The way the other side lives

The way the other side lives

© June 2016 Folakemi Emem-Akpan

You have had a second hand experience of the way the other side lives. You have seen and then practiced the loose-limbed yet regal walk of the confident, and you’ve drank tea with your pinky finger sticking out like the rich do.

But you do not belong, at least not as completely as you’d want. A part of you whispers that you wouldn’t belong even in a thousand years, but a stronger part wants to fight for a shot at living the good life.

You are the last of four girls, a mistake as Tomi calls you. You came at a time when your parents’ union was falling apart, and you were literarily the last straw that broke the camel’s back. Already hopelessly weighted down by the burden of sustaining a wife and three daughters on the shoestring budget of an office messenger, your father was long gone before you were even born.

To cater for four kids, your mother took all the jobs she could get, and because she had sacrificed a basic education to run away at sixteen and into marriage, there was not much she could do but clean houses. Your earliest memories of your mother are the smell of sour sweat and disinfectant and an occasional uniform. In your memories, she is usually on her knees scrubbing or bent over washing or ironing clothes.

The sister closest to you in age is six years older and the difference between you and the eldest is a whopping twelve years, so they were never really like sisters to you, but like distant older cousins. And this was compounded by the fact that your mother dragged you to every house cleaning job she had, and you never really got to interact with your siblings. Besides, you were the mistake that sent daddy packing.

Tomi even insinuated that perhaps you were not really daddy’s daughter; perhaps that was the real reason daddy went away. All your life, guilt bunched in your chest at the sight of your mother’s scrunched face, at the sound of the sighs that fizzled out of her quite so often. The one time you ever saw her cry, you averted your face quickly and burrowed your face, your entire being, into the crook of your arm, shaken that adults, that your adult mother, this strong woman that the sun rose and set in her eyes, could cry.

For a very brief moment in your life, God had mercy on you. Your mother was employed by a wealthy woman to come clean house four days a week, and as usual, you went along. There you met Cynthia, Cynthia of the large white eyes and pink lips and eyes that filled easily with tears. Cynthia who only had to sit on the floor in preparation for a tantrum before what she asked for was hastily and apologetically thrust into her arms.

Cynthia was seven the September you met her, just two days younger than you were. And because Cynthia got what Cynthia wanted, you became Cynthia’s friend. Yes, she was the first child, the heiress to the mansion, and you were the child of the hired help, but fate had somehow brought you together.

While your mother bent and scrubbed, you had tea parties with Cynthia and her mum, a thin hawk-like woman who ate even less than you two did, and who was always looking at your mother with suspicious eyes as if your mother would make away with the silver.

One day, Cynthia divided her wardrobe into two equal halves and handed you half, and because none of the adults in her life had the backbone to tell her no, you had more ball gowns than your tattered suitcase could hold, gowns that cost more apiece than what your mother spent on groceries in two months. In your church and in your neighbourhood, you in an instant became the best dressed little girl. You wore frilly pink ballerina gowns with matching bows in your hair, white lacy socks and black Cortina shoes. You wore blue denim jeans that looked like they just came out of the factory and cartoon character T-shirts.

You knew who Barbie was, who Cinderella was, who Snow White was. You knew about the evil stepmother, the wicked witch, and Ken. You knew things that children from your neighbourhood didn’t.

You ate food that they didn’t; pizzas and hamburgers and French fries and ketchup. You ate ofe nsala so choked with meat you needed separate plates for soup and meat. One day, you and Cynthia demolished a whole roasted chicken; you both would bite into succulent parts and then throw away the remaining until the floor was littered with half eaten, perfectly good pieces of meat.

Your mother looked longingly at the meat-littered floor, but bent to sweep them all into the trash can as she was instructed to.

You became the product of two worlds, torn between those two worlds. You loved your family, you loved the slight familiar coarseness of your mother’s palms as they grazed your face, you loved the way your sisters teased you and bought you little gifts with their own money. But you loved the comfort of Cynthia’s home more. You loved the air conditioned rooms, the huge TV screens, the ability to change between cable TV channels with only a remote control.

Then as all good things usually did, the wonderful halcyon days came to a staggering end. Cynthia and her mother were moving to the USA to go live with her daddy, and their house was going to be permanently boarded up. They were gone within three weeks, and life became radically different.

At eight, you were too old to be dragged along to mama’s other cleaning jobs, too young to be induced into your elder sisters’ lives, so you got left behind in the two rooms you all shared a lot. You remember waking up early in the morning to fight for bathroom space with the four other families you shared the face me I face you with. You remember queuing to purchase breakfast and then lunch for school because Mama only had time to cook in the evenings. You remember school and the tattered uniforms and gray faces and torn books and the horrible smells of bodies not properly groomed.

And in the afternoons, you were always alone. Your eldest sister found a husband quickly enough, and the next one fought her way into a university admission soon after. And at fourteen, with all the sophistication of a secondary school student, Tomi would rather be caught dead than in your company.

You retreated into books, found solace in the world of make-belief, where dreams were achievable if only you believed enough and worked hard enough. And you strove hard not to forget the rich mannerisms you’d learnt from Cynthia’s home. When no one watched, you practiced drinking tea the sophisticated way. In the privacy of your rooms, you practiced the Queen’s English that you’d spoken to Cynthia, so that you wouldn’t forget. In once upon a time books, you met Cinderella again, and Hansel and Gretel, and little red riding hood, and Robin Hood.

You taught yourself never to forget.

And you read till your eyes bled, then you read some more; because somehow you knew that your way out of this nonentity of a life was through good grades and your intellect. By the time you got out of secondary school, you were so well read you could teach your teachers. You’d read dictionaries, encyclopedias, medical journals, numerous bible translations, and could write passable French and Spanish; skills that meant nothing in the Nigerian economy.

You were brilliant, you were on fire; you remembered what the good life felt like. But you had no way to get there. In fact, you had no way to get a higher education.

You spent the next three years doing odd jobs. You taught at a primary school, worked as a receptionist, sold recharge cards, served as a nanny to your eldest sister’s many children.

Finally and even though you’d vowed against it, you did what a lot of frustrated young girls do. You found yourself a sugar daddy. He was thirty-two years older than you and had a wife and grown children. But he also had money, and even though he was more miserly than he had reason to be, you got enough.

You were his play thing, his well-kept secret, the one who did for him things his wife never did. You got to go to London with him once, then to France where you practiced the halting French you’d taught yourself all those years ago.

But the best prize you got out of it all was that you finally got to go to school. You enrolled for a part time course, so you could be available for him when he called. But you took your studies seriously enough; you were there for every lecture, fretted over every homework, bit your nails after each exam.

He dumped you soon enough for someone even younger and thinner. But you’d learnt, you’d had another taste of how the other side lives.

So you went out and got yourself another sugar daddy. And this time, you were wise enough to start a small laundry business on the side. You have three employees, your mother included. And you are estatic at the smiles she now smiles often, delighted that she no longer lives in a hovel of a home.

You are in your final year of school. You are twenty-eight years old. You know how both sides live and you’d die before you knowingly cross over into poverty again.

 

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Crux

Crux

 

My eyes involuntarily travel to the painting. This is what I do every morning as I clean our humble living room: gaze at the painting of Jesus dying on the cross. The painting is from another time in our lives. An era so far away I sometimes wonder if I’ve made things up, allowed the all-too-real reality warp the edges of my mind.

 

But the painting is there; a constant reminder.

 

At a silly, immature point in our lives, we’d gotten snared by religion. Gotten ourselves sucked into church. Into God.

 

But where had He gotten us? Where was He as we journeyed through multiple fibroids, multiple operations, multiple hopes, a single conception, a single delivery…and a single death? They’d placed her three-day-old body in my hands and murmured all the right words of consolation.

 

We picked ourselves up, tried so much to believe again. Then Umoh’s leukemia. A fractured hip, chemotherapy, wheel chair…, the stench of death, the fear of widowhood.

 

Where is He now?

 

I look at the painting again. Perhaps it would be the next thing to go. The artist’s made himself quite a name and his paintings now go for ridiculously high prices. And we do need the money.

 

Sitting with a little unease, I begin to recount all the ventures our fortune had been drained into. Fertility treatments, chemotherapy, physiotherapy. Where is God?

 

“Hi there.”

 

I whirl around at the sound of Umoh’s approach. He has learned to walk again, shuffles like an unsteady toddler, holds on to walls for support when he thinks I’m not watching. If it were only the baby God had taken, it would have been okay. Did He have to take my husband’s vitality, his pride…?

 

“Up already?” I force a smile, “I didn’t want to wake you yesterday when I came back from work. I checked the kitchen and saw you’d eaten, so I just crawled into bed beside you.”

 

“I heard you.” He shuffles some more and sits beside me. It’s early in the morning, but he’s sweating. From exertion…from worry?

 

“You didn’t stir.”

 

“I heard you…” he twists his fingers with his other hand. There’s tension in his body, I can feel it…and it’s not from his little walk.

 

“Are you okay?”

 

“Ben came around while you were out.”

 

“Yesterday?”

 

“Yes.”

 

We’ve tried without success to put Ben where he belongs; in the past when we had religion, but he’s one stubborn man. He pops in at the oddest times, peddling Jesus, trying to save our souls.

 

Umoh sighs and lifts his head. I follow his gaze. He’s staring at the painting…at Jesus…at the cross. “He said something to me…for us…”

 

“What?” My palms are sweating and I think of getting them around Ben’s neck. How dare he come to upset Umoh?

 

“He asked me what the essence of the crucifixion was. I didn’t know and told him so…”

 

“He had no right to bother you.” I push hair away from my face, panic away from my heart.

 

“He said that’s why we’ve believed God has abandoned us.” He wrings his fingers some more.

 

“What?”

 

His next words come out choked, as if he’s trying to fight off tears, “Surrender. He said the essence of the cross is surrender. Letting God be God during the good times. During the bad times.”

 

My tongue gets stuck in my throat. The room seems to be closing in on me. The painting on the wall suddenly seems larger. Brighter. I try to speak, but no words would form.

 

Umoh is a strong man, not given to emotions, but he is weeping with abandon.

“Maybe…maybe if we learned to surrender…”

 

My heart feels like it’s been shredded into crimson pieces. But I’d surrendered when he took my baby? I’d surrendered, hadn’t I?

 

“I promised him we’d be in church tomorrow.”

 

I still can’t speak, but turn away from the glare of the painting, turn to Umoh.

 

“It’s okay if you don’t want to go…” he bites his lips, “but I want to go.”

 

After a while, I find my lost voice. “But you can’t drive?”

 

“Ben will come for me.” There’s a finality to his tone.

 

I turn back to the painting. Jesus’ life is ebbing away. He’s giving His life for the world…in total surrender.

 

The tears arrive, one drop at a time until my face is a glistening river. Umoh is standing to his feet, shuffling…shuffling towards Jesus…towards the painting…towards the cross.

 

 

 

Every shade – Short story

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

By the time I pushed our daughter into the world, she’d been fourteen years long overdue. And we’d not expected, hoped to hold an infant again, to watch a baby sleep, to be the ones to ease the cries of a newborn. And I for one had not expected to suckle a child again, ever.

We were married on the last day of June, and by the end of July, I was pregnant. It was unplanned, it was unexpected, but it was very much welcome. When our son arrived in April 1995, he was perfect in every way. He had black curly hair and his nose was round and pudgy, his cheeks extremely chubby. And he looked exactly like Doyin did, had the same hue of well done chocolate.

He was our joy and pride, and quickly stole our hearts.

When he was two, we decided to add to our family and couldn’t at first understand why I wouldn’t get pregnant immediately. For heaven’s sake, we’d already had one baby even without trying, so we were eminently qualified for a second one, weren’t we?

But a baby would not come. And the several visits to specialists and gyneacologists yielded the same news; I had a 20 per cent chance of getting pregnant because my fallopian tubes were misshapen. And Doyin had an extremely low sperm count. As individuals, it was hard enough for us to become parents. Combined together, it would take a miracle.

Crushed but exultant that we already had a child together, we figured we’d had enough miracles as a family. We returned to the comfort of our homes to pursue happiness.

Occasionally, I longed for another baby, perhaps a girl this time even though a boy would have done just fine. When the yearning got larger than life, we would try IVF or hormonal therapy, or whatever the fad at that time was.

By the tenth year of our marriage, we had given up on the hope of another miracle. We sent our son to school every morning with love, received him back every evening with the same love, and ate and played and worked together in a near-delirium state of happiness.

I was a computer nerd, had developed software that was being used in our country’s burgeoning military, and we had the comforts of life to show for it. An engineer, Doyin himself was not doing badly. And Mayowa was as bright as a new coin, his future stretched out ahead of him.

We celebrated our fourteenth year anniversary in June 2008 by taking a trip to Mexico, a country we’d never been to before. We left Mayowa with his grandmother and made our way to the white beaches of Mexico. Only that I was too dizzy to get out of bed every day, too nauseous that even the smell of taco made me violently sick. Doyin was a nervous wreck, vacillating between taking care of me and falling into a worry stupor.

The third day, he dragged me to a clinic, and we were flabbergasted when we were told I was pregnant, two months gone.

I was forty-two, in a strange country, and I was two months pregnant.

We came home on the next available flight, ecstatic, riding on the moon. Mayowa, thirteen years old, his eyes preternaturally large behind his prescription glasses, swallowed hard at the news, didn’t know the emotion to give in to. He finally came to me and hugged me around the waist. When we came apart, his face was wet with tears, and he was ashamed of his juvenile tears.

Our friends, our church family, our families, our neighbours; everyone was happy for us, and all were in agreement that it had to be God at His best. It was nothing but a miracle.

By the third month, my morning sickness was gone, and I filled out in places that I had been hitherto skinny. My face took on a glow, and Doyin would look at me each time with renewed adoration.

By the early Monday morning that Doyin drove me to the hospital to deliver our baby girl, I had turned forty three and was petrified of what age and gravity had done to my body. I was despairing that I would be unable to push this child that I already loved so much into the world all by myself.

“God will perfect this miracle.” Doyin kept saying.

We arrived the hospital four am in the morning. As we stepped on the threshold, my water broke and the contractions became hard and fast hitting. By six am, the wails of a newborn rend the still antiseptic air. But for a minute, that was all that was in the room; the wail of the newborn. There was hushed silence as they cleaned the baby, a hushed silence as they put her in my arms.

Her skin was the colour of the insides of a raw yam; white tinged with a pale pink. Her hair was a bleached white and her irises were golden flecks.

God had obviously not perfected this miracle, because He had given me an albino for a child. Something that felt like stone descended into my throat and went all the way down to my heart. I swallowed back tears and anguish and a pain that was so deep it was almost physical.

When Doyin was let into the room, he looked from me to the child, then from the child back to me. I saw him swallow, saw him nod, and saw him break into a smile as he crossed to the bedside.

“She is beautiful.” His voice, when he spoke, was tremulous and for once did not have that familiar bass ring to it.

My face now streaked with tears, incredulous at what my husband was saying, I raised my face to his and was surprised to see love there.

“But she is not black?” I heard myself say. “She is nothing but an albino.”

My Doyin, always quick to speak, was for a moment silent, his eyes slit like he was lost in thoughts. When he finally spoke, it was with a quiet authority. “Who says black cannot come in another shade? What does nothing but an albino mean? And who says she cannot be beautiful because she didn’t come out the shade that we expected her to?”

How dare he preach at me? How dare he? We were Christians, weren’t we? And we believed in a miraculous God. We had not asked for this child and He had chosen to give her to us? Why couldn’t He have made her perfect? Why wasn’t her skin the colour of caramel, as Mayowa’s and Doyin’s were, or the colour of a ripe mango, like mine was? Why had God given me an albino daughter?

But my mouth wouldn’t, couldn’t articulate all of my words. I didn’t want to say something I would regret later, but my heart billowed over with disappointment. And the silent tears washed my face as I stared at Doyin.

The little baby let out a little mewl as Doyin made to collect her from me. Wordlessly, I handed her over, watching as Doyin’s eyes lit up. With the baby in his arms, he bent at the waist and dropped a kiss on my forehead.

“It’s hard, sweetheart, I expect, to have pushed an albino baby into the world. But I …we’ve loved this baby for so long…and so hard, that this…that this…should not matter terribly much.” In my husband’s eyes were tears and a brokenness that made him look like a little boy.

“I suppose.” I said, because I had to say something, and because the weight of the world was pressing down on my shoulders at that time.

“We’ll love her just like we love Mayowa, won’t we?” And there was a pleading quality in his voice that broke my heart yet again.

In the evening, Mayowa came to meet his little sister. By then, she was already bathed, diapered and fed, and was sleeping quietly in a side cot. My boy, in his glasses, did not seem to notice the colour of her skin as his face suffused with joy and jubilation.

“Oh Mom,” He cried, forgetting for a moment that he was supposed to be cultivating an attitude of teenage nonchalance. “She is so cute, and so tiny, and so…so…beautiful.” His voice was filled with awe and wonder.

Was I the only sane person in this family, I wondered. “What about her skin colour?” I asked in a snappy tone.

“Oh…that…” he sighed, “She does look a little different than everybody else, but she is all right. She is not sick, is she?” He asked me, suddenly afraid.

And it was in that moment that I saw the light. My daughter was an albino, but she had ten fingers and ten toes. She wasn’t the beautiful black colour I had envisaged but she was a beautiful pink and healthy. And she was indeed God’s miracle, a perfect little specimen of His grace.

My thirteen year old boy, looking like a wisened old man came to me in my bed then. “Mom, do you remember that song we learnt when I was younger. That one that says Jesus loves the little children, whether yellow, black or white?”

I smiled. For as long as we could remember, Mayowa’d had a unique habit of jumping from the beginning of songs to the end, leaving the middle hanging. He’d done the same now. But I got the message, the spirit of what he was saying.

“I do.”

“The songwriter should have added albino to it.” He smiled and sighed at the same time, an affectation that was purely Mayowa. “God loves her just as she is, and I love her too.”

And in that moment, my heart filled with love, and with gratitude. God loved me. God loved my little girl. And that was all that mattered. I knew that in the future, some strangers would look at my daughter’s different skin without understanding. But we, her family would always know that every child is beautiful, that every shade of black is beautiful, and we would ensure that our daughter, our sister was loved.

When I breastfed my child that night, and I stroked the velvety texture of her bleached white hair, my heart continued to fill with love, and with gratitude, and with overwhelming joy.

And when we went home two days later, to a nursery filled with pink girly baby things and a home filled with warmth and love. Doyin had already told those who’d not made it to the hospital to see the baby that she was an albino, so that there would be no awkwardness when they finally met her.

And there was nothing but love and acceptance and gratitude.

Today, our Nifemi is five years old. For me, she is the epitome of grace and beauty, a perfect little lady whose heart is as large as Mother Teresa’s. She is compassionate and sympathetic; a crier who would weep at any injustice meted out to any of her many friends. She’d sit in Doyin’s lap and stroke his graying hair, and declare in a triumphant voice, “now your hair is growing white like mine.”

Last year, we had a scare of melanoma, that skin cancer that is common in albinos, but the result came back negative. The sore that was on her shoulder, that had scared us so much, was nothing but a stubborn and nasty mosquito bite.

Yes, her skin would need special care for the rest of her life, and next year she would get glasses to correct her near sightedness. But my daughter is beautiful. Her own shade of black is beautiful, because a perfect God made her.

 

God’s girls – Short story

God’s Girls

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

 

Seven girls. Stair-step look-alike sisters, with the same enormous eyes, pink lips, and black hair. My daughters.

 

“Mommee, can we eat now?” Yemi asks, already reaching for the simple fare on the table.

 

“We always pray before we eat.” Funmi, the youngest of the triplets by two minutes replies, looking to me for affirmation.

 

“That’s right, girls. Now, who’ll like to bless the food?”

 

“Me, mommee.”

 

“Me.”

 

“No, it’s me…Mommee, remember you promised me. See, I’ve even learnt how to pray.”

 

I smile at Funke and nod my head. “Go ahead.”

 

She smiles back, “thank you Jesus for our food. Bless the hands that cooked it…and bless all of us too…”

 

Soon, they are lost in their food. My eyes travel over all of them, from Lucy, the eldest at ten to Funmi, the youngest at three. I try to look over them as dispassionately as a stranger would. Threadbare, passed-down clothes. Thin, but well-scrubbed faces.

 

Sighing, I return to my food. It’s little and can’t fill my rumbling stomach, but it’s all that’s left after dishing the girls’ food.

 

My thoughts turn to the girls’ father and his crooked grin. He’d smiled once and I’d fallen, heels over heads in love.

 

I’ve always wanted three kids. One girl and two boys. He’d told me on our wedding night.

We’ll try just once more. Maybe we’ll be lucky this time.  He’d said after the fourth girl was born.

 

Then the triplets. James came once to the hospital and that was the last I saw of him.

 

It’s as if he never even existed. He’d taken every scrap of his and moved out to God knows where. The older girls are beginning to forget him, and there’s not even a single picture of him to remind them. But I still remember him, his larger than life approach, his smiles…and the beatings…

 

Lucy’s voice startles me to the present.

 

“Take…” she says as she pushes her plates towards Funke. “I’m filled up.”

 

Before I can say a word, Funke quickly dumps the contents of her sister’s plate on hers.

 

“Lucy?”

 

“Honest, mum. I’m filled.” She starts to protest.

 

“But you had no lunch in school?”

 

“I’m okay…really.”

 

While cooking, I’d caught Lucy dropping something into my bag. It was the fifty Naira note I’d given her for her midday snacks. I wasn’t hungry, she’d said.

 

But I know she is hungry. I push my plate towards her. “Eat my food. I don’t feel like.”

 

“But mum…”

 

“No buts. Eat.”

 

Watching her devour the food, I know she’s starved. Only that she puts the needs of others ahead of hers.

 

I make my way to the kitchen, calculating how much we would need to get through tomorrow. My job as a seamstress pays very little, but I need to stay at home to take care of the children. But we’ll make do. My mother sent us four tubers of yam last week, and I still have some cans of soup, so food’s taken care of. There’s three hundred Naira in my purse…now three-fifty counting Lucy’s addition.

 

It seems I spend every minute sighing, because I do so now. The girls’ voice come to me faintly.

 

“We are all going to help mummy, Okay?” Funke says. “Tomorrow morning, it’s my turn and Yinka’s to say we aren’t hungry. Lucy, y’re supposed to help her in the kitchen…”

 

The tears I’ve been trying to stem all day now threaten to spill out of my eyes. Such precious kids. And who had taught them sacrificial living?

 

“James, you don’t know what you’re missing. They might be mere girls, as you used to say, but they are God’s girls.” I say softly to the almost bare kitchen. For the first time in three years, I am not angry at James. Instead, I pity him.

 

He is missing the warm embrace of our daughters. He is missing watching them grow in God’s fear. He is missing life at its finest.

 

“We might lack a lot of things, but we’re not poor.” I tell God, resting my back on the kitchen wall. “You’ve given me these wonderful girls and I’m going to spend my life loving them, mothering them, and pouring the abundance of your love into them.”

 

Tomorrow will come with its problems; unpaid school fees, unwholesome meals, and patched clothing, but we will make it. Resting on God’s arms just like we have always done.

 

In the meantime, I will be grateful for being mother to God’s girls.

 

All over again – Short story

black family 2

All over again

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

Hope. Her name is both a reflection and a supplication. Hope because we waited eleven years to have her. And Hope because we anticipated that her arrival would bring more babies.

We were mistaken.

The adoption process was smooth. The surgery to remove my numerous fibroids was not. I eased in and out of pain for so many days that I lost count. By the time I became aware of myself, my baby had been home three weeks, cared for by Jeremiah’s mum. Weak as I was, I took over immediately.

It has been five years. Last year, my gynecologist told me there wouldn’t be any natural babies, except adopted like Hope. But I’m used to it now, I guess…most of the time anyway. I have been barren for sixteen years, but now Hope has deadened the pain. She’s my daughter, and I want no other. When she hugs me, which is often, I get a glimpse of heaven.

“Mamee…” she breezes in from the bathroom, her hair tangled and smeared with shampoo.

“Hey, baby.” I reply even as I try to turn away. She’s going to rub soap all over me, and I’m already dressed for work. Pudgy hands grab mine and I smile despite myself.

“The toilet won’t flush, and the floor’s filled with water.” She begins to pat the soap onto her hair. Proper grooming, I think.  “Where’s dadee?” she has a unique way of jumping from conversation to conversation, as if all the time in the world wouldn’t be enough to talk.

“Gone to work. Now we’re going to bathe properly.” I have to rush her back into the bathroom and clean her up properly.

“But I’ve…”

“Shh.”

At last we’re done but I’m irreparably late. “Come sweet, let’s get going.”

“I love you, mamee.” She says it every morning. And it still sounds fresh and original.

“I love you too, Hope. More than anything else in the world.”

“You’re hugging too hard.” She laughs and pats my back with her chubby little fingers.

 

****

 

Jeremiah sits across the table from me, his fists curled into balls. His eyes are two red slits in his face, and he is not yet done with weeping.

Me? I haven’t been able to cry. I sit rigidly. My heart feels like melting ice and the cold is freezing my toes and tongue.

Didn’t you send someone for her? He had a note signed by you, authorizing him to take her home. Her class teacher had said.

I didn’t send anybody. I never did. Afternoons were our special time together, and I couldn’t have sent someone. I couldn’t.

You have to wait twenty-four hours before you can report. That’s when we regard someone as officially missing. They’d said at the police station.

Didn’t they understand that my only child was missing? A child I’d waited eleven years for?

We can only wait and hope, honey. We can’t lose hope now. Hope will come back home. Mum’s words didn’t make sense to me. Could she wait and hope if I ever got missing? Would she have the patience?

My head is aching now, and my eyes are burning. The tears are struggling for release but I won’t cry. If I start, I’m never going to stop. I rise shakily to my feet. Jeremiah looks up at me but refuses to talk. He hasn’t said a word since he heard his daughter was kidnapped.

“God, please. I love that girl more than life itself. You can’t take her away from me. Hope? Lord, that girl is my only hope.” I walk to the gallery of her pictures, stop at the one she’d taken at her fifth birthday party. Her face is scrunched up in concentration for the camera, but I am aware that there is a half eaten chocolate bar partially hidden underneath her dress.

Do as your mother says, I hear so clearly I almost trip, wait and hope in me. In me.

“But…”

No buts.

 

****

 

We didn’t sleep at all. Jeremiah is still not talking to anyone but he has stopped crying. Mum’s been in the kitchen all morning but the smell of food nauseates me. My heart still feels like the North Pole. We’ve made our report official at the police station. We’ve contacted all our friends.

We can only wait.

And hope.

The phone rings. My husband and I both lunge for it.

“Let me answer it.” I request and he obliges.

“Hello…”

“Hello, madam. I’m calling from Onilekere police station. It’s about Hope.”