Kaila reached up to wipe another stray tear, then remembered her gloved hand. “What about Maria and Samuel? Will they be OK with this? I don’t want…” She wanted to say ‘I don’t want you to end up hating me’, but she was too scared to voice such a concern.
“You already heard Maria say that you’re welcome to stay with us. This is a surprise for her too, and it might take a while for Samuel to understand, but you’re my family, so you’re their family as well. I’m sure with time we’ll all grow close,” He moved to stand, lifting Kaila with him. “I want you to know everything about me. I’m not going to keep any secrets about my life from you. And I want to know everything about you. I want to hear all your stories: your birthdays, your Christmases, school, clubs, hobbies, friends – baby pictures! I want baby pictures!”
Kaila giggled. “Well, I don’t have any on hand right now…” Suddenly her stomach growled rather loudly.
“Dinner!” Jeffrey exclaimed. “When was the last time you’ve eaten?”
“I had some peanuts on the plane…”
“You must be starving! We’ve got to get you home! Maria’s cooking is the best I’ve tasted in my life! You’re going to love it!”
Still holding her hand, Jeffrey started walking out of the garden. They quickly backtracked when he realized they hadn’t put the supplies back in the shed, but after locking it they were on their way once more. Kaila felt a smile on her face that wouldn’t fade. All the craziness of today, of these past three weeks really, was too much. She wasn’t complaining now though. Things had finally turned around for her. More than turned around – the future was looking bright. As she held Jeffrey’s – no – her father’s hand, Kaila found her imagination racing as to what they could do next. Her father wanted a life with her in it. He wanted her to be part of her family. Life couldn’t get better than this.
Just as they finished crossing the street, her father’s phone started ringing.
“Hello, this is Jeffrey Oliver.” Her father listened for a moment to the voice on the other end of the line, then froze in his tracks. Kaila, who’d been almost skipping beside him, skidded to a stop. She looked at her father worriedly. His jaw had gone taut, and strong creases lined his forehead. He looked up at Kaila, his eyes serious. “Yes, Eamon, she’s with me,”
Her grandfather had found her. No. No! Not when everything was going so well!
“He wants to speak with you,”
Kaila shook her head vehemently. The less her grandfather knew, the better! Her father listened for a few more seconds to the voice on the other end of the line, then said, “I’m putting you on speakerphone. Anything you want to tell Kaila, you have to tell me as well,” There was a pause, then he pressed the speakerphone button and held the phone out in front of him so Kaila could hear as well.
“Hello, Kaila,” her grandfather’s cold, crisp voice rose from the phone. “I see that you’ve found your father after all. Congratulations,”
“How do you have this number?” Kaila demanded. There was no way he could have found it so quickly, unless… Kaila’s throat went dry. Wait, had he known? Had he known all along that her father was-?
“I received the number from a friend of yours, a Theo Santos. You might know him better however as November Skies,”
Kaila’s stomach churned. What was happening? How had he found Theo? How did he know he was November Skies?
“Now, your friend Ulima has slithered out of my reach for the moment,” the voice continued, “But Mr. Santos has done far worse things than she has in the name of your little crusade. I told you there would be consequences if you continued to disobey me. I will see to it that Santos is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law for all of his crimes against Eamon Industries. Perhaps that will finally make you learn your lesson,”
Her father swore under his breath, his expression darkening.
“No, wait!” Kaila exclaimed. “Leave Theo out of this! It’s me you want.” She closed her eyes, dreading the answer to her next question. “What do you want me to do?”
A malicious chuckle came from the phone. “Good girl. In 30 minutes, meet me at the same cafe you were seen with Mr. Santos in this afternoon. It’s just a short walk from the police station, so if negotiations don’t go as I hope…” He let those words linger in the air.
Her father’s grip tightened on the phone. “I’m coming along too. There’s no way I’m letting you meet with Kaila alone,”
“Do as you please. I’m sure the whole event will be quite touching. Final goodbyes always are,” With that, the line went dead.
Their eyes met. “I’m not letting him take you away from me,” her father declared firmly. “He’s not keeping me away from you again,”
“We don’t have a choice. If we don’t show up, he’ll have Theo thrown in jail! And knowing his political clout, Theo might not get out till he’s in his sixties!”
“Well, we need a plan. We can’t just go in blind,”
“We’ll have to think of one on the way. There’s no time to waste,” Kaila looked up and down the street. “Where’s the nearest place we can find a taxi?”
Her father looked at her for a moment with a mixture of concern, admiration, and perhaps something else in his eyes. Then he took her hand once more. “This way. Follow me,”
As they wove their way through the crowded university sidewalks, Jeffrey kept his grip on his daughter’s hand tighter than ever.