© October 2020 Folakemi Emem-Akpan

She spoons the mashed potatoes into the baby’s mouth, watches in fascination as the little one grabs for the spoon, upends it, breaks out in a chortle.

For a brief moment, Joy forgets herself, forgets the direness of her circumstances. There is nothing like a baby’s pure delight to make you forget yourself, she thinks, as she wipes a gooey mess off her son’s chin.

Finally, they finish with the feeding, hustle off into the tiny bathroom for a much-needed bath.

Joy’s eyes dart to the clock. It seems the minute hand has barely moved from the last time she checked. Nobody told her that it’s so time consuming and tiring to care for a child. Andrew finally succumbs to sleep, and Joy curls up with the food and nutrition homework she’s been shoving aside for days. It’s hard, almost impossible to concentrate but she knows her teacher will not tolerate any more tardiness.

Joy almost cannot remember what it was like before Andrew. Yes, she’d been a part of the in-crowd, had managed to keep her difficult home life from interfering with her social life, had been voted the most popular girl two years in a row.  Yes, she had dated but had been careful not to go beyond the occasional kiss.

Until that stupid day.

The boy was a year younger, had come to his cousin’s for a brief visit. They drank too much cheap wine, flirted too hard, and the rest was history. When Joy realized what she’d done, she’d wanted to die. She scrubbed so hard she finally felt a little clean. And when she walked on the street afterward, she imagined hundreds of eyes following her, castigating her for what she’d done.

A month later, the full horror dawned on her. She was seventeen and pregnant. Joy’s mother embraced sobriety long enough to deliver a skin-tearing beating, then promptly forgot about her daughter’s problem. The guidance and counseling teacher in school gave her a short talk and left her with pamphlets on how one went about getting an abortion or putting up the kid for adoption.

She hid at home for two weeks, called in sick to school, and tried without success to contact the father she’d not seen in four years.

When she finally returned to school, she had a talk with the principal, and got her mother sober enough to follow her to school to persuade the principal to give her a year off from school.

She gave birth to Andrew at home, no one in attendance, and her life slowly shrunk to the four walls of the little house. She’s spent the last six months wishing she could go back, undo her sins but she knows that there is no going back, only forward.

Sighing, she lets the book slip from her hand, pushes her knees up so that they are touching her chin, and gives in to the frustration of loneliness, of heartache, of unplanned responsibilities.

The tears seem to wash her clean, ease her strangled breath, bring calm to her heart. She reaches for the tract the young girl whose name she cannot remember left with her, walks to the living room and dials the number at the back.

“Hello. This is Christ Living Church. How may I help you?”

Calmly, Joy recites her predicament, asks if the church can arrange a home for her son. She listens to the person at the other end for a while, nods to herself and answers yes to the person’s question.

When Andrew awakes, she straps him on and sets off for the church.

Outside, the sun is shining.

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