Thu. Jun 20th, 2024

Truth

.

Continues..

“Truth is any statement made to build up

one’s family.”

***

Rapping my sore knuckles on the steaming

hot gate for the umpteenth time, my mind

swayed back to my previous conversation

with Stella. Her assurance that everything

would be fine had made something snap

inside of me. I had grown tired of believing

things would be fine, when in reality they

only got worse.

I had been stupid to believe 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 a 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.

And the fierce determination I had seen in

Stella’s 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 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 knocking the

gate. I needed to talk to my stepmother. It

wouldn’t be easy, but I had to.

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?’ 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 swallowed 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, and 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.

“Break it oooh,” my stepmother yelled, her

voice almost musical. “If you don’t bring

down that gate, shame on you.”

Her 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 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 dad’s

death, 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 as her painfully

long nails dug into my skin.

“Mumu.” She wrung harder. I bit my lips to

keep from spitting out hurtful words. “You

have ears but you don’t hear. How many

times will I tell 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 her 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.

Emotions slammed into me at the sight of

Stella. On one side stood fear, on another,

shock, and on yet another, hope. The dim

light of hope burning within me, craving

death, had 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 uniform. A black jacket

enclosed her torso, giving an ash camisole a

sliver of space to peek through. A pair of

blue jeans hugged her legs, halting just

before a black pair of sneakers.

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?” she

asked. “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?” she asked.

“I…I fell,” I said.

Stella clicked her tongue. “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

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 said.

“And you are?” my stepmother asked.

Stella walked past me and reached out to

shake my stepmother’s hand. She smiled,

but it didn’t reach her eyes. Two men trailed

after her, their overly strict faces making me

forget how to use my voice.

My gaze lingered on them. The first, a bald

man, clad in a black body hug T-shirt, had a

slightly rounded stomach. Muscled arms

strained to fit into his shirt. His facial hair,

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 had picked on him, 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,” she said.

“Now we have,” Stella said. “My friends and

I would love to talk to you about something

very important.”

My stepmother sized up Stella 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?”

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 asked.

“Scared?”

Wrinkling her nose, she cast me a glance

that could slice through rock. I paid no heed

to her and disappeared into the bathroom

for a quick shower. I hugged myself as icy

water 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 too gentle to

be Cynthia’s or her mother’s, brought my

attention to the door.

“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. What news had she come to deliver?

News of hope or news of my death?

“Vicky,” she said, 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. 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 has 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 send it on exile, 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. Work had kept him away all day. Now

that I had him, I wouldn’t let go till sleep

finally stole me over.

“The story, dad,” I said, half-yawning. “She

didn’t speak the truth.”

“What is truth?”

“Truth is…the opposite of lie?” I cowered

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.”

Ijeoma had lied to save her mother from

King Edochie’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 a definition that sounded

good in my ears, a smile tugged at the

corners of my lips.

“That, my sweet, is truth,” dad said.

Tightening my arms around him, 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 my 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 with emotions. “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

man said. Like I had suspected, he had a

husky voice. He tilted his head toward his

partner. “Sergeant Evans Fineface of the

Nigerian Police Force.”

“We need to ask you a few questions,” the

one called Evans said.

I nodded, swallowing a lump in my throat.

Although I pinned my focus on the

policemen, I could see Cynthia and her

mother from the corner of my eye.

“Child abuse is a very serious crime,” Evans

said. “We received word concerning you and

we would like you to tell us the whole

truth.”

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 relevant. 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,” I said.

“Okay,” Charles said. “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 advanced to me. He scanned my

wounds with a knowing look in his eyes.

“It sure isn’t,” he reported back to Charles.

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 said.

A sudden bolt of self-defense hit me.

“What? I can’t cut my nails again or what?”

As though I’d whirled at him brandishing a

gun, he 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 me.

My lips stayed glued together. I could not

tell them my stepmother had done 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. “Tell them. Your

statement is important if these people are

to pay for all the things they have done to

you. Please.”

My stepmother stood up. Arms folded, she

said, “Tell them. 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 turned 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

as though 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.

“Why are you covering up the sins of this

woman?” Stella asked, pulling at my arm.

“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. Her hold on

my arm loosened just enough for me to

retrieve my arm. I caught a flicker of

disappointment 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 studied

me as though the truth would 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.”

Uncle Ben had a reputation for abusing

people, especially when alcohol held him

hostage. He had beaten his ex-wife to near-

death. At least when Charles and Evans

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 can

you say about it?”

“My health?” I asked. 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

neglected 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 asked, pressing 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, my stepmother

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!” she 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 pried her

hands off me and turned away, sobbing.

Cynthia took over as words failed her

mother. “What is our crime? 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?”

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,” she said.

“Had it been an outsider throwing stones at

me, I would overlook it. But now, my own

daughter is doing this. This is too much.”

Guilt gnawed at my soul. The tears I

thought I had trapped behind my eyes found

their way out. Streaming out like rivulets,

they tickled my cheeks.

“Mrs. Brown.” Stella paused to make sure

she had my stepmother’s 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

that would be illegal since the school

provides only first aid to day students,

saving intense medical care for those in the

dormitory.”

My stepmother waved a dismissive hand at

Stella and glued the back of her palm to my

forehead. “Are you sick?”

I s—-d 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 caring mother.

I nodded in answer to her question. My head

throbbed at the subtle gesture. “I am sick,

mum.”

 

More stories @ www.chorusman.com

 

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 said, wrapping an arm

around me. “Okay?”

“She has to go to a hospital,” Stella said.

“Don’t you think I am well aware of my

duties as a mother?” my stepmother asked.

“I know she needs a doctor. And I will take

her to see one.”

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 way too long.

I will take her right away. You don’t need to

stress yourself. Just go bring the money for

her treatment.”

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.

“This is too much,” my stepmother said. 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, but 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 game,

Stella held a black pen a few inches from

her face. “Take it.”

“I will not sign this.” My stepmother threw

the paper to the floor and folded her hands

in defiance.

“Leave us,” Stella said to the policemen.

Once they were gone, she turned to face my

stepmother. “Sign that document and free

yourself from the penalties 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. 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 Stella, it

bounced off the armor of esteem she clad

herself in; an armor too expensive for my

possession. 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.

Stella smiled. “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.

“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?” she asked.

“Why on earth would you shield her when all

she’s done is cause you harm?”

Settling in a 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

those police men? 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. Splaying her palms in

the air, 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.

“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, emphasizing on her last word. “Isn’t

this all 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. Any sane

person would grab the first chance at

justice.

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 a chance into the gutter.”

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 been close to

her for no more than twenty-four hours, but

after the little time we had spent together, I

doubted I could survive this on my own.

“Always,” she said. Perching on the arm rest

of my chair, she pulled me into a hug and

smoothed her palm over my hair. “This path

of yours is a crazy one. But my support is

unconditional.”

With her non-dominant 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 swear to serve

the stipulated child abuse sentence if at any

time it is discovered that:

•My stepdaughter reports to school later

than 7:30am.

•My stepdaughter fails to get medical

checkups every four 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 reluctant signature stood

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. “When

we’re done with the hospital, I will go have

this document signed by the 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 she had made 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 walked

away. 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,” she said.

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.

“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. While

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

eons. 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 like I’d feared. Once

or twice, they brought up random topics like

the weather and the deteriorating Nigerian

economy.

Every so often, I would cast Stella a side

glance. I had a confession to make. 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. Really, I’m the one who

should be thankful.” Pulling over, she turned

to face them. “Really, guys, thanks. You’ve

been really helpful 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 the 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 us goodbye. 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 folded, she leaned

back in her seat and stared at me.

“What?” I asked, unable to contain my

curiosity. Did I have something on my face?

I gazed at my reflection in the side mirror.

So far, so good, I looked normal. No horns

or fangs. Nothing out of place.

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

“Talk?” I echoed.

“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 said.

Stella nodded. She waited for me to begin,

but I didn’t know where to begin. I stared

out through the window, training my eyes on

every pedestrian. Stella’s 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 wouldn’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 said. “I

mentioned that Cynthia saw everything as a

competition. In a desperation to change her

wrong line of reasoning, I changed me.”

“What do you mean?” Stella asked.

Like water prepares the ground for

cultivation, with a well-thought question I

would prepare Stella’s mind for my

confession. “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 that 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

coward. 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 once 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 a pain purposely inflicted by my 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 on 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.

Our game with Emerald Comprehensive High

no doubt remained fresh in her memory. Too

busy pursuing a chance to score, I’d lost

sight of my priority: my relationship with

Cynthia. At the last moment, though, I’d

thought about how she would react to my

goal. She would hate me even more for

being the hero. I didn’t want that. And so I’d

wasted Western High’s final chance at

victory.

“It would be just you and the keeper and

you would let the chance slip,” Stella said.

“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,” I said.

“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 is 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 family. I still do.”

Stella regarded me with a sorry look as she

watched me dab my teary eyes with my

fingers. “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.”

She could never understand me. Telling her

had been a terrible move.

“If you plan to spend the rest of your life

under this pretense,” she said. “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 hand, silencing me. “I’m sure you

knew I would interfere, but you told me

anyway. You know why? It’s because you

want me to interfere, but you don’t realize it

yet, or you’re too scared to admit it.”

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 the real me out of

hiding. And I certainly would not enjoy this

one bit.

.

To be continued

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