“Why do you look so sad?” she murmured.
“Because. . .” He hesitated.
“Because what? Tell me. Don’t be afraid.”
“But I am already afraid.”
“Afraid of what?”
“Afraid that I’m losing you . . . that I’ve lost you. . .”
“Lose me? But, I was never yours to begin with. How can you lose what you never had?”
I woke up to the sound of Chijioke, the SS2 boy who supervised all of Senior Chidiogo’s domestic affairs, quietly berating Leke for not ironing the pair of trousers the prefect intended to wear to his classes today. Leke was whining in protest, something about lights out before he could get to the trousers. I shut out their voices and tried to go back to my dream. But the door to that world was shut. I pulled my wrapper tighter over me and kept my eyes firmly shut, determined to savour what was left of my sleep. The bed was warm and cozy, and I didn’t relish the thought of crawling out into the cold, cold world, especially not in order to prepare for another day in class. It was far more pleasant to linger beneath the layer of my wrapper, thinking about the dream I’d had about me and Anulika, and wondering what it meant.
“Look at this one o! C’mon get up!” Ibuka’s voice sliced through my fading slumber.
I felt the movement of draft as he and Joseph bustled into the dormitory. I opened my eyes to blearily look at them as they hefted down containers of water before their lockers.
“Since wey me and Ibu went to borehole,” Joseph was now talking, loudly too, “you just dey inside bed. Gerrup joor!”
“Ibuka and Joseph, if you two don’t stop shouting this second,” someone growled from his bed, “you’ll spend the next one hour lying down under my bunk.” Senior Boma lifted his head from his pillow to glare at them for good measure.
“Sorry, senior,” they chorused with unapologetic expressions, before moving to my bedside with stifled giggles. We chattered in hushed tones for a short while, before succumbing to Ibuka’s obvious, quick glances at his wristwatch. It would soon be time for breakfast, and Wednesday’s buttered bread and tea was not a meal any junior boy joked with.
The rest of the start of my day went by swiftly. Breakfast was soon over and we were headed to the classrooms. Halfway to our block, a senior whistled for Joseph through the window of SS3A, and almost immediately after, Ibuka remembered he had to see his guardian for a pressing matter. He walked off to the staffroom block, and I found myself approaching the JSS3 classroom block on my own.
You can’t lose what you never had.
Left alone to my thoughts, that lingering line from my dream reared its head in my mind. What did it mean? What did she mean? Why had I even had the dream? I began to feel the fingers of tension grasp at the edges of my mind. But I hurriedly drowned my agitation under the weight of the light-heartedness I was determined to feel. I had great friends. My allowance and provisions were still a sizable amount in the care of my guardian. No SS3 boy had it in for me. And Senior Chidiogo slapped Leke before breakfast when he found out about the junior boy’s transgression with his trousers.
Nothing could possibly go wrong today.
My contentment vanished the moment I stepped inside my classroom. I was early, and there were exactly five people already in the room. Ememesi was shuffling with his books on his desk top, while casting furtive glances at the other four people – Anulika, Amaka and Nkeiru.
And Matthias Itua.
I walked in at the exact same moment Matthias had probably said something amusing, one which made Amaka and Nkeiru smirk, and Anulika laugh. It was a beautiful laugh, a heartfelt, little-girl laugh that was as honest and free as they come. Dislike crystallized inside me as I glared at Matthias. Ever since I terminated my friendship with him, the boy had gone out of his way to relentlessly pursue Anulika. Whether to spite me or because he truly liked her, I couldn’t tell, and didn’t want to know. Soon, my friends, who had stopped fraternizing with him, more out of loyalty to me than any real desire on their part, began to share my outrage at his audacity. Joseph offered to beat him up. And Ibuka went to his class, and engaged him in a spat over the issue.
Seeing them together now, watching Anulika tap him playfully on his arm, I felt jealousy scorch a fiery path through my heart. It was ugly and black, and I wished I’d given Joseph my consent to go ahead and beat the boy up.
You can’t lose what you never had.
Panic set in, edging the jealousy aside. Was that what the dream meant? Had I lost whatever shot I had with Anulika? Was she now Matthias’s girlfriend? My bad temper was suddenly doused by the cold wash of misery.
The dream had been a warning. No, a precursor for my knowing of this. This! That the girl of my dreams was probably going to remain just there. In my dreams.
“Oh hi, good morning, Eze,” Amaka called. The other three turned and Anulika beamed a smile at me.
“Good morning, Eze,” she echoed her friend’s greeting. Matthias stared on woodenly.
“Good morning…” My voice broke on the word and I looked away, walking to my desk and clearing my throat, though nothing could dislodge the lump that was choking me.
“Ah, Eze, this one you’re acting like this,” Nkeiru said. “You dey vex? Where is your second sef?”
She was enquiring about Joseph. I mumbled something in response, since I couldn’t trust myself to speak, and concentrated on lifting my books from my school bag and into my desk. Through my peripheral vision, I caught the pitying look Ememesi threw my way. Joseph and Ibuka weren’t the only ones who knew about my crush on Anulika; Ememesi was the one other boy who knew. He’d caught me in JSS2 doodling her name on the back of my notebook, while staring at her profile. The boy however was a kind person, and didn’t taunt me with his discovery. Instead, it seemed he was waiting for me to make it official. His present empathetic expression seemed to say: ‘You see? You’ve been slacking since, and another boy had made his move.’
My bad mood stayed with me as the morning progressed. I did not pay any attention as Mrs. Baliaba walked our class through the intricate art of French verb conjugation. And I was startled out of my brooding when Mr. Obitube called my name – for the third time – in his Civic Education class to answer his question about the arms of government. Joseph tried to bolster my mood in between classes with his jokes and repeated conviction that Anulika and Matthias were not an item.
“Anulika is a popular girl,” he was saying during break-time, as the three of us strolled toward the student canteen. “Maybe not as popular as Amina Nwaogwugwu, but c’mon, she’s known as the girl who says no to all the boys in our set. If she has said yes to Matthias, it will be CNN news in all of JSS3.”
Ibuka chortled at that. I remained stone-faced.
“Eze, lighten up. Haba!” Ibuka said with mild exasperation. “Besides, it’s just like Joe said. Since JSS2 that boys started asking her out, Anulika has been saying no –”
“Mmhmm! See?” Joseph interjected.
“So, what makes you think she’ll now agree to that…that stockfish called Matthias?”
“Gbam! The boy is not even handsome sef. He and Anulika are just not in the same league at all.”
“And yet, they are friends and laughing and smiling together,” I said quietly.
“Yes, they are friends. And so?” queried Joseph.
“Maybe, she’s just using him,” added Ibuka. “You know, to be helping her with her assignments and classwork.” The boy would know; he’d once been a victim of one such female machination himself.
“If she’s looking for who to use,” I said, stopping and eyeballing the two of them, “how come she’s choosing a boy all the way from JSS3D?”
They were stumped for an answer. Ever the glib one, Joseph opened his mouth, and started forming words. I lifted my brows at him. The response died a premature death, and he shut his mouth.
That’s what I thought.
“Excuse me, please,” a small voice piped up, snagging our attention.
We turned to behold a smallish girl with small, thread-woven plaits, an ill-fitting uniform, and the timid air of a JSS1 student.
“Yes, what is it?” Joseph barked, scowling down at her. He never missed an opportunity to let our juniors know that he would be a ruthless SS3 boy.
The girl recoiled from him, and the grip she had on a flat, white envelope quivered.
“What is it nau?” Joseph snapped again.
“Joe, easy,” Ibuka admonished, before turning a benevolent look to the girl. “Yes? Is there something we can help you with?”
“I’m-I’m looking for which one of y-y-you that is Joseph –”
“Call that name with respect, you foolish girl,” snarled Joseph.
Ibuka heaved a sigh. And I felt my lips twitch with faint amusement.
“S-s-sorry, Jo-Senior Joseph,” the girl stammered. She looked close to tears.
“Ehen, that’s better. Now, I’m Joseph, what can I do for you?”
The girl thrust the envelope out at him. “One girl in Dignity House said I should give this to you.”
“What girl? What’s her name? What did she put inside there?” He fired the questions, while staring suspiciously at the envelope.
“I don’t know, Jo-Senior Joseph. I don’t know her name. I just know that she’s in JSS3 and in Dignity House. That’s all.”
Joseph expelled a breath, and looked quickly around, as though to catch sight of whatever female was lurking somewhere close by, watching us. He saw no one. Then he took the envelope from the junior girl and waved her away. She fled speedily. Joseph turned the envelope to its back, and the three of us peered at the words written there.
‘From Your Secret Admirer . . .’
We looked quickly at each other, eyes widened, probably thinking the same thing – about Valentine’s Day last term, when a ‘secret admirer’ had sent a package to someone in our hostel known simply as ‘J’.
“I always knew you were the ‘J’ boy that that Val gift was meant for,” Ibuka enthused.
“Tah! Maybe it’s not me. Maybe –”
“Maybe what?” I cut in. “There are two different secret admirers who just happen to like two different JSS3 boys in Peace House, whose names start with J?” My tone dripped sarcasm. “Open something joor, let us see,” I added, gesturing at the envelope.
Both of them chuckled, and Joseph promptly peeled the extended flap of the envelope backward. He pulled out the folded piece of paper inside, spread it open and we began to read.
Roses are red, violets are blue
I’m glad you’re my friend
Because I admire you a lot
I think I’m in love with you.
Signed, Your Secret Admirer.’
“This girl should reveal herself nah,” Ibuka said with a laugh.
“Omo, I taya o,” said Joseph. “All this secret admirer thing is not the way forward at all.”
“What if it’s a boy?” teased Ibuka with a wicked grin. “Perhaps that’s why he’s hiding –”
“God forbid you!” Joseph retorted hotly to Ibuka’s ringing laugh. “God forbid – Eze, what’s wrong?”
The two of them looked at me, as I stood, motionless, speechless and stunned. I struggled to breathe.
“Eze, are you alright?” Ibuka asked.
It felt as if a giant hand was pushing down on my chest. I squeezed my eyes shut, but I couldn’t undo what I’d seen.
My eyes napped open and I rasped, “Give me that note.”
Joseph handed the sheet to me and I stared at the words, at the familiar handwriting. I stared at her soaring capital letters, the firmly crossed ts, the too many loops between letters, and the way it all tilted to the right.
“This is Anulika’s handwriting.” I lifted my head and rested an accusing gaze on Joseph. “Your secret admirer is Anulika.”
Ibuka drew in a sharp, hissing breath, and Joseph’s body stiffened as though my words held a small electric shock. They both seemed appalled, but a certain emotion had sprung up inside me, making me narrow my eyes at Joseph with distrust.
“That’s impossible…” he began.
“Wait, Eze, are you sure?” Ibuka interjected.
“It’s impossible,” Joseph reiterated. “How do you know?”
“How do I know the handwriting of the girl,” I snapped caustically, “whose notes I’ve been borrowing since JSS1 just so I can have a reason to talk to her?”
“Eze, calm down,” Ibuka cajoled.
“Why are you telling him to calm down?” Joseph snapped. “I have nothing to do with this secret admirer. He should know –”
“Should I?” I returned. “Do you really expect me to believe what you’ve just said?” I was starting to get very angry.
And so, apparently, was Joseph. His brow furrowed as he growled at me, “Anulika doesn’t even like me. We all know that.”
“Perhaps that is the cover the two of you are using to deceive me. Let her pretend she doesn’t like you, while the two of you continue to – to do whatever it is you’re doing behind my back!”
“Eze…” Ibuka intoned softy. His voice was breathless with dread.
“Do you realize how stupid you just sounded?” Joseph said with a small, patronizing laugh.
Ibuka rounded on him. “Joe –”
“What? It’s true. Five minutes ago, he was acting crazy because he thought Matthias is dating Anulika. Now he has turned on me. So what if Anulika is the one who wrote this, who is my secret admirer. So what?” He turned to me and repeated, “So what? It doesn’t prove me and her are doing anything. It just proves I’m too much, and the girls love me, and that you need to chill out.”
A split second of silence ticked by.
Ibuka’s eyes fluttered shut in anticipation of the coming storm.
And my control crumbled around me, and all the feelings I had been struggling to hold down boiled to the surface. “You are a fool, do you know that! Nothing but a bloody fool!” The words burst out of me, and there was nothing I could do to stop them. “You think you are too much? Ha! Only fools like you go around making so much noise when deep down, they are nothing!”
Joseph’s face hardened and he took a step closer to me, staring at me with a sneering expression. “At least, I’m better than you, a chicken, who can’t even open his mouth to tell a girl he likes her.”
“Joe…” Ibuka gasped softly.
He went on, his tone cruel and taunting, “You keep telling Anulika term after term that she should kiss you. You think that’s how to chyke a girl?” His lip curled. “You’re a joke! Perhaps you should have come to me for tutorials, and then we won’t be having this problem.”
I recoiled like he had slapped me. His rejoinder hurt worse than if he had. And then, as the pain shot through me, I went from angry to livid, and my hand lifted on its own volition. It shot forward, and my fist smashed against the side of his face. He staggered back, shock eclipsing his face mere seconds before he became enraged. He suddenly moved his arm in a quick overhand motion and hit me on the bridge of my nose, delivering a blow with the full power of the sweeping arc.
I saw a flash of red and black blast across my vision and a searing pain screamed through my head. My nose spurted blood. Ibuka began to yell in protest. I made a mad rush for Joseph. He bobbed and weaved as he avoided two swings from me, and then caught me flush on my jaw. The blow drove me backward. He hustled after me, unleashing two more punches to my face. My head whipped hard both ways and my knees buckled. I’d forgotten he was a much better fighter than I was.
Ibuka tackled him as he came at me again and shoved him backward. A small number of passersby – students – had begun to stop to stare with avid curiosity at the altercation.
“Stop it, Joe! Will you stop it!” Ibuka said furiously.
“But he started it!”
“I don’t care who started it! The two of you should know better!” He divided a piqued look between us. “There are other ways to settle this without fighting. The two of you are friends for chrissakes –”
“Not anymore!” I spat out.
They stiffened. Ibuka began pleadingly, “Eze, don’t –”
But I wasn’t even looking at him. My hateful gaze was on Joseph as I swiped a hand over my upper lip, wiping at the blood that was trickling out of my nose. Beads of it had dropped onto the front of my school shirt. “I am no longer friends with you,” I hissed. “I will never forgive you for what you have done.”
“Gerraway you!” Joseph exploded. “What did I do? Look at this one o! Gerraway joor! Who even wants to be your friend!”
And he whirled around and stalked off, his gait rigid with his determination to not seek reconciliation. I glanced at Ibuka; he stared back, looking miserable at the turn of events. I shook my head at his silent plea, turned and walked away, in the opposite direction from Joseph.
TO E CONTINUED.
I am @Walt_Shakes on twitter