Somewhere after Okigwe, I gave in and fell asleep. Apart from the potholes that made the trip a rough one, the journey was smooth. By the time the driver pulled over so he and the rest of us could relieve ourselves, Ekaete and I had made friends with the man in the middle; his name was Mr. Peter Abang. The youth corper kept everyone in stitches, telling joke after joke and making fun of everyone, including himself. We weren’t delayed or searched at any of the checkpoints; the men in front were police officers.
I stirred awake as the bus pulled into the company’s park at Gariki. Barrow boys competed with taxi drivers in soliciting the passengers, loudly calling out their destinations through the open windows.
“Aunty icho barrow? Do you want a barrow?”
“Sir, ke ebe i n’aga? I na-aga New Haven? Are you going to New Haven?”
“Fine auntie, come make we dey go. I go carry you free.”
They jostled each other as one of the boys opened the door. One by one, he brought down the boxes that were crammed along the aisle, opening up the way for those at the back to disembark. I kept a vigilant eye on the back of the bus until it was my turn to get down. I shrugged off the grabbing hand of a pesky cabbie, went round to the back of the car and after four people had collected their luggage, I hauled out my bag. It was heavier than I thought. Debating whether to share a cab or get one for myself, I wiped the sweat from my brow and coughed. The air was heavy with dust and the heat, unnerving. Beads of moisture popped out on my face, pits, and ran down my face.
“Do you need a ride?”
Dark, handsome, six feet tall, dimples, a charming smile, bright hazel eyes. Yes, there he stood in all his good-looking glory.
My manners flew off in the evening breeze; I simply couldn’t stop myself. Flinging my arms around his neck, I laughed out loud when he wrapped his arms around, raised and twirled me around. The stern voice of my mother in my head, ordering me to get down at once, intermingled with the catcalls from some of the men standing around. I hid my face in the crook of his neck; not wanting to let go, not wishing to be seen.
“Amarachi said you missed me, but I didn’t believe her. Until now.”
“But I told you that, the last time you called,” I said, slipping until my feet were on the ground.
“You did. But you always say it with a giggle and I don’t know whether you’re serious or playing with me.”
I shrugged, letting him stew in his uncertainty. Playing hard to get? Definitely.
“Where’s your luggage?” he asked, giving me a look of amused annoyance. I pointed at the huge jute bag. I watched as he confidently went to it, got hold of the handles and heaved. Then tried to heft it the second time. It was hard, containing all that laughter.
“Did you put your extended family in here?” he asked, confused.
I shook my head and grinned.
“Are you sure?”
“Oga make I help you,” one of the boys pushing wheelbarrows, offered. Together, they hoisted the bag, staggering until they got to the boot. With his remote, he opened the doors and I got inside, not waiting for his ritual of holding it open for me. He shut the boot and tipped the boy.
“Welcome home,” he said, strapping on his seat-belt.
“Welcome back,” I corrected. “I just came from home.”
“Nope. Home is where the heart is,” he countered, starting the car. “Here, is home.”
What does a girl say when a man talks like that? Nothing. I blushed and stared out the window, at nothing.
The drive to the house was done in near silence, with only the song from the music player to relieve it.
“How was everyone at home?”
“Fine,” I answered. “Yours?”
“As usual. Dad’s considering full retirement; he wants to hand over the reins of the business. I’m not so sure I’m ready to do all that now. I don’t feel like I’ve paid my dues in the business world. Besides, I’m more comfortable in academia. I was hoping to take up a teaching position at one of the universities.”
“Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it,” I said, swinging round to face him. “Give it a year at the most and if you don’t like it, you can hand it over to Sochima. Your sister is always going on and on about him being the Strive Masiyiwe of Nigeria.”
“She’s right,” he smiled. “He’s definitely going to be featured in Forbes magazine someday.”
“See? You and your dad would be happy you at least gave it a shot and your brother will be glad you stepped aside and let him do what he loves. That’s if you decide you don’t like it.”
“Won’t that count as failure?”
“Not if it’s a test run.”
He nodded his head and swerved slightly to avoid a speeding keke. I sighed in contentment as I watched the buildings and trees rapidly go by. I may not have said it out, but this is home. A second one, but home nonetheless. I’d missed the smell of the woman frying early morning akara in the compound behind ours. Though it irritated the nostrils of everyone within a one-mile radius, I’d also missed that sneeze-inducing roasted pepper of the abacha woman who lived in the same compound. My mouth watered at the thought of sinking my teeth in Mama Promise’s okpa.
I sat forward as he turned into my street. Little had changed since I was away. I noticed one of the newly built blocks of one-room shops across the road was open; someone had started a business there. What kind, I would find out later.
“It’s good to be back.”
Carefully, he maneuvered the car over the big speed bump at the turnoff into the narrow road that leads to my compound. He still scrapped the underbelly of the car, albeit slightly. I settled back in the seat as he made his way just past the compound and parked. I peeked at him and grinned.
“Thanks for the ride. I really appreciate it.”
“It was nothing,” he replied, getting out of the car.
Some children playing a little way off broke up their game, and two came hurtling towards me. I only had a second to stand at ease, before Ebere Nwadike barreled into me. She was closely followed by Ozioma Igiri. I wrapped my arms around them both and hugged them tight. The boys, among whom were Ugochukwu and the Junior, hung back; such an overt display of affection was seemingly beneath them. They did greet quite enthusiastically, though.
“Auntie what did you bought for me?” Ebere asked, showing off her white teeth.
“Did you grow taller?” I asked, fixing a confused expression on my face. “You became a big girl while I was away.”
She giggled sweetly and tugged my blouse. “Auntie, I growed up. But did you bought anything for me?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Auntie, what about me?” said Ozioma.
“I brought something for everyone. Let me get my bags inside first, and I’ll give them you.”
All five of the boys and Chiemena were trying to carry the bag. They cut a funny picture.
“Girls, let’s go inside and let the boys bring in the bag,” I said, walking away with my entourage of two.
Ebere skipped along, filling me in on some of what had happened while I was away. Mummy Ozioma is going to have a baby soon, did you know? Just like Auntie Rita in my school had a baby. Auntie Idara, can you have a baby? Did you know that Biaeba, my uncle’s dog used to have babies? Did you know that I’m moving from norry to tranchichon one? She meant nursery to transition class.
With half an ear to her chatter, I rummaged through my handbag for my keys. I opened the door and stepped into the dim room. The air was warm and stale; long strands of cobwebs brushed across my face as I placed my bag on the table. Ozioma climbed on the mattress in a bid to open the window; her hand barely reached the latch.
“Let me get that for you,” I said, reaching above her hand. I pushed back the latch, slid the glass pane open, and watched as dust motes swirled in the air. “Thank you, dearie.”
“You’re welcome,” she said, slapping her palms together to remove the dust.
“Where should I keep this?” Chiemena asked, breathless. They’d managed to heft the bag over the steps; it now stood lopsided just inside the door.
“Behind that curtain will do. That’s my kitchenette; I’ll unpack later.”
He did so. When he came back out, he dipped his hand inside the right back pocket of his trousers and brought out his wallet. “You guys should use this to buy yourselves some snacks.” He gave a five hundred naira note to Ugochukwu.
“Show it to your mothers first,” I called out.
They all ran off in glee, already having a shouting match about how the money should be divided.
“Don’t you think that was a bit too much?” I asked.
“Split between seven children? Nope.” He went to the door and with a deliberate movement, shut it.
“What are you doing?” was my startled query.
“I want to welcome you properly.”
“So what was that we did at the pa – oompf.”
One second I was talking, the next, my face was mashed up against his broad chest. Instantly, I noticed several things. Like how short I am, when standing toe to toe with him. How good he smelled, the softness of his black T-shirt. The loud ticking of the clock and the hum of the fridge.
“Welcome home, sweets.”
“Thumnkyun,” was my muffled reply. He let go a little, so I could lift my face. “Thank you.”
“Did you miss me?” He gently but firmly took my chin in his hand and gazed into my eyes.
Many thoughts flitted through my mind. Should I shrug off the question like I’d done many times before? Should I laugh, make a joke of it? Or should I say the truth. It seemed like such a simple question. But it was not. Stop being afraid and just say it, Idara. But I stood there, staring up at those amber eyes and swallowed my courage.
“It’s a yes or no. I’m not asking if you’re going to murder someone for me.”
I smiled. “I did.”
“You did what?”
I narrowed my eyes. He lifted a brow.
“I missed you.”
“That wasn’t so hard now, was it? I missed you too,” he said in a caressing whisper.
His pupils darkened, like pools of liquid gold. My pulse rate doubled; under the hand that was braced against his chest, I could feel his heart race. He lowered his head slowly, never taking his eyes off mine. I was barely breathing. When his lips brushed against my forehead, I closed my eyes and sighed. Then he kissed my nose. Then he pressed his forehead against mine.
“I cherish you, sweets,” he whispered.
My, oh my. There was no need for words; I saw what he felt. His gaze flicked to my lips and back up. Then down again. He lowered his head; my lips tingled.
“Hey! Madam, I see you’ve finally decided to come back!”
Air whooshed out of my lungs. I tried to step back, Chiemena held on. The knob turned and the door was yanked open.
There, grinning wolfishly, like she’d won the lottery, stood Ti-Abasi.
Written by Eketi Ette