Fiction

Chinaza Eziaghighala: Caroline

ekwe
Image by Prettysleepy from Pixabay (remixed)

The hallway neon lights flicker between mercury and emerald—her father’s favourite colours. Caroline is tucked underneath the dining room table, eyes scanning the room, her hands clasped over her lips. The crippling silence is broken by screams of her mother who is dragged into the room by her father. Caroline’s mother glances at her—closing her eyes, as her father flings her onto the table and begins to take off his belt despite her mother’s pleas. The neon lights flicker on his form; first the emerald, then the mercurial red as he morphs into a feminal form. The room darkens, the woman, adorned in scarlet stiletto heels and a red bodycon gown, saunters to the table, belt in hand, as little Caroline, still watching, holds her breath. She pauses on Caroline’s stifled breaths and walks away. Caroline, seeing that she has vanished, exhales, comes out from underneath the table and looks up to see a woman’s sinister smile.

#

Caroline snaps out of her nightmare in a scream. Her nightdress is drenched in sweat; her hair in neatly made cornrows, contrasts against an inflamed scalp.

“Another dream?”

Caroline’s mothers, Mrs Akpan, dressed in her pyjamas, hurries into the room and turns on the light switch as Caroline’s tiny body latches onto her full one.

“I saw him again mommy! He’s after me!” Caroline says. She bursts into tears. Mrs Akpan holds her and sits on the bed as Caroline weeps. Caroline has been having these nightmares since her husband died. Despite moving out of their old apartment and having a posthumous divorce, their frequency increased – the recent months were the worst; she had a nightmare per day. Mrs Akpan had tried everything: deliverance, doctors, traditional practitioners, but the results were the same – Caroline was fine. The only thing that seemed to work was prayer. Whenever Caroline had her mares, they would say a prayer together then she would stay with her until she slept.

“Let us pray.”

“It may not work this time.”

“Do not talk like that; prayer is the key.”

She holds Caroline’s hands as they kneel to pray, kneading her moist, trembling hands, smiling to herself at how soft they feel under her coarse palms. She massages the gash on Caroline’s hand, a relic of the past, a distant memory that Mrs Akpan hopes to never relive.

“Now say after me, God has given us the authority above any principality and power and all the powers of the enemy; nothing shall by any means hurt us.”

Snores respond to her prayer as Mrs Akpan opens her eyes to see Caroline fast asleep. She lays Caroline properly on her bed and walks to her room, bare asides family pictures hanging from the walls, a dressing table, a study table and the king-sized bed in the centre. She opens her cabinet and takes out her sleeping medication. She began using sleeping pills when she developed insomnia after her husband died. The doctor had told her that she would improve with time as long as she took her drugs and practised good sleep hygiene.

“You left me alone,” Caroline says at the entrance to her room clutching a stuffed panda while rubbing her eyes.

“Come inside, but do not jump on the…”

Too late.

Caroline leaps on the bed as she tries to hide her grin. Mrs Akpan shakes her head; aware that she has fallen for another of Caroline’s naughty tricks.

“You have to get ready early for school; none of your usual delays,” Mrs Akpan says, feeling the coolness of her medication against her palm, she swallows and takes a mouthful of Fanta.

“Why do you take that stuff with soda?”

Silence.

Mrs Akpan folds her hair into a bonnet, walks to the bed, holds Caroline close and says, “You ask too many questions.”

“I don’t want to go to school as a boarder,” Caroline says, pulling away from her and mumbling something inaudible.

“You have started again.”

Caroline turns to sleep, watching the dark cloudless sky from the room window, as Mrs Akpan chuckles to herself.

#

Caroline searches for her green plaid uniform – the boarders’ outfit – keeping her home close to the school resumption deadline. Mrs Akpan is livid; the only reason she has not decided to defer their school trip is because the school is within a walking distance.

“Found it!”

Caroline’s strained smile does not mollify Mrs Akpan, her scowl persists even as they drive in silence to the school checkpoint; even after her mother offloads her luggage at the school car park. Liberty high school is reputable for its stellar academic performance and award-winning extracurricular activities. Mrs Akpan believes that since her husband died, Liberty high school is the next best thing in her family. There is pandemonium as other students who have returned late for the session try to get checked in before the deadline. Mrs Akpan greets the headteacher, Mrs Oniru, who doubles as Caroline’s guardian. Mrs Oniru stands at an intimidating six-feet-five-inches, earning her the nickname Mount Zion from the students. Coupled with her dark skin and routine pixie cut; her presence attracts side comments from teachers and parents alike, yet Mrs Akpan loves her because she is the epitome of order.

“Students be on a single file; parents only come forward when we call your child,” she bellows. As Mrs Akpan approaches her, she grins – baring her yellow coated teeth.

Caroline scans the area for Alex. She finds him standing beside some of the prefects assisting teachers. Alex wears his school uniform; a white long-sleeved shirt, white trousers, a red tie and blazers, with his dreads packed. As he begins to walk toward her, Caroline adjusts her skirt, straightening out the rough edges. She glances at her hair through a side mirror just as someone spills water on her skirt.

“I am so sorry,” Amy says as she tries to wipe the water off her dress. Amy wears a short skirt over a tight-fitting red plaid blouse that outlines her curves. Her chocolate skin contrasts against Caroline’s fairer one; her long cornrows undermine Caroline’s shorter ones.   She grins at Caroline. Alex uses his handkerchief to pat Caroline’s dress as her face reddens.

“You did that on purpose,” Alex says.

“Why would you say something like that to your sister?” Amy says, not bothering to hide the satisfaction in her voice.

Alex ignores her, “Are you all right?”

Amy, now flanked by her lackeys Damson and Chidinma, laughs as she walks away. Damson has his arm around her waist, a beefy thing that looks like yam that has been in the sun for too long, while Chidinma, wearing a loosely fitted check, walks on Amy’s other side as the trio head to the dormitory.

“I’m fine.”

“What happened?” Mrs Akpan drags Caroline’s suitcase behind her, her face aghast when she sees Caroline’s ruined skirt.

“Nothing mommy”

“Nothing is making your whole cloth wet like something recently washed?”

Mrs Akpan smiles at Alex as he bows in greeting.

“Alex, how now? Please do not let this girl embarrass herself outside. I do not understand this rubbish.”

Caroline nudges her, her face red as strawberries.

Alex laughs, “I will take care of her, ma.”

“I am off. See you on visiting day.”

Caroline looks at her mom and secretly wishes to hug her again, but she feels the eyes of everyone around her and says, “Okay mummy, bye.”  She walks away with her luggage, Alex following behind, trying to pry the box from her hands, but she clings to the handle.

#

The dormitory quadrangle is a safe space where the students come together to play. Mrs Oniru had termed it “healthy mixing” believing that isolating boys from girls would not bode well for either sex in the future, since they would still live and work together.

“They have to start somewhere,” she had said when she proposed the quadrangle to the parent-teacher association. There was initial resistance, but parents gradually bought into the idea, many of whom contributed to the project in exchange for brandishing their names on each project. The area is serene, with seats made of either tree stumps or stones, surrounded by a lush vegetable garden where children could go to pluck fruits of their pleasure.

Alex and Caroline sit together beside the latest volume of their Further Mathematics textbook, notes, pens alongside each of their school tablets – another innovative idea from Mrs Oniru. Caroline watches Alex as he explains the week of further maths work that she missed more in anguish than with understanding. Caroline does not disrupt him despite having already finished the module. She enjoys watching him teach her because of his features when concentrating with his brows furrowed in a knot, he clasps his pen a bit too tightly while biting the cap, he taps his feet in a flustered rhythm.

“Caroline!”

Caroline snaps out of her reverie to see Alex waving his hands in front of her eyes.

“Did you zone out again?”

“No, I heard everything you said,” Caroline says, grabbing one of the tablets from a tree stump.

“What was the last thing I said?”

Caroline looks at Alex, hands folded, awaiting her blunder.

“Tan equals cos over sin.”

Alex smiles, “Great. We are done!”

Caroline manages a smile and assists Alex in gathering their learning materials. She is not yet used to being in the senior secondary school year one; despite most of the teachings being glorified versions of what she learnt in her previous class.  Alex brushes her hand as he picks up his tablet. Caroline kneads the gnash on her hand.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to…”

“It’s nothing,” Caroline says, stroking the wound.

“Even the smartest girl in class needs help with her assignment.”

Chills creep down Caroline’s spine as she turns around to face Amy, flanked by Damson and Chidinma. She opens her mouth to speak, but words do not form.

“Everyone needs help, Amy, even you,” Alex says, his lips drawn into a thin line.

“I was not talking to you,” Amy says as Damson hands her a large folder filled with paper which she drops on Caroline’s lap.

“And you are right, everyone needs help. I am sure you have done Mrs Cole’s assignment by now. Can you help me, do it?”

“She won’t do anything for you.”

“Alex, are you her voice? Let her speak. We are inviting her to our small hangout tomorrow evening if she does it for us.”

“Amy, it is almost time for dinner,” Damson says. Amy frowns at him as he mumbles.

“I will help you,” Caroline says.

Amy hugs Caroline and says: “Thanks, girl!”

Alex continues to gather their things into his bag, watching Amy’s receding form.

“What did you expect me to do?” Caroline says.

“I did not say anything.”

“That is the problem.”

Alex sighs. “My sister is a horrible person, agreed, but I expected you to fight back at least, not let her walk all over you. Are you not tired of her pushing you around?”

Caroline does not respond; not when they walk to the front of the girls’ dormitory, and he waves her goodbye, or when she dreams of her father beating her mother at night.

#

Amy’s room is pink and pretty – just like her. She sits on her bunk, opposite Chidinma’s, with large eyes and full lips, silent, staring at Caroline whose eyes flint from side to side as she cracks her knuckles. Chidinma cooks contraband Indomie in a corner, concealing the hissing sound of the stove with her body. Damson is not there yet.  According to Amy, he went to get dessert. Caroline begins tapping her feet like Alex, but it does not stop Amy’s glare as it pierces through her.

“Do you have a boyfriend? Chidinma says you do not have one, and she knows everything about everyone.”

Head bowed, Caroline responds, “Not yet.”

“Oh, I see. But you’re planning on getting one abi? How about my brother?”

Caroline tries to stop the smile that creeps to her lips and the redness that stains her cheeks, but it is too late.

“Aww, you like him.”

Amy smiles as she opens her locker and brings out a bottle of fruit juice. She hands Caroline the juice, but she declines, “I ate already, thank you.”

“Suit yourself, no wonder you are so skinny. Alex likes thick babes though, I mean, Chidinma had a crush on him too, but he told her he had eyes for someone else. He had eyes all right.”

Amy shows her a picture of a woman with bare breasts and rounded curves on her study tablet. She bursts into laughter, and Caroline laughs with her although unsure what there is to laugh about.  Chidinma brings the first batch of noodles and serves Amy.

“You forgot to bring Indomie for our guest?”

“Let her go and collect it herself.”

Amy stares at her, and Chidinma gives Caroline the Indomie instead when Damson walks in.  Amy runs to Damson, kisses him, collects the folded piece of paper in his hand. She opens it in front of Caroline, showing the dried green leaves and stems of marijuana. Caroline’s eyes widen.

“I have to leave,” says Caroline, standing. Marijuana was forbidden in school. Mrs Oniru had always said that if anyone was caught taking substances, they would be expelled. Caroline isn’t in the mood to be expelled.

Damson’s body blocks the exit. Chidinma folds her arms, wielding her cooking spoon. Caroline sits on the bunk bed, scrolling through her study tablet, increasing the tapping pace of her feet. Mrs Oniru gave them tablets without the internet. Useless, she thinks.

“Why is she with that thing here?” Damson says.

“Don’t worry, she cannot do anything with it even if she wanted,” Amy says, rolling a blunt in hand. She lights it, takes a deep puff, passes it to Damson who gives it to Chidinma who hands it to Caroline.

“Take it,” Chidinma says, her eyes reddening from the drug’s effect.  Caroline looks around, picks up the blunt, inhales as she brings it to her lips when Alex bursts into the room, pushing away an intoxicated Damson.

“Where is she?”

“She is just about to join the party,” Amy drawls.

Caroline stands up and grabs hold of Alex’s hand as he pulls her out of the room. She does not look back; afraid she may see Amy’s reddened eyes.

#

The day Mrs Oniru calls out Amy, Chidinma and Damson over a picture showing them taking marijuana from an anonymous source, Caroline smiles at Alex from the front row of the girls’ queue on the assembly ground. As the whole school watches Mrs Oniru make an example of them, Alex does not return her smile.

“They are going to cut all the grass around the pit area, and that is a mercy. Anyone else found taking such substances on the school compound again shall be suspended,” Mrs Oniru says as she dismisses the students from the assembly ground.

Caroline is reading at the “Kainji building” beside the pit during afternoon prep. Despite being the oldest school building, it is the only one with constant electricity due to the science labs, deriving its name from the Kainji dam in Niger state. Seated on the railings, Caroline pretends to read but watches Amy, Chidinma and Damson, cut grass from the corner of her eye. She cannot stop the warm bubble of satisfaction that wells in her chest. Alex walks to her from the football field; his lips are turned down at the corners as he approaches her.  Caroline’s tablet and notebooks spill on the floor when she sees Alex. As she bends over to pick them up, she can feel the hairs at the back of her neck stand on end.

“Did you do it?”

“Yes.”

Caroline closes her eyes, expecting Alex to go into a long sermon about how his sister could find out at any moment and retaliate when she feels his arms wrap around her shoulders as he places her head on his chest.

“That was badass.”

Tears gather in Caroline’s eyes as the rivulets flow down her cheeks. Alex, observing her tears, pulls her away, but Caroline wipes her eyes and punches him in the gut. Alex returns the punch to her shoulder, she winces, he pauses.

“Sorry.”

“Sucker!”

Caroline runs into the football field with Alex hot on her tail as a silhouette watches from the shadows of Kainji.

#

Dinner is a time to eat and make noise, and no one does this better than Liberty High students. Sometimes, they organise food fights and swear silence even though Mrs Oniru promises to punish the whole school – this is such a time. A week ago, a Senior secondary school three boy named Idris cheated on his girlfriend from the same class, Oreva, with one of the prettiest girls from Caroline’s class, Chimdi. Chimdi became rude to Oreva: she openly flouted Oreva’s orders and walked away when she asked her to fetch water. Oreva had enough and, one evening, she, alongside her friends, plotted a food fight during which she mobbed Chimdi.  When Mrs Oniru had asked Chimdi what happened to her, she feigned amnesia, frightened to death because Oreva smuggled a used pad into her school bag.

Mrs Oniru punishes the whole school, including Chimdi. She tasks the Senior secondary one class with cleaning the dining hall, and Caroline’s role is emptying the bin. Humming a tune, she rolls the huge bin across the football field. Tonight, the moon shines brilliantly in a sky clear of clouds. The flamboyant and mango trees take on a different form at night; morphing according to the imagination, their roots spreading across the length and breadth of the compound. She hurries with the sound of the bin trailing behind her as something falls at her feet from one of the trees; picking it up, she sees that it is a half-eaten mango and looks up to see the fruit bats circling the tree. One of them looks down at her as she holds the mango as if half expecting her to throw it back; Caroline throws the mango back to the floor and marches on to the pit. The fruit bat flies close to the moon, its shadow distorting into a young boy’s shadow.

The pit is an abandoned plot of land used to incinerate refuse. It lies beside the school farm where, the year before, Caroline had planted a maize crop that gave her a distinction in Agriculture – she never saw the ears of her maize. Struggling, she rolls the bin down the slope of the pit; she uses a tree branch to slowly bring out its content while holding a handkerchief over her nose.

I cannot wait to be in Senior secondary school three, she thinks, while removing a plastic bag filled with bloodied pads, wondering if one of the pads was the one Oreva put in Chimdi’s bag. She turns around with the bin, fatigued and trudges upward when she sees three shadows stretched across the floor leading to her. She looks up to see the figures of Amy, Damson and Chidinma. Before she can scream, Damson covers her lips and pins her down as Amy and Chidinma circle her.

“You think we would not find out? You snitch!” Amy screams as she kicks Caroline. Chidinma and Damson follow. Caroline’s body screams in pain, feeling everything. Her ears ring in as she watches her blood mix with the sand on the pit. Her hands reach for a tree branch when she sees her father kneeling beside her pool of blood.

#

As day breaks, Caroline stirs on the pit. She opens her eyes, stands, takes the bin and walks back to the dining hall. The chatter of students has turned to an odd silence as Mrs Oniru stands in the centre of the hall addressing the students. Caroline listens from a corner, not wanting to draw attention to herself and her pain.

“Last Night, Miss Caroline Akpan was found with serious injuries at the pit. I want you all to be cooperative as investigations are ongoing. Bullying is not allowed in this institution!” she says, storming off. What is left of her anger stays as heated silences in the dining hall.

Caroline notices that her vision is blurry, like someone with shortsightedness. She sees her hand clearly but sees a haze around her periphery. She tries to push the haze, but it pushes back. She wants to tell her that she is okay when she sees Amy, Damson and Chidinma in the corner, eating in silence and staggers away before they see her, the feeling of tears welling in her eyes. She sees Alex outside sitting on the pavement as Mrs Oniru approaches him.

“Please you have to tell us everything you know,” Mrs Oniru says “We need as many names as possible.”

She moves toward Alex, swimming through the haze. Alex remains silent as Mrs Oniru leaves just as Amy, Damson and Chidinma walk outside to meet him.

“It was you,” Alex says, standing up, jaw set, fists clenched.

“What are you talking about?” Amy says

“If you do not tell Mrs Oniru what you did, I will tell daddy and mommy,” Alex says.

“Just because she is your sister does not mean you should lack sense,” Damson says.

Caroline walks to Amy, her body vibrating as she screams: “You fucking monster!”

Amy does not hear her; the haze is too strong.

“I even wanted to say sorry about Caroline and you are here accusing me,” Amy says.        They walk away, their bodies bouncing off waves that thicken Caroline’s haze.

“Alex!” she screams, the gurgling sound of her voice reverberates through her haze, but he does not hear. She shakes him, but he does not move, she stands in front of him. He stands up, wiping off the tears that stain his cheek, and walks to the dormitory as the other students leave the dining hall.

#

No one sees Caroline. She walks around, pushing against the haze that threatens to consume her, reaching out to her fellow students; she shakes them, scares them, startles them, but it does nothing. Caroline runs to the football field and kneels on the floor, her despair seeping into her haze and making it rumble.

“What is wrong?” says a young boy dressed in a senior school uniform. He stands at an intimidating 6 ft and is all but skin and bones, Caroline tries to trace his face, but he is unfamiliar. His eyes hold mischief with which Caroline is not yet accustomed.

“I think I am dead,” she says, in a voice that should indicate she is crying, however, tears refuse to form. The boy walks to her and puts his arm around her.

“Why would you think that?” he says.

“Because no one can see me; like a ghost.”

“I can see you.”  Caroline looks at him, noticing just how clear his face is, with curious eyes and a delicate nose.

“That means you are a ghost too.”

“Not at all”

The young boy stands up and stretches out his hand to her; they are as clear as day, his body a shadowless entity.

“I’m Ekwe, god of Limbo.”

Caroline jumps back and turns to run away when he appears in front of her.

“Now, that is rude,” he says.

“What do you want?” she says, looking around for something to arm herself with, feeling an unsettling aura radiating from his being. His haze is different, like he has more control of it, so much that it is almost as clear as the real world. His eyes hold a gleam.

“I am the only person that can see you, yet what you want to hurt me,” he scoffs. “Humans.”

Caroline pauses and curtseys: “I am sorry”

“I understand. I should be the one to say that I am sorry, I mean those people, what they did to you.” He shakes his head and his haze emanates genuine concern, even pity.

“How do you know that?”

“Mrs Oniru announced it to the whole school. I was there.”

Caroline thinks back to the dining hall, but still cannot trace Ekwe’s face. She thinks back to that night; how everything seemed normal and how nothing makes sense now. Whatever she knows about gods, she learnt from folklore stories and they never paint gods in a positive light.

“Okay, so, Ekwe, what do you want?”

“How do you mean?”

“This is the part where you make a deal with me or try to trick me.”

“Smart girl. Make a deal, yes, trick you? No. I am an intermediary god who has been watching you since you became a boarder at Liberty high.”

As Ekwe speaks, Caroline sees a younger version of herself in a pinafore dress walking to the dining hall flash on a screen before her eyes; she stumbles back.

“People are horrible. They do the absolute worst things to each other,” he says as the screen shows videos about the Taliban, wars in DRC, the Mafia. Caroline watches and feels the land underneath her shift. She looks around, seeing the vegetable garden of her hostel quadrangle.

“And then there is you. You are one of the sweetest, most harmless souls that I have ever come across,” Ekwe says as the image on the screen shifts back to her, this time, in senior uniform standing at the car park, watching as Amy, Damson and Chidinma walk away, laughing.

Caroline watches her life unfold before her eyes on Ekwe’s screen; a happy child who has just returned from primary school with the best results. Her mother hugs her and hands her ice cream.

“Bad things always happen to people like you.”

The screen shifts to a silhouette of her father, walking in on them taking ice cream together, there is no sound as her father screams, slapping the ice cream away from her hand. Her mother uses herself as a shield as her father removes his belt and lifts it just as the image moves back to Amy, Damson and Chidinma leaving her beaten body by the pit.

“What is the point of all this?” Caroline says, her voice muffled.

“I’m on your side,” Ekwe says. With a snap of his finger, he turns off the screen. They are back on the football field. He walks up to her and squeezes her shoulder. “People are evil, they take away your right to live, your chance to be happy, but I offer you a choice.”

Caroline’s ears perk up.

“You are not dead Caroline, but you will be. Soon. I can help you, but I need to know, how badly do you want to live?”

Caroline’s thoughts flash to her mother. She imagines her inconsolable, strewn across the floor of Caroline’s bedroom, crying while clutching her teddy; she imagines Alex blaming himself for what happened to her. She thinks about her future; with her grades, she is on track to becoming a programmer. She may be able to afford a better life for her mom. Caroline wants life, but at what cost?

“I want to live,” Caroline says.

Ekwe smiles: “Good girl. This osisi imbues you with a shapeshifting power.  All you need to do is this…”

Ekwe brings out a thin tree branch, thin enough to pass as a cane and hands it to her.

“That will allow you to inflict the same pain of your beating onto the students who ambushed you.”

As Caroline holds the osisi, she feels the roughened edges, hears it whispering in multiple swirling voices, and feels an urge. She drops the osisi and moves away. Her heart is racing as blood fills her cheeks.

“I cannot do that.”

Ekwe’s smile disappears, then he forces it back.

“What do you mean?”

“Isn’t there another way to get back to life”

Ekwe’s voice changes as his face darkens, his lips curve to a smile: “No, this is the only way.”

“Then I do not want it,” Caroline says, she picks up the osisi and hands it back to Ekwe.

“You will be dead in 24 hours if you do not take this deal. Your life force is already leaving your body as we speak.”

Ekwe’s screen comes on again, showing her body in a hospital with her mother wailing over her.

“It must be so horrible for your mother. Know that you can go to the afterlife now if you wish.”

The screen morphs into a black gate that opens into a white expanse of space. There are no winds, sights or sound in the space; it seems unending. Caroline thinks about her mother and Alex, one last time and she takes a deep breath. She puts a foot through the door.

Alex and Chidinma walk to the quadrangle with Amy behind them. Chidinma puts her arms around Alex’s waist and laughs. Caroline retracts her foot from the door, moving closer to see what they are doing as Ekwe watches.

“You did good, baby,” says Chidinma as Alex lifts her from behind.

“You guys disgust me,” says Amy.

“But I was so convincing, was I not?” Alex laughs “That stupid bitch fell for it.”

“She is stupid because she thinks she is so smart; that is why she has no friends.” Chidinma says.

“I have to admit sha, that day at the pit when you confronted her, you had me fooled,” Amy says.

“His whole friendship with her had me fooled,” Chidinma says.

They all laugh as Alex kisses Chidinma deeply.

Amy screams: “Couple of the year!”

Ekwe clears his throat, bringing Caroline’s attention back to the gate and her haze.

“You are a special one, but I do not have all day.”

Caroline bows her head, her lips tremble, her haze becomes deathly still. She feels the urge from the osisi, like a pull fueled by her rage. She walks to Ekwe as he stands beside the gate and grabs his osisi instead. Ekwe claps.

“The staff’s magic wears off after 24 hours,” he says. “And another thing, you are not allowed to flog an innocent.” The image on the screen shifts back to the hospital where Caroline’s body lies beside her sleeping mother. Caroline walks into the screen and into her body.

#

Caroline wakes up with a headache to the smell of medication. She notices the cast on her right leg as she takes off the bedclothes but is surprised when she sees that all her bruises have disappeared. The chair beside her is empty, but for her mother’s bag and scarf, she kicks her legs over the side of the bed when she hears the toilet flush as her mom walks into the room.

Mrs Akpan looks sleep-deprived, her hair a mammoth of a mess, wearing the same clothes for the past two days. She was at work when she received a call from Mrs Oniru about Caroline. After having numerous fainting spells, a colleague drove her to the school where an ambulance was parked close to the gate. She was scared about seeing her daughter’s body, but the paramedic had, thankfully, left only her face exposed making Mrs Akpan grateful, lest seeing the state of her body would trigger a new wave of fainting. She thought about how she ignored Caroline when she had asked not to return to the school as a boarder and wished she could turn back time so that she could grant Caroline her request in a heartbeat. When they arrived at the hospital, the doctor, a long-time family friend, had said that he was unsure Caroline would walk again given all the injuries she sustained, and he wondered how she was even alive.

“She’s a fighter,” he had said.

“Bring her back, please,” she had told the doctor in tears.

Mrs Akpan had fasted for the past two days, begging God for a miracle, hoping that her daughter would get back to her. She wanted the school shut down, she wanted to raise hell, but Mrs Oniru spoke with her, ensuring she would find the culprits; pleading with her to keep things quiet while she and members of the school board organised an investigation panel.

“Announcing it to the world will not bring Caroline back and it may only cause more problems,” Mrs Oniru had said. “I promise you that the school will do everything in our power to fix this. We will cover all the medical costs for Caroline and will pay for any extra damages, but please because of our relationship, allow us to handle this.”

Mrs Akpan had agreed, hoping that Mrs Oniru was right. She had not gone home since Caroline was brought to the hospital, afraid that she would die if she left her, that each waking moment was the last time she could see her daughter breathe. Now, after using the restroom and seeing Caroline sitting on the bed, smiling at her. She runs to her and holds her tight as Caroline leans into her bosom.

#

The house is empty, echoing the silences Mrs Akpan and Caroline left behind. Mrs Akpan fawns over Caroline as she lies in her bed consuming pap and Akara with extra milk and sugar. She works her way through the loose ends, gently unravelling the knots to enable her to wash Caroline’s hair properly.

“You are going to rest for at least a month,” she says.

Caroline stops eating and says, “I want to go to school tomorrow morning.”

“No!”

“I will miss more classes if I do not go. I have already missed a week and two days, mommy.”

After the doctor had examined her and deemed her fit to go home, he had emphasised that Caroline’s recovery was nothing short of a miracle. Mrs Akpan knew that it was God, but Caroline knew then that Ewke was another god.

“She looks great, but she needs bed rest for at least a month,” he had said after discharging them.

Mrs Akpan looks at Caroline and wants to enforce what she is saying, but thinks about what enforcing things on Caroline has wrought so far.

“You are not fully healed,” she says, looking at the cast on Caroline’s leg.

“I will be fine, Mrs. Oniru will make me untouchable,” she says, finishing the last bite of akara.

Mrs Akpan considers this, but she knows that, even though the doctor did say she had a rapid recovery, she could not just let Caroline go to school herself.

“Fine, but I am coming with you.”

Caroline smiles and continues eating. Mrs Akpan lies down beside her and watches as she puts her plate aside and prepares to sleep.

“Caro.”

“Ma.”

Who beat you?”

Caroline goes limp as memories from that day at the pit race across her mind. Mrs Akpan hopes that she will say something.

“I cannot remember.”

Mrs Akpan hugs Caroline and turns off the light switch as Caroline feels for the osisi under her pillow, hearing the indistinct whispers lull her to sleep.

#

This new resumption for Caroline is strange because everyone speaks her name. Students whisper it along the corridors and carry it with the wind.  Mrs Cole asks her to sit in front of her mother, who has refused to be separated from her, much to Caroline’s chagrin. Alex said hello earlier, but she ignored him and walked away. Amy, Damson and Chidinma spend half of the class looking at her, but she ignores them, too. Her eyes search the windows, hoping to catch a glimpse of Ekwe. Her mother’s presence makes class uncomfortable for her, keeping the distance of all the students, including Alex.

At breaktime, Mrs Oniru visits Caroline and requests that Mrs Akpan stay in the waiting area and allow Caroline to focus on school. Mrs Akpan leaves only when Mrs Oniru agrees to Mrs Cole taking zoom recordings of Caroline. When Mrs Oniru asks Caroline if she is ready to mention the names of the people who beat her, she shrugs and says that she cannot remember. From the corner of her eye, she sees Amy heave a sigh of relief. After Mrs Oniru leaves, Amy walks to her table and smiles.

“Caroline, how now?” She sits beside her and puts her hand on Caroline’s. “I want to apologise for everything. I want us to start over as friends.”

Caroline has a strong urge to bring out her osisi and smack her right there, but with a strained smile, she looks at Amy and says, “I forgive you.”

Amy’s bewildered expression amuses her as she sees her mother waving from the corridor window and she waves back, Amy waves too.

“Please don’t report us,” Amy says, her eyes pleading.

Caroline looks at her, smiles and nods: “I will not.”

The classes continue, rolling along with the time as Ekwe’s words echo in Caroline’s mind.

“I want to use the restroom,” Caroline says, raising her hand.

“I’ll help,” Amy says, getting up from her desk and running to support Caroline.

#

Amy stands watch as Caroline goes into one of the stalls. Inside, she feels the pull to take her osisi and flagellate Amy. Knowing that attacking Amy in an open space like this will only create chaos, Caroline thinks hard until she discovers her lightbulb moment. Her dreams were the answer, they had been the answer all along. The lights in the bathroom flicker as Caroline begins to transform. Sweat pools on Amy’s forehead and she uses her hand to fan her face.

“Are you done?” Amy asks from the door.

Nothing.

“This place is getting hot.”

Amy ambles to Caroline’s stall and knocks. No answer.

“Caroline.”

Caroline’s stall creeps open. Just as Caroline’s mother barges into the bathroom, she walks out of the stall.

“Mommy!”

“Sorry, when your friend was calling you and I didn’t hear you reply, I wanted to make sure you were okay.”

Caroline sighs and leans on Amy as they start walking towards the door. Mrs Akpan tries to hold her up from the other side, but she pulls her hand away.

#

The clanging of the bell signals the end of the school day. Caroline’s mother says she will take her home moving forward and home is where they go. In her room, Mrs Akpan puts her medications into a Fanta bottle before going into the restroom. Caroline watches her from the corner of her eye and when she sees that she is in the restroom, she stands up, reaches for the cabinet and opens the pack of medications. She adds two more tablets into her mother’s drink. She lies down on the bed as her mother walks out of the restroom, takes the Fanta and drinks.

“Now it’s your turn to bathe,” Mrs Akpan says as she yawns. She sits on the bed, back relaxed against the backrest, and while touching Caroline’s hair, she falls asleep. Caroline holds the osisi and slowly morphs into a younger version of her mother. The process feels more like an itch, beginning uncomfortable, but pleasurable as she progresses. She hears the whisper of the osisi clearly, a steady chant that increases with each breath: revenge! revenge! When the process is complete, she looks into the mirror, barely recognising herself as she takes off her leg cast. She wears a red bodycon dress and red stilettos and vanishes as the sound of Ekwe’s laughter trails after her.

#

She appears behind the dormitory as Caroline and walks to Amy’s room entrance. As she is about to knock, Amy opens the door.

“I thought you went home?”

“My mum said I could stay for today because of your birthday.”

Caroline’s heart races as she watches Amy’s expression. Amy smiles, opening the door wide, welcoming her into the rowdy room. Almost everyone in their class and a few other senior classes are there. Amy directs Caroline to her bunk bed where she sees Alex. Alex stands up and adjusts his shirt, he can feel his throat dry and lips parched, admiring how stunning Caroline looks wearing a fitted green plaid skirt and top that accentuates her A-line figure. Caroline looks away from Alex and sits on Amy’s bed.

“I’ve been trying to speak to you, I know you are angry with me. I wish I could have been-”

Caroline raises her hand, stopping him mid-speech; she stands and heads outside to the bathroom. Caroline leans against the wall, covering her face in tears. “Never again will anyone bully me and get away with it,” she says as her eyes glow red and she transforms.

Chidinma walks outside with a pot and scratches the bottom with a metal spoon as she grumbles: “Amy is always just relaxing while I do all the hard work.” A shadow flints behind her; she turns but sees nothing; she hears the sound of her pot rolling away, pulled by the wind.  She follows the pot which rolls to a stop against a small stone. She bends to pick it up when she sees a pair of red heels and looks up. She opens her mouth to scream, but someone covers her lips.

Damson and Amy make out outside: eyes closed; lips locked in euphoria. When Amy feels a strange chill at her lips, she opens her eyes to see Damson has disappeared, leaving Amy to herself. Amy feels a terror build in the pit of her stomach, she stands up and runs back into her room. Struggling to catch her breath, she sees someone wearing red shoes and follows, remembering that she told Chidinma that Mufti was not allowed at the party, lest Mrs Oniru takes out her wrath on them again.

“What are you doing?” Alex startles her. She hits him on the shoulder.

“Don’t sneak up on me like that. I can’t find Damson, he just…disappeared,” she says, clutching Alex’s shirt too tightly, her fingers trembling, her eyes betraying the fear that has engulfed her heart. “Something fucking creepy is happening.”

A woman, face shrouded in shadow, dressed in red, appears before Amy and whips her, Alex jumps back. The whipping sends a million daggers through Amy’s body as she screams out in pain. Alex watches dazed, he tries to move his limbs but they betray him, he feels stuck, he hears Amy’s cries, proof of her pure agony. The searing pain hits Amy making her wish she were dead; each blow is a thousand needles digging into her skin.

“Please, please.”

The other children run out of the room as someone rings a warning bell. Alex is about to run when he sees a gash on the woman’s hand.

“Caroline?”

The woman stops flogging Amy and turns to him; now Caroline in her green check.

“Caroline, what are you doing?”

Caroline wants to tell him how much she has changed, how she will never allow anyone to just take advantage of her anymore, but she remembers how he kissed Chidinma, how he laughed at her, how he betrayed her. The osisi screams louder than ever before: revenge! She lunges at him.

#

The haze feels like gravity, pulling Caroline and fixing her to the football field. Someone claps, stirring her awake.

“Well, well, you have outdone yourself.”

Massaging her temples as she stands, she looks to Ekwe, confused. The pull of the osisi is stronger in limbo; she feels it between her teeth. The haze is clearer than before as if her eyes have adjusted to limbo. Ekwe looks at her, a self-satisfied smile on his lips.

“Why am I back here? It is not up to 24 hours yet.”

“Well, someone got excited and flogged an innocent.”

“That is a lie. Everyone I flogged was guilty!”

Ekwe laughs and speaks using Alex’s voice, “I never liked her.”

He changes his voice to Amy’s voice: “Couple of the year!”

He changes his screen to show her Alex, Amy and Chidinma together and laughs.

“Alex didn’t do anything, stupid, that was all my incredible acting. You humans will believe anything.”

He shows her the day she was studying at Kainji and how Amy was hiding in a corner as Alex spoke to her. Caroline drops the osisi and falls to her knees.  Her mind begins to spin. She hurt her friend; she never meant to hurt a friend. She can feel her body being pulled when she turns around to see the screen morph back into the black gate.

“So, what happens now?” she says

“Well, you are mine forever.”

Caroline looks at Ekwe then begins to bubble with maniacal laughter. For the first time, nothing has been clearer to her.

“What is funny?”

Caroline picks up the osisi, hearing the whispers, clearer this time, they speak to her in one voice: never again, revenge! She hits Ekwe, to his surprise. He screams. The pain coursing through his body, his haze distorts. She holds the osisi to him as she begins to notice him disintegrating. She hears his laughter and clapping as he becomes absorbed into the osisi. Caroline stops hearing voices as she stands, her lust abated. She looks at the screen and it switches to the front gate of Liberty high. Caroline walks through the gate.

—————–

Image by Prettysleepy from Pixabay (remixed)

About the author

Chinaza Eziaghighala

Chinaza is a medical doctor who tells stories. She is a University of Iowa International Writing Program and EbonyLife Creative Academy Alum. She won the 2021 Twelve Days of Brittle paper stories competition and was Longlisted for the 2020 African Writers Awards (AWA) and the Wakini Kuria Award. Her works are in/forthcoming in Brittle Paper, Afritondo, BSFA's Focus. Connect with her here: chinazaeziaghighala.disha.page or on her Twitter @chinazaezims

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