In the following week, Ibuka found himself in unfamiliar territory – as the one who sought to reconcile Joseph and I. I was the one whose job it was to settle the infrequent bursts of dispute that erupted between him and Joseph. And despite his efforts, the tension between Joseph and I grew with each passing day. We stopped speaking to each other, resorting to grunts and mumbles each time a situation forced us to interact. We stopped sharing a desk in class; I moved out to go sit beside Boska, the only student in our class who didn’t have a seat partner. That made for an awkward moment when Mr. Okafor, during his Social Studies class, looked in the direction of my former seat to ask me a question.
“Eze, what is…” He stopped and frowned. “Eze? Where is Eze?”
“I’m here, sir.”
He turned his head to his right and settled his eyes on me at the other end of the room. The entire class turned to seek me out. Boska shifted uncomfortably beside me.
“What are you doing there?” queried Mr. Okafor. “Isn’t this your seat?” He pointed at the corner where Joseph sat, wooden-faced.
“It is. I just want to sit here small,” I deadpanned, uncomfortably aware of the inquisitiveness that burned in the collective gaze of the class. Joseph and I not sitting together was as curious as Tatiana aka Tatafo and Scholastica not huddled together in gossip, or Dan and Chidiebere not being sycophantic towards Toby. Very curious indeed. And even though Mr. Okafor didn’t pursue the matter and continued with his lecture, everyone else kept looking back at either me or Joseph, trying to glean from our wooden expressions if the separation was a dare or something more serious.
“So what is happening between you and Joseph?” Ebenezer pounced on me immediately Mr. Okafor’s class ended and the teacher walked out of the room.
I stared at the boy with a disbelieving expression. Was he serious? There was absolutely no love lost between the two of us, and he expected me to confide in him?
“Get lost, Ebenezer,” I growled.
“So there is something going on between you two,” he said enthusiastically, my rancour bouncing off him. “And it’s serious too. Hmm, seems I’m going to win my bet with Obioma.”
“I said, get lost,” I snapped, getting to my feet and glaring at him.
“Ah-ah, Eze! Calm down nau. Okay, I’m sorry I mentioned my bet with Obioma, but really, I’m just trying to be your friend. I can see you need one right now.” His insincerity oozed from his pores like an airborne disease reaching out to infect another from the ailing carrier.
I stepped closer to him, staring at him like he hadn’t used any mouthwash in a month, and I said grimly, “If you don’t get out of my face right now, Ebenezer, I will make sure your name is on every list of noisemakers I write for the rest of the term, and you will forever be on the duty roster as the one who wipes the blackboard before every class.”
The smug complacency fled from his eyes and his face shuttered with a familiar animosity. “You can’t try that,” he rasped.
“I’m the class captain,” I shot back. “Would you like to try me?”
That ended his interference, and he turned and stomped back to his seat just as Mrs. Uwazuruike, the Igbo Language teacher walked into the classroom.
Mrs. Uwazuruike rounded up her class an hour later to the sound of the break-time bell, and upon her exit, the entire class was roused with the anticipation of an entire thirty minutes that would be spent doing nothing as remotely tedious as receiving lectures. Loud chatter broke out in the room, desk tops were banged shut, and there was an unhurried exodus to the door.
“Eze, will you like to go to the canteen with me?” my new seatmate, Boska piped up as I started away from the desk.
I turned to look at him. I heard the hope in his voice, the need in his question. He was one of those boys who didn’t have much friends, and didn’t quite know how to easily make any. I, however, still had a friend – Ibuka. And so I couldn’t give him what he wanted.
“Sorry, Boska,” I said with an apologetic half-smile. “I’m supposed to go to the ice cream stand with Ibuka.” His face fell, and I added weakly, “Maybe some other time.”
He nodded, and his eyes slid away from mine. “Yes, sure, some other time,” he muttered.
I hurried out of my classroom to JSS3A. it was empty, except for two boys. Ibuka was putting away his things into his desk, while Joseph waited, his bottom propped up against the top of another desk. The moment I walked in, they both saw me and froze. I stiffened too. The temperature in the room dropped a few degrees.
I kept my face firmly averted from Joseph as I addressed Ibuka, “Ibu, are you ready? Remember we’re supposed to go to the ice cream stand.”
“Er…” His gaze skittered from me to Joseph, back to me, and back to Joseph. “Um…Joe –”
“Don’t even think about it, Ibu,” he cut across Ibuka’s hesitation. “You promised you’ll follow me to go and see my guardian so I can collect money from him that we’ll use and go and buy snacks.”
“It’s true…but, em…” His gaze slid back to me. “You see, Eze –”
“We talked about this last night,” I interjected. “I even have my money for the ice cream.”
Ibuka suddenly looked as though he would rather be anywhere in the world but here, before his two best friends. He shuffled his feet and struggled to make eye contact with either of us.
“Ibu, if you follow me,” Joseph coaxed, “I’ll collect enough money to buy snacks for me and you –”
Not to be outdone, I cut in earnestly, “Ibu, see – I already have money to buy the ice cream for the two of us –”
“Stop interrupting me while I’m talking,” Joseph spat, not looking at me.
“Were you talking?” I fired back. “I didn’t even realize that.”
He turned to me, his face pinched with anger. “Maybe it’s because you are now deaf, which is not a surprise, since you have already been blinded by Anulika.”
“You’re the one who is blind,” I snapped. “Otherwise, why don’t you go to your guardian’s office yourself? Or do you need Ibuka to take your hand and show you the way?”
“You’re very stupid!” Joseph exploded. “Go and buy your ice cream yourself nau – idiot!”
“Please, stop shouting at me, so I can know what is smelling, your mouth or the rubbish in that wastepaper basket,” I sniped.
Joseph went from angry to livid, and roared a rejoinder. I sent a salvo back at him, and within seconds, we were embroiled in a shouting match, hurling invectives that reverberated on the walls of the classroom. It lasted for a few moments, before Ibuka’s loud protestation cut through it and silenced us. The air in the room was charged with electricity, creating tensions I could feel like a touch against my flesh.
“I am tired of all this nonsense between the two of you,” Ibuka said heavily. There was a film of unshed tears in his eyes as he looked from me to Joseph. “Honestly, I am tired. Since you fought days ago, I’ve been dividing my time between you, going from one person to the other. No matter how much I’ve tried to make peace, none of you will listen to me. Well, I’m tired. I can’t continue like this. I can’t continue to be a part of this. You two are my best friends, but if you won’t be friends with yourselves, then there’s no need for me to be friends with you.”
“No. I’ve said my mind.” He shoved the last item into his desk, slammed it shut, and his key rattled as he padlocked it. Then he took in a breath, and upon exhalation, he said, “I think I’ll go and make new friends for myself.” And he walked out of the class, leaving Joseph and I to stand uncomfortably in each other’s presence.
“Eze…Eze, you’re still here…”
I was pulled out of my reverie by the softly-uttered words. My head turned in the direction of the speaker. My eyesight swam into focus, pulling at the mist of colours whirling in my vision into a defined picture. And hovering centrally in the picture was Anulika’s face.
That bone structure that was remarkable, even at her young age, with its well-proportioned features – the high cheekbones, the widely-set luminous eyes, the pert nose, the full, sensuous lips, all of it coming together to form a visage that was on the brink of bloom, waiting for time to perfect the beauty of it. She was quietly beautiful now, at age thirteen; she would be a very sensual woman by the time she was past twenty.
“What is wrong, Eze?” she said again.
I blinked and cleared my throat, and looked away, around at the empty classroom. “Nothing. Nothing is wrong. Why are you here?”
“I could ask you the same. It’s been school over for the past twenty minutes, and everybody has gone to the hostel. I just came out to fetch water for my school-mother quickly before they ring the bell for afternoon food, when I saw you still here as I passed our block.”
I noticed then that she was clad in her day-wear, the blue check of the dress flattering her light complexion. She held a bucket in her right hand.
“So why are you still in class?”
“Is everything okay?” Her voice was soft, cottony with her concern.
“Yes, why wouldn’t it be?” I said curtly as I got to my feet and picked up my school bag.
“I don’t know…” She hedged. “Are you and Joseph quarreling?”
“I don’t want to talk about that.”
“You can talk to me about it.”
“Why?” I suddenly barked, facing her again, trying to be impervious to the force of her loveliness.
She blinked, startled by my abruptness. “Why what?”
“Why should I talk to you?”
“Well…be-because we are friends?”
“Are we, hmm? Are we friends, Anulika?”
“Why are you sounding like this, Eze?” Her brow had furrowed delicately.
I reined in my temper, and tried to still the choppy current of my emotions. Dear Joseph . . . Signed, Your Secret Admirer. I remembered that note. The words. Her handwriting. I remembered Matthias. His desire. Their companionship.
I slung my bag over my shoulder and started out of the class. I was angry. I was confused. And I didn’t want to be here with her.
That soft call again. I stopped walking and turned to her. Her eyes pulled at me. I resisted. She opened her mouth to speak, and I cut her off with a question. “Are you and Matthias boyfriend and girlfriend?”
She shut her mouth. Something quick and indecipherable flitted past her face. And she said slowly, “Why are you asking me that?”
I shrugged, trying not to reveal how much my life depended on her answer. “I just want to know…you know, as a friend.”
A moment ticked by, before she released a tremulous sigh. “I said yes to him yesterday before night food.”
The words slammed into me with the blunt force of a sledgehammer. I might have staggered back a step, I wasn’t sure. My head spun, and my breathing turned raspy.
She was still talking. “We became friends after inter-house sports, and three days after that, he asked me out. Of course I said no. but he kept on asking me and asking me. Plus, he’s a really nice boy, a good person. And Amaka and Nkeiru were saying I should give him a try, that he really likes me…”
Her words kept coming at me in a rush. I battled to absorb them, to digest them. I tried to maintain a calmness I didn’t feel. Deep breath in, deep breath out. I stared at her, willing the tears that were welling into a hard lump inside me under control. I would not cry in front of Anulika. I just simply would not.
“And so, finally, yesterday, he pressured me and pressured me, and I told him yes. But that we have to start slow and quietly. I’m not even sure I said yes to being his girlfriend…I mean – well, I’m not sure what I said yes to…” She gave a small, self-deprecating chuckle, and looked at me, inviting me to share in her mirth.
I didn’t. I stared stonily back.
The school bell clanged. Time for lunch.
None of us moved. None of us seemed affected by the bell or its import.
“Eze, I’m sorry,” she finally husked.
“For what?” My voice was equally hoarse.
“I don’t know. I feel like I’ve hurt you, and I don’t know why…”
“Hurt who? Me? No, you haven’t.” I chuckled this time; but there was no amusement in the sound. I turned again, away from her. “But I have to go now. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Are you sure you are alright?” she asked as I walked to the door.
“Yes, I am.”
But I wasn’t. I wasn’t alright as I trudged alone toward my hostel. Everything she’d said about her friendship with Matthias hammered at me. The words broke a dam in my soul. And I didn’t have Joseph or Ibuka to unburden it all on. So the moment I got to a sturdy tree behind whose trunk I could squat and hide from sight, I set my elbows on my knees, lowered my face into my hands, and started to sob.
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