Loading...
Menu
Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Family

A Chance For Love

p<>{color:#000;}.

Copyright 2017 D. L. Biranen

This book is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the author, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorized distribution or use of this text may be direct infringement of the author’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

This is a work of fiction and any resemblance between the characters and persons living or dead is purely coincidental.

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

Thank you for downloading this ebook. This book remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy from their favorite authorized retailer. Thank you for your support.

BLURB

A young orphan’s life is turned upside down by her stepmother. But she doesn’t stay miserable forever, as life places her stepmother as her footstool. Soon, innocence deserts her, and a thirst for revenge takes over. Can the once angelic soul learn to love again?

PROLOGUE

I sprinted. Sweat trickled down the contours of my face. Everyone and everything blurred. A girl waved at me. She bounced on the balls of her feet to catch my attention, but I had no intent to pass the ball. I would claim the goal. And I’d be proud to have added one more goal to my collection.

With feigned oblivion of my teammates hinting for the ball, I stared straight ahead. Opponents darted after me. Three caught up with me, but dribbling came easy. Would Cynthia not try to make this a challenge? Maybe she doubted the ball would make it to the net. I looked forward to the look on her face when the rival goal keeper conceded my goal.

Although Cynthia played in my team, our personal differences had driven her to become the deadliest on the field. I lost count of how many times she had launched herself at me in game play, causing me to dislocate a bone or two. Today though, I had planned beforehand tactful ways to escape her advances. And so far, I had a firm hold on success.

Standing face to face with the goal keeper, my heart lurched, forcing me to acknowledge the monstrosity of her build. Having the body of a ballerina, I stood no chance against the legged intimidation before me. What did she do with her spare time? Did she lift bags of cement, or did she waste away at some local gym?

Amidst the girl’s monstrosity, I caught a glimpse of uncertainty. Surely, she reminisced over the other occasions my flaming ball had flown past her, and into the net. The fear on her face could not be mistaken. It assured me of the victory in my grasp. This time, it would not slither. I would be the one to turn things around; score a last-minute goal to bring the game out of its goalless state. I would save Western High from the clutches of near-defeat.

Only after the ball left my foot did I realize I had ruined our final chance of victory. Disappointment flitted across my sweaty face as I watched my effort carve through air and toward the sky. I had raised the hopes of my supporters, only to dump them in the sewer.

The referee’s whistle shrieked, piercing through the susurrus snaking around the stadium. Somewhere in the field, someone cackled. Cynthia.

“Yeah, right,” she snorted. “Aim for the birds.”

Head hung low in ignominy, I made for the exit, my neck vulnerable to the dour sun. Maybe if I had passed the ball, we would have won. But what guaranteed that? All through the match, my teammates had tossed chances into the gutter. Who said the last chance would have been any different?

“You’re such an occasional mess, Victoria,” I heard Amarachi, my best friend say as she minced behind me. “I should spank your pompous ass for letting me down like that.”

“Then what’s stopping you?”

CHAPTER ONE

Sick

“Do you not care at all about your life, Victoria?”

Somewhere within range, a bell jingled. The richness of this sound filled my unadorned ears. To everyone else, this only served to usher in eight hours of sitting down, watching men and woman defend just how learned they were. But to me, the ringing bell meant much more.

It officially announced eight hours of undisturbed freedom. For the next eight hours, I would enjoy relative bliss, breathing in unadulterated air. I would be free from slavery; my eyes free from tears. I had my grief bottled up a safe distance away, in the place I called home. I couldn’t let it bother me now.

But in a while, my time would be up. I would hear the closing bell ring. The same sound that brought me comfort would snatch it from my grasp without any qualms, and against my will I would stuff my books into my backpack and force myself back home, into the rusty old arms of slavery.

Pulling away from the school gate, I started toward the two-story building standing tall and prestigious in my line of sight. The building’s red bricks gave it a Western high school setting I admired. Since its founding, Western High had won several awards for its unique ambience and physical environment, organization, staff quality and exceptional student performance. And to top it all, these packages were delivered with an affordable price. Affordable for the exclusively rich who could spend millions on one child’s educational concern and yet, their pockets would not groan.

A disquieting silence embraced me as I made for the stairs. The probability of seeing anyone loitering during school hours hovered between zero and one. Not unless latecomers hustled to class. I took a squint at the pitch-black leather wristwatch Amarachi bought me last session. 9:37am and ticking without mercy.

I shook my head at the person I’d been forced to become. Who would believe I awakened by 4:30am every day?

I would do anything to stop being late for school. But each day, I ruined my image all over again. Victoria Brown, the award winning latecomer in all of Western High. People would always talk. The facts never mattered to them. They just wanted someone to be the object of their derision. And I fit the bill in ways more than one.

Gripping the ornate wrought iron handrail, I mounted the stairs leading to my class. My lower back felt like a rock had been placed on it. After the arduous chores I had been forced to battle with for four hours and the glaringly long distance I had to cover to get to school, maintaining a proper posture stood as a challenge I didn’t know how to tackle.

I could really use a seat, but the distance to my classroom seemed to lengthen with each labored step I took. The damp fabric of my white long-sleeve clung to my torso. I couldn’t be happier our uniform had a navy blue waist coat to hide my hopeless perspiration. How would I survive the day when I had already died from the start?

A low hum of throbbing pain in my head caused me to halt. My headache had awakened. For the past few days it had become my new companion, a clingy best friend, coming without invitation and leaving when it saw fit. It would persist, hammering as hard as it dared. Sometimes I feared I would never escape its clutches.

“Heeey, easy!” a startled voice said from behind me. I didn’t need to turn back to know my abrupt halt had almost caused him to crash into me.

I thought back to the texture of his voice; melodic and unfamiliar. Claiming to know everyone by voice would be a blatant lie, and I shouldn’t dwell on his voice, but still, I could not turn aside my thoughts. Why did his voice sound so weird? His accent, although he hadn’t said much, sounded totally new.

I made to apologize for the slight inconvenience but his next words cut me off. “What are you doing? Sleepwalking?”

There, the confirmation I needed. Behind me stood no Nigerian. His accent told me so. His voice resounded in my head. And this time, something other than its unfamiliar accent pulled me in; the hint of irritation I picked up from his tone. I could almost picture him curling his lips in distaste while he addressed me. But I had no idea what he looked like, so the mental picture collapsed in a worthless heap.

The stranger had regarded me with irritation in his voice. He had insulted me at first sight. Anger flared within me. Everyone knew me as the greatest latecomer Western High had ever known, but sleepwalking had never been heard. Had that become my new tag? Sleepwalker?

I didn’t want to care what people thought of me. I told myself I didn’t care. But deep down I knew I did. Whatever they said about me behind my back and to my face, it always got to me somehow. In public, I would pretend not to care. Blinking back tears and ignoring the bitter taste at the back of my throat came easy. But behind that facade lived a girl who stayed up all night, musing over the things said about her. She would wish for better days and pray for strength to face the next day. And finally she would cry herself to sleep.

My self esteem had fallen dramatically over the past few years. And being the object of my peers’ ridicule made it all worse. I knew the unreasonableness in letting the words of their naivety get to me, but I let it anyway. I let it slice me open.

A familiar throbbing in my head jolted me back into the present. School. Stairs. I brought my attention to my right hand with which I gripped the rail. I gripped it so hard, the veins on my hand bulged. On impulse, I let go of the handrail and grabbed the straps of my backpack instead.

Whirling around, I made to descend the stairs, but found myself staring at a face I had never seen before. The face of an emerald green-eyed boy, his skin a flawless shade of olive, holding a glow to die for. Silky, raven hair, styled in a spiked faux hawk pulled me in. It brought to mind those celebrities on TV. For a moment, I gaped. He could believe I gawked at him because I’d never been face-to-face close to a white boy, but then he would be a fool to think that, because we had over a dozen of them in our school.

A sudden wave of self consciousness swept me over as my gaze fell upon his nose; finely sculpted, with a well-defined nose bone, as opposed to my average Nigerian nose. I wondered how he breathed with nostrils small as dots. My gaze traveled along the length of his slender build. Although he stood one step below, I noted he lingered on the tall side, probably three inches taller than my hopeless 5’4. For a guy in school uniform to still have the looks of a runway model, I wondered what he would look like in casual clothes.

I wondered what class he had been admitted into. He seemed to be around my age bracket, so Junior High did not fit the picture. Ask me I’d say he belonged in grade 11 or 12. Inwardly, I cowered. The probability of this guy being in my class soared too high for my liking. From the first words he had uttered to me, I could already write a note on his type of person. Pompous. Too full of himself. Snobbish, spoilt rich kid, just like more than one quarter of the students here.

With each class split into A and B, Arts students made up the A classes, while B classes consisted of science students. So, even if he ended up in grade 12, I doubted he would be an A student. Something about his looks told me he delighted in physics and chemistry. I hoped I could trust my instincts about this.

I perceived today as his first day in school. If he had been here before this day, news would have spread about the handsome addition to Western High’s collection. Did he need directions? What could I do? Ask him his name? Didn’t the popular, attention-seeking girls in school have that to handle? Then again, why would I want to know the name of a guy who had blatantly insulted me at first sight?

A gracious spray of stubble framed his high cheek bones. Mentally, I shook my head. Sir Amadi would not allow this. Did Mr. White not know male students were not allowed to keep facial hair? As cute as his stubble looked, he would have to take it off. I could tell he loved how he looked with his stubble. It’d break his heart to get rid of it . If I could, I would feel sorry for him. But not after he had so openly insulted me. Anyway, I doubted a clean shave would remove anything from how handsome he looked.

Handsome? Did I find him handsome? My gaze returned to his face, an unconscious move to answer my question. Another wave of self consciousness hit me as I noted the mutuality of the survey. Gross.

The next moment, I felt a familiar pinching sensation in my nose. Barely allowing a flicker of hesitation, a sneeze forced its way out, jerking my head forward, it almost knocked into Mr. White. I hadn’t seen that coming. At least not until the final second. If I hadn’t been fast enough to pinch my nose while I sneezed, all hell would have broken loose. And in his face. It would have been a really snotty moment. Double gross.

Instinctively, I ducked my head and stepped away from Mr. White. An apology would be in order, but I didn’t give myself a chance. Pulling at my collar, I descended the stairs, taking two at a time.

I knew he would still be staring. I could feel his gaze bore a hole through me, but I’d never turn around to confirm. Other than being a sleepwalker, I had also ended up becoming a clown for his entertainment. How awkward could our encounter get? Sneezing didn’t make a crime, but doing it in someone’s face did.

Musing over the mess I had just made of myself caused me to fall sick all over again. First, my sudden halt which had almost made him crash into me. And then, to make it even more awkward, I’d almost nodded him like I would a ball. All in the name of sneezing. Bravo, Victoria. Just bravo. What a way to end your self-inflicted trance.

I needed the sickbay. Class could wait. I needed something to quell the throbbing pain inside my head. And apart from that, I needed to stay away from Mr. White. Amarachi would laugh so hard when she heard of my most recent blunders. Two in a row. Just perfect.

I walked as fast as my lower back ache permitted me. As luck had it, no teachers were in sight, so I didn’t have to answer to anyone for loitering with my backpack during school hours. We had Literature—a subject I could easily understand—for first period, so missing this class would not affect my performance. Or so I hoped.

A wave of calmness stole me over as the sickbay hit my line of sight. I lazied into the white-painted room, an uncertain smile flitting across my face to match the nurse’s welcoming smile. Clad in a smart white gown, she sat behind the counter, reading an awake! magazine.

“Good morning,” I said. Advancing toward the counter compared to walking down an aisle. A pathway stretched between the counter and the door. On each side of the room stood two petite beds, dressed with blue covers and matching pillows.

“Good morning,” the nurse said, her welcoming smile lingering on the fullness of her dimpled cheeks. “You really don’t look well. What’s wrong?” Of course I didn’t look well. I wouldn’t be here if I looked well.

Something on my face must have alerted her. With great urgency, she dropped the magazine on the counter and walked around it to meet me.

“It’s nothing much.” I sniffed. Before I could utter another word, the back of her palm greeted my forehead.

“There’s no fever,” she said, heaving a sigh of relief. She touched my neck to double-check.

“It’s just headache,” I said, sneezing into a checkered handkerchief I had just pulled out of my backpack. “And catarrh.”

“Aww. Poor thing. You’ll be fine in no time. Paracetamol should do the trick.” It amazed me how she never failed to pronounce her ‘th’ the right way. Most people substituted their ‘th’ with ‘t’. Other than the nurse, only Madam Charity our English teacher had the time for it. She insisted we all pronounce ‘th’ words as phonetics demanded. We only did it in class, just to please her. But once English class ended and she made her exit, our unnatural phonetics walked out with her.

The nurse would definitely fit as an English teacher. Had it never occurred to her? “You speak just like an English teacher,” I said.

“What? Nurses don’t get to speak good English?” Definitely not the response I expected. What did I expect? Thank you? Mentally, I kicked myself. I definitely should have stayed silent. Sue me.

“No, sorry. I didn’t mean it like that—” I choked on my words. How could I express myself, save myself from another blunder? Why had I even brought this up in the first place? “I was just saying you…uhm—” I trailed off, gesticulating frantically as though it would help complete my statement and save the awkward moment.

“Don’t kill yourself there.” She waved off my incoherent comment with a strained laugh. “Yeah, I get that a lot.”

Easing myself onto a bed, I unstrapped my backpack and watched her return to the counter. She plucked a card of Paracetamol out of its carton and cut out two tablets with a pair of scissors lying idly on the counter.

“And then you’ll need this for that catarrh of yours.” She placed another drug beside the Paracetamol. Turning to the C-Way dispenser behind her, she grabbed a disposable cup. But then she turned to face me, a quizzical look on her face. “I take it you had breakfast, yes?”

My stomach rumbled as though replying to her question. I had nothing for breakfast. Breakfast only came after chores. And today, like every other day, chores took up all my time, making breakfast a no-no. I had also skipped dinner. But the nurse didn’t have to know that. With a subtle shake of my head, I supplied the answer to her question and waited for an outburst.

“What!” Although I’d seen that coming, my headache flared in response. I slammed my eyes shut, allowing the throbbing in my head slide back into my zone of tolerance. “You want to take drugs on an empty stomach? Do you know how harmful this practice is? Do you know it’s just as harmful as this headache, and other sicknesses we run from?”

With half-closed eyes, I stared at her with utter disbelief. It couldn’t be that bad. I didn’t get why she overreacted.

“Don’t just sit there gawking at me. I don’t administer drugs to people who haven’t eaten. Go find something to eat first, and then come take your medicine. They will be on this counter waiting for you.” Her voice had a tone of finality. She obviously thought this to be for my good. What then did she think of the raging war, a Clash Of The Titans reenactment inside my head?

Without another word, she sank back into her chair and picked up the seemingly fascinating magazine. Seconds stretched into minutes and she seemed oblivious of my presence. My stomach rumbled again, reminding me of my task to fill it.

“Can I just use the bed?” I asked, hating the sudden dryness of my mouth. The nurse raised her eyes to look at me. She cocked an eye, a wordless statement that she hadn’t quite heard me. “I mean, the cafeteria won’t attend to students until recess. And I really can’t go to class in this state. My head is throbbing so hard I won’t grab anything they’re teaching. Please, I’d just like to use the bed for a while. Surely the headache will subside. It comes and goes everyday anyway. It will go away. It always does.” I snuffled, gluing my handkerchief to my nose. Curse my runny nose.

The nurse raised her neatly lined eyebrows at me. “It comes and goes every day?”

“Yes?” Why did she seem surprised?

“How long?”

“Two weeks,” I roughly estimated. I wanted out of this question and answer session. I needed a pill to quell this headache. And since I couldn’t have that, I could use a moment of undisturbed rest. Settling for less had become my thing anyway.

The nurse seemed genuinely scared. “And you don’t attend to it? Do you not care at all about your life, Victoria?”

My lips parted to let out an answer, but I sealed them shut. I would not tell my life story to a stranger. I’d visited the sickbay a number of times, and the nurse had been a staff for as long as I could remember, but I still considered her a stranger. And even if I managed to tell her my story, she would probably doubt its genuinity. And if she did believe every word, it wouldn’t change anything because she had no power to do anything. She could only sympathize. And I didn’t want that.

I pushed aside her inadvertently hurtful question and lay prone in bed. Sleep would find me and steal me away from the unbearable headache. Even though it would only last a moment, it would definitely be worth it.

Heavy eyelids glided over my eyes. The room and everything it held disappeared around me as I stalked out of consciousness.

“Victoria!” a voice called, sounding too far off, and therefore did not qualify for my attention. “Hey, wake up.” This time, the voice drew nearer.

The unrelenting pounding in my head and an emptiness in my stomach greeted me as I slid halfway into consciousness. And then it all came back to me. School. Headache. Sickbed. Nurse. My eyes lazied open and I saw her standing across from me, an A4 sheet in her hand. How long had I been asleep? An hour? Two?

Handing the paper to me, she said, “The cafeteria will let you eat once you show them this permit.”

I bolted upright in bed and grabbed the paper, too eager to read its content.

To the cafeteria:

REQUEST FOR AN EXCEPTION

I know it is against the school rules to attend to students during this hour. But our students’ health is our priority. Please, kindly provide food for Victoria Brown so she takes the medicine I have administered.

Stella Adewale

School nurse

Decorated with white and navy blue stripes, just like my four in hand necktie and flare skirt, our school logo stood proud beneath the complementary close.

“Earth to Victoria?” Fingers snapped between my eyes, flaunting purple nail polish on artificial nails.

“Thank you,” I said, grinning. With a nod from the nurse, I made my exit.

My walk to the cafeteria went undisturbed, with the sun’s ruthless intensity, coupled with me sneezing and snuffling, being the only minus. I felt like a walking tank of boiling water. Actually, saying I walked would paint a wrong picture of the entire situation. I didn’t walk. I tottered.

It stunned me how my health had deteriorated in the blink of an eye. Hadn’t I walked to school this morning, in near-perfect health, with fatigue and headache being the only exception? Why then did I feel so sick all of a sudden, unable to take one step without faltering?

As though my sudden sickness couldn’t ruin my day on its own, Sir Aaron’s voice pierced my eardrums, bringing my struggle of a walk to an abrupt intermission. “Hey you!”

My insides trembled at the menace in his high-pitched voice. The very same voice cops reserved for catching thieves red-handed. Why did it have to be Sir Aaron of all people? This man had a face of stone and a heart of rock. To top it all, he had a voice that could melt iron.

Holding my hands behind my back, I turned around to face my least favorite teacher. “Good morning Sir.”

Totally ignoring my greeting, he said, “It’s barely even eleven and you’re already loitering. Is this the example you’re setting for your juniors?” With every word he spat out, my stomach churned. I craved to be away from him so I could finally breathe fresh air.

I could feel my blood getting hotter by the second. No, I didn’t mean it as an idiomatic expression. Literally, I could feel the hotness of my blood, a sickening feeling that had only arrived a moment or two ago. I blamed the orb of fury burning intensely above me.

Too sick to utter a word to the man before me, I outstretched my right hand and presented the nurse’s permit in his face, silencing him. Hopefully, for good. His quietude stretched over a few moments. And in this little time, my headache seemed to aggravate. With a feverish sigh, I pressed my lips together and lifted my palm to my forehead.

Plucking the note out of my grasp, Sir Aaron drew it close to his rather wrinkled eyes. After a moment too long, he said, “Hmm. Sorry about your ill health.”

Learning is an everyday process. Every day, we discover something new. And in my final year of being in Western High, I discovered Sir Aaron, the most hated teacher, had a fraction of a heart. Wide eyed, I stared at him, noting how the look on his face transformed from irritation to sympathy. And for the most part, he didn’t seem to be faking it.

I let out a mental sigh. I should be in the cafeteria already. But here I stood, stuck with my least favorite teacher, and at the mercy of the ferocious sun.

“What’s wrong with you?” he asked. “How bad is it?” Had his voice softened in reality, or did it only soften in my head?

I opened my mouth to tell him about my headache, but then I reconsidered. The man standing before me had a heart of stone. He would consider headache and catarrh too trivial for a nurse’s permit, and that would implicate the kind nurse.

While I still conflicted about how to answer him, the back of his palm rested on my sweaty forehead. Genuine fear washed him over. “You’re burning. You’ve got a fever.”

“What fever?” The words flew out of my mouth without warning.

I had a fever? The nurse had checked my temperature an hour or two ago and found nothing. So where did it come from?

“Quick, go attend to your state.” Sir Aaron returned the note like he would burning coal. I made to resume my journey when he spoke again. “And Victoria—”

What? He knew my name? Impossible. He had never called me by name, but always barked out a ‘you there!’ or a ‘yes?’

“Be sure to get well soon.”

“Yes, sir.”

Without another word, he walked away, leaving me to continue my floundering walk. I had a fever. I touched my neck to be certain. Underneath the back of my hand, my skin burned with the power of a thousand suns. That explained why I felt like a tank of boiling water. How wrong I had been to blame it on the sun. Poor sun.

Two realizations dawned on me. Number one, I had malaria. I didn’t need a test to know it. The symptoms were all there. First, the persistent headache. Then a runny nose. And now fever, accompanied with a cold I’d never paid attention to until now. These symptoms had become a part of me. For the past four years, they would come up every now and then. I’d never had a chance treat them. My stepmother never saw me worthy of treatment.

After persisting for a week or two, the symptoms would walk out of my life, and I would be good as new. I hoped this time would be no different. I hoped this time I would still be lucky enough to have my health return on its own.

But for how long would this go on? This sickness had been gnawing at me for far too long, accumulating day after day. It likened to a pile of books, topped with new books day after day. One day, that pile would not be able to take in any more books. And it would collapse. If I didn’t take treatment sometime soon, I would breakdown just like that pile of books. Had that time come already?

Each time my good health slid from my grasp, I always looked forward to the inescapable breakdown. But it hadn’t struck yet. It stood around the corner, calculating, waiting for the right time to knock me off my feet. Every three months—give or take—my health would deteriorate. And I would fear my breakdown would come. But it never did. I feared this time would be different. I feared I would run out of luck. Deep down, a feeling lingered. A feeling that if I didn’t attend to my health now, my fears would be realized.

The second realization that dawned on me concerned Sir Aaron. We had all been wrong to paint him as a monster. A fraction of him knew humanity.

CHAPTER TWO

Sickbed

‘What happens in this house stays in this house. Do you understand?’

A horrendous lump had formed in my throat, no thanks to the pills I swallowed. I had flushed them down with a little bit of water. Perhaps a little less than average. Drinking more gave me the creeps. Wouldn’t much water spread the bitter taste all around my throat? I wouldn’t want that.

Eyes closed, I lay there in bed, propped up on a pillow, half-shivering, waiting for the lump in my throat to dissipate. Stella probably thought I had fallen asleep. But then I sneezed, and in that moment I feared the pills would pop out of my mouth.

I knew it would only be a moment before she engaged me in a conversation. I couldn’t blame her though. The boredom in the air had enough intensity to sicken the heart of an average person.

“So, you’re sick with fever, headache and catarrh?” Stella’s voice cut through the silence. Did she need me to answer that? Obviously not, for she went on, “Fever isn’t necessarily a bad guy. It is your body’s natural reaction to the real bad guys. It is your body’s response to an untreated sickness or a hidden infection. This could be anything from a urinary tract infection to tuberculosis.”

Urinary tract infection? Tuberculosis? Why these big grammars? Holy cripes! “Mine is just malaria.”

“Care to tell me which doctor gave you that diagnosis, Victoria know it all?”

Sheepishly, I looked away. “I’m sorry, I just thought—”

“Do you know how dangerous what you’ve just done is?” she cut in rather curtly. My thoughts hovered over her choice of words. Dangerous? What had I done? When did it become life threatening to look away from someone when offering an apology?

Knitting my brows in concentration, I tried to put two and two together. And then it occurred to me she hadn’t questioned my diverting my gaze, but had questioned my self-diagnosis. I knew it didn’t exactly count as a good idea. I knew the risks involved. But what could I do?

Mistaking my silence for ignorance, she lectured, “It has led many down the wrong path. When you self-diagnose, you are broadcasting to the world that you are a know it all. By self-diagnosing, you would be wrongly assuming you are well informed about your current health condition. What if a more intense sickness masquerades as a trivial one, or a trivial one as a more intense one? What would happen?

“You would be misdirecting any clinician who sells you drugs into prescribing drugs that don’t see your situation as a whole. Even worse, he could administer drugs that are way too high for what you’re experiencing. Side effects are always around the corner, waiting to strike. Is this what you want for yourself?”

“No,” I sighed.

“Good,” she said. “Now that’s a start. Goodness! I should get Sir Amadi to let me address you students about this issue. I really should.”

I listened for her voice, but once again, silence greeted me. She probably mused over how to approach the principal about a chance to address us. “Once school is over, go see a doctor to get a blood test done ASAP. You should find out the root cause before you start taking treatment. Do you understand me?”

If Stella awaited an answer, she would never get one. Her lecture had just erupted painful memories. Embracing myself, I turned to lay on my side. Hot tears blistered my eyes. I knew it would only be a moment before they spilled onto my cheeks.

If I had a mother, she would always be there for me. My health and happiness would be her priority. She would place my needs first, and would never give me reason to cry. But I didn’t know what it felt like to have a mum. I didn’t know what it felt like to be embraced by a mother.

I never had a chance to meet my mum. Dad told me she suffered from amniotic-fluid embolism and died two days after my birth. In other words, my mum died because of me. From all angles, the blame fell on me. If I hadn’t been born, perhaps she would still be alive. As much as dad had always told me never to think like this, I could not stop nursing these thoughts. For me to exist, my mum had to go. I wished this tragedy had never struck. My life would be different. So different if my mum hadn’t died. Although we had never met, I missed her. The tears I tried to fight spilled out of my eyes and plopped onto the bed.

I missed my dad. He had always been there for me, trying hard to bridge the gap of not having a mum. And he had been exceptionally good at it. I would only have to cough to find myself in a hospital. Several tests would be run to detect any hidden sicknesses.

Years ago, I had perfect health. Every now and then, dad would take me for medical checkups. And each time, I would try to resist. I would cry and try to talk him out of it because I hated needles. But he never succumbed. He would hold me through the tests and afterward he would take me shopping to make up for the discomfort he had caused me.

Here now, an unforeseen turn of events had me lying hopelessly in my school’s sickbed. For four years I had been struggling with what I knew to be malaria, and perhaps typhoid. Now I would give anything to feel the sting of a syringe. I wanted things to go back to the way they used to be. I wanted my dad. But I knew the futility of my wish. Some prayers could never be answered. And I just had to deal with reality.

My thoughts settled on how Stella had mistaken my silence for ignorance. And deep down, it hurt me. I wished I could tell her just how much she had hurt me with her little lecture. I knew the health implications of self-diagnosis. But what could I do?

At home, they didn’t care if I existed or not. Nobody paid more attention to me than they would a stray dog roaming the streets. They had been good to me while dad still lived. They had treated me as their own. We were family. At least to me. But in the blink of an eye, it all came crashing down. I watched them toss the very essence of my existence into the gutter. How could I have known they would change dramatically? How could I have known my whole life would fall apart and I would worth no more than a bar of soap?

A few weeks after dad’s death, my deteriorating health had knocked me off my feet. Shivering with fever, I had approached my stepmother with the news. I could remember vividly the words she told me. ‘You have fever. You have cough. You have catarrh. So what should I do? I should throw myself in front of a train abi?’

She had also said, ‘It seems you’re forgetting your place in this house. You are no child of mine. So why should you worry me with your problems? Even the Bible says each one will carry his own load. Look here my dear, your well-being is no responsibility of mine. It was solely your parents’ duty, and since they have decided to leave you, well, there’s nothing left for you.’

Although she had said those words four years ago, it still stung when I reflected on them. How could someone be so cruel? Many times I asked myself. I could never understand. My stepmother’s cruelty remained a mystery I could never decipher.

My dad. Why did he have to leave me? He had been more than a father to me. He had been my mother, my best friend, the glue holding my side of the family and my stepmother’s side together. He had assured me he would always be there for me. But life never gave him a chance to keep his promise. Why did he have to be at work the day armed robbers attacked the bank? Why did he have to face the bullet?

Why me? Why did all the bad things happen to me? Had my birth been a crime? Why then had I been born in the first place? Why should anyone be born to suffer like this? First, my mum left without even knowing me. She had only been allowed to cradle me for a few hours, after which death snatched her.

But no, mum alone could not satisfy its hellish blood thirst. It had to take dad as well. Why did it have to end there? Why hadn’t it taken me along? Dad used to tell me we would always be together. Why then had he left me?

I felt cheated. Life had cheated me out of my share of happiness, leaving me with nothing but pain and despair, and nothing to live for. Everything I loved had been taken from me. Family was everything. And dad was family.

Why should some people be happy and satisfied with life, and others miserable, having despair where joy should be? Maybe life was a game and the privileged used a cheat the rest of the world didn’t know of.

Each morning I would awaken with a sigh because my suffering continued. Living compared to a race and I didn’t know how to hit the finish line. I did not even know the direction of the finish line to start with. No, I wouldn’t call this living, but survival.

My crying voice had become my lullaby, the last thing I heard before falling asleep. Why should anyone be made to pass through this? I didn’t deserve any of this. Neither I nor countless others who shared my pain. No human deserved this.

I had become a maid in my own home. I had become the object of everyone’s ridicule. Years ago, I had plenty to eat and drink. I would stay cuddled in dad’s arms and fall asleep watching TV. Back then I had so many material possessions, and twice a year I would visit the orphanage, giving help to the less privileged. And most importantly, I had my dad, my reason for joy. But now I’d been stripped off everything I ever had. Now I had close to nothing.

I thought about unborn children who never had a chance to see the world and all its malignity. I considered them lucky. They had left this cruel world for somewhere safe, somewhere peaceful. They had faded into nothingness, where no one could ever hurt them or make them feel worthless. They would never have to experience the world’s depravity. Why hadn’t I shared with them in their fate? I didn’t want this. I didn’t want the steaming hot dish of cruelty the world set before me.

I wanted answers. Again and again I would ask these questions, although I knew I would never find answers. Why had I been born to suffer? Was I paying for a sin I didn’t know of? Why hadn’t I died instead of my parents, or died alongside them? Why be amongst the living when life held nothing for me?

I peered toward the future, aiming to catch a glimpse of my life a few years from now, but the darkness of my present, a mass of black smoke, stood in my line of sight. Could there be any truth to my stepmother’s words that nothing good could ever come out of me?

If I didn’t live to see the next day, would anyone notice? Would anyone even remember a girl like me existed? Surely their lives would go on as though nothing happened. They would look to where I used to be, and would barely even remember my name. Only Amarachi would grieve. Only she would remember.

As much as I wanted death to put me out of my misery, I didn’t want to give my haters the satisfaction of driving me to my grave. For them I would be strong. For them I would cut off my ears to spite my face. I would survive.

“Victoria,” Stella’s voice severed my thoughts. On impulse, I lowered my head and wiped my tears with the back of my palms. She couldn’t see me cry. “Take care of yourself. I’m out to get recharge card. Will be back in five.”

Letting down my guard, I raised my face and watched her advance to the door. And when I least expected, she turned around, her eyes catching the glister in mine. “Are you alright?” She dashed to my side, her eyes searching.

“Yes.” If I spoke more, my voice would wobble, giving me away more than my puffy eyes already had.

Stella sat beside me, the additional weight causing the bed to groan. “What’s wrong? Do you feel worse?”

“It’s not…the fever.” And like I feared, my voice betrayed me. It sounded too brittle, I almost didn’t recognize it. I grimaced at how weak I sounded.

“What’s wrong?” she asked. Her eyes told me she cared. The softness of her gaze assured me I could trust her. “How am I to help you when you won’t even speak about it? When you told me about your headache, did I not give you pills to subdue both the headache and the fever?”

“It’s not about my health,” I sobbed.

“So what’s wrong?” she pressed on. I stared at her, conflicted about what to do. How could I talk to her about this? How could I tell her about my despair? Where would I start from? Would I not be betraying my family by speaking to an outsider about our problems?

“Do you want me to call your sister?” she suggested. Smitten by her suggestion, I shook my head. Desperately. Vigorously. Too vigorous for her comfort.

Silence lingered in the air. But it only lasted as long as I let it. “Have you ever lost a loved one?” I asked between sobs.

I had thought by asking that question I would chase the silence. But no. More silence ensued and I realized I had chosen the wrong start for our conversation.

With a voice as tiny as a mice’s, Stella spoke, “Yes.”

“Who was it?” Raising myself to sit, I leaned against the backrest. Confidence seeped into me from a source I could not register.

“Someone special.” I waited for more details, but they never came.

Someone special. A reply as simple as that, but weighing so much that it knocked her emotionally off balance. Her rue-cheerlessness mirrored mine. I felt sorry about the wounded look I had brought to her eyes. I felt sorry for transferring my broken spirit to her. Whoever had died must have meant a lot to her. At this point I had no idea what to do or say to make up for awakening memories she had put to sleep.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“It’s fine.” A little white lie. It would never be fine. Deep down, she knew. Just as I hadn’t been able to get over my dad’s death, she hadn’t been able to get over hers either. Silence stretched between us, so thick that if I reached out to touch it I just might find something tangible.

“You were going to get recharge card?” My voice sliced through the silence I had brought upon the room, sounding weirdly thin amidst the awkwardness between Stella and I.

“Actually, that can wait. There’s plenty of time to do that. Now is story time.” She punctuated her statement with a wiggle of her fingers. Wearing a serious look, she said, “Have you ever heard of Miriam Adewale?”

Of course I had. But where? I had heard that name more times than I could remember, but where? “It rings a bell.”

“Of course.”

“Who is she?”

“Was,” she corrected.

Was. That only meant she no longer existed. I put the facts together. Miriam Adewale. Dead. And suddenly, I remembered. I had read an article of her in our school archive. She’d been among the first set of students to study in Western High. She died on the 24th of May 1996.

A shocking realization dawned on me. “She was your sister.”

How had this never occurred to me? Other than sharing the same surname, they possessed similar facial features. Well, in a way. They had to be sisters.

I regarded Stella with my empathetic eye. It must have been pretty hard watching her sister’s health deteriorate, and even harder accepting her powerlessness in saving her sister’s life. It must be pretty hard confining herself to a place brimming with bitter memories. During idle times, would she not be tempted to relive painful experiences? Didn’t she feel smothered by those memories? Did they not fight to steal the air out of her lungs?

“I’m sorry about your sister.”

“That was her junior year,” Stella said. “I was two classes behind her. We lived in Ondo state, so we had to stay in the dormitory. Schooling so far away from home gave me the creeps. I wanted to be close to home. But I didn’t stand a chance. All Mimi’s friends were going to this school, and she wanted to be in the same school with them. At that time, Western High was the newest and most popular school in Nigeria.

“From our childhood, Mimi and I schooled together, so it was totally expected I was sent to the same school as her. Things were going great. I loved the school. My new friends. The atmosphere. The infrastructure. The teachers. And then I was proud to actually be a student of this school. Students of Western High were recognized as one of the best students nationwide. And till today, this hasn’t changed.

“One evening, Mimi had a very high fever. Her friends and I rushed her to the sickbay. And the nurse…she was eating.” Her face contorted grotesquely as she mentioned the nurse. Narrowing her eyes to slits, she clenched her teeth. “She whined on and on about how she’d been extra busy all day and was in no mood to attend to anyone. She said she’d been attending to others at the expense of her own stomach. She asked us to leave with Mimi and return in the morning, but we didn’t. We placed Mimi on a bed and I assured her she would be fine. My sister lay on one of these beds.”

She turned around and pointed to the bed adjacent ours. Sadness clouded her features as she stared at the bed and through it, reliving the moment she had just described. In my mind’s eye, I could see a picture of what that day possibly looked like. Thinking back to the photo of Miriam in the school archives, I conjured an image of a sick version of her, lying in that bed, hoping the nurse would attend to her.

“It was all too late when the nurse attended to my sister. All she gave her was a lazy dose of Paracetamol. There was more she could have done. But she didn’t. My sister lay there for six whole hours before receiving proper treatment. Couldn’t a test have been carried out during that period to know the underlying cause of the fever? But no. The only thing she did was force two stupid Paracetamol tablets down my sister’s throat! That woman did close to nothing to save my sister’s life. She did nothing to make her feel better. She barely even paid her any attention. Instead she said she was only pretending so she wouldn’t have to participate in the inter-house sport.”

“God!” I gasped, shaking my head in horror. How could someone think that?

“Horrible, right? That’s what you get when you hire staff that don’t have the right motive. Her motive for being a nurse was purely financial. Totally wrong. A nurse is someone who must make saving lives a priority. Money making and any other thing must only come after it. Not before. For two days, my sister lay in this bed, getting worse by the second, dying slowly. When the news reached our parents, they hit the road at once. My sister was transferred to St. Martins hospital. That was the last time I ever saw her again.”

It broke my heart to hear her voice become a lifeless monotone. If I could I would take away her sorrow and mine. But wanting to do something was one thing, and having the power to do it another.

“I’m sorry.” I had just said sorry for the third time. It served to comfort, but did it? In my case, I would be a liar if I answered in the affirmative. No amount of sorry could make me feel better over my father’s death.

Apparently, Stella shared my feeling toward the word ‘sorry’, for she said, “Sorry is an empty word, Victoria. It does nothing but make us feel sorry for ourselves over and over again. Have you not already realized that for yourself?”

“Please forgive me. I didn’t mean to—”

“You’re always sorry. Don’t you ever get tired of being sorry over nothing?” Mimicking my voice, and failing dreadfully at it, she said, “Sorry. Please. Forgive me. Are those the only words you know?”

She probably didn’t expect me to give an answer. But I did. “Yes.” Driven by a sudden urge to share my story with her, I added, “Those are the only words they make me say.”

“Who?” Her wide, eager eyes frightened me. By telling her the story of my life, would I not be making a mistake? “Holding back now, are you? Hey, I told you my story, did I not? It’s a story I don’t share with random people. But I told you because you seemed genuinely interested in why I chose to be a nurse instead of being like you said, an English teacher.”

“You did it for your sister,” I said, suddenly realizing her motive for being the school nurse. I hadn’t thought of it that way. Now I saw why she cared so much about my health.

Simpering, she nodded. “She wanted to be a nurse. And besides, I don’t want what happened twenty-one years ago to happen ever again in this school. This is a great school, and the people who work here need to have the right motive. I don’t see anyone else more qualified to be the school nurse.” She took a moment to organize her next words.

With a rather forced giggle, she went on, “And about the English thing you mentioned, I have always had an interest in English and Literature. I have even published two books. The first is a collection of poems. Most nights, when I can’t sleep, I get up and light a candle. And yes, I light a candle for real, even if there is NEPA light. Writing by candlelight has become my own personal ritual. For this reason I named it By Candlelight. Whatever is in my head at that moment finds itself as another beautiful work of literature in my collection of poems.

“And the second book is a novel called A Robber’s Heart. It’s about a thief who jumps over a fence to steal, but his landing is pathetic and he ends up with a broken leg. He is taken in by a teenage girl who hides him in her room, and a father-daughter bond blossoms between them. A bond that not even her mother can sever.”

“Wow!” I said, mesmerized by her delight in literature. I also had a thing for literature. I had thought of giving writing a try, but had never reached the point of developing a story. Maybe sometime I could really give it a try. I could write the story of my life. If my future turned out bright, the book would have a great ending. Wouldn’t that inspire people facing similar situations? “Can I see your books sometime?” I asked.

“Of course. But first, let’s hear you tell me what I need to hear. Why were you crying, and who is bent on making your life miserable?”

“Miserable?” Of course I lived a miserable life and two people engineered this misery. But when did I mention this to Stella?

“You mentioned that please, sorry and forgive me were the only words they made you say,” Stella clarified. “In other words, some people are trying to make your life miserable. So who are they?”

More than once I opened my mouth to speak, but I could not find the words. If I replied to her strategically constructed question, I would be directly telling her that my stepmother and Cynthia were making my life miserable. I could not mention that. No, not now. What if they found out somehow that I had spoken about them? I would be dead in a split-second.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “But when you put it like that, I don’t know how to answer.”

Stella rolled her eyes. “There you go again with being sorry.”

“Sorry.” The moment the word left my lips, I realized I had done it again. “Just pay no mind to how pathetic I am.”

“So you were going to say something?” Stella asked.

“I wasn’t crying because of my sickness,” I said. “Well, not directly.”

“But it has something to do with it, yes?”

“You asked if I didn’t care at all about my health.”

“Yes. And I’ll ask you again. You’ve been sick for how long, two weeks and you just do nothing about it? Who does that?”

“Actually, it’s been four years.”

“You have been sick for four years?” she half-shrieked. Fearing my voice would fail me, I nodded. “But why? I don’t get it. You’ve been sick for four years and you didn’t do anything about it? Your mum and your sister, do they not know this?”

“To understand the whole thing, you need to know the story of my life.” I knew my answers would lead me to tell the story I had tried so hard to escape. I led my mind away from frightening thoughts. I told myself I could do this. And I would. I would tell Stella the story she craved to hear. Perhaps after I did, I would feel the weight of the world fall of my shoulders. At least to an extent.

“I have time,” she said.

I took a squint at my wristwatch. 11:18. Eight minutes into the fifty-minute recess. I had spent my entire morning in the sickbay. I had missed all four periods for that morning. These thoughts only sought to distract me. Pushing them off like unwanted clothing, I willed my mind to focus on the story I had to tell.

“I never knew my mum,” I started. “She died a few hours after giving birth to me. My father hired a nursing mother to care for me. She became a mother to me, and Cynthia a sister. Afterwards, my father saw the need to marry her so she would legally be my mother. And in no time they were wed.”

“I’ve always supported your father’s wise decision,” Stella said. “This way, you won’t know what it really feels like not to have a mother. It’s a horrible feeling.” If only she knew. Soon enough, though, she would know.

“Four years ago, my life took a turn I hadn’t seen coming,” I narrated. “The very day my father resumed duties after his two-month vacation, the bank was robbed. And he was shot to death.”

I could remember vividly. Cynthia and I had only just returned from school to find two policemen at our door, delivering the cold news of father’s death. I could still remember my stepmother holding Cynthia and I comfortingly in her arms while we all wept. But it only lasted a while and she started venting out all her depression and frustration on me.

“It only took a few days for the people I held dear to show their true colors. Everything changed dramatically. When someone shows you their true colors, don’t try to repaint them, or you’ll be stabbing yourself all over with many pains. Back then, I was naïve, too innocent and inexperienced to know that. I thought there had been a mistake, and that my family needed time to grieve, after which the gap between us would bridge. But I was wrong. Dead wrong.”

“I don’t understand,” Stella said.

“My stepmother and her daughter make the whole world believe they love me,” I explained. “But they don’t.”

From our childhood, Cynthia had always hated me. She’d always seen me as a rival. To her we competed for everything. Even father’s love. I had always tried to make her realize the loopholes in her reasoning, but my efforts only filled her with aggression. To her, I presented myself as the good child and painted her as the bad one, just to win father’s favor. She had always fought to be better than me. Even in looks.

Back then I believed her childish jealousy would fade as she grew. I had believed she would grow into a reasonable person and her love for me as a sister would supersede all. But time laid my flawed reasoning before me. In horror, I’d watched my sister’s jealousy grow along with her. Her love for me—or at least its remnants—completely faded, replaced with an intense hate I could not fathom. She regarded me no more than she would a maid. Hers and her mother’s. Did they still remember my place in that house? Did they even remember we were supposed to be family?

“They have turned me into a servant in my father’s own house. They make me do all the work in the house all by myself. Every day I awaken by 4:30 in the morning, but they overwhelm me with chores and I always end up late for school. I don’t come late because I want to. No. I don’t have a choice. They make me starve. I could go a whole day on an empty stomach and no one would care. They find fault in everything I do. And even when there are none, they fabricate faults and abuse me.” At this point, relying on mere words to tell the story would be a grave mistake. I undid the buttons on my jacket and did the same to my white shirt.

“What are you doing?” Stella asked.

“Allowing my scars tell a part of the story. They will speak to you and tell you more than words ever could.” Taking off my shirt, I let Stella’s unbelieving eyes explore the length of my torso. My body had become an art gallery on which different work of arts were displayed. Some of which were recent, stinging me when I showered. Baring myself to her brought an uneasy sensation to my stomach, but I didn’t dwell on this.

“Oh my God!” Stella exclaimed, her palms flying to her mouth in horror. “Such evil! Oh heavens, no!” Determined to let her see all of it, I shifted on the bed, giving her an undisturbed view of my back. I gave her a few seconds to drink in the details of my abuse.

“I can’t believe your stepmother did this to you!” The sympathy in her eyes wounded me. Once again, I burst into tears.

“She should be a mother to you! How could she do this to you? You are like a child to her! She should love you like her own!” My grief intensified with each word she said. Snuffling, I reached for my handkerchief and brought it to my nose.

“That woman is evil!” Stella’s straightforward remark startled me. Evil, perhaps, but that woman remained my mother.

Speaking about our broken relationship to another person brought a cloud of guilt resting upon me. In a way, I felt like a traitor. Guilt fought to overcome me. And to an extent, it won, sagging my heart into dense darkness. Weren’t family issues meant to remain in the family? My stepmother had even said so herself.

‘What happens in this house stays in this house. Do you understand?’ She had pulled my ears just to prove a point. She had pulled so hard I feared I would lose them. And I had never dreamt of disclosing her wrongdoings to anyone but Amarachi. If mother learnt about this, I would not live to see the next day. Eyes glazing over, I picked up my shirt and clothed myself.

Stella placed a comforting hand on my shoulder. Her eyes looked like she would cry anytime soon. “I’m sorry about the things they make you pass through. I thought these things only happened in Nollywood. Oh heavens! Whatever happened to humanity? Christ!”

“After my dad’s death, they made me stay home. They told me to forget school.” My voice wobbled with grief, but I couldn’t back out now. I would tell the whole story. Perhaps it would lighten my burden. “They said school was not for everyone. And whenever I told them I wanted to continue my education, they would abuse me and tell me I was cursed. They told me I was an evil child, and for that reason my parents died.”

Stella’s brows furrowed. “They made you leave school? I thought…but…I heard—” She shook her head. “This is just evil. Pure evil. During that period, news spread that you quit school because you could not face the world after your loss.”

“They made everyone believe I quit on my own because I was too weak to get over my father’s death. For almost one whole term I stayed home, doing chores 24/7. And then one day, Cynthia returned from school, talking about an annual scholarship exam. It would cover a student’s school fees till her graduation. To pick up the registration form and the study materials, I needed to pay an application fee. With tears in my eyes I approached my stepmother. I begged her to pick up the scholarship form and study materials for me. I understood she didn’t want to spend money on me, and with the scholarship, it could be achieved. I believed in myself. I knew I would pass the scholarship exams. But she laughed at me. She and her daughter.

“I snuck to school the next day to tell Sir Amadi I wanted to sit for the exam. I wanted him to help with the fee. But to my surprise, he called my stepmother and told her about my intention. Although he had good intentions, that was the wrongest step ever. I returned home only to receive the beating of my life. Most of the scars you saw, they came from that day.”

“So how did you register for the exams?” Stella asked.

“I confided in Amarachi. I am forever indebted to her. If God hadn’t intervened through her, I would have been a school drop-out. Do you see all the things I pass through every day? They treat me like snot. They always remind me I don’t belong in their family. They tell me I’m an outcast, and make me pass through unimaginable pain.”

“This won’t go on like this, my dear.” Stella rose to her feet, a fierce determination written all over her face. And although I knew she had my best intentions at heart, it frightened me to watch her roam the room with that look on her face. “It certainly won’t go on.”

“What can be done?”

“You are going to have a blood test done, as soon as today. And your stepmother will have to pay for the expenses. I will make sure of this.”

“That’s not possible. She’d rather die than take responsibility for me.”

Stella smirked. And I knew she had a sinister plan. But what?

CHAPTER THREE

Failure

“Those wings you think you’ve grown…I’ll cut them.”

Voices in a low drone greeted me as I stepped into my classroom. I hadn’t expected to find this much crowd fifteen minutes into recess. They probably hadn’t left at all or had finished their meals in five minutes, making time to prepare for Commerce test. No one seemed to be reading though. They were all engrossed in one small talk or the other.

Acknowledging my presence, they quieted as though a ghost had just walked in. Approximately one dozen pair of eyes pierced through me. Had a pin dropped, it would not go unnoticed. They no doubt stared at my maladroit gait and how my arms didn’t swing human enough when I walked.

Shaking off the thought, I walked between rows of wooden desks till I arrived at the the spot where the seat I shared with Amarachi leaned against the wall. Sat quietly on the right side of the seat, Amarachi flipped through the pages of the textbook before her.

“Speak of the devil,” someone said low, but not too low for my hearing.

For fools like Adamu, silence remained the best answer. Responding to his taunts would only encourage him, and I didn’t want that. Even worse, we could end up exchanging words. I would rather play the fool than stoop so low to exchange words with the king of fools.

By ignoring him, he would eventually get the message that I had more important things to do than let his juvenile delinquency bother me. I hoped sometime soon he would, because I had no idea for how long I could contain my indignation.

He chuckled, his throaty voice an insult to my ears. It didn’t take long before his fellow fools joined in the chorus, knocking off the pin-drop silence. Amidst the laughter and incoherent comments, a wolf-whistle pierced through.

Amarachi’s eyes told me to ignore them. Once I plopped down on our seat, she slammed shut her textbook and turned to face me. “Oh my God, Victoria! You really killed it today! I had already given up on seeing you!”

“Killed what?” I asked, my brows wrinkling.

“The late coming thing, stupid. This is the latest you’ve ever been. This is just as good as staying home.” Punctuating her words with a giggle, she obviously hoped I would laugh along and forget our classmates’ insensitivity.

There goes nothing. The realization that she had failed at making me laugh stole away the gleam in her eyes.

“I spent all morning in the sickbay,” I said.

“Shit,” she muttered. Searching my face, she shook her head. “I’m sorry. I didn’t even notice. You really don’t look well. There’s this look in your eyes. And stupid me, I mistook it for that look you get when you don’t have enough sleep.”

“Actually, that look is in there too,” I said. “It’s a mix of both.” My attempt at creating humor totally went unnoticed. Fair enough.

“What’s wrong?” she asked. “Do you feel better now?”

I nodded, letting a stiff smile stretch my lips. “I’m good as new. There’s nothing to worry about.” Once the words left my lips, my nose tickled and I sneezed.

The sneeze had just killed the little conviction Amarachi might have had. Just great. “Are you sure you’re okay?” she asked low.

“Yup.” I would hate it if I killed her mood for good. Who said I had to afflict people with melancholy everywhere I went? “You did not go for lunch?” I asked, eager to change the topic.

“What’s the point? I’m not even hungry.”

“Look how puffed up with pride she is,” I teased. “You won’t admit that you didn’t go to the cafeteria because I wasn’t around and you would feel awkward going there without me.” I heaved a sigh of relief, proud of how I had successfully changed the topic.

Clicking her tongue, Amarachi glanced at her wristwatch. “There’s not much time left now. Break is almost over. Commerce class is almost upon us now.”

“Sorry about that.” I grimaced.

“Now tell me. Why are you so late today? I need to hear all of it. Did that witch of a stepmother make you fight a bull or something?”

“Amarachi!” I warned, pressing a finger to my lips to shush her.

“What? She’s a witch and you know it. I’m sure she does this mirror mirror on the wall thingy and the mirror for sure mentions you as the fairest of them all, that’s why she always gets up on the wrong side of bed and tries to make your life miserable. That evil worm in woman’s clothing.”

“Stop, please. She’s still family. It’s not right to talk about her like this.”

Disbelieving, she shook her head. “Doesn’t she remind you of those really evil fairy tale witches?” Of course she did. But it just didn’t feel right speaking about my stepmother in that manner. And besides, walls had ears.

“She’s the evilest of them all, that woman,” Amarachi remarked. “She and that daughter of hers.”

Without thinking it, I conjured an image of my stepmother in my mind’s eye and placed it beside a mental image of the Evil Queen. Similar cat eyeliners stretched along their eyelids, delivering the perfect dramatic look.

Taking my hand in hers, Amarachi said, “You, my Cinderella, are going to make it in life, trust me. You will find your fairy godmother, and then your glass slipper will lead you to your Prince Charming who will take you to his castle, and wedding bells will ring.”

I felt heat rush to my cheeks at the mention of my Prince Charming. “Oh stop it.”

In a way, Amarachi’s words made sense. My life fit the bill as a modern day Cinderella adaptation. I had lost my parents, and had a stepmother and half-sister who saw me as nothing but a maid, making me scrub floors day and night, just like Cinderella. In my case, though, we had no Lucifee. Thank God for that.

And about my fairy godmother, I thought back to Stella, her warmth and her sweet smile. Had I found myself a fairy godmother?

I thought back to her reaction to my story and her determination to help me. We had agreed to meet after school. ‘What if’s crowded my mind. But try as I might, I could never decipher the plan she had so tactfully constructed. I just had to wait and let time unravel it.

My classmates had delved back to their various pointless conversations. A few boys argued about a football match they had watched the previous night, and how Christiano Ronaldo missed a penalty. Some girls discussed fashion and other irrelevant things like entertainment and crushes. Although I didn’t plan to listen, my ears picked up some lines from their conversations.

Pleased that they had more important—although totally worthless—things to do than mock me, a lazy smile crept to my face.

“You’re not going to believe this!” Amarachi squealed, cutting off my line of thoughts. Her eyes twinkled like stars in the midnight sky.

“Tell me already!”

An ear-to-ear grin stole over her features. “Well, uhm…I came to school this morning to find this really cute guy in class.”

Taking a breather, she bit her lips to keep from squealing. “When I say cute I mean super cute! He’s really cute, like the cutest I’ve seen off TV. He’s like a hot celebrity step out of TV or a fashion magazine.”

“That’s it?” I made no attempt to hide my disappointment. My interest had given way to indifference, killing Amarachi’s excitement. But it only took a moment and the gleam in her eyes returned.

“He’s white!” Slamming her palms into each other, she squeezed them and let a beam spread over her face.

White? Mr. White and I were classmates? So I’d been right all along. My heart sank. I did not want to be in the same class with that boy. Something about him gave me the creeps. Did he stare at everyone else the way he stared at me?

It stunned me how my bestfriend drooled over a guy she barely even knew. I couldn’t picture myself doing that. Totally gross. I could imagine how that pompous white guy probably felt at the moment, having every girl in school on full crush mode.

With folded hands, I shook my head. “Pathetic. He’s not the first foreigner here, is he?”

Amarachi pouted. “Look at you acting all indifferent. Every girl in school is talking about just how cute he is.”

I rolled my eyes. “Don’t include me.”

“Trust me, you’re only like this because you haven’t seen him. I mean, wow. Victoria, that guy is a stunner! Have you ever seen such brilliant green eyes?”

It stunned me how she believed I would hurriedly activate crush mode once I saw him. I had already crossed paths with him, and although for a moment I stared, it triggered nothing in me.

“There’s nothing extraordinary about that guy,” I stated.

She giggled at my indifference. “Just wait till you see him. He’ll knock the air out of your lungs. Oh, I haven’t even told you. Guess where he sat when he walked in? Right here, on our seat. To be precise, he sat on your side of the seat. I told him the seat was already taken. He just turned and gave me this weird look as though I’d spoken to him in Swahili. Even though the look he shot me totally weirded me out, it was really amazing staring into those emerald green eyes. You know, Eddie Redmayne kind of eyes.” Her eyes burned with desire.

“Goodness, Amarachi!” I chided, my voice dropping to a near-whisper. “I can’t believe you’re like this over some guy. It’s not like he’s the only white guy in this school. We already have a number of them in class.”

“Four in class,” she counted. “Now five.”

I continued as though she’d never interrupted, “And we have them littered all over the school.”

“Twenty five,” she counted again. “You call that littering?”

I grimaced. Once again, I ignored her counting. “What’s so special about some lanky, green eyed white guy?”

Her eyes widened. “What? You saw him?”

“Mh-hmm.” When would this end? I did not want to be a part of this conversation.

“Oh my God!” Grinning from ear-to-ear, she rubbed her palms together like a fat cop would at the sight of free burger. To paint the complete picture, lips licking would be in order. “Tell me everything! Look at you, letting me do the whole talking while you have some story to tell. Out with it. Did he speak to you?”

“If he spoke to me, would it help with the problems I face at home?”

“Yes.” Amarachi stuck out her tongue. “I haven’t heard his voice but I can only imagine how beautiful it sounds. I mean, with a face like that. Good heavens.”

“His voice is nothing special.”

“Oh my God!” she shrieked. Necks turned in our direction and while this made me slightly uneasy, Amarachi didn’t seem to care. “He spoke to you? I need to hear it. Tell it and tell it all!”

“It’s just the pretty face. His personality is crap. We met on the stairs and he said I was sleepwalking. Can you beat how lame he is?” A transitory silence fell upon us. Amarachi gazed at me, wordlessly demanding the untold story. “There’s nothing to tell.”

“I can’t believe he’s an ass,” she said, her voice tinged with uncertainty.

I scoffed. “Yeah, they come in different sizes and colors.”

“No. I mean I can’t believe he’s an ass like for real. Maybe he has some twisted sense of humor and you understood it all wrong?”

“Yeah right,” I said, rolling my eyes. I didn’t care about his sense of humor. He had hurt me with his unseasoned words, and that said a lot.

Our classmates hustled into the classroom, feet shuffling as they headed for their seats. Waking over to our seat, a girl waved at me. “Hmm. Vicky, so you’re in school.”

“Hello yourself, Confidence.” I slid Amarachi’s textbook to my side of the desk and buried my face in it, warding off more comments from Confidence. I knew though that it would be impossible to read, though. Wherever she went, quiet left.

Casting me into her abyss of non-existence, she rested her full attention on Amarachi. “That new guy probably doesn’t like this school.”

“That’s the new guy’s loss.” Amarachi feigned nonchalance. Or had she suddenly lost interest for real?

“Didn’t you see the look on his face,” an Ethiopian girl named Rose cut in. “The way he grimaced like he’d been placed in a sewer.”

“It weirded me out how he only sat down for five minutes and then he just got up, grabbed his bag and was gone,” Confidence said.

“You’re saying five minutes? Two minutes at most.”

“The look on Sir Thomas’ face though.” Confidence chuckled. The whole thing had started to upset my stomach. These girls shamed me. So much fuss over some white guy, as though he had fallen from the sky. Pathetic.

Amarachi shrugged. “Maybe this was the wrong class and he figured out only after Sir Thomas had already begun with his boring lesson on simultaneous equation. Who knows, maybe he’s a junior.”

“Today’s math lesson alone was potent enough to make him say ‘oh no no no, wrong class,’” Confidence said, her statement ending with an overdone American accent.

I tried to focus on the book before me, but every line I read disappeared into an unknown chamber in my head. I needed a little bit of silence but the girls’ stupid talk about some white guy didn’t give me a chance. They needed to take their hopeless desperation to another corner. My stomach constricted with every word they spat out. I didn’t know for how long I would be able to contain the rage burning so intensely within me. Now I had it caged. But for how long? I glared at the book, unleashing my aggression upon it.

“Are you girls seriously stressing over that guy?” a boy asked, amused. I made no attempt to bring his name to mind. “I saw him drive out of school.”

“He drives to school?” some girl asked. I found myself awaiting an answer. No student drove to school. Over here, 18 stood as the legal driving age, and I doubted that guy had crossed over to adulthood. It wouldn’t surprise me if an exception had been made for him though. This country, after all, is characterized by bribery and corruption. The authorities would sure give special treatment to the angel who had fallen from the sky. I rolled my eyes.

“He drives a Range Rover Evoque Convertible SUV,” Cynthia chimed in. I hadn’t noticed her come in. Sat on a desk in front, she faced the class. The upper half of her school uniform, well-pressed by yours faithfully, clung to her like a second skin. As typical of her, the first three buttons were left undone, flaunting the fullness of her cleavage. My eyes darted to her crossed legs. She sure enjoyed how her skirt showed radiant, fair skin. It bothered me how teachers didn’t speak to her concerning her dressing. In the past, they had tried to, but now they just paid no attention to her as though they had been spelled.

“Guys, please!” Amarachi snapped, startling me. Hearing Cynthia speak had sure given her the sensation of a thousand needles pricking her skin. “No offense, but can you guys take your conversation someplace else, or better still, just drop this whole drama? It’s getting really sickening. I’m trying to study for Commerce test. I mean what’s the big deal if he’s white? Does he have white blood? Abeg I hate nonsense.”

Cynthia glowered at her. “Are you speaking to me in that tone?”

“Last time I checked, you weren’t my mum, so I can speak to you however I please. Okay? And anyway, I wasn’t even talking to you, so drop it.”

Springing to her feet, Cynthia stomped in our direction. She had fire in her eyes. From experience, I knew things would turn ugly. Amarachi rose to her feet, her ferocity matching Cynthia’s. I rose as well, ready to sandwich myself between them when the need arose. I looked to where Confidence had been standing, but she had fled to a safe corner. Coward starting with a confident letter C.

“Tell me to my face what you just said,” Cynthia demanded, stepping in toward Amarachi. How did we get into this mess?

Amarachi held no trace of fear, and it bothered me, because she would not back down. Cynthia wouldn’t either. Shoulders squared, Amarachi held Cynthia with her flaming gaze. A deafening silence had fallen over the classroom. Everyone watched, eager to see things get dirty.

Amarachi opened her mouth to speak, but I cut in. “Let it go, please.”

Amarachi directed her gaze to me, and I seemed to be the object of her aggression. But it only took a moment and my pleading eyes softened her gaze. “I am not you,” she said, regarding me with a sorry look in her eyes. And in that moment I knew my plea had fallen on deaf ears. “I will not let her intimidate me. She pays school fees. I do too.”

“Fight! Fight! Fight!” our classmates chanted, rocking their fists in the air.

“Look here, girl” Cynthia said, jabbing her pointer toward Amarachi. “I don’t know what you think you are, but those wings you think you’ve grown, just watch out, because if you ever get on my nerves again, I’ll cut them.” She moved her pointer and middle finger to and from each other like a pair of scissors. I could almost see the gush of adrenaline filling her with ruthless intensity.

Our classmates kept chanting. “Fight! Fight! Fight!”

Nancy and Precious had taken their position beside Cynthia, ready to fight. From their complexion, fair and bright, I could tell they used the same skin lightening cream. No, they had crossed the threshold of average fairness. They had turned white. Spotlessly white.

“I’d love to see you try,” Amarachi said, her eyes trained on Cynthia in the most ominous way. Malice crackled in the air around them. Even Amarachi’s skin tone, a radiant glow of chocolate, seemed to war with Cynthia’s.

“Hey!” Nancy warned. She opened her mouth to say more, but Cynthia held up her hand in a stop gesture, silencing her.

Cynthia’s crew no doubt viewed themselves as invincible and too hot to handle, demanding respect everywhere around school. Or at least they hoped they did. They had even gotten a name for their crew — the triple goddess.

“I can handle her just fine on my own,” Cynthia said, her voice spiced with venom, her eyes threatening harm.

“Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!”

Amarachi stood at akimbo. “You’re all bark and no bite.”

“Stop!” I begged, pressing my palms to my ears. “Please stop!”

Frantically, everyone glued their butts to their seats, filling the room with hushed voices. Only one thing could evoke such reaction from my classmates — a teacher’s presence. I looked to the doorway to find Sir Aaron walking in, his textbook and a bottle of water in his hand. Simultaneously, Amarachi and I plopped down on our seats

Giving us the middle finger, Cynthia returned to her seat, Nancy and Precious with her. Sometimes I wondered if those girls got paid for being her bodyguards. Like maidens serving a princess, they went everywhere with her and did all her bidding.

The class prefect hammered his desk with his fist — an order that we all stood up to greet Sir Aaron. “Good morning, sir!” we chorused.

With a downward motion of his open palm, Sir Aaron gestured for us to sit. Shuffling of feet consumed the silence as we returned to our seats. But in the blink of an eye, it passed away, restoring silence to its place. Placing his textbook and water on Cynthia’s desk, Sir Aaron walked to the board and wrote a four-letter word that turned my stomach to ice: TEST.

My heart sank at the sight of it. I had read a few pages of my textbook in the sickbay, but I doubted I had read enough to pass this test. I barely had five minutes of me-time at home, so studying from the comfort of my home eluded me. To cover for this, I would visit the library during break, but my punctual late coming insisted that I spent my recess updating my notes. My late coming had also eaten up my after-school time. The school’s rules stated that for every day a student came late, he must clean up his class and its immediate surroundings after school. This involved sweeping, mopping, dusting the seats and cleaning the windows. If every class had at least one student like me, our school would not spend a penny on janitors and yet everywhere would be sparkling clean.

“Tear out a sheet of paper and write your name,” Sir Thomas ordered, turning to face us. “Remove from your desks your books and any incriminating material. If pen and paper aren’t the only things on your desk, you’re wrong.”

He quieted for a minute or two, eyes sweeping around the classroom to make sure we all complied. Returning to the board, he dropped the bomb:

Write short notes on the three speculators in the Nigerian Stock Exchange Market and explain how they expect to profit from their activities.

Indistinct chatters sailed around the classroom as everyone tried to voice out their hopelessness. Once Sir Aaron whirled around to face us, the voices faded. “You have twenty minutes or less,” he announced. “Time starts now. If you talk to your neighbor, you’re wrong. If you turn your neck, you’re wrong.”

I copied the questions into my paper and stared at the board, blank faced. Answers eluded me. I glanced around to find everyone in a similar state.

“You’ve got to be kidding!” Cynthia exclaimed. Frantically, she raised her hand. “Sir!”

“Yes?”

“I believe there has been a mistake. Is this question ours like for real? I mean, when did you teach us these things?”

“Did I not conclude our previous class by asking you all to go home and read about the Nigerian Stock Exchange market?” Sir Thomas grimaced disappointedly. “Here you all are, staring at me like a bunch of idiots. Oh, and just for the record, this test is no joke. It makes up ten percent of your continuous assessment, so you best give it your all.”

“All or nothing,” Amarachi said low. A girl chuckled.

Amarachi and I exchanged hopeless gazes. Shaking my head, I whispered, “We are so dead.”

“Victoria!” Sir Aaron called.

My heart thumped wildly in response. Heads turned in my direction. I could see the mockery in their eyes. I knew he had caught me speaking. That spelt the end of my test. What difference would it make anyway? Even if I had a whole day for the test, my paper would still be blank.

Sir Aaron picked up his table water and took a sip. “How’s your health now?”

What? He had only called to ask about my health? Unbelievable. Rubbing my forehead for no reason, I stared at him, totally forgetting the question before me. Underneath our desk, Amarachi kicked the sole of my shoe, jolting me back into reality. School. Classroom. Sir Aaron. Question.

“I’m fine, sir.” My face paled as I looked down at my paper. Failure stared back at me.

Seconds stretched into minutes. Twenty minutes passed with a hissing sound. Sadness clouded my features as I submitted my paper. I sat there on my seat, present but truly absent. My mind wandered off into the unknown. A feeling of nothingness had taken dwelling in my heart.

Sir Aaron provided the answers to the question on the board. “The three spectators in the Nigerian Stock Exchange Market are the bull, the bear and the stag.”

I watched him speak, watched his lips move, but the noise in my head tuned out the rest of his words. My head swelled with too many thoughts, tossing me into the deep dark sea of gloom. I had never been this helpless concerning my academics. I felt crippled.

This didn’t feel good. Twenty minutes into the next class and I still couldn’t get over my failure in Commerce test. What would Sir Aaron think of me when he picked up my script and found it blank?

“Tell me what I just said,” Madam Charity said, her eyes trained at me. Holy cripes! I hoped she’d spoken to the girl in front and not me, but her eyes stayed locked on mine.

The girl in front turned to look at me. She seemed just as confused as I. My indifference toward Madam Charity’s question forced her to her feet. “You were talking about—”

“Not you, Flora,” Madam Charity said. “Yes, Victoria? Remind me what I just said.”

Fear crossed my face as I watched Flora settle back in her seat. I stared at the board, searching for a clue.

“Yes? We don’t have all day.”

Words eluded me. How could I speak when I had paid no attention to her teaching? My performance in Sir Aaron’s test had filled me with rue-cheerlessness, making it impossible to think of anything else. And here I stood, about to make another fool of myself. I would always remember this day as my worst school day.

“Excuse me, ma’am.” Cynthia’s voice severed the silence. I looked to her seat and found it empty. I had been too engrossed in thoughts to notice her absence. With a smug smile, she stood in the doorway. She folded her arms and cast me a bloodcurdling glance. “But the principal wants to have a word with her.”

“That should be after this class,” Madam Charity said.

Cynthia stomped her feet. “It’s urgent!”

Sir Amadi’s voice screeched over the intercom, “Victoria Brown. Report to my office in one minute or less.”

Madam Charity gave me a subtle nod. “You heard him.”

I had just been saved from Madam Charity’s question. But the smug smile on Cynthia’s face as I advanced to her made me shudder. The principal wanted to see me. Even after sending Cynthia to deliver the news, he’d still delivered it himself over the intercom just to stress its urgency. This couldn’t be good.

Although I had no idea why I had been summoned, I knew one thing. Trouble had found me.

CHAPTER FOUR

Threatened

“Turning her back on everything we’ve been taught is like spitting on father’s grave and it worries me gravely.”

Cynthia and I dismounted the stairs to the ground floor, our footsteps the only sound within earshot. I cast her a sideways glance. The beam on her face almost made me smile. But I knew better. She only smiled when something bad happened to me. Our meeting with Sir Amadi would be unfavorable to me.

We arrived at the door to Sir Amadi’s office. The thought of being in his office, queried about God-knows-what clenched my stomach into a fist. I let curiosity take the best of me. “Cynthia.”

Without turning to look at me, she said, “Yes?”

She didn’t find me worthy of her gaze. Thinking of this brought a bitter taste to the back of my throat. “Why does Sir Amadi want to see me?”

“How the hell should I know?” she snapped. “When did I become his secretary? She’s is in there. Go ask her. Better still, go ask the principal himself.” Quite the reaction I had expected. When it came to me, and by extension Amarachi, she seethed for no apparent cause.

A whiff of cold air hit me as she stepped into the office. I made to follow, but an abrupt slam of the door caused me to flinch. A nervous gasp escaped my throat and I bumped into a junior, knocking out the heap of 2A exercise books in her hands. The books scattered across the floor.

“Shit,” I muttered. “I’m really sorry.” I searched her face for anger, but it held no perceptible trace of it.

“It’s okay,” the girl said, her mice-like voice perfect for her petite figure. Her name skipped my mind. Diana? Dora? Doreen? I could only remember it started with a D. “Are you hurt? Did the door hit you?”

“No, I’m good.” I joined her as she knelt to pick up the CRS assignments. My eyes caught a name on one of the books. Doreen Chukwu. “That’s yours?”

“Yeah.”

Done collecting the books, I arranged them and handed them over to her. A smile brightened her innocent face. “Thanks.”

“Don’t mention,” I said, returning her smile. We rose to our feet and I opened the door, ushering her into the reception. Cold embraced me, making up for the sun that had me heated up moments ago.

Taking care not to make a sound, I closed the door. I turned around to find that Doreen had disappeared into the main office. The receptionist smiled at me from behind her desk. I returned the gesture. “Good afternoon.”

“How are you, dear?” she said.

“I’m all good.”

“The principal is with someone at the moment. Please have a seat.” Gesturing to the seats, she returned her focus to some paperwork she had been attending to.

Cynthia glared at me as I moved to sit. Her eyes warned me to place a safe distance between us. And I did. I sat across from her, giving her the distance she needed. A glassware centre table stood between us, solidifying our gap. It held a number of magazines. At least I could pass time with one. I reached out and grabbed a sports magazine featuring Bayern Munchen and Barcelona on the cover page. I flipped through the pages.

Doreen stepped out of the principal’s office. Just before she closed the door, indistinct voices filtered out of the office. Waving at me, she made her exit. My gaze darted to Cynthia. I ached to bridge the gap between us. Not just here on this chair, but at home. I wanted us to go back to being family. Could that ever be achieved?

Sat majestically with her legs crossed, feigned innocence painted her as approachable. I told myself I could speak to her. She wouldn’t bite, after all. She would only glower and bark, but she would never bite. The receptionist answered a phone call, giving me the opportunity I needed to speak to Cynthia without anyone eavesdropping. “Cyn,” I called.

Cynthia dragged her gaze to meet mine. I would do anything to soften the stony look she always reserved for me. She hated it when I abbreviated her name. Once, she had even given me a sound warning in class, saying that only a selected few were worthy to make a pet name out of her name, and I didn’t belong in that list.

“Mh-hmm?” Her tone, edged with indignation, pulled me out of my thoughts.

“I’m sorry about what happened in class,” I whispered. “It never should have happened. Forgive me. And Amarachi.”

She rolled her eyes. “Don’t waste your time. Your apology is of no value.”

“It won’t happen again,” I assured her.

“Spare me this nonsense. Save your apology for mother. Let’s see what happens when she finds out you asked that good for nothing friend of yours to insult me.”

“No. You’ve got it all wrong. I—”

“Why am I even talking to you?”

“We are sisters?” I reminded her. Had she forgotten that so easily?

Her eyes softened. She stared at me as though trying to remember. But I knew better than to be hopeful. Venom crept to her face. Spreading like wildfire, it clouded her features. “I’m not your sister.”

The coldness of her stare told me she believed what she had just said. It stung. Her words, her action and inaction, they all stung. The door to Sir Amadi’s office swung open and a woman walked out. Cynthia leapt to her feet and made for the office, almost knocking into the woman. Side-stepping, the woman turned to look at Cynthia, her eyes cursing.

“Sorry,” I mouthed to her, trailing behind Cynthia. I lazied into the office to find Sir Amadi in his seat, leaning leisurely against the backrest. Cynthia sat across from him, calm and composed as though she had been there all day. As though the office belonged to her.

I sucked in a shaky breath and advanced to the desk, my nerviness highlighted with every clumsy step I took. I stood behind the unoccupied seat beside Cynthia’s and held my hands behind my back. I would not sit until Sir Amadi asked me to. Sir Amadi shut his eyes as though forgetting we had come to see him. Moments passed and he remained in position. I feared he had fallen asleep.

And he had. But I trusted Cynthia would do something to get the sleeping man’s attention. Cupping her palms over her lips, she let out a loud, throaty cough. And it served its purpose.

Sir Amadi’s eyes lazied open and he adjusted his round, geeky spectacles. Acknowledging my presence for the first time, he said, “Sit down.”

“Thank you, sir,” I said, sitting down.

“Your day is good so far, classes are fine?” he asked, to no one in particular.

I let Cynthia supply the answer. “Yes.”

“And you, Victoria?”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“Perfect.” He seemed satisfied. He made to speak again, but the telephone on his desk rang, cutting him off.

Raising his pointer in a ‘one minute’ gesture, he answered the call. “Yes.” His eyebrows twitched as he listened to the person on the other end. With a sigh, he rubbed his temple and muttered something incoherent. “I can’t believe I forgot about this meeting. Once they come, usher them in. I’m not exactly busy at the moment.”

He ended the call and regarded us with a rather sorry look in his eyes. I knew the message all too well. He would ask us to return to that boring hellhole of a reception and wait till he concluded his meeting with his highly esteemed guests.

“Wait in the reception,” he ordered. “I’ll get back to you when I’m done.”

“But sir!” Cynthia whined.

“Or you could just return to class and come back some other time.”

Without a choice, we returned to the reception. I trained my eyes on the door, wanting to see whoever had caused Sir Amadi to dismiss us just like that. Moments passed and the guests hadn’t arrived. Sir Amadi could have just attended to us while he waited for them. His meeting with us couldn’t have taken more than ten minutes. But here we were, waiting for heaven knows how long. I picked up another magazine from the table and flipped through, letting my eyes feed on the high quality images.

The door creaked open and I lifted my eyes from the magazine. A woman stepped in. She seemed to be in her mid forties. High-heeled boots clicked on the floor, perforating the silence. A figure loomed behind her. Recognition hit me. My heart lurched. And I thought he wouldn’t return to this school. What did he want?

My mind traveled back to our first encounter. How he had offended me with his words. How I had embarrassed myself in front of him. I looked away in a quest to hide my face. I would not give him the satisfaction of mistaking me for one of his many fan girls. It would destroy the remnant of my badly ruined ego.

“Welcome, Mrs Kadir,” the receptionist squealed like a teenage girl. She sprang to her feet, stretching her pepper-red lips with an overdone smile. Her eagerness to speak to the woman and her son irritated me beyond imagining.

“Oh, hello,” the woman said. “Is the principal in?” She gestured to the principal’s office. Her accent told me she had lived away from Nigeria for way too long.

“Yes,” the receptionist said. “He’s been expecting you.” She moved away from her desk and toward the principal’s office to usher in his guests.

Cynthia bolted to her feet, her excitement alarming me. Forcing a smile, she reached out to shake the woman’s hand. “Good afternoon.”

The woman took Cynthia’s hand. “How are you, darling?”

Before Cynthia had a chance to respond, the receptionist said, “This way, Mrs. Kadir.” She held open the door for the woman.

Mr. White made to follow, but Cynthia outstretched her hand for a shake. “Hi.”

Her eagerness killed me inside. It hurt that she let strangers see the beautiful side of her, but left me to her dark side. Why would she give her smile to someone who didn’t deserve it? He would sure toss it into the gutter. I, on the other hand, would cherish it.

“Uhm…hello?” The white boy stared at Cynthia’s outstretched hand but let it hover in the air for a few seconds, and then he moved his hand. Disappointment and a mix of rage danced across Cynthia’s face as he stuffed his hand into his pocket.

“I’m Cynthia.” Puppy-eyed, she looked down at her hand for a few moments before withdrawing it. Surely, a boy had never refused her a handshake. Her lower lip stuck out, unable to hide her broken spirit. But she fought back to keep her wavering smile in place.

“Raheem,” Mr. White muttered. Being in a conversation with Cynthia seemed to irritate him. And regardless of this, Cynthia smiled on. This side of her stunned me into jealousy. I had thought she had zero tolerance for bullshit.

I wished to be in Mr. White’s place. I wished my sister spoke to me with that beam on her face. I buried my face in the magazine, hiding the hurt in my eyes.

“Raheem,” she tested the name on her lips, savoring it as she would a tasty dish. “Raheem Kadir, I suppose?”

Moments passed and Raheem didn’t answer. He just stared at her like he would a pestering kid he tried so much not to scream at. Cynthia groped for words to fill in the conversation gap. “Welcome to Western High.”

Raheem nodded at her and joined his mother in Sir Amadi’s office. He hadn’t even taken a glance in my direction. Relief washed over me. I hated his arrogance. What serious student started school six weeks into session?

In the end he wouldn’t catch up and would blame the school, ruining its image. I hoped Sir Amadi rejected him based on this. But he had already received his school uniform, so I doubted he could be rejected at this point. If any rejection took place in this case, it would be him rejecting the school. I hoped he would. I hoped our uniform didn’t last a week on his body. I hoped he quit. I didn’t want to see his face ever again.

Raheem Kadir? His name seemed Arab. Iraqi perhaps? Afghanistan or Indian? His accent didn’t strike me as Indian, so I scratched it off the list.

I shook off these thoughts. I didn’t care where he came from. Since when did I become interested in getting to know him? Cynthia could do this, considering how she gushed over him. I would not share her task.

My eyes followed her as she returned to her seat. The dreamy look on her face made me wonder what thoughts revolved around her head at the moment. I didn’t have to wonder, though. I knew just how sickening her thoughts were: thoughts about him. I knew she would try to date him. In the blink of an eye she would dump Alex for Raheem, the guy who had hurt her feelings just as he hurt mine. Although she tried to hide her hurt, I knew his coldness stung. My being around to witness her shame made it sting twice as much.

Now I hated him twice as much as I already had. Hurting me had done nothing to satisfy him, and so he had gone ahead to hurt my sister. This all happened on his first day at school. What would happen tomorrow, and the day after it? Before the week ran out, his reputation for being a jerk would sure precede him. I bet he would like that.

“Mum, can you believe this man?” Raheem’s disembodied voice pierced through the silence.

“Are you implying my son is not worthy to be a student here, Mr. Amadi?” Mrs Kadir said, an angry tint to her voice.

“You best stop putting words in my mouth, Mrs. Kadir,” Mr. Amadi said. Inwardly, I danced a victory dance. My principal would not let them intimidate him. “In this school, we have set standards, laws, principles and codes that every student must adhere to. Styles of dressing and grooming must convey modesty and soundness of mind to give us a reputable image in the society.”

“Mum, I can’t stand this,” Raheem said, his voice rising hysterically. “Here now he says I am adorned with all immodesty. C’mon, let’s go. It isn’t worth it.”

“You shame me, Mr. Amadi,” Mrs. Kadir said. In my mind’s eye, I could see her shaking her head, disappointment flitting across her face. “And I thought by coming here my son and I were making the very best decision. And here now, not even one consideration is made for a person who has crossed several seas to be here.”

“We have principles,” Sir Amadi stated. “I will not compromise. Students are just not allowed to wear such stylish hair or keep facial hair. We aren’t running a fashion show.”

“Mum, I can’t stand this. I told you from the start that I didn’t want to be involved with any Nigerian schools.” Nigerian schools. Obviously, he saw our schools—and by extension our country as a whole—as inferior. That stung. I would be right to tag him as racist. One more reason to hate him. “But you insisted Western High or whatever was up to code. Seriously it doesn’t even compare to the school I come from, and here we are, making this man feel like a boss when he’s nothing. Do you have any idea how humiliated your son is right now? Obviously you don’t.”

“Raheem!” Mrs. Kadir warned.

“I’m done, mum. Find me in the car.”

Cynthia rose to her feet. Holding her hands behind her back, she waited for Raheem to come out. The door flew open, and Raheem stormed out of the reception.

“Kul khara, qird,” he muttered. Although I could not understand his language, I knew his words meant nothing good.

“Cheb, son!” Mrs. Kadir’s unimpressed voice sailed to our hearing.

“Whatever, mum,” Raheem said, slamming the door so hard, it shook in its hinges. “Whatever.”

“Raheem!” Cynthia called, running after him as he stepped toward the exit. “Wait!

Raheem seethed. “Your old man boasts of having very modest students. But look! They do not even know eavesdropping is improper.”

“I’m sorry about listening in on your conversation,” Cynthia said sheepishly. “Your voice was just…well, all over the place.” That seemed to calm him down. Cynthia pushed her luck. “You should give our school a try.”

“Yeah?”

“Uhm…yeah.” Cynthia swallowed a lump in her throat. She fiddled with the hem of her waist coat.

Mrs. Kadir walked out of Sir. Amadi’s office, her calmness telling me she had everything under control. “Come, son.”

“Do I get to see you tomorrow?” Cynthia asked in a sugar-coated voice intended to charm both mother and son.

With a shrug, Raheem shoved his hands into his pocket and swaggered off, leaving Cynthia at the mercy of embarrassment. If I were her I would pray for the ground to open and swallow me. Luckily though, I would never be in this state. I could never throw myself at a total stranger, or any other guy for that matter.

Mrs. Kadir beamed at her, paying for her son’s rudeness. “Raheem will be in school tomorrow, dear.”

Slowly and hauntingly, those words resounded in my head. Raheem will be in school tomorrow, dear.

Unable to contain my disappointment, I tossed the magazine on the table and escaped into Sir Amadi’s office. It took a moment for Cynthia to join me, her face aglow as opposed to mine.

Sir Amadi gestured to the chairs across from him. He waited till we sat down before he spoke, “Victoria, you are one of our best students, but there are some things we cannot tolerate.”

My face paled. What intolerable act had I done? My eyes met Cynthia’s and she looked away, a smug smile on her face. I didn’t understand. I hadn’t done anything intolerable. But what had she told him?

Sir Amadi stared at me, the look in his eyes menacing. Intimidating. Unimpressed. What had I done?

“I…I…don’t understand,” I muttered.

“I believe you heard every word I said to that woman and her son. The same applies to you. We have set rules, codes and standards that all students must conform to. And no student is bigger than them, not even the most brilliant of them all. Do you understand?”

“I do, sir.” As much as I wanted to ask him what I had done wrong, I could not. He would find it offensive. I shifted my gaze to the floor, waiting for him to spill.

“Why then do you not abide by our third rule?”

Third rule. Third rule. ‘All students must be in school no later than 8am,’ I recited to myself.

“Is there a special reason for this?” Sir Amadi probed.

Of course. I could never make it to school by 8am because my stepmother and her daughter had sworn to make my life miserable. But could I tell him this?

“No.” I shook my head dejectedly, answering both his question and mine. I would not spill the sins of my stepmother and her daughter before this man. Not while building up my family remained my priority.

“Just like I told you, sir,” Cynthia said. “God knows how hard I have tried to make her change. I wake up before six everyday and do all the chores, and then I wake her up and ask her to get ready for school, but she doesn’t. And if I insist, she gets all aggressive. She always says that she is the brightest bulb in class and even if she misses all her classes she will still make straight A grades. That’s why I brought this matter to you. You’re the only one who can help her change. If father were alive, she wouldn’t do this. He didn’t bring us up like this. Turning her back on everything we’ve been taught is like spitting on father’s grave and it worries me gravely, sir. I have tried to explain to her a million times that her coming late will not build a favorable image of this school. But nothing matters to her.”

Receiving an imaginary microphone from Cynthia, Sir Amadi said, “Whenever you are dressed in this school uniform, people out there see you as a representative of Western High. Do you not know this?”

“I do, sir.” I wished I knew the direction of this conversation. Had this been a movie I’d fast-forward to the end of it. But reality offered no such services. Sitting amidst this unbearable mess, I couldn’t even do anything but stay subject to the fat man before me.

I saw no point to this whole meeting. Did I not pay for my late coming as the rules stated? For four straight years I had been punctual as the classroom janitor. And I had never wavered in my duties. So why had they brought this up now?

“You do?” Sir Amadi’s voice cut through my thoughts. “And then, dressed in our school uniform, you leave for school around ten, eleven? What are you thinking? Do you know the damaging effect this has on our reputation?”

“It is not like I do this on purpose,” I defended. I could feel the exiled part of me fight its way back into my life. The temper I’d tried so hard to control flared, and though I fought to regain control, success slithered from my grasp. “Do I strike you as one who doesn’t care about the school rules?”

Slamming his palm on his desk, Sir Amadi sprang to his feet. His stomach, the stretching of skin over a watermelon, bulged against his brown designer’s long sleeve. “How dare you talk back at me, young lady?”

Freedom of speech. He might have heard of it sometime. But considering that he majored in Christian Religious Studies, I doubted he read any other book but the Bible and Bible based literature. So much for narrowing your brain resources to one field.

I’d recommend he grab a copy of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, flip to chapter two and examine section thirty-nine, sub-section one. There he would find that everyone, including me, is entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference. Try as he might, he could not make me—or anyone else—an exception to this law. So while he had the right to speak, I had mine also.

But while I had freedom of expression, I would not forget the discipline of my father. He’d taught me to respect older ones. And I always would, in honor of his loving memory.

I wouldn’t want Sir Amadi to accuse me of being disrespectful by remaining seated while he stood, so I rose to my feet. “I’m sorry, sir.”

“If your late coming repeats itself again, we will be forced to withdraw your scholarship.”

For the first few moments, I didn’t register the implication of his words. And then it hit me with the power of a hammer blow, draining blood from my face. My heart sunk, a menacing silence stealing me over.

I told myself I hadn’t heard correctly. “What? What, sir?”

“Yes, Victoria.” With his affirmative answer, my whole world came crashing down on me, crushing me underneath its weight like a bug squished by a firm foot. “If you have no respect for our rules, then you do not deserve the scholarship.”

Sir Amadi had just taken the air out of my lungs, and his eyes held no pity. He had never struck me as one who would commit murder and look down at the corpse with indifference. But he had just done that. He had killed me with his terrible news of terminating my scholarship because of an external influence I could not control. And although my eyes brimmed with tears, he felt no remorse.

“Thank you for bringing this to my notice,” he told Cynthia.

“It’s nothing,” Cynthia said, masking her joy with a tinge of sadness. “It’s my duty.”

My emotions hit me like a spear protruding my chest. Vigorously, I shook my head as though shaking off this bitter reality. This couldn’t be true. I couldn’t lose my scholarship. No, this had to be a joke. There had to be some hidden cameras somewhere. I couldn’t lose my scholarship. WAEC stood only a few months away. How would I complete High School without my scholarship?

“Sir.” I choked with grief. My knees thumped on the floor but I didn’t register the pain. Gluing my palms together in a prayer pose, I begged, “Please sir, don’t take away my scholarship. It is my only hope.”

“Your scholarship is still yours for now. But if you continue to show disrespect for our laws, then like I said, we will be forced to withdraw it.” With that, he waved a dismissive hand at us.

“Is there a problem, sir?” The receptionist’s voice startled me. I hadn’t noticed her come in.

“No,” Sir Amadi said, settling back in his seat. “They were just about leaving.” He shot me a warning gaze. If I didn’t leave I would be in trouble.

Swiping at my eyes, I marched out of the office, with Cynthia close behind me. With every breath I let out, I could feel my life force seep out. My throat quavered. Where would I start from if I lost the scholarship?

My body trembled as grief’s tangibility streamed down my cheeks. Craving support, I sauntered to stairway and gripped the handrail. My eyes squeezed shut, and more tears strolled out. Dad had always told me to never lose hope. He had made me promise to keep my hope alive no matter what. But this day I had failed him. I had lost hope. I wanted to believe everything would be fine. I wanted to believe that after this darkness, dawn would come. But I couldn’t hang on to this hope.

A feathery sensation on my hand alerted me. Slowly, painfully, I opened my now puffy eyes and found a butterfly fluttering around me. Despite myself, a smile stole its way to my face and I reached out my hand to the colorful beauty. It hesitated for a moment or two, and then it perched on my right pointer. Series of thoughts crowded in on me, turning my admiration to envy. Unlike me, the butterfly had freedom to fly. It didn’t have any chains binding it.

“I want to be free,” I muttered. “I don’t want to die in my misery.” Throwing my hand in the air, I watched my split-second friend fly away only to perch on another side of the building.

Movement to the right caught my eye. Looking in that direction, I froze. There, a few feet from me, stood Cynthia, staring with a blank face. She just stood there, motionless, drinking to intoxication every detail of my sorrow.

“Are you satisfied with this?” I asked, lips quavering. I watched her eyes for a reaction, but the actress before me showed no emotion. “Are you satisfied now, oh sister of mine? I know you hate me. I know you always want to be one step ahead of me, but did you have to go this far?”

“Shut up, you stupid girl,” she whispered, looking around to be sure we were alone.

“Why, Cynthia, why?” I said between hysterical sobs. “I just want to know why you did this. Why did you do this? Why do you feed off of my sadness, my sorrow?”

“Are you talking to me? Are you seriously talking to me like that? Oh, I see that friend of yours has been giving you some tutorials. Let me make something clear to you. We are not on the same page. Do you understand? Life is made up of two groups of people. The privileged and the less privileged. It’s not my fault you belong to the unfortunate group. You just don’t fit in this school. There are many schools for peasants like you. But you, dressed in this uniform, and trying to fit in, it all makes me sick. You’re such a parasite. Always trying to compete with me. To you everything is a competition.”

“That’s not true!” I said. “You’re the one who sees everything as a competition!”

For this reason I had altered my personality. While she had a reputation for being the strong one, I had made myself the weak one, hiding my strength behind false weakness just so she would stop seeing everything as a competition. But even at that….

“Do you know how humiliating it is that someone like you is trying to rub shoulders with me?” she asked.

“I’m not trying to rub shoulders with anyone,” I retorted.

“Are you seriously talking back at me?” She jabbed her pointer toward me. “You are going to regret every line you just recited, I swear. Wait till mum hears this. You’re not even happy you’re not out on the streets! Do you know what we go through just to accommodate a pest like you in our house?”

“My father’s house,” I corrected, my voice crackling with resentment.

Rage fought to overcome me. And this time, I didn’t hold back. I let it win. My inner demon had been crouching for far too long. I let it stand. I let it blind me. I glared at Cynthia and let the fire in my eyes consume her. Awed into silence, she could only gape at a part of me I had never let her see. “Now I’m going to lose my scholarship. I guess you’re on cloud nine right now. What does this add to your life? Do well to remember that no matter what you do, my light will always shine through. You try to bury me, but you don’t know I’m a seed. You can run home and tell this to mummy, adding sugar and every other spice because you’re a spoilt little brat.”

I cackled, my voice as cold as death. My eyes smoldering. “The stones you use to pelt me, I will use them to stand. Just watch. You might even wanna grab some popcorn, because a show is fast approaching and you are definitely going to be my audience.”

Cynthia blinked, unbelieving both her eyes and her ears. She opened her mouth to speak, but it stayed open, voiceless. After a second too long, she found her voice. “Are you forgetting who you’re talking to?”

“You try to be happy, but deep down you’re just as sad as I am,” I said, piercing through her with my gaze to rub it in. I could tell it unnerved her. And I enjoyed every bit of it. “You’re depressed, and though you have everything, it’s as though you have nothing. And truly, you have nothing. You wonder what’s missing in your life, but you can’t place a finger on it. You can’t place a finger on it because you’ve blinded yourself from seeing what’s missing in your life.”

Without waiting to see her reaction, I whirled on my heels. Simultaneously, the bell for the next period rung. Each second drew me nearer to the next day. The day my scholarship would be stripped from me, and I would drop out of school. More tears blurred my vision. I couldn’t go to class in this state. I sprinted to the sickbay, my new-found sanctuary.

Stella looked up from her seat. Alarmed by my red rimmed eyes, she asked, “What’s wrong?”

“They want to withdraw my scholarship,” I said, my throat raw. “It’s over for me now.”

CHAPTER FIVE

Truth

“Truth is any statement made to build up one’s family.”

Knock. Knock. My knuckles were sore from rapping on the steaming hot gate for the umpteenth time. My fever had returned full force. Standing here for close to an hour, drenched in sunlight made it all worse. My legs wobbled underneath me and I glued my back to the wall to sturdy myself.

Stella had given me a complete Paracetamol card. But I doubted I could have full dose. My stepmother would unfailingly starve me to feed her inner demons, and Stella had warned me not to take the pills on an empty stomach. Pulling at her ears, she had repeated it to the point of irritating me.

My mind swayed back to our last conversation. Her assurance that everything would be fine had made something snap inside of me. Seething with frustration, I had pulled away from her. I had grown tired of believing things would be fine, when in reality they only got worse.

I had been stupid to think she could help me. No one could. After listening to me cry over losing my scholarship, she had done nothing but assure me it would be fine. And then she had given me the card of Paracetamol to ward off my fever and headache.

After moments of waiting for her to devise a plan to help me, I had finally realized the bitter truth. Cinderella lived a fairytale, and I, reality. I had no fairy godmother who would come to my aid and turn my distress to joy. Frustration left me broken. I had looked forward to my meeting with Stella, believing she had a plan. But I had been wrong to believe she could save me. I hated myself for every detail of my pain I had poured out to her; for every tear I had shed in front of her; for believing she could turn things around for me.

She had only told me to dry my eyes and go home. And the fierce determination I had seen in her eyes in the morning? Had it all been for nothing? She no doubt found me unworthy of her help. I wouldn’t feel like this if she hadn’t offered to help. But she had. Had she forgotten so soon?

I never should have put faith in her promise. Once a promise is made, life finds a way to break it. I didn’t want to be overly pessimistic, but I couldn’t play dumb to the truth. Experience had taught me never to put faith in promises. Dad had made lots of promises, and although he meant to keep them, life never gave him a chance. He had told me he would always be there for me. He once told me I would never have any reason to be broken in spirit.

Mum no doubt had made promises too. An image of my pregnant mother drifted past my mind. She rubbed her baby bump, her eyes aglow with love as she promised to always be there for the child. My stepmother had also promised. She had promised to love me as her own. And now, Stella’s promise had just joined the heap of broken promises, breaking my heart over and over again.

Blinking back the tears that threatened to overcome me, I returned to the gate. I needed to lock myself in my room and cry my eyes out. Although crying could not take away my misery, it would at least make me feel better. Once again, I rapped my sore knuckles on the gate.

I needed to talk to my stepmother. It wouldn’t be easy, but I had to. Maybe we could reach an agreement. Pessimism reared its ugly head, aiming to shatter my hope. Shoving it off, I tried to organize the points I would table before her. Did I have to tell her though? Considering that I had exchanged words with the apple of her eye, it didn’t sound so good an idea. I reflected back on my conversation with Cynthia. All these years I had been able to keep my cool, playing the part of a feeble girl who could not speak up for herself. Why did I have to speak up today? Today of all days.

Perhaps I could just go on with my plan without informing my stepmother. I would work overtime to meet up for school. I would do most of my chores before going to bed, and do the rest of them when I awakened. That way I would meet up.

‘How come you never thought of this before?’ a pessimistic voice in my head asked. I rolled my eyes, hating how cynicism always sought to interfere with my life. It had a point though. I had come up with this overtime technique in my sophomore year, but my stepmother only let it work for the two days she most likely spent plotting. On the third day, I had started to prepare for school when she approached me with a shopping list, sending me to the market. When I returned she had asked me to prepare vegetable soup just so I couldn’t meet up. And the next day she had me select a ridiculously great quantity of beans. After spending three hours sat on the kitchen floor, picking beans, I had finally realized she wanted me to stop pursuing my punctuality goal.

These memories took away my frustration, leaving rage in its wake. I vented it out on the gate, knocking as hard as I dared. The gate trembled where it stood. I knew I had just signed in for some extra sessions of abuse, but at this point I didn’t care what they did to me. I just wanted to be home. My legs ached from standing for so long.

“Break it oooh,” my stepmother yelled, her voice almost musical. “If you don’t bring down that gate, shame on you.” There, as expected.

Footsteps advanced from the other side of the gate. Instinctively, I took a step back as though to escape what would come. But I knew the futility in seeking for escape. Sucking in a deep breath to prepare myself, I undid the distance I’d just created. My stepmother shot me a scorching look as she opened the gate. She held it open, and for a moment, I could only stare.

“Good afternoon, ma,” I said.

When dad still lived, my stepmother had allowed me call her mummy. But after we lost him, she had warned me never to call her that. Sometimes the word would slip out of my mouth and I would feel the sting of a slap across my face.

I stepped in through the open gate, my focus more on my thoughts than on reality. My stepmother’s palm whipped across my face, blistering my cheek. My ear rung from the impact. It felt like I had been attacked by a thousand furious ants. Barely giving me a moment to recover, she grabbed my ear and wrung like she would a damp cloth. A gasp escaped my throat. Her painfully long, black-polished nails dug into my skin.

“Ode.” She wrung harder. I bit my lips to keep from spitting out hurtful words. “You have ears but you don’t hear. Time without number I have told you not to knock like that. Or did you employ any gate keeper?”

The muscles in my ear screamed out in pain. I clenched my teeth to keep from yelping. I would not give them the satisfaction of seeing me express pain. I ignored the discomfort, reassuring myself it would not go on forever.

And it did not. A knock at the gate distracted my stepmother, giving me the chance I needed to writhe my way to safety. Holding my scalding-hot ear, I moved to open the gate. Stella stood before me. Emotions slammed into me. On one side stood fear, on another, shock, and on yet another, hope. The dim light of hope burning within me, craving death, had suddenly been rekindled by Stella’s presence.

“Hello yourself,” Stella said, indifferent to my blankness. I had never seen her dressed in a cloth other than her nurse uniform. A black jacket enclosed around her torso, giving an ash camisole a sliver of space to peek through. A pair of blue jeans hugged her legs. Before me stood a perfect runway model, save for a few pounds. With such physique, and an angelic personality, I wondered why she hadn’t found a husband yet. Or had she resolved to stay single?

“Do you feel better?” she asked, breaking through my thoughts.

“I…yes—” Good lord. I could not speak to her in front of my stepmother. This didn’t look good.

“Why are you still in your uniform? I thought you left school an hour ago. Vicky, did I not ask you to take a cold shower once you got home? It helps with fever.”

Again, words eluded me. Stella stared at my face as though I had something on it. She reached out and held my jaw with two fingers, turning it sideways to thoroughly examine. Her gaze fell on my injured ear and she stared at it for a moment too long. “What happened to your face?”

“I…I fell,” I said.

Stella clicked her tongue. “Don’t lie. This isn’t the kind of wound sustained from a fall. No, these are scratches. Do you have a wildcat or something?”

Looking over my shoulder, she raised her brow at the sight of my stepmother, the woman who had played the role of a wildcat. For a few unsettling moments, she just stared at her, as though trying to read through her. I could tell she now knew how I had sustained those injuries.

“Good evening, Mrs. Brown,” Stella greeted.

“And you are?” my stepmother asked.

Stepping in through the gate, Stella walked past me and reached out to shake my stepmother. She smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. Two men trailed after her, their overly strict faces rubbing me of my voice so I couldn’t greet them.

My gaze lingered on them. The first, a bald headed man, clad in a black body hug T-shirt, had a slightly rounded stomach. Muscled arms strained to fit into his shirt. His beard, too overgrown to be called stubble, cast a dark shadow along the corners of his round face. Something about his physique told me he had a husky voice and indulged in much alcohol.

The second, most likely in his early thirties, stood a few pounds and a few feet behind his partner’s solid six foot. I perceived his complexion had once been lighter, but the Nigerian sun showed no mercy, leaving him with a disgruntling tan. I would tag him as approachable, save for the stony expression on his bony, clean-shaved face.

“Stella Adewale,” Stella said.

My stepmother stared at Stella’s outstretched hand as though it were a snake ready to strike. She looked away from the hand and trailed her eyes on the men. “I don’t believe we have met.”

“Now we have.” Gesturing towards the men, Stella went on, “My friends and I would love to talk to you about something of great importance.”

My stepmother sized up Stella with her eyes as though trying to decipher the nature of their pending conversation. “I am all ears.”

“Shall we?” Stella gestured toward the house. Following my stepmother’s tentative lead, she and the men streaked into the house. I trailed behind them.

Although I ached to listen in on their conversation, I knew I did not stand a chance. My stepmother would not stand my presence. Hiding behind the wall to listen seemed like a plan, but the sight of Cynthia a few steps away sent a wave of frustration stealing me over. Defeated, I sauntered to my room and shut the door.

Arms folded, I stood there, thinking of just what I had gotten myself into. My stepmother wouldn’t like this one bit. Why had Stella brought friends along with her? I had only told her about my abuse because I trusted her to keep it secret. Had I made a mistake?

My bed called to me, but it seemed far off. I didn’t want to stand. I didn’t want to sit either. I didn’t want to be here. I wanted to be in the living room, listening to whatever conversation now ensued.

Suspense taking the best of me, I walked to and fro. My heart thumped like a beating drum. Sick of standing, I finally decided to answer my bed’s call. Just when I lowered myself toward the bed, the door swung open. I bolted upright to face Cynthia.

“What do they want?” Her voice had a heated edge to it with a dash of panic. “Cat got your tongue?”

I didn’t have the strength for her crap. Wordlessly, I stepped into the bathroom. Moments later, I returned to the room, wrapped in a towel and cradling my uniform like a child. Disgust settled in Cynthia’s gaze as she sized me up.

“If you get my mum and I in trouble, I swear you won’t live to regret it. Whatever you told those people, better think of a way to rip it off their minds.”

“What’s wrong, barbie doll?” I smirked, despite myself. “Scared?”

Wrinkling her nose, Cynthia cast me a glance that could slice through rock. I paid no heed to her and disappeared into the bathroom. I hugged myself as the icy water from the shower met my scalding hot skin, hitting home. Even forever wouldn’t be enough to acclimatize to the merciless temperature.

At this point I couldn’t tell whether I shivered from fever or from the cold enveloping me. Thoughts of the ongoing conversation in the living room littered my mind, making me almost oblivious of the cold.

Done showering, I stepped into my room to find Cynthia gone. I heaved a sigh of relief and clad myself in a yellow polo and a pair of faded blue jeans. A knock brought my attention to the door. A knock too gentle to be Cynthia’s or her mother’s.

“Vicky?” Stella’s voice sailed in from behind the door.

I dashed to the door and yanked it open, too eager to know the details of their conversation. Stella’s blank face greeted me. I didn’t know what to think of it. What news had she come to deliver? News of hope or news of my death?

“Vicky,” she purred, taking my hands in hers.

“What happened?” I squeezed out the words through a clenched throat.

“Your presence is needed,” she said. Swallowing a lump in my throat, I nodded, willing her to go on. “Please, don’t feel intimidated. This is your chance to break free from all her evil advances.”

“I don’t understand. What’s this about?”

“Helping you.” She smoothed down my hair. “Those men are my friends. They will help you. But you have to do one thing for us. For me. For yourself.”

This didn’t sound good. “What?”

“We need you to tell the truth.” When I didn’t speak, she went on, “Tell it and tell it all. Leave out nothing. Can you do this for me, Vicky?”

I reflected back on one of the lectures I had received from dad. After telling Cynthia and I a bedtime story, he had asked us to tell him the morals we learnt. The girl in the story had lied to save her family….

“I don’t understand why you chose this story,” an eight-year-old me said. “Every story you tell is enriched with moral lessons. But in this story, I don’t see any.”

“You also see none?” Dad asked Cynthia. She snored in response.

Stifling a yawn, I rubbed my eyes to oppress sleep and perhaps chase it for a while, but it seemed to be gaining in on me.

Studying me for a moment too long, dad said, “You shouldn’t fight it. Go to bed. Tomorrow is only a few hours away.” He made to stand, but I threw my arms around him. He had been at work all day and had returned late. I craved to have enough of him till sleep finally stole me over.

“The story, dad,” I reminded, half-yawning. “She didn’t speak the truth.”

“What is truth?”

“Truth is…the opposite of lie?” I cringed inwardly, hating my vague answer.

“Is that all?”

“Yes.”

“Truth is a word you must define for yourself,” dad said. “It is much more than the opposite of lie, my sweet. Much more. Defining it like that confines the word ‘truth’ to just that context, and it would be unfair, for truth is a great word, covering a multitude of sins, just like love.”

I waited for a definition of truth but it never came. Dad obviously needed me to speak before he went on.

“What is truth?’ I asked.

Dad smiled at me. “You know now. You are my smartie. Link the story to what I’ve just told you.” He stared at me, giving me a moment to arrange my thoughts. “Now let’s hear your definition of truth?”

Sonia had lied to save her mother from King Cedric’s wrath. And according to dad, truth covered a multitude of sins. Truth covered her mother’s sin. It kept their family together. I summed up these details. “Truth is any statement made to build up one’s family.” Proud to have my own definition that sounded good in my ears, a smile tugged at the corners of my lips.

“That, my dear, is truth.”

Tightening my arms around my dad, I said, “Love you, dad.”

“Love you too, my fairy princess.”

Hysterical sobs of a woman greeted me as I sailed back into reality. Before me laid a scene I could not fathom. My step mother, in tears, relaxed in Cynthia’s seemingly comforting embrace. I stiffened at the thought that Stella’s friends had hurt her. Had they?

Sensing my fear, Stella placed her hand on the small of her back and led me forward. “What’s going on?” I asked, eyes round as saucers.

“Do you have no regard for family?” Cynthia said, the brittleness of her voice melting my heart into a bloody puddle. Her words sliced through me like a two edged blade. “What have we ever done to you that you brought in these men and lied against us?”

“I have never—” My stepmother’s voice trembled hysterically with grief. “Never assaulted her. Why would I? Why would I work against the family I have worked so hard to build?”

Stella and her friends exchanged befuddled glances, and then their eyes rested on me. My mind darted, searching for a word to say, but words eluded me.

“I am Sergeant Charles Davies,” the bald headed man said. Like I had expected, he had a husky voice. He tilted his head toward his partner. “Sergeant Evans Fineface of the Nigerian Police Force.” He stared at me as though he expected me to say something. What could I say?

“We need to ask you a few questions,” the one called Evans said.

I nodded, swallowing a lump in my throat. Although I willed my focus to rest on the cops, I could see Cynthia and her mother from the corner of my eye.

“Child abuse is a very serious crime, punishable by law,” Evans said. “We received word concerning you and we would like you to tell us the whole truth.”

“This is really important if you want us to press charges,” Stella’s soothing voice sought to put my pacing heart at ease. But I doubted it would. How had we gotten to this stage? Why had she involved the cops?

My wounded gaze zeroed in on the notepads in the cops’ hands. They would write down every word I uttered, or at least every word they found significant. They had obviously interrogated my stepmother till she broke into tears. I had never seen her cry, save for when dad died. She never allowed a fellow human intimidate her. So what had these men done to her?

“You should sit down,” Stella said. “We want you to be comfortable.”

“I’m okay.”

“Okay,” Charles said nonchalantly. “Let’s start from the scratches on your face. The nurse confirmed that they are new. You’ve had them for no more than two hours, true?”

I nodded.

“Care to tell us how you got them?”

My mind worked fast, retrieving the lie I had told Stella at the gate. “I…fell.”

“That’s not the kind of wound someone sustains from a fall,” Charles observed.

Stella gave my shoulder a gentle squeeze, wordlessly reassuring me of her support, and reminding me of my promise to tell the truth. I opened my mouth to speak, but Evans rose to his feet and advanced to me. He scanned my wounds with a knowing look in his eyes.

“It sure isn’t,” he reported back to Charles. And then to me he said, “It even extends to your ear.”

“I fell,” I insisted. “And then I…I scratched my face by accident.”

“With what?” Evans asked, training experienced eyes on my fingers. His eyes told me he could see through my little white lie.

I clenched my fists to hide my nails. But Evans had already seen them. “Your nails are so blunt for this accusation,” he observed.

A sudden bolt of self-defense hit me. “What? I can’t trim down on my nails again or what?”

As though I’d whirled at him brandishing a gun, Evans raised his hands in surrender. “Okay. Okay. Let’s drop the whole scratch thing.”

“Care to tell us how you got those scars all over your back?” Charles asked. He had just crossed the room to meet us.

My lips stayed glued together. I could not tell them my stepmother did that to me. I would not see her behind bars for my sake. Moments passed, and I said nothing.

“Victoria?” Stella called, reminding me of the unanswered question. She moved to stand in front of me, looking me in the eye. “Tell them. Your statement is important if these people are to pay for all the things they have done to you. Please.”

“Tell them!” My stepmother stood up. Arms folded, she went on, “Don’t be ashamed to tell them a family member was depraved enough to do this. Tell them! Go on! Tell them how your Uncle Ben assaulted you.”

Stella whirled around to face her. “What are you saying?”

“Perhaps we should turn around the question,” Charles suggested to Evans.

Evans nodded. Keeping his eyes trained on me, he said, “Who is responsible for the scars on your back?”

‘Tell them how your Uncle Ben assaulted you,’ My Stepmother’s voice rang in my ears. ‘What happens in this house stays in this house. Do you understand?’

I recalled dad’s words. ‘Truth is a word you must define for yourself.’

‘What is truth?’

Truth is a great word, covering a multitude of sins.’ Dad’s voice, loud and clear, seemed like he were standing right beside me, giving me the advice I needed to tread on the right path.

I reflected back on the words I had told Stella. ‘My stepmother and her daughter make the whole world believe they love me, but they don’t.’

“Speak to us,” Evans pressed on. “Who is responsible for this abuse?”

“Uncle Ben,” I blurted out.

Stella’s eyes widened. She shook her head. “No. You…you told me—”

“Uncle Ben did this to me,” I said, increasing the pitch of my voice.

“Why are you covering up the sins of this woman?” Stella asked. Pulling at my arm, she leaned in toward me. “She does not deserve this act of kindness. Why won’t you speak the truth?”

“I am speaking the truth,” I said. “My mother would never do this to me.”

“Stepmother,” Stella corrected. I could see the disappointment in her eyes. Her hold on my arm loosened just enough for me to retrieve my arm. I caught a flicker of pain in her eyes. Unable to hold her gaze, I turned away.

Charles cleared his throat. The look in his eyes said he didn’t buy my story. And neither did Evans. But what could they do?

“So…a certain Uncle Ben did this to you?” Charles asked.

I nodded.

“Full name?” he asked.

“Ben Brown.”

“Ben Brown.” He scribbled in his note and looked up at me. “Father’s brother?” Again, I nodded.

“Care to tell us how it happened?”

“Holiday,” I said. “I went to spend holiday at his place. Dad had just passed away, so my Uncle asked me to come spend a few days with him and his wife.” Uncle Ben had made physical abuse his new lifestyle, so fabricating the story came easy.

“Do they have kids?”

“No.”

“So…your uncle did this to you?” Charles asked. How many times would he try to verify this information? Squinting, he watched me closely as though expecting the truth to leak through my features.

Again, I nodded. A nod too mechanical. At least to me. I prayed they found it genuine.

“Where is your uncle now?” Evans asked.

“He’s an alcoholic,” I said. “Committed petty crimes. Spending seven years of his life in jail.”

“What’s he jailed for? Abusing you?”

I shrugged. “I’m sure his profile is somewhere in the police archives. He was arrested not too long ago. Should not be hard to find.”

I could tell Stella and her cops were conflicted about the credibility of my story. They could visit Uncle Ben’s criminal profile at their leisure. He had a reputation for abusing people, especially when alcohol held him hostage. He had beaten his ex-wife to near-death. At least when the cops found such information about him, it would put their minds at ease.

Staring at his notepad, Charles flipped to another page. “And your health? What would you say about it?”

“My health?” Although I knew the direction of his question, I needed him to elaborate on it. Hopefully, it would buy me time to come up with another story.

“You mentioned that your stepmother neglects your health,” Stella said. “Since your father’s death, you have been struggling with what you know to be malaria. Your health has been off and on for four years, and she won’t pay you any attention. Isn’t that what you told me?”

“Me?” My stepmother pressed a palm to her chest. She squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head as she clutched on to her chest like she’d just been stabbed. Bursting into another fit of tears, she advanced to me and stuck out her hands. Before Stella could react, she enclosed her fingers around my arms and squeezed, shaking me so hard, tears threatened to scald my cheeks. I sniffed, trapping the tears in my eyes.

“Tell me!” my stepmother cried. “Tell me what I ever did to you that has made you slander me like this! Tell me what I ever did to you.”

“Mummy, please.” Cynthia held her from behind and made to pull her from me. “Mummy please calm down.”

“No,” my stepmother insisted. “She has to tell me what I did to her. Why would she lie against me like this? Why?” She shook me vigorously, and then she pried her hands off me, turning away her face as she sobbed loudly.

“What is our crime?” Cynthia took over as words failed her mother. Her voice cracked with grief. “Why go out and spread hurtful lies against us? Do we not love you as our own? Does not my mother give you the same treatment she gives me? Do you not go to the same school as I do, eat when we eat and sleep when we sleep?”

“This is too much,” my stepmother sobbed, her shoulders bouncing. My heart broke into a million pieces to watch her cry, to hear her choke on her sob. “This is too much for me to bear. Had it been an outsider throwing stones at me, I would overlook it. But now, someone who is like a daughter is doing this. This is too much.”

Guilt gnawed at my soul. On cue, the tears I thought I had trapped behind my melting eyes found their way out, tickling my cheeks as they streamed out like rivulets.

“Mrs. Brown.” Stella paused to make sure she had my stepmother’s undivided attention. “If you love Vicky as you claim to, you would do something about her ill health.”

“Ill health?” my stepmother asked. Her brows furrowed. “I was not informed.”

Stella folded her arms. “In the presence of mutual love and understanding, a daughter would always tell her mother about her deteriorating health. But in this case, it’s obvious the love is one-sided. I would use the school’s facilities to care for her, but it would be illegal since the school only administers first aid to day students, saving intense medical care for emergencies and those in the dormitory.”

My stepmother waved a dismissive hand at Stella. “Are you sick?” she asked, gluing the back of her hand to my forehead.

I sucked in a deep breath, savoring the feel of her touch. For the first time in many years, my stepmother had touched me in a non-violent way. As much as I wanted this to last forever, I knew it would only be a moment before things returned to normal. For now though, I had to concentrate on my role in the movie we acted, and enjoy it while it lasted. A movie where my unapproachable stepmother played the role of a very caring mother.

I nodded in answer to her question. My brain groaned as it trembled from the subtle gesture. “I am sick, mum.”

I stared at my stepmother to gauge her reaction, and as expected, she’d stiffened when I called her mum. But she tried hard to mask her indignation with care.

“Now that this has been brought to my notice, I will see to it that you receive treatment,” she assured, wrapping an arm around me. “Okay?”

Stella didn’t give me the chance to respond. “She needs to go to a hospital.”

“Don’t you think I am well aware of my duties as a mother?” my stepmother asked. “I know she needs a hospital. And I will take her.”

Pulling me out of my stepmother’s hold, Stella draped an arm over my shoulder. “We need not spare one more second. The sickness has eaten her up for far too long. I will take her right away. You don’t need to stress yourself. Just go bring the money for her treatment. I’m a nurse, so I know the rough estimate. If the expenses exceed the estimate, I’ll be sure to call and ask that you top it up.”

My stepmother’s expression had morphed from care to an anger she fruitlessly tried to contain. Seeing through her facade, Stella went on, “If you still insist on taking her, very well. But I’ll come along, just to ensure that things run smoothly.”

Stella nodded at Evans and he produced an A4 containing a typed message. Taking it from him, she presented it to my stepmother. “Here.”

Disbelief spread across my stepmother’s features as she scanned the paper. Cynthia glared at it from beside her.

“What?” Cynthia seethed.

“This is too much,” my stepmother bellowed. She pointed a finger at Stella. “I can’t have you come into my house, accuse of not being a good mother, and then try to teach me how to run my own family! You do not even have a family of your own to start with!”

My stepmother locked eyes with Stella, just to rub in her last words. She no doubt expected it to hit home. It only took a moment for her to realize her attempt at provoking Stella yielded no result. Even if it had, Stella knew better than to express such feelings.

Paying no heed to my stepmother’s little game, Stella held a black pen a few inches from her face. “Take it.”

“I will not sign this.” My stepmother threw the paper in the air and folded her hands. I watched it fly a distance away, where it rested on the floor.

“Leave us,” Stella said to the cops. Once they were gone, she turned to face my stepmother. “You have two options. Sign that document and free yourself from any investigations that will push through if you don’t sign it. You think I buy that little show you just performed? That can only buy you a space in Nollywood. Not my consideration. So are you signing the document or nah?”

Tentatively, my stepmother reached out and grabbed the pen. I noticed she had dropped her good-stepmother act, replacing it with pure venom. If looks could kill, Stella would drop dead. But her courage never wavered.

My stepmother’s fury crumbled before Stella. Instead of getting to her, it bounced off the armor of esteem she clad herself in. An armor too expensive for my possession. I admired her now more than I ever had. I would give anything to show off a measure of her courage; to stand tall in the face of my stepmother’s fiery wrath without being consumed.

My stepmother signaled Cynthia to retrieve the document. Once Cynthia returned the document to her, she signed it and handed it over to Stella.

“For a start, we need twenty five thousand Naira.”

“Let me bring you the money,” my stepmother said, defeated. She made her exit, with Cynthia trailing behind her. Stella had won the battle. For me.

“What is wrong with you?” Stella exploded. The disappointment flashing across her face could not be mistaken. So intense, it looked like rage. Or did she feel both rage and disappointment?

“Do you realize you have just blown your first real chance of freedom?” Stella went on. “Why on earth would you shield her when all she’s done is cause you harm?”

Settling in a one-seater chair to rest my wobbly legs, I buried my head to shield myself from Stella’s scorching gaze. “I’m sorry.”

“Do you have any idea how humiliated I felt when you testified against everything I told the cops? Do you? Why did you act like that? You promised me you would speak the truth. What went wrong?”

“My dad once taught me another dimension of truth,” I said. Slowly, I raised my face and held her gaze. “He made me understand that there is much more to truth than just the opposite of falsehood. Truth covers a multitude of sins, just like love. Truth, in this context, is a function of love. It is any statement that builds up one’s family. By telling those men the whole story as it actually happened, I would be tearing down this family with my own hands.”

Stella shook her head. Holding out her hands, she said, “This is a very destructive way of thinking. This is just…absurd!”

“What will I gain if my stepmother goes to jail?” I asked.

“Are you seriously asking me that? You would gain freedom. Uninterrupted freedom. You would finally receive justice.”

“You assume that is what I’m after? Justice?”

“We are fighting for your justice,” Stella said, stressing her last word to place emphasis. “Isn’t this what you ever wanted? A chance for them to pay for their wrongs?”

“This is where you’ve got it all wrong,” I clarified. “You assume I am after justice. But it’s all wrong. The only thing I’m after is a happy family. I crave a chance for love.”

Silence fell upon the room. Stella’s eyes begged me to reconsider. They screamed out for me to withdraw from this seemingly unrewarding path I had chosen. Every wise person would grab this chance at justice. Every sane person would.

It took a moment for Stella to break the silence. “Then I’m afraid you don’t know what you want.”

“This is what I want,” I said. “It’s what I’ve always wanted. Their love. Can I get this while my stepmother is locked away in jail?”

“You are fighting a hopeless war,” Stella said, taken aback by my enthusiasm. Her voice dropped to a whisper, “These people will never love you. Don’t you understand? They will never accept you.”

“Dad told me to keep hoping.” I remembered him referring to hope as a bridge that leads us to where we want to be.

“There is nothing to hope for,” Stella said, her voice flaring like fueled fire. “All these years the only thing they’ve felt for you is hate. What makes you think they will ever change?”

“I don’t know.” Studying her face for a second too long, I added, “I know you are not exactly happy with my decision.”

“Unhappy doesn’t cut it. I am disappointed. I just don’t understand you. No sane person would toss such chance into the gutters.”

I nodded. “I need to know…if I am alone on this path I have chosen. Do I still have your support?” A lone tear glided down my cheek as I awaited her response. I had only been close to her for less than twenty-four hours, but after the little time we had spent together, I doubted I would ever survive this on my own.

“Always,” Stella reassured. Perching on the arm rest of my chair, she pulled me into a hug and smoothed her palm over my weaved hair. “This path of yours is a crazy one. But my support is unconditional.”

With her free hand, she reached for the document she had placed on the chair beside mine. “Here. I know you’re dying to see what it says.”

Grabbing the document, I let my hungry eyes devour it.

I, Esther N. Brown, hereby covenant with the Nigerian Law Enforcement Agency that I shall serve the stipulated child abuse sentence if at any time it is discovered that:

• My stepdaughter reports to school later than 8am.

• My stepdaughter fails to get medical checkups every six months.

• I fail to pay for my stepdaughter’s medical expenses.

• My stepdaughter receives unfair treatment in my household.

• My stepdaughter is not allowed to join my daughter in the vehicle that takes her to and from school.

My stepmother’s signature stood reluctantly underneath her name. I looked up at Stella with a quizzical look. She smiled knowingly. “Wondering if your stepmother can live by these conditions?”

I nodded. She had read my mind.

“Quit wondering then,” she said. “After we’re done with the hospital, I will go have this signed by the High Court, after which I will make two photocopies. One copy will be forwarded to your stepmother, just so she remembers to live according to code. And if she doesn’t, oh well. We got her in a pretty tight corner. So your problems are half-solved. No credit goes to you since you weren’t exactly cooperative.” She punctuated her last words with a transmissible giggle.

I mused over every effort Stella had made just to help me. She didn’t have to, but she had taken my problems as hers. “You have been an angel to me. You’re a fairy godmother sent from above. How can I ever repay you?”

Stella smiled. “A simple thank you would be just fine.”

Walking into view, Cynthia placed a brown envelope on the armrest of my chair. “That’s all the money you need for her treatment. Mum says to get in touch if it isn’t enough.” Without waiting for a reply, she made her exit.

Stella picked up the envelope and peeked at its contents. It seemed to satisfy her. I could tell from the smile that crept to her face. “Let’s go get you tested.”

We headed out of the house and met Evans and Charles standing beside a Range Rover parked a distance away.

“How did it go?” Evans asked as we advanced to them.

“Piece of cake,” Stella said, crushing her thumb and pointer together in an ‘okay’ gesture. She held the signed document and the money-filled envelope in Evan’s line of sight. Taking a remote control from her front pocket, she unlocked the doors of the jeep and ducked behind the steering wheel. She gestured that I sat in the front passenger seat. Evans and Charles warmed the back seat.

Memories of the last time dad took me shopping clouded my mind. That had been the last time I enjoyed the comfort of a private vehicle, or any other vehicle for that matter. After his death, no one found me worthy of any means of transport other than foot.

The drive, quieter than I had expected, gave me an inner peace I hadn’t experienced for quite a while. It felt great to enjoy the company of people who wished me no harm; people who sought nothing but my best interests. Stella and the cops didn’t blast me with tons of bothersome questions. Once or twice, they brought up random topics like the weather, the deteriorating Nigerian economy, and the likes.

Every so often, I would cast Stella a side glance. I had a confession to make. I didn’t know if telling her would be a good idea. I had already told her the most important things. But how would she feel when I told her I let the whole world see a part of me that didn’t exist? Would she find me crazy, or would she understand I did this for my family?

I watched her slow down as we neared a junction. She glanced at her friends from the rear-view mirror. “You can take a cab from here, right?”

“Yes,” Evans said. “Thanks for the ride.”

“No, thanks guys. I’m the one who should be thankful.” Pulling over, she turned to face Evans and Charles. “Really, guys, thanks. You’ve been much help today.”

“It’s nothing,” Evans said.

“Can you do one more thing though?” she asked.

“Yeah, just name it,” Evans said. Charles shifted in his seat. But I didn’t hear his voice. I wouldn’t say he fancied the idea of another assignment.

“Just forward this document to Court and have them stamp it.” Stella presented the signed document to Evans. “After that, you are to make two photocopies. I’ll pick them up tomorrow evening. Think it can be ready by then?”

“Yeah, why not?”

Stella beamed. “Thanks. You’re a darling.”

Stepping out of the car, Evans and his partner waved at us. I waved back and watched them cross to the other side of the road. When I looked back at Stella, it stunned me to see that she made no move to start the engine. Arms crossed, she leaned back in her chair and stared at me.

“What?” I asked, unable to contain my curiosity. Did I have something on my face? I looked at my face from the side mirror. So far, so good, I looked normal. Nothing out of place.

“Are you ready to talk now?” she asked.

“Talk?”

“Yes, talk. Now, don’t act funny. I’ve been watching you. You’ve been restless. Listen, I have an idea in psychology, so I know when a person is dying to say something, okay? Now that we’re finally alone, let’s hear it.”

I could really use a listening ear. Besides, it couldn’t be that bad. I had already told her the bigger things. Why then should I hide this seemingly trivial one?

“What I’m about to tell you is a secret that no one else knows,” I started.

Stella nodded. She waited for me to begin, but I said nothing. I didn’t know where to begin from. I just stared out through the window, training my eyes on every pedestrian. Her undivided attention told me to take my time, to speak at my own pace. But we didn’t have all day.

“What do you see when you look at me? Do you see a strong girl? Or a weak one?” My question didn’t make much sense to her. Even to me. But at least I’d given our conversation a head.

“What does this have to do with—?”

“Just answer,” I cut in. “Please.”

“Brutally honest?” she asked.

“Yeah, that would be really appreciated. Just tell me what you think of me.” Comforting myself with the knowledge that whatever she thought of me snaked around the false image I let the world see, I braced myself for what she would say.

“I’d be a blatant liar if I called you a strong girl,” she said. “A strong person would not drink in all the abuses at school and at home. No, she would fight for what is hers. She would always speak up for herself, let her voice be heard. I wouldn’t tag you as weak either. A weak girl would not hold on to her priority the way you do. Through thick and thin, you make your family your number one priority.”

“What you see is not what I am. And what you don’t see is what I am.” I totally expected the startled look on Stella’s face. She remained silent, waiting for me to tell her what she didn’t know. “I mentioned that Cynthia sees everything as a competition. In a desperation to change her wrong line of reasoning, I changed me.”

“I don’t get it,” Stella said.

Like water prepares the ground for cultivation, with well-thought questions I would prepare Stella’s mind for my confession. With these introductory questions, I would justify my actions. “Would you perceive threats of a competition if you and your potential rival stood at extreme ends? If you were superior, and she inferior?”

Stella thought for a moment. “No, I guess not.”

“I thought so too,” I said. “I thought by constantly placing myself as inferior, she would forget the silliness of a competition and love would find its way into her heart. I gave up on everything I ever was.”

“I still don’t get it.” The look on her face confirmed it. I had twisted her brain into knots.

“Cynthia wanted to be the outspoken one,” I explained. “The one who would utter just one word and the world would hail her smartness, her wisdom. I let her be the smart one. I transformed myself into the dull one, the seemingly shy one who could never say anything impressive. She wanted to be the brave one. I let her. I became the stupid one. She wanted to be one of the popular girls in school. I let her. I let myself sink into oblivion. I mastered the art of invisibility, leaving behind the social child I was. My interest in soccer led me to join our school football club, and I excelled as a great player. It made me forget my problems. I could finally be myself, in a place she was not.”

“I thought I saw her in the game against Emerald Comprehensive High,” Stella said. As the school nurse she attended every game to render her services when injuries occurred. I remembered her carrying me out of the field while I writhed on the stretcher in pain, a pain inflicted on me by my very own sister.

“She joined last year,” I said. “She obviously wanted to show me that whatever I can do, she can do better. She wanted to be the best in our team. And I let her. While she scored beautiful goals, I would create beautiful goal opportunities, only to ruin them on purpose.”

The knowing look on Stella’s face told me she remembered every goal I had missed. “It would be just you and the keeper and you would let the chance slip. It always amazed me how a very brilliant girl in class could be so miscalculating on the field. It just didn’t make sense.”

A thought occurred to her. “Talking about your brilliance in class, you didn’t sacrifice that, did you? Because if you did, you wouldn’t have won the scholarship.”

My silence. The pained look in my eyes. Stella calculated. “Don’t tell me sacrificed that too!”

Again, I said nothing.

“Okay, fine. Go on with your story.”

“Actually…I had also sacrificed my educational performance.”

“What?” Stella’s shrill pierced through the closed windows. Alarmed, passersby stared at us till they walked past.

“What was I to do?” My voice flared defensively, matching hers. “She wanted to be the intelligent one. And I let her. I forced myself to lag a great distance behind her. I just couldn’t help it. She would come home, showing off her straight A grades and few Bs. And I would go lock myself in my room, crying over my disgusting end-of-year evaluations. I mostly had Ds. Only once in a while did I let myself soar to a C.”

“You would fail exams on purpose?” Stella asked.

“Not exactly fail,” I corrected. “I would write just good enough to be promoted to the next class, but bad enough to make Cynthia feel secure that there was no competition because she’s by far superior in all things. But although I presented myself as lacking in all departments, father loved me regardless. He would always tell me to try hard. He would always tell me the sky was my limit and if I tried hard enough, I would rekindle my old flame. It was during the scholarship exam period I realized that if I was to keep my education, I had to unleash the brainiac in me.”

“Why would you hide who you are?” Stella’s question hit close to home, but I held back from taking offense. Had I not already told her everything I did, I did to hold my family together?

“This makes no sense,” she said. “Your self-sacrificing spirit is ridiculous. Life isn’t meant to be this hard for anyone. What were you thinking, coming up with a plan as ridiculous as this? And to think that you’ve been at it all your life. What on earth were you thinking?”

“I wasn’t thinking,” I said. “I just wanted to kill the competitive spirit growing inside her is all. I wanted us to be a family. I still do.”

Stella regarded me with a sorry look as she watched me dab my teary eyes. “And did it work? Everything you did, and still do, is all for nothing. They don’t hate you any less, for God’s sake! Stop this insanity.”

I had been right to assume she would find me crazy. “It could have been worse.”

“Victoria, this is far too extreme! You should never have done this! You paint yourself as the weak one, when in reality you are not.”

“I have to be the weak one. Don’t you get it? I’m afraid of letting them see the real me. They will double their efforts to break me! This will break our family more than it already is. I don’t want that.”

Stella could never understand me. Telling her had been a terrible move. “If you plan to spend the rest of your life under this pretense, then telling me was a big mistake. I’m sorry, but I can’t watch you waste away like this. I can’t hold back from interfering.”

I opened my mouth to speak, but she held out her palm, silencing me. “I’m sure you knew I would interfere if you told me. But you did anyway.”

Starting the engine, she joined the main road, leaving me to weigh the consequences of my big mouth. She would definitely do something to bring me out of hiding. And I certainly would not enjoy this one bit.

CHAPTER SIX

Voice

“The same person who sees our nation as inferior has come running to us for safety, something his infamous nation couldn’t give him.”

“First, we are going to discuss misdiagnosis.” An air of confidence swirled around Stella. Elegantly clad in her white uniform, her composure flaunted her job satisfaction.

She moved in a dignified way, head held high, eyes stable as she addressed the students before her. “Like I said, it’s an interactive lecture. Who can say a thing or two about misdiagnosis?”

I let my mind wander as she swept her eyes around the hall. Who could have thought that I, Victoria Brown, the esteemed late comer of Western High, would be early enough to witness Stella’s pre-class address?

“Yes, you.” She pointed at a junior. His face didn’t ring a bell. Then again, who said I had to know everyone in my school?

“In my own words, I think it’s…em…I really don’t know how to put it.”

I rolled my eyes. Fools will always be fools. Why had he raised his hand in the first place?

“Anyone?” Stella asked. “Anyone? Yes. You.”

“Misdiagnosis is a form of clinical negligence,” a girl said. “Simply put, it is a wrong diagnosis.”

“Brilliant!” Stella exclaimed. “Brilliant. Simple and accurate. What is your name, please?”

“Stella,” the girl said. I could feel her grin. Murmurs snaked around the hall.

“Ah, my namesake. You should take after me. Major in medicine.”

“I plan to be a physicist,” the teenage Stella said.

“Oh, that’s a fine choice.” Holding her hands behind her back, Stella stood still, staring at the students with an exaggerated scowl. “Are you done now?”

It took a moment for the noise to subside. “Brilliant. Now, let’s proceed. As Stella rightly said, misdiagnosis is a form of clinical negligence. There are two main forms of misdiagnosis. One, undiagnosis. And two, incorrect diagnosis. Both of these are equally harmful. Let’s take the first one, undiagnosis. As the name implies, it refers to when a condition is completely undiagnosed. For example, Mr. A has a certain health problem and visits his doctor, but the doctor is unable to diagnose his problem.”

“What could prevent a doctor, qualified as he is, from identifying a person’s health problem?” From the boys queue to my right, a classmate’s high-pitched voice rang in my ears. Alex. Cynthia’s heartthrob. Until Raheem came into the picture, stealing her over with just a glance.

“What is your name?” Stella asked.

“Alex.”

“Alex. As brilliant as that question is, do you mind saving it for the end of this lecture?” Stella asked, the softness of her voice pleading ‘no offense’. Although she had made it clear from the start that questions would only be entertained when she rounded up, I had hoped Alex’s well-thought question would make her compromise.

“So, where were we?” she asked, eyes locked on mine.

Anxiety reared its ugly head. I never spoke in public. Cynthia did. I turned around, hoping Stella had directed her question at Flora who stood directly behind me. But Flora’s blankface made my hope crumble at my feet. Grimacing, I turned to face Stella.

“Mis…misdiagnosis,” I muttered.

“Great,” Stella commended. “I mentioned that the second form of misdiagnosis is—?”

“Incorrect diagnosis,” I supplied, hating the thinness of my voice.

To my relief, she returned to her lecture, “Incorrect diagnosis, as the name implies, is a totally wrong diagnosis. You are diagnosed of one thing, when in reality, you have the other. Forms of incorrect diagnosis include underdiagnosis and overdiagnosis. These are easy to explain. When you hear underdiagnosis, what comes to mind? Do you not think of under treatment? And for overdiagnosis, overtreatment?

“H. Gilbert Welch, a professor of medicine and director of the Center for Medicine and the Media at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice said something about overdiagnosis. He posited that the biggest problem is that overdiagnosis triggers overtreatment, and all of our treatments carry some harm. What do you think of that statement? While you try to assimilate Gilbert Welch’s words, let’s listen to Victoria Brown give an example of incorrect diagnosis.”

Lost in thoughts about how my life had dramatically changed for the better—at least to an extent—my head snapped toward Stella at the mention of my name. She needed me to talk. But about what?

“Sorry, what’s the question?” I asked Flora.

“An example of incorrect diagnosis,” she whispered.

“Oh, that.” I returned my focus to Stella. What example could I give? My mind drifted to the last injury Cynthia had afflicted on me during a football practice session. I had sprained an ankle. There. The perfect example. “For example, a fractured ankle is diagnosed as a sprained ankle.”

“Did you guys hear her?” Stella asked.

“Noooooo!” the students roared in unison.

“Come over here. Maybe then you can be heard.” Stella gestured me over with her left pointer. I found it rather bossy. But what could I do?

I cursed under my breath. She no doubt believed this would force my real self out of hiding. And I feared it would. She smirked as though sensing my discomfort. Tentatively, I moved to stand before the crowd. Eyes pierced through me, holding different expressions. Mockery. Attention. Attention. Pity.

Quiet descended upon the hall as everyone waited for me to speak. Eyes held the intensity of sunlight, blinding me. I squinted. I remembered the words Stella had told me on our way from the hospital yesterday. ‘Remember this. Always let your voice be heard. Always.’

It wouldn’t hurt being me for a moment, would it? Shoulders back and holding my chin high, I faced the crowd. “An example of an incorrect diagnosis is the diagnosis of a fractured ankle as a sprained ankle. Another example is being diagnosed with tumor when in fact the person has no tumor. He probably has an infection or abscess. Even metabolic conditions could cause tumor-like soft tissue masses to form. These and others can easily be mistaken for tumors.”

“Fine examples,” Stella commended. “And what would that be? Underdiagnosis or overdiagnosis? We’re starting with the first example.”

I wished I had chosen a less complicated answer. I wished I had used sore throat and cough as my example. Stella seemed to understand my plight. “First, tell us how to tell a fracture from a sprain,” she said. “That way you can figure out if it’s an underdiagnosis or an overdiagnosis.”

This made it easy. “A fracture refers to a break in the ankle bones. These bones include the tibia and fibula of our lower leg and the talus of our feet. They meet at the ankle, and are held together by elastic bands of tissues called the ligaments. An overstretching of the ligaments holding these bones in place is called a sprain.”

A deafening silence accompanied my last word. I looked over to Amarachi and found her gaping at me with folded arms. My schoolmates—especially classmates—gazed at me like a second head had sprouted from my neck. They had matching looks in their eyes. A look I could easily recognize. Respect. Admiration. And for a few unfortunate ones nicknamed the triple goddess, envy.

I focused on one emotion. Respect. And I loved the feel of it. I just might get used to it and never return to my other personality. In the blink of an eye, my image had changed from ‘the award winning late comer’ to ‘brainiac’, or at least something close to it.

Stella’s face swelled with pride, igniting a new kind of flame within me. She had changed my image from unfavorable to favorable. She had turned me from zero to hero. How could I ever repay her?

A clap broke the silence. First, one pair of hands. And then two. A roar filled the hall as everyone —except the triple goddess who folded their hands in defiance—joined Amarachi and Flora in the applause.

My head swelled with pride, an overwhelming feeling I dared not push aside. Welcoming this feeling, I let a smug smile stretch my lips. I had awakened as an ordinary girl. But here I stood before a great crowd, hailed as a star.

“You are so well informed,” Stella said. “It baffles me that you are not a science student and you know this much.”

That’s what you get when you have a Biology teacher as good as Sir Andrew. I spotted him down the hall, beaming at me. I had made him proud. I smiled back at him, and against my will, my smile broke into a full-teethed grin.

Placing her hand on the small of my back, Stella ushered me back to my line. She went on with her lecture, “Do you know that incorrect diagnosis rates range from eight to forty percent? Let’s look at breast cancer screening for instance, a research review states that one in three of the cancers detected are overdiagnosed. This brings more harm than good. Do you know what it means to receive treatment for a medical condition you don’t even have? Think of the inconveniences of rescheduling appointments with doctors, the higher health care costs, drug side effects, surgical complications and of course, the psychological detriments involved. When there is nothing to fix, doctors in their desperation administer treatments, inflicting great harm. And in a few unfortunate cases, death is a sure thing, sitting around the corner with its legs crossed.”

“Is it dressed in black?” a student asked.

Stella’s eyes roamed the crowd, and for a moment I feared she might take offense. But then she smiled when her gaze settled on the student. “Yes. The blackest of blacks.”

“Carries a pitchfork?” another asked.

“That too.”

“Wears a cloak?”

“That too.” More seriously, Stella said, “Stop self-diagnosis today. Schedule appointments with your doctor at least twice a year. Be health conscious.” The roar of applause and side-talks muted her next words. She held out a hand, retrieving the lost quietude. “Now, please, hit me with your questions.”

Her gaze rested on Alex. “Your question was about how a qualified doctor could make a wrong diagnosis, yes?”

Alex nodded. I glanced at my watch. In just five minutes time, the bell would ring for first period.

“I’ll allow you answer it yourself,” Stella said. “I’ll guide you to the answer though. Let’s see… A hospital wants to expand the market for its existing drugs, how do they achieve this?”

“Sell more drugs,” Alex said.

Stella nodded. She seemed to be expecting more answers though. Alex thought again. “Admit more patients?”

“Does this answer your question?”

“In a way, yes.” Alex bent his neck to the left and then to the right. He always did that when he organized his next line of thoughts. It slightly amused me, though. It seemed as though his head overweighed him and he had to bend his neck every now and then for a measure of relief.

“Actually, there are two aspects to my question,” he said, gesticulating in a way that spoke of his intelligence and esteem. “First aspect. The doctor brings up a health problem when there is none. This you have already clarified. Now let’s move to the second. The doctor sees no problem where there is one. What causes this?”

“A number of things. Incompetence of medical staff—”

“Don’t forget we are dealing with a very qualified doctor,” Alex cut in. I could hear the challenge in his voice.

“As qualified as your doctor is, what happens when he relies on inaccurate laboratory test results, radiology films, and the likes of them?”

Folding his hands, Alex nodded attentively. “Oh, I get it now. Curiosity satisfied.”

Poor Alex if he thought his comment would dismiss the case. He would shrink underneath the weight of disappointment.

Stella had obviously taken this personally. She went on, “On one hand are instrument associated errors, and on the other are human errors. While instrument errors involve the use of faulty diagnostic equipments, human errors involve contaminated samples, improper procedures employed by technicians, incorrectly interpreted test results, omissions in CT, MRI, X-ray or pathology slides. Does this answer your question, Mr. Alex, or do I have to go deep?” She shot him a challenging look.

Alex smiled. “Let’s leave it at that.”

I noted how a simple smile transformed Alex’s features from handsome to super handsome. Now I could see why Cynthia had agreed to date him. How would he react to her ditching him for the white guy?

Cynthia had a reputation for dating the cutest, richest kids in school. With Raheem’s coming, Alex would fall in line with her other exes. Although Raheem had put up an out-of-your-league show, I knew it would only be a matter of time before he became Cynthia’s new boytoy. I scanned the 12th grade boys queue as and subtly as I could. It held no sign of Raheem Kadir, giving me more reason to smile. It appeared he would not be in school today.

Thirty minutes into our first period and still no sign of him. Every now and then, Cynthia would glance toward the door, a distressed look on her face. The look a wife wore when her husband had not returned from war.

Sir Amadi spoke on and on about a topic we’d been considering since last week. God’s dealings with the children of Israel. Meditating over the thrilling miracles that has taken place back then would sure prove faith strengthening, but I would appreciate it if we progressed to another topic. Reluctantly, I wrote down the things he dictated.

Scribbling on a piece of paper, Amarachi passed it to me. It read: Shud I fry u an egg b4 u tel me wat lottery u hav won?

I don’t understand. I wrote back.

Bn smiln all mornin. Wats d secret? Hw r u evn early?

Once Sir Amadi backed us to write something on the board, Amarachi grabbed my arm and yanked me toward her. “I want the full gist,” she said, grinning.

“Not now,” I whispered. I squeezed the piece of paper into a ball and rolled it off the desk. “I will give the full gist in due time.”

“Leave out nothing.”

“Sure.”

“No. Swear it.” She held out her pinky.

With a smile, I linked my pinky with hers. “Pinky swear.” We disentangled our pinkies just before Sir Amadi returned his focus to the class. He resumed his dictation.

“He’s here!” Cynthia’s squeal cut through me. The sheer excitement accompanying her words only meant one thing. Raheem.

“Raheem!” she echoed, her voice painfully sweet.

Face pinched with resentment, I fixated my gaze on my book. My grip on my pen tightened, turning my right pointer and middle finger red with blood concentration.

Amarachi touched my arm. “Are you alright?”

“Yeah.”

“Allow me introduce the newest addition to this class,” Sir Amadi said, ushering Raheem into the class. “Raheem Kadir.”

Obviously, Sir Amadi had given in to the charm of Raheem and his mother, leaving me alone in my voyage of hate. It would make no sense if I hated Raheem for no reason. But I hated because he first hated me. So, the unreasonable person here would be him, hating a stranger for no reason. I had seen it in his eyes on our first meeting. A hate so intense I could see the color black.

“You are late,” Sir Amadi said.

“It’s early where I come from,” Raheem said, his air of pride contaminating the room.

“When you are in Nigeria, act like the Nigerians,” Sir Amadi grinded out the words between clenched teeth. “Do you understand?”

“I guess.” Raheem’s rudeness lingered.

Sir Amadi turned to face the class. “Unfortunately, there is a raging war in Baghdad, Iraq, with the death toll rising by the second. I’m sure you all see the news.”

“Is this really necessary?” Raheem asked through clenched teeth, counting his words with impudence.

“Had it not been for the war, we would not have to tolerate you in the first place,” Sir Amadi shot back.

I gasped out a chuckle. Clearly, Sir Amadi had not been bought my the Kadirs. Ask me, I’d say he’d been coerced into accommodating Raheem in this school. A logical explanation would be that Mrs. Kadir had reported to someone in position to force this on Sir Amadi. And who better than the director of our school?

I raised my head and found Raheem scanning the class with those monstrous green eyes. His lips curled with disgust.

My jaw tightened. And at this point I didn’t try to hide my indignation. “How ironic. The same person who sees our nation as inferior has come running to us for safety, something his infamous nation couldn’t give him.”

Eyes turned in my direction. Voices rose from every corner as everyone beheld the part of me they had never seen.

Taken aback by my unexpected comment, Raheem gawked at me. He assumed his usual pose, standing straight as a ruler with his hands shoved into his trouser pockets. “Pardon?” he said, squinting as though trying to block out light.

“Victoria, this is no way to speak to a new student!” Sir Amadi chided. “Have you lost your mind?”

As a matter of fact, I had.

Bolting to my feet, I pointed a reproachful finger at Raheem. “He is racist, sir! You heard him the other day! You heard him demean our educational sector. He obviously has no regard for our nation. So why does he show his face here? He should try returning to the former school he is so proud of, and in just the twinkle of an eye, he would be blown into bits.” I snapped my fingers to emphasize the swiftness of his destruction.

“Self control!” Sir Amadi said. His voice, although calm, sounded like a soldier’s command. “Where did it go?”

“Sorry, sir.” Lips pursed, I sank down on my seat.

“You just keep unwrapping new packages for us today? Hmm. First, an end to your latecoming, thank heavens for that. And then the well-informed talk, and now you have expressed your view of racism. My view is no different. Racism is a disease eating at the fiber of humanity.” He glared at Raheem, transmitting an unvoiced message.

Amarachi and the rest of the class gaped at me like I had something unnatural on my face. “You changed,” she said. Shaking her head, she added, “Overnight. I barely even recognize you right now.”

“Isn’t that a blessing?” I hadn’t changed one bit. All along, I had this in me. The fearless part of me. My inner demon.

In me lived a creature whose tongue lashed like a whip, consumed like fire and pierced like a sword. When it took over, keeping a tight rein on my tongue stood impossibly far off from me.

For this reason I had it caged, restricted, tossed into an abyss where light never peeked through. Once in a blue moon, though, it would rip apart the chains I’d used to bind it and crawl into the light. It wouldn’t hurt. Wouldn’t bite. It would only spit out injurious words. Today, I let it bask in the sunlight for far too long that my bestfriend could barely even recognize me. To be honest, I could barely even recognize myself.

I had caged this part of me because the thought of being the strong one sent shivers down my spine. Being the strong one would always place me in opposition to my family. And at school it would fetch me more enemies than friends. Now though, I realized it didn’t matter if I displayed the strong side of me, or a forced weakness. I would always have enemies. Home or away.

“Do I not get to sit, sir?” Raheem asked, his voiced laced with discourtesy.

Sir Amadi’s eyes roamed the class. Thirty seats. Sixty-one students. Now sixty-two. The limited number of seats had caused the triple goddess to sit together. Now, Raheem would have to play third wheel with two unfortunate seatmates. Bless their souls, for evil would be unleashed upon them in the form of an Iraqi boy, his name, Raheem.

“Find a place to sit,” Sir Amadi said. Picking up his textbook, he returned his focus to the class. “This is where our class ends today.”

Just as he walked out of the class, the bell for next period rung. Sir Amadi sure had a clock in his head. I hadn’t seen him glance at his wristwatch or the wall clock beside the whiteboard. I couldn’t be too sure though, considering that my eyes weren’t on him for more than half of the time.

Rising to her feet, Cynthia touched Raheem’s arm as he made to walk past her seat. A smile lit up her face. “Raheem, you can sit here.” She gestured to her seat. “I’m sure one or both of my friends would be honored to sit elsewhere.”

She shot Nancy and Precious a glance that sprung them into action. Grabbing the books on their desks, they shoved them into their backpacks and waited for the right moment to vacate the seat. They didn’t look too thrilled by their mistress’ decision, but what could they do?

Raheem’s face tightened. Chin lifted defiantly, he looked to the side, bringing Cynthia into his line of sight. He dropped his ominous gaze to the spot where Cynthia’s hand met his’. Before Cynthia could get the message, Raheem shrugged off her hand. Sharing my sister’s embarrassment, I cringed inwardly. The rest of the class exchanged hushed whispers. I heard a few of them chuckle. My face bloated with rage.

But then, a part of me smiled that Cynthia had landed in this mess. Now she knew what it felt like to be the object of everyone’s amusement. Especially when the audience consisted of our ruthless classmates who cared about nothing but whatever brought laugher to their otherwise boring lives.

Raheem adjusted his collar — an action uncalled for. “And you are?”

Although Cynthia stood with her back to me, I could swear her face wrinkled with exasperation. She had told him her name yesterday. “Cynthia. We met yesterday.”

“Cynthia.” Raheem leaned toward her like a lion would a squirrel. The rise of Cynthia’s shoulders told me she drew in a deep breath. “What places you in a position to tell me what to do?” he asked, his voice cold as death, his nose only a few inches away from hers.

For a split-second, the class fell silent. But then, savage laughter took over. Before the end of today, news of how Cynthia drooled over the new guy would reach Alex. He would be in this class with us, but he’d dropped CRS for another subject, hence his absence. I doubted he would be astonished when he learnt of Cynthia’s huge crush on Raheem. He sure had seen it coming.

Cynthia’s gaze flitted from Nancy and Precious to Raheem. “Uh…sorry, I just thought—”

Whatever she had to say, Raheem didn’t find it worthy of his time. He sauntered away from her, and through rows of desks, towards mine. An unsettling silence descended upon the class. Eyes turned in his direction, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw Confidence puffing out her meaty chest. Tearing my eyes away from her, I wished I could fix them on something beautiful to make up for the unthinkable defilement Confidence had brought upon them.

Raheem’s frame filled my vision. I remembered Amarachi telling me he had sat on my seat yesterday. Tightening my lips into a thin line, I clenched my jaw. In the background, Amarachi made a ‘hmm’ sound.

Placing his bag on my desk, Raheem looked past me and let his gaze linger on Amarachi. I got the message: I worth nothing. And I hoped it stayed that way. Better nonexistent than put to shame like Cynthia and other girls he must have encountered.

“I believe I sat here yesterday, yes?” he asked. Head lowered, I awaited Amarachi’s answer, but it never came. Obviously, she had nodded in reply. I pursed my lips in suppressed fury.

“Ask your friend to vacate this seat,” he ordered. “Can you do that for me?”

Amarachi kept mum. We’d been bestfriends for close to four years to perfectly understand each other. We had a number of rules, existing not on paper, but carved into our hearts. If either of us had an enemy, the other would see him as an enemy as well. And if either of us had a friend, the other would embrace him as a friend.

“I believe when your new friend sat here yesterday you told him the seat was already taken, yes?” I asked her. Her eyes darted between Raheem and I, but she wouldn’t say a word.

I parted my lips to speak again, but something thumped in my head, cutting me off. A dull, yet throbbing pain I knew all too well. And I had thought my medicine had gained victory over it. It hammered on an on, as though avenging itself for the pills I had swallowed in a quest to quell it.

“You could all sit together,” a classmate named Maxwell said. Simultaneously, Raheem, Cynthia and I turned to glower at him. He shriveled under the intensity of our fiery eyes. “Let’s pretend I didn’t say that.”

Shaking his head, Raheem scooped up his backpack and strapped it on. “Very well. Let’s have it your way.”

I glanced at Amarachi, the victory in her eyes mirrored mine. We had kicked the conceited racist out of our seat. We had gained the upper hand, or so we thought. Had not sixty pairs of eyes been staring at us, we would have celebrated our victory with a high five.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that Raheem had not stepped away from beside our seat. Instead, he moved close to the wall and lowered himself to the floor. There he sat with his legs crossed, padmasana style. Leaning against the wall, he let out a noisy breath and slammed his eyes shut.

His audience, including Amarachi and the triple goddess stared at him, wide eyed, unblinking. I, on the other hand, had only given him a slice of my attention for a split-second.

My headache flared as the class prefect slammed his meaty hand on his desk. My classmates sprang to their feet. Slowly, I joined them. I didn’t want to upset my headache anymore. But the good morning shout to Madam Charity, our English/form teacher, threw this goal far off from me.

Standing up brought a vertigo-like sensation as though I had been spinning my life away. I leaned back and grabbed my seat to sturdy myself.

“It isn’t everyday one walks in to find this place as quiet as a graveyard,” Madam Charity said, sauntering into the class. Her pepper-red lips curved into a short-lived smile. “Mr Parish is inescapably absent. So I’m standing in for him.”

Placing a literature textbook on Cynthia’s seat, she advanced toward the wall opposite the door. Eyes framed with false lashes swept around, her scrutinizing gaze resting on us, one student at a time. Just before her eyes met mine, she noticed him.

“Why is he on the floor?” she asked.

Raheem pried his eyes open. His gaze traveled along Madam Charity’s full length. From the waist-length raven hair on her head, styled as a full fringe that made her Nicky Minaj’s twin, to the pair of suede matching her tucked-in purple long-sleeved shirt and the black skirt stopping just above her knee.

From the near-smile on his otherwise stony face, I concluded he liked what he saw. Who wouldn’t? I wouldn’t be surprised if rumors spread about Western High picking its female staff from beauty pageants.

Raheem looked up at me, his eyes accusing. Returning his gaze to his eye candy, he said, “She kicked me out of her seat.”

“Is this true?” Madam Charity’s scowl made my insides shrivel.

“There are twenty-nine other seats,” I said, scratching my itchy eyes. “I don’t see why this one is all hot cake. He could sit in front with Cyn like she offered. She’d be more than pleased to tolerate him.”

Madam Charity’s gaze returned to Raheem who now stood on his feet. Sensing her unvoiced suggestion, he said, “Hypermetropia.”

CHAPTER SEVEN

Allergy

“If you had a brain, even a pretty dull one, and obviously you don’t, you’d know that soft surfaces make the process ineffective.”

Just when I thought my life had gotten a tad better, I found myself in a whole new hell. From the moment Madam Charity intervened, I knew I had lost the battle. I would have to accept my fate as Raheem’s unwilling seatmate.

While everyone bought his Hypermetropia crap, I did not. And Amarachi’s ‘I-dont-buy-it’ look told me she seconded my belief that Raheem had made up this story. Would he not wear glasses if his story were true? Unless of course he wore contact lenses, which I doubted. He’d only made this up to taunt me.

I watched Madam Charity move around, gesticulating as she taught about poetic devices, but rage roared in my ears, tuning out her voice. I could only think of my current situation, a situation I would have to endure for the rest of my school year. Once assigned to our seats, we were not allowed to sit elsewhere unless our form teacher allowed it. The hopelessness of my new reality hit me like a blow.

I had scooted to the far end of the seat to create as much distance as possible between Raheem and I, but this didn’t bring me the security I craved. I lowered my gaze to my backpack sitting on my laps like a favored child. Thinking fast, I wedged it between Raheem and I. I knew the childishness in finding safety in the barricade the backpack built, but I couldn’t help it.

How would I cope with this? Amarachi and I had literally let a boy come between us. We’d sworn to never let this happen. I thought back to the small talks we’d had during class, the notes we exchanged, and every other thing we did. With Raheem between us, these were all things of the past. I missed them already. I missed my best friend.

She felt just as lonely as I felt. I could see it in the glum look in her otherwise sharp eyes, the look as though a part of her had been sucked out in a vacuum. Together, we had protested when Madam Charity asked Raheem to sit between us. When the finality of Madam Charity’s decision became clear to us, we’d asked her to have Raheem sit at the edge of our seat. But our offer had fallen on deaf ears. His smoldering presence between my bestfriend and I would be a constant reminder of our defeat.

If it depended on me, I would shut him out of my senses. I would make him invisible, pretend he didn’t exist. But his expensive perfume assaulted my nose with a tickling sensation, nauseating me, making me too aware of his presence.

Wrinkling my face, I scrunched up my nose, praying it would shove off the sick feeling. But it didn’t go away. If anything, my resistance made it all worse. Again, I scrunched up my nose.

Casually, I studied Amarachi and others close enough to share with me in this hell. They were in paradise, oblivious of my struggle to breathe. This perfume, from the depth of hell, had preyed on my rage.

A light bulb lit up inside my head. It all made sense. Yesterday, I hadn’t sneezed until my encounter with Raheem. It had to be his perfume. It no doubt contained one or two ingredients my system viewed as toxic. I had an allergy, and I never knew of it until this moment. This explained why nobody else seemed affected by the unbearably strong smell. Curse him and the stench of death he brought with him.

Now that I thought of it, I wished I had dumped snot all over his face when I had the chance. He deserved that and more for ruining the health I had managed just fine until he came along.

Digging into my backpack, I pulled out my neatly folded handkerchief. I gripped it, waiting upon a sneeze. And it didn’t disappoint. I pressed the handkerchief to my nose and cursed under my breath. I sneezed again. And again. Tears pooled around my itchy eyes. I blinked to keep from scratching them. It didn’t seem to work. I blinked again. Frantically.

Was it just me, or were Raheem’s eyes fixed on me? I didn’t look up to confirm.

“Vicky?” Amarachi called, her voice low.

I understood she meant to ask after my health. “I’ll survive.”

She gasped as I turned to look at her. Panic engulfed her at the sight of my red rimmed eyes. “Your eyes. Are you alright? Should I take you to the sickbay? Surely, your fairy godmother will know what to do.”

“It’s nothing.” I caught Raheem’s eye. He regarded me not with an everyday stare, but the stare a hunter would give a wounded animal just before picking it up, gutting it and hanging it just above a crackling fire.

I didn’t think he would speak to me. I didn’t even want him to. But then, his lips parted to give way to words. And in that moment, I let myself believe he would apologize for the inconvenience his perfume had caused me. I braced myself for what to say in response. Would I accept his apology or give him a taste of his own medicine?

“I asked around and you’re the class brain,” he said. “Tutor me.”

It took a moment for his words to register, and when they did, I scoffed. He’d asked around and found me to be the class brain. So what? I would never tutor him. Giving Madam Charity my undivided attention, I played deaf to Raheem’s order. How greatly he must think of himself to think he could order me like that. Tutor him?

An angry frown creased my forehead as he spoke again, “Do we have a deal?”

“Screw you!” I said, my voice louder than I had intended. Once again, eyes turned in my direction. Madam Charity headed for our seat. I fought to contain my rage.

“Why’s she crying?” I heard someone whisper. I heard other voices, but paid no attention.

Madam Charity panicked at the sight of my eyes. “What’s wrong with your eyes?”

“Irritation,” I said.

“Maybe there’s something in her eyes,” a girl said. She sounded genuinely concerned.

Madam Charity drew closer to me and held my face, tilting it up. She placed two fingers on my eyelids and pulled to have an undisturbed view of my eyes. Her eyes fished for any foreign body. “There’s nothing. Maybe sand got into your eyes. Think you can do us a favor and stop scratching?”

“Yeah, I can manage that,” I said.

That seemed to satisfy her. She turned to face Raheem. “Problems?”

Raheem stood up and raked his hand through his hair. “Actually, miss, there is a bit of a situation here.” Madam Charity folded her arms, wordlessly pledging her undivided attention to him.

“I’ve been thinking.” He paused. For a dramatic effect, he appeared to be thinking. “I’ve already missed like half the term. If I am to catch up, I need a tutor.”

Madam Charity nodded, totally understanding. “Yeah, you need someone to put you through. This is the best decision one in your situation could ever come up with. I was even going to suggest it to you.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah. So, do you have any special preference, or would you rather I nominated someone for you?”

“I already have someone to serve this special privilege, thank you,” Raheem said. “I asked around, and everyone recommended a certain Victoria Brown as first choice.”

“There she is, sitting to your right.” Beaming with pride, Madam Charity gripped my shoulder. “She’ll gladly do this.”

Raheem smirked. The victory in his eyes seemed to mock me. He had just accomplished his purpose, using our form teacher’s intervention to coerce me into accepting to tutor him. I would not let this be forced on me.

“I’m afraid I can’t tutor him,” I said, my voice loud and clear.

Raheem’s upturned lips told me he had seen this coming; the squirrel wiggling between the hunter’s trap moments before it gave in to death. In the blink of an eye, the once organized class morphed into a marketplace. Quite the expected reaction.

“Actually, she’s under the weather,” Amarachi stepped in to save me. “It just won’t be possible.”

“Cynthia will gladly put him through,” I said.

Awed into silence, Cynthia could only afford to gawk at me. She blinked. And blinked again. Her brain seemed to have a hard time processing that I had handed over Raheem to her. Precious nudged her with an elbow to fetch her attention.

“Oh, yes,” Cynthia jumped to her feet. She hyperventilated with sheer excitement. “Yes. I’ll gladly tutor him. What’ll give me more joy than helping a new student catch up?”

Madam Charity took a moment to weigh Cynthia’s motive. She seemed to be fine with it. “Very well then. Raheem, Cynthia will be your tutor. Are you okay with that?”

“I thought I made myself clear when I said I wanted the best,” Raheem said. “Is not the other girl the best?”

“Yes,” Madam Charity said. “She is, but—”

“Why then should I settle for less, good lady?” His eyes held all the innocence he could muster. But beneath it I could see flames of a fiery temper.

“I’m just as good!” Cynthia snapped. Frustration flitted across her face.

Raheem narrowed his eyes to slits. From the way he sized her up, I could almost swear he would reconsider. Cynthia had the looks to please the eyes and trouble the mind. Even an arrogant foreigner didn’t stand a chance to resist. Or so I thought.

“Really?” Raheem asked, his voice laced with mockery. “And she’s the one who passed the scholarship exam, yes?”

Too beat-up to speak, Cynthia settled back in her chair.

“We should have this conversation later,” Madam Charity suggested. Her tone held no room for negotiation. “Raheem, meet me once school is over and let’s sort this out.” She waited for Raheem to settle back in his seat before she resumed teaching.

She only had a few minutes before the bell rung, but every second seemed to drag on for an hour. One… Two… Three… I held my breath to escape Raheem’s perfume, the death agent from hell. I trained my eyes on Madam Charity as I counted. She might think I paid full attention, but a closer look would show my discomfort.

Forty… Forty-one… Feeling pressure around my throat, I rapped my fingertips on my desk in a quest to raise my tolerance level. I knew it would only be a moment before I sucked in the air Raheem had so carelessly contaminated.

At the sixtieth count, I gasped for air. I hadn’t intended for it to be so loud, but when Madam Charity’s teaching reached a sudden halt, and heads snapped in my direction, I knew I had failed. Greedily, I sucked in lungfuls of air.

Slamming my book shut, I dumped it in my backpack and rested my head on my desk for some shut eye.

I don’t know how long I slept, but when I pried my eyes open, I found Amarachi sitting beside me, right where Raheem had sat. Literature class had ended. Everyone had left for break, except us.

“I can’t stand the arrogance of that boy,” Amarachi whined. “Raheem or whatever he’s called. Son of the devil.”

Her last comment made my lips twitch. I raised myself to sit upright. “I can’t believe how long I slept.”

“I didn’t want to disturb you. You probably didn’t have any rest last night, thanks to you-know-who.” She gave me the walls-have-ears look.

“Let’s go grab some food,” I said, strapping on my backpack. My stomach rumbled in response.

“What’s with the bag?” Amarachi asked.

I shrugged. “Maybe I won’t be coming back after my meeting with Stella. Climbing these stairs again to fetch my bag would be tiring.”

On a normal day, our walk to the cafeteria would take no more than five minutes. But no thanks to my ill health, the walk lasted twice as long. Standing at the end of the lunch line, an urge to look around brought Raheem into my line of sight. At the far end of the hall, he sat, eating away at a snail’s pace, calm and unhurriedly as though he had all day.

A seductive mix of aromas wafted around the cafeteria, flirting with my nostrils. My stomach rumbled, reminding me of my duty to fill it. After having breakfast this morning, my ill health had forced them out through my mouth. I’d gone to see Stella before first period and she gave me an avomine tablet to chew before lunch time.

During our walk here, I’d tossed it into my mouth. Now, here I stood, confident that whatever I ate would remain in my breadbasket. Bless you, fairy godmother.

Done serving herself, a girl carried her food towards Raheem’s seat. Mary. I recognized her from science class. Although we never spoke, I could swear she had a fine personality and wouldn’t deserve Raheem’s untamed character. Hadn’t she heard about him? I’d thoughtveveryone would by now, considering how fast news spread.

Everyone—at least those who knew his arrogance—turned their heads to see his reaction. I did too. I wished I could reach out and warn Mary. Raheem’s lips moved as he lifted his eyes to acknowledge her presence. I wish I could hear what he said.

“Next!” The lunch girl’s voice returned my focus to the lunch line. I moved forward and grabbed my utensils. Fried rice looked good. Thanks to the deteriorating Nigerian economy, the cafeteria had only provided fried rice once in two weeks.

Towards the end of last term, our disgruntled sighs reached the director’s ears, prompting him into action. He had organized a meeting with parents, wards and staff, and they discussed ways to improve the school lunch. With a seven percent increase in our lunch allowance—and by extension our school fees—rice meals were prepared in abundance, and on a daily basis.

So far, every parent seemed fine with the increment in fees, no doubt seeing it as something ineluctable, something every school had to do to cope with the recession. Without this ineluctable increment in fees, schools would be at huge losses. Especially schools like ours that included food allowance, textbook allowance and other expenditure in the school fees.

Even with the seven percent increment, the fees remained affordable, at least compared to other schools paying over five million Naira tuition fee per annum, with some other additional fees like uniforms, books, feeding and the rest of them. And for this reason, Western High had more patronage than many of its contemporaries that saw extravagant fees as the order of the day. At one point six million per annum for day students and two point five million for boarding students, our fees covered tuition fee and every other fee. To top it all, we provided all the facilities the other schools provided. Thus, nature took its course, by way of parents flocking in with their children.

Our director had lived in Chicago, USA all his life. On his return, he’d set up this school, incorporating Western standards into the school system, hence the name Western High. With it he promised every child an opportunity of enjoying the American educational system from the comfort of our country. This won the hearts of many exclusively rich parents who could readily splash millions on their children. While most of them would love sending their children abroad to study, they didn’t want to have them ridiculously far away from home just yet. To bridge this gap, Mark Etto’s Western High came in.

I dished a generous quantity of rice onto my disposable lunch tray and scooped two spoonfuls of salad beside it. Grabbing an apple and a cup of chocolate and vanilla ice cream, I stepped aside to create room for the next person.

Joining me, Amarachi gestured to a vacant table. She’d settled for pizza, more pizza, more pizza and little bit of something else.

“Next!” the lunch girl called out. Feet shuffled behind us as students stepped in toward her.

“Can I join you guys?” Flora asked, a wavering smile on her face.

Amarachi and I smiled back. “Of course.”

Once settled in our chairs, we dug into our food. Every now and then, Flora and Amarachi would look over to Raheem and Mary. So far, nothing bad had happened. Engrossed in a conversation, they seemed to be getting along just fine, which struck me as weird. I’d thought Mr. Arrogant saw himself as too important to mingle with lowlife Blacks. Why then did he seem so comfortable with Mary?

“Think she’s his girlfriend?” Amarachi asked.

Flora sucked her coke noisily from her straw. She obviously didn’t want to start a conversation about him.

Amarachi waited till she set down her coke. “What do you think of him?”

“He’s human.” Flora grabbed her coke again, seeking escape. Her shyness always found a way to amuse me, but letting my amusement show would only make her uneasy. I tried not to look at her. I doubted she would properly bite down on her food before swallowing if she found me staring.

“And?” Amarachi pressed on, enjoying Flora’s uneasiness. “You don’t like him either, do you?”

“Amarachi, stop,” I chided. “This is her first time having lunch with us and you’re already scaring her off. He’s cute, but that doesn’t erase the fact that he’s the sickest bastard on planet earth. Sick with a capital letter ‘s’ and three letter ‘k’!”

Raheem looked up at me as though he had heard every word. Had he?

“She might be his girlfriend,” Flora said. With a shrug, she added, “I saw them yesterday.”

“Doing what?” Amarachi asked, eyes widening.

My eyes didn’t stray from Raheem. I would not be the first one to back out of the stare battle. Gawking at me with cold eyes, he spoke to Mary and she turned around.

“Look at him,” I told my crew. They complied at once, although Flora backed out almost immediately.

Amarachi and I continued to stare at them. “Think they’re talking about us?” she asked, chewing on her food.

“Damn them if they are,” I said.

Raheem spoke. Mary responded. Raheem shook his head as he spoke again. They seemed to be talking about us.

“Well, damn them,” Amarachi said.

Mary’s blank face brightened with excitement. A kind of ‘I’m dating the hottest, most popular guy in school’ excitement. Had it been anyone but Mary, I would believe it to be the motive behind her excitement.

She waved at us. We waved back and returned our attention to our table. “They sure are talking about us,” I said, gritting my teeth.

My eyes found Raheem again. I watched him and Mary vacate their seats. Once they caught me staring, Raheem held her hand, flaunting her. A smile lit up Mary’s face. Having him to herself while he made everyone else feel like shit sure placed her on cloud nine. Raheem smiled too. That gesture, simple as it looked, left me breathless. His conflicting personalities mesmerized me. While he had the face of an angel, he had a heart black as coal. I watched them exit the cafeteria.

“Don’t let him get under your skin,” Amarachi said.

“I hate him!” I dabbed my serviette on my lips and tossed it onto the plate Amarachi had helped me to empty. Picking up my apple, I bolted to my feet. “I better go now.”

“We’re coming along,” Amarachi said. She and Flora stood up simultaneously.

“Where are we going?” Flora asked.

“Sick bay,” Amarachi said.

Flora’s gaze darted between Amarachi and I. “Who is sick?”

The lost look on her face forced laughter to bubble within me. And while I fought to contain mine, Amarachi burst out laughing. “Vicky isn’t well.”

“Is it his perfume?” Flora asked innocently.

I nodded. “To an extent. How did you know?”

“Hunch.”

Now, Amarachi played the part of the clueless one. “What’s this about a perfume?”

“Raheem’s perfume,” I said. “I’m allergic to its ingredients.”

“Fragrance sensitivity,” Flora said.

Standing at akimbo, Amarachi shook her head, disbelieving. “Wow. We’ve been bestfriends for years and I didn’t know you’ve got allergies.”

“Such is life,” I said. We headed out of the cafeteria.

“You should tell Madam Charity,” Flora said.

Amarachi draped an arm over my shoulder. “She’s right. You know, this might just be a legitimate way to kick Rah’s pompous ass out of our seat.”

Taking a pack of orbit gum from her pocket, Flora popped one into her mouth. She passed it to Amarachi who did justice to it and passed it on to me. We remained silent for the rest of our walk.

While Amarachi followed me inside the sickbay, Flora just stood in the doorway. “Come in,” I said.

“I will just wait here.”

“You sure you don’t want to come in?” Stella asked, stretching her neck from behind the counter. “This might take some time.”

Tentatively, Flora stepped in and stood beside us. Gesturing for us to seat, Stella walked over to us. I noticed a neatly folded paper with her. “I picked up your test results.”

“How bad is it?” My voice betrayed me, baring my nerviness. My heart beat pulsated. I drew in a deep breath, willing away my fear, but it had other plans. Amarachi’s hand found mine. She squeezed gently, wordlessly assuring me of her support.

“Calm down. It’s malaria, as expected.” She presented the test result to Amarachi.

“There’s also typhoid,” Amarachi noted, staring at the result.

Walking to the counter, Stella crouched beside it and returned with two white bags, one of which sought to comfort me with it’s small size—at least when compared with the other. She raised the small bag. “This one contains all your drugs.”

She placed the bag on my lap. Inwardly, I cringed. A bag of medicine, all for me. My free hand flew to my neck. A bitter taste rose from the bag and settled on my tongue. I swallowed the invisible pill, a lump in my throat. I could still hear Stella talking about the drugs, but the words never made it to my ears. I could only think of the drugs. For the next few days, my life would be hell. I could only hope it didn’t extend to weeks.

“Are you even listening to me?” she asked.

“What’s in the other bag?” I asked, although I could already guess.

“IV drips.”

A lone tear glided down my cheek. Images of a needle piercing its way into my skin haunted me. I saw a second image—a bead of blood where the needle had been. I blinked back these images, but they didn’t go away.

“Isn’t there another way?” I said. “Can’t I skip the whole drip thingy? I mean…these drugs can single-handedly do the job, right? I promise I’ll take them according to prescription. I won’t take them on an empty stomach. Please. Just scratch the drip thingy, please.”

Wrapping an arm around me, Amarachi guided my head to her narrow shoulder. I sobbed hysterically. I couldn’t stand a needle piercing through me for a few seconds to draw blood. How then would I survive a needle being buried in my skin for hours? Wouldn’t it just keep burning the raw side of my skin the whole time?

“On a scale from 0 to 10, how instrumental is the drip to her recovery?” Amarachi asked, gently patting my head.

“It’s just as important as the pills,” Stella said.

“But…but,” I stuttered. “I don’t even feel too sick. Isn’t drip for someone who’s confined to a sickbed?”

When Stella didn’t respond, I went on, “But this is about my health. Shouldn’t I be the one deciding the nature of my treatment?”

Flora patted my arm. “It can’t be that bad.”

“You don’t understand!” I yelled.

“Vicky, Vicky, Vicky,” Stella called, her voice sugar-coated. She plopped down on the bed opposite ours. “I thought we already got past this yesterday.”

“Sounds like there’s a story I don’t know of,” Amarachi said.

Placing the bag of drips beside her, Stella brought out a transparent bag of IV fluid, a syringe, a pair of sterile disposable gloves and other materials I didn’t want to know. “Yesterday wasn’t easy. She created a scene when the nurse approached her for the blood test. I had to step in and do the job myself. Don’t worry, Vicky. It won’t hurt.”

“That’s what you said yesterday.”

“Okay. Tell the truth. Did it hurt yesterday?”

I sniffed. Moments passed and I didn’t answer.

“You see,” Stella said. “You’re working yourself up over nothing. Let’s be honest here. Being nervous causes your veins to contract. And I’m sure you don’t want to know where vasoconstriction leads.”

I’d heard stories of needles snapping in constricted veins. My throat tightened at the thought of it, spreading a ghastly whiteness over my face.

This seemed to please Stella. “Yeah. You really don’t want to know.” To Flora, she said, “Fetch me my scissors, dear. It’s on the counter.”

Once Flora brought the scissors, Stella put on her sterile gloves and set to work. She cut off the tip of the tiny medicine bottle and inserted the syringe. Filling the syringe with the fluid in the bottle, she injected it into the IV fluid bag. She did other things I didn’t care to watch. “Take off your jacket,” she said. I did just so.

When she advanced to me, I knew the moment had arrived. Tears gathered in my eyes as I watched her roll up my sleeve. “Lie down.”

I complied, my throat heavy with grief. She sat beside me and took my hand in hers. While she searched for the right site to administer the IV, I prayed her search yielded no reward. But it did.

Her gaze lingered on the inner crook of my elbow. I shed a tear for my elbow and the rest of my body. “Ready?” she asked.

I shook my head.

“You really don’t have a choice now.”

“Sing me a song,” I said. “The song you sang at the hospital.” I didn’t want to look superstitious, but that song had washed away my fright.

And she sang, smiling at me the whole time. I felt the tightening of a tourniquet around my upper arm. Moving out of my line of sight, she pulled my hand above my head, and toward her — or in this case, to its death.

I tilted my head upward to watch. “Uh uh,” she said, her voice musical. Seething with frustration, I lowered my head. Soaking a piece of cotton wool in methylated spirit, she cleaned the administration site with it.

As she sang on, I let the beauty of the lyrics steal me over. It led me to a beautiful place, a place where I wouldn’t have to worry about needles and drugs and arrogant bastards. Someday, I would be in this beautiful place, leaving all my troubles far behind me. I would fly as high as my wings dared.

I felt a sting as the needle slid into my vein. “Ouch!” I cried.

Although the sting didn’t hurt half as bad as I’d thought it would, it still qualified as unpleasant.

Amarachi smiled at me. She brushed my hair with her palm. “There. All done.”

To secure the IV, Stella wrapped a tape around my elbow. Her voice dropped to a distant near-whisper as the song neared its end. I doubted I would be awake to hear the end of it.

The tourniquet loosened from my arm, but I barely paid any attention….

I didn’t realize I had fallen asleep. Not until my groggy eyes pried open, squinting as they adjusted to the sunlight peeking in through the blinds. Where was everyone? Flora and Amarachi had no doubt returned to class. And Stella?

The intravenous drip inserted into the vein on my elbow stung a little, bringing my attention to it. My gaze climbed up the plastic IV tubing till they settled on the elevated iron stand towering above me. It held the bag of fluid, now half-full, giving me a clue of how long I’d been asleep.

A rustle of paper alerted me as I moved my non-dominant hand. I raised it to my face. It held a message:

We didn’t want to disturb you when you dozed off. Your friends are in class. I’m having a short meeting with the principal. Will probably be back before you even notice am gone.

With Love From Your Fairy Godmother.

I smiled. Amarachi had obviously told her how she believed my life to resemble Cinderella’s. Once again, sleep tugged at me. I embraced its invitation. Sleeping my way through the whole thing would be more fun than just laying in bed, watching lazy drops of fluid slide down the tubing one by one.

I let my drooping eyes close.

The door flew open, its roughness yanking sleep off me. Stella would never throw open the door like that. Not unless the building was ablaze.

“Back off!” It stunned me to hear Raheem’s voice. What was he doing here?

I shifted in bed until I had full view of him as he trudged into the room, carrying an immobile girl in his arms. Her hair dripped with water as though she’d been in a long shower. Her legs and hands hung limply. Her head dipped backward, baring a thin, vulnerable neck. A group of students trailed behind, hurling questions at Raheem.

“What happened?”

“Will she be alright?”

Raheem cursed under his breath and kicked the door, slamming it in their faces. Wedging his foot against the door, he slid a hand half-way from underneath the unconscious girl and locked the door.

“Nurse!” he called out, his eyes darting around the room. “Where’s the cursed nurse, damn it!”

Students crowded around the window, straining their necks to peek through the blinds. “What happened?” a girl asked.

“Nothing,” Raheem retorted. “Nothing that concerns you. Now get out of here. All of you! Move!” Placing the girl on the bed next to mine, he raked slender fingers through his disheveled hair. His panting told me he’d broken into a race to beat time.

“Where is the damned nurse, I said!”

Realization hit me as I stared at the girl. The innocent petite girl I’d bumped into outside the principal’s office.

“Doreen!” I gasped. “What happened to her?”

Raheem sized me up. His unimpressed gaze told me he would not speak to anyone but the nurse. But then he shrugged. “Swallowed water. Maybe there’s more, but we can’t know until she awakens. Now tell me where the damned nurse is!”

On impulse, I bolted upright in bed and yanked out the IV drip. Luckily, I knew some ways to help. I sprang to my feet. The room ran fierce circles around me as though I’d been spinning my life away. Slamming my eyes shut, I fought to steady myself.

Relief washed over me as control seeped back into my arms. The strange whoosh weaving its way around my head subsided just enough to bring my attention to the tightness of arms around my profusely perspiring body. I stiffened.

My eyes narrowed open and I stared into the face of my hero. He stared back at me. Had he not rushed to my side in time to slip his hands to my waist, I would be sprawled up on the floor.

“What the hell, girl!” Anger flashed in his eyes, but he didn’t turn them away from me. Neither did he let go of me. The close proximity of our faces made me shudder. “We already have one case here and you’re so desperate to add to it?”

“Get your hands off me,” I snapped. Splaying a palm on his chest, I made to shove him off, but he didn’t budge. His firmness told me the message he tried to pass across: that nobody pushed him around and he only acted on his own accord.

My head hadn’t stopped spinning, but I could manage just fine on my own. His clasp on me loosened. Disentangling myself from him, I staggered back and plopped down in bed, willing myself back to normal.

When his gaze lingered, my ire spiraled out of control, “What are you doing staring at me?”

“Figuring how I can help you. Why else would I look at you?”

“Who said I needed your help? Don’t help me! Help her!”

“Well, what am I to do?” he yelled. “The nurse isn’t here!” Again, he combed through his hair with his fingers. I figured it came naturally when he battled with nerviness.

“Call the principal. She’s with him.”

He pulled out his Smartphone. It had to be the iphone7 everyone held in ridiculously high esteem. Had to be. News had already spread high and low about him being the first to show off an iphone7 in school. I would never understand why a person would give out bundles of naira in exchange for an ordinary phone. Were there not less extravagant phones with good features in the market? Obviously, it all boiled down to prestige.

“Not available.” He groaned, slamming the phone into his open palm. Walking to the students crowding the window, he ordered, “Go fetch the nurse from the principal’s office. Run!” Feet shuffled as the students backed away from the window.

“We can’t wait before they arrive to help her,” I said. “I know a thing or two. Let’s get her on the floor.”

“Are you crazy? The floor is full of germs!”

“If you had a brain, even a pretty dull one, and obviously you don’t, you’d know that soft surfaces make the process ineffective.”

Raheem seemed genuinely clueless. “What process?”

“Are you going to help save a life or not?”

Arms folded, he pressed his lips together and watched me. It dawned on me that he wouldn’t be giving out his help. I wrapped my arms around Doreen and pulled her toward me, but found myself falling toward her instead.

“Will you just stand there?” I bellowed.

Hearing his footsteps approach, I stepped away and he brushed past me, gingerly sweeping her into his arms as though she weighed no more than a leaf. He set her down between the rows of bed.

Taking my mind back to movie scenes where drowning people—or people who swallowed water—had been rescued, I knew what to do. A mouth to mouth resuscitation had to be it. I sank to my knees beside Doreen and undid the buttons on her waistcoat. Pulling at her tie, I let it sag.

I turned her head to the side. When I looked into her face, I found beauty. Not the regular beauty, but one reminding me of sleeping beauty. After allowing water drain from her mouth and nose, I slowly returned her head to the center.

Raheem’s quietness almost made me forget his presence. I splayed my hands on Doreen’s chest and pressed down rhythmically. Her nose and mouth spurted water. She remained motionless. “C’mon, please. Breathe.”

I continued pressing down on her chest. Pinching her nose, I lowered my face to hers, pumping strong breaths into her mouth. Western High would not lose another student. We would not lose her. I started to breathe into her again. Once. Twice. Thrice.

The door handle turned downwards as someone tried to open it from the other side. A knock followed. “Open up,” Stella said.

“That’s the nurse?” Raheem asked. I nodded, but he’d already opened the door. Stella rushed to my side. Sir Amadi stepped in after her.

“Let me take it from here,” she said.

Just as I withdrew my hands, Doreen jerked, letting out a strangled gasp. Her eyes flew open. A nervous laugh escaped my lips. Coming out in ragged bursts, it sounded weird in my own ears.

“You made it!” Grinning, I looked over to Raheem, Stella and Sir Amadi. Their joy mirrored mine.

With one swift, robotic move, Doreen raised herself to sit. Her lifeless gaze peeled its way into the wall across from her. My brows furrowed at her reaction. I had expected a smile, or just about anything to express her delight in escaping death. But she burst into tears, banishing the smile from my face.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

She said nothing.

Stella gently shook her. “Tell us what’s wrong. Are you hurt?” She searched Doreen’s body, but found no visible sign of pain.

Doreen’s gaze stayed fixated on the walls. Although I knew I’d find nothing but blue paint, I followed her gaze. I looked back at Doreen and her cry rose like wildfire, piercing my eardrums. With every breath she took, her chest rose and fell like she would fall into a seizure.

Hysterically, she clapped her palms over her mouth to stifle her cry.

“Doreen?”

With wide eyes casting a distant look on the walls, and her face drained out of color, she looked like she’d seen a ghost.

“She’s real!” she cried, turning to face me.

Her hands reached out and grabbed mine at the wrists, the suddenness causing my heart to lurch. The look in her eyes sent a sudden chill enveloping me. I would wrap my arms around myself if she didn’t have them in a death grip as though without gripping me painfully tight she would not find the words to say.

“She’s real! She tried to kill me—”

Frantically, her fingers flew from my hands to her neck. They stretched around it, giving me the idea that whoever tried to kill her had wrung her neck. My eyes held Stella’s for a second. She nodded, getting the message.

Moments passed and I waited for someone else to try squeezing the answer out of Doreen. But everyone held back. I could tell they wanted me to carry on.

I cleared my throat and opened my mouth to speak, but Doreen cut me off. “I swear I’m not making this up. She was there. There was a presence.”

“Please calm down,” I said, my voice laced with a totally unscheduled fear. My gaze flitted to Sir Amadi, and then to Raheem and Stella, wordlessly begging them to help calm her down.

Raheem crouched beside her. “What did you see?”

Crying harder, Doreen threw herself at Raheem in a desperate embrace. Raheem blinked, knocked off balance by the impact. Uncertainty clouded his features. Sir Amadi held out a hand, wordlessly ordering him not to shove her off.

“What’s your name?” Raheem said, his voice dropping to a whisper. His hand patted her back like a father would a child.

Doreen sniffed. “Doreen.”

“Doreen. Please, have no fear. Whatever tried to hurt you is gone now. I’m here. We are all here. And you are safe. But we need you to tell us what you saw.”

“She’s no human,” Doreen said. She looked up at Raheem’s face. “She doesn’t have a face. It’s all hair. Long, black hair where her face should be. And she…and she attacked me because I saw her.”

A chill slid down my spine. We had a potential murderer amongst us.

“Damn it, girl!” Raheem snapped. Seething, he detached himself from her and stood up. “Are you telling us or not? Tell us who attacked you or we are filing this as a suicide attempt!”

Doreen swallowed. “Bloody Miri.”

CHAPTER EIGHT

Sleuthing

“The sooner we find out whoever tried to kill her, the better.”

I didn’t buy the Bloody Miri story. My heart reached out to Stella. How would she feel about people making a game out of her sister’s death? Bloody Miri had been going on for years, but with what happened yesterday, Stella’s scars would open anew.

We had a murderer amongst us, or at least one capable of it, and until we unmasked her, we stood the risk of being attacked. Each and every one of us.

Our driver pulled up in the parking lot, where barely a dozen cars had taken their parking spots. Once Cynthia and I stepped out of the car, he swung back in reverse and zoomed out of sight. While Cynthia headed for class, I lingered in the lot, distracting myself with a glossy-black power bike. I wanted her ahead of me, breathing in fresh air that didn’t have my breath contaminating it. She mounted the stairs, out of my line of sight. I followed at a snail’s pace.

Two pairs of eyes looked up at me as I stood in the doorway of my classroom. Confidence and Adamu — the last people I wanted to see at the moment. Sat together, Confidence scribbled in her note while Adamu punched the keys on his calculator. They seemed to be solving a math problem. But with a slut like her and a jerk like him, nothing good could come out.

Turning on my heels, I made to leave, when I heard Adamu snort.

“Hey, come put us through—” I walked away, letting Confidence’s voice trail off. I wouldn’t want to start my day in their company. Not unless I planned to ruin it before it even began.

The corridor seemed good enough for some quality me-time. Perching my feet beside the classroom’s exterior wall, I rested my hands on the parapet, breathing in the cool morning breeze. Cars and students streaked in through the gate. Once in ten minutes, the shuffling of feet would steal away my attention. I’d turn around, hoping to find Amarachi or Flora, but would find some jerk I didn’t even want to waste my voice on in the name of ‘good morning.’ So I’d just nod at them and look away.

Once again, my thoughts settled on Doreen and her tale of Bloody Miri. Everything about it just sounded surreal. Impossible. I shook my head. No way in hell would I believe this. For twenty-one whole years, this game had been going on. What did Miriam’s so-called ghost see in 2017 that forced her out of hiding, answering the call she’d ignored all these years?

What if Doreen had fabricated that story in an attempt to cover up for her attacker because exposing her came with a price? Either that, or she’d tried to kill herself. Or maybe that had been one episode of a madness to come, and many would come where that came from. But Bloody Miri? Bloody hell.

Doreen didn’t strike me as a crazy one though. Without a second thought, I ruled out the third possibility, leaving me with just two. I thought back to the second. Suicide.

She didn’t strike me as one who would try to kill herself. Like every other kid in our school, she came from an affluent family, so in the area of material possession, she had close to everything she could ever need.

Why then would she try to kill herself? Suicide attempts mostly stemmed from depression and a very chronic loathing of one’s self. I tried to figure out the possible triggers of depression. For an adult, the list contained unemployment, divorce, unable to find a mate, and a number of other triggers. But for a teenage girl, I could only think of a few.

Perhaps she’d been bullied and decided to end it all? Although bullying ended a few years back, thanks to Sir Amadi’s drastic measures, it wouldn’t be wise to rule out the possibility just yet.

I moved on to the next possible trigger. Perhaps she did not receive much attention from her family and thought it best to escape to a better place?

A more troubling question took dwelling in my mind. What if she had a boyfriend and he had expressed an unchanging desire to leave her, perhaps for another? In that case, wouldn’t she take out her aggression on the boy himself, or perhaps on the other girl? What if it happened the other way around, with Doreen as the other girl, and the ex-girlfriend of the boy in question had taken out her aggression on her?

“Do you believe the Bloody Mary shit?” I jumped at the sound of Raheem’s voice, and hit against the hardness of his chest, my head colliding with his mouth.

I hadn’t realized his presence, and that he stood this close behind me, barely leaving any distance between us. I could feel his steamy breath caress the soft, vulnerable skin of my neck, but it only lasted for a moment.

Raheem took a step back, feeling his lower lip with his fingers, but avoiding contact with the bead of blood resting on the spot where the metal edge of my hair packer had met his lips.

“Ouch,” he said, mocking the small injury he’d just sustained. Something like a tiny smile attempted to stretch his lips, but he fought hard against it.

“I’m sorry.” I bit my lips, hating that I’d just apologized to him. Even more, I hated that I’d put myself in this mess; in a position where I had to apologize to him. He swept his tongue along the fullness of his lips, licking off the blood. I looked away, trying not to dwell on his act which though simple and ordinary, turned my legs to butter.

“You won’t tell me this is what I get from sneaking up on you like that?” he asked, leaning against the parapet with his back and elbows. I shuddered at our close proximity and took one thoughtless step to the left, but with my side I bumped into the wall whose presence I had forgotten.

I would go to the other side of the parapet, but it would only make obvious my need to get away from Raheem. He chucked. A light, musical sound I never thought I’d hear firsthand.

Our meeting in the sickbay seemed to have changed him somehow. The Raheem I knew would never stand here with me, trying to engage me in a conversation. Somehow, he had cast his old self in the shadows. For a reason I dared not identify, this brought a smile to my lips.

“Many students are scared of the restroom now,” he said. “It’s crazy how they all believe the place is actually haunted.”

“Indeed.”

“Do you believe this Bloody Mary shit?” He lifted himself to sit on the parapet. My breath caught in my throat as an image of him tumbling over and falling many feet below flitted across my mind. Curse my fear of height. I could never sit on the parapet. And anyone who knew me knew better than to perform this stunt in front of me.

Ordering my mind away from Raheem’s fear-triggering seat, I returned his question. “Do you?”

“I thought when I added shit to Bloody Mary, my stand was already clear.” Silence crept in between us, punctuating his not-so-friendly response.

I could see the old Raheem crawl into the picture. In no time, he would take dominance. It seemed I wasn’t the only living with double personalities. Raheem shared this similarity.

“Doreen herself seemed pretty convinced that she’d been attacked by Bloody Miri,” I said.

“Mary,” Raheem corrected, slightly disgusted by my apparent inability to correctly pronounce ‘Mary’. How pathetic could his arrogance get?

The problem with people is that they believe they know it all when in reality they know nothing. Once, dad had told me that quote while driving home a lesson. And I loved these words. Not only because of the meaning they held, but because they had come out of dad’s mouth, woven in the richness of his deep voice. Now, though, watching these same words apply to Raheem made my appreciation soar even higher.

“It’s Miri. Short for Miriam.” The look of confusion on his face told me I had to explain. “Twenty-one years ago, we lost a student.”

Raheem nodded. “The nurse’s sister.”

My lips parted as I made to ask how he knew of Miriam’s relationship with Stella. But the question never made it past my lips. I only managed to breathe out an “Oh.”

“I read wide,” he said, answering my unasked question. “So let’s see… A certain Miriam dies, and students come up with a game taken after the popular Bloody Mary and name it Bloody Miri? How cliché.”

The bell for first period rung, freeing me from the not-so-severe hell I’d found myself in. I turned to leave, but his next words gripped me, making me stop dead in my tracks. “We will be meeting with Doreen during break. The sooner we find out whoever tried to kill her, the better.”

“Huh?” I mouthed. He had made plans with me and didn’t even give me an opportunity to accede or do otherwise? What gave him the impression I wanted to sleuth around with him in the first place?

“I don’t see myself doing this with anyone but you,” he said.

Anyone but you. Those words sank deep in my heart. I didn’t want to, but I found myself locking them away in a place safe enough for retrieval some time in the future.

“Take Cynthia,” I offered. “She’ll be thrilled to—”

“Don’t even mention her,” he said in a low growl. “It disgusts me how she thinks she can win me over. And sadly, many other girls think like that. Is that how little they think of me? A dog that can be bought with an emaciated bone?” Rue-cheerless and a mix of disgust stole him over. For the next few moments, he stayed quiet, clenching and unclenching his sculptured jaw.

Maybe I could lighten up the mood? “Well, there’s Mary.”

“Of course,” he said. “There’s good ol’ Mary. But was it Mary and I who stayed by Doreen’s side while we waited for the nurse to show up?”

Once again, silence ensued, splitting my eardrums with its deafening shriek.

Raheem broke the silence. “Look, I don’t know about you, but I’m keeping this in the dark from anyone else. At least till we see ourselves making progress. So, are we meeting during break? The sooner this takes off, the better.”

“I’ll..uh…think about it,” I found my self saying.

Raheem clicked his tongue. “This isn’t a date, Toria.”

Toria? As much as I loved the sound of my new nickname, I didn’t want to get used to it.

“Don’t call me that.”

In an attempt to elicit a similar response from him, I designed the prefect nick for him, “Rah.”

Raheem pursed his lips. “Don’t.”

Mission accomplished. “That settles it then.”

“Of course, Miss Brown.” With his words came a short-lived fluttery sensation in my stomach. No one had ever called me Miss Brown. No one but Raheem.

The smile on his face told me he knew of my emotional turmoil, and that he’d seen it coming. “Shall we seal the deal?”

Outstretching his right hand for a shake, two things sped into my focus. His well-trimmed nails. And the second, a memory. A memory of his hands ducking into his pockets when Cynthia had invited him for a handshake. It wouldn’t hurt to give him a taste of his own medicine, would it?

I looked away from his outstretched hand and folded my hands. Fist clenched, he withdrew his hand. “Some other time then, Miss Brown.”

Smirking, he headed for the classroom. Four girls waved at him. Standing outside the class, they’d been holding a meeting about God-knows-what. Looking straight ahead as though they didn’t exist, Raheem swaggered off into the class.

The girls turned to glare at me, apparently wondering what I’d done to make Raheem talk to me while he didn’t even know they existed. If they pushed aside their egos and approached me for help, I would give them the simple tip: help him revive an unconscious girl and he’ll love you forever.

With Raheem’s departure came a sudden realization. His coming had triggered no symptoms of my allergy. This only meant he had used a different cologne; one I actually found pleasing to my sense of smell. Had he realized my reaction to the other one? Had he come close to me only to test my reaction to his new spray?

Morning classes seemed to last for eons, building my anticipation for what recess would hold. Although, like Raheem said, this was no a date, I still couldn’t get past the fact that I would spend my recess with him, Raheem of all people, when I should be with my friends. What would Amarachi think of this?

Spotting Raheem’s figure just before he stepped into Doreen’s classroom. I trailed behind him. More than half of the class had gone for lunch, but the person we needed to see remained.

A girl sat beside her, engaging her in a conversation. Wrapping it up, the girl rose to her feet and sauntered out of the classroom, stopping only for a minute to trade hellos with Raheem and I.

Doreen stared out of the window, her eyes holding the same distant look she wore yesterday. She no doubt reminisced over her encounter with whoever had tried to kill her.

“Let me do most of the talking,” Raheem whispered as we walked to meet her. I let him walk one step ahead of me. Moments passed, and Doreen didn’t acknowledge our presence. Her eyes misted over and she swiped at them with her hands.

She gasped at the sight of us, as though she’d seen the so-called ghost a second time. I held my breath, praying she didn’t pass out and make this even harder.

Regaining composure, she greeted, “Hello.”

“Hello,” Raheem greeted back.

“How are you doing today?” I asked.

Again, Doreen stared out through the window. “I’m alright.” While her lips said one thing, her eyes said another.

“That’s a blessing,” I played along.

“You didn’t just come here to ask after my health, did you?” Doreen asked without turning to look at us.

“Actually, yeah,” Raheem said. “Tell us about the game. Bloody Mary.”

“Mary?” Doreen turned to look at him, her eyes holding a mix of horror and disappointment. “No. It’s Miri.”

I doubted Raheem had forgotten I corrected him barely four hours ago. Obviously he’d made the same mistake on purpose to gain Doreen’s attention. And so far, it worked.

He acted confused. If I didn’t know better I’d fall for it. “Miri?”

“You don’t know?” Doreen asked, her gaze darting between Raheem and I. When none of us spoke, she clarified, “In memory of Miriam Adewale, one of the founding students who unfortunately passed away, and then students came up with a game called Bloody Miri.”

“How’s it played?” Raheem asked. “Like Bloody Mary?”

Doreen nodded. “Standing in front of a mirror, you are to chant ‘Bloody Miri’ for as long as is needed.”

“And then?” Raheem asked.

“And then the attack,” Doreen said.

The attack. Here’s where the whole details laid. “How exactly did she attack you?” I chimed in.

“She covered my head with a dusty black bag and forced it into the water-filled sink.”

“The sink was already filled with water?” Raheem asked.

“Yes,” Doreen said. “One variant of Bloody Mary holds that the sound of water dripping from a tap was the last sound Mary heard. And so we incorporated it into our own game. One of the sinks was already half-filled with water when I arrived there, so I could tell the last person who Bloody Miried had also used the water approach. I moved on to the other sink, secured the drain and turned on the tap. I’d resolved to only stop when the sink was full. The other sinks had water as well. But I didn’t notice until I saw myself being dragged sink after sink.”

That must have been horrible. “Was that the only way she attacked you? Making you swallow water?”

“She wrung my neck. And I tried to fight back, but she kept slamming my head against the sink. That’s all I remember about the ghostly encounter. Next thing I know is me waking up on the sickbay floor.”

My mind conjured up an image of Doreen’s head slamming hard against the ceramic sink. I blinked, willing this bloodcurdling image out of my mind.

“It’s weird how you know the dangers involved in this game and yet you do it anyway,” Raheem said.

Doreen’s eyes dulled as she extended her lower lip. “I’ve never been one for that game.”

“So why did you do it?” Raheem stole my unasked question.

“I went to use the toilet, and I found a girl from class was there, Bloody Miring, but it didn’t work. And she seemed disappointed. Shaking her head, she said it was all crap, and then she left.”

“So you tried it,” I wrapped up the story.

Doreen looked away. No doubt, she had started to regret her decision to play the game. But game or no game, someone wanted her dead.

“So, about this class mate of yours who was Bloody Miring,” Raheem said, “I take it she was the last person to see you before the incident?”

Doreen fidgeted in her seat. This sent a warning bell going off in my head. If we didn’t slow down, we’d end up scaring her and she wouldn’t want us around her anymore. But Raheem didn’t seem to understand this. So much for letting him do the talking.

“Yes?” Raheem pressed on.

Doreen cleared her throat. “Yes.”

“What is her name?”

“Why are you asking me these questions?” She eyed us suspiciously. “Do you think someone tried to kill me?”

“Yes,” Raheem said. “Someone tried to kill you.” I shot him a warning look. I hadn’t expected him to be dead-honest. This could ruin everything.

“Not a human,” Doreen said, her voice rising to a near-scream. “A faceless ghost. A freaking ghost.”

Shivering, she hugged herself and swept frantic eyes around the classroom. “She could be anywhere. Miriam’s ghost came to hurt me because I disturbed it. And here you are trying to point fingers at some girl just because she happened to be at the scene during that period.”

“Please, calm down,” Raheem said. “We’re not pointing fingers at anyone or anything.”

“Then do you believe my story?” Doreen asked. She searched my eyes and Raheem’s for an answer, but she found no indication of us believing her story. “You think it’s all a lie, don’t you? You actually believe I’d make up something like this? What do I stand to gain, painting myself as the crazy one? That ghost is freaking real! You can go find out for yourselves if you don’t believe me.”

Just for the benefit of doubt, I could actually pay the crime scene a visit. Who knows what I could find.

“It’s not that we don’t believe you,” Raheem said. His face, just like mine, showed no conviction. I prayed Doreen didn’t think much of this. “Why, of course we do,” he added.

“Then why are you so interested in finding out about the last person who saw me before the incident?” Doreen retorted.

“We have some questions for her,” Raheem said. I cursed under my breath. The more straight-to-the-point answers he gave, the more untrusting Doreen would be. Didn’t he know this?

One moment, Doreen’s eyes widened, and the next, she narrowed them to slits. “Why? You think she tried to kill me?”

“Far from it,” Raheem said. “Since she was, as you said, Bloody Miring, we want to have a word with her to know if she had any encounter, whatsoever with the said ghost.”

“That won’t be necessary. I already told you hers was unsuccessful.” She relaxed her tensed muscles.

Leaning in to her, Raheem stared into her third eye. “There could be other things, Miss Chukwu, tiny details she didn’t tell you. But she’ll be willing to share with us. And perhaps we can stop this game and all its silliness. Everyone is scared. The whole school is shaken. We just want to end this game before anyone else gets hurt.”

Doreen thought about it for a moment. “Annabel Lambert.”

Raheem smiled. He leaned away from her. “Thank you. You’ve been much help.”

We turned to leave, but then he whirled around to ask a seemingly urgent question that had just occurred to him. “You wouldn’t happen to own a perfume called Tobacco Vanille by Tom Ford, would you?”

I cocked an eye at him. What did a perfume have to do with our crime solving?

“No, I don’t. I use Wild Urchid by Tom Ford and White Diamonds by Elizabeth Taylor. Why did you ask?”

Disappointment flitted across Raheem’s face but he tried to conceal it. “Nothing really. I just thought maybe you could refer me a place to purchase it.”

“No, sorry. You could place an order on Jumia or Konga. I’m sure they’ll have it.”

Raheem raked his fingers through his hair. He didn’t seem satisfied. “So, you don’t…happen to know anyone who uses this perfume? It opens with rather strong tobacco notes that fade to more vanilla, a hint of spice, and less tobacco. The tobacco note doesn’t quite fade. It’s still around, lingering somewhere in the middle.”

“Isn’t that a male perfume?” I wondered aloud.

“I know someone,” a girl said from behind us. We turned around and found the girl who’d been in a conversation with Doreen. Walking past us, she placed shortbread and coke on Doreen’s desk.

“Thanks,” Doreen said. “But really, you didn’t have to get me anything. I’m not even hungry.”

“Oh, shush.” The girl waved off Doreen’s comment with a backward flip of her hand. Catching Raheem staring at her, she beamed at him.

“Hi,” Raheem said, reaching out for a handshake. “I’m Raheem.”

“Nengi.” She tried to hide her blush as their hands met. Typical. Girls—with me as the only exception—would always be girls. “We already said our hellos.”

“Oh, yeah,” Raheem agreed. “So where were we? You said you know someone who can direct me to a shop where I can find this particular perfume?”

“Yeah. Tobacco notes, right?” When Raheem nodded, she went on, “There’s one girl in our class who’s crazy over it. I guess she’s the only one using it, so you can always ask her. It’s weird though. Considering that it’s all masculine and stuff with the tobacco notes and all, and the market is littered with varieties of softer, more fruity perfumes that appeal to us females.”

“What is her name?” Raheem asked.

“Annabel Lambert.”

Simultaneously, Raheem and I glanced at each other. Annabel’s being the last person to see Doreen before the incident made her our number one lead. But what did a perfume have to do with anything?

“Dory dear,” Nengi said. “You’re forgetting Sir Amadi asked you to come over once the bell rung for break.”

“Ugh!” Doreen groaned.

“Just go see what he wants.”

“I know he only wants to question me about yesterday’s event. How many times am I going to tell them I was attacked by a ghost! The school is haunted. But the adults don’t seem to believe me. They think I’ve lost my mind. But you believe me, don’t you, Nengi? I mean, even if the whole world doesn’t, you’ll always believe me, won’t you?”

Nengi placed a supportive hand on Doreen’s shoulder, but she didn’t express her support in words. Once again, Raheem and I exchanged knowing stares. Nengi had a hard time believing her friend’s story.

Perhaps we could have a word with her. Since she probably didn’t believe the ghost story, interrogating her would be more rewarding that the session we’d conducted with Doreen. We could ask her some questions we would never be able to ask Doreen based on her stand on the matter.

“Maxwell also has faith in your story,” Nengi said with a smile.

Doreen grimaced at the mention of Maxwell’s name. But she didn’t speak of it. “Will you come with me?”

“I have to stay back and complete your Biology note,” Nengi said. “Break is almost over, and you know Madam Pamela will mark notes today.”

“Oh, right.” Securing her biscuit and coke in her locker, she said, “I won’t take long.”

“Okay.”

Doreen made to leave, but then she grimaced at Nengi. “Where’s one of your earrings?”

Nengi’s hand flew to her left ear. She felt around for her earring and found it. Slowly, she moved her hand to her other ear. Finding nothing, she gasped.

“Just take off the other one and find yourself new earrings,” Doreen suggested. Without waiting for Nengi’s response, she walked out of the class.

At once, Raheem engaged Nengi in a conversation. “It must be really hard for her.”

“Pardon?” Her face looked like someone had just died.

Why would someone grieve over a missing earring? Probably, it must have cost a lot. But whatever. She needed to get over her loss, find herself some new earrings and move on. How hard could that be?

“I mean, after yesterday’s incident, the whole school must feel really creepy,” Raheem explained. “But she’s managed to put herself together and be around all the same.”

Nengi sighed. “Yeah. I’m creeped out too. It was all so unexpected. Once the bell rung for break, she went to have lunch, and a few minutes later, news reached me. We’re bestfriends, we’re always together. And just this once we weren’t, look what happened. I should have gone with her, but I had to remain in class to do my technical drawing assignment. Perhaps if I were there with her, none of this would have happened. I feel so guilty right now.”

“I understand how you feel, but don’t blame yourself so much. There’s nothing you can do about it now. It’s happened, and no amount of pity-party can change that. You do well to keep this in mind. Besides, I doubt you’d have been able to fight the ghost if you’d been there.”

“Faceless ghost?” Nengi scoffed. She looked around, and although everyone else had vacated the class, she dropped her voice to a whisper, “Just between us, I don’t believe in the so-called ghost. I mean, Miriam’s been dead for what, twenty-one years, and this game has been played ever since, but not even for once has she hurt anyone or even been seen. So why should now be any different?”

“Valid question,” Raheem remarked, perching on the desk. I remained standing. “So you think someone attacked her? Someone from our school?”

“That’s the only logical explanation, isn’t it?” Nengi held a stiff smile.

“I believe so,” Raheem said.

“But who would want to do this? Dory is a very innocent soul. She never offends anyone. She stays away from fights and every trace of trouble. I don’t see her having an enemy. Why would anyone want to kill her?”

I wish I knew. “That’s why we need your help. You’re her best friend. You should know one or two things that could point us in the right direction.”

Nengi nodded, seeming to understand.

“Has anyone made any threats to harm her?” Raheem asked.

“None that I know of,” Nengi said.

Searching her eyes, Raheem willed her to think deeply about his question. “Are you sure?”

Perhaps I could make this easier. “You mentioned Maxwell. Were you referring to the guy in my class?”

Nengi looked from Raheem to me. “That’s the one.”

Raheem nodded, willing me to go on. Although the next question on my mind sank down into privacy, I had to ask. I hoped Nengi understood. I doubted Doreen would like it one bit if she heard of this conversation. But who said she had to know? What you never know can’t hurt you. And besides, we did this for her.

“Is he in a relationship with her?” I forced out the words.

It took a moment for an answer to come. “No. Dory’s single, at least for the most part.”

“Care to clarify your last sentence?” Raheem asked. “Single for the most part? What does that imply?”

“Maxwell’s been showing some kind of interest in her. I don’t know what it is, but they’re getting pretty close. The texts, small talks and all. If he didn’t have a girlfriend I’d say he’s got a thing for my friend.”

“This girlfriend of his, who is she?” Although I’d seen Max with a certain junior on more than one occasion, I had to ask. I didn’t want to reach my own conclusion.

“Annabel Lambert,” she blurted out. Once the words left her lips, she gasped. She clapped her hands over her lips and gulped as though to swallow back her words. “Oh my God. Do you mean Annabel has a hand in whatever happened to Dory?”

“Please calm down,” Raheem said. “We haven’t reached any conclusions yet. We are just trying to connect the dots and see where it leads us.”

“Will you find the culprit?”

“Of course.” The look in Raheem’s eyes told me we were done questioning Nengi. But then, another question popped up in his head. “Uhm, Nengi?”

“Yeah?”

“Did you ever visit the restroom yesterday?”

“No,” she blurted out. “I told you I stayed back in class to do my technical drawing assignment. And even if I had plans to visit it later, what happened to Dory ruined it all.”

CHAPTER NINE

Suspect

“All we have now is a suspect and a motive, and this just won’t do.”

Shooting Raheem a side glance, I opened my mouth to ask a question that had been bugging me since our discussion with Doreen. But when the words didn’t come out, I shut my mouth just like I’d done a few other times.

Raheem apparently saw his question about the Tobacco Vanille perfume as instrumental in solving this case. But I couldn’t see the connection. I’d tried so hard to figure out the answer on my own, but with every attempt I made, success slithered from my grasp.

“What’s it with Tobacco Vanille?” I asked.

Raheem smirked. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

“Huh?” I asked, totally lost. “What?”

“I could tell from the start that you had a hard time connecting the dots between TV and the murder attempt.”

“TV?” Whoever said anything about a television?

I waited for Raheem’s response but it never came. He just stared at me as though expecting me to figure it out on my own. And then it hit me. TV stood for the perfume in question.

“Oh,” I said.

Raheem faked a yawn. “Do you still need a dictionary, Miss Brown?”

I scowled at him. “Will you answer my question or not?”

“What was it again?” he asked. A cold silence from me told him I didn’t buy his silliness. “We can say I’m a perfume person. I’ve used varieties of them in my search for the perfect one. Even with the faintest of whiffs, I could recognize a perfume as long as it’s within the range of the ones I’ve tried. And now, look how this skill comes in pretty handy.”

I didn’t see how this connected to the case. But I listened on. “When I went in to save Doreen—”

I would ask how he ended up in the ladies’ restroom, but he’d already told us yesterday. He mentioned finding the door open, and seeing a pair of legs laying supine. Alerted, he had burst into the room, only to find the unconscious girl.

He continued, “I caught a very strong whiff of a perfume I knew to be TV. I could even recognize it in a dream.”

“Nengi said that Annabel uses the perfume,” I reminded him. “And she was in the restroom before Doreen, so it’s only natural that the smell of her perfume lingered.”

“Of course, Miss Brown. That explains the first scenario. But what gives out the second?”

Standing outside the cafeteria and engrossed in a conversation that only us could hear, we had become everyone’s eye candy. But Raheem didn’t seem to mind. And at this point I didn’t either. Rumors would rise. Faces of girls would redden with envy.

I snapped back into focus. “What other scenario?”

“Doreen was bathed in the very same perfume, which would be highly improbable—”

I connected the dots. “Unless she was attacked by the very same person who used the perfume and had probably reapplied it during recess.” This made sense. And it scared me.

Every angle pointed at Annabel. We would be going to interrogate the culprit. What if she already saw us as a threat? What if she already had plans to get rid of anyone who saw past the Bloody Miri story?

“So…Annabel is our girl?” I needed to confirm this, to hear it directly from Raheem, the master sleuth.

Raheem shrugged. “What can I say? Let’s see how our meeting with her turns out.”

“Isn’t it crystal clear already?” I freaked out. “Can’t we just call the cops at this point? I mean…we have a suspect now, and there’s a motive. We should just hand over and let the cops do their thing.”

“And where’s your evidence to back this up, Miss Brown?”

I grimaced at the many butterflies doing flip flops in my stomach. Something about the way he pronounced Miss Brown made me feel special, as though I had a place in this world. And I couldn’t get past it. With a mental kick, I cleared my head of this distraction. I had ample time to deal with the unfamiliar craziness inside of me. But now, I needed to concentrate, not on the face before me, but on the case. No pun intended.

“We have a suspect and a motive,” I repeated, just to make this point clear. “Surely, the cops will look into this when we table it before them.”

He clicked his tongue. “It just won’t do. There’s got to be evidence before we hand this over. If you’re backing out now, I understand.”

Just this morning he had come ask me to be his sidekick. And now, barely even four hours later, he tried to lay me off? “Who said anything about backing out?”

Raheem opened his mouth to speak, but Mary’s voice cut him off. “There you are! I’ve been looking all around for you. Looks like you’re finally having a good time.”

Her eyes met mine. “Oh. You’re with her?”

“Yes,” Raheem said.

“In fifteen minutes or less, break will be over,” Mary said. “We should go grab some food.”

“Actually, we have other plans.” In a desperate attempt to escape Mary, he wrapped his hands around mine.

Everything fell apart. Something just didn’t feel right inside of me. If only he knew the chaos his little gesture had thrown my heart into. Amidst the chaos, I felt an electrical force surge through me. Not the kind inflicting pain. This brought with it a whole new feeling, one that left me part vulnerable, part wistful.

I didn’t want this. I didn’t want Raheem to be a part of my life, and I didn’t want to get used to these colorful bursts of emotions he brought with him. I made a mental note that once we brought Doreen’s attacker to justice, I would break off all contacts with him. He no doubt had similar plans, so this should be a piece of cake.

“I guess I’ll see you around then,” Mary said. Winking at Raheem, she walked away.

“Your girlfriend must have the wrong impression,” I said, pulling my hand away from Raheem’s.

He didn’t look impressed. This didn’t come as a surprise. I never impressed people. I depressed them. Pity, he hadn’t been warned beforehand.

“She’s my cousin,” he said.

His cousin? Awed into silence, I gaped at him. Barely giving me a flicker of a moment to assimilate this new information, he disappeared into the cafeteria. I dragged myself behind him.

Standing beside him by the door, my eyes hovered around the room in search of Annabel. But instead, they found the table where Amarachi and Flora were sat. Needing a moment with them, I made my way down rows of tables and joined my friends at their table.

I smiled. “Hey.”

They’d already finished eating, but for some reason they chose to remain seated here.

Amarachi didn’t smile back. “You sneak off immediately the bell for recess goes off. And then a few minutes before it’s all over, you show up and think it’s funny. Where have you been? We even checked the sickbay.”

“Sorry,” I said. “I had things to take care of.”

“I see.” Amarachi looked over my shoulder. Although I didn’t turn to follow her gaze, I knew she stared at Raheem. “I saw you two walk in together. What’s this about? You ditched us for him?”

“I wish I could stay and talk, but I’m on an assignment.”

“An assignment?” Amarachi echoed, regarding me with a fishy look in her eyes. “What subject is that?”

Flora entertained herself with stealing glances at Raheem. “Is he waiting for you?”

“What is going on?” Amarachi asked, her voice tense. “Why is he waiting for you?”

I would have to tell them the whole truth. Only then would they leave me to go after Annabel Grant. Sat two tables away, she enjoyed the company of Maxwell and three others I didn’t care to identify. She rocked her head back and forth, laughing along with the others, obviously enjoying a joke.

Turning to face the wide, eager eyes of my friends, I decided to tell them the whole truth. If I remembered correctly, Raheem hadn’t asked me to keep this a secret. He’d only told me he would, and had indirectly suggested that I did too. But that wouldn’t be enough to seal my lips. In future, if he needed me to do anything, he’d have to be more direct.

“Raheem and I believe someone tried to kill Doreen,” I said. “We’ve been sleuthing around.”

“Oh heavens,” Amarachi gasped.

“Is there any success?” Flora asked.

My gaze wandered to Annabel. “We’re close. We want to have a word with Annabel.”

I kept staring at Annabel. Following my gaze, Amarachi said, “You think she did it?”

“Raheem says not to point fingers yet,” I said, more to myself.

“Please be careful,” Flora said.

I nodded.

Amarachi placed her hands on mine. “Be careful.”

“I will.”

“But seriously, I don’t get why you’re doing this,” Amarachi said, withdrawing her hands. “Are you even thinking of yourself? You’re not well. If he wants to be Sherlock Holmes, then let him. But do you have to be his sidekick? You are not well. You don’t have to help him with this.”

“No, you don’t get it,” I said. “You make it sound like he’s forcing me to do this.”

“Well, isn’t that what it is?” she asked.

“No! I’m doing this because I want to.” She didn’t seem to believe me. “Look, if we don’t catch the sicko who attacked Doreen, she might attack someone else. And even if she doesn’t intend to harm anyone else, it isn’t right to leave a criminal unpunished. Justice must be served.”

“Since when did you become a police officer?” Amarachi asked. “Vicky, you’re taking a risk. Do you know this? Do you know what happens if the culprit finds out you’re close to catching her? Do you know the sick things she’ll do to keep her sins in the dark? You have no idea, do you?”

I did have an idea. But I didn’t want to think of it. Thinking of how things might go wrong would only end up poisoning my mind. “Nothing will go wrong,” I assured, swallowing down a surge of fear.

“Why won’t you just hand it over to the police?” Flora asked. “They’ll know what to do.”

Gathering the response Raheem gave when I’d asked a similar question, I presented it in my own words, “Once we have evidence, we’ll hand it over to the police. All we have now is a suspect and a motive, and this just won’t do.”

“So, you’re spending time with Raheem in the name of solving a case?” Amarachi asked. “What will his girlfriend think?”

“Mary is his cousin,” I said.

Amarachi waved off my words. “Whatever just be careful. I’m just creeped out. Really creeped out about you nosing around a potential murderer.”

“I know.”

“Hell! I don’t even know why I’m allowing this. I don’t even trust you being with that arrogant son of the devil to start with.”

Yesterday I’d been thrilled to hear her call him that. But now, those words made me cringe. How would Raheem feel about being given a title as hellish as this?

“He’s changed,” I defended.

“You have a murderer to catch,” she said.

There. My cue to leave. I walked over to the table of interest and five pairs of eyes looked up at me. I could feel additional three pairs burn into me from behind. While Flora and Amarachi watched me with care in their eyes, Raheem’s eyes burned with impatience.

I stared at Maxwell for a second too long, the slightly chubby boy who’d driven Annabel to madness. He didn’t even have an exceptional look. What about him drove Annabel so crazy that she’d tried to kill someone just to have him for herself? Did he even know his crazy, jealous girlfriend had tried to kill someone? Although Raheem said not to point fingers, I couldn’t help but tag Annabel as a murderer.

Locking eyes with her turned my stomach to ice, but I dismissed this feeling. “Come with me,” I said.

I turned away from her and raised my eyes to the door, but Raheem had shifted position. Sat at a table and indulging in the lunch set before him, he waved me over.

Flora and Amarachi watched me walk over to him. I tried not to look at them. My stomach grumbled at the sight of lunch served on the table. A can of coke towered over my lunch tray which contained a slightly miniature meat pie laying seductively in one compartment, chicken and chips littering two other compartments, and omelet in another.

“This kitchen makes good meat pie,” Raheem said, chewing on his food in a way that made me grab mine. The contents of his lunch tray could pass for an exact replica of mine, save for some cookies, a very leafy meal, and a cup of milk by the side.

Halfway into my food, I groped for my manners. I must have dropped them somewhere. “Thank you.”

Raheem nodded, training his eyes on Annabel as she advanced to us. The swishing of her skirt. The lightness of her footsteps. The graceful swing of her hands. While on the outside she appeared to be ordinary, but the inside of her told an entirely different story. How could a vile creature act so ordinary, fooling everyone into seeing a cute little girl where a monster should be?

My muscles tensed. I knew I would mess things up if I tried to talk, so I trusted Raheem to do the talking.

“Please sit,” he said.

The beautiful monster complied without a word. Interlacing her fingers, she let her gaze roam the distance between Raheem and I. Moments passed and she still didn’t say a word. Did she know why we’d summoned her?

Why hadn’t Raheem spoken yet? He had his eyes fixed on her as though he were gazing at a vulnerable lab rat, not a vicious viper that could strike at any moment.

Finally, she spoke. “You’re the new senior.”

“I am,” Raheem said. “My name is Raheem.”

“I’m Annabel.” She turned to look at me. I caught a rather faint whiff of the perfume Raheem had mentioned. More vanilla, less tobacco.

“Victoria,” I introduced.

Annabel smiled. Not a heartless killer kind of smile, but a friendly girl’s. “I know who you are.”

Flashing her a stern smile, I emptied my can and leaned back in my chair, waiting for the interrogation to begin.

“I understand you were the last person to see Doreen before yesterday’s incident,” Raheem said.

Annabel gulped, holding her hands together on the table. Her face paled. She hadn’t seen this question coming. I could tell though, she knew where we were headed. “Yes. But…but…why?”

“Doreen was attacked, and the culprit hides behind the Bloody Miri story,” Raheem explained.

Annabel fidgeted uneasily. So much for an act. She could fool anyone. “I don’t have anything to do with this, I swear. I mean…you’re…you’ve obviously got the wrong person.”

“Please calm down.” Seemingly alarmed by the girl’s panic, Raheem held up his hands. “We aren’t saying you have anything to do with it. You don’t have to be scared. Not unless there’s something to hide. We just need to ask you a few questions.”

Annabel nodded.

“Are you okay now?” Raheem asked. “We’re sorry for the inconvenience, but this is all procedure.”

“I understand.”

“Was there anyone else when you visited the restroom?”

“Just me. Until Doreen walked in.”

“We need as much details as you can give,” I said. Hopefully, there would be a loophole in Annabel’s story. If we needed more facts to show we were on the right track, that would be it. “What were you doing when she walked in?”

Annabel looked down in shame. “I was standing in front of the mirrors, chanting Bloody Miri. I filled a sink with water and kept calling her, but I guess she was too busy to answer my call, or I was too impatient to keep trying, So I just got frustrated and left.”

“Was there anything fishy?” Raheem asked. “Anything at all?”

“No.”

“Did you see anyone walk into the restroom while you were leaving?” I asked.

“No.”

She thought for a moment, and then her eyes went round with shuddering fear. “Someone was probably in one of the stalls.”

Raheem and I communicated with our eyes. This piece of information could lead us to solving this mystery. “I remember hearing something.”

“What did you hear?” I asked.

“I heard something clink. A kind of sound as though something clinked against, you know, ceramic.”

Raheem stiffened in his seat. “Do you remember anything else?”

Annabel shook her head. “No. Do you have any more questions?”

I looked back to where Annabel had been before we summoned her. I caught Maxwell staring. “You’re Maxwell’s girlfriend?”

“Yes.”

“How did you react to the texts he sent Doreen?”

Annabel grimaced. “How would you react to your boyfriend texting another girl just as much as he texted you?”

I shrugged. “I wouldn’t know. I’ve never had a boyfriend.”

“I was jealous at first,” Annabel confessed.

“Only at first?” I asked.

“Yeah. I was only jealous because I thought Max was texting Doreen. But he wasn’t. Henry is a close friend of his, and when Henry’s phone had a software problem and stopped working, he used Doreen’s phone to text Max while his phone was being fixed.”

“Who is Henry?” Raheem asked.

“Doreen’s elder brother. I think Nengi and Henry are an item.”

I remembered him. He graduated last year. Slim, tall, fair guy. He used to hang out with Doreen, Max and Nengi. “I know him.”

“Thanks for your time, Annabel,” Raheem said, bolting to his feet.

“Anytime,” Annabel said.

Raheem nodded at the door. I could tell he had a lot on his mind, but wouldn’t speak in the presence of a third party. I rose to my feet and followed him outside.

I’d thought he would speak once we were outside. But he didn’t. Instead, he balled his right hand into a fist and glued it to his other palm. Engrossed in thoughts, he paced the hallway.

“Is Annabel still a suspect?” I asked.

Raheem stopped pacing. “Of course. While the things she told us has given rise to another suspect, she hasn’t cleared her name yet.”

“Something doesn’t make sense,” I said. “Nengi never mentioned Doreen’s brother. And I’m sure she knew he was the one texting Max. So why would she speak of Doreen as the one texting him?”

“That is just one of two points,” Raheem said. “According to Annabel’s story, someone was probably in one of the stalls, no doubt applying the perfume so its smell would be strong enough to frame Annabel. The clink she heard was most likely when the person placed the perfume on the water closet tank. And if that person was the one who attacked Doreen, then that was someone who knew she would visit the restroom at that particular time.”

“And so she hid there,” I said. “Patiently waiting.”

“And who knows her whereabouts better than her best friend?” Raheem asked. “Nengi herself had even confessed to this.”

“And omitting Henry’s role in the story she told us only meant she had something to hide,” I noted. “She wanted to lead us on the wrong track.”

“Why didn’t we see this before?” Raheem seemed disappointed in himself. “Come on. We’ve got to go have another word with her before break’s over.”

I made to follow him, but then a thought occurred to me. “You go ahead. I need to visit the restroom. Did you see the way Nengi acted when she realized she’d lost an earring? If it fell off during her attempt to kill Doreen, then finding it in the restroom would be a vital piece of evidence.”

Raheem did the unexpected. He laughed as though I’d just told a joke. In the blink of an eye, he replaced amusement with disappointment. “Twenty four hours after a crime and this is when it occurs to you to check the crime scene? That is enough time for the culprit to visit the place repeatedly. Besides, who says the janitor didn’t clean the place?”

He had a point. But I’d just hoped the janitor would be spooked by the ghostly news and would thus be too scared to clean the place. I sighed. “You’re right.”

“After we revived her yesterday, I returned to the crime scene,” Raheem said. “It’s the ladies’ restroom and I shouldn’t be there, yeah. But it’s all part of procedure.”

“Did you find anything?” I asked.

“Our investigation would be one step ahead if I did.”

Side by side, we headed for Nengi’s class. People littered the hallway, as typical of this time of the day. Standing in groups, they chattered about whatever they found interesting. Doreen scowled at us as we stepped into her class. Nengi, on the other hand, didn’t seem too bothered by our presence.

“Here for more questioning?” Doreen asked.

Raheem played deaf to her question. “Nengi, can we have a word with you?”

Nengi grew pensive for a second too long, probably trying to figure out why we returned. “Yeah.”

“No way,” Doreen said. “You are not. We can’t entertain them questioning us as though…I mean, it’s encouraging them.”

“Please relax,” Nengi said. “It’ll only take a moment. I’m sure whatever they’re doing is for our good.”

Doreen looked away.

“Shall we?” Raheem asked, gesturing toward the exit. With Nengi beside us, we walked out of the class.

“What’s up?” Nengi asked.

“Something came up,” Raheem said. “It’s about the story you told us. Why did you hold back from mentioning a certain Henry?”

“Henry?” Nengi’s face contorted to a grimace. “That girl told you about him, didn’t she? I should have known. She’s basket mouthed and says even the unimportant things.”

“Unimportant?” Raheem echoed. “Let me be the judge of that. So, this Henry, care to tell us who he is?”

“He’s Dory’s elder brother,” she said.

“And?” Raheem asked.

“And my boyfriend.”

“And while you were aware he texted Maxwell the whole time, you kept that from us, and kind of turned the whole thing around to make it look like Maxwell had a spark for your friend. Why?”

“W-what?” Nengi looked genuinely shocked. She made to speak again when the intercom screeched on, cutting in.

“Raheem Kadir and Victoria Brown,” the secretary’s voice called over the intercom. “Report to the main office ASAP.”

Raheem fumed. “What the hell?”

Everyone in the corridor turned to look at us. They probably assumed we’d gotten into some kind of trouble. Had we?

“This conversation isn’t over,” Raheem said to Nengi.

She didn’t say a word. She just stood there, watching us walk out of sight. Barely one minute later, we were sat in front of Sir Amadi, waiting for him to speak.

“Thank you,” Sir Amadi started. “Both of you. Thank you so much for what you did for Doreen. Really, this can’t be overemphasized.”

“It’s okay, sir,” I said. “We only did what we had to.”

Raheem rolled his eyes. “I thought we already got past this yesterday.

Sir Amadi’s face hardened, but he let it go. “I fear for the safety of my students. Since the founding of this school, there’s never been a case of attempted murder. But with what happened to Doreen, I don’t know what this world is turning into.”

“Long story short,” Raheem cut in. He stifled a yawn. “Where do we come in?”

Sir Amadi shot him a cold stare that extended far beyond the present. Raheem returned his vicious look, glaring at him as though anytime soon he would go around the table to straddle him to death. Although curiosity gnawed at my soul, I couldn’t dare inquire about the basis for their murderous hate toward each other. It didn’t concern me after all.

“Talk to me like that again and—” Sir Amadi threatened.

Raheem cut him off. “You really should take a chill pill, mister principal. If I remember correctly, it was the director himself who admitted me into this school, so he alone has the rights to threaten.”

“Raheem, show some respect,” I chided. I would not sit and watch him get all saucy with the principal, a man old enough to father us.

Raheem fumed. “Whatever. I’m out of here.”

He made to stand, when Sir Amadi said, “I thought about having a detective look into what happened with Doreen. But word reached me that we already have a Sherlock Holmes amongst us. Or is it the Agent Pendergast we have?”

Wow, so Sir Amadi read non-biblical book just as much as he read Biblical ones. Impressive. I could never have guessed that. Although I’d never seen or heard of the Agent Pendergast character, I could only imagine what a great detective he made, considering that Sir Amadi mentioned him along with Sherlock, the legendary sleuth.

“I care for all my students,” Sir Amadi said. Holding my gaze, he ignored Raheem the whole time. “And you are no exception. Which is why a capable detective must come in.”

“There are a thousand and one cases, Sir Principal,” Raheem stated. “What makes you think any cop is interested in digging into this? Girl found unconscious in restroom. End of story. Especially with the Bloody Miri story and all its silliness. C’mon now, have you even thought of that?”

“You best round up your investigation,” Sir Amadi said, ignoring Raheem’s question. “I don’t want you kids nosing around, or you’ll get hurt, and another student getting hurt is the last thing I want.”

“So you’re getting us off this case, is that it?” Raheem asked. Was it just me, or did a hint of amusement linger in his voice? “Don’t flatter yourself now. You never assigned us to this, and you have no rights whatsoever to—”

“Raheem!” I gasped in disbelief. “What is wrong with you?”

“I will tell you what’s wrong with me,” Raheem said. “Now, this man claims to have respect for life. What about three days ago? Have you forgotten so soon what you did, mister Principal?”

So I’d been right all along. Something had given rise to the hate between Raheem and Sir Amadi. Initially, I’d believed this didn’t concern me. But now, my ears itched to know the unheard story. “What are you talking about?”

“Are you willing to tell her or should I?” Raheem asked.

When Sir Amadi kept mum, Raheem said, “Okay. I will. Here’s what happened three days ago. I was driving, and so was he. Without even honking, he burst out of a side street and crashed into the side of my vehicle.”

An image of Raheem’s car slid into my mind. Deformed by the crash, it took the shape of a squeezed can of malt.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Raheem went on. “It was an accident and I shouldn’t react like this. But this man was clearly at fault. Number one, he was speeding. Number two, he didn’t honk before joining the main road from a side street. And number three, he claimed right. It didn’t matter to him that I was hurt or something. He just bolted out of his car and started a fight right there in the middle of the road.”

Glancing at Sir Amadi, he said, “By the way, how is your fist? And no, I didn’t hit him, if that’s what you’re thinking. Hell, I would never raise a hand against one old enough to be my father. Thing is, he took a swing at me, I ducked and his fist met my car. I know it’s just a car and I shouldn’t think much of it, after all it only takes a token to fix it. But what pisses me off is that that car was a gift from uncle. A few months back, I turned seventeen and he presented the keys to me. It’s not just a birthday gift, but a parting gift. My uncle died last month in one of the Baghdad bombings.

“And then a madman comes around and does shit. How am I supposed to react? You all assume I’m racist, and to be honest, I am hundred percent racist. You know, people like this man, and others of his kind are the parasites that cause the moral decadence of this world. They all belong to a certain race. And when it comes to them I am racist.”

“My CRS teacher starting a fight in the middle of the road,” I mused. “It’s unthinkable. Sir, are you not the one who teaches us to be peaceable at all times?”

Whatever respect I thought I had for Sir Amadi slowly ebbed away. A man of dignity would never claim to be right when wrong. He would never start a fight in public.

“I’m telling you you can’t go in there,” the secretary’s voice rose to our hearing. “The principal is in a meeting!”

“And we’re telling you we need to see him this minute,” a girl shouted back.

Barely allowing a flicker of hesitation, the door flew open and three girls burst into the office. Their eyes screamed ‘there is fire on the mountain.’ I didn’t know what to expect, but my heart lurched.

The secretary raced in after the girls, her heels frantic against the floor. Scowling at the girls, she explained, “I’m sorry sir. I told them you were in a meeting but they just forced their way in.”

“You better have an explanation for this,” Sir Amadi said to the girls.

“Another girl’s been attacked,” one of the girls blurted out.

“Attacked?” I gasped.

“Bloody Miri struck again,” the second girl clarified.

My blood ran cold at the news.

“Who’s the victim?” Sir Amadi asked, his eyes round as saucers.

“Nengi Oruene.”

CHAPTER TEN

Culprit

“Looks like I arrived just in time to save the next victim.”

Raheem and I burst into the sickbay, with Sir Amadi right behind us, his breath erratic. With a weight like his, I wondered how he managed to keep up with us.

The room, quiet as a graveyard, held no sign of the drama we had missed, save for the student sat in bed with her back to the door. Holding her hands around her thin ankles, she propped up her head on her raised knees.

“What happened?” Sir Amadi asked, advancing to her.

“It’s no use,” Stella said. Her nonchalance baffled me, but I barely had a moment to dwell on it. “She won’t speak to you. She’s been like this ever since she came to. She says to only speak to Victoria and a certain Raheem Kadir.”

“I am he,” Raheem said.

Stella didn’t turn to acknowledge him. “If these crazy kids don’t quit this whole Bloody Miri act, I swear, the me they’ll be seeing will be way scarier than any so-called ghost.”

“I understand how you feel,” Sir Amadi comforted. Did he? For a man who would crash into someone and not feel sorry, I doubted he knew how to sympathize. “But you must calm down.”

Raheem walked to Stella, his eyes mirroring her pain. “I can’t pretend to know how you feel. But know that I will not let this game continue. You have my word.”

His words, like a charm, danced their way into Stella’s heart, shutting the door out on Sir Amadi’s words.

“But what can you do?” Stella asked.

“Whatever it takes,” Raheem said. “Once I talk to Mark Etto, he will see the need for CCTVs in the both restrooms, and whoever goes on to Bloody Mary will be expelled.”

I cringed at the thought of having cameras in the restroom. Weren’t restrooms meant to be private places? “Cameras? Are you crazy?”

“Do you have a better option?” Raheem asked, although he apparently didn’t expect me to have any.

“The idea of cameras in the restroom just unnerves me,” I maintained. “It’s a restroom for heaven’s sake!”

“His idea is perfect,” Sir Amadi said. “The CCTVs will only be installed outside the stalls. So everything is fine as long as nobody leaves her stall undressed.”

“Hell, my idea is perfect and I don’t need you telling me that,” Raheem retorted.

Nengi sniffled, drawing our attention to her. Shooting Sir Amadi a cold stare, Raheem wordlessly ordered him to back away from her. Sir Amadi complied, giving Raheem and I room to approach her.

“Can you tell us what happened?” Raheem asked.

“I was a fool not to believe Dory,” Nengi said, her voice muffled. Her body trembled as she sobbed, and I feared she would break down. “I was a fool.”

Raheem reached out his hand toward her. But he never touched her. He just let his hand hover in the air in a quest to halt her tears. In a decidedly slow voice, he said, “Please calm down. We need you to calm down.”

Shuddering, Nengi raised her head to look at us. Her eyes were puffy from crying. She smoothed her palms over her legs and swept frantic eyes around the room.

“She’ll be back,” she whimpered. Between hiccups and quick gasps, and in a voice cracking with fear, she explained, “She’ll kill me. She’s pissed off because I saw her. She wants to kill me. Help me. Please. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to.”

“You’re safe.” I lowered myself to the bed and pulled her into a hug. “It’s okay now.”

Clinging to me like a child, she trembled in my arms. Her innocence, her pain, her distress, it all melted my heart. I felt horrible for suspecting her of attempted murder. A girl with such innocence could never hurt another.

She gulped. “What if she comes back?”

“Did you see the person who attacked you?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Can you tell us what she looks like?” Raheem asked.

“It’s Bloody Miri. I swear. She’s real. She—” With an ear-splitting shriek, she sprang to her feet and hid behind Raheem as Stella launched at her.

Sir Amadi gripped Stella’s arms, restraining her. She writhed in his hold and fought to break free, but he held on to her.

“Say one word about my sister, and you’re it,” she warned, nose flaring.

With Raheem as a shield between Stella and her, Nengi felt confident enough to speak again. “I swear it. I saw her. I saw the girl in the picture.”

“Not one more word!” Sir Amadi rebuked her. “Have you gone crazy or what?”

Bursting into tears, Nengi darted out of the sickbay. I rose to my feet and made to follow, but Sir Amadi held out a hand to stop me.

“I’ll handle this,” he said. Hush descended upon the sickbay as he went after her.

Moments passed and I waited for someone to break the silence, but nobody did. Nobody but me. “I can’t believe she struck again. What’s she aiming at, serial killer wannabe?”

A wave of silence accompanied my question. Raheem folded his hands and sauntered to the other side of the room, his face pensive.

“Rah—”

“I’m trying to think,” he said, his voice slightly raised.

Moments passed and no one said a word. Stella stood by the counter, fuming over the twenty-one-year-old game. Raheem remained where he stood, digging deep into his thoughts. And I remained poised beside the bed where Nengi had been.

Our number two suspect had become a victim. How would I process this outright failure? Just when I thought we were making progress, this happened. I should have known our sleuthing only turned easy because we were headed in the wrong direction.

“What is your observation thus far, Miss Brown?” Raheem’s asked, his voice like the calmness of the oceans. He still stood with his back to me. “What does today’s incident add, or take away, from our case?”

“Nengi is definitely not the culprit,” I blurted out. How was that even a question?

Raheem nodded. “Typical observation. What gives, though?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” I asked. Now he wanted me to state the obvious, something I never took delight in doing. Why state the obvious when we had both witnessed everything?

“She was attacked!” I heard myself say. “Surely, she couldn’t have hurt herself. What would she gain?”

Once the question left my lips, Raheem turned around and his eyes met mine. He seemed ready to show off his intelligence. I could tell from the smug smile on his face and the twinkle in his eyes. The expression that said ‘I know something you don’t.’ In such little time, I’d known this about him. This look on his face always came before he said something I didn’t know.

“Self-victimization is a word you should look into, Miss Brown. Allow me be your lexicon for now. It refers to the fabrication of victimhood for reasons such as diverting attention, manipulating people, soliciting sympathy, and the rest of them. If you want to sleuth and sleuth right, you must never wave off any possibility unless there is proof of its unlikelihood.”

I didn’t know how to sleuth right. And I didn’t want him telling me this. Of course, I didn’t know the ABC of sleuthing. What did he expect? Hadn’t he known this from the start? Even if he did, he’d ignored it and asked me to be his sidekick anyway. Why had he chosen to work with me when he could go it alone and do it right? So far, I didn’t even see how I contributed to his crime solving exercise.

“She’s a suspect?” Stella asked.

She no doubt referred to Nengi. I nodded.

“Even after she’s been attacked?” she asked.

“I don’t see why we should get her off the list just yet,” Raheem said.

“Shouldn’t this be handled by the police? I’m not saying you aren’t capable of finding out the culprit on your own, but I’m not okay with you two putting your life on the line.”

“We’ve been told this a million times,” Raheem said.

“If Victoria comes to any harm because of this—”

“I will keep her safe.”

Keep me safe? Where did that come from?

“I shall hold you to your word,” Stella said. She fetched my bag of drips from the counter. One down. Two to go.

“Give me a moment,” I said. I needed to visit the restroom, but telling them would only alarm them, since a potential killer lurked around that territory. No harm would come to me, though. The serial killer wannabe only struck during recess.

“Where are you going?” Stella asked. I didn’t wait to reply.

According to Raheem, to sleuth right, one must never wave off any possibilities unless there existed proof of its unlikelihood. And for this reason, I would visit the restroom. For the benefit of doubt, I would play Bloody Miri and see for myself.

My heart pounded as I neared the door to the restroom. What if I ended up like Doreen and Nengi? Did I really have to take this risk?

I didn’t believe in Bloody Miri, and I wouldn’t start now. Swallowing my fear, I reached out to grab the door handle.

“Vicky!” a shrill of a voice pierced my eardrums. My heart flew to my mouth, and a gasp escaped my lips. But it only took a moment for me to regain composure.

I whirled around to find Confidence jogging toward me. I hoped she hadn’t witnessed my moment of fright. Blinded by her own fright, she definitely hadn’t.

“I’m super glad you came to my aid,” she said. “I need to use the toilet so bad, but I don’t want to go in alone. I don’t want to end up like those girls.”

Barely even giving me a moment to think about accepting to be her bodyguard or not, she clung to my arm and ushered me in.

“Please wait.” She swept big, frantic eyes around the restroom. “I’ll be out in a jiffy.” Taking one last look around, she dashed into the first stall.

Of course I would wait. I had plans of spending time in the restroom. I knew Bloody Miring would freak her out. But what did I care about the slut?

I sauntered toward the rectangular mirror that almost covered the full breadth of the wall. My heart raced with every step I took. Time seemed to slow down, waiting for me to become the next victim. Taking a deep breath, I shoved off my fears and trained my attention on the faucet directly in front of me. I secured the sink and turned on the faucet.

“Bloody Miri,” I said, my voice merely a breath. I took a step back and looked around for a sign of anything out of place. Finding nothing, I returned my focus to the mirror.

A lump formed in my throat, constricting it. But I wouldn’t back out. “Bloody Miri. Bloody Miri. Bloody Miri. Bloody Miri.”

Confidence burst out of the stall, her eyes wide with terror. “What are you doing? Stop! Stop it!”

Ignoring her, I kept my eyes trained on the mirror. “Bloody Miri. Bloody Miri. Bloody Miri—” With courage seeping into me and sending fear on exile, my voice grew louder by the second.

“You’re crazy,” Confidence screamed, sprinting out of the restroom. The door slammed after her. “Crazy!” her fading voice screamed on.

The emotions I thought I’d overcome fought to consume me. Every fiber of my being told me to drop this silliness and drag myself out of the restroom, but I stood my ground, frozen to the spot. I would not let fear take the best of me. Blinking sweat away from my eyes, I secured the other sinks and turned on the faucets.

“Bloody Miri,” I called. “Bloody Miri. Bloody Miri.. Bloody Miri. Bloody Miri. Bloody Miri….”

I chanted on and on, barely giving myself a moment to breathe. I listened for anything out of place, but could only hear my voice and the sound of water filling the sinks. I didn’t believe in Bloody Miri and never would. Ghosts didn’t exist. If they did, mum and dad would have saved me from my stepmother’s depravity. They’d haunt her till she lost her sanity. But they didn’t. This only meant ghosts did not exist. And Miriam Adewale was no exception.

“I don’t believe in ghosts,” I whispered in an attempt to quell my racing heart. “I’m only doing this for the benefit of doubt. Bloody Miri? Hah! What a joke!”

A knock on the main door forced me to punctuate my words with a gasp. My heart beat harder than it ever had. I’d never seen anyone knock on the door before entering the restroom. So who could that be?

Although my mind screamed ‘Bloody Miri’, I tried not to think of it. Was that even possible? I did not believe in ghosts!

I could feel my heart pounding in my throat. Water streamed out of the now filled sinks, but I couldn’t move a muscle. Fear rooted me to the spot.

Once again, the person knocked. My stomach clenched into a fist. Had Doreen and Nengi felt like this the moment before it happened? Would I end up like them?

Terror held me in a death grip. But once the grip loosened, I made for the door, only to hear a door behind me slam shut. My heart fell to the pit of my stomach. A scream escaped my lips.

The main door jerked open, forcing me to take a step back. I toppled over and lost my footing. My body met the watery floor with a thud. Scrambling to my feet, I led my gaze to the door and found Raheem staring at me with amusement in his eyes.

He smirked. “Looks like I arrived just in time to save the next victim.”

I blinked. Once. Twice. Wordlessly, I gaped at the door that had slammed shut, and then it occurred to me that Confidence had left it ajar. Blast that jerk.

Raheem bit his lips to stifle a laugh But he failed at it and a bubble of laughter filled the room.

“Are you done laughing?” I asked. It took much effort not to join in his amusement.

“Just what were you thinking?” he asked.

I ignored his question. “How did you know I was here?”

His face still crinkled with laughter. “Instincts.”

Instincts? He sure had run into Confidence. I curled my lips at the thought of that slut checking him out with those dirty eyes. Reflecting back on how she’d dashed out of sight brought a smile to my lips. And despite my efforts to hold back my amusement, I heard myself chuckle.

Raheem moved to turn off the faucets. Taking advantage of this distraction, I made my escape. I walked down the hallway, my cheeks burning as I thought back to my newest embarrassment. Why did I always end up embarrassing myself in front of Raheem? How would I explain my wet uniform to Stella? How would she react if she knew I had played the game she despised with every fiber of her being?

It took a moment before Raheem’s footsteps joined mine. Lagging a great distance behind me, he walked calmly, apparently having no intentions to catch up with me.

Stella’s eyes widened as I walked into the sickbay. Sat on a bed, she prepared to administer my IV drip. “What happened to you? Were you attacked as well?”

“No,” I said. “I’m fine. The floor was watery, so I slipped.”

“Why did you visit the toilet?” Stella asked. “It’s not like you don’t know the sickbay has its own toilet.”

“We had to rush to the crime scene in search of evidence,” Raheem said.

Stella gestured me over and helped me out of my wet jacket. Undoing the first two buttons on my shirt, I slackened my tie and rolled up my sleeves. My eyes zeroed in on the syringe in Stella’s hand. Forcing my attention away from it, I lay supine on the bed.

“I honestly wish I could be of help in this case,” Stella said, her eyes roaming the length of my half-unclothed hand. “It’s sick that someone attacks people in the name of my sister.”

Finding the administration site, she tightened the tourniquet around my arm. I shut my eyes and willed my mind away from the needle. Amidst the darkness in my mind, I scrambled for a worthwhile distraction. I trained my attention on my non-dominant arm and tricked myself into believing the needle would sting it and not the other. And to an extent, it worked. The needle bit into my skin and slipped into my vein. I only gasped. I couldn’t afford to embarrass myself more in front of Raheem.

“I want the culprit to be brought to justice,” Stella said.

“I want that more than anything,” I said.

Moving away from me, Stella advanced to the counter and picked up her tote bag. Digging into it, she said, “I don’t see how this helps, but I found this on the floor after the first victim was brought here.”

She returned to me, her hand clenched over something small. Raheem walked over to us. His breath caught in his throat as Stella’s fist unclenched, exposing the object.

“Let me see what it is,” I said. Stella lowered her palm to my line of sight. On it sat a lone earring. Nengi’s missing earring.

Something didn’t seem right. Raheem’s pensive eyes confirmed this. Rather nonchalantly, Stella’s gaze darted between Raheem and I. “Whose is it?”

“Did Nengi visit this place yesterday?” Raheem asked.

“No,” Stella said. Recollecting the details of the previous day, she added, “Vicky was my only patient, until Doreen came along. I’m sure no one else came in except you and the principal.”

“And the day before?” Raheem asked. “Did Nengi come?”

“Some students in this school have no idea what this place looks like,” Stella said. “Nengi’s one of such students. Until today’s incident forced her here.”

“So how did it get here?” I wondered.

“Isn’t it clear already?” Raheem asked. “Even a master serial killer makes one mistake that though seemingly insignificant, could lead to his downfall. How much more this amateur?”

Without a doubt, we had discovered the culprit. We knew just how her earring had ended up here. She had attacked Doreen. Doreen had tried to struggle, and so the earring fell off Nengi’s ear and got stuck in Doreen’s jacket. But why would Nengi try to kill her best friend?

Unlike me, Raheem didn’t seem stunned by this revelation. He seemed to have known this from the start.

“Now that the culprit has been identified, what next?” I asked.

“I like to toy with my playthings for a bit,” Raheem said, giving me the impression he’d solved other cases in the past. “We will have her return to the crime scene on her own. And we will have her confess her crime voluntarily.”

“How?” Stella stole my question.

“Just wait and see.” Raheem smirked. “Here’s the plan. While I go speak to Nengi, Miss Brown will hide in one of the stalls, waiting for her to walk into the bait. Once we have her, it’s all done.”

With a sigh, I looked up at the bag of fluid. “I’m confined to this bed.”

Moving to me, Stella paused the drip. She pulled out the needle and placed a cotton wool over where it had been. “Be back once it’s done.”

I nodded. I made to stand, but memories of yesterday’s vertigo-like sensation drifted past my mind, forcing me to remain in the bed for a second too long. After a few moments, I slowly raised myself to stand. Standing still as a statue, I gauged my reaction. Everything seemed fine.

“You ready?” Raheem asked.

“Yeah,” I said. Stella smiled at Raheem and I as we walked out of the sickbay and toward our plan.

“You seem so confident that she’ll go to the restroom on her own,” I observed.

“Of course,” Raheem said. After a moment, he explained, “It’s simple. I only have to inform her of an earring the janitor came across in the restroom. Of course it’s a pretty expensive piece and it would be a shame for the owner to lose it forever. And so I’ll ask her to go check it out, and if it isn’t hers, she could spread the word so the owner and the jewelry get united in the end.”

“That’s brilliant,” I said. “You really think she’ll fall for it?”

“I’m positive.” After thinking for a moment, he said, “My fictitious intention of returning to class would be no secret to her. Trust me, she won’t suspect a thing and will race here to retrieve the evidence ASAP.”

Reaching into his pocket, he brought out Nengi’s earring and placed it on my palm. “Drop it on the sink nearest to the main door and stay in position until she comes to retrieve it.”

Without another word, he walked away, leaving me to walk in the opposite direction. Once in the restroom, I placed the earring on the first sink. I made to back away from the sinks when the girl in the mirror caught my eye.

Over the past few years I’d lost a few pounds, which didn’t look too healthy, considering that I had always looked anorexic from the start. I ran my fingers along my clavicle peeking out from behind my shirt. Dad had always complained about it being too obvious. What would he say if he saw it now?

I trained my attention on my complexion, a loyal friend. Although I had switched to a very inexpensive body lotion I couldn’t even afford at all times, my complexion swore to stand by me even in the most difficult situations. Obviously, though, the fairness of my skin had dulled over time. But it didn’t go away completely. It lingered, waiting to rise again.

Turning away from the mirror, I headed into the stall nearest to me and shut the door. I wouldn’t want to risk letting my legs show from underneath the door, so I backed away. There I stood, waiting.

It didn’t take long for the door to swing open. A girl walked in. But then, the footsteps didn’t continue. This only meant she took a moment to scan the room for the item of interest, and for any threats. Still as a statue, I barely even drew in a breath.

The sound of rushing footsteps stole over the silence. I could tell she’d spotted her earring and walked over to retrieve it. I yanked open the door, just in time to see her pick up the controversial piece of jewelry. Her face paled at the sight of me, wiping off any happiness she’d felt to be reunited with her earring.

I put up my hands in mock defense. “What? I’m not Bloody Miri.”

She chuckled uneasily. But I could tell she knew something had gone out of plan. Eying the exit, she said, “I’ve…got…class.”

The door opened and Raheem stepped in. Nengi looked between Raheem and I. She squinted, trying to decipher what this meant. “What’s he doing here?”

When I didn’t answer, she turned to look at Raheem. “Why are you here? This place is strictly for females. The male restroom is on the other side.”

Raheem folded his hands. “And I thought only murderers returned to the scene of their crimes. It appears even those who failed at being murderers do this also.”

Again, Nengi laughed uneasily. “Nice joke.”

She stepped toward the door, but with Raheem standing guard, she knew failure even from a distance. “Step away. I have class.”

“There’s no need pretending now,” I said. “We know everything.”

Her fist tightened on the earring. “Everything?”

“Like I said, even master criminals make their mistakes,” Raheem said. “This one is just too immature in the act, and has made tons of them.”

“I don’t understand,” Nengi said. “What are you talking about? What’s this about?”

I gestured at her clenched fist. “The earring. You said you didn’t come here yesterday. But then you hear news of a missing earring and you run here ASAP to get it. And surprisingly, it’s yours. So, how did it get here? Last time I checked, earrings didn’t have wings.”

“It must have fallen off when Bloody Miri attacked me,” she said, the innocence in her voice almost fooling me.

“You were attacked today,” Raheem reminded. “It fell yesterday.”

“You’ve got it all wrong,” she said. “I admit there was only one earring yesterday, but then I got home and found it on my bed. So I wore it to school and then it fell off during the attack.”

“So you’re positive it fell off during the attack?” Raheem asked.

“That’s the only logical explanation.”

“I hate to burst your bubble,” Raheem said. “But that piece of jewelry wasn’t found here. But in the sickbay. And it wasn’t found today, but yesterday. You’re probably wondering how it got there. And I will tell you. Here’s how it happened. When attacked, the victim tried to fight back. During the struggle, this little piece of jewelry fell off your ear and got stuck in the victim’s jacket. And there it stayed until I rushed her to the sickbay. And then it fell to the floor when my partner unbuttoned the victim’s jacket to start the mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but neither of us noticed because we were caught up in the drama.

“You had this all planned, perhaps as a way to get back at your friend for something she doesn’t even suspect. I doubt one would do this without a motive, and a very strong one at that. You knew she would leave for the designated place at the designated time. We don’t know how, but you got there before your friend and before—”

Scratching his head, he turned to me. “What’s the other girl’s name?”

“Annabel Lambert,” I supplied.

Raheem continued, “And since I found the victim around eleven forty three, I believe she visited the restroom after she had lunch. So while you made her believe you’d be staying back to do a certain technical drawing assignment, you snuck off to the restroom, where you hid in a stall, patiently waiting.”

“And then you applied the perfume to frame Annabel Lambert,” I said from behind Nengi. She whirled around to watch me speak. “For this reason you refrained from mentioning Henry. You painted Annabel as a jealous girlfriend who would commit murder to keep her boyfriend.”

Raheem concluded our findings, “And when we came to question you about Henry, you knew if you didn’t act fast, it would only be a moment before we discovered your game. Thus, you made to divert attention from yourself by playing the victim.”

“Please let me go,” Nengi begged. “I didn’t do anything. Why would I hurt my friend?”

“We were hoping you would tell us,” Raheem said.

“I didn’t do anything!” Nengi insisted.

“Okay, that’s fine,” Raheem said. He moved away from the door and made a sweeping gesture as though to usher her out. “If you say you didn’t, that’s fine. I’m sure the other evidence will lead us to the culprit.”

“What evidence?” she asked, mystified.

“You see, when I saw Doreen lying helplessly on the floor, I knew it was no accident. It was clear she’d been attacked. And when attacked, would you just stand still? Of course you must fight back. One or two strands of hair under her fingernail revealed a serious struggle with her attacker. I didn’t want to lose vital evidence, so I cut the fingernail and kept it safe. You know, there’s probably sweat underneath the fingernail. And sweat, as we know, consists of naturally shed skin cells. A DNA test should point us to the culprit. What do you think, Nengi?”

DNA?” Nengi asked.

“For heaven’s sake, Nengi, just tell us if you did it!” I said. “Everything points to you.”

“Why would I confess to a crime I didn’t commit?”

Raheem leaned in toward her. Holding her shoulders, he said in a low voice, “Look, we all make mistakes. To err is human after all. I understand something must have moved you to do that to your friend. But luckily, she’s still alive. We don’t know what interrupted the murder. Maybe you got scared someone might see you, or maybe when she lost consciousness you believed she was dead, and you ran off. Whatever the reason is, it doesn’t matter right now. All that matters is she’s alive. We’re not going to judge you or anything. Can you just stop lying to us?”

“I did not do anything,” Nengi maintained.

“I know you’re scared, and I understand. But if you tell us now, we will find a way to deliver you from justice. If you insist on lying, we have enough biological materials for a DNA test, and when the result is out, we will be in no position to interfere. Nengi, you’re a bright girl, smart and beautiful. You have a wonderful future. Do you want to spend it in jail? Is that what you want?”

Nengi kept mum. Raheem’s words seemed to have hit home. Maybe if he pressed on, he could squeeze the truth out of her. Hopeful, he went on, “You can trust us. If you tell the truth and tell it all we’ll spare you. But if you don’t, well, like I said, the DNA will point us in the right direction.”

“I didn’t do anything,” Nengi said.

Simmering with rage, Raheem tore his hands away from her and stepped away. “Fine!” he bellowed. “I only have to make a call for this to be police case.”

He turned toward the door and took his phone from his pocket. While he dialed, I stepped in toward Nengi, whose eyes misted over.

“Do you know what it’s like to be in jail?” I whispered. “Do you know how many years you are going to spend there? Here we are trying to help cover up your crime and you take us for fools?”

“There’s no point trying to let her see reason anymore, Miss Brown,” Raheem said. “I guess it’s a police case now.”

And to Nengi, he said, “For your information, I called your supposed boyfriend a while ago. Got his number off Facebook.” Raheem’s words brought a noticeable shudder slipping down Nengi’s spine. “He told me everything. You’re not together anymore, thanks to your best friend leaking a very sacred secret. I understand this is your way to get even. It’s hard to forgive someone who’s broken your trust. But did you have to go that far? Oh well, I guess the cops can take it from here.”

After a moment of silence, he moved his phone to his ear. “Detective constable James.”

Nengi gasped as the seriousness of the situation seeped in. “Wait!”

When Raheem didn’t turn to look at her, she tugged at my arm, forcing me to stare into her eyes. I watched her burst into tears. Tempted to feel sorry, I looked away. I would not sympathize with someone who had tried to take away the life of another.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I did it. It isn’t like I wanted to kill her or anything. I only wanted to scare her away from—”

My struggle to ignore her grief proved futile. Slowly, my gaze returned to her. My eyes watered at the sight of her fear. My heart bled with pain at the thought of her spending a slice of her life in jail. But what could I do? Justice must be served.

With his phone pressed to his ear, Raheem strode out, slamming the door behind him. “Go after him,” I said, blinking back my emotions.

I watched a frantic Nengi sprint to the door, and to her doom. Once she yanked it open, a palm connected with her cheek, its sound reverberating around the room. Knocked off balance by the suddenness of the slap, she staggered backward. I held her so she didn’t crash into me.

“That’s for Doreen,” Stella said, glaring at her. “And this is for using my sister’s name to cover up your evil.”

With a force greater than the first, Stella’s palm flew to Nengi’s cheek, colliding with it with an impact that jerked her face sideways. Nengi whimpered.

My eyes adjusted to the hallway, finding Sir Amadi, Raheem, and another man. He had to be the police Sir Amadi had sent for. They’d all been waiting here for this moment.

“Nengi Oruene?” the man called. “You are charged with the attempted murder of a certain Doreen Chukwu. You have the right to remain silent. Whatever you say can be used against you in the court of law.”

Raheem smirked. “It is done.”

Nengi choked on her sob. “You said you would…you said…you lied to me.”

“Of course,” Raheem said. “Now that you’ve confessed, it’ll be much easier for the cops to do the rest. Oh, and about the biological materials, I lied about that too.”

Still smirking, he saluted her. My throat constricted as I watched the cop lead her away.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Farewell

“In a remote area of Pennsylvania, Skylar Neese was stabbed fifty times with a kitchen knife.”

I climbed the stairs leading to my class. The school had turned drop-dead quiet after what happened with Nengi yesterday.

“Hello,” a voice called from behind me. I turned around to find a girl racing up the stairs to meet me.

“Hello,” I said. I tried my best to act indifferent but I couldn’t get past what she needed to speak to me about.

“Congratulations on cracking the mystery,” she said.

Blank faced, I stared at her. How would I respond to that? Thank you?

“I didn’t solve the mystery,” I admitted. Raheem did. But I held back from completing my sentence.

“Oh, the Arab guy, right?” The girl’s eyes twinkled. “Even if he did all the work himself, at least you were seen with him a number of times. I’m sorry for Nengi. But she got what she deserved.”

“I guess,” I said. Turning away from her, I continued up the stairs. I counted silently, hoping she would take the cue and shut up.

“How was it?” she asked.

“What?”

“Crime solving?”

I heaved a sigh of relief as I neared my class room. A smile creeping to my face, I turned to look at her. “Good day.”

Vanishing from the meddling girl’s sight, I prayed I wouldn’t have more meddlers ruining my day. The classroom only had one soul in it. Cynthia. As usual, I’d hanged around in the parking lot after our driver dropped us off, just so I could be behind her. She hurled a chocolate bar in her mouth and glared at me with a heavy emotion I prayed would melt someday.

“Well done,” she mock-commended.

“Thank you” I played along.

“And then, she snapped. “Do you have any idea what you have just done, you idiot?”

What had I done except enable the serving of justice? “I don’t know. Care to refresh my memory?”

I didn’t expect her to reply. But she did. “They are going to plant CCTVs all over the restroom!” she shrieked, and for a moment I thought she would cry. Her voice sounded like it.

What did they all fear the cameras? As long as they weren’t installed in the stalls, I didn’t see anything to worry about. Forgive my pun.

“Relax,” I said. “It’s not so bad. The Bloody Miri game just has to end is all.”

She shook her head in disbelief. “I can’t believe you did that. Hand that innocent girl over to the authorities.”

“Last time I checked, attempted murder didn’t count as innocence.”

“Friends fight, you idiot. Friends fight, and it’s normal!”

“Lives were at stake,” I justified. And the girl had a motive for murder. Although Raheem hadn’t given her a chance to explain it all, I had a feeling this had to do with Henry.

Sauntering to my seat, I settled in it. Time crept like a snail. The other members of the class started to streak in, each one too eager to give me a piece of his mind.

“Karma will catch up with you,” a boy hissed.

“Did Nengi do something to you in the past life?” I heard another ask.

“Thanks to you, there will be cameras in the restroom,” a girl said. “How cool is that?”

Comments struck me from all angles. And although I tried hard to pay no heed to them, success slithered from my grasp. Had we been too rash in analyzing Doreen’s attack?

I would exit the classroom to put an end to these comments, but going outside would mean doubling it because I would be open to everyone, and I didn’t want that. In a few minutes, the bell would go off for first period. I would survive. But could I?

We had English for first period and if I knew Madam Charity well enough, I knew she would spend close to half of her time discussing about yesterday’s events. Spending my morning in the sickbay didn’t sound too bad an idea. My drip treatment would end today. I couldn’t be more grateful. The sooner it ended, the better.

Grabbing my backpack, I made to get up when I saw Doreen on the threshold. She stared at me with a wounded look in her eyes. With a weak smile, I ushered her in.

A smile graced her face as the advanced to me. “Hi.”

“Hey,” I said. Quiet ensued. And I didn’t want it stretching even further. “How are you?”

“I’m fine,” she said, sitting beside me.

Once again, silence stole us over. We just kept gazing at the whiteboard. I knew she had come to express gratitude, but she couldn’t bring herself to start.

I turned to look at her, the dark circles around her eyes catching my attention. “Did you sleep at all?”

“How could I?” she asked. “My best friend is somewhere horrible.”

“It’s not your fault,” I comforted. “You shouldn’t punish yourself.”

“I know. It’s not my fault. But I can’t help it.” Gesturing towards her chest, she went on, “Somewhere in there, I’m half-pleased she was brought to justice. But thinking like this makes me feel like a monster. I’m betraying her, aren’t I?”

“You’re not,” I said. “She committed a crime. You should not feel sorry for someone who tried to kill you. She had a choice and she chose this.”

“But still—”

“But nothing! What if you had died?”

A lone tear slid down her cheeks. Her chest heaved as she swiped at it. “My best friend wanted me dead. Who can I trust now?”

“Don’t lose faith in humanity,” I said. “There are good people out there, trust me.”

Doreen shook her head with every strength she had, as though shaking off my words. “You don’t understand. She was like a sister to me. We’ve been bestfriends ever since we met in our freshman year.”

I understood. Nengi was to her what Amarachi was to me. Amarachi’s doing this to me would be a nightmare I needed to wake up from. “You have to move on. I know it isn’t easy but you don’t have a choice. Remember that it could have been worse, but you’re alive and well. Think of it this way. You’re free from a friendship with a potential murderer. Henry is free from a relationship with a girl who could commit murder at any point. Committing two abortions is evidence enough. She’s a cheat and a murderer. Prison’s going to do her much good. Perhaps when she’s released sometime in future, she’ll turn a new leaf, be a better person. Who knows, her time behind bars could cause her to reevaluate her life and want to be a better person, because trust me, she wouldn’t want to end up there a second time. So cheer up, please, and move on. It’s all for the best.”

Doreen forced a smile. “Easy for you to say this, huh? I guess other than being the school sleuth, you’ve become a counselor. Way to go.”

Despite myself, I blushed. Indistinct voices filled the classroom, forcing us to acknowledge the full room. Sat with Flora in the seat directly in front of mine, Amarachi waited for my discussion with

Doreen to be over. Our other seatmate, the unwanted one, had not arrived yet.

“Thank you so much for your help,” Doreen said.

Uncertain of how to respond, I nodded. “If you need someone to talk to, I’ll be here.”

“Okay.” She rose to her feet and headed out of the classroom. Almost immediately, Amarachi occupied the recently vacated seat. The look on her face said nothing good.

“Girls are pissed off,” she said. “They think the camera’s your idea.”

“It was all Raheem’s idea,” I seethed. “I wasn’t even okay with it. Still am against it. But Sir Amadi saw nothing wrong with it, so here we are. Hell! I’m done being quiet about this.”

Springing to my feet, my voice flared, “I am going to give these people a piece of my mind! They can think what they want afterwards.”

Amarachi pulled me back to my seat with such intensity that forced a gasp out of my mouth. “What is wrong with you?” she whispered, trying hard not to make us the object of everyone’s attention. But we already had everyone’s attention. “Just calm down, will you?”

My eyes zeroed in on the empty space between Amarachi and I, where Raheem would be sat once he arrived. It seemed he had claimed my latecoming title for himself. I tried to force my thoughts away from him, but luck sailed away from my grasp.

Now that we’d completed our assignment, would we pretend we’d never been acquaintances for a day or two, put it all behind us and return to being strangers who loathed each other? Or would we become friends?

These thoughts revolved around my mind as I rose to my feet, joining the others in saying good morning to Madam Charity as she strode in. Only after we were back in our seats did she let her gaze scan the class. This had become her ritual—scanning the class to spot anything out of place.

Her eyes narrowed and I knew she’d found something. I followed her eyes till my gaze fell on a classmate, John, playing third wheel on a seat other than the one assigned to him.

“Is that your seat?” she asked. She looked over to Steve, John’s lone seatmate.

“Sorry,” John said. Grabbing his sling bag, he left for his seat.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Raheem step into the class. I turned to stare. He caught my eye, but I didn’t look away. My flaming gaze explored every inch of his body, starting from his rockstar hairstyle to his pair of sneakers.

If it were another student having facial hair, dressed in sneakers when the school recommended formal shoes, Madam Charity would flare. But she did nothing. Said nothing. Smiling at him, she seemed to admire his elegance. He strode past her and muttered his good morning.

“Good morning,” Madam Charity echoed. “You’re right on time. Class is just about to start.”

I rolled my eyes. Of course she would not say a thing about Raheem’s latecoming.

“Did you get a tutor?” she asked.

“Hired one,” Raheem said. “A much better tutor than the brightest student here ever could be.” If he expected his words to hit home, he would be disappointed by the amusement on my face. But he didn’t turn to find out.

“That settles it then.” Madam Charity watched him move to join a pair of boys on their seat. Raheem waited for them to adjust, but they didn’t. They stared at him dumbfoundedly.

“Are you forgetting your seat?” Madam Charity smiled.

“Of course not,” Raheem said. “I’m just open to new things. Besides, I have a feeling I will be more comfortable here.” Just to drive home a point, he made a special effort to lock eyes with me for a second too long.

“We have rules here, Raheem,” Madam Charity said. Everyone could see past her facade. We all knew she had forced herself to say those words.

Raheem leaned in toward her. “Are you sure you don’t want to make an exception for me?”

Had Madam Charity been ten years younger, she would melt before Raheem’s intense gaze. But even now, she did melt—if blushing counted. She sighed. “Rules are rules—”

“Go on,” I said. Everyone turned to look at me. Inwardly, I sighed. When would they stop being astonished to hear me use me voice? They had to get used to this. This was the real me. Not the dumb, shy girl I had pretended to be all my life. “Give him the exception you’re dying to give. It’s plain as day you want to.”

Beside me, Amarachi gasped. Flora did too. But I paid them no mind. They probably thought my new found esteem would get me into trouble sometime soon. And I didn’t care. At least not now.

Now that everyone had my attention, including Raheem and Madam Charity who constituted my primary audience, I rose to my feet to speak. Dad had taught me that if engaged in a conversation with an older one who had some level of authority over me, I best be on my feet until told otherwise.

“I don’t know what he is,” I started. “Obama’s heir or what? I don’t get why everyone aches to give him special treatment. He is allowed to drive, and I doubt he is up to legal age. He is allowed to keep facial hair and look like a rockstar, while other guys are all clean shaven. He’s allowed to wear sneakers while we are all confined to formal shoes. Look what happened with John. Poor John. You made him return to his seat. And now, Raheem has done the very same thing and you’re dying to treat him as a special child. What is wrong with everyone around here? Is he the director’s illegitimate child or what?”

Madam Charity’s lips flew apart, but Raheem held out a hand, interrupting her before she even said a word. His eyes burned into mine. They held no resentment, but interest. “Do you have a problem with me, Miss Brown?”

“Hah!” I scoffed. “Don’t flatter yourself.”

“Then you best watch your tongue,” he warned. The seriousness of his voice, and the look on his face frightened me. “Or you’ll get into trouble.”

“Too late,” Madam Charity said. “She got into trouble the moment she spoke.”

“So much for freedom of speech,” I muttered.

“Find yourself in the Principal’s office,” Madam Charity said. “And account for your loose tongue.”

“How about I account for your partiality too?” I asked. “Sounds fair.”

Raheem grinned. “Fair enough.”

Moments passed and Madam Charity said nothing. This had to be her way of waving off her request that I go see Sir Amadi. Raheem got the message. He reacted with a wink and a wry smile I found contagious. My struggle to swallow my smile proved futile. Seemingly satisfied, Raheem turned around and occupied his new seat, with Eric and Gift as his seatmates.

I settled in my seat and plucked my notebook from my backpack, feigning oblivion of Amarachi staring like I’d grown a horn. I turned the pages till a blank page stared at me. Staring back at it, I awaited English class. Ten minutes into it and we hadn’t even learned a thing.

Madam Charity spoke after forever. “The school is divided now. While most are against your meddling around and handing the said student over to the authorities, only a fraction is in support of your actions.” Although she referred to Raheem and I, she didn’t for once stare in my direction. So much for claiming my right to speech.

“And where do you stand?” Raheem asked. “With or against?”

“I’m a neutral human,” Madam Charity said. “But even at that, I’m impressed by the way you followed up the case.”

“And obviously you’re not easily impressed?” Raheem said.

“This is so wrong!” Cynthia protested. “Friends fight! They fight over trivial matters. Why does someone have to be tagged as a murderer for fighting with her friend? This makes no sense.”

“It was no trivial matter,” Madam Charity clarified. “Neither was it a friendly fight. It was Nengi’s attempt to keep her secret safe. While in a relationship with Doreen’s brother, I’m sure you all know him, Nengi committed two abortions. And none of those children were his. Sadly, she lost her womb in the second abortion. By accident, Doreen found out. She didn’t let Nengi know she knew her secret. Nengi on the other hand, didn’t let her know she knew she’d found out. She knew Doreen would tell Henry and it would all be over. No one would want their brother tied to such immoral girl, would they? And Nengi didn’t want that to happen. She knew if she didn’t stop Doreen, everyone would know, including her parents. Her parents, being the staunch Catholics they are, would be highly disappointed. And so she didn’t wait to find out her reaction. She set to action. You know the rest.”

“And so she tried to kill her bestfriend,” a girl said. “It still makes no sense.”

“If she intended to kill her, how come Doreen still lives?” another asked.

“She chickened out at the last minute,” Madam Charity said.

“It’s depraved that anyone would try to kill their bestfriend,” Rose said.

“Depraved, yes,” Madam Charity said. “But it does happen. Have none of you heard of what happened to Skylar Neese?” She trained her eyes on Raheem, believing he knew the details.

When he didn’t respond, she continued, still searching his eyes. “On the night of July 5, 2012?”

Allowing her gaze hover above everyone, which by divine intervention included me, she hoped someone, anyone knew. But nobody said a word. Giving up, she told the story, “In a remote area of Pennsylvania, Skylar Neese was stabbed fifty times with a kitchen knife. And guess who did it? Her two best friends! Rachel Shoaf and Shelia Eddy! And what was their motive? They didn’t want to be friends with her anymore! It’s sick how depraved the world becomes by the second. These children are psychopaths in the making. I’m just so shaken our school sheltered one of them for so long a time.”

For a moment, she allowed thoughts overwhelm her, and then she shrugged. “Let’s get down to business,” she said, picking up her textbook from the desk before her.

“About time,” I muttered.

It took forty minutes, the going off of the next period bell, and the absence of Madam Charity for me to speak again. “I’m not staying for Biology,” I said to Amarachi and Flora.

“Oh, you’re off to meet fairy godmother,” Amarachi teased.

“Right,” I said.

“What was that about?” Amarachi asked, her face stern. “You almost got yourself into trouble.”

“But it didn’t happen.”

“It almost did,” Flora’s seatmate, Ibim said.

“Nearly cannot kill a bird, can it?” I asked. Without awaiting a reply, I made for the sickbay.

“You’re early,” Stella said. Sat behind the counter, she emptied spoons of cereal into her mouth. “Give me a moment to finish up.”

She had all the time in the world. Wordlessly, I perched on the bed I’d been using for the past few days. Quiet took dwelling in our midst. The sound of Stella chewing on her food sought to sever the silence, but it held no such strength.

Stepping out of my shoes, I took off my jacket, and rolled my sleeves, baring my skin for what would come. I lay on my side and faced the wall opposite me. In no time, I had Stella beside me, preparing to administer the final drip.

“You won’t even ask if I had breakfast?” I asked.

Stella thought for a moment. I knew it had skipped her mind. “You would not come here on an empty stomach.”

“You forgot to ask,” I said.

“I don’t forget.”

Was it just me or did she not look well? I didn’t want to pry, but— “Are you…okay?”

“Yeah.” She smiled to reassure me.

I smiled back, but it lasted a second shorter than Stella’s forced smile. “Nice try. Now, seriously, what’s wrong?”

A genuine smile lit up her face as she tightened the tourniquet around my arm. “What now? You know me well enough to tell my lie from truth?”

“If you’re thinking about yesterday and the game,” I started, but she waved off my words with a backward flip of her hand.

“I’m not thinking about that,” she said.

I noted her choice of words. It meant she did have something on her mind. If she held back from talking about it, I wouldn’t press on.

“Not everyone who come into your life is here to stay,” she said.

The look on my face said ‘tell me something I don’t already know.’ I would echo this with my voice, but I just didn’t find a point to it. Not everyone came to stay. I knew this. Life had taught me the hard way. I’d lost the two people who mattered most, and people might think they were the only ones I’d lost. But then they’d be wrong. Everyday, I lost my stepmother and my stepsister over and over again.

Stella continued, “While some are here to stay, some are not. They’re only around to teach you a vital lesson. And then they are gone. They don’t necessarily die. They just stop being a part of your life.”

I didn’t like the direction of her words. I didn’t like the rather wistful look on her face. A question revolved around my mind. “Are you leaving me too?”

Although my question almost made no sense because Stella had been serving as the school nurse for more than ten years, I had to ask. “Are you?”

“No, dear,” Stella said. “I walked into your life. There is no way I’m walking out. I’m here to stay. Okay?”

I wanted to believe her, but I couldn’t. “But you sound like you’re making plans to leave.”

Stella looked away for a few moments. She seemed to be debating over something. Whatever it was, I hoped she rounded up soon.

Looking back at me, she said, “My job as the school nurse ends today.”

“What?” I gasped. “Why? But you said you’d be the school nurse to save lives?” Frantically, I searched for a possible cause of Stella’s job termination. “Is it because of Bloody Miri?”

I knew how desperate I sounded, and I didn’t care. “Sir Amadi already agreed to installbCCTVs in the restroom. The game will never be played again, I promise. Please, you don’t have to go. Please, stay.”

“It’s not about the game,” she said. “My deal was only to last for twelve years. I’m sorry.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I made a promise to do this for Mimi for twelve years, since she wanted to be a nurse. The twelfth year is ended.”

“Do you have to go?”

“I’m getting married, Vicky. I have to travel to the Uk. That’s where the wedding will be.”

My throat tightened at the sound of this. She was getting married. On a normal day, I would be happy for her, and I wanted to be, but I couldn’t get past the feeling of emptiness crawling into my soul. I knew how selfish I sounded, but I could only think of what would become of me. I’d been close to her for barely five days, but getting used to her came naturally, as though she’d been destined to be a part of my life from the start. Knowing her had replaced my misery with joy, my tears with smiles. Knowing her had undone my stepmother’s evil, restoring my place as the daughter of Mr. Brown.

With my fairy godmother leaving for the Uk, I would never see her again, unless she returned sometime in the future. It hurt me, deep inside. The bareness of her departure brought to mind the emptiness I had felt when my father died.

Forcing my mind away from my loss of hope, I said, “When’s the wedding?”

“In two weeks time .”

“My fairy godmother is getting married and I don’t even get to attend.”

“I’ll send you pictures,” she suggested. “And videos. You won’t even feel like you missed a thing.”

“I don’t have a phone,” I said.

Ignoring my pitiful statement, she said, “Vicky dear, don’t feel like this or I’ll feel bad. I would stay if I could, but I have to go. Next week, someone’s taking over. Elizabeth Monroe from the Uk. She’s a great nurse.”

“Great. You’re going to the Uk, so they send someone from there as a replacement.”

“How cliché, right?” Stella teased. “She’s a great replacement.”

“There is no replacing you,” I said. “I will miss you, fairy godmother.”

She pulled me into a hug. “And I you, my Cinderella.”

“This is our goodbye?”

“There is no goodbye.”

CHAPTER TWELVE

Friends

“I don’t think we can be friends. We are from two different worlds.”

Hours ago, I had stridden into the sickbay, hopeful that the end of my drip session signaled brighter days ahead. But here now, I headed back to class, my hope drained to nothing. What would become of Cinderella without her fairy godmother?

I obviously appeared to be stressing over nothing. I hadn’t known her my whole life after all. But still. Her departure would leave a hole in my heart; a deep hole I could never fill.

Half-way up the stairs, I stood face-to-face with Raheem, the last person I wanted to see at the moment. He stood motionless for a second too long, giving me the idea that his haughtiness wouldn’t let him step away for me to pass.

I’d spit out some thoughtless words at him. But not today. I side-stepped and made to continue my journey, but he mirrored my move, making me almost bump into him. Clenching my fists, I made to go the other way, but there he stood, blocking my way yet again.

“What’s your problem?” I asked, my voice softer than what I’d gone for. Curse my ill health and today’s news.

Raheem grinned. He obviously cared nothing about my off mood. If anything, it seemed to intrigue him. “Aren’t we destined to always run into each other right here?”

As subtle as I could, I examined my surroundings. I noted his point. We stood at approximately the same place we’d stood on our first meeting. But today’s meeting differed greatly, as evident in the way he stared at me. His eyes held no trace of hate or irritation. Rather, he regarded me as he would a friend. Did he see me as a friend? After the time we’d spent trying to unravel the Bloody Miri case, it would only be natural for friendship to ensue.

“Are you okay?” he asked, searching my eyes.

“Why would I be?” I asked. “You make me sick.”

My shot at driving him mad with my sarcasm missed the target. Raheem smirked; something I had expected in a way. “Ah. Look what effect I have on you. Intense.”

“Do you need something?” I asked.

Raheem seemed to ponder over my question for a moment or two. Done, he shrugged. “None that I know of.”

“Then I want you out of my way,” I said.

“Such a hurry to get rid of me,” Raheem said, clutching his chest in mock pain. “And just this morning, you badly needed me back on your seat. Touché.”

“What? I never said anything like that.” Or had I?

Raheem cackled, his eyes twinkling in a way that made my heart leap. Although he could not see the colors of emotions inside of me, I inwardly cringed with embarrassment at the unseen mess unfolding.

“So you think, Miss Brown,” Raheem said. “So you think. Weren’t you the one trying so hard to get madam Charity to make me return to my previous seat?”

I never had any intentions of making him return to my seat. If anything, I wanted him to rot somewhere else. But I would not stoop so low to explain myself to him. And he probably knew better than to expect an answer.

“You lied about the hypermetropia,” I blurted out.

A proud smile settled on his face. For a moment, I felt like a pupil staring up into the proud face of her teacher after solving a brain-tangling equation.

“Of course,” he said. “Oh, and about what you said back there, thanks.”

I didn’t believe I’d allowed him engage me in a conversation. I could just walk away, make it all end. And I had the strength to do just that. Actually, I had ample strength to fight him. But every fiber of my being willed me to stay back and listen. Against my will, I found myself easing into the discussion.

“What?” Although I knew nothing good could come out of this, I had to know what he referred to.

“About me looking like a rockstar.” Raheem punctuated his statement with a wink that turned my legs to butter.

“I didn’t mean that,” I defended in a futile attempt to shield my reputation, although I knew the harm had already been done. Now he saw me as no better than those other girls drooling over him. How did I ever let the rockstar thing slip?

“Sure you didn’t,” he teased.

“I didn’t mean that! I could never compliment someone like you.” My face wrinkling with disgust, I held my right hand toward him and made a fanning gesture to strengthen my words.

“Someone like me?” He moved to lean his lean body against the balustrades.

I couldn’t help but notice the open road. Nothing stood in my way. I could leave now. It called out to me. But I could barely move a muscle. I couldn’t answer that call, and Raheem knew this. Spelled my his aura, I could only indulge him.

Moments ago, I’d thought the end of Nengi’s case marked the end of our acquaintance. He spelt trouble. Him and all the messy emotions he brought with him. But here I stood, barely even one day away from him, but already aching to spend just as much time with him. Days ago, I’d been in a hurry to rid myself of the hellishly addictive emotions he triggered. But for some reason I could not fathom, I died to feel them all over again. I’d never been such a fool.

Knowledge of Stella’s departure had left me vulnerable, emotional. And I couldn’t do a thing about it. Against my will, my mind had worked to find someone with which to fill in the void she’d left. And it chose Raheem.

I stared into the sinfully handsome face that rubbed me off speech. As though he’d been waiting for me to hold his gaze for the umpteenth time, he asked, “Do you have a problem with me?”

Of course. Had I not had a problem with him, I would be able to gain control of my limbs and escape from his line of sight. “All racists can rot, for all I care.”

Raheem’s brows furrowed. But why would he be bothered about the statement I’d just made? More than once, I had already clarified my stand against racists, and although I cared nothing about how he felt, I noted he hadn’t been bothered. So why now?

“I am no racist,” he said.

Although I wanted to stick to my first assumption about him being racist, I knew holding on to it would only be an act of foolery. His actions these past few days said a lot, kicking racism out of the question. His hate for Sir Amadi had a reason other than racism. And then, the sluttiness of Cynthia and the other fangirls had earned them his attitude. I doubted he’d act any different had they been white.

A wry smile turned up the corner of my lips as I remembered the case with Ingrid, a science student from Madrid. Obviously, she’d also thought him as racist, and her white skin as an advantage. But he despised her no less.

And me? Did he despise me? Two days ago, I’d scream out a ‘yes’. And I’d be as sure of it as I was of being a girl. Now, though, yes seemed wrong. And I had many points with which to back up this claim.

While there were many people to choose a sidekick from, he had chosen me. Who would want to spend so much time with someone he despised? If he despised me, wouldn’t he treat me the same way he did the others? But here I was, with him trying hard to engage me in a conversation.

With a snap of his finger, I snapped out of my thoughts. He gawked at me, still expecting me to speak. I thought back to the statement hovering in the air. The statement of not being racist. And he no doubt expected me to accept it, or give reasons for doing otherwise.

“Okay, maybe you aren’t racist,” I said, defeated. “But you receive special treatment from everyone. You don’t even try to discourage it.”

“How on earth am I suppose to discourage it?” Raheem asked.

I shrugged one shoulder. “You could just ask them to stop or something. Give them the idea.”

Calculating, Raheem held up a finger. “Wait. You’re jealous?”

My heart skipped a beat. Jealous? Was that the word? Prior to now, I could have sworn Raheem had a devilishly sharp brain, especially after he successfully exposed Nengi’s schemes. But now, he had altered my perception. “Excuse me? Why on earth would I be jealous of you?”

“Wow,” he said. “If eyes could kill. You should go easy on me, Toria. Keep treating me like this and you’ll be driving me back to my ruined country. I bet you’d love to hear of my death.”

“Don’t joke about things like that,” I said. And just to let him know my I’d heard my petname slip off his tongue, and that my opinion about it hadn’t changed, I added, “Rah.”

Although I acted like I only intended to irritate him, deep down, I wanted to get used to hearing him abbreviate my name the way he did. And I wanted him to get used to my nick for him. His numerous fangirls flashed across my mind. I hoped none of them had the guts to ‘Rah’ him. Not even in a slutty chit-chat with their friends, or in the dirty black box of their minds. I cringed at the thoughts running through my mind. Did I even have any right to think like this? To be jealous over him?

Diverting my mind from this evil emotion surging through me, I watched him feign indifference as though he hadn’t been pissed off by the petname. Although he only did it to match my nonchalance, I felt a flicker of hope within me.

“Why?” Just one word from him, and my wandering mind returned to our ongoing conversation. Securing my attention, he went on, “I’m only repeating the things you said when Sir Amadi introduced me to the class. According you, I’d be blown to bits in the twinkle of an eye.”

With a snap of his fingers, I cursed the moments I’d said those awful words to him. Nobody deserves to be blown to bits. I shuddered at a mental image of tens of people, maybe hundreds, lying helplessly on the ground as the Iraqi war raged on. These people had families. Families that would never see them again.

Families like the Kadirs’ who had lost a member in the Baghdad suicide bombing. As much as I wanted to pry, to find out about his other family members, if they were all safe, and how they’d coped during these heated times in Iraq, I knew he would not welcome my probing.

Raheem’s mock innocence stole me over. “What now, Miss Brown? You don’t look so thrilled about me dying anymore. What has changed?”

“Only fools joke about death,” I said.

“Blowing me to bits was your idea. So we’re together in this, I guess. Seems we’re stuck being partners. Seatmates. Sleuths. And now, partners in foolery. How exciting.” A bubble of laughter erupted from his lips.

The other Raheem deserved being blown to bits. But not this one. Now I felt like a horrible person. “I’m so…I’m sorry I said that.”

“What?” he asked.

“About you being…blown to bits, that is. I was just so annoyed, I…I—”

“Don’t apologize,” Raheem said.

I’d been wrong about him all along. He should at least let me apologize. It would make me feel more humane than monstrous. “I really am sorry.”

“You said you wished me dead because you were annoyed,” he said. “Annoyed about what exactly?”

“You were an ass,” I said. His subtle nod told me to elaborate. And I complied. “First, you called me a sleep-walker. And as though that wasn’t enough, you regarded me as though I were less than vermin.”

“Bullocks! I made you feel like vermin?”

“Less than vermin.” I corrected. A wry smile stretched my lips.

“Now I admit. I really am an ass.” Mirroring my smile, he raked a hand through his hair. “Would you blame me though? Forced to school here. And as though that wasn’t enough, I had tons of fangirls to deal with. When I should be thinking of a way to convince my dad to join us here where it’s safe.”

I gasped. “Your dad is still in Iraq?”

Raheem raised his brow at me and I knew I’d overstepped boundaries. I took a step back as though the literal move would be any good. “Sorry. But I don’t discuss my family with strangers.”

“Oh,” I said, hoping I looked as indifferent as I sounded.

“Yeah, so, how about we try to be friends? Like get to know each other again?”

“Don’t flatter yourself,” I said. “I don’t think we can ever be. We are from two different worlds.”

“Huh?” Raheem said, his voice drenched with an amusement I couldn’t understand. “Relax, please. I’m not asking for a date or anything. You intrigue me is all. So let’s take a shot at it?”

“I intrigue you?”

“Scratch that. Toria, I want to be your friend. Will you reject me?”

He wanted to be my friend? He had to be teasing. I stared into his eyes for a clue. Anything to give him away. But found him eagerly waiting. The genuinity of his proposal unnerved me. Friendship was no big deal. But Raheem had made it clear from the start that he could go on just fine with close to zero friends. So what had changed?

“Why me?” I blurted out. “You reject everyone else. I should give you a taste of your own medicine.”

“Fair enough.”

Silence built a bridge between us. And while this seemed to unnerve me, I couldn’t say the same about Raheem. Taking his time, he gawked at me as though seeing me for the first time. With folded hands, I looked away, only to hear him burst into laughter.

Before I could ask, he said, “The perfume I wore the first day made you sick and drove you away from me. But today’s perfume seems to win you over.”

I rolled my eyes. He needed more than a good perfume to win me over. “I thought you were going elsewhere? I mean, you were hurrying down the stairs.”

“Yeah, I was headed somewhere. But that won’t be necessary now. I’ve got what I was going to fetch.”

I smiled. Although I knew he’d joked about it.

He smiled back. “There. You should always smile. Hiding your beauty behind a grim face isn’t cool.”

“And hiding the Western High student in you behind stubbles, a stylish hair and unfitting shoes isn’t cool either.”

When he clenched his teeth, I knew I’d struck a nerve. He cleared his throat. “Go get your stuff. I’ll wait for you at the lot.”

I made to speak, but he cut me off. “Unless you want to trek home. But I doubt you have the strength for that. Then again, I’m probably wrong, since you have the strength for this. If you had a wristwatch you’d know the closing bell went off almost an hour ago. Seems you had a hang over at the infirmary. So, are you letting me drive you home?”

Raheem gave me a moment or two to think things over. Walking home would make me arrive an hour late. And my stepmother wouldn’t be pleased. Hell! I was already an hour late. Things wouldn’t go well. And I didn’t want to make it all worse by prolonging my away time. A ride from Raheem would sure he helpful.

“I will find you at the lot,” I said.

“It takes you eons to make up your mind over petty things. How long then would it take you to reply yes to a date?”

“You have to ask to find out,” I said.

“Very well then.” With a rather old fashioned bow, he said, “Go on a date with me?”

“No.”

Grinning, Raheem took a squint at his wristwatch. “Half a split-second. Now let’s see how many split-seconds it takes you to fetch your bag and meet me at the lot.”

He turned on his heels and descended the stairs. I headed for my lockers, grabbed my backpack and strode to the lot. Resting against his car, with dark sunglasses hiding his gorgeous eyes, he acknowledged my presence by glancing at his watch. “Two minutes. Did you run?”

“I need to be home early,” I said. “That’s the only reason I accepted your help.”

“It’s a little too late for that now. Arriving home early, I mean.” He walked around the car and yanked open the front passenger seat. “I’m sure your family would understand you didn’t mean to turn up late.”

I wouldn’t be so sure if I were him. But I wasn’t him. Ignoring the door he held open, I reached for the back door. “I don’t need help getting into a car. And besides, here’s where I’ll be comfortable.”

Raheem watched me climb into the car. Before I could protest, he helped me shut the door. “A gentleman’s got to be a gentleman,” he said, with a subtle shake of his head.

Grateful for the tinted glasses, I smiled as I watched him shut the other door. Once sat behind the steering wheel, he strapped on his seatbelt, started the engine and turned on the air conditioner.

He pulled out of the school premises. “Which way is your house?”

“Left.”

He took a left turn. “Are you okay with the AC?” While he awaited my response, he glanced at me from the rear-view mirror.

“Yes.” Could I say otherwise?

Being here with him, in his car, triggered an unsettling feeling in my stomach, threatening to turn me back into the quiet girl I once was. I found myself counting down to when I’d get home. I hugged myself, embracing the cold. At least, I knew that feeling, as opposed to the foreign ones Raheem triggered.

“So, Cynthia Brown is your sister?” he asked. “Or is it just a coincidence with the surname? Because I see nothing similar between you two.”

“We are sisters,” I said. Although if he asked Cynthia, she would say otherwise.

“Wow,” he said, the word heavy on his lips. “Really. I could never have imagined. That is, without the surname thingy, and the fact that you come to school in the same car. You are both from two different worlds. The only similarity is that you’re both in the same school, same class, you’re both really bright students. And then the surname thing, which leads me to the conclusion that you share the same parents.”

For the next few moments, he kept mum, probably wanting me to speak. It didn’t take long for him to realize I would not sever the silence.

“Twins?” he asked.

“No.”

He raised his head to look at me from the mirror. “Aren’t you both 17?”

“She’s August. I am October.” I knew my honest answer would only make him probe. But what could I do? Lying wasn’t one of my strong points, unfortunately.

“How is that possible?” he asked. “Unless of course, there’s something you aren’t telling me.”

“Of course,” I said, focusing my attention on the road. “Keep going. Straight ahead till you reach the junction. From there, it’s left till you pull over.”

“Got it,” Raheem said. He slid back into the conversation I didn’t want to have with him. “It’s weird. The kind of relationship you have with your sister. Aren’t siblings close? If I had a brother or a sister in my class, we would be really close friends. But that’s not the case with both of you. Problems?”

I didn’t remember being obliged to answer every question he had. Determined to end this conversation without a word, I kept my gaze focused outside. Perhaps when his next questions went unanswered, he would get the message.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “She’ll come around. Siblings fight anyway.”

Not a fight that goes on for a lifetime, I almost said aloud.

“Your parents. What do they do?”

“Mum manages dad’s filing station. She’s home almost 24/7 though, so let’s call her a housewife.”

“Typical. And dad?”

An image of dad came drifting to my mind. I blinked, willing it back to the unlit corner of my mind. I couldn’t dwell on my hurt now. “He’s…late.”

Raheem hadn’t expected a news like this. His quietude told me so. “I’m sorry about that,” he said, his voice comfortingly softer.

I would not let grief ruin every moment of my life. “Now you know everything about me, tell me about you,” I said, tilting the conversation to a safer topic.

Guilt gnawed at me as I realized the dishonesty in my words. I’d made him believe he knew everything about me, when in reality, my life could fill volumes of books, and he barely even knew the first chapter. Then again, did I trust him enough to disclose this to him?

“What can I say?” Raheem started. “We relocated from our country because of the bloodshed and all. Trying to fit in here.”

“Do you like it so far?” I asked.

“So far so good,” Raheem said. “What can I say?”

I remembered he’d held back from telling me about his father because according to him, we were strangers. Now we were friends. And I’d told him about my dad. So he had to. “And your father?”

For a minute or two, Raheem drove silently, focusing on the road as though he hadn’t heard my question.

“That’s not fair now, is it? I told you about my father! And besides, you made me believe that once we became friends, you would tell me.”

“He stayed back,” Raheem said. “He owns a hospital and doesn’t think it proper to leave the sick and injured and flee. We’re trying to make him understand that his place is here. Family must come first. Not some other people. But then again, these people have lives, families, and hope. But still. I don’t know what I’d do if I lost him.”

“Your dad is a hero,” I said. “He will be fine. His good heart and the Almighty will keep him safe. You believe in God, don’t you?”

Raheem didn’t seem pleased with my question. “Do I look like someone who doesn’t?”

“Your dad will be fine.”

“I am scared,” he admitted. And in that moment, an almost irresistible urge to comfort him with more than words tugged at me. “I know my dad is a hero. But this isn’t fantasy, Victoria. This isn’t fiction. This is real life. A place where heroes don’t live to tell the tale—”

“Hush,” I chided. “Don’t say things like that.”

“But it’s true. And you know it. I’m just really scared, and I can’t help it. I know I sound overly emotional, but I ring him every minute. Hearing his voice and knowing he’s alright is what keeps me going.”

“I know this is hard for you, but trust me on this one,” I said. “He will be fine. He will come back to you.”

“He better,” he said. “Or I swear I’ll go get him myself.”

Going back there would be suicide. How could he let such thoughts cross his mind? If he didn’t fear death, he should at least consider those who cared about him. “Tell me you’re kidding.”

“I won’t be kidding when things get rougher than they are now and—” He trailed off, his eyes burning into something on the other side of the road. I followed his gaze and found a teenage girl hanging around with an boy most likely in his mid twenties. But why were they the object of his fury?

Pulling over, Raheem yanked off his seatbelt. “Wait here.”

He darted out of the car, and made his way through the busy road. Honks blared at him, but he paid them no mind, not even slowing his stride till he reached the couple.

Once there, he pulled the younger girl away from the boy. Glowering at him, he spat out some noticeably unfriendly words. With every word, he jabbed his right pointer toward the boy. And although I strained my ears, I could not make out a single word.

“Have you lost your mind?” the boy said, his voice only loud enough to reach my ears.

Raheem spoke, his voice still inaudible. In a flash, his hands lashed out, away from the girl, and shoved the boy. The boy jumped a step backward, and the next moment, he lunged forward, poised to retaliate.

The girl sprang forward, placing herself between the furious boys. “Please, Iyke. Let it go.”

The fight, whatever had triggered it, had drawn the attention of many. I stared, unblinking, trying to figure out what relationship he had with the girl.

“Stay away from us,” Raheem roared. “Or the next time, it won’t be funny.” Grabbing the girl by the wrist, he led her toward the car. She turned back to give her other friend one last glance.

Raheem let go of her as they neared the car. He stood by the driver’s seat and waited for her to occupy the front passenger seat, but she just stood there, gripping the handle and glowering at him.

“Get in right this minute, Farah Kadir!” Although he’d tuned down his voice, it still rumbled with rage.

The girl, Farah, yanked open the door and plopped down on the seat. Raheem did the same, the slam of his door echoing his sister’s. Without a word, he started the engine.

Moments passed, and no one said a thing. If it were up to Farah alone, the silence would last an eon. Arms folded defiantly, she looked out the window. She could be mistaken for a Nigerian, save for her reddish brown hair and her accent.

“I can’t believe this,” Raheem said, more to himself. He obviously didn’t want to use the menacing tune he’d used on the other boy with his sister, and so he’d stayed quiet to extinguish the rage burning intensely inside of him. “You aren’t fully recovered and can’t start school. But you’re fit to hang around with Iyke! Hell! You’re starting school on Monday!”

“I am yet to recover,” Farah yelled.

“Do not infuriate me with your lie!” Raheem retorted. “How come you were even with him anyway?”

“He came over.”

“What? Mum let him? Good lord! You’re only thirteen!”

“Fourteen!” Farah corrected.

Raheem flicked his right hand. “Whatever!”

“You’re forgetting he’s our cousin,” Farah muttered.

“Do not call that son of a gun my cousin!” Although Raheem did a good job at keeping his voice calm, the menace lingering in it didn’t escape my notice. “You know what kind of life he lives. Smoking and heavy drinking and gambling. Not to mention wild partying and his criminal records. Is that the kind of a person you want to associate with? I’m having a word with mum as soon as we’re home. She is never to let him meet with you again. Unless under my supervision.”

Farah let out an animated grunt. “Good lord. Why do I have a big brother?”

“Because you need someone to stop you from walking into hell,” Raheem said.

“There is no way I’m starting school on Monday,” Farah said. “Those kids will laugh at my inability to hear without an additional pair or ears.”

She had a hearing disability? I could never have guessed she relied on hearing aids. Surely, if I hadn’t noticed, then the kids at school wouldn’t either.

“Curse that stupid bomb,” Farah said, dissolving into tears.

“Had you stayed home like I asked you to, your ears would be intact!” Raheem fumed. “But you! You had to sneak out to see a movie! A very lame movie. As though you would die without it. And did you see it in the end? No!”

“Don’t remind me,” Farah said. “Please. Now, I regret stepping out that day. I regret sneaking out. I wouldn’t have. I didn’t know.”

“You didn’t know?” Raheem’s voice soared. “Just how many times did I ask you not to leave home once you were back from school?”

“It could have happened anytime!” Farah yelled. “Even when we were going to school!”

“But it didn’t! What if I had lost you? Do you think I can cope with that? Do you think mum can live through another loss? She hasn’t even gotten over Uncle’s death! You didn’t even think of that, did you? Now, you’re out with Iyke. Despite my warning to stay away from that no-good boy. You never learn to listen to elders, do you?”

“Don’t sound like a sage,” Farah said. “You’re only 17!”

Raheem raised his eyes to the rear-view mirror, and they met mine, making me shrink back in fear. I’d listened in on a rather private conversation, knowing more than I should. What next?

“You said after the junction, it’s left?” he asked.

Dazed by Raheem’s question, Farah turned away from the window. She still hadn’t realized a third presence. Not until she heard my response. “Yes.”

Her head snapped in my direction. I noticed her green eyes, just like Raheem’s. “What? There’s someone—?” She turned to face Raheem. A smack on his upper arm made him grunt.

“What the hell?” he asked.

“You should have told me we were not alone,” she whined. “I would have put on my best act, saving the drama for when we got home. Now you’ve made me mess up my first meeting with her. God know the impression she has of me now.”

“Sorry,” Raheem said. “You should have told me the bomb also damaged your sight.”

Ignoring him, Farah returned her focus to me. “She’s beautiful!” She twisted around in her seat and trapped my hand in a firm handshake. “I’m Farah!”

I beamed at the little darling. “Victoria.”

With a gasp, she gripped Raheem’s shoulder and wiggled her full brows. Ignoring her, Raheem hummed a tone.

She returned her attention to me. “Sorry. I didn’t know someone else was here. I’m sorry you had to listen to such messy conversation. Raheem and I, we’re always like that. But I’m still his little cupcake.”

“I’m sorry about the war,” I said.

“Blah,” she said. “It’s okay. Like, I get to mute him out when he talks too much. I just yank out my additional ears and ta-da! I don’t hear a thing he spits out. That’s an advantage.”

Raheem hadn’t stopped humming.

“He’s told me a lot about you,” Farah said.

“Farah!” Raheem warned.

“This boy, he tells me everything. Sometimes I wonder what I am. A human diary?” Flipping back her hair, she went on, “When he told me you got sick, I knew it had to be that cursed perfume of his. To be honest, it makes me sick too. “

“Farah!”

“And then I asked him to use mine,” Farah went on. “After much persuasion, he did. He said he was going to approach you and note your reaction. He said if you reacted to that one as well, he would stop using fragrances, because obviously, he was planning to get close to you.”

“I am going to kill you,” Raheem muttered under his breath.

Farah chuckled. “Not before I kill you with this exciting behind-the-scenes, sweet brother. You should be indebted to me ‘cause my bottled love potion worked, and now she’s coming home with us.”

“She’s not coming to our house,” Raheem said.

Farah’s face dropped. “What?” When she got no further response from Raheem, she turned to look at me, her eyes cute like a puppy’s. “You aren’t?

I shook my head. She pouted. “But…but…why?”

Raheem didn’t seem half as affected as Farah, which I found weird, because Farah barely even knew me.

“Because she has a home,” Raheem said.

Farah’s face lit up. “Oh, you’re giving her a ride then?” Rubbing her palms together, she squealed. “Amazing! Raheem never gives any girl a ride. Private space intrusion. What has changed?”

Raheem played deaf to her question. But at least he had stopped humming that dreadful tune. The sign board of Crystal Avenue stole my attention, and my joy. If it were up to me, I’d stay forever in the company of my two new friends.

“Uhm…I am okay here,” I forced myself to say.

“Here?” Raheem echoed, his gaze locked on the street. He slowed down, and it took forever for him to brake the car. “Are you sure?”

His question almost made me laugh out loud. How wouldn’t I be sure where I lived? I could tell he also wished I could stay longer, but his ego would never let him admit it.

“Where is your house?” Farah asked. “If it’s inside the street, I’m sure my brother doesn’t mind. Let us drop you at your gate.”

“No,” I gasped. “No. Please. It’s trouble.”

“No,” Farah insisted. “It’s no trouble. I’m sure Raheem would be honored.” She cast her brother a side-glance, willing him to speak. Raheem said nothing. He just held the steering wheel in a death grip and stared straight ahead.

“My stepmother is going to kill me!” I said, my voice giving away my fright.

“Okay,” Raheem said. “Bye.”

“Bye.” Flashing Farah a smile, I opened the door and made to climb out of the car.

“Hey,” Farah called. “Can I have your number? I’m sure my brother is dying to ask for it, but he’s too arrogant for his comfort.”

“I don’t have a phone, Farah.”

Farah held her breath. She looked over at Raheem, and when he didn’t return her stare, she redirected her stunned gaze to me. “Are you serious? Who doesn’t have a phone in 2017?”

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Outing

“If you love her as much as you claim, then just take her with you.”

A huge fist slammed into me, forcing me to bolt upright in bed, a shriek escaping my throat. My heart beat furiously, aiming to burst out of my chest. I registered the state of my body, and the bed on which I’d spent the night, now dripping wet.

The sound of plastic smacking the floor hit my ears, bringing my attention to the figure on the threshold, looking daggers at me. Beside her, a bucket laid on its side; the bucket she had emptied on me a while ago.

“Good morning,” I greeted my stepmother.

Snapping her fingers, she said, “Get up, you lazy bone!”

Moving like a robot, I sprang to my feet just as the words left her mouth. Head hanging low, hands held behind my back, I awaited her next order. I stared endlessly as the water from my body raced to pool around my feet.

“You are to do the dishes, launder my clothes and Cynthia’s, scrub the floors, clean the entire compound and wash the cars right away. Only when you’re done can you have breakfast. Did I forget to mention anything?”

“The glassware,” I reminded.

“And the toilets,” she said. “I will be back to inspect. And if on my return, I find that you skipped anything, I will—“

A knock at the gate cut her off. Before she could bark out an order, I brushed past her, and towards the gate, dripping water everywhere I walked through.

Just before I opened the gate, the visitor knocked again. Taken aback by the person I found behind the gate, I could only gasp. I certainly hadn’t been expecting my fairy godmother. My stepmother wouldn’t like this one bit. But despite this, a smile tore through my lips.

“Good morning, fairy godmother.”

She did not return my smile. Her gaze locked on my drenched clothes. “What is this?”

I looked away sheepishly. “I’m a heavy sweater when I sleep.” After she’d stepped in, I moved to lock the gate, grateful for a chance to hide my face so she couldn’t see through my lie.

She tugged at my arm, her eyes flying wide. “I know you, Victoria. All week, I watched you sleep for no less than four hours at a time. And you certainly aren’t a heavy sweater. Besides, you sweat all over your hair too?”

“I—”

She shook her head. “Tsk. Tsk. If I find that that witch did this to you, I swear, it’ll be an eye for an eye.”

Without another word, she darted for my room. I trailed after her. The door to my room flew open and she burst in, halting almost immediately as she found the emptied bucket and the drenched bed.

“That woman has certainly over done it this time,” she fumed. “And she will get what she’s asking for.”

Shaking her head, she picked up the bucket. I had no idea what she planned to do. But I knew it would be nothing to smile about. “Stella, please.”

She raised her non-dominant hand, splaying her fingers in a stop gesture. Her other fingers bowed, leaving only the pointer to poke my shoulder. “Don’t even say a word,” she said, her voice cold as death. “Now, show me to the kitchen at once!”

I’d never thought a day would come when I’d be conflicted about obeying my fairy godmother. She’d always been friendly, an angel. But today, I saw a different side of her.

“Show me to the kitchen, I said!”

Unable to hold her flaming gaze, I looked away, swallowing hard. “This…way.”

While I led her to the kitchen, she said, “An eye for an eye!”

A sudden realization sent a shiver down my spine as she headed for the fridge. She would empty bottles of cold water into the bucket and empty the bucket on someone.

“You will show me to Cynthia’s room,” she said.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I can’t.”

Stella smiled a threatening smile. She tugged at my arm. Gripping it hard, she ushered me toward the door, but I didn’t budge. “I can not,” I maintained. “I won’t.”

“Very well then. I guess it won’t be difficult to find that step-sister of yours.” Letting go of my arm, she started off toward the rooms. The first three doors showed her to empty rooms. And the next…

My heart shattered as she yanked it open. Cynthia lay in her air-conditioned room, on her king-sized bed, sleeping amidst pillows and teddy bears. Stella advanced to her.

“Cynthia!” I called, my voice high enough to wake the dead.

Cynthia’s eyes flew open just in time to watch the ruthlessly cold water lunge at her. She’d tried to roll to safety, but didn’t stand a chance. Drenched, she sprang out of bed.

“What is the meaning of this?” she screamed. “How dare you insult me like this? What is the meaning of this?”

Stella flung the bucket at Cynthia’s feet. On impulse, Cynthia side-stepped. The watery floor made her slip. I gasped as she hit the floor with a painful thud. Sat helplessly on the floor, and drenched to the bones, she wailed like a woman who’d just received news of her husband’s death.

I made to help her, but Stella held me back. “Her mother will come.”

“What have you done?” I asked.

Cynthia wailed on. She made no attempt to get off the floor. Obviously, she wanted her mum to find her in this state. This spelt trouble.

“What’s happening here?” My stepmother’s voice boomed.

“Mummy,” Cynthia whimpered. Catching sight of her, her mother rushed to kneel beside her.

“My baby. What happened? Who did this to you?” She helped Cynthia get on her feet. Holding her in an embrace, she patted her back. “Come now, mummy is here. It’s fine now.”

Stella smirked. “Now we’re even.”

Glaring at Stella, my stepmother disentangled from the embrace. Her right hand lashed out, aiming for Stella’s face. My breath caught in my throat. But the slap never landed.

Stella gripped her hand, suspending it in the air, her eyes matching my stepmother’s. “Don’t you dare.”

It took a few moments for Stella to detach her hand. She trusted my stepmother would not make another move. And for the sake of both women, I hoped so. I looked between the two women. Standing on the other side, Cynthia did the same.

“So, it hurts you to see your daughter abused. And yet, you do the same to someone else’s child. A child who should be like a daughter to you! You go ahead and abuse her without any qualms. In the same way you carried your daughter in your womb for nine months, someone carried Victoria. She did not just fall from the sky. Neither was she born by an animal. No! She was born by a woman like you. And you go ahead and abuse her with no feeling of remorse? How could you be so evil?”

“I will not let you come into my house and insult me,” my stepmother said.

“And I will not let you insult your stepdaughter and her mother’s good name!” Stella said. “Once or twice, I met her mum at the orphanage. And she spoke of how it broke her heart to see the less privileged suffer. I will not watch you subject her child to the very same life she didn’t want for other children.”

“If you love her as much as you claim, then just take her with you,” Cynthia suggested.

Stella seemed to consider Cynthia’s offer. “I would if I could. But that would mean her leaving the house for you and your mother, wouldn’t it?”

“What do you want?” my stepmother asked. “Why are you here?”

“I’m only here to remind you of the deal you signed. You best take it seriously. Tomorrow, I will be leaving for the Uk—”

Unable to conceal their excitements, Cynthia and her mother glanced at each other.

“But I am not leaving her unprotected,” Stella went on. “And the deal remains. You do well to remember that. I will have people on the lookout for any form of abuse. And I will appoint a guardian in my place. So you best not get any ideas.”

Cynthia looked between her mum and Stella. “Mum, say something. How can you just let her threaten us in our own house?”

“It’s not a threat,” Stella clarified. “When I threaten, trust me, you’ll know of it. That said, today is my last day here in Nigeria, and so I am taking her out with me.”

“You will not—” My stepmother started.

“It is my understanding that your daughter goes out with friends as she pleases,” Stella said. “So, why can’t your other daughter do the same?”

After moments of unnerving silence, my stepmother said, “Return her by noon.”

“I will bring her before nightfall,” Stella said. “And don’t worry about chores. I’m sure Cynthia knows how to keep a house in order.” Taking me by the hand, she led me to my room.

The scene in Cynthia’s room revolved around my mind. What had I gotten myself into? Would they not kill me once I returned home? Would Stella be with me then? No. I would be all alone to feel my stepmother’s wrath. And after what Stella had done, they would sure hate me.

Oblivious to the danger she’d placed me in, Stella rummaged through my closet. “Goodness gracious. It’s almost unbelievable that the very same woman who abuses you cares enough to give you a fitting wardrobe.”

A smile tugged at my lips. “She wants her public to believe she treats me the same way she treats her daughter.”

“That sure is something,” Stella said. “Go freshen up while I find a perfect outfit for our outing.

“I’m afraid I can’t go,” I said.

“What?”

“My stepmother—”

Stella snapped. “I am not listening to your silly talks! You will go freshen up and prepare for our outing. Look at you, your father’s death has you locked up in this woman’s cage. You don’t even know what fun is anymore. You only do the things she let you do. Chores. Chores. School. And more chores. Where’s the fun in this?”

“I have fun,” I defended. “I have fun at school with my friends.”

Stella rolled her eyes. “Great. You could also say you have fun with the rats and roaches while doing your chores.”

“That too,” I smiled.

“I’m done listening to this. You are going out with me, Victoria Brown. And I will not take no for an answer. Come on, this is my last day here. Would you actually deny me my last wish?” She batted her lashes at me.

When she put it like that, how could I turn her down? “I need to hurry with my chores then.”

“Vicky dear, you shouldn’t worry yourself,” she said. “I want today to be a holiday for you. Cynthia will do the chores.”

“You don’t understand. It wouldn’t feel right to just walk away, leaving the chores undone. Please. I promise I’ll be fast.”

Stella weighed my request for a moment or two. “Fine then.”

Rushing through my chores, shower and breakfast, I joined Stella in her car in approximately three hours time. “I’m sorry I took so long.”

“It’s okay,” she said. “The movie doesn’t begin till twelve.”

“We are going to see a movie?” My eyes beamed with excitement.

“A movie called Cinderella Retold,” she said. “It’s new.”

Moments later, we were sat in a the near-darkness of a theatre, gazing expectantly at the screen before us. The movie, like my life, was a reenactment of Cinderella. Set in Salem, Massachusetts, during the Witch Hunt period, the movie revolved around a young orphan abused by her stepmother and two half sisters. At a ball, Michael Huntington, the priest/executioner’s son fell for the mysterious girl who disappeared at midnight, leaving behind a glass slipper. Upon knowing Cinderella was the girl after Michael’s heart, her evil family framed her as a witch and delivered to the priest for execution.

Things would heat up, making us gasp and almost fall off the edges of our seats. But like all fairytales, a happily ever after climaxed the movie. The villains were made to suffer. The hero got the girl. And they lived happily ever after.

“That’s the best movie I’ve seen in years!” Stella exclaimed as we stepped out of the theatre. “It’s such a bold retelling of Cinderella. Did you like it?”

Who wouldn’t? Everyone was crazy about the movie. They wouldn’t be so excited if they were the ones living a Cinderella reenactment though.

“It’s a great movie,” I said.

Draping an arm over my shoulders, Stella led me to the cafeteria. She sat across from me. “Do you know why I wanted you to see that movie?”

“Because she goes through hell just like me?” I guessed.

“Not quite,” she said. “I wanted you to see her overcome every obstacle, climb every hill, live through every disappointment, and emerge victorious. I wanted you to see her forge ahead even after aunt Maggie, her supposed fairy godmother abandoned her when she was accused of being a witch. It is truly a great movie.”

“It is inspirational,” I agreed.

I made to reply, when a waiter advanced to us. “Good afternoon,” he said, more to Stella. A well-practiced smile lit up his face. “What would you like?”

“Chicken and chips should do.” Stella said. “What drinks are available? Chapman?”

The waiter nodded.

“Chapman it is then,” Stella decided. “And a bottle of water.”

The waiter wrote down Stella’s orders in his notepad. Turning to look at me, he said, “And you, miss?”

“Same, please” I said.

“Whatever they’re having, make it for four,” I heard a sweet voice say. Farah. Raheem stood beside her, his face as though he’d died in a dream.

Acknowledging Stella’s presence, she said, “Hello.”

“What are you doing here?” Farah half-squealed at me, muting out Stella’s and Raheem’s greetings.

“We saw a movie,” I said.

“Same here! Raheem and I saw Cinderella Retold. That movie is just amazing! I could watch it over and over again.”

“Raheem saw the movie?” I asked, puzzled. I could never have tagged him as one for cheesy love stories.

“I am not one for such movies,” Raheem said. “She forced me to come along. The movie was crappy.”

Farah nudged him with her arm. “Liar.”

“I’d rather be at home playing,” Raheem said.

“He’s only putting up an act. He enjoyed the movie.”

“I know. Everyone did.”

Farah made to join us, but Raheem tugged at her arm. Forcing an overly formal smile, he said, “We’ll sit at our own table. We wouldn’t want to bother them. Enjoy your day, please.” His eyes begged that we backed him up.

“Actually, it’s no bother.” Stella smirked at the beat up look on Raheem’s face as Farah hurried to occupy the seat beside mine. Left without a choice, Raheem occupied the last seat. He cast Farah a not-so-pleasant glance that made me wonder how they survived at home.

The waiter returned with our order. Once he placed them on our desks, Farah started getting acquitted with hers. Noticing Stella staring intently at Farah, Raheem introduced, “She’s Farah. My kid sister.”

“Wow, I can see so much resemblance,” Stella said. “It’s great to meet you, Farah. I am—”

“The school nurse,” Farah cut in. “Oh, please, tell me I’m right!” She clapped a palm over her eyes, but I could see her peeking at Stella from the space between her fingers.

“I am she,” Stella said, half-giggling. “I’m just curious about how you could tell.”

Plastering an ear-to-ear grin on her face, Farah uncovered her eyes. “With vivid descriptions like the ones Raheem gives, even the king of fools could tell who he speaks of. For example, I haven’t seen the principal yet. But I know to expect a slightly overweight man, his skin as burned chocolate, his hair, styled as an afro, a mix of black and white. And then he’s five foot seven. He walks as though every step was a punishment. And then there’s Sir Aaron, a man of stone—”

Stella stared at her, wide-eyed.

“…he lives in his own world and doesn’t even—”

“Farah!” Raheem warned.

Farah recoiled in an attempt to escape Raheem’s fiery gaze. “Uhm…yeah?”

“Can you just shut up and eat?” Raheem snapped.

Farah pressed a finger to her lips. “Oops. Sorry.”

With the new found silence, we all had time to dig into our snacks. Farah finished first. She swept her eyes around the table, aching to speak. I could tell it wouldn’t take long for her to break the silence.

“Who could have thought Raheem Kadir could actually make friends?” she thought aloud with a smirk. Glad to have my attention and Stella’s she went on, “In our former school, he almost never said a word. I’m just really surprised he’s actually making friends now. Loner!”

“I’m not—” Raheem started.

Farah didn’t give him a chance to speak. “Oh, shush. The only friend you ever had is your guitar.”

“There was Malik, Yusuf and Karmani,” Raheem said.

“Only because you were all in a band,” Farah said.

“Wait,” Stella said. “Raheem is a singer?”

Farah beamed at herself for steering the conversation in this direction.

Raheem nodded. “I’m in a band. Impaling Sedation.”

“I’ve never heard of it,” Stella said.

“I don’t expect you to,” he said. “The band’s popularity never crossed Iraq. We mostly played at clubs, dinners and some shows. We were meant to do a really huge audition. But then the war came, shattering our dreams.”

Stella seemed genuinely interested. I could never have guessed she was a huge fan of music. “Are your songs on the internet? Perhaps you could send me a link? I want to watch you sing. I’m a fan of rock myself.”

“Cool,” Farah said. “Do you like Bring me the Horizon?”

“That’s one of my top rated,” Stella said.

“Perfect,” Farah said, rubbing her palms together. “Then you’ll love Raheem’s band, I assure you. His band is bomb!”

I can only imagine,” Stella said.

“Can you heal my heart,” Farah sang. “It’s bleeding. Can you fix my soul, It’s broken—”

“Quit ruining my song,” Raheem warned.

Farah pouted. “Oh, come on. I’m just trying to—”

“Don’t.”

“Okay then, sing.”

“I’m not singing. That’s the lead singer’s job. Not the guitarist’s.”

Rising to her feet, Farah clapped her hands to gain everyone’s attention. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sure you wouldn’t mind a little background music, would you?”

“Farah, what are you doing?” Raheem whispered between clenched teeth.

Farah played deaf. Lighting up her face with an enchanting smile, she pulled in her observers. “With us here is a rockstar who’s dying to share his music. He represents a male fronted rock band called ‘Impaling Sedation’. Will you deny him the chance to sing? Please put your hands together if you want to witness this life show today when it’s free.”

A roar of applause followed Farah’s request. Energized, by the encouraging noise, she introduced in a full bloom scream, “Give it up for…Ra-Heeeeem!”

She gestured at Raheem and winked at him. Raheem swept his eyes around the room. Everyone waited eagerly.

Whimpering, he bounced in his seat. Farah giggled. My sixth sense told me she’d kicked him. If he didn’t get up and feed the crowd with quality music, I had a feeling he would be kicked again.

Please don’t disappoint, please don’t disappoint, I chanted to myself.

Raheem rose to his feet and waved at the crowd. “I’ll…uhm…I’ll go grab my guitar.”

The audience seemed to be okay with his hurried departure. Either that, or they didn’t want to watch him, but didn’t want to make Farah feel bad.

“What if he doesn’t come back?” I asked. For the past five minutes, I’d been training my eyes on the door.

“You shouldn’t worry,” Farah said. “He wouldn’t want to miss this, trust me. He loves performing.”

Stella tilted her head toward the door. “There he is.”

With an electric guitar strapped to him, Raheem strode back into view. Strumming his guitar, he sauntered towards the counter, his temporary stage.

“Can you heal my heart,” he sang. His voice brimmed with colorless emotions, causing my heart to sink. “It’s bleeding.”

More than half of the audience held their phones in the air, recording the live show. Now more than ever, I wished I had a phone.

Raheem clutched his guitar, like it were the most important thing in the world, like his life depended on it. With his head hung and his eyes shut, he strummed his guitar, sending off a haunting echo of his song’s intro. Was he in pain?

Working a magic I couldn’t fathom, he switched his guitar notes from painfully quiet to one I could almost dance to. I listened intently to the lyrics as he sang on, faster this time:

Can you heal my heart

It’s bleeding

Can you fix my soul

It’s broken

The intensity of his voice awed me into breathlessness. When he finally raised his eyes to the audience, they settled on me. His song had me thinking. Who had broken his heart?

Can you feel this deep despair

A void in my chest

Where I once had a heart

Until you came along

Ripping it with your lies

With your lies

“Wow,” Stella exclaimed. “He is just…wow.”

“His voice,” I said. “It’s so…intense.”

“He’s my personal Oliver Sykes!” Farah said. “Doesn’t he remind you of him?”

“Never heard of him,” I said.

Farah seemed stunned. “You don’t know Bring me the Horizon? He’s the band’s lead singer.”

I wanted to believe Raheem had just composed his song without anyone in mind. But the pain evident in his voice exposed me to the other possibility. “Raheem’s song, what’s it called?”

“Your lies,” Farah said.

“It’s a sad song,” I said. There. The perfect bait. If he’d written the song for someone, Farah would tell me.

“It sure is,” Farah said, watching Raheem’s show. Moments passed, and she said nothing.

I didn’t want to come off as nosy, but I had to get Farah to tell me. It probably didn’t matter if he’d written that song for someone, but I had to know. “Who’s it for?”

“Jameela,” she said. She seemed to have been expecting my question. “She used to be their lead singer. She had a thing for Raheem. But then, there was Austin, a transfer student. At first, Raheem kept his distance because he thought Austin and Jameela were an item.”

My mind filtered Farah’s last sentence, and chose to revolve around the first two words. At first. At first, Raheem kept his distance. At first. This only meant he didn’t succeed in the end.

“But she said they were just friends,” Farah continued. “Everyone thought it best for Raheem to go for it. When I say everyone, I mean me, mum, and the other band members, who were at that time his only friends. As for dad, he was just indifferent about the whole thing. Well anyway, it turned out that Jameela wasn’t the angel we thought her to be. She and Austin were an item, and we only found out after he confronted Raheem, which had a very ugly end. He started a very scary fight that led to him being suspended, and Raheem expelled. Jameela didn’t know how to face Raheem after that, and so she left the band. That was how he came up with the song. With your lies. He never had a chance to perform it, though. The war came along.”

“…with your lies,” Raheem said the final line of his song. He bowed at the overly excited crowd slamming their palms together with beaming faces.

I joined in the applause. “He’s good at what he does.”

“More, more, more!” a kid squealed.

“Sing us another song,” a man supported.

“Okay,” Raheem said. “I’m singing just one more. For the kid. This one is called ‘Highway to Yesterday.’”

“This is my favorite Impaling Sedation song,” Farah said. “You are so going to love this one, guys.”

As long as it didn’t involve some girl from Raheem’s past, I sure would.

And I did love it.

Drawn by Raheem’s song, a crowd streaked in through the door, doubling the audience. They bobbed their heads up and down as they watched him use his voice to the fullest. Girls screamed out in sheer excitement as they watched him stomp and stagger. This part made me scowl. Rockstar Raheem had killer moves. But did the girls have to be so obvious about it?

Raheem sang on, strumming so hard as though unleashing all his pent up anger on the guitar. His dramatic picking made the crowd cheer even wilder. When he sang the chorus for the third time, everyone sang along as though they’d known the song all their lives. I did too.

At the end of the chorus, Raheem strummed even harder, spinning his head around in circles wild enough to break a bone or two. Moves like this deserved the ‘kids, do not try this at home’ caption.

I feared for Raheem’s neck. An end to his head banging session made me release the breath I’d been holding. I’d expected him to show a sliver of fatigue after rotating his head so fiercely. But he went on just fine.

“Incredible!” I cried out.

For a dramatic effect, Raheem threw his guitar in the air. My breath caught as I watched it flip right back into position. I wished Raheem’s show could go on forever. But just like every other good thing, it ended. Once again, I joined the crowd in a thunderous applause. This time, I rose to my feet while I clapped.

An outrageous crowd of Raheem’s new fans—most of which were girls—closed in on him, blocking him out of my line of sight.

“What are they doing?” I asked.

“The expected,” Farah said. “They are no doubt taking his number so they can be present at his next show.”

“Will there be a next?” I asked.

“Didn’t you see the look on his face?” she asked. “I’m sure he can’t wait to do this all over again!”

Staring intently at Raheem’s fans, Stella said to Farah, “If Raheem lives through his fans, tell him we enjoyed his show.”

“You’re leaving?” Farah’s face dulled as she watched Stella signal the waiter.

“Yeah,” Stella said.

“You’ll be in school on Monday, won’t you?” I asked.

Farah sighed. “I’ll try.”

The waiter strode to us, his well-trimmed smile still on his face. Receiving our bill from Stella, he made to speak, but she beat him to it. “Keep the change.”

“You are so kind,” the waiter said. “I hope you enjoyed dining here.”

“Why, yes we did,” Stella said.

The waiter directed his attention to Farah. “Thank you for the quality entertainment you initiated. Our customers are extremely satisfied today. I’m sure the manager will seek to hire him. He’s a fine young man.

“He sure is,” Stella said. We simultaneously vacated our seats. Waving Farah goodbye, we made for the exit.

I turned around to cast Raheem one last glance, and perhaps wave him goodbye as well, but his fans were bent on building a wall around him. With a sigh, I walked away.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Sisters

“She’s been going all around Facebook, speaking of her huge crush on that new Iraqi guy who thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes.”

“Now I’m hollow. Ho-ho-ho-ho-hollow.”

I probably made one or two mistakes with the tune, but that didn’t stop me from singing the song that had overwhelmed me ever since the show.

Standing behind the parapet had become my weekday ritual. I loved watching the day get brighter. It thrilled me to see the sun peek through the clouds; to see a new day unfold. In a few minutes, the now graveyard-quiet building would be filled with life and hyperactivity, bringing an end to my quality time with nature.

Raheem’s song played on in my head:

Burn. Burn. Burn out

B-b-b-b-burn out

On a highway to nowhere

In the absence of words, I hummed the rest of the song till the chorus came up again. “Now I’m hollow. Ho-ho-ho-ho—”

A pair of palms clamped down on my eyes, forcing a gasp out of my mouth. Even without turning around, I could tell who it was. “Raheem.”

“And I thought Farah was the only one who murdered my song,” he teased. Peeling his palms away from my eyes, he leaned against the parapet.

“Hello yourself,” I said. “It seems you survived your fanbase attack.”

“Aye,” he said. “You left me there to die, didn’t you?”

“My bad,” I said.

“Did you like my performance?” he asked. “Yes? No? Maybe?”

“I didn’t like it,” I said. “I loved it.”

“That’s a blessing. I shouldn’t have sang the first song, though. In the middle of it, I realized that by performing that song, I’d given Farah a story to tell.” He seemed depressed, although he tried hard to hide it.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

His brows knitted. “Sorry?”

“About Jameela.”

“Oh.” He looked away.

Feeling a presence behind us, we turned around to see Cynthia scowling at us. She looked like she could fight a bull. And win. Without a word, she stormed off into class.

“What’s up with her?” Raheem asked.

I wish I knew. “Don’t try to understand her. I’ve failed at it for years.”

“Wow,” he said. “Okay. Warning heeded. And about Jameela, you don’t have to be sorry now, do you?”

“I’m just sorry she hurt you,” I said. “You’ll move on with someone new though.”

“About moving on, yeah, I already have,” he said. “And about moving on with someone new, I doubt that. They’re all the same.”

“You shouldn’t think like that,” I said.

“How then should I think?” he asked, running his fingers through his hair in a frustration that melted my heart. “I said it once and I’m saying it again. They are all the same. If you disagree, what can I say? I don’t possibly expect you to be on my side anyway. You’re one of them.”

“Not all girls are like that,” I defended. “If one person hurt you, that doesn’t mean every other girl would. As our faces differ, so our personalities differ. We all are different individuals. Do not generalize or you’d be making a fatal mistake.”

“So, not every girl is like that?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Prove it.”

“What?”

“I want you to prove to me that not every girl is like that,” he said, his voice decidedly slow, making every word sink.

“What?” I scoffed. “How? How can I possibly prove a thing like this?”

A look of disappointment spread across his face “If you don’t want to, it’s fine. But then I’d be having a wrong perception of your kind, and it would be all your fault because you didn’t even try to alter this perception.”

“I already told you we are different individuals,” I said.

“And I already told you I want proof,” he insisted.

“How on earth—” I paused midsentence as realization sank in. “Wait…there’s only one way to prove this. Wait. Am I wrong in thinking that this is your way of asking me on a date, Raheem Kadir?”

“What?” Raheem exclaimed.

“You are trying to get me to date you, aren’t you?”

Raheem rubbed his chin in a way that could make any girl’s stomach dance flip-flops. Problem is, I wasn’t just any girl.

“Am I?” he asked, winking at me.

“Pretty much looks like it,” I said, feigning oblivion to the flutter of butterflies in my stomach.

“Don’t get any ideas,” Raheem said. “If I wanted to date you, I would come out open. This is me wanting you to prove something. And what if I was actually asking you on a date? What if I was asking you to help undo the emotional wreckage Meela caused?”

“You wouldn’t,” I said. Before he could respond, I changed the topic. “Did Farah come?”

“Yes,” Raheem said. “Hmm. Nice try, though. But I must tell you, it isn’t so easy trying to change topics when you’re with me. Alas! It’s impossible. Unless, of course, I’m in support of you changing the topic. And in this case, I obviously haven’t even thought of that.”

“First period will begin in a few moments,” I said. “Let me go say hi to her. Sophomore, right?”

Heaving a sigh, he gave in. “Yes. Science class.”

I headed for Farah’s class. Indistinct voices of girls chatting away drifted to my hearing as I approached. Filtering the voices, my ears picked up Farah’s. “Really, you guys should go see the movie sometime. My brother acts like he’s made of stone, but he totally loved the movie. And that says a lot!”

I stood in the doorway and watched her, gesticulating away with her heart as she conversed with two of her peers. The girls waved me hello. Farah turned around to see the object of her friends’ attention. A grin broke out on her face and she jogged toward me. Once within range, she wrapped her arms around me as though we were bestfriends separated by the Iraqi war.

She pulled away from the embrace, but didn’t let go of my hands. “This school isn’t the boring hellhole I thought it was! Raheem really does paint horrible pictures of everyone and everything. Well, except you.”

I led her away from the door, giving room to those streaking into the classroom. “Except me?”

Farah clicked her tongue and waved off my question. “Never mind that. Seriously, though, school’s so cool. I mean, I met this Nigerian girl called Harmony, and then there’s Mandy, another girl who left Iraq. She wasn’t in my former school though. Guess what? I think I have found my new bffs. They’re so cool. They love the same stuff I love.”

I smiled at her excitement. “I’m happy you love the school.”

“Me too.”

“Alright, I just came to say hi. We’ll see later.”

“During recess?” she suggested.

“Yeah,” I said. “Have a nice day.”

“You too.”

Waving her goodbye, I advanced toward my classroom. Thoughts of Raheem’s proposal overwhelmed my mind. Raheem Kadir had asked me on a date. He wanted me to help undo the emotional wreckage Meela had caused.

When he’d told me about his dad’s stay in Iraq, an almost irresistible urge to comfort him with more than words had tugged at me. And now, the same emotion overwhelmed me when I thought of what Meela had done to him.

I could understand his devastation. He saw every girl as the same. Manipulators. Liars. Cheats. And I couldn’t blame him. Most girls were that way. But I wasn’t. I could never hurt one’s feelings on purpose. And he probably knew that already.

He’d asked me out under the pretense of needing proof. I could say yes under the pretense of wanting to prove this to him. I liked him after all, and he seemed to like me too, at least to an extent.

A few steps ahead of me, Cynthia approached Alex with open arms. “Alex dear,” she purred.

“Don’t touch me,” Alex warned. Putting out a hand to stop her, he took a step away from her, as though she had a transmissible disease.

Cynthia’s shock mirrored mine, and that of all other students hanging around the corridor. “What?” she said, her voice barely a squeak. “I mean…are you alright?”

“It’s over,” Alex said, his voice cold as death, his face hard as stone.

“What?” Cynthia asked. “You’re kidding right?”

Alex laughed mockingly. “I’m certainly sure I want nothing to do with you.”

“What has come over you?” Cynthia asked.

“Figure it out.” He turned away and made to leave, but Cynthia gripped his arm.

“Are you sure about this?” she asked.

“I’ve never been surer of anything in my life,” Alex said.

Cynthia’s features hardened, matching Alex’s. “Okay. So, you’ve made your choice, I guess. Well, okay. You should have told me sooner, though, instead of ignoring my calls, snubbing me and all. You should have told me. Well, okay. You’re tired and you want to walk away, I will not hold you back. If you think I am going to cry and beg, you’re mistaken. At the snap of my finger, I will replace you. Just watch.”

“I’m actually expecting that. Being the slut you are, I mean.” Once the words left his lips, Cynthia’s palm flew to his cheek, slamming hard.

“You’ve disrespected me enough by doing this in public,” she fumed. “Don’t disgrace me further by calling me names. I don’t even know why I agreed to date you in the first place. You’re a worthless piece of shit I had to tolerate every single day—”

Cynthia stopped mid-sentence, gasping with surprise as Alex’s palm lunged at her face. She slammed her eyes shut and sucked in a breath, waiting for it to land. But when moments passed, and it didn’t, she yanked open her eyes to find Alex’s hand suspended in midair with my hand gripping it.

“Don’t you dare hit my sister,” I said to Alex.

Dragging her gaze to meet mine, Cynthia shook her head and walked away, shoving one or two students out of her way. Amidst many eyes staring at me, I could see Raheem’s. He stood a few feet away, his poise as though ready to spring to my aid if Alex raised his hand at me. I prayed it didn’t come to the point where Raheem would fight over me. I wasn’t Jameela.

Alex detached his hand from mine. “I can’t believe you’re defending her.”

“I can’t believe you tried to hit a girl,” I shot back. “What’s up with you? I’ve never seen you this way.”

“That sister of yours deserves that and more,” he said. Although his voice had softened, it still burned with suppressed fury. “But then, I’m glad you stepped in just in time. I wouldn’t want to be the one to do that. But one of these days, trust me, someone will, and you won’t be there to stop them.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“What happened?” Alex echoed. “She’s been going all around Facebook, speaking of her huge crush on that new Iraqi guy who thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes. That guy doesn’t even seem the least interested, but Cynthia won’t stop dreaming. Her posts on Facebook make me want to puke. She’s so shameless, it breaks my heart. It’s a pity you’re related to someone like that. I don’t want anything to do with her anymore. She’s a pathetic spoilt brat who has neither manners nor decency. She doesn’t even know how to cook. Instead of going around repainting the slutty image she’s made for herself, she should find ways to make herself useful. I’m done.”

His fury raged on as he stormed off, leaving the witnesses of his outburst to stare at me. One by one, they withdrew from the scene. But Raheem remained.

Seconds stretched into minutes, and minutes, hours. The day held no more dramas. At least, none that I witnessed. All day, Cynthia barely said a word. One would almost fail to notice her presence. She’d been in shock after Alex’s outburst.

Even after the closing bell rung, I remained. Standing outside the staff room, I watched Cynthia disappear into our car. The driver delayed, probably inquiring about me. Cynthia’s eyes met mine, and she held my gaze till the driver pulled out of my line of sight.

Sighing, I glanced at my wristwatch. I’d been here for no less than fifteen minutes. Sir Amadi had asked me to meet him after school. If he didn’t show up within the next fifteen minutes, I would be gone.

My mind drifted to Raheem. All day, I’d managed to stay away from him. I didn’t want him continuing our discussion about proving something. If he did, and got to ask me again, I didn’t trust myself enough. For this reason, I needed to stay away from him, lest his sinfully pleasant green eyes pull me into something I wasn’t even prepared for.

“I almost forgot I asked you to wait,” Sir Aaron said.

I turned around to face him. “Good afternoon sir.”

“How are you?” he asked.

“I’m alright.”

“Okay. Good. I’ve kept you waiting for so long, so I don’t want to take much of your time. Wait here.” He disappeared into the staff room and returned almost immediately with a package.

I wondered what it contained. Aware of my bewilderment, he said, “Stella wants you to have this.”

“Okay.” I received the package with a smile. “Please tell her I said thanks.”

Sir Aaron smiled back. “I think in a few moments, you’ll be able to do it yourself.” Once again, he noticed my bewilderment. “Nevermind me. And, Victoria?”

“Yes, sir?”

“If ever you need someone to talk to, you have me. Stella told me to take over from where she stopped. I know your stepmother and her daughter are bent on making your life miserable, and you’re uncertain about what direction your life will take now that Stella’s gone. But not to worry. I am here. I will keep you safe as long as you keep me updated. It will be alright, my dear.”

I squirmed under his gaze. I’d never thought I’d have this conversation with Sir Aaron. With Stella and Amarachi, I could speak of my family, but with Sir Aaron, I felt totally uncomfortable.

“Okay,” I managed to say.

He placed a firm hand on my shoulder. “Be strong. Okay?”

“Yes, sir.”

He laughed. “Oh now, that’s not an order. You totally sounded like a military man. Or woman. Whatever.”

Sir Aaron had a sense of humor? Amarachi would be shocked to hear this.

“See you tomorrow,” he said.

Nodding in response, I watched him head for the staff room. He had barely walked out of my line of sight when I felt a pair of eyes burning into me. I raised my head and found someone staring intently from the upper floor. Precious. She smiled at me and walked away.

Why had she smiled at me? We weren’t even in speaking terms. Just like the other two members of the triple goddess, she viewed me as a plague; an enemy. I knew from experience that an enemy’s smile meant evil. It only meant they had something on their mind, something hurtful. Foes have an inverse relationship. When one rejoices, the other grieves.

Shoving Precious out of my mind, I stuffed the package in my backpack and turned towards the stairs. Raheem stood a few feet away. Something about his posture and the look on his face told me he had not moved for at least five minutes, and that was just enough time to overhear my discussion with Sir Aaron. From where he stood, he couldn’t have been able to see us. But I had no doubt he had heard every word.

He confirmed my fears. “I. heard. Everything.”

My anger flared at his confession, but somehow, my voice didn’t get past a whisper, “How could you listen in on our conversation? You know it isn’t right to eavesdrop, and yet you do this, knowing more than you should. Didn’t you think about how I’d feel about you breaching through my privacy?”

“I was looking for you is all,” he justified. “And besides, you know just as much about my family. You know about my father’s situation. My story with Jameela. Farah’s loss of hearing. My very useless cousin. These are things I don’t want people knowing of. At least, not all at once. But somehow, you know all of that and more. Besides, friends don’t hide things from each other.”

“You’re right,” I said. “Friends don’t hide things from each other. I guess I overreacted.”

“Are you ready to leave?”

“You don’t have to give me a ride.”

“I don’t have to. But I want to. Come on now, Farah is waiting in the car.”

“You really shouldn’t worry about me,” I insisted. “I’ll walk home. I want to stretch my legs.”

“Then that exercise is going to have to wait. Do you not see the weather? It’s going to rain anytime soon.” He tilted his head back to view the rather gloomy sky.

“Rain is my bestfriend,” I said.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said. “Hey, if you think I’m going to ask why you’ve been ignoring me all day, then stop worrying. I cross my heart, I won’t ask. Just let me drop you home, and then tomorrow when you see me, you can continue from where you left off ignoring me.”

“I’m not ignoring you,” I said. “I just…okay, fine. Let’s go.”

“I’m sorry. I really didn’t mean to listen in on your conversation. Considering that you were meeting with Sir Aaron, I knew you’d leave for home late. And I didn’t expect Cynthia to wait for you, because she left without you on Friday and—”

I cut him off. “It’s okay.”

“Are you sure?” he asked, his eyes never leaving mine. “Sure it’s all good?”

“Yes.”

Side by side, we dismounted the stairs and made for his car. I brushed past him and opened the door before he could offer me his help. Not exactly pleased, he shook his head and settled in the driver’s seat. Beside him, Farah buried her attention in her tablet. Raheem busied himself with the steering wheel. I, on the other hand, busied myself with wondering what could be in the package.

“….so, I’ve created your Facebook fan page,” Farah announced. “Soon, your fans will come flocking at your page, demonstrating their support by smashing the like button!”

“You think I give a hoot about a dumb fan page right now?” Raheem asked.

“Hey, it’s not dumb. And yeah, I figured out you’d react this way, so don’t worry. Leave it all for your proactive little sister. We are both admins. Don’t worry, I’ll do all the posting.”

“Whatever,” Raheem said.

Farah clenched her fist and struck his arm. “Hey? What’s wrong? You just seem so off today. Both of you. A bush pig hit you on your way here? Vicky, did you two have a fight?”

“Farah, when will you learn to mind your own business?” Raheem asked.

“Eat the silence,” Farah said. She turned to look out the window. Almost immediately, she returned her attention to him. “Hey, guess what? That little show you did in that cafeteria, the whole world loves it. It’s YouTube’s top hit.”

“What?” Raheem asked.

A smile spread across Farah’s face. “Yeah, you killed it back there. The video’s superb.” Playing the video, she cranked up the volume and held it high for all to see.

“I’m amazing, I know,” Raheem said. “Though I must confess Highway To Nowhere is incomplete without the band. All the instruments work together to bring that song alive. But I performed it with only a guitar. It’s by miracle the song wasn’t ruined. Though, a closer look at it shows it really is lacking.”

“I don’t see how it lacks,” Farah said. “And you, Victoria? Isn’t the song super great?”

“It’s…cool,” I said.

“You see! She loves it! Everyone does! Else you wouldn’t be having this much visits on YouTube.”

“I still say it’s lacking,” Raheem said.

“Create a new band then,” Farah said. “You came up with Impaling Sedation. You sure can form another. But remember, MJ wasn’t in a band, but that didn’t stop him from being a legend.”

Raheem yawned. “Yeah, thanks for the encouragement.”

“If you want to start a new band though, you should consider signing me up as your vocalist.”

“Not even in your dreams,” Raheem said, Voice flaring. Did Farah sing that bad?

“Okay, I’m kidding,” Farah said, throwing her hands up in surrender. “Why choose me when there are tons of girls in school? I met a few. They’re fit. One of them even looks like a goth kid—”

“I’d rather give up on music than have any girl play in my band,” Raheem said, his voice still high.

“So…you really are forming a new band?” Farah asked. “Awesome! You really shouldn’t involve a girl if you don’t want to. Like, despite the absence of feminine touch in Bring Me The Horizon, I love that band anyway. And besides, I wouldn’t want to suggest you something that’d hurt you tomorrow. I can’t believe I talked you into signing up Meela as your lead singer. If only I’d minded my business—”

“When do you ever stop talking?” Raheem barked.

“When I’m not breathing.”

“Well, that can be arranged,” he said.

“You fiend.” Suddenly remembering my presence, she turned around. “What’s wrong, Victoria?”

“I’m fine,” I said.

“Are you sure? I mean, you don’t look fine to me. Wait. Did my brother offend you in anyway? I know he’s a bit of an ass sometimes and he doesn’t think twice before letting his ego take the best of him, but don’t let his words get to you. He has a pure heart.”

How could I tell her I wanted to stay away from Raheem because he’d asked me to prove to him that not all girls were like Jameela?

Moments later, Raheem pulled over beside my street. Waving them goodbye, I stepped out of the car. “Thanks for the ride.”

Farah waved back. “Bye. See you tomorrow.”

I walked home, bracing myself for a dread episode with my stepmother. The open gate told me I had no cause for worry. At least, not until later. My paranoid stepmother never left the gate open, so I figured out Cynthia was alone at home. She obviously wanted to save herself the humiliation of opening the gate when I knocked.

I stepped into the house and headed for my room when smoke from the kitchen wafted to my nostrils. I flung my backpack on the floor and sprinted to the kitchen. Coughing and sneezing, I pushed through the smoke. My hand reached for the gas cooker. Turning it off, I placed the burning pan in the sink and assaulted it with cold water from the faucet.

Cynthia brushed past me to open the backyard door. She coughed hysterically. I turned off the faucet and joined her in the backyard, where we coughed our chests out and sneezed our noses out as though in a fierce competition.

I paused for a breather. Cynthia had come to help me? Sure, she’d almost burnt the house and I’d come just in time to help her. But still….

Shaking her head, she burst into laughter. A laughter I couldn’t understand. A laughter so transmissible, it conquered my initial shock and stole me over. For the first time in years, I laughed with my sister.

Her cough returned, bringing our awkwardly perfect moment to a sighable end. I stopped laughing. “You should return to your room now. Stay away from the smoke and all. Look how you’re coughing.”

“I get it. I’m coughing like an idiot.”

Did she just talk to me? I had to speak again. To make sure this was for real. “Sorry.”

“How do you make omelets? I just wanted something I could eat along with my indomie.”

“You made indomie?” I asked.

Unbelievable. I didn’t wait for her response. I into to the kitchen to see for myself. She really had cooked today. All thanks to Alex. And we were getting along, thanks to the burnt omelet. So, for good developments to occur, bad things had to happen first? How was I to know this?

“You probably think it’s horrible,” she said. “The taste, I mean. Considering that I’ve never cooked. You’re welcome to try it.”

“No,” I said. “I’m sure it’s fine.”

“No,” she insisted. “Try it. Maybe then you can go tell that idiot I’m not entirely useless.”

Oversized onions and tomatoes blocked the indomie from my sight. But still, I could tell the food was overcooked and watery. Not wanting to let her down, I grabbed the fork she offered me and dug it into the pot. Only after I’d moved the extravagant vegetables out of the way was I able to get food on my fork.

Cynthia stared expectantly. Impatience fought to take the best of her and she nodded, wordlessly ordering me to get on with it. And I did. The most horrible food on planet earth spread its unpleasant saltiness over my tongue. On impulse, I spat out the defilement from my mouth.

“You were not to add salt!” I said.

Cynthia seemed offended. Seething, she folded her arms. “What do you know? Salt is the primary seasoning.”

“Salt is essential when cooking other meals. But not indomie. Did you not see the packaged seasoning it came with?” Spotting the seasoning on the floor, I picked it up and waved it in front of her wide open eyes. “Here. It’s called seasoning. One part seasoning, other part, chili! With this you don’t need salt. How can you not know this?”

Tears pooled at her eyes. If I could, I would take back my words. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—”

“You have five minutes to make lunch.” She held out her left palm for emphasis. I watched her storm out of the kitchen.

I had just ruined my chance of getting along with my sister. Grunting, I slammed my palm into my face. “Seriously, Victoria, you are an idiot sometimes.”

Grabbing two superpacks from the carton, I set to work. Moments later, I smiled at the beautifully garnished dish I’d made. I set Cynthia’s on the dining table and headed for her room, hoping for a chance to apologize.

My heart thumped as I neared our rooms. My schoolbag had been emptied of its contents, which included my school books and the package Sir Amadi had given me. The package had also been emptied. Two books laid on the floor. An empty phone pack laid beside it. A few naira notes took up a few inches of the floor. And in the midst of them all, Cynthia crouched, brandishing an Infinix Hot 3.

“When Precious told me she saw you with Sir Aaron after school,” she started. “I told her you would not ruin our family name that way. With a man old enough to be our father.”

“He didn’t buy me the phone, if that’s what you’re thinking,” I said.

“Your fairy godmother did,” she said, gesturing to a letter lying across the floor. “But why? What do they see in you? First, Amarachi. Then, Stella. And then Raheem. Raheem who won’t even look at anyone else. How is it possible he has eyes for you? And now, Sir Aaron? He too has become your friend? What do they see in you?”

“I…I don’t know.”

“Mum was right,” she said. “You are a witch. You’ve cast a spell on them. That’s why they’re all crazy about you. Because it’s out of the ordinary that anyone would actually want to be your friend.”

“If I were a witch and knew how to cast a spell, you’d be the very first person I’d bind to myself,” I said. “Anyway, your food is ready.”

I outstretched my hand for the phone, but she stepped back. “Don’t even think for a moment that we will allow charity in this house.”

“Let me tell you a story of two men,” I said. “One is rich, and the other, poor. The rich owns many sheep and cattle, but the poor has nothing but one small female lamb. He feeds it and cares for it with the little he has. This small female lamb becomes as a daughter to him. One day, the rich man has a visitor. But he refuses to slaughter any of his numerous sheep and cattle to prepare a meal for the visitor. Rather, he takes the poor man’s lamb and prepares a meal for his visitor.”

“Your point is?” she asked, rolling her eyes.

“You are blessed with a mother who loves you, and lets you get away with your extravagance. You have everything you could ever need. This phone doesn’t even compare to the ones you use. And yet you want to take it away to spite me? Okay. If that’s what you want, keep it. Add it to your collection of gadgets. You can keep the money, the books. Keep everything. But know that you are no different from that rich man who showed no compassion.”

Seething, she tossed the phone at me. I caught it with a smile. A smile flitted across her face, and then she stormed off. Someday, she would call me ‘sister’, and I could feel that day fast approaching.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Freedom

“I’ll schedule a consultation and hire the right attorney so we can start the court procedure for child custody.”

Something had awakened me. I’d heard a sound; a sound other than the pitter-patter of rain. Wide-eyed, I listened for it. Moments passed and it never came. Perhaps I’d been dreaming.

The book I’d been reading fell off my chest as I rolled to my side. I’d started an hour or two before sleep stole me over, but I’d managed to cover five chapters. That said a lot about the quality of the book.

I slipped my phone from underneath my pillow. It seemed so good to be true. I had a phone. Amarachi and Flora would be so thrilled to have my number.

The time read 2:48. Sliding my phone underneath the pillow, I lay back in bed, hoping to get some more sleep. And then I heard it. The sound that had awakened me. Amidst the heavy rainfall, something whimpered. I bolted to my feet and raced to the windows.

Our animal guest crept along the wall opposite my room. It shivered in the cold rain, whimpering with each step it took. My stepmother couldn’t stand animals. But I couldn’t leave the dog to die in the cold. I would never forgive myself.

How had it gotten in anyway? If Cynthia had brought it in, then wouldn’t it be in her room? If neither of us had brought it in, then the dog must have dashed in when Cynthia opened the gate for her mother.

On tip-toes, I went for the dog. The rain, cold as ice on my skin, fought to freeze me. My teeth clattered, forming a beat I could almost dance to, and despite all efforts, I could not make it stop. Arms wrapped around myself, I advanced to my new friend. It scooted away from me.

“I’m a friend,” I whispered, lips trembling.

The dog stared at me as though trying to decipher if I could be trusted. I held out a hand. And the other. I placed one foot forward. And then the other. The dog cowered, but didn’t move. It let me scoop it into my arms.

I clutched the adorable puffball to my chest. It didn’t resist, but felt safe in my arms as though we were old friends. “There now. You’re safe.”

With my new friend in my arms, I headed for my room. But I’d only arrived at the dining when the door leading to my stepmother’s side of the house flew open. I crossed to the other side of the dining, eyes roaming frantically in search of the perfect hiding place for Bruno.

Bruno. That would be his name during his stay here. He stared back at me, his wide eyes telling me he perceived a threat.

“Who’s there?” my stepmother asked from her passageway. Her footsteps approached, forcing me to hide Bruno behind the thick curtains.

“Don’t move,” I whispered. Whirling around, I only took two steps away from the curtains when my stepmother walked into view. Her face darkened at the sight of me.

Disgusted by my soaking-wet nightgown and the water dripping on the floor, she scrunched up her nose. “What nonsense is this?”

“I will mob the floor,” I said.

She rolled her eyes and turned to leave, but then she pinched her nose and looked back at me. “What smells like wet dog in here?”

I shrugged.

“Go back to bed, mum,” Cynthia said. She’d walked in a moment ago. “I’m sure it’s nothing but her filth.”

My stepmother sniffed. “Goodness. How can a human being smell like wet dog? There’s nothing I won’t see in this—” A sneeze pushed through. Without another word, she stormed off, slamming the passage door.

“Where is it?” Cynthia asked.

“What?” She couldn’t be referring to Bruno, could she?

“The dog, you idiot.”

“There is no—”

She stared at me for a moment or two, and then diverted her gaze to the floor. My heart froze as she traced the pattern I’d made with drops of water. It led her right to Bruno. Scooping him into her arms, she patted him.

“Nice doggy doggy,” she petted, her voice like a child’s. “Look how wet you are. Poor thingy. Will take care of you, love.”

All smiles, I watched her leave. I knew without a doubt that she’d take good care of Bruno. He would be fine.

Hours later, I awakened to a hysterical scream of my stepmother. My heart thumped hard against my chest. Had someone broken into the house, or had something bad happened? Jumping out of bed, I dashed out of the room, and into the passageway where the scene unfolded.

Cynthia clutched a whimpering Bruno protectively. My stepmother lunged at Bruno, but Cynthia scooted to the other end of the passageway.

“Mum, stop it,” she cried.

“Get this filthy thing out of this house this instant,” my stepmother roared. “Who brought it in anyway?” Her gaze fixated on me.

“I did,” Cynthia said. “It was going to die in the cold outside, so I brought it in. Mum, please, don’t let me send him away. I’ve always wanted to have a dog.”

“That is not happening,” my stepmother yelled. “Not under my roof. Do you know how dangerous these things are? Look how you’re cradling that dirty creature.”

“He isn’t dirty,” Cynthia said. “I had him shower.”

“That’s enough now!” my stepmother said. “Enough of this insanity.”

“Mum, please—”

“Mum is right,” I said. “In a way, I mean. It wouldn’t be right to keep Bruno. His family must be looking for him. We have to return him after school.”

“You, shut up!” Cynthia yelled. Her mother glared at me, but said nothing. She obviously trusted Cynthia would put me where I belonged. And Cynthia did just so. “You have absolutely no right to tell me what I can and can’t do. Do you understand?”

She turned to look at her mum. “Mum—”

“Do as you wish,” my stepmother said. “But if I get bored and something happens, don’t blame me.”

“Thank you, mum,” Cynthia squealed. “Thank you so so much. I love you. I know, I just know it that you’ll love Bruno, and maybe then you’ll think about buying me my own pup.”

Hours later, my stepmother’s warning kept resounding in my head. But if I get bored and something happens, don’t blame me.

Cynthia should have paid attention to that warning. She obviously didn’t think her mum would do anything to hurt Bruno. I wanted to share her faith, but I just couldn’t. Something would happen to Bruno. My stepmother would get bored.

During lunch with Amarachi, Flora, Mary and Farah, I barely even heard a word from their conversation. I could not get my mind off Bruno. Earlier, I’d told Amarachi about it, but she had waved it off as me over reacting.

“Earth to Victoria,” Farah said. “Are you even listening to us?”

“I guess,” I said.

Amarachi sighed. “She’s been like this all morning.”

“Are you alright?” Mary asked.

“Yes.” I stared at her, noting how Raheem had overcrowded my friend-circle with his family. I’d been surprised to see her walk to our table.

“She’s thinking of Bruno,” Amarachi said.

“Who’s the dog?” Farah asked nonchalantly. When silence greeted her question, she said, “Sorry. Is it a human being? I’m sorry. It’s that dogs are called Bruno, so I just thought—”

Amarachi giggled. “Bruno is a dog.”

“So…what’s the story?” Mary asked.

“He was shivering in last night’s cold rain,” I started.

“Yesterday’s rain was cold enough to wake up one’s dead grandma.” Once again, silence followed Farah’s words. Punctuating the silence, Mary and Amarachi burst out laughing. Flora and I fought to resist the contagious laughter, but didn’t have any luck.

“So, about Bruno,” Mary reminded.

“I brought him in,” I said. “But mum doesn’t like dogs. And she gave us a very unsettling warning.”

Coloring her voice with a dramatic evil, Amarachi said, “If I get bored and something happens, don’t blame me.”

“Wow,” Farah said. “That woman is so scary. What does she look like?”

“Farah!” Mary warned.

“The person you’re calling is currently busy,” Farah said, winking at Mary. Mary shook her head, and though she tried to fight it, a smile stretched her lips.

Farah returned her attention to me. “You better take that warning seriously. Who knows, you could return home to find poor Bruno hacked into bloody little bits. Poor poor doggy. At least you can’t say she didn’t warn you.”

Farah’s perception of my stepmother had a striking resemblance with Amarachi’s. My gaze darted between the two girls. I had a feeling they would be great friends.

After lunch, I spent the rest of the day with Amarachi and Flora, giving Raheem close to no chance to steal away a glance. I’d told them about Raheem’s proposal. Amarachi seemed more than excited to keep me away from him, although she believed in the end, I would give up on keeping him at arm’s length.

Once the closing bell rung, Amarachi and Flora guarded me to our car. Raheem stared from the top floor. His wounded look aimed to make me feel sorry. Had I hurt him?

Thoughts of him crowded my mind. Only when I arrived home did I remember Bruno. I would find a way to sneak him out of the house. That way, he would be safe. I didn’t feel good about leaving him all alone with my stepmother. Cynthia would hate me for it, but I didn’t have a choice, did I?

“No!” Cynthia’s scream cut through me like a sword. I bolted in the direction of her voice and found her sitting on the kitchen floor with a mass of fur in her arms. Bruno.

I drew nearer to the scene. “What….what happened?”

Cynthia didn’t speak. She just sat there, cradling the limp body. Tears spilled out of her eyes. My eyes adjusted to a half-eaten slice of bread lying across the floor. And then it hit me. Bruno had been poisoned. How could my stepmother have done this?

Tears flooded my eyes. I whirled around and sprinted to my room. The door slammed after me as I threw myself in bed, giving way to more tears.

Indistinct voices sailed to my hearing. Cynthia’s and her mother’s. Cynthia’s brittle voice rose and fell hysterically with every word she said. I reached for my phone and called Stella. She rejected my call and called back almost immediately.

My sniffle caught her attention. “Vicky, what’s wrong?”

“She’s killed him,” I cried. “She killed Bruno. I should have taken him out of the house when I left for school. If I had, none of this would have happened.”

“Calm down, please,” she said. “I can barely even get a word you said. Try to calm down and tell me what happened. In.”

I inhaled deeply.

“And out. Now, tell me what happened.”

“Remember the dog I brought in last night?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Stepmother killed him,” I said.

Stella gasped. “What do you mean she killed him?”

“She poisoned him. I feel so…I just feel so terrible.”

“Victoria, this is serious. Anyone who kills an innocent little puppy is capable of killing a human being! Now I’m afraid, Vicky. I’m afraid of what she could do to you. She’s crazy.”

Regret flooded my insides. “I shouldn’t have brought him in. It’s all my fault.”

“Shh. Hush now. Don’t blame yourself. It’s not your fault. The dog snuck in when Cynthia opened the gate for your stepmother. And then you brought him indoors to save him from the cold. You did your part, Victoria. Don’t let anyone make you regret your fine works.”

“I’m just so broken right now,” I said. “Why did she do this?”

“You’ve seen what she did to Bruno,” Stella said. “Now we know what she’s capable of. What if she did that to you?”

“I thought of that too,” I said. “But she wouldn’t—”

“Well, we won’t wait to find out. There’s no way I’m letting you stay with that woman.”

“What? Are you implying I leave? But you said it yourself that you wouldn’t let me leave this house to them.”

“You’re not leaving the house,” she said. “You’re only going away for a few days. Just until I think of something. That woman has to pay for the crimes she commit. First, abusing you. And then, Bruno. I told you from the start that justice must be served, but you’re bent on making her accept you as a daughter. That will never happen. Do you see it now? You want a chance for love, but with her, the only realistic thing you can hope for is a chance for death. Do you not see this?”

I kept mum. Stella sighed, breaking through the silence. “Victoria, do you trust me?”

“Yes.”

“Then you must do as I say,” she said.

Doing as she said involved leaving for school the next day with a few clothes packed into my bag. I did just so. Uncertainty coursed through my veins as the final bell rung. Was I ready to leave my family behind? Stella believed this to be for the best, and Amarachi thought no different.

From the corridor, I watched Cynthia leave. My heart swelled with a longing for home. I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t leave my family. I’d tell Stella. She would surely understand. I turned to leave, but found myself facing Sir Aaron.

“I know you’re conflicted about this,” he said. “But it’s only for a few days. At least, till Stella and I put things in order.”

“How?” I asked. Was there anyway to fix things?

He smiled in a way that brought my father to mind. “That’s my job and Stella’s. Your job is to seek happiness. Can you do that for yourself?”

“I’ll try.”

“That’s a good girl. Come now, I have to finish up with my work at the office. It’ll only take a minute or two.”

Sir Aaron’s ‘a minute or two’ translated as an hour or two. I grew tired of watching him attend to paperwork, I pulled Stella’s Robber’s Heart out of my bag and flipped to page sixty where I stopped. I read through four pages, and Sir Aaron’s ‘a minute or two’, counted on.

“Five minutes and I’m done.”

Logically, that would mean five hours. But this time, he kept to time. It felt awkward following him to his car. He didn’t seem to notice my discomfort. And even if he did, he hid it pretty well.

We got into the car and he steered out into the road, his pace noticeably slower than Raheem’s. Sitting here, in Sir Aaron’s car brought a new kind of feeling to my body; a bold mix of fear and the promise of relief.

I looked down at the book in my arms, my new companion. But Sir Aaron interrupted me before I could even take in one paragraph. “What did they do with the body?”

“What body?” The answer hit me once the question left my lips. Bruno. “I don’t know. Stepmother and Cynthia left to go dispose of it. I’m thinking they buried him somewhere—”

“Or tossed him in the trash somewhere,” he said. “Why, it’s possible. I doubt that stepmother of yours would trouble herself by digging him a grave.”

An image of a decomposing Bruno lying in the trash raked into the walls of my chest. I turned away, willing this image away. I wanted to believe Cynthia had forced Bruno’s murderer to honor him by burying him. But the more I thought of it, the more I thought of his corpse being exposed to defilement.

“You’re a strong one,” Sir Aaron commended. “You go through a lot, and yet you wear a smile and act like everything is fine.”

“I learned to cope,” I said.

“That’s a fine skill. Holding your head above water.”

“Thank you.”

After a moment of silence, he asked, “Are you nervous about meeting my family?”

“Yes, sir,” I admitted.

“You shouldn’t be.”

“How many kids do you have?”

“Three. Bolaji is the eldest. He’s not home at the moment. He’s studying Medicine in Uniport, and so, he stays at Choba. You know, distance and all. And then there is Sharon. She’s done with high school, but hasn’t gained admission yet. I know you’ll get along just fine. Although, I must say, she’s obsessed with being neat. Can’t stand the sight of a small spot on her cloth. Washes her bedsheets and towels every week. She won’t have a handshake unless she’s sure you just stepped out of the shower, or used a hand sanitizer. And then she always carries with her her hand sanitizer. And finally, there’s your namesake. Vicky. She’s only eight, but she’s a handful. Looks just like her mother.”

“Your family is adorable,” I said.

He smiled. “Wait till you meet them. You’ll feel so at home, you’ll see.”

I’d feel so at home. Although he’d aimed at helping me relax with those words, he achieved the exact opposite, but I wouldn’t bare his failure to him. The thought of feeling at home in Sir Aaron’s house scared me. What if I felt so at home that I forgot my family and wished to belong here instead? Wouldn’t that count as betrayal?

These thoughts ran through my mind, abbreviating the journey. My mind raced as we reached our destination.

“Daddy!” a little girl screamed, bursting out of the house. “Daddy! Daddy.” Vicky. She flung herself at Sir Aaron and wrapped him in a bear hug.

“How are you?” Sir Amadi asked.

“I’m great!” Emotions swirled within me as I watched them. They brought to mind the great relationship I had had with my dad.

I missed him. He’d been gone for years, and at first I’d thought the wound would heal, but it never did. And now, seeing the love between Sir Aaron and his daughter had just reminded me of my hurt, and how heartlessly life had cheated me.

Looking away from the tear-triggering sight, I led my eyes to the house before me. It didn’t compare to the mansion of a house I lived in, but it held an air of love around it. It felt like…home.

“Where’s Sharon?” Sir Aaron asked. “I brought you guys a new friend.”

“A new friend!” Vicky exclaimed. “Cooool!” She raced to me and took me by the hands. “Hello. I’m Vicky.”

I smiled at her. “I am Victoria too.”

“Great! Dad, she has my name. Come, mum would be so delighted to meet you!”

Before I could protest, she dashed toward the house, pulling me with her. For a child, she had some unbelievable strength.

“Mummy, daddy brought a friend for me!” She made to step into the house, when I stiffened.

“My shoes,” I said.

She gave me a moment to undo my shoes. In seconds, I found myself in the kitchen. A woman turned to look at me. She held a spoon she’d been using to stir. From the scent wafting through the air, I recognized the food-in-progress to be vegetable soup.

“Good evening ma.”

“Good evening dear,” Mrs. Aaron said. “You must be Victoria.”

“Yes ma.”

“He’s told me so much about you. It’s great to finally meet you. You must be starving.” To Vicky, she said, “Vicky, show her to the room.”

Returning her attention to me, she said, “You’ll be sharing with my daughters. Vicky will show you to the room so you can freshen up. I’m sure Sharon’s clothes will fit you just fine.”

“I brought a few clothes,” I said.

Mrs. Aaron gaped at my bag. “What? In that little bag of yours or there’s a suitcase?”

A suitcase? Would I be staying here forever?

She waved off my unasked question. “Never mind me. Oh, anyway, you can always try Sharon’s clothes. She’ll be pleased to share. And your food will be set before you’re done showering.”

“Come on,” Vicky said. All smiles, she ran past me and flung open the door to a room. She grabbed a pillow and approached Sharon who lay asleep in bed. Before I could protest, she slammed into her with the pillow.

“Wake. Up. You. Sleepy. Head.” With every word, she slammed the pillow into her.

Sharon awakened with a grunt. “Vicky, allow me to sleep!”

“No I won’t. Wake up this instant!”

Groaning, Sharon dug her face into the pillow underneath her head. She slammed her fist into the wall and leapt to her feet. “You’re dead!”

Vicky screamed and giggled as Sharon dashed after her. Sprinting, Vicky leapt behind me and gripped me for shelter. “Ogre,” she called, jumping on the balls of her feet. “Ogre! Ogre!”

I couldn’t help but share Vicky’s excitement. Frozen in her tracks, Sharon took a few moments to smoothen down her disarrayed hair. “Hi, Victoria.”

“Hi,” I said back.

“I swear, had you not been here, I’d have tickled her to death for interfering with my sweet slumber,” Sharon complained. “I was even dreaming and she just…she just interrupted it! Can you beat that?”

“What were you dreaming of?” I asked.

She waved at my question. “Speaking of it will only break my heart.” She clutched her chest in mock pain.

“That heart has been broken over and over again,” Vicky said. “I wonder how it still works.”

“Vicky, I don’t just have the strength for you,” Sharon said, rolling her eyes.

Vicky detached her hands from me. Her footsteps told me of her exit. Sharon seemed pleased.

“Come in,” she said.

She whirled around and headed for the second bed where she’d been asleep. Her reflection on the mirrored closet caught her eye and she dashed to the mirror. Picking a brush from the closet, she kept each strand of hair in place.

Just as I made to sit on the other bed, Sharon turned around with a shriek that almost split my ears. “No no! Don’t!”

I held my awkward position for a moment before straightening my spine. My face contorted in a way that showed my confusion.

“Go shower first,” she said. “You’re all sweaty right now.”

Had I not been warned beforehand of Sharon’s obsession with neatness, I would have taken offence. But now, I could only find it intriguing.

Moments later, freshened up and clad in a jean skirt and pink t-shirt, I stepped out of the bathroom to find a pair of slippers at the door.

“I wouldn’t want your feet to get dirty,” Sharon said. She didn’t look away from the game she played on her laptop.

“Thanks,” I said.

“Mum came a moment ago to tell you food’s ready,” she said. Too engrossed in her game, she didn’t notice my departure. Neither did she notice my presence fifteen minutes later.

I plopped down in the unoccupied bed and busied myself with Stella’s Robber’s Heart. I’d barely even finished one page when Sharon halted her noisy game. The sudden quietness forced me to look at her. Laying in bed and propped up on an elbow, she starred back at me.

“I didn’t even notice you were back,” she said.

“I didn’t want to interrupt your game,” I said. “What game is that?”

“Fast and Furious. I doubt you know it. You’re not allowed to watch TV anyway. But don’t worry. You’re here now. You’ll get all the love you’ve been deprived of.”

It felt awkward to know that Sir Aaron had told his entire family of my misery. But with Sharon’s sweetness, who could dwell on a thing like that?

“Wow,” Sharon exclaimed. “I can’t believe I haven’t even told you my name. I’m—”

“Sharon,” I said.

“Ah! I see someone’s been talking about me. What did dad tell you? I’m dying to know everything!”

“He said you’re done with high school.”

“What else? I hope he mentioned my obsession with cleanliness, because only then would you be able to stand my personality. I mean, some people take me for a proud person. But that’s not what you think, is it?”

“Of course not,” I said. “I think its adorable.”

She grinned. “Adorable. I’m adorable.” She sat up and leaned toward me as though wanting to peer into my mind. “Hey, tell me something. Do you think the Iraqi Sherlock Holmes likes you? I mean, from what I’ve heard, he’s allergic to humans, mostly the ones wearing skirt. But then, he didn’t mind spending time with you in the name of solving a case. What’s your take on this?”

“Where do you get your news from?” I asked.

“Why? Are you stunned about how reliable my source is?”

“Well, yeah,” I said. “I know it isn’t Sir Aaron. No, it has to be a student.”

“Of course it is. But I won’t tell you who.” She stuck out her tongue.

“It’s a girl?” I pressed on.

“Not telling you.”

“Oh, please. Come on!”

“No way on earth am I.”

“You have to tell me. If transporting you to Mars is the only way, so be it.”

Sharon giggled at my hopeless threat. “Guess what else the person told me.”

“What?”

She grinned. “You are to Raheem what Juliet is to Romeo.”

“No,” I yelled. “That’s the sickest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Really?”

“Really, it’s totally wrong.”

“Oh, but the look on your face tells me otherwise.”

A smile stretched my lips, making it uncomfortable to hold Sharon’s gaze. She smiled knowingly as I averted my eyes.

“You’re only imagining things, Sharon,” I said. “Besides, Raheem would never look at me that way. And even if he did, I wouldn’t be ready for to play ‘Juliet’ just yet. It’s a really challenging task.”

“Yeah, right. Anyway, about the case you solved, dad’s really proud of you. And I am too. Ever since, I’ve been dying to meet you, and now here we are.”

“I shouldn’t receive all the credit. Raheem did all the work.”

“Yeah, right.” After a moment, she added, “Hey, you’re so easy to talk to. I feel like I’ve known you all my life.”

“I was about to say the exact same thing,” I said.

“If we’d attended the same school, we’d have been great friends. But I never even thought of Western High, because the fees is just too much. It’s more than hundred times the fees in the school I attended. No kidding. You can compute it yourself. Mine was twenty eight thousand per term. Highest, thirty four. At least, writing my WAEC in SS2 has helped save one year’s worth of fees, thank goodness.”

Our conversation went on till darkness conquered daylight. At one point, I’d even convinced her to give Stella’s Robber Heart a chance. Going though my phone, she’d found a video of Raheem’s live show I’d downloaded from YouTube.

“This guy is bomb!” she said.

“There’s more to him than meets the eye,” I said.

“I’m turning on my Xender. That video needs to be on my phone!”

I shared the video via Xender. Sharon cranked up her volume as she played the video. “When’s his next performance? I wouldn’t forgive myself if I missed it!”

“I don’t know when his next show is,” I said.

“Are you for real? Call him right now and ask him.”

“I don’t have his number.”

“What? Why?”

“We aren’t exactly friends, Sharon. We were only partners in crime solving. And that’s that. I think now we’re back to being strangers.” A wistful look crept to my face.

“You’re okay with this?” she asked. “Returning to being strangers when there’s a great possibility of a wonderful friendship?”

“Actually, I’m the one avoiding him. I don’t think he wants friendship. He—”

“You see! I told you!” Sharon’s piercing voice could slice through rock. “My source’s right. There’s a modern-day Romeo and Juliet in the making.”

“No,” I said. “That’s not even it. He has a very wrong view of girls. Thinks we’re all the same. You know. And now he wants me to prove that not every girl is the same.”

Her smile said she’d seen this coming. “That is him asking you on a date, my friend. His way, though, is…wow. Don’t say yes, though. If he wants you to date him, he’ll have to drop his ego and ask you directly. We won’t accept anything less than that.”

“We?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “We are a team. High five?”

“High five!”

The door cracked open and Mrs. Aaron stepped in. “Dinner’s ready.”

“One moment, mum,” Sharon said.

“I don’t think I’ll be having dinner, ma,” I said to Mrs. Aaron. “I ate barely two hours ago. I am still full.”

“Sweetheart, I have already dished out your food,” she said. “So please, come and eat. You don’t have to finish everything in the plate.”

“Sorry, my friend,” Sharon said. “But here, we make sure to have three square meals. No less.”

Walking away, Mrs. Aaron said, “I didn’t cover anybody’s food.”

“Oh shit!” Sharon sprang to her feet. “You should have said so earlier, mum. Thanks, mum! Just thanks!”

Sharon fled to go attend to her uncovered food. I made to follow, but my phone rang. Stella.

I answered the call with a smile. “Hi.”

“Hey, what’s up?” she said. “You’re all shipshape, I hope.”

“I’m fine,” I said. “Shipshape.”

“Perfect. And your new home? I hope you feel at home.”

“I do. They’re lovely. Thank you so much for helping me.” I wished she were here so I’d hug her.

“It’s okay,” she said. “You have to do something for me in return, though.”

Words failed me. What would she have me do?

“Are you there?” she asked.

“Y-Yes.”

“Okay. I was saying you’ve got to do something for me in return.”

“Okay.”

“Be happy,” she said. “Can you do that for me?”

As simple as her request sounded, we both knew happiness was the number one emotion that eluded me. But for her, I would try to find a place for it in my gloomy life. “Yes.”

“That’s a good girl,” she said. “I just wanted to know how you’re doing. I’ll call you later. Take care.”

She ended the call. Placing my phone beside my pillow, I advanced toward the dining, but an ongoing conversation stole my attention.

“What do you think of her?” Sir Aaron’s voice sailed amidst the clatter of cutlery.

Careful not to make any noise, I stood beside the wall, and thankfully, my shadow hid beside me. Entering the dining would bring their conversation to a halt, and I didn’t want that just yet.

“I like her,” Vicky said. “She’s nice.”

“We got along just fine,” Sharon said. “She’s a lot prettier than I thought, though.”

“She’s okay with your obsessive neatness disorder?” Mrs. Aaron asked.

“Mum, it’s no disorder,” Sharon countered. “It’s the best way of life. Don’t you see that I don’t get sick like the rest of you?”

Mrs. Aaron played deaf to Sharon’s question. “I’m impressed you all like her. We need to be good to her, okay? She’s been through a lot. Sharon, you’re a bitter old maid sometimes, but put that away while she’s around, okay? She needs a break from sickening dramas.”

“Mum, I’m not a problem as long as you give me all the freedom an adult needs.”

“I’ll start treating you like an adult when you start acting like one.”

“I’m not a kid anymore,” Sharon groaned. “Mum! Dad?”

“I’m invisible,” Sir Aaron said. They all smiled at me as I joined them in the dining. A plate of fried plantain and fried egg sat before me.

“Dad, will Victoria return home sometime?” Vicky asked. “I’m so worried about her. She’s happy with us. I don’t want her to go back to that evil woman you told us about.”

“She has a point, dad,” Sharon said. “That woman is capable of murder.”

“Your mother and I were thinking the very same thing,” Sir Aaron said. “We have decided to take custody over her. And her stepmother is required to pay a certain amount every month for her upkeep. Either that, or that woman has to serve the child abuse sentence, and I doubt she’ll go with this option. I’ll schedule a consultation and hire the right attorney so we can start the court procedure for child custody. But first I’ll visit that woman to tell her of the new turn things have taken. Victoria will have no more of her abuse. That woman is crazy! Killing a pet dog is unthinkable. It shows just how depraved she is.”

“You’re right,” Mrs. Aaron said. Staring at me, she went on, “It is not only not in the your best interests but also to your detriment to be left with your so-called family. They’ve caused you much harm already. With them your physical, emotional, moral, or mental health is in jeopardy. You are a fine young lady who needs an appropriate home. I know our home isn’t much, but we will treat you right. Things are hard in Nigeria at the moment, but my children don’t starve. I’m sure there’ll be enough food for everyone.”

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Forgiveness

“And then I knew my heart had led me to the one I wanted to spend my whole life with.”

Days of living with the Aarons brought a whole new vigor to me. Locking away my sorrow, they’d replaced it with love. For the first time after dad’s death, I found a sense of belonging.

Cynthia seemed affected by my relocation. She’d always stare at me like I were a ghost, but she never said a word. She no doubt missed the maid they’d turned me into. My absence would force her into doing chores. That, in itself, didn’t seem so bad. This period would mold her into a better person. At least I hoped it would.

Rumors of me living with Sir Aaron had spread all through the school, and everyone believed he had ulterior motives, but he didn’t seem to care. So why would I?

Just as the teacher for last period made her exit, Raheem advanced to me. “We need to talk.”

Nonchalantly, I threw my books in my bag. “If it’s about the rumors—”

“Screw those rumors,” Raheem said, his voice high enough to steal everyone’s attention. “I just want my Toria back. Is that too much to ask? You won’t even speak to me. Farah’s upset. She thinks I hurt you somehow, when in reality you’re the one hurting me.”

My Toria. He’d called me his Toria. But why?

“What?” I asked amidst the butterflies in my stomach. “What are you saying? Please keep your voice down.”

Raheem smirked. “Is that a yes?”

“A yes to what?” I asked.

“Going home together so we can clear things up,” he said. “You must think ill of me.”

“I can’t go with you,” I objected. “Sir Aaron—”

“I’ll go talk to him. I’m sure he’ll be okay with it.” He turned to leave, but I sprang to my feet and grabbed his arm.

“Please, don’t,” I begged. “I’ve got a phone now. I’ll give you my number so we can talk.” Without waiting for his response, I picked up my pen. As though reading my mind, a grinning Amarachi presented a piece of paper on which I wrote down my number. “Here.”

Raheem took it with a smile. “Look how desperate you are to give me your number. It’s not like I asked. Gee, thanks.”

Sir Amadi’s voice screeched over the intercom. “Victoria Brown. Main office. ASAP.”

“Someone’s in shit,” Amarachi said.

“Oh Lord, what have I done now?” I thought aloud.

“Let’s go find out,” Raheem said.

“What? No. There’s no way you’re going with me.”

“So you think.” Winking at me, he walked out of the class.

“Someone’s twitterpated,” Amarachi said.

“Yeah, right.”

“Keep me updated.”

“Okay.” I waved goodbye to her and Flora and headed for the main office, only to find Raheem waiting for me in the stairway. Wordlessly, I let him lead the way.

The two familiar figures seated opposite Sir Amadi made me freeze. What did they want? Had they come to drag me home with them? Now, I couldn’t be happier Raheem had followed me. With him around, they wouldn’t be able to harm me.

“You sent for me, sir,” I said.

Sir Amadi glared at Raheem. “Why is he here?”

“Why?” Raheem asked, seemingly unaffected. “Hate me that much, good sir?” Turning to me, he said, “I’ll be in the reception.”

“You don’t have to go,” I said. “It’s all fine. You know everything already anyway. With you here I know no harm will come my way. For all I care, they’re murderers. They killed Bruno. They can do that to even me!”

“That is no way to speak of your family,” Sir Amadi chided.

“Family?” I scoffed. “No, sir! This is no mother of mine, and I certainly don’t know that girl sitting beside her!” Cynthia gasped as the words left my lips. She could never have thought I’d ever speak about them like this. And surprisingly, I could never have thought so myself.

Vacating her seat, my stepmother turned to look at me. Her eyes glistened with tears. “My daughter,” she started. “I know you hate me. I know I’ve been unfair to you. I know I never gave you the love you needed, but please believe me when I say I’m sorry. I’m so so sorry. I never intended to hurt you…I never.”

She hiccupped between sobs. “Bruno’s death was a mistake. The poisoned bread was meant for the rats disturbing the house.”

“Mum,” Cynthia chided. “Stop it! Please! There was never any rat! It was your plan to kill the dog, and you did it, showing no remorse.” For once in her life, she gave humanity a chance. I could only stare in awe. I’d be fooled if I didn’t know the people before me were skilled actresses. How long had it taken them to rehearse their roles? A day? Two?

“What was I to do?” my stepmother sobbed like a child. “At a tender age I was attacked by a vicious dog. That encounter instilled in me a fear of dogs, and I’ve never been able to live through it. For this reason, I never want to be around dogs. They make me relive that painful moment. Seeing that dog in our house scared me into thinking it would hurt one of you. I didn’t want that. I did what I had to do for my children.”

“Bruno never posed a threat, and you know that,” I said. It took much effort not to yell. But I didn’t for how long I could keep my tone in check.

“I’m sorry, my child. I’m so sorry. Please forgive me.”

“Is that all, Mrs. Brown?” I asked. “Have you come all the way to fill my head with lies? Do I look like a fool to you? Your crocodile tears don’t fool me. You should know that by now.”

“Stop it!” Sir Amadi yelled. “This is no way to speak to an elder. I will not condone this. Not in my office!”

“Forgive me if I strike you as disrespectful, sir,” I said. “But every ill trait I have, I learnt it from this woman. Now, Mrs. Brown, what do you want?” “Please come home,” she begged. Her request left me speechless.

“Please, I beg you. Your departure has left a hole in my heart. I promise to be a better mother. I’ll let you have the privilege I deprived you of. I will be your mother. Please, just come home. I’ll be better, I promise.”

Drawing nearer to me, she glued her palm to my cheek. “My daughter, life has not been the same since you left.”

I would be moved into returning with her if I didn’t know her intentions. Snatching my face from her evil hold, I put my hands together to applaud her brilliance. “Bravo, mum! Just bravo. I’ve been away for eight days and you never thought of wanting me back. Why today? Why now? You won’t speak? Okay, I’ll say it. This morning, Sir Aaron went to speak to you of his plan to take custody of me, and he requires you to give me a monthly pay of seventy-five thousand naira. And you don’t want that. You know that it might lead to you facing the child abuse sentence. You know that getting me back and forcing the public to believe you’re a good mother would save you from facing the sentence. Prove me wrong.”

“Honey, this has nothing to do with your guardian’s visit.”

The word ‘honey’s contorted my face with disgust. How dare she call me that, after everything she’d done to me? “Did he not come to you with the custody request?”

“He did. But…but—”

“There,” I said. “So I am right after all. You are the same conniving snake you always have been. Please, don’t try to contact me again. My guardian wouldn’t like that. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, he’s a perfect father figure. And his wife, she’s everything you’re not. Their children treat me like I’m a part of their family, and in their company, I don’t even let my mind wander off to people like you. You can rot in your sea of riches for all I care. I, Victoria Brown, refuse to keep being your slave.”

My stepmother fell at my feet. Gripping my ankles, she wept noisily. “My daughter. I’d do anything. Anything—”

“Can you bring Bruno back to life?” I asked. Only when she brought him back would I return to being her loyal dog. Tears spilling out of her eyes, she shook her head. “No, you know I do not have the power to—”

Seething, I snatched back my legs. “Then how dare you take his life like he meant nothing? How dare you, mum?”

“I’m sorry, my child. I’m sorry—”

“Don’t call me that,” I yelled. “You’ve never called me your daughter or treated me like one, so do me a favor and stay away from me.”

“You can’t possibly ask me to do that,” she begged. “Please just give me one chance to prove myself to you. Return home, please.”

“Come near me again and I will publish a newspaper article of everything you’ve been doing to me since dad’s death. Everything, from your words that cut deep like a two-edged sword, to the scars you’ve inflicted on me. And I mean every word I say.” With that, I stormed out of the office. Raheem trailed behind me like a bodyguard.

Moments later, the scene in Sir Amadi’s office played on and on in my head. My head rested on a tear-soaked pillow. I never thought the day would come when I’d speak to my stepmother with so much bitterness. Father hadn’t brought me up like this, but what could I do?

“Your food is getting cold,” Sharon said, advancing to me.

“I’m not hungry,” I said. “I just need some time alone.”

“You’ve had two hours to sob,” she said. “It isn’t your fault you lost control. Don’t torture yourself so. Please come and eat.”

“Sharonita, there’s a girl at the door,” Vicky said, standing in the threshold.

“Who is it?” Sharon asked.

Vicky shrugged. “Never seen her. Should I let her in?”

“Let me go see who’s at the door,” Sharon said. She walked away, with Vicky trailing after her. I picked up my phone and found four missed calls from Stella. I’d expected one from Raheem, and although I tried to hide my disappointment, it gnawed at my soul anyway. If he cared as much as he made it seem, shouldn’t he have called to know how I fared?

Vicky skipped into the room. “The girl says she’s a childhood friend. Should we let her in?”

Childhood friend? I had no childhood friends. At least, none that I knew of. “Did she tell you her name?”

“Tonye C.B,” she said.

What did she want? Drying my eyes, I dashed to the living room to see her for myself. And there she was. For some reason, Sharon didn’t seem to like her. She hadn’t even allowed her step into the house.

“Victoria, do you know this girl?” Sharon asked. “She claims to be your childhood friend. I don’t know, but sorry, she doesn’t look like one you’d associate with. But then again, I’m probably wrong.”

“She’s…she’s a friend,” I said.

Sharon didn’t seem convinced. But she let it slide. I stared at my guest. She seemed to have been crying. She’d never fancied her native name. But today, the name she so detested had let her see my face. If she’d introduced herself as Cynthia, Sharon would have slammed the door in her face.

“Sharon, do we mind if we use the room?” I asked.

“It’s okay,” Sharon said.

I advanced to Cynthia and took her by the hand. Her other hand gripped a paper bag. She obviously had a thing or two to say, and they would be best said in private.

With a gasp, she detached her hand from mine. Following her gaze, I found Sir Aaron staring at us with fire in his eyes. “Why is she here?”

My mind went blank. “She—”

“You can throw me out if I create a scene,” Cynthia said. “Or if I exceed ten minutes. But I must have a word with my sister.”

Sister. For the first time, she called me sister. And she meant every letter of it, from the S to the R. My heart leapt with a hope I hadn’t seen coming.

“Please, sir—” I begged. Surely, whatever she’d come to say meant a lot.

“Ten minutes,” he said.

Nodding my appreciation, I led Cynthia into the room and closed the door behind us. “Why are you here?”

Teary-eyed, she gave me the package. “Your mother probably wanted you to have this. It contains every jewelry that belonged to her, including the ones she used on her wedding day. Although my mother gave them to me, I know I don’t deserve them. They’re yours. And then, there are pictures of her. I’m sure you’d love to have them. I’m sorry I kept them away for so long.”

“Okay.”

“And then there’s the letter from your mum. Remember that letter daddy told you about? He said he was going to give you when you were older, and then after he died mum kept it from you?”

I simmered with rage to think Cynthia and my stepmother had kept this from me for close to eighteen years. But I regained composure only because they let me have it in the end. I’d always looked forward to knowing my mum’s thoughts. I could only be grateful I had a chance to. “Thanks. For the letter.”

“You will never return to us, will you?” she asked.

“Look, if your mum sent you here—” I started.

“I came on my own,” she said. “Vicky, I never thought a day would come when I’d miss you. I see you in my dreams, you know. I can’t believe you walked out of my life. I thought we were sisters. You just abandoned us. Life has been hard.”

I rolled my eyes. How stupid did she think I was? “Only because you have to do the chores yourself.”

“Screw those chores,” she said. “I miss having you at home. But I will not beg you to come back. It is your choice. If I were in your shoes, I’d have done this long ago. You just made me realize how unfair I’ve been to you all along. We are sisters. And I feel horrible right now. I see you in class everyday, and you have fun with your friends, but you don’t even look at me. Am I that insignificant?

“I know you’re mad about Bruno’s death. And I am too. The day it happened, I cried so hard. Do you know that? I stayed locked in my room, crying because an innocent soul was lost and I hadn’t done anything to stop it. An innocent life was taken by my own mother. You probably don’t know this, but before that incident, things were starting to look up. And just when I thought I could finally put aside my bitterness and find out what you have that drives Raheem, Stella and Sir Aaron crazy, this happened, pushing you out of my reach. But like I said, I won’t ask you to come back. No, you’ve suffered enough at our house, and I don’t wish that for you. At least not anymore. Find happiness, okay?”

She turned to leave, but I dashed to her side and wrapped her in an embrace I’d longed for all my life. Her arms around me felt like heaven. “Did you mean every word you said?”

“Every word,” she said. Disentangling from the hug, she looked into my eyes. “If life presented me another chance to have you home with me, I would stand by you, support you, and protect you from mum’s hate. We would be sisters. But is it possible for you to still want me after everything? I know I have sinned against God and against man by treating you the way I have, and hoping for forgiveness is asking too much, but—”

I took her hands in mine. The softness of her palms shouted out that she had never done her chores. Her skin had the softness of a baby’s. “Shh. You mustn’t think like that.”

“I have to go now,” she said. “I just had to come give you what’s yours.”

Without a word of goodbye, she walked away, out of my sight, and although she planned walking out of my life as well, she didn’t stand a chance. I had found my lost long sister. I would not let her go again.

“Are you alright?” Sharon asked. I hadn’t noticed her presence.

“I don’t think she is,” Vicky said. “She’s crying.”

“Did that girl hurt you?” Sharon fumed. “If she did, I swear I’m going after her.” She made to go after Cynthia.

“I’m alright,” I said. “She didn’t hurt me.”

Vicky sat beside me. She didn’t seem convinced. “Then why are you crying?”

I smiled at her and ruffled her hair. “I’m not crying, silly.”

I emptied the package Cynthia had given me. It contained a jewelry box, a letter, and volumes of pictures. Pictures of mum and dad. Later, I would check the pictures, but now, I needed to read mum’s letter.

“Is that a letter?” Sharon asked, referring to the envelope I had just picked up.

“It’s from my mum,” I said. “She wrote it before…before she died.”

“Okay,” she said. “We’ll let you read it in private. Come, Vicky, she needs to be alone.”

Sharon and Vicky had barely left the room when I yanked open the glued envelope. A mix of grief and excitement drove tears to the brink of my eyes.

If you’re reading this, then I didn’t make it.

Reading this letter would send me on a tearful journey, and would definitely reopen my wounds of not having mum beside me, but I ached to read every word of it.

And I am so sorry, my darling. Can you ever forgive mummy for leaving you all alone in such a big world?

Mum wouldn’t have left if she had a choice. So, she hadn’t done anything to be forgiven for. I, on the other hand, had sent her away with my presence. If she could hear me, I’d ask for forgiveness. But that wouldn’t be enough. And it wouldn’t bring her back to me.

I cradled you in shaky arms. I watched you breathe, watched you cry. And despite the pain searing through me, my reason for joy abounded. I had you. My Victoria. Smart, intelligent, and beautiful, you are everything I am and more. I can see you in my mind’s eye, my Victoria, and I see a charming young lady. A girl who has the soft heart and beauty of her mother, and the strength of her father. I sincerely hope the image I see of you is what you are.

My gaze strayed from the letter and fell on a photo album of mum and dad. Mum’s eyes sparkled with an emotion I could rightly call love. The photo was on their wedding day, afterall. I stared intently, noting her features as though I were watching her picture for the first time. It enchanted me how we shared similar features. Save for the angelic smile on her face. A smile that could make the world stand still in awe. She had a reason for joy; something I didn’t have.

Life had never given me the chance to call her mother, or feel her take my hand in hers. I couldn’t help the wave of guilt spreading within me. Had I not been born, she would still be alive, and happy. But I had to come along, bringing her life to a premature end.

I gazed at dad, a dark haired man with a smile that could light up the world. His black eyes brimmed with emotions that matched mum’s. Life would have been a lot different if I had grown up with them.

I returned my attention to the letter.

How are you, my darling? Does life treat you well? While I hope it does, because you deserve the best, I’d be deceiving myself to believe your life is all smiles and no tears. Life isn’t a bed of roses. Good times will be here, and bad times too. But either way, we always have to find a sliver of hope in the darkest of times; a sliver of light in the darkest of places. Where there is none, we can make ours.

In the darkest of times I had found my fairy godmother. I wished I could tell mum about her and the way she supported me. I wished I could tell her about my new family and their intention to free me from my stepmother’s clutches.

Baby, I don’t know what situation you’re currently facing, or will face in time to come, but always remember that you are stronger than every thorn. When things get tough, don’t give up. Don’t let any situation break you. But forge ahead, and someday you’ll look back and say ‘wheew, that was a bumpy ride.’

I wish I was there with you, and we’d engage in conversations, opening up our hearts to each other like friends would. I know there’s a lot you want to share with me.

Raheem. For a reason I didn’t understand, I thought of him way too much. Way too much that it started to scare me. I wished mum was here so I could tell her about this craziness. I wished I could tell her about my dreams. Together we’d have found a way to transform them into reality. Although, to be honest I barely had any dreams other than a chance for love.

[_ With every new day comes new decisions. Don't rush into them, ever. I would tell you to follow your heart. But it's not 100% safe to do so. I did a number of times, and the places it got me were undesirable. Only once did following my heart yield good results. That was when I met him. My rock, my bestfriend. And then I knew my heart had led me to the one I wanted to spend my whole life with. _]

I smiled as an untold love story flashed through my mind. I wished mum had written a thing or two about it. If she had written another letter, I trusted she would have included it.

But even still, the heart is a really twisted ally and will lead you down the wrong path without any qualms. So it’s best to use your head to follow your heart. Since I mentioned your father, it wouldn’t be fair to not tell you how we met. But your father will tell it and tell it all, I promise. How we met and fell in love. It’s a story that deserves to be developed into a script. I just hope he tells it all. If he doesn’t, I’ll groan in my grave.

The word ‘grave’ made me cringe. How did mum feel so comfortable speaking of the grave?

Take care of yourself for me, my dear. And take care of your father. I will write him a letter, and if the pain allows me, I will write you another. If I am unable to, please forgive me. Know that I just couldn’t.

If I could, I would fight this sickness to be with you. I would cross seven seas to watch you grow, watch you call me mummy, watch you find your first love, and comfort you when you have your first heartbreak. But life is no movie, and here I am, confined to this bed, waiting for the end to come.

Poor death, it thinks stealing me away has separated us. It doesn’t know I live in you. Or do you not see me in your dreams? Do you not see me in your mind’s eye? Do you not think of me so much that I feel real enough to actually be touched?

I clutched the letter to my chest, and with a noisy breath, more tears stung my cheeks

Sweetheart, sometimes you blame yourself for being born. You torture yourself with the thought that I’m gone because of you. I know. Please stop. This was meant to happen. And just so you know, if I was meant to die for you to live, I’d do it over and over again, because you are a blessing to the world, and I’d be selfish to hide you away.

I would write on and on. No, I would do more: live on and on (if only). But the pain forces me to drop my pen.

Stay safe, my darling. And stay strong. I love you.

“I love you too mum,” I sobbed.

Mum’s letter would always be a part of my life. I would tattoo it in my heart, where it could never be erased.

Hours later, and at school, mum’s words continued to float above the surface of my mind.

“You should enlarge it and frame it,” Amarachi said. “That way, you always see it just before bed, and once you awaken.”

Musing over her words, I let a sad smile stretch my lips only slightly. I would take her suggestion. Surely, Sir Aaron wouldn’t mind helping me convert this vision into reality.

Seeing Nancy and Precious sitting alone during recess struck me as weird. Cynthia had never absented herself from lunch. But today, she had. She’d acted weird during class. She’d become a walking ghost, a shadow of herself. Guilt ate at my heart each time I made to analyze this.

“You’re not touching your food,” Flora observed.

I bolted to my feet. “I have to go.”

“What?” Amarachi asked. “Where are you—”

I didn’t wait to answer. I dashed to our classroom and found Cynthia in her seat with her head resting on the locker.

“Cyn.”

Tentatively, she looked up at me. I gasped at the sight of her bloodshot eyes. “What’s wrong? Are you alright?”

She broke into tears. “It’s mum. She has a very high blood pressure and the doctor says she could have a heart attack. I’m so scared, Victoria. I’m so scared. I don’t want my mum to die. Without her I’m nothing.”

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Home

“I felt…so bad…about dying without…without your forgiveness. But now you are here… I am forgiven. I will die a happy woman.”

“Are you sure this is what you want?” Sir Aaron’s voice breeched through the awkward silence in the living room. Although I’d already made known my decision, every member of his family seemed to hope I’d change my mind.

It hurt me to disappoint them, but I had to return home. For no less than forty-eight hours I’d been contemplating over my decision to return home. My stepmother needed me.

“That woman can suffer for all I care,” Sharon said. “It’s either her wickedness has finally caught up with her, or she’s faking it.”

“She’s sick,” I said. “Why would anyone fake a thing like this?”

“To get what they want,” Sharon said.

Although that seemed possible, my stepmother would never do a thing like this. Lie about her own health? Unthinkable. “I have decided, sir. I must be by her side during this hard time. You must think of me as ungrateful now. After everything you’ve done for me—”

“We don’t,” Mrs. Aaron said. “We just want to make sure you’re sure about this. This is what you want? Really?”

“I don’t have a choice ma,” I said.

“Very well then,” Sir Aaron said. “You’ve decided. So be it. Go get your things ready. I’ll drop you off.”

With no attempt to hide her retort, Sharon stormed off. Vicky followed right after.

“They fear for you,” Mrs. Aaron said. “They fear you’re making the wrong choice and you just don’t see it. Although I feel the same way, I cannot stop you from leaving. It is your choice. I just hope you aren’t walking into a trap. May the good Lord be with you. Go well.”

“Thank you, ma.” I headed for the room and found Sharon arranging my belongings in my bag. Perched on the bed, Vicky hugged a pillow.

“You amaze me,” Sharon said without looking up to acknowledge my presence. “How can you still think of that woman after everything?”

“She is still family,” I said.

“Family my foot,” she said. “I don’t know what kind of heart you have, but this act of yours is something I’d never do. If I were in your shoes I’d leave her to die in her evil.”

Done arranging my bag, she presented it to me. “As much as I don’t agree with this, I can’t stop you.”

Tossing her pillow to the bed, Vicky sprang to her feet and crossed the room to meet me. She threw her tiny arms around me in a heart-wrenching embrace. “Don’t go,” she sobbed. “Please.”

“Vicky—”

She tightened her arms around me. “Tell me you won’t go, please.”

“Vicky, my mum is very sick,” I explained. “Wouldn’t you do the same if it were your mum?”

“If it were my mum, I would,” Sharon said. “But it’s not your mum. It’s your evil stepmother.”

“Why are stepmothers so evil?” Vicky asked innocently, pulling away from the embrace.

Sharon made an ugly face. “Because they are hideous creatures. They’re ogres.”

“Eeeew,” Vicky said. “Like Shrek?”

“Yup,” Sharon said.

Vicky’s face contorted as though she’d smelled a decomposing rat. She cupped a palm over her crinkled nose. “Eeeew. She’s so disgusting.”

Sharon made a face and pinched her nose. “Yeah. Double eeew.”

“Will you come back, Victoria?” Vicky asked. “Ogres are bad. They crush bones to make bread. Fi Fii Fo Fum. I smell the blood of a Nigerian girl. Be her alive or be her dead, I’ll crush her bones to make my bread!”

“I’ll come visit, I promise,” I said.

“No, will you come live with us again?” she clarified. “You’re only going to visit the sick witch, right? You’ll return right after. You shouldn’t eat anything she gives you. Not food. Not water. Remember what happened with Snow White.”

“Are you ready?” Sir Aaron’s voice boomed from behind us.

“Yes sir,” I said.

“Well then, let’s go.”

“Wait,” Sharon said. “I should come along so I’d know the house. I’d love to visit sometime.”

“Me too!” Vicky squealed. “Perhaps there are other people to save from the ogre-witch!”

Sir Aaron grimaced. “Ogre witch? Sharon, what have you been teaching her?”

“Nothing, dad,” Sharon said. “I’ll go wait outside.” Humming a tune, she made her exit.

Moments later, all four of us stood in my stepmother’s room. Paler than she’d ever been, she lay asleep in bed. Her hair, hiding behind a hairnet, and her face, devoid of makeup, told me the intensity of her deteriorating health. On a normal day, she would never wear a hairnet during the day. She would also never fail to apply layers of makeup on her face.

“She’s asleep,” I stated the obvious.

“She’s been like this since I returned from school,” Cynthia said, her voice low.

Sir Aaron advanced to my stepmother. “She doesn’t look good. She should be in a hospital.”

“Our family doctor comes to check on her,” Cynthia explained. “He administered some medication. He said as long as she doesn’t think too much, doesn’t overwork herself, and is well rested, she will be fine.”

In that case, she would be fine soon. With my presence, she wouldn’t have to think so much about the child custody request and the child abuse sentence that possibly followed. With my presence she wouldn’t overwork herself. I’d resume responsibilities as the one who saw to every chore. She would be well rested. She would be just fine. I would care for her like I would my own mother.

“Victoria—?” Excitement flashed in my stepmother’s half-open eyes. Watching her struggle to breathe cut through me like a sword.

“Have you really come to see me, my daughter?” Her voice had become a shadow of itself; a raspy death rattle. I didn’t want this. Where was the energetic woman who would yell at me without even pausing for a breath?

“I am here,” I said. I drew nearer to her. Without invitation, I sat beside her. She smiled at me. How would I respond to her kindness? I’d already acclimatized myself to the venom she spewed at me.

“My daughter,” she said, barely audible. Taking my hands in hers, she went on, “I am happy you came… To …to see me. Now I—” A chesty cough fought to break her.

Sobbing, Cynthia rushed to her side. “Mummy.”

“Go get water,” I heard Sir Aaron whisper to someone behind us.

“Now you are here,” my stepmother said. “Now I can die in peace.”

Tears welled up around my eyes as I watched her struggle for her life. I let them stream down my cheeks like rivulets. “Don’t say that. You will not die.”

My stepmother made to speak, but she coughed so hard, her eyes brimmed with tears. “I don’t know…if I will live to see the next day. And I felt…so bad…about dying without…without your forgiveness. But now you are here… I am forgiven. I will die a happy woman.”

Sharon dashed in with a glass of water. She handed it over to Cynthia and stepped back to view the scene from a distance. My stepmother jerked her head sideways as Cynthia moved the glass toward her. Water spilled onto the bed.

“Water is not my problem,” she said.

“Mum, please—” I begged.

She turned to look at me. Her gaze softened and she allowed Cynthia feed her the water. I’d never seen her this hurt. The pain in her eyes brought to mind my mother. Had her last moment been just like this? Had she looked so much like death itself that no one could look at her without shedding a tear?

Holding my stepmother’s hand, I stared into her eyes. “You will not die, mum. I will not lose my mother a second time. You will fight this and win. Please, live for us. What will we do without you? Look at Cynthia. She needs you so much. Please, don’t speak about death, I beg you. Live for us.”

“How can you still think of me as your mother?” she said. “After everything I’ve done to you. How do you still care for me?”

“Because we are family,” I said. “And family support each other. Whatever happened is all in the past now.”

“This is suicide,” Sir Aaron said. “We have to get you to a hospital. There, you’ll be better taken care of. I’ll take you.”

My stepmother’s jaw tightened. Her narrowed eyes widened, and in that moment, the dying woman disappeared. In her place lay the woman I’d known all my life. “No one is taking me to a hospital. Do you know how many people die in hospitals everyday? If I am to die, than it is my dying wish that I spend my last moments in my house, with my family. No less. But if it is the will of God that I live through this—” A fit of cough cut her off.

Cynthia pressed down on her chest to soothe her. “Mummy, please. Calm down.”

“Mum, Sir Aaron’s right,” I said. “You need to go to the hospital—”

“Hospital doesn’t guarantee life,” she said. “I will not go there.”

“It’s okay if you won’t go,” Cynthia said. “If she doesn’t want to go, then let’s respect her decision. The doctor comes to check on her, so it’s pretty much the same thing.”

“This is suicide,” Sir Aaron fumed. “And I will not be a part of it.” His children trailed after him as he stormed out of the room.

I made to go after them, but my stepmother gripped my hand. “Stay. Stay here.”

Minutes by her side morphed into hours, and hours into three days of no school. Cynthia and I almost never left the room. We stayed by her side, assuring her she’d be fine. We ensured she took all her medicine. We watched her sleep, took turns feeding her, and fell asleep by her side. Twice daily, Doctor Smart cane to check on her. He assured us she’d be fine. And I trusted she would.

Stella, Sharon, Amarachi and Flora had made it a ritual to call me at least once a day. With friends like them, I couldn’t wish for more. It stunned me that Raheem hadn’t called yet. Why then did he make it seem like he cared about me when he didn’t?

These thoughts revolved around my head and didn’t go away till I’d fallen asleep. For the first time in close to two weeks, I felt the comfort of my bed. Moments later, I awakened to the sight of my flashing LED notification. Six missed calls from Amarachi. Four from Stella. Two from Flora. Four WhatsApp messages, and three text messages. So much for keeping my phone on silent so I could get an undisturbed sleep.

Cynthia had suggested we take turns spending the night with mum. Tonight, I’d be the one on duty, while she’d retire to her room.

A text from Flora read: Raheem says to give you his number. Misplaced yours. Ring him.

The text ended with Raheem’s mobile number. I dialed. And in that moment, I realized I craved to hear his voice. Speaking to him would not take away my problems, but it would at least make me feel better. Or so I hoped.

“Toria?” Raheem said, his voice groggy.

I cleared my throat. “Hello yourself.”

“It’s been eons,” he said. “I lost your number.”

I took his words for sorry. “It’s okay.”

“Where are you? Is everything alright? Your friends won’t tell me what’s wrong. You’ve been absent for way too long. Your sister as well. Is everything alright at home?” He spoke so fast, I didn’t even know how to construct my response. “Hey?”

“I’m alright,” I said.

“So what’s wrong then?” he asked. “Will you be in school today?”

“I can’t,” I said. “I have to stay with mum. She’s…she’s terribly sick.”

It took forever for him to respond. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” I said.

“She’ll be fine,” he assured me.

“I know.”

“Which hospital is she?” he asked. “I’m coming over.”

“She’s at home,” I said. “Raheem, I have to go.”

“Okay.” After a moment, he added, “Stay safe. Take care of mum and—”

I ended the call before he could say another word. “I will,” I muttered to myself. “It’s my duty.”

Adding Raheem’s number to my contacts, I left for my stepmother’s room. Surreptitiously, Cynthia opened the windows. I stared at my stepmother who lay sound asleep.

I sat beside her and tucked a stray lock of hair underneath her hair net. “How is she?”

“I don’t know if she’s any better,” Cynthia said. Her puffy eyes told me she’d been crying all night.

“You’ve been crying,” I said.

“No,” she said. An obvious lie. “An insect got into my eye and I kept scratching is all.”

“Cyn, you don’t have to lie to me,” I said.

“What can I do, Victoria?” Her voice wobbled and I feared mum would awaken to find her sobbing. “What can I do? I’m so scared.”

“Mum will be fine, I assure you. Everything will be alright.” Deep down, I wanted to believe this.

“I hope so. I just hope so.”

A knock at the gate interrupted our conversation. I rose to my feet. “I’ll get it.”

“No, let me.”

Before I could protest, she walked out of the room. I smiled at the new turn of things. My stepmother’s ill health had brought our family together. For this, she had to recover. She could not leave now that things had finally been sorted out between us. No, she had to live.

Doctor Smart walked in. Clad in a well-suited navy blue long-sleeve and black pants, he brandished his briefcase.

“Good morning, doctor,” I said.

“Good morning,” he said. “How is she?”

“Same,” Cynthia replied from the doorway.

“She will be fine,” Doctor Smart assured. Movement on the bed forced us to notice my stepmother’s awakening. She grunted into consciousness.

She smiled at Cynthia and I. To Doctor Smart, she said, “Doctor.”

“How are you?” he asked.

“I think my health is returning to me,” she said. “The pain in my chest subsides.”

Hope lit within me. Mum would be fine. I spent the next few hours brandishing this hope. Her life-force seeped back into her, and although it was barely noticeable, I did notice.

Today, I’d asked Cynthia to attend school. While she went to school for the both of us, I’d take care of mum for the both of us. Tomorrow, we’d switch places. We’d take turns going to school, until mum was strong enough to stay home by herself. Mum’s recovery seemed closer than ever. She’d walked around the house today. She’d engaged me in conversations, and had even helped prepare lunch.

Sat in bed, I scribbled a draft of a story I planned to write. It would be a story of my life. I’d name it Silver Lining, and I’d dedicate it to my fairy godmother. Cynthia didn’t seem comfortable with me writing a story of my life, but I had already made up my mind. I would do this. I would start with a prologue, briefly showing the world my mother’s last moment on earth. She would grieve over the end of her life. She would write two letters, to the people she loved the most, after which death would whisk her away, paving way for chapter one. That would start with me in dad’s funeral, reminiscing over happy times with him.

The end was here.

And Naomi could feel it. Clutching her newborn to her chest, she conflicted within herself. She wanted to believe things would be fine. It was okay to be weak after childbirth. But she felt much more than this, and somehow she knew she would soon fade into nothingness. Her gaze pierced through the man beside her. Now, he rejoiced over the birth of a child. Soon, he would mourn over the loss of his wife.

The door cracked open and I shut my book on impulse. I wouldn’t be comfortable with someone reading my book in its crudest form. At least, not until I’d refined the words.

Cynthia stepped into the room. “Vicky, you have a visitor.” After a pause, she added, “It’s a friend from school.”

“Tell her to come in,” I said. Preparing to welcome my guest, I rose to my feet. Who else would come see me but Amarachi or Flora? But then, Flora didn’t know where I lived. Unless Amarachi had given her directions.

Biting back a smile, Cynthia walked out of sight. Barely a second later, I looked to the doorway and found Farah gazing at me. A smile tore my lips apart. She crossed the room to meet me with a bear hug.

“It’s been ages!” she said. “Look at you. All worn out. I’m sorry about your mum’s health. We came as soon as we could.”

We? That only meant Raheem had come along. “Raheem is here?”

“He’s with your mum,” she said.

A gasp escaped my throat. What was he thinking, going to see her? After a lifetime, we’d finally glued our family back together. I didn’t want her having new reasons to have me. She’d feel I’d invited a guy over. How would she react to this?

With the speed of light, I made for her room. I hoped to find her asleep so she wouldn’t have to see him and have a wrong impression of me.

Giggling, Farah dashed after me. “You’re in so much hurry to see him. Aren’t you?”

I stepped into the room to find Cynthia, Raheem, and my stepmother laughing over a joke I’d come too late to enjoy.

“You really do have a sense of humor,” my stepmother said between laughter. It warmed my heart to see her smile so whole heartedly. “What’s your name again?”

“Raheem.”

“Who’s the fine young girl?” she asked at the sight of Farah.

“I’m Farah,” Farah introduced with a smile. “I’m his sister.”

“Victoria, you have such great friends,” my stepmother said. “Imagine, none of Tonye’s friends have come to see me, but your friends keep coming.”

“Not even one of your friends have come to see you,” Cynthia shot back.

“Well, maybe that’s because I haven’t told them of my ill health.”

“That makes us both, mum. Maybe I haven’t told mine either?”

Farah chimed into the conversation. “Actually, you don’t have to tell your friends anything. Real friends just have to see you absent for a day or two, and then they come over.”

“Exactly!” my stepmother agreed. After a moment, she added, “I’m sorry my ill health has forced your friend away for so long. But I am on the road to recovery. So, she will be with you tomorrow.”

Farah grinned at me. Raheem, on the other hand, showed no emotions.

“It’s a blessing your health’s returning to you,” he said.

“I’ll be good as new in no time,” my stepmother said. “These two girls are my reasons to live. I wouldn’t leave them for anything in the world. Raheem, I know you’re probably looking forward to spending time with your friend. But I’m keeping you all to myself. I hope you don’t mind my selfishness.”

“It’s all good, Mrs. Brown,” he said. “I’m here to see you. I’m sure my friend can understand that.”

My stepmother’s gaze settled on me. “What do you see in Victoria?”

“Pardon?” Raheem asked, taken aback by the question. Her question had knocked me off balance too.

“I mean…there must be some positive trait that makes you want to be her friend,” she explained.

“She makes me want to be a better person,” Raheem said.

“She has that ability,” my stepmother said. “She’s gifted in stealing hearts. And for this reason, I pray she doesn’t end up trying to steal the wrong heart someday. I’d be very much at ease if I knew your intentions for my daughter.”

I bowed my head in shame. Where was mum headed? Did they really have to discuss this?

“It’s not everyday a guy comes here to show this much care,” she went on.

Cynthia chimed in, “And it’s not everyday you fall sick!”

“My dear, I’m sure you don’t understand where I’m going with this. But trust me. Nowadays, it’s rare to see a guy want to be just friends with a girl. I do not want either of my children to fall into wrong hands. Neither you nor your sister. She has gone through a lot. It would break me if anyone breaks her. I swear I’ll break the bones of anyone who tries to add to her pain.”

“In that case, Mrs. Brown, you don’t have to worry,” Farah said. “My brother here is ready to help you break the bones of anyone who hurts her. Right, Raheem?”

Raheem nodded. Cat got his tongue? I could tell he shared my discomfort. Farah, on the other hand, brimmed with sheer excitement.

“You see,” Farah said. “There’s nothing to worry about.”

“Keep her safe,” my stepmother said to Raheem.

“I will,” he said.

“Guys, come on,” I said. “It’s not like I’m going to a battle field or anything.”

“Sweetheart, I wish you understood how I feel right now. But you can’t. And I’ll try to explain it to you. Now, our family is finally mended. I want to give you everything you never had. A childhood. Love. Safety. Even your first love—”

“Mum!” I said.

“Raheem’s a fine gentleman,” she said. “I trust he’ll make a good friend. So, I consent.”

“I won’t let you down,” Raheem said.

Today, mum had given her consent. But to what? My friendship with Raheem, or a relationship with him? Even after Raheem and Farah departed, this question troubled me on.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Danger

“When I faked that sickness, I had already resolved in my heart to kill you.”

“Written by Stella Adewale?” Cynthia asked, picking up Stella’s Robber’s Heart from my bed. “Isn’t that our school nurse?”

“Yes,” I said. “She writes.”

“Seriously? She doesn’t even look like a writer. I could never have guessed. What’s the book about anyway? Let me guess. Someone falls in love with a thief?”

I nodded. “That’s the plot in one sentence. It’s a great read. There are many twists to it. A thief jumps into a compound to steal, but breaks his leg and is nursed by a little girl who grows a daughter-father love for him. For the first few days, she hides him in her room, away from her mum.”

“Does the woman ever get to see him?” Cynthia asked.

I smiled as I thought back to the relationship building between the woman and the thief. “Yes. And it’s a very humorous scene. To please her daughter, she allows him stay with them till he recovers. And then, for the few days it takes for him to recover, the woman envies the bond he has with her daughter. And so, it’s as though they are competing for the girl’s love. The robber seems to be winning in everything. A fight between the girl and her mother makes him feel bad and he sneaks out one night, never returns. His absence makes him realize he’s fallen in love with the woman. And the woman realizes this too.”

Cynthia grinned. I had no idea she fancied fiction. “What happens next? How does it end?”

“The man is back to being a thief,” I said.

“What?” she exclaimed. “Why?”

“He’d rather return to his old self than be this love-sick puppy,” I said. “I can’t tell you more. I am yet to complete the book.”

“I want to read it so bad,” she said. “It’s my kind of story. Give me when you’re done? Deal?”

“Deal.” We sealed our deal with a smile. The door lazied open and my stepmother walked in with three wine-filled goblets on a tray.

“What are we celebrating?” Cynthia asked, reading my mind.

My stepmother smiled. As though learning a pattern, she kept her gaze fixated on the goblets. “We are a family again. And my health has returned. This calls for celebration, doesn’t it?”

“Of course it does,” I said.

Cynthia reached for a glass of wine, but my stepmother sidestepped with such speed that alerted us. “Mum?”

“Do you want to kill the joy?” my stepmother teased. “I’m the only one allowed to serve!”

“Oh, sorry,” Cynthia said.

My stepmother’s focus adjusted to Cynthia’s black dress and her made-up face. “Why are you all dressed up?”

“Party,” Cynthia said. “A friend’s about to relocate to France, so we’re hosting a send-forth party at some club. Didn’t I tell you about this?”

My stepmother set down the tray on the bed and sat beside it. “Oh, you did. I forgot. When will you be back?”

“I’ll be back around eleven,” she said. “If I can’t make it though, I’ll have a sleepover. Will call to inform you if it happens that way. Mum, I’d like to take. Vicky along.”

“Don’t even think of it!” My stepmother yelled, a dark shadow creeping to her face.

“Mum, please, calm down,” Cynthia said. “What’s wrong?”

My stepmother’s eyes glistened. “Victoria has never been to such parties. How do you think she’d handle the boys, the bear and all? I would never place her in any situation that could harm her. And besides, I want her here with me tonight. Or do I not deserve to have her with me?”

“Mum please don’t talk like that,” I said. “I’m not going to any party. I’m staying here.”

She grinned. “Thank you. Now let’s drink to our happiness.” She fixated her gaze on the wine. Taking one goblet, she presented it to Cynthia. “This is yours.”

“Thanks, mum,” Cynthia said.

“And you, my dearest—” She moved her hand to pick mine, but then she froze, her palm hovering over the two glasses as though she were trying to remember something. Her face contorted with confusion.

“Mum?” Cynthia called.

My stepmother clutched her head. “My head hurts.” With a smile, she said, “But neither headache nor any other intruder can separate me from my share of happiness. This is yours, dear Victoria.”

Smiling ,I gripped my goblet. “Thanks, mum.”

Grabbing her goblet from the tray, she lifted it in salutation. “Let’s toast to our happiness.”

I raised my glass. And so did Cynthia. “To our happiness,” we chorused.

Cynthia lowered her glass with a speed that emptied it of its contents.

“Tonye!” My stepmother gasped.

Cynthia waved off her mother’s worry. “Mum. I’m fine. Let’s not spoil the fun.” Turning towards me, she said, “Here, let’s share yours.”

“No,” my stepmother countered. “It’s been years since we let Vicky drink wine. Let’s allow her have a full glass. Let’s share mine, please.”

I could see tension rear its head between my stepmother and Cynthia.

“Mum, I’m sure my sister wouldn’t mind,” Cynthia insisted.

“Do not bother the poor girl,” my stepmother said. “Okay then, if you won’t share mine, just wait, I’ll go get another bottle. Is that okay?”

“I’m not considering that option. I’m sure my sister wouldn’t mind. And no, I insist.” Cynthia moved her glass underneath mine, and just as I made to pour, my stepmother swatted at my glass like a fly. Both glasses flew to the floor. I watched them shatter. Red wine crawled across the floor.

“You stupid girl! Do you have any idea what you’ve just done?” My stepmother stormed out of the room.

Wordlessly, Cynthia moved to my bed. She sank down in it and dissolved into tears. “I can’t believe mum tried to kill you. I suspected this. I knew it was all too good to be true.”

Sniffing back her tears she walked out of the room and returned a few moments later to clean up the mess on the floor.

“I’m so sorry this happened. She’s hated you all her life. It was all too suspicious that she loved you overnight. I always had a bad feeling about it. But I couldn’t bring myself to tell you. A part of me said I was jealous and couldn’t handle having mum’s attention diverted.”

Moments passed, and I said nothing. “Victoria. Vicky, please say something?”

“What can I say?” I asked. “Can you answer the questions swirling around my head?”

“I know you’re upset,” I said.

“Upset doesn’t cut it. I’m…hollow. I feel nothing. I should feel upset, scared, anything at all. But I feel nothing. Nothing but curiosity. Why would she do this? I know she hates me to the moon and back. But kill me? Why? What would she gain?”

“I don’t know what’s in it for her. And I don’t want to know. This is just too much. I’m ashamed of being her daughter. Where has my mother gone? I do not know the woman who tried to kill her daughter!”

“You’re forgetting I’m not—”

She cut in. “Blood be damned, Victoria. Blood or not, you are my sister. We are family. Or do these past few days mean nothing to you? Mum has denied us each other for so long. Now that I’ve tasted what life is with a sister like you, I do not want to go back to the darkness life was without you. I’m going to talk to mum. If she ever tries to hurt you again, then she’ll lose us both. If she doesn’t like you, then fine. I won’t force her to, but she shouldn’t keep trying to hurt you.”

I watched her storm out of the room, her blonde wig bobbing behind her. As sincere as she seemed, I didn’t trust her. What if she had a hand in her mother’s plan and had only changed her mind at the last minute? Or what if she was only pretending?

Grabbing my phone, I dialed Sharon’s number. She picked up almost immediately. “Heya. My sister from another mother. How are you?”

I swiped at my teary eyes. “Do you… Do you know if your parents are still interested in taking custody over me?”

“What’s wrong?” she asked. “Did…did that woman hurt you? Shit! I knew it was all an act. Are you alright? I’m coming over.”

“No,” I said. “You don’t have to. I’m fine. Really.”

“Can you hear yourself? People who are fine don’t cry like this.”

“I…I miss my mum,” I said.

“I’m sorry.” Her voice had softened noticeably.

“If your parents will allow me return, I’d like to come tomorrow,” I said. “I’m so stupid. I just thought she was really sick and that she’d changed and—”

“You’re right,” she said. “You’re an idiot. I don’t want to say I told you so, but did I not tell you I didn’t believe she was really sick? And then, when she insisted that she wouldn’t go to a hospital, it made me even more convinced. And you just couldn’t see it. That woman and her daughter are not related to you in anyway. I wonder how you are so attached to them. You are strangers living under the same roof. I should stop talking now and save the rest for when I see you in person. When are you coming anyway?”

Although I hated to admit it, even to myself, Sharon had a point. “I’ll come once it’s morning. There’s nothing for me here. I cannot stay here.”

“You are leaving?” Cynthia stared at me from the doorway.

“Sharon, we’ll talk later.” I ended the call and put away my phone. Unable to hold her gaze, I looked away. Going away was the best decision I could ever make. Why then did the wounded look in her eyes shatter my soul?

“Don’t go.” Cynthia let out the words I didn’t want to hear. “Please. I know what mum did was not right, but please don’t leave me again. We’ll stand together.”

“Cynthia, I cannot stay,” I said. “You don’t understand. I can’t live like this. This is not the life I want for myself. I cannot continue in this fight. I give up. I lose. Your mum wins. Sir Aaron’s family is ready to accept me as their own. I’ll be happy there.”

Cynthia’s eyes blurred with years. It would be a shame if she smudged her mascara because of my supposed selfishness. “And me? You won’t even think about me?”

Nothing would happen to her, and we both knew that. Or come ould her mother give her stone instead of bread and snake instead of fish? “You will be fine. Your mother loves you so much be you know nothing beats that. But when it comes to me, she despises the very sight of me. If you care about me, then you’ll let me go.”

“I need you,” she said.

“You don’t,” I snapped. “You’ve never needed me, so—” The hurt look on Cynthia’s face alerted me to my thoughtless words. She looked as though a dagger had just severed her heart.

“Don’t listen to me,” I backpedaled, although I doubted my words would be any good at this point. “I’m sorry I said that.”

She sniffled. “No, go on. Say it. I guess that’s how you feel. After what’s happened, I know you don’t trust me. For all you care, I’m with mum in this. That’s what you think? That’s how you feel, right?”

She had just described how I felt. But admitting to this would only break her. And I didn’t want that.

“How would you feel if you were me?” I asked. “Would you continue living amongst people who have tortured you so much in the past and have now resorted to killing you? Would you?”

I awaited an answer that never came. Unless her hysterical weeping counted.

“Your silence,” I said. “It says it all.”

“I am not with mum in this,” she said. “You have to trust me, please.”

“I know. I believe you. You knew nothing about it. I trust you. But what does it matter?”

Cynthia darted to my side and lowered herself to the floor. Placing her hands on mine, she pleaded, “Please don’t go. Please stay. Don’t leave me with her. After what she’s done, it scares me to think I’ll live alone with her.”

“She would never hurt you,” I reassured her, stroking her disarrayed strands of hair into place. “You are safe with her.”

“And as long as you are with me you are safe too,” she said. “I will stick with you. Mum will not be able to hurt you. I give you my word. You stole my heart, Vicky. Who knows, maybe with your good conduct, your perseverance, your mildness, longsuffering and endurance, you’ll be able to win over mum’s heart too. You’ve always fought for this, haven’t you? Now, just when you are at the brink of success, you want to give up?”

“It’s a lost cause,” I said.

Swiping at her cheeks, she rose to her feet. “You’ve made up your mind? This is it? You are walking away?”

I let her questions go unanswered. Her voice had suddenly taken a formal tone I didn’t like.

“Okay,” she said. “I will not try to stop you. I just… I hope you find happiness where you’re going.”

With the rigidity of a robot, she made for the door.

“Cyn?” I called.

She halted, but didn’t turn to look at me.

“Can you ever forgive me?”

“I don’t hold grudges, Victoria.” She turned around with a rather forced smile. “And to prove that, I’m asking you to get ready and come with me to the party. After what happened here, I didn’t want to go again, but now that I think of it, I really need to be out for an hour or two. I need to clear my head. And you need this just as much as I do.”

My eyes popped out of their sockets. “Party? Me? Not happening!”

“C’mon, it’ll be fun.” She pouted. “Please? I know you’re not the party type but—”

“Cynthia, I will not be going for any party at eight in the night. Not happening.”

She popped down in bed beside me and draped an arm around my shoulders. “Hey I know you’re probably thinking terrible things right now, but trust me. It’s fun, and it’s safe. You’ll get to meet new people—”

I would never attend a night party. Not bloody likely. Dad would writhe in his grave. Or at least his remains would. Why would I go partying at night? Possibly, I appeared old fashioned, but I had principles. Clubbing would speak no good of my personality, so what’s the point?

“Hey, I know you’re not the party type,” she said. “But I’ve already explained why it’s important that we go out for a while. After what mum tried to do, I don’t feel good about leaving you all by yourself.”

Arms folded, I stuck out my chin in defiance. “I don’t feel good about you going for a night party either.”

“Oh, come on,” she groaned. “I’ve partied several nights.”

Touché. “And I’ve spend several nights alone with mum. I’ll be fine.”

Moments after I watched her walk away, I conflicted within myself. Had I done right by rejecting her invitation? Or wrong? What if something went wrong with her outing? Something I’d have been able to prevent had I been there?

Shoving off my pessimism, I pulled out Stella’s Robber’s Heart from underneath my pillow and buried myself in it.

In barely a hour time, I found the last page of the book. It ended with Katherine’s death bridging the gap between her mother and the robber. At this point I wished I hadn’t even read the book from the start. I’d fallen in love with Kat’s character, only for Stella to kill her in the name of her mum’s careless mistake. Why read a depressing book when my life already had all the depression the world had to offer? Stella had constructed a perfect story only to mess it all up in the end.

My thoughts drifted to my sister, my exact opposite. Deep down, a part of me feared our personal differences would threaten our new bond. I scrolled through the pictures on my phone. With the smiles know our faces, one could mistake this for a magazine front-cover. We were the perfect family. Or at least could have been. Only if stepmother’s love were true. What about me did she despise so much? Why would someone cultivate this much hate targeted at just one individual? Did the overdose of hate not wear her down?

Something crashed into my door. With a gasp that sounded more like a shriek, I sprang to my feet. I tiptoed to the door and peeked through the lens. My Heart thumped at the sight of my stepmother knocking like her life depended on it. What did she want?

“Victoria, open up,” she said, her speech slurred. Even from a distance, I could tell the stench Of alcohol camped around her. “I know you’re in there.”

She waited a few more seconds, after which she said, “You stupid, stupid girl. You should have let me in yourself. But stupid is stupid—”

Her voice trailed off as she staggered away. I let out a breath I’d been holding. That was a close one. What if I hadn’t remembered to lock the door? What would have become of me?

I’d escaped her this time. But soon, she would surely return. I would not wait to find out. I moved to my closet and pulled out my travelling bag. Letting it rest on my bed, I engaged myself with arranging neatly folded clothes and my other belongings into it.

The sound of footsteps and the jingle of keys rooted me to the ground. I barely had a moment to react to my stepmother’s return when the door flung open. Hands held behind her back, she strolled in as though she were stepping into her own room.

“I called you,” she said. “And I knocked. And knocked. And knocked. You were right here. You didn’t let me in. You silly, silly girl.”

She stepped toward me. My heart thumped in harmony with her footsteps. Her right hand flew out of hiding.

I gasped, not at her swiftness, but at that which she brandished. A gun, aimed at my head. I raised my hands in defense. “Mum, “ I pleaded. “Mum….mum, please.”

“I have told you again and again, you stupid girl,” she fumed, waving the gun, but never losing her aim. “Don’t you ever call me mum!”

“Okay, okay,” I said, words heavy on my chest. “I will never call you mum, if that’s what you want. I’ll do…I’ll do anything you want me to, I promise. Please don’t kill me. Please mum, please.”

I eyed the gun, trying to find a way to play ‘hero’. But she gripped the weapon with a fierce determination that spelt the death of me. Slow desolate tears streamed down my unblinking eyes.

“Mum, mum please calm down,” I said. “You’re upset right now and—” Hell, what was I even saying? She was buying none of this.

Smirking at the contents of my unzipped traveling bag, she said, “You even made plans to leave?”

“It’s not what you think,” I said.

She waved off my little white lie. “Had Cynthia not gotten in the way, we wouldn’t have gotten to this moment. I wanted you dead. And I still do. One way or another, you have to die.”

“Mum,” I sobbed. “Mum please what are you saying?”

As though the gun weighed heavy on one hand, she gripped it with both hands. “What part of ‘you have to die’ do you not understand?”

I still did not understand. “Why? Mum I know that you don’t like me, and you don’t ever want to cross paths with me, and I can understand that. But I don’t understand why—” I hiccupped. I couldn’t even say those words.

“Mum please tell me,” I sobbed. “If I am going to die, can I at least know why?”

“You are alive,” she blurted out. “I cannot stand the sight of you. You are everything my daughter is not. I cannot sit back and watch you best her in everything. And that boy, Raheem. I don’t know why he sees you and fails to see her. I’m not surprised though. You cast a spell on him.”

“Mum—” The bitter tears I’d had started to shed could not make her mind grow soft toward me. I knew this. But I didn’t sob because I needed compassion. I sobbed because it was the only thing I could do at the moment.

Raising the gun she had lowered barely a second ago, she said, “You will not interrupt while I speak, or I swear I will make this a very slow and tortuous process. Do you understand me?”

“Y-yes.” I followed the gun with my frantic eyes.

She closed the gap between us. Her eyes held no hate, and, save for the gun she brandished, one might mistake us for a mother and daughter having a friendly chitchat.

“That guardian of yours,” she said. I stood like a statue, barely breathing as she walked slow circles around me. I could feel her piercing glare thrashing its way through the back of my head. “Aaron. He poked his ugly nose in matters that don’t concern him. How dare he threaten to have me serve a Child Abuse sentence? No, my life is way too precious to be wasted like that. But we can’t blame him, now, can we? Had he known who he was messing with, he would have thought twice. As the fast thinker I am, I devised a plan to bring you back here.”

It all made sense. She had faked the sickness. This explained why she had so strongly opposed the idea of a hospital.

As though reading my mind, she said, “Yes. I faked it. Are you surprised? Really, I am surprised that you believed the whole drama. But then again, I shouldn’t be really surprised. The offspring of two full-grown fools can not be anything other than a fool. When I faked that sickness, I had already resolved in my heart to kill you. You don’t know how I felt each time you came close to either me or my daughter. It took so much effort to not strangle you to death. It wasn’t easy deciding the method to go with. Strangling would involve a struggle and I really am not ready to have your filthy sweat all over me. Stabbing would be a really messy situation, with your blood defiling the whole place. This brought us down to two options. The first, as you already know, failed, thanks to my nosy daughter. But I will not miss this chance. It will be so much fun shooting you with your father’s own gun. He bought this for self-defense. Poor, poor him. If only he knew.”

“It’s hard to get away with murder,” I said, hoping to ignite fear in her. “The cops will get you. What will you do then?”

“The cops?” she laughed. “The cops are stupid. They believe whatever I bring before them. Don’t worry, it’s all under control. I have already portrayed myself as a better mother. Everyone believes I’m a changed person. So, even when I kill you and bury you in the backyard, no one will suspect me. I’ll bury along some of your belongings to make it seem like you ran away. A then I’ll play the part of a worried mother. It will work out.”

My mind revolved around a way out of this mess. I could launch at her and knock out the gun. But what guaranteed my survival?

Or I could….

“Okay, enough talking,” she said, her finger on the trigger. Her voice, strident and cold, worked its way into me, shattering what was left of my broken heart.

I looked toward the doorway. “Cynthia?”

CHAPTER NINETEEN

Rescue

Whatever you do, don’t let them get you. Just hang in there, okay? Help is coming. Victoria? Victoria? Hello? Are you with me?”

My stepmother stiffened for a second too long. She looked over her shoulder. Her eyes found the empty doorway. Barely giving her a moment to register that she’d been effortlessly fooled by the girl she underestimated, I launched myself at her with a whole new strength I never knew I had in me. I’d never been one for physical attacks, and it seemed I’d been storing up my energy for this moment.

She squeezed the trigger, sending indiscriminate bullets ripping into the ceiling and ricocheting around the house. A few empty shots turned my trepidation to amusement. I let out a full-throated laugh as my stepmother groaned over her newest failure.

Gritting her teeth, she swung the empty gun at my face, aiming to break a bone or two. From the cracking sound that followed, and the eye-watering pain that ensued, she had surely hit target.

A warm liquid trickled down my temple, right where I’d been hit. I’d wave it off as beads of sweat, but the smell of copper and earth wafting into my nostrils said otherwise. I’d barely even recovered when she struck again, making both sides of my face even.

I made to slither away as her empty gun hit the floor, but a slap sent my face flying sideways. Her hands, trembling with untamed rage, grabbed my neck, raising me till my feet were inches from the floor. My legs dangled in the air as I struggled to break free.

My hands scrambled to find hers and pry them off. She reacted with gruesome immediacy, putting more pressure. In a frantic attempt to pry off her fingers, I dug into my neck with my fingers. Watching my pointless struggles, her eyes twinkled with excitement. The kind of excitement a child displayed when exploring his new toy.

This was the end. Death had finally found me.

In this moment, it almost amused me how my attitude toward death had changed. Sometime ago I’d thought of death as a Knight in Shiny Armor who would come sweep me away from the world’s badness and ruthless depravity. But here I was now, on the verge of death, praying for a miracle. But I knew better than to hope for luck, because luck always deserted me when I needed it the most.

Overflowing with scalding hot tears, my eyes peeled open. If I would die—and with each passing second it became clear that I would—then I wanted to at least have one last look at the world.

“Yes,” my murderer said. “Look at me one last time. I want my face etched into your dying memory.”

She let out a cackling laugh intended to irritate me in my last moments. A new found energy soared within me. I would not stoop so low to let her take away my life like it meant nothing.

No, I would live. And I would write this story in my ongoing novel.

Energized by her malevolence, I let out an enraged grunt, and delivered a bone-breaking kick to her kneecap. She yelped in pain and loosened her grip on my neck.

Simultaneously, we fell to the floor. I took a moment to fill my lungs with the oxygen they had been so rudely deprived of. It felt great to breathe again. Gripping the bed frame for support, I scrambled to my feet.

The enemy lay defeated. She writhed and moaned, clutching her possibly broken knee. Crawling, she advanced toward my leg. I fled to safety, grabbed my phone and bag, and darted out.

Moments later, sat in the front passenger seat of a taxi, my mind whirled around the events that had just unfolded. My mum had tried to murder me. I still couldn’t get past the fact that this actually happened. Save for the blood smearing my face, I’d doubt she had really tried to kill me.

I wrapped shaky arms around myself. Hot tears blistered my cheeks, but I made no attempt to wipe them off.

“You don’t look good,” the driver noted.

“I’m fine,” I said.

“I see.” He obviously didn’t buy my little white lie. “Boyfriend problem?”

He smiled knowingly. Although I felt the older man’s gaze bore into me, I refrained from looking at him. I wouldn’t want him freaking out over my wounds.

“Yeah,” I played along.

“Don’t worry,” the man said. “For someone to inflict such wounds on you and leave you all by yourself in the middle of the night, that person doesn’t deserve you.”

Puzzled that he had already seen my injuries, I turned to look at him. He looked away, focusing on getting me to my destination.

He had a point. For my stepmother to inflict these injuries on me and leave me all by myself in the middle of the night, then she didn’t deserve me. If only I had realized this from the start. But no, I’d been too busy holding on to nothing. I’d been too busy building a house with ice.

“I’ll drop here,” I said. The driver stomped on the brake, but it responded a tad slow. I handed him his pay and stepped out of the car, taking my bag with me.

The night’s quietude brought with it a new kind of insecurity I never knew existed. Strapping my bag to my shoulder, I gripped it firmly and headed for Sir Aaron’s gate. More than once, I turned to look over my shoulder, and although I found nothing alarming, I knew being out here all by myself was a huge risk. But what choice did I have?

At least I’d arrived at Sir Aaron’s residence in one piece. So, to an extent, I’d crossed over to safety. If something bad were to befall, it would already have happened. I rapped my fingers on the gate. A few seconds of no response told me to try again.

I knocked till my knuckles groaned. Frantically, I turned around to scan the street. The night, still as steel and quiet as death, made to ease me out of my worry. Finding no trace of danger, I retrieved my phone from my bag and dialed Sharon’s number.

“Hello,” Sharon said, her voice groggy. Guilt gnawed at me for disturbing her slumber.

“I’m at the gate,” I whispered.

“What?” she asked.

“I’m at the gate,” I repeated, my phone trembling in my hand. “Please come quick. I am so scared.”

“Oh no,” she shrieked. “Victoria, didn’t you say you were returning tomorrow? We are not around. We traveled for my cousin’s naming ceremony, so we decided to spend the night.”

The weight of Sharon’s words knock the breath out of me. I fell against the gate. Tears rolled down my cheeks. “Sharon, please just stop kidding and come outside,” I pleaded.

She’d have to strain her ears to get past the brittleness of my voice. “Please. I am standing outside your gate.”

“Mum,” Sharon’s high pitched voice pierced my eardrum. “Dad!”

I heard footsteps and the slam of a door. She seemed to be running. “It’s Victoria! She’s in trouble—”

Her voice faded, only to be replaced by Sir Aaron’s. “Victoria? Victoria, what happened?”

I made to speak, but words deserted me. I sobbed into the phone. Where would I go from here?

“I think something happened at home,” I heard Sharon say. “She’s at our gate.”

“What?” Sir Aaron and his wife shouted in unison.

“Victoria,” Sir Aaron called. “Victoria, can you hear me?”

“Yes sir.”

“Please don’t panic,” he said. “Everything will be fine. I will call one of my friends to come pick you up. Just hang in there, okay?”

“Okay,” I said. The line went dead. Almost immediately, Raheem’s call came in.

“Raheem!” I called out, unable to mask my relief.

“Toria? Is everything okay? I’ve tried to reach you all night, but you didn’t answer any of my calls.”

Had he? I’d placed my phone on silent just before stepping out into the dangerous night, lest the sound of a ringing phone alert night walkers of my pitiful presence.

I snuffled. “I’m sorry. My phone is on silent, so—” Again, I snuffled.

“What happened?” he asked. “Are you in some kind of trouble? Where are you?”

It crossed my mind to lie. But then I held back. What’s the point? Knowing the master sleuth he was, he’d already deduced from my strikingly low voice and my snuffles that I’d found myself in a new kind of trouble.

“Please call me later,” I whispered, pressing the phone to my ear.

“Wait. Wait. Please. What’s wrong?”

Footsteps. I heard footsteps from somewhere only a few steps away. Gasping, I whirled in that direction and swept my eyes around, squinting against the darkness. I detached my phone from my ear and strained to hear anything out of the ordinary. But I could only hear the thumping of my heart.

“Hello?” Raheem said. “Hello? Victoria? Talk to me. Hello?”

A figure moved in the dark, confirming my fears. Or was my mind playing tricks on me?

Either way, I had to leave. I pulled away from the gate. With every step I took, I heard an echo. My breath quickened as I tried to think. Was I destined to die tonight?

Frantically, I swiveled my gaze around the desolate street, trying to find a stone or a rod to protect myself with. But I found nothing. I quickened my pace. He did too. With each step I took, I sensed the gap between us sprint toward abridgment.

He was close.

I could feel his hand reaching out to grab me from behind. With a terrified wheeze, I spun around to face him. But I was alone.

Hugging myself, I turned around and continued to walk. Although I had no idea where to go, I knew staying in one place was not the best I could do. I needed to find a place to rest my head for the night.

“Raheem,” I whispered amidst the dryness of my throat.

“Victoria, please what is going on?” Raheem’s voice wobbled with emotions.

“I’m at Lance Avenue,” I said. “I think someone is following me.”

“Shit!” he cursed. “Head towards St. Peter’s Junction. Whatever you do, don’t let them get you. Just hang in there, okay? Help is coming. Victoria? Victoria? Hello? Are you with me?

“I’m still alive,” I said.

“Do you know how to run?” he asked.

Of course I did. Or was there a place in soccer for one who didn’t know how to run?

Ending the call, I stuffed my phone in my front pocket and lunged down the street. My traveling bag threatened to slow down my pace. Unstrapping it, I let it drop to the ground. I made a mental note to return for it if I lived through this.

Although I didn’t hear footsteps hammering the ground behind me, I had a feeling he was right behind me. What did he want with me?

I didn’t want to find out the answer to that question though. I’d heard stories of what became of people who were misguided enough to roam the streets at night. I’d rather die than be physically assaulted by one of these night roomers. My chest rose and fell as I reflected on my line of thoughts. I didn’t want to die. True, we would all die someday. But I didn’t want to die like this.

With every step I took, pain shot up my legs, and around my whole body. Moments of running and heavy breathing forced me to slow down. Every fiber of my being screamed at me to pick up pace, but my exhaustion didn’t give me a chance. Doubled over, I gripped my knees with both hands and fought to breathe again.

My noisy breathing clouded the street. I refused to let this be the death of me. With my racing heart now halfway quelled, I straightened my spine and darted toward a road-bend. At this point I wouldn’t be surprised if I’d outran my pursuer. But the sound of approaching footsteps proved me wrong.

My heart slammed against my chest as I spun to face him.

“Well well well,” a bald man said, swinging his muscular hands.

“What have we got here?” a second man said, completing his friend’s sentence.

They grinned at me as I took a few shaky steps back. They breathed heavily, no doubt more exhausted than I was. The smirks on their faces revealed what they thought of me — an exhausted little girl who would not survive another race. I’d be honored to prove them wrong. This time, I’d be sure to outrun them.

Trusting my heels, I shuffled backwards. I braced myself for the next lap. But I froze as my back bumped into a hard surface I knew was a chest. I spun around to face two men smirking at me. “Nowhere to run now, kitty kitty,” the third man said. He smelled of smoke and alcohol, as did the others.

The fourth man emptied a bottle of alcohol into his throat. With a smug smile, he smashed the bottle into the ground. The crash, exaggerated by my fear, aimed to crumble what was left of my hope.

Giving up was easy. But I wanted a task more challenging. I’d hope. Raheem would be here in no time. If I could engage these men in a conversation, then I would be buying him time. Things would work out.

“That was a very exciting race,” I said. “Let’s do it again, see if I outrun you this time.”

The men exchanged gazes that spelt they were having no part in my game. Although they said nothing, anyone could see they conversed with their eyes. The fourth nodded at the others and stepped in toward me.

I took a step back, crashing into one of the men. He shoved me forward and into the arms of the fourth man. Meaty arms wrapped around, squeezing so hard I feared I’d break. He pulled me disgustingly close, letting his stubbles haunt my already broken skin.

I winced. Not in pain, but in disgust. A thunderous laughter erupted from the depth of his stomach. Whimpering, I squeezed my eyes shut. I would not define my eyes with the sight of him.

“Why out on the streets, doll?” he asked. “Did your mother not tell you that the owners of the night roam the streets once it’s dark?”

“Please, just let me go,” I sobbed. “Please.”

The men barked in laughter. I swallowed a lump in my throat as I felt a firm hand tug at my hair from behind, yanking my head backwards. Laughter continued to boom around me.

“Why should we let you go?” the man behind me taunted. “You’re a bad girl, aren’t you? That’s the only reason you’re here at this time of the night.”

He leaned in towards me, his dirty breath scraping my ear. The blindingly headlights of an approaching car swelled my heart with hope. I pried my eyes open and caught sight of Raheem stepping out of the shadows.

“Raheem!” I screamed out, my voice laced with excitement and fear.

Raheem strolled toward us, unarmed and seemingly vulnerable. His sweaty sweatshirt clung to his skin. He stood there, a few steps away, his face simmering with rage.

The sight of him coming alone exhumed my fears. He looked so lean and fragile. I couldn’t even see him hurting a fly. But here he stood, fists clenched, standing in the face of death for a girl he barely even knew. Why had I dragged him into this hopeless situation?

“Let her go,” he said. His voice, low and agonized, broke me into more panic.

The men burst into savage laughter. I locked eyes with Raheem as the fourth man tossed me into the arms of another. The man stepped forward, pulling me with him. He wrapped his fingers around my neck, forcing me to relieve the scene with my stepmother.

“Get him,” the man ordered.

“Raheem!” I screamed, fighting to break free, but my captor held me in a death grip.

One of the men launched himself at Raheem. I saw a few moves, and then a painful moan. The man’s body collapsed in a heap on the ground. And my Raheem, he stood there, unscathed.

His eerie calm sent a shudder flooding my spine. The other men breezed in toward him. With my right foot, I stumped on my captor’s foot. He whimpered at my unexpected move. Barely allowing a flicker of hesitation, I jabbed my elbow into his torso and slipped out of his grasp.

I’d barely even taken one step away when he grabbed at my arm and yanked me to himself. I lowered my mouth to his hand and clamped down on it, drawing blood. Once he winced in pain, I darted to Raheem’s side, finding safety behind him. My chest pounded hard against his back.

Beat up, the other three men lay on the ground. The next moment, they scrambled to their feet and stood beside their friend, the fourth man, ignoring the pain Raheem had inflicted on them like it were nonexistent.

The fourth man clenched his right fist and crushed it into his open palm. “You should never have done that.”

My grip on Raheem tightened. I could feel a bitter taste spread around the back of my throat. “Raheem. Raheem please let’s get out of here. Please.”

He played deaf to my pleas. My heart thumped even faster. Shoulders squared, he stood unmoving. I pulled at him and tugged at his arm, but he didn’t budge. What was wrong with him? Did he have a suicide wish?

“Raheem please c’mon.” I moved around him to meet his gaze, but he trained his eyes on the thugs the whole time, not even taking a moment to acknowledge me.

Fists clenched, he half-whispered, “Go take cover in the car. Stay put and don’t come out.”

I would not run and hide like some coward. How could he even ask that of me? “I am not leaving your side.”

“Just trust me and do as I say. I will handle this.” He placed a firm hand on my shoulder and tilted me sideways.

The men charged at Raheem. Gracefully, yet firmly, he shoved me out of harms way. He whirled around to parry the first strike, but it hit him in the chest. I could almost feel the impact on my very own chest.

I watched a spine-tingling fight unfold before my eyes. I watched Raheem present a whole new part of him I could never have imagined.

He moved with the grace of a dancer, sending and deflecting blows so fluently, my jaws dropped. His adroitness cast away my fears. With him, no harm could come my way. Or so I hoped.

One of the men flipped open a butterfly knife. Blood drained from my face at the sight of it.

“Raheem!” I screamed, pushing my voice to its limit till my throat went dry.

The man swiped at Raheem. Time stood still, throwing me into an abyss of suspense. I watched the blade split the air in two as it sailed toward Raheem. I heard a grunt I recognized to be his. The man had found flesh. The man chucked and moved in to take another swipe.

Swift as lightening, my hero sidestepped to the left, narrowly missing the stab. I released the breath I’d been holding. Grabbing the knife from the man, Raheem plunged it deep into his thigh and shoved him backward.

The man stumbled limply and hit the ground like a bag of rice. His frantic hands found their way to his bloodied leg. I returned my focus to Raheem.

He was fighting for me.

I couldn’t imagine anyone risking his life for me. But Raheem did without a second thought. I would be forever be indebted to him. He had found a place in my heart.

A realization hit me as I watched the scene before me. There was one fewer of the thugs. Dazed, I turned to scan the road when a perceptively heavy item slammed into my head from behind. The pain of a thousand and one headaches crowded in on me.

With the smell of blood fresh in my nostrils, I collapsed into a heap on the ground. I heard Raheem scream out my name. Heavy eyelids slid over my teary eyes. I could still hear the sound of fight in the background. Blows landing. Men grunting. And amidst everything, I could still hear Raheem’s screaming voice.

But like every other sound, it slithered from within earshot. Now, I could only hear my pulsating heartbeat. I could feel my blood slowing in my veins.

Like sand slipping from between a person’s fingers, I felt my life slip away from my grasp.

And then there was nothing.

CHAPTER TWENTY

Loss

“You taunt me by asking me that. You should already know the feelings that I have for you.”

I screamed myself into consciousness. I bolted upright in bed, and before I could register the woman who sat beside me, she threw me in an embrace. I clung on to her, my eyes round with fear. She would protect me. She would.

“Hush now,” she said, patting my back. “It’s only a dream.”

Her voice, almost magical made to drown my worry. I found myself giving in to her warmth. My eyes adjusted to the room. I’d never been here. I’d never even met this woman. How did I get here? What did she want from me?

Breaking out of her spell, I pulled away. Yesterday’s events flooded my memory. I saw Raheem’s pain as he watched me pass out.

“Raheem,” I panicked. “I need to see him.”

The woman smiled at me. “Raheem is fine.”

She reached out to touch me. Once again, yesterday’s event with my stepmother weakened my bones. My hand instinctively lashed out and shoved her back.

Springing to my feet, I distanced myself from her. “Don’t. Touch. Me.”

She remained seated on the bed. She looked up at me, the softness of her gaze tickling my fear. “I know you’ve been through a lot, but you are safe now. Just calm down, please.”

I held her gaze and willed my thumping heart to stabilize. Only when I’d gotten a grip of myself did the image before me become clearer. The woman before me was no stranger. I’d seen her once. Her face could not be so easily forgotten, but the cloud of insecurity hovering above me and the absence of flawless makeup on her face, had hidden her away from recognition.

She smiled knowingly. Her arms flew open and I threw myself into the embrace. I melted into her arms, and in this moment, I felt safe. The Kadirs seemed to be gifted in keeping me safe.

I broke the embrace but didn’t let go of her hand. She held a glitter in her eyes. A glitter that spelt no harm had come to her son. My Raheem was alright. But still, I couldn’t get past the fact that he’d endangered his life for me.

“Thank goodness you’re awake,” she said. “We’ve all been so worried.”

“How is Raheem?” I asked.

“He’s in one piece,” she said.

I had to see him. I had to see for myself that he was fine and no harm had come to him. I’d die if something happened to him for my sake.

“Where is he?” I asked.

“Here.” Raheem’s voice caught me off guard. My gaze darted to the doorway and I found him. There he stood, gaping.

A smile broke out on my face. Raheem didn’t return it. I didn’t expect him to anyway. Okay, a part of me did.

Unsure of how to react to the boy who had risked his life to save me, I stood motionless. His flawless face had earned a seemingly deep cut just below his right ear. I traced it with my sorry eyes, noting how it stretched along his cheekbone.

Unable to hold his gaze, I looked away. My stomach clenched as I found a bandage wrapped around his palm. This only happened because of me. I’d only I hadn’t dragged him into this….

Raheem cleared his throat. “I will send word to your family so they come get you.” His voice held no emotions. Love, hate, it showed nothing. Not even pain. With distant eyes, he looked past me, at his mother, and then he walked away, taking with him a part of me.

I stood rooted to the ground, fixating my gaze on where Raheem had been standing. Even in his absence, his cold eyes left me frozen. Mrs. Kadir gripped my shoulder from behind. She turned me to face her. Her hand rose to my face and wiped away the tears I hadn’t even noticed gliding down my cheeks.

“Do you hate me too?” I asked.

She raised her brows at me. “What?”

“Your son risked his life because of me,” I said. “He got hurt. It’s all my fault. Surely, you must also hate me.”

“Hush,” she chided. “Hush. Don’t think like that, ever. “ Taking me by the hand, she led me to perch with her on the bed. “No one hates you for anything. Whatever happened, it isn’t your fault.”

She didn’t understand. I could never forgive myself for the situation I’d placed Raheem in. I’d scarred his flawless face.

“But…what if something had happened to him?” I asked.

“What if something had happened to you?” Farah said, making known her presence.

Mrs. Kadir scooted closer to me, creating space for Farah to plop down beside her. Farah clung to her like a child.

“My son has been different,” Mrs. Kadir said. “These past few days, he’s been aglow in a way I’ve never seen him. It’s almost like when he was with Jameela. But it isn’t quite the same. At first, I used to think it was the relocation that made him a different person. But then I realized it wasn’t. It was a girl. You.”

“Me?” I asked. What had I done?

“Yes,” she said. “You, my dear. You have mended the deep cuts Jameela carved into his heart.”

I shook my head and looked at Farah, hoping she could help clear up her mother’s misunderstanding. But Farah didn’t seem ready to join in the conversation. The serious look on her face matched her mother’s. This brought an unsettling sensation to my stomach.

“I haven’t done anything,” I said to Mrs. Kadir.

I’d thought this would take away the gleam in her eyes. But it didn’t. “Maybe you haven’t done anything. But that is about to change. I need you to do something for me.”

“Anything,” I blurted out. Her son had risked his life to save me. Surely I’d do anything they wanted me to.

“I want you to promise me something, Victoria.” She took my hand in hers. “Promise me you will never break his heart.”

Instinctively, I slipped my hand out of her grasp and placed it on my lap. Why would she ask that of me? “I’m sorry, but…Raheem and I aren’t together.”

“I didn’t say that you are,” she said. “See, my son likes you a lot and all I care about is his happiness. I won’t be at rest until you promise me his heart is safe with you. He is a rock on the outside, a really tough person who’s hard to approach, but on the inside, he’s a very soft person.”

“I understand your fear,” I said. “But I don’t think I’m in any position to promise you this. Raheem and I aren’t in any kind of a relationship.”

“Just promise her, Vicky,” Farah said.

An image of Raheem attacking those men, alone and unaided, flashed through my mind. I gulped down the image. If Raheem were in my shoes, would he even hesitate to make this promise?

“I promise,” I said.

“Thank you.” Mrs. Kadir ruffled my hair and planted a kiss on my forehead. I froze for a second too long as my dad wheezed across my mind. On the day of his death, he’d given me a casual kiss before leaving for work. Little did I know what the day had in store for me.

“I’m off to make breakfast,” Mrs. Kadir said. I stared unblinking till she walked out of view.

Farah feigned disappointment. “I was hoping you’d have questions about how he managed to fight those men and win.”

I pouted. “I was hoping you’d tell me how he managed to fight like that.”

Yesterday’s Raheem was one I’d never seen before. One I’d never imagined. He’d turned from rockstar to martial artist. “Where did he learn to fight like that?”

“This brings us to one of those stories you will never hear from him,” Farah said. “Remember Jameela? The girl who broke his heart?”

“Yes. Is she dead yet?”

Farah gaped, her words dying on her thin lips. And then, she clapped a palm over her mouth, giggling. “To the Kadirs, yes. So, here’s the story of how my cool rockstar slash loner brother became Jet Li. After Meela’s betrayal, he started to take pleasure in martial arts. It became his new lifestyle, his new way to vent out his anger. He’d even enrolled in some local fight clubs. It broke our hearts to see him living with so much pain. We tried so hard to get him to quit. But he never did. So, mum and I devised a means.” Her eyes glowed with mischief.

“Mum faked an illness,” she explained. “The doctor said she broke down because she was thinking too much. He said things would get worse if she didn’t take care of herself. She had to stop thinking. But she didn’t. She said she’d rather let the sickness claim her life than watch her only son make violence his way of life. Raheem’s so predictable. He stopped engaging in every form of violence just so mum could recover. Till this day he doesn’t know we deceived him. Mum recovered slowly so it would seem natural.”

Graceful as a princess, she advanced to the open windows. There she stood, staring at something I couldn’t see from where I was sat.

She gestured me over. “Come.”

Eager to devour the sight that stole her over, I hastened to her side. I lowered my gaze and found Raheem dusting his car with a blue towel.

“What do you see?” she asked, her voice dropping to a whisper. “You see him cleaning his car. He probably has plans to go out. But is this all?”

“Tell me what I don’t see,” I demanded.

“I see anger in his eyes,” she said. “Ever since last night, he’s been like this. Cold, distant, reserved. And most of all, hurt. When he’s like this, he speaks to no one. He hasn’t said a word to either mum or I ever since.”

I mused over the words Raheem had told me moments ago, and the cold gaze he’d shot his mother. He’d talked to me. This had to mean something.

“As typical of him, he goes out when he’s in this mood. Without any qualms, he spends days away from everyone and everything. And then he only returns when—”

If I let him go without thanking him for what he did yesterday, I’d never forgive myself. I turned away and made to leave, but Farah gripped my arm.

“Where are you going?”

“I need to talk to him,” I said.

Farah sighed. Her gaze drifted between Raheem and I. “What makes you think he’ll talk to you?”

“He talked to me moments ago,” I said. Retrieving my hand, I dashed out of the house and only halted a few steps away from Raheem. He held open the door to the drivers seat, and made to get in.

“Raheem! Raheem, wait.”

Raheem clenched and unclenched his jaws as I took another step toward him. He made no attempt to look at me. Farah’s question resounded in my head. ‘What makes you think he’ll talk to you?’

“I’m sorry about last night,” I said. I watched to see a reaction. Finding none, I went on, “You got hurt because of me. You risked your life to save me. Raheem, words can’t describe how grateful I am. Had you not come to my aid—”

I trailed off. I couldn’t even say the words. Those men would have killed me, or worse. Yes, people of that sort do worse things than death to anyone unlucky enough to cross paths with them.

My gaze rested on Raheem’s bandaged palm. I reached out and covered his hand with mine. I’d expected him to flinch, but he didn’t. He still didn’t turn to look at me.

“I’m so sorry you had to risk your life like that.” Tears gathered in my eyes, threatening to drop, but I blinked then back.

I wrapped my arms around him. I felt him stiffen. His hands hung limply at his sides as he probably contemplated on whether to accept the hug or shove me off. I wanted nothing but for him to let me stay in his arms, where it’s safe. Just this once.

I breathed, holding him close and savoring the moment. I savored the smell of peppermint entangling with the air he breathed. I didn’t want to let go. I’d found the person who could keep me safe from all harm. When he’d promised my fairy godmother he’d keep me safe, I hadn’t thought much of it.

I kept my arms wrapped around him. And in the warmth emanating from him, I found soothing relief.

His hands found my shoulders. With a gentle shove, he wordlessly screamed his indignation towards me overstepping my boundaries. His rejection stung like a slap to my cheeks.

Once again, he made to climb into the car. And once again, I got in his way. Literally. “The wounds from yesterday, are there more?”

He still didn’t meet my gaze.

“Raheem—”

“Your phone’s screen was severely damaged yesterday,” he said. After what seemed like forever, he’d finally spoken. I beamed at the sound of his voice.

“I’m taking it for repairs. But I can’t even be on my way with you standing in my way.” Toward the end of his statement, his voice flared noticeably.

“You don’t have to—” I started.

He held out his palm, silencing me. “I didn’t tell you that because I needed permission. I’m just doing what I know is right. If you’d just get out of my way and let me get going.”

If only he knew how he hurt me with his coldness. Then again, he probably knew, but couldn’t be bothered how I felt. Why then had he saved me? He obviously seemed to regret what he did for me last night. Why then had he done that?

And now, he seemed to be helping me with my phone out of obligation. I’d be much content with nothing, than having someone subject me to this torture, making me feel less than nothing all over again.

Too hurt to speak, I stepped away to let him pass. He bumped my shoulder with his arm as he made for the car, but he didn’t even take a moment to acknowledge this.

I turned to face him. Or at least the back of his head. “If you hate me so much, why did you have to save me?”

Raheem halted. Once again, I’d stopped him from leaving.

“I need answers, Raheem Kadir.” I turned him around to face me, but his gaze didn’t stray away from the ground.

“You should have just left me there to die. Why did you have to act like you cared, when really you don’t? You hate me so much that you won’t even look at me, won’t even speak to me. Tell me. Just tell me why you—”

“I feel a very strong emotion for you,” he said. “But it isn’t hate. It stuns me that you think like this. You of all people should know that I—” He seemed to be conflicting within himself about what to say. Moments passed, and he said nothing.

“You do not hate me?” I asked.

“How is that even a question?” For the first time, he held my gaze. I gaped at the rue-cheerlessness carved into his eyes.

He’d saved my life, and barely even a day after, I’d repaid him with this?

“Even after you risked your life like that?” I asked. “You could have died out there, Raheem.”

“And so would you. I couldn’t forgive myself if anything happened to you. I’m just—” He raked his fingers through his hair. “I failed you. Can you ever forgive me? I should have protected you. Those men were never meant to touch you, to hurt you the way they did. It’s all my fault you got hurt.”

“Raheem, what are you saying? I’m fine. Nothing happened to me.”

“Did you see what state you were in last night?” he asked. “Do you know what it’s like to see you like that, in that state? In a pool of your own blood? I felt I’d lose you. And it’s all because I wasn’t paying attention to priority. If only I’d been more attentive, more capable of looking out for you, I could have been able to stop that bastard from hurting you. Maybe I don’t deserve you. I mean, I couldn’t even protect you. I can’t forgive myself. This is why I’ve been avoiding you. I’m unworthy to behold your face.”

“Do I mean this much to you?” I asked.

He stared deep into my eyes. “You taunt me by asking me that. You should already know the feelings that I have for you.”

“Then who are you to forgive yourself when I declare that there is nothing to forgive you for?” I asked.

I caught a glitter in his eyes. It mesmerized me how his features softened, almost matching mine. He held me with a gaze so intense, I found it magical. I could feast my eyes on him all day without even blinking.

“I know your life hasn’t been an easy one,” he said. “Many times, you had to cry and sigh. But I am here now. I can’t promise to turn your life into a bed of roses, for that would mean taking you out of this world. But I can promise you this one thing—”

I held out my hand to cut him off. “Don’t.”

The gleam I’d seen in his eyes fell to its death. And I ached for it right away. But I didn’t want him making me any promises. I couldn’t stand the sound of a promise being uttered.

A promise, to me was a lie.

Although I trusted Raheem wouldn’t intentionally lie to me, he would still be lying by making me promises. I, more than anyone else, knew for a fact that promises were made to be broken. It didn’t belong to the one promising to choose this. Life had it’s own way of breaking even the sweetest of promises.

This was my view of promises. I’d understand if someone thought me wrong. But this would always remain my view. I would always be wary of promises. I would always muse over the promises made in the past, and the many ways life had chosen to break them.

Allowing Raheem make promises would mean letting myself hope for too much. Living one day at a time, on the other hand, bound him to nothing. Hoping for too much would be at my own risk.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Yeah. I just… I’m wary of promises.” I braced myself for his reaction. He seemed to understand. “I want us to take this one day at a time.”

He cupped my face in his hands. “One day at a time it is then. No promises.”

Silence crept in between us, our gaze unbreaking. I felt his hands slip to my waist, a tad out of my comfort zone. To be honest, this new chapter with Raheem had already slipped out of my comfort zone before he even reached out to touch me. I’d never been in such close proximity with a guy.

My heartbeat quickened at the foreign gesture. Raheem barely moved a muscle. His eyes told me he’d give me all the time in the world to adjust to the whole new world we’d tossed ourselves into.

Holding on to his gaze, I willed my heartbeat back to normal. Butterflies fluttered in my stomach as he leaned in for what I knew to be a kiss. A kiss to seal the deal that we’d become an item.

I drew in a breath and closed my eyes. Raheem’s breath hovered above my nose for a second too long. His lips found my forehead, and there they rested, glued to my skin. Where had he been all my life?

Farah burst out of the house. Like a mad horse, she headed straight at us. I lowered my eyes and stepped away from Raheem. Although she’d obviously be the number one fan of Rahtoria, and had no problem with me and her brother being an item, I just couldn’t bring myself to look at her. Not after she’d found me in her brother’s arms. Like a diabetic kid caught red-handed with a slice of cake, I hung my head and trained my eyes on my feet.

“What’s wrong?” The panic in Raheem’s voice forced my eyes away from my feet.

Farah stood before us, her body trembling. Her eye lashes, clustered and moist, told a story of tears. “It’s Maggie.”

“Who’s that?” Raheem asked.

“My new bff,” Farah sobbed. “She isn’t answering my calls. I have a bad feeling. I think she’s dead.”

Looking down at the phone in her other hand, she slapped her forehead with her non-dominant hand.

“So because she didn’t pick your calls, she’s dead?” Raheem asked. “Wow, to think that I’m still alive. I have 100 lives, do I not? Because I’ve lost count of how many times I failed to—”

“Boko Haram struck last night,” Farah announced. Tears strolled out of her eyes.

Blood drained from Raheem’s face. “What?”

“The bomb blast happened at the very same place Maggie went. I’m just so scared, Raheem. Report confirms sixteen dead and eight severely injured. I’m just so scared. I have to go to the hospital. I need to be sure my friend is still with me.”

My lips stayed glued to each other. At times like this, words eluded me.

“Take me to the hospital,” Farah yelled, simmering with impatience. “Please. Just take me to see my friend.” She glued her palms together as though saying a prayer.

Raheem pulled her close, giving her a shoulder to cry on. He patted her head as she sobbed. “Calm down, please. No harm has come to your friend—”

She broke free from his hold. “How do you know this? You said no harm would come to uncle, but where is he now, Mr. No Harm?”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m just tying to help is all. It hurts me to see you like this. Just get a hold of yourself. Please.”

“How do you expect me to stay calm?” she sobbed. “She’s like a sister to me.”

I moved to her and smoothed a palm over her arm. “Raheem is right, Farah. You have to calm down. We do not know for sure that Maggie is dead.”

“Then why isn’t she answering my calls?” she asked. “Why—”

Her ringing phone cut her off. She swiped her fingers across her cheeks and took a glance at Raheem and I. “It… It’s Maggie.”

She answered the call with a sniffle. “M-Maggie?” A pregnant pause followed. And then a squeal.

She giggled. I gaped at her dimpled cheeks. “You potato! Why didn’t you pick up the phone? I’ve wasted all my tears on someone who’s still very well alive. How cool is that?”

Detaching the phone from her ear, she turned to Raheem and I. “Sorry about that, guys.”

Bribing us with a seraphic smile, she returned to her call and started toward the house. “Oh, so you had a bad time? You see, I told you Havana club is bad news, but you—”

“Havana club?” I croaked, my voice suddenly lost. Somehow, Farah managed to hear me. She halted and turned to face me.

“Where did the bomb blast happen?” I asked.

“At some club,” she said.

“What club?” I asked.

“Havana.”

Bomb blast. Havana. My heart dropped to my stomach, leaving my chest hollow and vulnerable. The world seemed to stand still, letting me assimilate this news.

A familiar kind of emptiness stole me over. Light as a feather, I felt my body reach for the ground.

After forever, my eyes fluttered open. Once again, I’d awakened on this very bed with no memories of how I got here. This time, though, I knew where I was, and that I was safe.

While Farah paced the room, Raheem sat beside me, his gaze flying through the open window. My hand twitched as I made to shift into a more cozy position. But then, something soft tightened around it. I gazed at my hand, enveloped by Raheem’s.

“You’re awake!” he said. He turned around and flashed Farah a nervy giggle.

Farah rushed to my side. “Vicky. Thank goodness you’re awake. I was so worried. What happened? Everything was fine till I mentioned Havana club.”

Havana club. Boko Haram. Bombing. Death. It all came back to me.

My mind drifted back to a conversation I had with Cynthia moments before she left for the party. ‘I don’t feel good about you partying so late at night,’ I’d said.

And then came a voice I feared I’d never hear again. ‘For Christ’s sake, Victoria, stop acting like I’m a kid. I will be alright. Really. Havana is my second house. Nothing can go wrong there. And besides, I need some time away from all the drama in this house. I need to distract myself. I can’t keep dwelling on mum’s inhumanity. It breaks me. Which is why I really don’t want to spend the night here. Anywhere but here.’

Snatching my hand from Raheem’s, I leapt to my feet. “I need to go to the hospital. My sister could be among the injured. Or worse…dead.”

“Oh my God!” Farah gasped. “Are you certain that—”

Raheem held out a hand to silence her. “When mum comes back, tell her Victoria and I left for the hospital.”

Raheem had words to say. He probably had questions to ask. He probably yearned to tell me everything would be fine. But he held back. As though he knew even a single word would snatch the little bit of composure I had. Even when we were alone for the lifetime it took to arrive at the hospital, he said nothing.

I unfastened my seatbelt and reached for the door handle, when Raheem touched my arm. “Whatever happens, please, be strong and know that I will always be here.”

Why did he sound like she was already dead? “Nothing will happen to my sister.”

How could he even think like that?

Trembling with rage, I pushed open the door and darted toward the building. I wanted to distance myself from him and his negativity.

Nothing would happen to my sister. I recited this to myself, like it were a spell. Like it could quell my pounding heart. Like it could undo whatever had already happened.

These were mere words, and could change nothing, do nothing. But I had hope. Wouldn’t that save me this day?

I burst into the building, my heavy heartbeat the only thing I could hear, the stench of grief smothering me. Raheem blurred past me. He headed for the nurses behind the counter. “Cynthia Brown. Where is she?”

“One moment,” the nurse directly in front of him said. While she searched for Cynthia’s details, I feared my heart would explode. “Room 13.”

The words had barely left her lips when I darted into a passageway, my eyes scanning the doors for one tagged ‘13’. A million thoughts flooded my mind. Cynthia was really here. My sister, the one I loved so much, was here, fighting for her life.

If only she hadn’t left for the party, then everything would be fine. No, if only that woman hadn’t tried to kill me, then my sister would probably have spent the night at home.

What if I had followed her to the party? Maybe I’d have been able to save her.

I slowed my pace as my eyes found the door. I looked over to Raheem and sucked in a deep breath. What awaited me on the other side of the door? Would I be able to control myself when I saw her lying helplessly, stuck in a situation she didn’t deserve?

Tentatively, I reached for the door and wrapped my fingers around the handle. The door gave way, letting me step into the room.

I could not fathom the scene before me. My stepmother, the stranger who’d tried to kill me, sat beside my sister who lay in bed. But she wasn’t really sitting. The wideness of her torso mounted upon Cynthia blocked her of my view.

Rage clouded my reasoning and I dashed toward the woman I once called mum. I gripped her shoulders and yanked her off my sister. Yesterday she’d tried to kill me, and today, here she was, smothering her very own daughter to death.

“Get away from her!” I yelled. I had not lost my sister in the bombing. I certainly would not lose her to this woman.

I turned to look at my sister, the beauty I feared I’d never see again. A gust of emotions slammed into me. A gasp escaped my lips. I clamped my palm to my lips, suppressing a scream.

Her skin, once flawless, had become a shadow of itself. I felt a squeezing sensation in my chest as I drank in the image before me. I wanted to look away, to shield my eyes from the girl who lay on the bed. Her skin had seared to the bone, making her almost unrecognizable.

But what troubled me was the look in her eyes. Cold and lifeless, they told me I had lost once again.

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

Grief

“But the next time you ever say a thing like that again, I will make you bathe in your own blood.”

Days crawled past. But my grief remained. Nothing could take away the rawness I felt inside, as though it happened only yesterday. Barely twenty four hours after it happened, rumors spread that my stepmother had taken Cynthia’s body from the morgue and had buried her in secret.

My indifference to the news had caused people to rumor pointless things about me. Most people believed I didn’t care about family, and had abandoned my grieving stepmother at a time she needed me the most.

How could I redeem myself? Although no one else would admit this, I was a curse. Everyone I loved and deeply cherished got hurt. They didn’t just get hurt, they died.

It was hard to believe Cynthia was never coming back. Each day, I’d awaken, hoping that the tragedy was all a dream, and she was somewhere. She would return. I’d fool myself for a moment too long, only to explode into grief when I realized she would never come back. I would never get to see her again.

Was I paying for a crime I didn’t know of? I’d asked this question a million times already.

I lay in the bed I shared with Sharon, refusing to eat or drink. I’d been torturing herself ever since the day of Cynthia’s death. I’d spent six days locked up in my grief.

I was a plague, and for this, I isolated myself from people. I didn’t want their comfort, nor love, because I’d love them in return, and then they would leave me someday. I was destined to be alone. Even when a swarm of comforters came over, I saw nothing but an empty room. Even when they sought to console me with empty words, I heard nothing but the silent scream of grief.

I rolled over and buried my nose in the tear-soaked blankets. A silent scream tore through my quivering lips. I’d never felt so alone in my life. Not even when father died. Because, back then, I had my stepmother and…Cynthia.

The sound of footsteps approaching told me to prepare for company. I slid the back of my left palm across my cheeks and eyes.

“Have you been crying again?” my visitor asked. Vicky, as expected.

I faked a smile and raised myself to sit. “I’m good.”

“Mummy says it’s not good to cry too much,” she said. “It doesn’t change anything. What’s happened has happened. But that’s just what she says.”

“And what do you say?” I asked.

“If you don’t cry, you’ll just be trapping in all the pain,” she recited. I could tell it was a quote from somewhere. Or could a seven year old be this wise already? “Do you know what I did when I lost Tommy?”

Her question knocked me off balance. Tommy? Had she lost a brother?

“I cried,” she said.

Although I didn’t know who Tommy was, I could relate to her grief. “I’m sorry about Tommy.”

“I got over him,” she said. “Mum got me a new Tommy.”

And then it clicked. Tommy. A teddy bear almost as tall as her.

“When you lose something, it comes back in another form.”

Stunned by the point she’d just made, I gaped at her. It amazed me how she had already befriended logic at such young age. I wished I could have her positivity. But no. This was real life, a city of broken dreams.

“This isn’t Fiction,” I said, the look in my eyes almost pitiful. “It’s real life.”

She scratched her neck. “What?”

“Don’t mind me,” I said.

“Breakfast is ready,” she said. “Everyone’s at the table. We’re waiting for you to join us.”

For days now, they’d been trying to get me to blend into their family, just like I had before. Now, though, I just couldn’t. I just couldn’t ruin their day with my cursed presence. Ill fate followed me wherever I went, hurting the people that mattered to me.

Vicky stood at akimbo. “I won’t take no for an answer.”

“Please, just tell them I’m not hungry.” Although I hadn’t eaten for a whole day, the lump of grief in my stomach made it impossible to think of food.

“Maybe you’re not hungry, but I am starving.” She tugged at my arm. “Please? They said if I don’t come back with you, then they won’t let me eat. Please, please. I’m starving.”

How could these people blackmail me into eating? Would they really starve Vicky if I didn’t show up? Her stomach rumbled, speeding up my decision making process.

“Let’s go eat,” I said.

Hopping her way to the dining, she led the way. She slid onto her seat, completing the perfect family picture. A dark cloud made to settle over me as my thoughts lingered on how happy and complete they looked.

I eyed the empty seat beside Bolaji. He’d returned home yesterday and had come to say a quick hello. Tentatively, I advanced to the seat and lowered myself onto it.

“Good morning,” I muttered to everyone without looking at them.

“Good morning,” they chorused.

I stared at the meal set before me. Bread, omelet and tea. One way or another, I would have to stuff them inside my mouth.

Half-way into my meal, I could still feel multiple pairs of eyes boring into me from every angle. Although I fixated my gaze on my plate, I could tell the look in their eyes. The painfully soft look as though they were staring at a dying soul.

Their eyes burned into me as I sipped my tea. It seemed as though they’d all stopped eating, for I could only hear the sound of my slurping.

Sir Aaron cleared his throat. “Victoria.” Only after I’d raised my face to look at him did he continue. “I understand the past few days have been—”

My eyes misted over, forcing me to look away. Did they not know that talking about my loss only made it worse, almost impossible for me to cope?

“I’m fine,” I said. I hoped my voice didn’t betray me. Once again, I dragged my gaze to meet Sir Aaron’s. His eyes told me he could see right through me.

“You’ve been in that room for days,” he said. “Any more of this and you’ll break. Which is why I want us to go out. Maybe have a stroll, or go out shopping.”

“I don’t want to go shopping,” I said.

“Then a stroll it is,” he said.

“Actually, sir, what I mean is I already have plans for today. Raheem and I are going out. He also thinks it’s best to step out for an hour or two.”

Mrs. Aaron’s lips stretched into a full bloom smile. “I don’t know of I’ve said this before, but I really admire that kid. He’s always here for her. I can’t thank him enough.”

I hated to lie to them. But if I told them the truth, they wouldn’t let me go where I was headed. At least not alone. I’d forgotten mum’s letter underneath my pillow. And I had to go retrieve it.

Subtly, I tapped my foot underneath the table as I awaited my ringing phone.

And then, it rang.

Pulling away from the table, I yanked my phone out of my pocket. “It’s Raheem.”

I hastened toward the room and turned off the alarm I’d set just before coming for breakfast. I returned to the dining only after a minute had sailed past. “I have to go. He says to meet him up.”

I turned around, hoping to escape before someone hauled a question at me. But I wasn’t fast enough to avoid Bolaji’s question. “Why would he ask you to meet up somewhere? Does he have a problem with coming here?”

“What?” What would I say to get of this mess? And I’d thought situations like this were only reserved for people who had elder brothers. Or had I accidentally gotten myself one?

“I just mean, in your condition, he just has to come pick you up,” the elder-brother figure said. “Or isn’t that how it’s done, dad?”

I didn’t give Sir Aaron a chance to speak. “I’m sure Raheem has his reasons. I have to go now.”

Without another word, I made my escape. With each step I took away from Sir Aaron’s house, and toward my destination, I sank deep into a sea of thoughts holding memories of Cynthia. Although it hurt to think of her, I could only be grateful I had these memories.

I remembered us standing before my stepmother. She’d been furious about someone dumping her phone in water. Back then, dad still lived. He’d stood around the corner, observing the scene. He’d had us raise our hands, hoping we told the truth. But moments passed and their questioning yielded no results .

“For the last time, I ask,” her voice rang out. “Who did this?”

“It’s not me,” Cynthia said. But it was her. I’d watched it happen. I’d seen the phone slip out of her grasp and into the kitchen sink. She’d begged me not to tell anyone. She’d promised to tell them herself.

“I—” Torn between speaking the truth or lying to save me sister, I let my words hang in midair. Her punishment would surely double if we told the truth. Mum and dad would be upset she’d lied to them even after they’d taught her the importance of being honest.

Cynthia glared at me. “I thought you promised you’d tell the truth. You’re the one who did it. Why do you keep lying even after I caught you red handed?”

The day had ended with me being punished for a crime I hadn’t committed. Cynthia, on the other hand, had been commended for speaking the truth. At barely even six, she’d already mastered the art of manipulation.

Every other day, she’d done many more unacceptable things, and the blame always rested on my shoulder like a pet Raven. Ruining my life had become her hobby. But in the midst of it all, my love for her shone through.

I blinked away the tears threatening to make me the center of attention. I wouldn’t shame myself this way. Who was I fooling, though? I’d already become the center of attention. Everyone stared at me like I had something on my face. A number of then even approached me, offering their condolences. They wore the best sad faces in their individual emotional markets. Were they all on a mission to see me dissolve into tears in the middle of the road?

“I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Be strong.”

“Take heart.”

“God knows best.”

The so-called comforters hurled a fusillade of grief-alleviating comments at me, making my life more pathetic than it already was. I clenched my teeth and nodded, occasionally muttering “Thanks,” and “Okay.”

Relief washed over me as I arrived at the gate of the building that was once my house. At least the condolence session had come to an end. Three figures stepped out through the gate, succeeding my relief with uncertainty.

Why were they here? Last time I checked, we weren’t friends. So what were they doing here? Unless of course they’d come to see the murderer who lived within the four walls of the house.

Pulling away from Nancy and Precious, Confidence stepped toward me and threw her arms around me. I stood like a robot, my arms never straying towards her. She’d never liked me, so why this?

“I’m sorry about what happened,” she said. She broke the unwelcome hug and looked into my eyes. For the first time, I saw a non-slutty side of her.

“It’s okay,” I said.

“We came to see your mum,” she said. “We found the gate open. But we’ve been knocking at the door for over an hour. Maybe she isn’t home.”

That self conscious witch had left the gate open? Weird. She never did that.

“I’m just so sorry about what happened,” she continued. “It’s a huge shock for all of us.”

“Thanks for stopping by,” I said. In other words, I meant ‘Get lost.’ I was better off without their pretentious sympathy.

“Will you be in school on Monday?” she asked.

I shrugged. Arms folded, I trained my eyes on Nancy and Precious. They never went anywhere without Cyn. But today, here they were, breathing and very well alive, while my sister was gone. How could life be so unfair, picking on me whenever it pleased?

“Sorry about what happened,” Nancy muttered.

I averted my eyes to my feet. Nancy and Precious didn’t care how I felt. Surely, they’d only come in search of some rumors to spread. I would not humor them.

“I really have to go rest now,” I said.

“Okay,” Nancy said. Waving me goodbye, she took a few steps away, with Precious close behind her.

Confidence placed a soothing hand on my shoulder. “Be strong. Okay? I know this isn’t easy, but you just have to be strong. I can understand how you—”

“Have you ever lost someone in death?” I asked.

She shook her head. “No. But—”

I shrugged off her hand. “Then you don’t know how I feel. Do you—”

Nancy and Precious seemed to be in a serious conversation. I strained my ears to listen.

“Wow,” Precious said. “She should really sign up for drama club. See the way she acts like she’s really hurt, when really she never liked Cynthia.”

“Can you just shut up for once?” Nancy said.

“Why? You know it’s true. Right now she’s so happy that this happened. It’s no secret that she never liked her.”

Nancy froze when she caught me glaring at them. It took a moment for Precious to follow suite. Now I knew why the two of them had come. They wanted something to talk about. And although they’d found nothing, they would not return empty handed. I would give them something to talk about.

Adrenaline surged through me, heating up my blood. My heart beat impossibly fast, like a time bomb just about to detonate. Letting my emotions enslave me, I hurled myself at the object of my rage, knocking her into the wall behind her. She grunted and made to tear away from the wall, but I grabbed her neck and pinned her to the wall.

My hand trembled with untamed emotions as my fingers stretched like tendrils, halfway encircling her neck, leaving her without air. “You want something to talk about? Well, here is one.”

I could hear Confidence and Nancy screaming for me to stop. I could feel them gripping my hand, trying to peel it away from Precious’ neck. But with their efforts, my hand tightened instinctively, crushing what I hoped was her windpipe. The veins in my neck and arms bulged dangerously, but I didn’t loosen my grasp.

Ragged gasps slid through the tightness of her0pp throat. Silent screams tore through her. Veins stretched across her forehead. Her arms and legs flailed about like a wild cat. She scratched, kicked and clawed. But like a worm to a bird, they caused me no harm. If anything, they only amused me. In her place I saw a worm trying to escape the clutches of a falcon’s beak.

“No…air,” she gasped, her eyes bulging. Her hands fell to her sides in surrender.

“Victoria, please stop,” Nancy sobbed. “Please I beg you, just let it go.”

“Thank God you’re here!” Confidence said to someone. “Stop her, please.”

I heard footsteps as the supposed hero walked toward me.

“Where is your self control, Victoria Brown?”

Raheem? What was he doing here?

I let my grip on Precious’ neck loosen. She sagged to her knees, coughing her life out. She sucked in lungfuls of air as though she’d been drowning. Her hands flew to her neck in an attempt to provide soothing relief.

“Look at me,” I ordered. My feet connected with her kneecap. She yelped in pain. Seething, I gripped her face and dragged her gaze to meet mine. “You got lucky today. But the next time you ever say a thing like that again, I will make you bathe in your own blood.”

I shoved her head backward and stormed through the gate. Wordlessly, Raheem trailed after me. I plucked a bunch of keys from my pocket and unlocked the door. Swinging open, the door crashed into the wall.

I slowed down my stride as memories overcame me. Cynthia and I had just returned from school. She’d slammed the door so hard, I feared the house would collapse.

“Who’s trying to break down the house?” my stepmother asked.

Cynthia gasped as footsteps advanced toward us. Her eyes widened at the trail of dirt left by the soles of her shoes. Smirking, she crouched and took off her shoes. Her smile broadened as she stood up, dumping the shoes in my hands.

“You came in with your shoes,” she said, her voice low. “You messed up the floor. You banged the door. Understand?”

A lone tear glided down my cheek. Sniffing away the memories, I made for my room. I rolled away my pillow. I sighed with relief as I found mum’s special letter in one piece.

I retrieved the letter and made my exit. Calm descended on me as I stood only a few steps away from the room that once belonged to Cyn. I could feel a maddening sensation in my chest, as though an invisible force pressed down on it.

Eyes watering, I sauntered to the door and wrapped my fingers around the knob. In my mind’s eye, I could see a five year old me doing the same. I’d stepped into the room, only to find an English textbook rocketing toward me. I’d tried to duck, but it struck my shoulder.

“Why are you here?” she yelled from where she was sat on her bed. “Have you come to steal?”

“Can I play…with…you?” I asked.

She slapped her knees in frustration. “No. Shooo! Just go away! I am not your friend! “

“But…but…we are sisters. And sisters are friends.” I advanced to her and plopped down beside her.

She sprang to her feet. “Just leave me alone! I am not your sister!” She snatched her Barbie doll from the bed. “Come, princess.”

Teary eyed, I’d watched her storm out of sight. I’d spent the next few days drowning in a pool of my own tears. I’d spent every moment of my life wondering why my sister could never accept me.

Her bed, made and empty, made me reminisce over the other times she’d spent the night away from home. More than once, she’d returned drunk, throwing up all over the floor. I had mobbed the floor with sighing and murmuring, groaning about the irresponsible girl she’d become. But today, I’d give anything to have her here again, all drunk.

The emptiness of her room made it all too real. She would never come back. A bitter taste spread around the back of my throat. Cupping my face in my hands, I dropped to my knees. With gasps and hiccups, I let out my pain.

I’d only had a few moments to grieve when Raheem stepped in toward me. He crouched beside me and took my hands in his. Effortlessly, he pulled my hands away from my face.

“I can’t believe she’s gone,” I half-whispered.

He opened his mouth to speak, but I rose to my feet, cutting him off with my swiftness. I didn’t want sympathy. It would only devastate me more than I already was. “I need to get water.”

I left for the kitchen. Walking through the passageway flooded my mind with memories. I blinked them away. I had to stay strong. Only then would I live through this.

Who said I wanted to keep living anyway? Why keep living when everything had been take away from me?

Yanking open the fridge, I grabbed a bottle of water. I undid the lid and made to drink, but once again, memories overcame me.

Once, I’d drunk directly from the bottle, only to earn a bone-breaking slap to my throat. I’d barely recovered from the shock when my stepmother’s palm slammed into my face. Gripping me so I couldn’t escape, she’d pounded me into a sore heap.

That witch. Jaws clenched, I flung the bottle of water in the sink and marched toward her room. Although she was the last person I wanted to see, I knew her grieving self would be so thrilling a sight.

I threw open the door and stormed into the room. My face paled at the sight before me. I gasped, my palm crushing my lips in horror. I wanted to tear my eyes away, but control of my senses eluded me. Devoid of any emotions, I could only stare at it like it were a log of wood.

My stepmother lay supine on the floor. Tendrils of hair spilled around her face. Save for the blood smearing the floor around her head, her casually closed eyes could have fooled me into believing she was only asleep. That is, if I overlooked the unnaturalness with which her head jerked to the left.

Judging from the smell of iron and wet earth filling my nostrils, she hadn’t been in this position for so long. If only I’d come sooner, perhaps this could have been prevented. Or perhaps it would have been me in this position. I shuddered at the thought of just how close I’d been to eternal bliss.

Emotions shot through me with a fierceness I hadn’t seen coming. My heart thumped hard against my chest as reality dawned on me.

“No!” I cried out, dashing to her side. I fell to my knees and clutched her limp arms, shaking them with all the strength I could summon. “No! Please no! You can’t do this! You can’t leave me. Not now! You have to stay alive to share with me in my grief.”

I shook harder, but she didn’t budge. This day, death had finally succeeded in taking away the last member of my family.

My heartbeat pulsated. Tons of questions flitted across my mind. Hot tears tortured my cheeks.

It wasn’t her death that triggered the tears. For all I cared, the body before me worth no more than a log of wood.

But I just couldn’t get past the fact that she’d found a way, a shortcut, out of her grief and guilt, leaving me alone in my devastation. How could life be so cruel to let this happen?

How could life go easy on a person who deserved a fate worse than death?

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

Hate

“And I don’t break promises. I promised to bring you to her.”

Eyes flying open, I bolted upright in bed. My bed. My heart raced like I’d been in a marathon. Dreaming of that woman’s death had become my alarm for the past six months.

Somehow, she’d managed to survive the bullet. Ever since, she’d been confined to her room in the hospital. Although I’d never visited her, Raheem made sure to keep me updated on her recovery, even though we both knew this was the last piece of information I needed.

I couldn’t get past the fact that I’d seen her in my dreams again. Hadn’t I been clear enough when I prayed for a peaceful night rest, with no nightmares of any kind? One would think by now I’d already realized that my prayers would never be answered.

I’d heard people speak of dreams as a way our mind keeps itself busy with the thoughts we dwell on the most. Strange enough, I didn’t remember thinking about her before going to bed. This only proved this theory wrong. If it were true, then my dream world would be Raheem’s second home.

Once, Cinderella had referred to a dream as a wish our heart makes when we are fast asleep. I could see the truth in this. Whenever I closed my eyes in sleep, my heart made a silent wish that death found that woman somehow. But this would conflict with my original intent. I’d wanted her to stay alive so I wouldn’t be alone in my grief.

Six months had passed, and my wish hadn’t changed. She had to stay alive and burn in the fire of grief and devastation.

Raheem’s face skid across my mind. He would be so torn if he knew the thoughts I had for her. Every day, I tried to understand why he’d developed an interest in her. But nothing made sense.

The hospital had become his second home, his sanctuary, where he’d run off to after school. He’d even made several failed attempts to soften my heart concerning her.

Everyday, I asked myself why. Even after I’d told him everything, from the map of scars on my body to her two attempts at killing me, he cared for her no less.

Daylight peeked in through the curtains. With school on my mind, I sprang to my feet and rushed through my preparation. I would not go back to being the chronic latecomer that woman had molded me into.

I’d barely even touched my breakfast when someone knocked at the gate. Sighing, I gulped down my cup of tea. I strapped on my backpack and dashed outside to meet the driver.

I froze at the sight of someone I hadn’t been expecting. “You? I mean… What are you doing here?”

Raheem smirked, his trademark expression. “Hello yourself.”

I turned away, scanning the street. Why hadn’t the driver come yet?

Raheem seemed to hear my unasked question. “Apologies, my lady. But Peter won’t be showing up today.”

“What?” I asked.

“Day off, I guess.” Spinning his car keys around his pointer, he gulped down a chuckle and tilted his head toward his car. “Shall we?”

I dragged myself behind him, thoughts swirling around my mind. He’d contacted my driver and asked him not to show up. His smile gave this away. Obviously, this was his way of getting me to talk to him. Lately, I’d built a bridge between us, because he steered every conversation toward my stepmother, and how he thought it best to go see her.

He held open the door for me to climb in. A transmissible smile crept across his face. And although I wasn’t thrilled with his intention of talking me into letting that woman into my life again, I could feel a smile tug at my lips.

Once I’d settled in my seat, he shut the door and moved to his side of the car. Simultaneously, we fastened our seat belts.

For the first few moments of the drive, he kept silent. Although I knew I would soon run out of luck, I said a silent prayer anyway. I prayed he stayed silent all through the drive. I prayed he somehow became oblivious to my presence.

But as expected, luck deserted me. “I’ve been wanting an opportunity like this,” he said. “To talk to you.”

I looked over my shoulder, and then, back at him. “Where’s Farah?”

A near-frown tightened his face. “Will take the bus.”

“But why?”

“Is this you trying to change the topic, Victoria Brown?” he asked.

I made no attempt to answer. I drew my gaze to the window, pretending to enjoy the sight of buildings, vehicles and pedestrians blurring in and out of view.

“I thought as much,” he said.

I took a glance at my watch. Time seemed to be on his side. I’d only spent three minutes with him and it felt like forever. Did we really need to have this conversation? He’d tried over and over in the past, but this topic never got us anywhere.

I could already predict how this would end. It would be no different from his other attempts. He would try to talk me into forgiving her. I would tell him over and over again that I couldn’t. I’d remind him of the many times she’d hurt me and how she tried to kill me.

Our conversation would end with mutual frustration. Seething, I’d walk away without saying goodbye. Why was he so bent on acting this drama all over again?

“For how long will you keep holding a grudge?” he asked.

I rolled my eyes. “There we go again. I mean…do we have to go through this every single day?”

“I guess it goes on till we are on the same page,” he said. “But you just keep feeding your grudge and bitterness. It breaks you. And it breaks me to see you like this.”

I made a mental quotation mark around his last two statements. I had gotten myself the perfect Romeo. But with our never ending disagreements, I feared our love story neared its end.

“I’m not holding any grudge,” I said.

Raheem huffed. “Really? Last time I checked, you hadn’t even tried to see how she’s doing.”

I feigned innocence. “Sorry? Am I supposed to care? Six months ago, I ripped out the part of me that handled emotio….”

Pausing midsentence, I clapped an invisible hand to my lips. But the harm had already been done. Eyes drooping, Raheem looked away. His Adams apple bobbed as he tried to swallow his hurt. With my thoughtless words, I’d driven him to question the genuinity of my feelings for him. Great, Victoria. Just great.

“Your mother is in very bad shape,” he said, his voice rough like a cough.

“Don’t call her my mother,” I said. “My mother was nothing like this creature. Oh, and the woman, that beast you’re referring to deserves no less. In case you don’t remember, she tried to kill me. So don’t even ask me to forgive her, because I never will.”

My voice had a tone of finality. Couldn’t Raheem see that there was no room for softness in the heart I’d spent the past six months hardening?

“I’m not asking you to. I just—” He scratched the nape of his neck, an indication that he’d soon run out of words. “Have you read the letter?”

How could he even ask me that? I’d made it clear from day one that I would not be reading the letter that woman had written just before attempting suicide. But Raheem believed it contained some vital information. Believing I’d let curiosity take the best of me, he’d stored it in my dresser drawer, underneath my mother’s letter.

“No,” I said. “My time is way precious to be spent doing worthless things. I’m not interested in whatever that woman wrote, and I don’t think I ever will be. I haven’t even touched that letter.”

“You should put away your stubbornness for once and just read it,” he said. “Maybe it can help you see things in a different light. I’m sure she wanted you to know what drove her to want to take away her own life. Isn’t that worth knowing?”

“What makes you think I’m not okay with my view of things?” I countered. “That woman deserves neither sympathy nor consideration. She got what she deserved, and I really don’t care what happens to her. To me, she died six months ago.”

Raheem pulled his car into his space in the school parking lot. His eyes pierced through me as I undid my seatbelt. “Is this really who you are or the you you’re forcing yourself to become?”

“This is who I am,” I said, my voice rather mechanical.

“And the girl I fell in love with?” Raheem asked. The pitch of his voice had noticeably soared, baring his disappointment. “Where is she?”

His question hit home, sending tears to tease my eyes. I knew without a doubt. It would all come crumbling down. I could feel him slipping away, losing faith in me, in our love.

I climbed out of the car and headed to class. Time slid past, with me blending in with the others, pretending to pay attention as teachers talked endlessly about things I’d suddenly lost interest in.

Sat in the last class for the day, I counted down to when the bell would ring.

“You all impressed me in the test,” Madam Charity said, smiling. “Well, at least most of you. So, well done.”

My stomach churned as low voices rose from every angle. Why the excitement? They’d only been commended for doing well in six-line poem centering on sadness.

“Why the fuss?” I muttered. “It’s not like they won a lottery or anything.”

Amarachi stomped my left foot. A yelp escaped my throat, drawing everyone’s attention to me.

“Uh-oh,” Amarachi said, stifling a laugh.

“Shall we proceed?” Raheem’s voice rumbled from where he was sat. Although I fixated my gaze on my book, I could tell he hadn’t bothered to glance at me.

Madam Charity returned her attention to the class. “Okay, where were we? The poems. Right. So, I was saying your poems are all beautifully written. So it wasn’t easy choosing the best. But after hours and hours of reading each poem over and over again, I was left with two.”

She looked down at the papers in her hand. “The first, titled ‘Flames and Ashes’ was written by Victoria Brown.”

My eyes widened at her. She’d definitely picked the wrong poem. If that thoughtlessly poem made it to top two, then I feared for Western High’s seniors. What had everyone else written?

Roses are red

And violets are blue

I suck at poems

And so do you?

I wouldn’t be surprised if I saw a poem like that. Arms folded, I listened to Madam Charity as she read my work.

“It’s an invisible fire coursing through my veins

A wall of thorns closing in on me

A silent scream trapped in my throat

A two-edged blade splitting my heart in two

A void in my heart that cannot be filled

Flames and ashes where there once was a fire.”

My heart raced. I knew I had no reason to panic, but I did anyway. I feared everyone could decode the message underneath every word I’d written. I feared I had bared my vulnerability to them, showed them the deadly rawness within me. I feared I had told the whole world the struggles I faced every moment my life.

Amarachi touched my arm. “Are you okay?”

I nodded. Raheem turned around to look at me. His eyes searched my eyes as though wanting to hack into my head and discover my deepest emotions. His eyes told me I didn’t have to put on an act anymore. He knew that behind my mask lived a very frightened girl.

“Flames and ashes where there once was a fire,” Madam Charity said. “Beautiful line. Can you share with us your sentiments when you wrote this?”

“It’s….it’s not about me,” I said. “I just wrote whatever came to mind. I suppose that’s not an offense, or is it?”

“Whether it’s about you or not, I still think it’s a very beautiful poem,” she said.

“Thank you.”

“Flames and ashes where there once was a fire,” Raheem mused loud enough for all to hear. “I am also interested in this very line. I think she speaks of the feeling of not feeling. Maybe something happened in the past. Maybe someone did something unthinkable, unforgivable. At first, there was the burning fire of hate, so intense it compared to the sun’s fury. But then, it slipped away. There is neither love nor hate. There’s just nothing. It’s a feeling so disturbing, it drives one crazy.”

Madam Charity beamed. “That’s a brilliant explanation! I didn’t even think that far.”

“Shall we proceed to the next poem?” I asked. Raheem turned, flashing me a grin. This was him getting back at me for our most recent disagreement.

From the corner of my eye, I could see Amarachi staring. “What’s with you and Prince Charming?”

I shrugged. Madam Charity’s gaze tickled the second poem for a moment or two. She glanced at Raheem, and then at her entire audience. “This one is called ‘Why?’ It was written by Raheem H. Kadir.

Why let yesterday cloud your tomorrow?

Why drown in darkness when light shines ahead?

Why reopen the wounds that time can heal?

Why sink when you can swim?

Why burn in hell when paradise awaits you?

Why follow the path that leads to nowhere?”

I knew he’d written this for me. And somehow, his words seemed to sink deep. Was I really prolonging my bitterness and feeding my misery by living in the past?

Barely an hour later, I found myself at home. Racing to my room, I yanked open the drawer. My hands trembled as I reached for my stepmother’s letter. I sucked in a deep breath to calm my pacing heart.

Brushing off the tendrils of uncertainty flocking around me, I grabbed the letter and slid it out of its envelope.

I don’t know if anyone will ever stumble upon this. But I can only rest in peace when I have freed myself of these words weighing heavily in my heart.

These are the words I wish I could say to Cynthia my beloved daughter:

If regrets were water, I’d have an ocean. Nothing feels right without you. Every day of my life, I wake up, asking myself over and over again, ‘Why has God allowed me to see this morning? Why do I still breathe? Why does the very same rain that falls on good people still fall on me, and the very same sun still shine on me?’

I thought that by giving you all the freedom in the world, our lives would be perfect. Yours and mine. I was so blinded by love, always letting you decide your every step. I remember the first night you went out clubbing. You were only thirteen. You returned drunk the next day. And did I say a word? No. I hid it from your father.

I’m sorry, my darling. I’m sorry I wasn’t a good enough mother. I was so concerned with letting you live the way you wanted, that I forgot to pay attention to more important things. Had I been a better mother, trained you as I ought to have, then you would have been at home with your family.

I’m sorry. I know I don’t even deserve forgiveness. I cannot even forgive myself for this. It does not belong to me to keep living. For this reason, I must end my life.

To you, Victoria. I don’t even deserve to utter your name. Words can’t describe how disgusted I am with myself, for the way I treated you. I will not even ask for your forgiveness, because I don’t deserve it.

All I ask is that you find happiness. All I want is for you to let go of the past, and move on. I know, I’m in no position to say this, being the coward that I am for taking my own life. Before I depart, though, I must tell a brief story of my life, although I know that my experience in no way justifies the ill way I treated you.

I also had a stepsister. Gloria. She was five years younger. And although my mother brought her up as her own, Gloria did horrible things to us. She made a point clear, that a stepdaughter could never be a daughter.

Although it happened years ago, the memories remain fresh in my head, replaying over and over again. This was why I taught myself to hate you. I believed history would repeat itself if I treated you well. How was I to know that I was wrong?

I know nothing can make you forget the hurtful experiences you had with me. All I ask is that you find happiness. Aaron’s family loves you very much. And there are others like Raheem and Stella. With them, I’ll leave with the knowledge that my daughter is in good hands.

I wish I could take away every single memory you have of me. I wish I could turn back the hands of time, just so I can love you from the start. If only I had given love a chance, then the end wouldn’t be like this.

Please don’t cry when I’m gone. I don’t deserve a single tear.

Your mother.

A lone tear plopped down on the letter. Only then did I realize my grief. More tears streamed down my cheeks like rivulets.

My stepmother had written this letter. Moments before her suicide attempt, she’d turned a new leaf. Not everyone survived bullet to their heads. But my stepmother had. If life had given her another chance, who was I to harden my heart?

In a split second, I made a decision I never thought I ever would. I would go see her. A quick shower stood in the way of my going to see her. Once done, I clad myself in casual clothes and headed for the hospital.

I arrived at the hospital in no time. Blurring past the busy nurses behind the counter, I walked through a passageway I knew would lead to room 24, where my stepmother lay.

Memories flashed across my mind. I remembered walking through this same passageway, only to find what was left of my sister. Tears pooled around my eyes, but I sniffed them away.

Footsteps echoed from the other side of the hallway. Two men walked into view, pushing a shrouded corpse on a stretcher.

I halted. A red-hot coal stood where my heart should be, setting my insides ablaze. The stretcher’s wheels squeaked past me, it’s haunting sound gnawing at my soul.

Had they come from room 24? No. This couldn’t happen to me. Not a forth time. Fighting to gain control of my limbs, I dashed to the stretcher.

“Hey, what—” one of the men began, but I’d already thrown open the shroud, baring a face I would never see again.

My eyes burned with indescribable grief. But the face staring back at me placed my emotions on hold.

I’d never seen this girl. I clapped a hand over my mouth to suppress a joyous shout. This time, death had picked on some other family.

The peaceful look on the girls face entranced me. Her lips, slightly stretched, seemed almost as though she were smiling. She appeared to be having a pleasant dream. A part of me wanted to reach out and touch her, awaken her from her deep slumber. But if I had such powers, then my whole family would still be intact.

I stepped away, giving room for the stretcher bearers to cover up the corpse. My heart sank as I watched the them take her out of sight. It would break her family and friends to learn of her passing.

To cope with the death of a loved one, one must be superhuman. I silently prayed the good lord strengthened her loved ones and helped them cope.

Straightening my spine, I resumed my walk to room 24. I followed a left turn and found it two doors away. My pace doubled as I advanced to the door.

Almost noiselessly, I opened the door. Two pairs of eyes devoured me in an instant. Raheem’s and my stepmother’s. A smile tore through her lips, and with it came a fusillade of memories.

She had never smiled at me. So why now? Why love me only after losing her memory? Why want to fix things when my sister’s life had already been wasted?

I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t share a smile with the woman who’d filled my life with so much darkness. Doing so would mean betraying my very own self, mind, body and soul.

Shaking my head, I spun to the door and darted outside. I’d thought I’d be able to handle seeing her, and then I’d accept her for the new person she’d become. But beholding her face reopened my wounds over and over again. These wounds would never heal. And that woman would never be a part of my life.

Her smile had lit up my insides with a scorching envy. She had no memories of the past. She had no memories of Cynthia. She didn’t remember her, but I did. The image of her burnt skin, etched to my memory, haunted me each day, taking away any reason to smile.

I choked on my suppressed grief. Turning away from the door, I made to leave, when the door cracked open. Without turning, I knew it was Raheem.

“I can’t do this,” I said. “I can’t stand the sight of that woman.”

Raheem closed the space between us and turned me to face him. “Calm down.”

He held me with his gaze and didn’t let go till my emotions neared stability. “Remember that you’re here because you saw it fit to come see her. It was all your decision, and it is the right one.”

“Allow me be the judge of what’s right or wrong,” I said.

“Very well,” he said. His facial features tightened and relaxed, forming a pattern. I could tell he was torn between talking and holding back his words.

He chose the latter. “That woman is not the same person who tried to kill you. She’ll even be appalled if she learns of how she treated you in the past. Your wicked stepmother committed suicide six months ago. And here now, we have a whole new person. She kept asking why you hadn’t come to see her. She keeps sighing over her amnesia. You know why? She says living without any memories of you is so much like death. Maybe I made a mistake. I should not have told her she has a daughter. I should have just let her build a new life. That would have been better than subjecting her to a life like this. She wakes up each day, looking forward to her daughter’s visit. And today, when that day finally comes—”

“What do you want from me?” I asked.

“I made a promise to her,” he said. “And I don’t break promises. I promised to bring you to her.”

I cursed my hopelessness. If only I hadn’t let myself be entrapped in Raheem’s well crafted poem, I wouldn’t have been propelled to read the letter. And then I wouldn’t have ended up in this undesirable situation.

“Let’s get this over with,” I muttered. It would only be a minute and then I would be gone, never to return. I wanted nothing to do with that woman, and Raheem knew that more than anyone else.

Cursing under my breath, I stepped into the room. Sat on the bed, the last person I wanted to see welcomed me with a flickering smile.

“Are you alright?” she asked. She rose to her feet and crossed the room to meet me. Her eyes searched mine. “Is something wrong?”

“I’m okay,” I muttered.

She reached out to touch me, causing me to flinch. Her hand hovered in the air, just a few inches from my face. It trembled only just noticeably. I stared at it like it were a poisonous snake waiting to strike.

I felt the warmth of her palm melting into the side of my face. “You—”

Trailing off, she wrapped me in a bone-breaking embrace. I stood motionless, with my hands glued to my sides. No way in hell would I return her hug.

“You are here,” she said. “I dream. Every…every night. My daughter—”

My heart darkened at the mention of ‘daughter’. I disentangled myself from the embrace and shoved her off. “I am not your—”

“Victoria,” Raheem warned. What lies had he been feeding her with? Telling her I was her daughter?

Swallowing my indignation, I stared at the boring floor, bracing myself for the undesirable moments I would spend in her company.

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

Grave

“I will make your life a living hell.”

“Sometimes I really don’t understand him.” I stabbed a potato chip with my fork and shoved it into my mouth.

I’d been nagging endlessly over Raheem taking sides with the enemy. Flora and Amarachi had barely even said a word. Their silence didn’t bother me anyway. I’d rather have them say nothing than take sides with Raheem and that woman.

From the corner of my eye, I could see Raheem, Farah and Mary staring at me from their table. They were obviously talking about me. Losing appetite, I shoved off my tray and took a sip of my water.

“Victoria,” Amarachi called. She reached out to hold my hand. “You have to calm down and think about this with a cool mind. I mean…Raheem is only trying to help. He is doing the right thing. Everybody deserves a second chance.”

My face wrinkled with confusion. All my life I’d thought I knew her, and that she wanted the best for me. But now it turned out I was wrong. Weren’t we supposed to be best friends? Wasn’t she supposed to understand and support me? Why then would she take sides with the evil one?

“I thought you were my friend,” I said, snatching back my hand. Although I tried hard to shroud my rage, success eluded me. “But here you are, supporting the woman who wants me dead. Who knows, she could be faking the memory loss!”

“Close to ninety percent don’t survive a bullet to the head,” she said. “But that woman is alive. For a reason.”

“To kill me,” I said, voice flaring slightly. “Because she failed the first time.”

I glanced at Flora, hoping she was on my side. But I knew better. “My God! What is wrong with you people?”

“If God has given her another chance, who are you to deny her?” Amarachi asked. “Vicky, you are my friend. All I want is for you to be happy.”

“I am happy without her,” I said. “If you really are my friend, then you should know this.” I bolted to my feet and stormed out of the cafeteria.

I returned to class, my heart heavy and weighing me down. I plopped down on the seat that was once Cynthia’s. There I sat, drowning in my hopelessness as I watched hours roll by.

Once the closing bell went off, I grabbed my bag and dashed out of class. I heard Amarachi call after me. Blocking out her voice, I dismounted the stairs.

Today was Friday, which meant I’d have some quality time with myself, away from those people who had thoroughly disappointed me. I had thought I’d be able to distract myself from thoughts that sought to break me, but hours of trying to write my story proved me wrong. I’d ripped off over five pages, all in the name of starting a new chapter.

Sighing, I tossed the book to the floor and lay down in bed. I curled myself into a ball and squeezed my eyes shut, hurling myself into a sea of memories.

A knock at the gate caused my eyes to fly open. I gathered myself to my feet and advanced to the gate. Raheem flashed me a smile as I unlocked the gate. I made to smile back when a movement behind him caught my eye. My stepmother.

I scowled at her. “What is this woman doing here?”

“She’s been discharged,” Raheem said.

“And so you brought her here?” I fumed. “This is my house, Raheem. Not a charity house. How could you bring in a stranger without consulting me first? Who does that?”

“This is also her house,” Raheem said. “And she will be staying here.”

The woman sniffled. I caught a glitter in her eyes. A tear fell. She turned away and wiped it with the back of her palm. Her tears could fool anyone. But not me.

“Please go in,” Raheem said to the woman. “We will be with you in a moment.”

“Are—?” she started.

“Please,” Raheem said. He stepped away from the gate so she could come in.

Tentatively, she advanced toward the house. Too scarred to speak, I could only welcome the hard lump in my throat. He had chosen her over me. The same Raheem who told me I was what mattered most to him had placed my evil stepmother ahead of me.

“Why are you doing this to me?” I asked.

“She has nowhere to go,” he said. “Nowhere but here.”

“My father’s house is not a charity house,” I said.

“She is your father’s widow,” he said. “How could you forget that?”

“She tried to kill me,” I shot back. “Twice. How could you forget that?”

“The woman who tried to kill you died six months ago,” he said. For how long would he keep deceiving himself? If the woman had died back there, then who was here, a ghost?

“Will you not give this brand new person a chance?” he asked.

“She died?” I asked. “It is settled then. I don’t do ghosts.”

Glaring at him, I turned toward the open gate and stepped outside. I could use some fresh air.

“Where are you going?” I heard him ask.

“To see someone who truly understands me,” I said. “Since that is a task too big for you.”

Everyone else had chosen the murderer over me. But this one person would always support me. Blocking out all thoughts of the drama in my life, I approached his resting place with a calm heart.

My footsteps ripped through eerie silence as I walked down rows of tomb stones. I fixated my gaze on the one I’d come to visit. Branches of trees reached out as though groping for a prize only them could see.

The smell of old stones and dust filled the air. Gravel crunched underneath my feet as I proceeded, counting each step.

Underneath each tomb stone laid an empty shell, what was left of someone who had once been living. Here they were, faded into nothingness, devoid of any emotions, leaving nothing but memories.

Dad would have hated this place. Had he had a choice, he wouldn’t be here. He’d always hated extended moments of silence, especially one as eerie as this.

My eyes searched every tomb stone in sight, hoping to find Cynthia’s name engraved somewhere. Although I knew how pointless this was, I couldn’t help it. After her disappearance from the morgue, Raheem and I had visited every graveyard in Port Harcourt, but none of them had Cynthia’s body. So where had she been buried?

I arrived at dad’s grave and sagged to the ground. Tears stung my eyes and blurred my vision. “Dad, if you hadn’t left, none of this would have happened.”

Although he could hear nothing I said, pouring out my heart to him would bring some measure of relief. I would rather spend the rest of my day here, with him, amongst the dead, than ruin it with the sight of that vile woman. The dead, after all, could not harm me. But the living could.

Climbing atop the grave, I curled into a ball and closed my eyes. I thought back to those moments I had him with me. I could stay in his arms without saying a word. He, more than anyone else, had understood the unspoken words embedded in my silence.

Today, just like the good old days, I would fall asleep in his arms. It didn’t take long for sleep to find me. I embraced it with open arms.

Moments later, my eyes fluttered open. A headache greeted me as I reached full consciousness. I didn’t know for how long I’d been asleep. And I had no idea how I’d awakened on my bed. My thoughts drifted to those times I’d fall asleep in the living room and awaken on my bed. If only.

In the middle of my slumber I’d felt someone cradle me. But instead of awakening, I’d melted into his arms. Without a doubt I knew it was Raheem. Why had he come to help me when he’d shown me just how little he cared of my happiness?

Someone knocked at the door. I gasped, jumping out of bed. It took a moment to remember I now shared the house with her.

“Vicky,” she called.

Memories of six months ago flooded my mind. Was this her trying to kill me once again?

“Shit!” I dashed to my dresser drawer, where I’d hid dad’s gun. Grabbing it, I spun around to train it at the door. The door creaked open. My grip tightened instinctively. Today, I would not be the victim.

The woman stepped into the room. Gasping at the sight of the gun, she threw her hands in the air, sending a tray of food crashing to the floor.

Her lips quavered as she tried to speak. “Vic…it…it’s…only me.”

I cocked an eye at her, scanning her thoroughly to be sure there were no hidden weapons. Finding nothing, I lowered the gun. “Clean up the mess.”

Trembling, she nodded. “I’ll go get—”

“Whatever,” I said, waving her off. She turned away and disappeared into the passageway. Taking my gun with me, I stalked into the bathroom. A few minutes under the shower, and I stepped out, into my sparkling clean room.

I didn’t care if she’d fixed the mess. She would have to pay for breaking those utensils. I remembered the first day I’d broken a plate by mistake. She’d starved me all day. Today, I would have her taste her very own medicine. For everyday she spent here, she would pay for the way she’d dealt with me in the past. This was my promise to her.

I clothed myself in a gray polo shirt and a pair of black skinny jeans. Spending the day here was the last thing I wanted to do. I needed to be away, in a quiet place, where I could escape reality and make progress with my ongoing novel. And was there a better option than spending the day with dad?

Grabbing my phone and my writing materials, I shoved them into my backpack and set out for my day with dad.

I stepped out of my room, only to see the evil woman coming after me. I rolled my eyes and kept walking, telling myself I’d seen nobody.

“Victoria,” she called.

I whirled around to face her, my pointer jabbing the air toward her. Gritting my teeth, I ordered, “You will address me as miss. Do I make myself clear?”

Without waiting for her to assimilate the order, I added, “That is one of the rules you must follow if you wish to stay here.”

I turned toward my room and pointed. “Do you see that door? It leads to my room. That place is strictly out of bounds.”

The woman stared unblinking, too stunned to speak. My heart soared at her helpless state. Yesterday, she’d been the one in control. But today, the tables had turned, leaving her at my mercy. And what choice did she have but to do all I asked of her?

“Now, for rule number three, come with me.” I advanced to the main door, and through it. The woman, my new slave, followed by footsteps. Once we were outside, I slammed the door.

From outside, the door could only be opened with a key. And I had the key in my backpack. “Rule number three. This house is mine. And I do not trust strangers enough to leave them all alone in my house. You will be outside till I return.”

Without waiting for her response, I walked out of her line of sight and to the main road where I stood, waiting for a cab. Almost immediately, a taxi pulled over.

“Where to?” the driver asked.

“Catholic grave yard,” I said.

He seemed to ponder over my destination for a moment of two. I always got this reaction from commercial drivers. Try as I might, I could never understand their fear. Why would anyone live in fear of graveyards, seeing it as a place that should never be visited? Why fear the dead, when they lay asleep and unable to lift a finger at anyone?

“Get in,” the man finally decided.

I settled in the back passenger seat. The driver started the engine, never stopping for anyone till we arrived at my destination. I handed him his pay and stepped out of the car.

I’d only taken one step when I stopped dead in my tracks. Raheem’s bike was parked a few distance away. How had he known he’d find me here?

Obviously, he’d come to see me. He was mistaken if he thought I’d gotten over what he did yesterday. I would never forgive him for making decisions for me.

If I left now, then he wouldn’t know of my coming. I turned around, hoping to make a clean escape, but there he was, standing only an inch or two away. My face contorted with confusion. How had he come to close without me noticing?

Amused by the look on my face, he burst into laughter. “Easy. It’s only me. Why do you look like you’ve seen a ghost?”

“What do you want?” I asked, folding my arms.

“To talk to you,” he said. “What else would I want?”

“I’m not in the mood to talk to you,” I said. “I’m here to have some quiet time, and I don’t want anyone to ruin this moment.”

“Is this you getting angry?” he asked. “Wow. You should know by now that you can’t stay mad at me. I’m way too Charming.”

He winked at me. And in that moment, he looked even more charming. But I didn’t let it get to me. By bringing that woman into my house and life, he had ruined what was left of my happiness. And I just could not play along with this.

Unable to restrain myself, I let it all out. “Who do you think you are to interfere in my life like this? Just who do you think you are, Raheem Kadir? You’re trying so hard to unite us. Why? Where were you when she abused me day and night? Where were you when she tried to kill me? It was just me. I had to go through hell all by myself. Do you even have any idea how I hurt? And here you are, making decisions about my life.”

If this was how relationships worked, then I’d rather stay single for all eternity. I could see the hurt look in his eyes, but I couldn’t take back my words. Even if I could, I wouldn’t.

“I’m done, Raheem,” I said. I knew better than to make rash decisions. I knew I would regret ever saying this, but still, the words spilled out of my mouth. “I’m done. I can’t do this. I can’t have you interfering in my life like this, making decisions for me like I’m incapable of managing my life myself. I know I made a promise to your mum, but—”

I took a moment to steady my wobbly voice. Blinking away the tears forming in my eyes, I went on, “I can’t go on like this. I can’t live like this, I’m sorry. It’s suffocating and I can’t take it.”

Tears glided down my cheeks. I turned away and made to leave. I would be leaving behind my first love, and every memory we ever shared. Although this hurt, I had to do it. If I didn’t, he would someday. Lately we’d been having too many disagreements. Sooner or later, this was bound to happen.

“Hey, calm down,” Raheem said. “I mean, wow, slow down, will you? I didn’t hear a word you just said.”

Perfect liar. Why did he have to be so perfect?

He gripped my arms and looked me in the eye. And there, the tears I’d tried to hide were out in the open. He collected a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped my tears. “Calm down, okay?”

I nodded.

“Good,” he said. “Are you free tomorrow? We should go see a movie or something.”

“Okay.”

“Alright. I’ll pick you up tomorrow.” He planted a kiss on my forehead.

“Raheem, I—” The words died on my lips. How could I even think of saying those magical words, when barely a minute ago, I’d broken his heart?

“I know,” he said. “I love you more.”

Although he’d said this a number of times in the past, I could still feel a dance of butterflies in my stomach.

“I’m sorry about what I said,” I said. “I shouldn’t have acted like that. I’m just so confused. I’m just so insecure, I—”

He pulled me into a hug. “Shhh. it’s okay.”

In his embrace, I felt whole again. I felt my worries slither away. If I could, I’d hold him and never let go. But his ringing phone said it was time to let go.

“Perfect,” I groaned.

Raheem chuckled. “Sorry.” He pulled out his phone. “Sorry, I gotta take this call.”

Moving away from me, he answered the call. He spoke fluent Iraq. Arms folded, I watched the road, waiting for the call to end.

“I have to go,” he said. “Call from home.”

“Okay.”

“Come, I’ll drop you off.”

Drop me off? Not a chance. I didn’t want him finding out that I’d locked my stepmother outside and left her to starve. He would hate me for it. And I didn’t want that.

“I’m not ready to leave,” I said. “I need to see dad first.”

“Toria—”

“I just want to stay a while. I’ll be fine. Promise.”

His eyes roamed the graveyard in search of a reason to stop me from staying. Finding nothing, he sighed.

“I’ll be fine,” I assured him. “And besides, this is not my first time.”

“Very well then,” he said. “But I’ll ring you every five minutes.”

“Feel free,” I said.

Smiling at me, he shook his head and walked to his bike. He mounted it and waved at me. Grinning, I waved back. I watched him speed out of sight.

Once the roar of his engine subsided, I pulled out my phone and dialed my driver’s number. “Good morning. Come pick me from the graveyard.”

“I’m on my way,” he said.

I hit the end button. It would take no less than thirty minutes for him to arrive. I walked over to dad’s grave and pulled out my writing materials. Hopefully, I could write the infamous chapter eight.

Barely an hour later, I smiled down at a wonderfully written chapter. My fairy godmother would be so proud of me. I looked toward the road just in time to see Peter pulling into view. Tossing my writing materials into my backpack, I strapped it on and headed for the car. Peter had already stepped out to hold open the back door for me.

“Good morning, Miss Vicky,” he said.

“Hello, Pete.” I’d told him a number of times to add no titles to my name. But he was bent on treating me like a boss. What could I do but accept his extreme politeness?

Ever since I returned to my father’s house, he’d been treating me somewhat differently, as though he were seeing me in a different light. Sometimes, he’d even commented on how good I looked.

I giggled at the thought of how Raheem would react if he heard about this. He would definitely try to find me a driver old enough to be my grandpa. But that would only come after he’d failed to get me a female.

“A penny for your thoughts,” Peter said, looking over his shoulder to steal a glance. He flashed a smile that couldn’t even compare to my Raheem’s.

“It’s nothing,” I said. I rummaged through my backpack for my earpiece. Finding it, I rammed each piece into my ear and blared Skillet’s Comatose. This way, I’d be shielding myself from further questions.

Well into the twelfth song, I felt Peter slow down. I raised my head and found him staring into the rear view mirror. Now what?

He glanced back at me. I turned off my music to hear what he had to say. “Isn’t that your mum?”

“What? Where?” I whipped around, and there she was, walking in our direction. She cradled a kitten in her arms.

“Pull over,” I said. Peter did accordingly. While we waited for the woman to meet us, I rapped my fingers on the window.

Oblivious of our presence, or pretending to be, she made to walk past us. Peter honked to get her attention. She turned around, eyes narrowed to slits as she tried to look through the windows.

She grinned at the sight of me. Rolling my eyes, I returned my gaze to my phone and played the video, Pain, by Three Days Grace. I heard the door slam as my she climbed into the front passenger seat.

“Can I have the cat?” I asked.

Beaming at me, she presented the kitten. Poor little darling. White as snow, I’d name her Snow if she were mine. And I’d never let her out on the streets, because predators roamed around, looking for a soul to devour.

“Sorry,” I mouthed to Snow, just before winding down my window. I tossed her out like she were trash.

Peter and my stepmother screeched out incoherent words. Thanks to the music, I couldn’t make out a single word.

My heart reached out to Snow. I hoped she hadn’t broken a bone or two from the fall. I cringed at the thought of what I’d just done. But I’d only done it to prove a point. If I wanted to come off as cold and emotionless, it was time to start acting it. All my life I’d given room for emotions and feelings. But where did it get me?

As we neared our street, a brilliant thought occurred to me. My stepmother had questions about her past. Why delay when I could fill in the information gap right this instant?

In the past, she’d made crying become an integral part of my life. But from this day, her tears would flow. I would make them outflow every single tear I’d shed.

Pausing my music, I said, “Turn around, Peter. We are taking this woman to see her husband.”

“We are going back to the—?”

I cut him off before could say the word. “Yes, so turn around.”

Peter made a U-turn, heading back to the graveyard. My stepmother looked out the window the whole time.

“Where are we going?” she asked.

“Wait till we get there,” I said. “For now, just sit back and enjoy the ride.”

Once again, I inserted my earpiece to tune out whatever conversation would ensue between them. This time, I watched Raheem’s video. A week ago, he’d performed a song titled ‘Crawl’. While he sang, his smoldering gaze burned into me, and it seemed as though he were actually staring at me.

After moments of browsing through my media, we arrived at our destination. I turned off my music and detached the earpiece from my ears. Stepping out of the car, I turned toward my stepmother and found her frozen in place, unable to climb out of her seat.

If only Raheem had told her himself, then we wouldn’t be here. But no, he had only told her she had a daughter — me. He’d left the many untold stories to me. And what could I do? I had to see to it that she knew the most important things about her life.

Peter held open the door for her. I rolled my eyes at his kind gesture. My stepmother needed no special treatment.

Her beady eyes swept around the graveyard. “Why…why are we here?”

I smiled at her. “We are here to meet your husband, aren’t we?”

She nodded. “He…works here?”

Was she seriously asking me that? How could someone who worked in a graveyard own a mansion?

Ignoring her thoughtless question, I led the way to father’s grave. The crunching of gravel behind me told me she trailed after me, as expected. I halted in front of dad’s grave.

“He…he’s dead?” she asked, her eyes devoid of any emotions.

I hadn’t expected her to be affected by the news anyway, considering that she had no memories of him. And besides, an evil woman lived inside of her. I doubted memory loss could change her completely.

“No,” she whimpered, dropping to the ground. Peter made to help her, but I held out a hand to stop him.

Her sobs perforated the silence building up. And although I knew better than to feel sorry for her, my heart, the traitor, hurt like it’d been stabbed all over with a two edged blade.

She smoothed her palms over the writings engraved on the tombstone. Emmanuel Brown. 1973-2017.

“How…how did this happen?” she cried out, gripping the edge of the tombstone. Her body trembled as she bowed before the grave. The raw emotions in her weeping voice clawed at my insides. But I would not feel sorry for this woman.

A misguided tear escaped my eye. I wiped it off and prayed no one noticed my broken spirit.

“That’s enough,” I said.

Playing deaf, she sobbed on. More tears would come where those came from. I would drown her in a sea of her own tears.

“I should be sorry for you,” I said. “But I’m not.”

She raised her gaze to meet mine. Her eyes, puffy and bloodshot, made to fool me into believing she deserved sympathy, but I didn’t let it get to me.

I walked slow circles around her. “And does that make me a bad person? No, because you deserve every single thing that happened to you. Sympathizing with you is what would make me a bad person.”

I looked down at her, and on her. It spelt power. And power drives one crazy. I’d always heard that quote, but I’d never thought much about it. I’d never understood it. But now, I did. I had so much power at my fingertips, and still I hungered for more.

I wished I could make a painting of this scene. A painting of me on my feet, and my stepmother on her knees. The gravestones standing tall like an army of the dead, added a touch of dark to the painting. Beautiful, in a twisted way.

To spite my stepmother, I would definitely transform this dream painting into reality. And I would display it in the living room, for every guest to see just how hard she’d fallen.

“Life has gone easy on you,” I said. “It has deprived you of your memory, making you live peacefully while I dwindle away in the flames of the heated past. I cannot watch this go on. No, you have to know everything, just so you can hurt like I do.”

My stepmother rose to her feet. “I don’t understand.”

“Let’s start from someone,” I offered. “What did Raheem tell you about your past?”

“He only…told me about you,” she said. “…said you’d be the…one to…to tell me.”

“And who am I?” I asked.

“What?” she asked. If she were a child, spanking her for the dumb look on her face would be in order. Moments of glowering at her told her I wouldn’t repeat myself.

“My daughter,” she said.

“What?” I asked as though I hadn’t heard correctly.

“You are my daughter.”

A fit of laughter stole me over, forcing tears out of my eyes. I laughed so hard, my lungs burned. “Daughter? Do you honestly think someone like you can give birth to someone like me? Or have you ever seen a guava tree bearing fine apples?”

“I don’t understand.”

“What is there to understand?” I yelled. “I am nothing of yours. We do not relate in anyway. I do not have your bad blood flowing in my veins, thank God for that.”

“Victoria,” Peter called.

“Stay out of this,” I warned. Returning my focus to my stepmother, I said, “You claim to be my mother. But can a mother do this?”

I turned my back at her and flipped open the lower back of my top, letting her catch a glimpse of her malevolence.

“Oh my God,” she gasped. “I…I did this?”

Wordlessly, I pulled my top over the scars. I started off toward my car, but she dashed after me. As expected. Catching up with me, she stood in my way and took my hands in hers.

“Forgive me,” she sobbed. “Forgive me, please. I…I can’t justify my wrongs. All I ask is that you—”

I snatched my hands out of her hold. Tears sprang to my eyes. This time, I didn’t try to fight them. I let them create a path down my cheeks. “Do you know what hurts me the most? It isn’t that you always treated me like a plague. It isn’t that you tried to kill me twice. No, what hurts me the most is that you failed at being a mother to your very own daughter. Had you been thorough about your duties as a mother, then she would still be here. I can forgive you for every other thing. But for Cynthia’s death, there is no mercy. I will make your life a living hell. It doesn’t matter to me that you have no memories of the past. There is no peace for the wicked. Keep that in mind.”

I turned to leave, but once again, she reached out to hold me.

“Wait, wait, please,” she begged.

“Don’t touch me, woman!” My palms lashed out, shoving her off.

Stumbling over a grave, she lost her footing and toppled over. Her head slammed into the tombstone with a cracking sound. My stomach twisted into a painful knot, but I held back from advancing to her. Peter, on the other hand, had sprinted to her side.

She grunted in pain and touched her temple, right where a trail of blood snaked along her skin.

“I’m fine,” she said, brushing off his worry.

“Peter, let’s go,” I said. “Leave her be. I’m sure she’s fine. She survived a bullet to her head. There’s nothing to fear. She’s death itself. Now, come, let’s be on our way. I’m sure she can find her way back home.”

“We can’t just leave her here,” he said.

“One more word and you’re fired.” I knew just how much Peter needed this job. He would do anything to keep it.

“Go,” my stepmother told him. “Go. I’ll manage.”

Resisting the urge to look back at her, I climbed onto the back seat of the car. Peter sauntered to the driver’s seat and started the engine. He pulled away from the graveyard, his neck turning toward my stepmother.

“I really don’t think this is a good idea,” he said.

What was wrong with everyone? Why did they all feel they could tell me what to do? Last time I checked, I hadn’t hired a personal adviser.

Lips sealed, I counted down to when I would arrive home. Peter would definitely try to talk me into doing the supposedly right thing, making it take forever to arrive home. Reaching for my phone, I found escape in music, once again.

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

Broken

Whenever you’re close to me, your presence sucks out every trace of oxygen. It suffocates me.”

I awakened to the sound of my ringing phone. A smile flitted across my face as I found Raheem’s name on my screen. I hit the answer button.

My lips parted as I made to speak, but Raheem cut me off before I even began. “I’m at your gate.”

The line went dead. I gazed at the phone in my hand. What the hell had just happened? Why had he sounded like I was the last person he wanted to speak with? He hadn’t even allowed me to say a word. It was almost as though he didn’t want to hear my voice. Then why was he here?

A possibility dawned on me. What if he’d pondered over my loss of self control and decided to end it all? Or did it have to do with his family? Did it involve his dad?

Staying in bed and musing over these things would not give an answer. I rose to my feet and proceeded to meet Raheem.

I unlocked the gate and stepped outside. And there, before me, stood the answer to my question. My stepmother stood beside Raheem, who was sat on his bike, his eyes hiding behind dark glasses.

I knew without a doubt that Peter had informed him of the graveyard scene. Why hadn’t I thought of that? How could I have been so thoughtless? What would Raheem think of now? What if my stepmother had filled his head with lies aimed to turn him against me?

“Thank you,” she said, smiling at him.

Raheem nodded, but said nothing. Without acknowledging my presence, he started the engine. I sprinted to his side. No way in hell would I let him leave. No, not like this.

“Raheem, I…I can explain,” I said.

“Don’t,” he said. “You were right, Victoria Brown. This can’t work.” His words tightened my stomach into a tortuous knot.

Without another word, he zoomed out of sight, leaving me to swim in the smoke of everything I once had, now burned to the ground. A bolt of rejection hit me squarely in the chest, knocking me out of breath. Tears sprang to my eyes.

I had lost him. I had lost the one person who gave me reason to live. How could I lose it all in the blink of an eye? How would I go on without him?

Bursting into tears, I darted into my room and threw myself onto my bed. With my own hands, I’d destroyed the happiness I’d worked so hard to build. I’d lost the one guy I’d ever had feelings for. I’d only intended to make my stepmother pay for her wrongs. How was I to know my actions would drive away the one person I cared about the most?

I felt a new kind of pain. One I could not fathom. A pain so similar to losing a loved one in death, and yet so different. It clawed at my chest and threatened to break everything I was. My breath came in short, ragged gasps, setting my lungs ablaze.

Once, I’d thought losing a loved one in death was the worst kind of emotional pain. Today, though, I realized the rejection of a loved one hurt no less. At least, with death, I knew my loved ones had left without a choice. If they could, they’d still be with me.

But in this case, Raheem had a choice. And he had chosen to reject me now when I needed him the most. Although I’d seen this coming, I could never have guessed it hurt so much to be heart broken. Why did I feel a pressure on my chest, as though something heavy sat atop it? Why did it hurt as though my heart had been literally ripped out of my chest?

I grabbed my phone and dialed his number. I wouldn’t give up without at least trying to win him back. His phone rang. Once, twice. And then, the line went dead. I dialed again, but found his phone switched off.

He wanted nothing to do with me. Every memory and dream we ever shared wilted before my eyes. How could I heal this rawness in my chest, a deep hole where my heart should be?

Without him, I’d never be able to face the world. He’d been my shadow, my best friend, staying close in good times and in bad. Despite my many flaws, he’d loved me. And now, my whole world crumbled at my feet like a pile of ashes.

“Victoria,” my stepmother called. I hadn’t noticed her come in.

I raised my face to acknowledge her presence. She stood a distance away, obviously conflicting within herself about approaching me.

I never thought I’d ever crave her touch. But in my depression, all I wanted was to hide myself in a comforting embrace. I wanted her to hold me in her arms and wipe away my tears. I wanted her to assure me it would be fine, that it wasn’t the end of life. But in life, what you want is not always what you get.

“Are you happy now?” I asked, getting out of bed. “You have always wanted bad things to happen to me. When I grieve, you have a thousand and one reasons to smile. Things were fine between Raheem and I. Until you came along. Now he wants nothing to do with me. All because of you! You!”

“I know just how much you hate me,” she said. “And you believe I only want bad things to happen to you. But I cross my heart, Victoria, I swear, I Whenever you’re close to me, your presence sucks out every trace of oxygen. It suffocates me.”

The sound of her voice was no different from a pestering bug waiting to be squished. Squeezing my eyes shut, I clapped my palms over my ears and screamed. “Stop! Just stop! I’m not a fool anymore, okay? I’m not the person I used to be, the person you treated like a rag. I stopped being the naive little girl who swallowed every insult and believed every lie. So, just stop. Enough lies already.”

“I would never lie to you,” she said.

I glared at her. “Your voice… It burns. Every time I hear you speak, I ask myself over and over again why you didn’t die six months ago. You know why? I hate you. I hate you so much that it hurts. Whenever you’re close to me, your presence sucks out every trace of oxygen. It suffocates me. You suffocate me, mum. I wish you died back there. I really wish you did.”

Sobbing, I went on, “Why continue to torture me? Why don’t you just go away, out of my life, just so I can find happiness? Why do you keep destroying my life over and over again? Why didn’t you just stay dead? You should have died back there. But no, you had to wake up to ruin my life over and over again.”

Although I had so much more to say, I held back. Nothing I said or did to her could change anything. I swept my phone off the bed and stormed off into Cynthia’s room. Once there, I locked the door, keeping intruders away.

My fairy godmother came to mind. She’d been my rock, even before Raheem walked into my life. Talking to her would bring a measure of relief. Or so I hoped.

I dialed her number. After a few rings, she answered the call. “Vicky dear, hello. How’s it going?”

“Bad,” I said.

She freaked out. “Oh dear. What’s wrong?”

“It’s Raheem,” I explained. “It’s over. He just…ended it. He wants nothing to do with me. I’m so broken right now, I don’t know what to do. I wish you were here. I really wish you were here.”

“Why did he end it?” she asked. “I thought things were going fine between you guys.”

To be honest, things had never been fine between us. Every moment, we’d fought over my stepmother. I’d even been surprised we made it through six whole months. Although our feelings for each other was strong enough to sustain our bond, our relationship had always been a fragile line, thanks to the legged misfortune called my stepmother.

“He didn’t like the way I treated her,” I said. “He wanted me to put the past behind me and move on. But I…I just couldn’t. I mean, I can’t. I’m only human. I can’t erase memories of the way she treated me in the past.”

“Sweetheart, I know just how you feel,” she said. “But you know, forgiveness is a trait that we all must master. Everyone deserves a second chance. From what I’ve heard, your stepmother is a different person and has been showering you with love.”

“How do I know she’s really changed?” I asked. “How do I know this is not one twisted game? How can I trust her after everything she’s done? Just how?”

“Sweetheart, she was in coma for two whole weeks. Do you think she faked it? Truth be told, she turned a new leaf the moment she lost her daughter. Now she begs for just a chance to be your mother. Isn’t this what you always wanted?”

“Things are changed,” I said. “I changed. And so did my desires.”

“Okay, so what is it you want?”

I made to speak, but she beat me to it. “Don’t say it. I know. You want him back, so go. Go get him. Just go see him, admit your mistakes, and be the you you really are, not the stone hearted person you’re pretending to be. That’s all he wants. Tell him you’re willing to let go of your grudges and accept your stepmother.”

“But…what if I don’t really want that?” I asked.

“But you do, don’t you?”

I didn’t know if I needed my stepmother in my life. But I did know I wanted my life to be whole again. I would give anything to be whole again. I would do anything.

“I’ve got to go,” I said.

“I’ll call you later, okay?”

“Okay.” Ending the call, I mused over Stella’s words.

Raheem wanted me to admit my mistakes, to be me, the sweet girl he had fallen in love with. He’d always preached about my stepmother needing a second chance. If he thought she did, then I did too.

Brimming with a hope I never saw coming, I set out to go see him. Moments later, I stood in front of the Kadir’s gate. I’d been here for no less than five minutes, conflicting within myself to knock or not to knock.

Thoughts swirled around my mind. The good, the bad, and the ugly. What if Raheem didn’t want me back? Then what next?

Maybe seeing him now was not a good idea. He probably fumed over our break up, and would talk to no one. Maybe I had to let time float a while. Then his heart would grow soft and he’d listen to me.

I sighed, torn between the choices before me. But who said I had to make the decision myself? For a moment I’d forgotten other people always sought to make decisions for me.

And now, history repeated itself. I heard footsteps approach, and I knew it had to be the gatekeeper. He’d obviously caught a glimpse of my feet from underneath the gate. Curse my life.

The gatekeeper opened the gate with a smile. “Good afternoon.”

I faked a smile. “Good afternoon.”

Rooted to the spot, I could only stare at the house before me. In the past, I’d walked in and out like it were my own house. But today, I felt this privilege creeping away.

“They’re inside,” the gatekeeper said, apparently misjudging my tentativeness.

“Okay, thanks.” I pushed forward on shaky legs. After forever, I arrived at the entrance door and rapped my fingers on it. Once, twice. And once again.

“Coming,” Farah screamed to my hearing.

I told myself it would be alright. But would it? Amidst the tightness of my chest, I sucked in a deep breath, bracing myself for what would come.

Farah opened the door. Her face lit up at the sight of me. “Victoria! Thank goodness you’re here. I was seriously going to die of boredom.”

My face held no promise of a smile. Trailing her eyes over my face, she caught a whiff of the air of distress around me. “Okay, spill. What’s wrong?”

“I need to talk to Raheem,” I said.

“He’s not home,” she said.

“Tell me this is you kidding,” I said. “I really have to see him. I know he probably doesn’t even want to see my face right now, but I have to at least try.”

Farah’s face fell. “What is going on?”

“Raheem didn’t tell you anything?” I asked.

She shook her head. “He spoke to no one. He just parked his bike and drove off in his car. I called him, but he ignored me, and I knew someone had offended you. I could never have thought it was you. I mean…oh my gosh! Wait. Did you guys break up?”

“Yes,” I said.

“What?” she shrieked. “I don’t understand. Why would he do a thing like that?”

“Did what?” Mrs. Kadir asked, walking to meet us. She smiled at me. She sure hadn’t heard the most recent developments. “Vicky dear, how are you?”

“I’m fine,” I said.

“No she’s not,” Farah said. “Raheem broke up with her.”

“He did what?” Mrs. Kadir asked, her voice flaring. “I don’t understand. He’s been so happy these past few weeks.”

“Exactly my point,” Farah agreed.

“When did this happen?” Mrs. Kadir asked.

“This afternoon,” I said.

“This afternoon,” she echoed, as though the time made any difference. Or did it?

Her temper escalated with each passing moment. “I don’t understand. I just can’t believe he’d leave you now, now of all times when you need him the most.”

“I’m the one at fault,” I explained. “I stopped being the me he used to know.”

“What does that even mean?” Farah asked.

A car honked from behind the gate, making my words die on my lips. Simultaneously, we turned to watch the gatekeeper open the gate for Raheem to drive in.

“He has got major explaining to do,” Farah said.

Raheem stepped out of his parked car. Feigning oblivion to us, he moved to open the back door of his car. Who had he brought with him? Although it was impossible to see through the dim glass, I narrowed my eyes anyway.

A thought hit me. And although I made to shove it to the back of mind, it lingered. Had Raheem replaced me in the blink of an eye? If it wasn’t a girl, then who was it he opened the door for? Red with a yet unjustifiable envy, I could only watch as he gave the unseen person the same treatment he’d reserved only for me.

“Who has your brother brought home?” Mrs. Kadir asked Farah. Farah shrugged. They were just as clueless.

The unseen guest placed his left foot on the ground. I strained my neck to see the person’s shoes. Finding a man’s shoes, I let out the breath I’d been holding.

But who was he?

He placed his other foot on the ground and exit the car. I gasped at the striking resemblance he shared with Raheem. I’d seen his photos, but that didn’t compare to seeing him in person.

He threw his arms open. “Surprise!”

“Daddy!” Farah screamed, darting to meet him.

“Hakeem!” Mrs. Kadir’s voice rang in my ears. All smiles, she sprinted to her husband.

Winning the race, Farah threw herself in her father’s arms. “Daddy.”

“My little fairy,” Mr. Kadir said, flashing a smile that showed off his perfect teeth.

He plucked a chucking Farah from the floor and spun her around as though she weighed no more than a leaf. He set her down, but didn’t let go of her. Arms wide open, he invited Mrs. Kadir. She lost herself in his arms.

Where Mr. Kadir stood, I saw my father. And in his arms, my stepmother, Cynthia and I. He’d just returned from a business trip to Lagos. Just like Mr. Kadir, he’d chosen to surprise us with his presence.

My eyes burned with tears I fought to hide. I sucked in a deep breath to keep my emotions in check. I would not let the tears drop. I would not let my miserable life ruin their moment.

Now without a doubt, I knew I should never have come here. But how was I to know I’d witness a bitter sweet scene like this?

“You should have told us you were coming,” I heard Mrs. Kadir say. “I would have made your favorite dish.”

They had everything. Happiness. Family. Love. They had each other. And I, I had nothing but every bit of misfortune the world had to offer. I’d give anything for just a thin slice of happiness. I’d give anything for a little drop of love. But did I even deserve it?

I had to leave. I didn’t belong here. I belonged in my own world, where an evil stepmother awaited me at home. I belonged in a world where happiness was a taboo, and depression, the order of the day.

The Kadirs, so lost in the moment had become oblivious of my presence. Neither Farah nor Mrs. Kadir even remembered I existed. Typical. Raheem hadn’t even glanced in my direction since he arrived. Not even by mistake.

Why then did I remain here? Why continue to stay where I didn’t belong? I’d slip away, and they wouldn’t even notice. I would.

Mr. Kadir held his entire family in a hungry embrace. Taking this as my time to leave, I headed for the gate.

“Wait,” Mr. Kadir said. Not to his family. But to me.

I halted rather robotically. I turned around to meet his gaze. He chuckled as though I had something funny on my face. Did I?

“Wait, don’t tell me you thought you were invisible,” he said.

He could see me? For a moment back there, I actually thought I was invisible.

Mr. Kadir glanced at Raheem, then back at me. Raheem bowed his head. Obviously, he’d rather humor the lackluster ground than look at me.

Realization dawned on Mr. Kadir. I could tell from the way he wagged his left pointer. “Aren’t you the girl my son’s so crazy about?”

For the first time, Raheem raised his face to look at me. His gaze pierced through me, setting my heart ablaze. A flower of hope sprouted somewhere within me.

A smile had already begun to stretch my lips when Raheem spoke. “She was, dad.”

EPILOGUE

I clenched my head in my hands and dropped to my knees. Tears escaped my eyes. How could this have happened?

I’d rummaged through the house. I’d taken a frantic stroll around our street. But I’d found no trace of her. I’d asked around, but no one seemed to have seen her. I’d returned home, hoping she’d show up soon. But she never did.

Had she just disappeared into thin air? I’d never be able to forgive myself if something happened to her. Where would she go?

I picked myself off the floor and combed through my disarrayed hair with my shaky fingers. I would never find rest till I found her. I paced the room, more tears streaming down my cheeks. I never wanted any of this to happen. How would I fix this now?

I had to find her. Although nightfall had fallen hours ago, and going out into the streets at this hour would place my life in jeopardy, I had to be out there. I could never forgive myself if mum came to any harm.

Mum. I longed for another chance with her. I longed for a chance to hold her and call her mum.

I picked up my phone from my bed and dialed Raheem’s number. Although we hadn’t spoken since our breakup a week ago, I knew he’d readily come to my aid.

Pacing my room, I sobbed. “Pick up, please Raheem. Please pick up.”

“Hey,” Raheem said.

I let out a breath. “Raheem, please, you have to—”

“If you’re hearing this, then I’m sorry, I’m unavailable right now. Please leave a message.”

I groaned, smashing my clenched fist into the wall. “Raheem, it’s my mum. She’s gone. Please, you have to help me find her.”

Ending the voice mail, I tossed my phone onto the bed and sprinted to the dresser drawer. I yanked it open and pulled out the gun that once belonged to dad. If I’d be roaming the perilous streets at 2a.m in the morning, then I’d be needing it. Just in case.

If I were in her shoes, where would I go? I’d go to the graveyard to spend the night by my husband’s side.

Once again, I grabbed my phone. This time, I sent Raheem a text.

I’m checking the graveyard.

I buried my phone in my pocket and set out to find mum. With the speed of wind, I blurred past buildings and the dangers of the night. Drenched in sweat, my camisole clung to my skin. Beads of sweat streaked down my forehead and into my eyes. My legs burned from the two hour race, but I ran on, not stopping for anyone. My heart pounded in my ears. My breath had turned ragged and shallow.

Only when I arrived at the graveyard did I take a moment to catch my breath. My legs trembled underneath me, and although I longed to sit down for a moment or two, I pushed forward. Mum was my priority.

A distance away, something moved. I advanced in that direction, my eyes fixed on the grave.

“Mum?” I drew nearer to the grave. A figure hid behind the tombstone. Aware of a presence, it scooted to the other side of the grave.

Undesirable thoughts crowded my mind. How could I have come to a graveyard all by myself at 4a.m in the morning? I’d heard stories of ghosts lurking around graveyards during the dark. And although I’d never believed in ghosts, I felt myself sinking into my fears.

A figure sprang out from behind the tombstone. It lunched itself at me, its momentum sending us crashing into the ground. Clawed fingers swiped across my neck and chest. I kicked and scratched, but the furry beast had a firm hold on me. Screeching like a banshee, it sank its razor-sharp teeth into my hand.

“Get off me, you furry bastard!” I seized its limbs and shoved it off. It meowed, more like a growl. While I scrambled to my feet, the cat launched at me with a death screech. I swatted it away, sending it crashing into a gravestone.

“I have nothing to live for,” a voice said. Though it was a distance away, I could recognize that voice even in a dream. Mum.

“If you’re going to kill me, do it now, before you change your mind.” Her voice, my light in a dark tunnel, led me to her.

“Mum!” I screamed.

Mum turned to look at me. And so did the two men who threatened her with their presence.

“Vicky, no!” she cried. “Get out of here!”

The men exploded in savage laughter. The one nearest to her grabbed her arm and pulled her to himself. “Mother and daughter?”

My face wrinkled with disgust. How dare he touch my mum?

“I do not fear death,” mum said.

“Ah, but you’ll certainly fear the things we’ll do to your precious daug—”

Mum spat on him, cutting off his words. Grunting, the man raised his clenched fist at her. I pulled out my gun and trained it on him. “Don’t you dare.”

Blood drained from his face at the sight of the gun. His raised hand froze in midair, and then he let out a deep, taunting laugh.

“Do it,” he said. “You can’t.”

Adrenaline surged through me. I bit down the urge to empty my gun in his skull. “Let her go.”

“Or what?” the second man taunted.

My hand squeezed the trigger. A bullet sailed through air and buried itself in the second man’s kneecap. He yelped in pain and hit the ground, cursing under his breath.

I redirected my aim to the first man. “Still want to find out what her precious little daughter can do if you don’t let her go?”

The man let go of mum and took one step back. Even as mum walked over to meet me, my eyes didn’t stray off target. The man looked past me, at something behind me.

I felt a presence behind me. Warm fingers wrapped around the hand with which I held the gun.

He slipped the gun into his hand. My hero. My Raheem.

“I’ll take it from here, babe,” he said.

###

Thank you for reading my book. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to leave me a review at your favorite retailer.

Thanks!

D. L. Biranen

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

D. L. Biranen is the last of four children. Inspired by her brother, she has had an undying love for fiction from an age she can barely remember.

Though she abstains from magic and enchantment, some of her books contain elements that most fantasy readers would love. She also abstains from explicit contents, but this does not make her books any less captivating.

Her genres of interest are Young/New Adult Contemporary Romance, Historical Romance, Sci-fi Romance, and Mystery/Detective/Police Procedural books.

She lives in her country, Nigeria. When she’s not writing, she can be found listening to rock music or surfing the web for e-books to fill her library with.

CONTACT THE AUTHOR

Facebook

D. L. Biranen

Wattpad

DLBiranen

Email

DLBiranen


A Chance For Love

  • Author: D. L Biranen
  • Published: 2017-02-05 16:35:23
  • Words: 119440
A Chance For Love A Chance For Love