Must Read: A Chance For Love… Episode 5

Victoria had a chance to breakthrough from the miserable life her stepmother and her stepsister was putting her through with the help of Stella. But she decided to return their hatred with love.

Must Read: A Chance For Love… Episode 5

 Chance For Love

 
Episode five: Truth 

Continues.. 

“Truth is any statement made to build up one’s family.”

 *** Clutching  my sore knuckles on the steaming hot gate for the umpteenth time, my mind flashed back to my previous conversation with Stella. Her assurance that everything would be fine had made something snap inside of me. I had was tired of believing things would be fine, when in reality they only got worse. I had been stupid to believe she could help me. No one could. After listening to me cry over losing my scholarship, she had done nothing but assure me it would be fine. And then she had given me a card of Paracetamol to ward off my fever and headache. After waiting for her to devise a plan to help me, I had finally realized the bitter truth. Cinderella lived a fairytale, and I, reality. 

I had no fairy godmother who would come to my help and turn my sorrow to joy. And the fierce determination I had seen in Stella’s eyes in the morning? Had it all been for nothing? She no doubt found me worthless of her help. I wouldn’t feel like this if she hadn’t offered to help. But she had. Had she forgotten so soon? I never should have put faith in her promise. Once a promise is made, life finds a way to break it. I didn’t want to be hopelesss, but I couldn’t chide away from the truth. 

I had learnt never to put faith in promises. Dad had made lots of promises, and although he meant to keep them, life never gave him a chance. He had told me he would always be there for me. He once told me I would never have any reason to be broken in spirit. Mum no doubt had made promises too. An image of my pregnant mother drifted past my thought. She rubbed her baby bump, her eyes radiating with love as she promised to always be there for the child. My stepmother had also promised. She had promised to love me as her own. And now, Stella’s promise had just joined the heap of unfulfilled promises, breaking my heart over and over again. 

Holding back the tears that threatened to overcome me, I returned to knocking the gate. I needed to talk to my stepmother. It wouldn’t be easy, but I had to. Considering that I had exchanged words with the apple of her eye, it didn’t seems to be a good idea. I reflected back on my conversation with Cynthia. All these years I had been able to keep my cool, playing the part of a weak girl who could not speak up for herself. Why did I have to speak up today? Today of all days. Perhaps I could just carry on with my plan without informing my stepmother.

 I would work overtime to meet up for school. I would do most of my chores before going to bed, and do the rest of them when I wake. That way I would meet up. ‘How come you never thought of this?’ a hopeless voice in my head asked. I rolled my eyes, hating how negativity always had to interfere with my life. It had a point though. I had come up with this overtime technique in my second year, but my stepmother only let it work for the two days she most likely spent plotting. On the third day, I had started to prepare for school when she approached me with a shopping list, sending me to the market. When I returned she asked me to prepare vegetable soup just so I couldn’t meet up. And the next day she had me select a implausible great quantity of beans. After spending three hours sitting on the kitchen floor, picking beans, I had finally realized she wanted me to stop my punctuality.

These memories engulf my frustration, leaving rage in its wake. I vented it out on the gate, knocking as hard as I could. The gate shook where it stood, and I knew I had just signed in for some extra sessions of abuse. But at this point I didn’t care what they did to me. I just wanted to be home. 
“Break it oooh,” my stepmother shouted, her voice almost musical. “If you don’t tear down that gate, shame on you.” Her footsteps advanced from the other side of the gate. Instinctively, I took a step back as though to escape what would come. But I knew the vanity in trying to escape. Sucking in a deep breath to prepare myself, I closed the distance I’d just created. My stepmother shot me a scorching look as she opened the gate. She held it open, and for a moment, I could only gazed. 

“Good afternoon, ma,” I said. When dad still lived, my stepmother had allowed me call her mummy. But after death the death of my dad,she had warned me never to call her that. Sometimes the word would slip out of my mouth and I would feel the sting of a slap across my face. I stepped in through the open gate, I focused more on my thoughts than on reality. My stepmother’s palm whipped across my face, blistering my cheek. My ear rung from the impact. It felt like I had been attacked by a thousand furious ants. Barely giving me a moment to recover, she grabbed my ear and wrung it like a damp cloth. A gasp escaped my throat as her long nails dug into my skin. “Mumu.” She wrung harder. I bit my lips to keep from spitting out hurtful words. “You have ears but you don’t hear. How many times will I tell you not to knock like that? Or did you employ any gate keeper?” The muscles in my ear screamed out in pain. I clenched my teeth to keep from yelling. I would not give her the joy of seeing me express pain. I ignored the discomfort, reassuring myself it would not go on forever. And it did not. A knock at the gate distracted my stepmother, giving me the chance I needed to find my way to safety. 

Holding my scalding-hot ear, I moved to open the gate. Emotions caught into me at the sight of Stella. On one side stood fear, on another, shock, and on yet another, hope. The dim light of hope burning inside of me, craving death, had been rekindled by Stella’s presence. 

“Hello yourself,” Stella said, indifferent to my blankness. I had never seen her dressed in a cloth other than her uniform. A black jacket enclosed her torso, giving an ash camisole a sliver of space to peek through. A pair of blue jeans hugged her legs, stoping just before a black pair of sneakers. Before me stood a perfect runway model, save for a few pounds. With such physique, and an angelic personality, I wondered why she hadn’t found a husband yet. Or had she resolved to stay single? “Do you feel better?” she asked, breaking through my thoughts. “I…yes…” Good lord. I could not speak to her in front of my stepmother. This didn’t look good. “Why are you still in your uniform?” she asked. “I thought you left school an hour ago. Vicky, did I not ask you to take a cold shower once you got home? It will help with your fever.”
 Again, words eluded me. Stella stared at my face as though I had something on it. She reached out and held my jaw with two fingers, turning it sideways to thoroughly examine. Her gaze fell on my injured ear and she stared at it for a moment too long. “What happened to your face?” she asked. “I…I fell,” I said. Stella clicked her tongue. “This isn’t the kind of wound sustained from a fall. No, these are scratches. Do you have a wildcat or something?” Looking over my shoulder, she raised her brow at the sight of my stepmother, the wildcat. For a few moments, she just stared at her as though trying to read through her. I could tell she now knew how I had sustained those injuries.
.
“Good evening, Mrs. Brown,” Stella greered. “And you are?” my stepmother asked. Stella walked past me and reached out to shake my stepmother’s hand. She smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. Two men trailed after her, their overly strict faces making me forget how to use my voice. My gaze stayed long on them. The first, a bald man, clad in a black body hug T-shirt, had a slightly rounded stomach. Muscled arms strained to fit into his shirt. His facial hair was overgrown to be called stubble,  it cast a dark shadow along the corners of his round face. Something about his physique told me he had a husky voice and indulged in much alcohol. The second, most likely in his early thirties, stood a few pounds and a few feet behind his partner’s solid six foot. I perceived his complexion had once been lighter, but the Nigerian sun had picked on him, leaving him with a discontent tan. I would tag him as approachable, save for the stony expression on his bony, clean-shaved face.
 “Stella Adewale,” Stella said. My stepmother stared at Stella’s outstretched hand as though it were a snake ready to strike. She looked away from the hand and fix her eyes on the men. “I'm not sure we've met beflre,” she said. “Now we have,” Stella replied. “My friends and I would love to talk to you about something very important.” My stepmother sized up Stella as though trying to decode the nature of their pending conversation. “I am all ears, she replied.” 
“Shall we?” Stella gestured toward the house. Following my stepmother’s tentative lead, she and the men move into the house. I followed behind them. Although I ached to listen in on their conversation, I knew I did not stand a chance. My stepmother would not stand my presence. Hiding behind the wall to listen seemed like a plan, but the sight of Cynthia a few steps away sent a wave of frustration stealing me over. Defeated, I stuttered to my room and shut the door. Arms folded, I stood there, thinking of just what I had gotten myself into. My stepmother wouldn’t like this one bit. Why had Stella brought friends along with her? I had only told her about my abuse because I trusted her to keep it secret. Had I made a mistake? My bed called to me, but it seemed far off. I didn’t want to stand. I didn’t want to sit either. I didn’t want to be here. I wanted to be in the living room, listening to whatever conversation now ensued. Suspense taking hold of me, I walked to and fro. My heart thumped like a beating drum. Sick of standing, I finally decided to answer my bed’s call. Just when I lowered myself toward the bed, the door opened. I bolted upright to face Cynthia. “What do they want?” Her voice had a heated edge to it with a dash of panic. “Cat got your tongue?” Disgust settled in Cynthia’s gaze as she sized me up. “If you get my mum and I in trouble, I swear you won’t live to regret it. Whatever you told those people, better think of a way to rip it off their minds.” “What’s wrong, Barbie doll?” I asked. 

“Scared?” Wrinkling her nose, she cast me a glance that could slice through rock. I paid no heed to her and disappeared into the bathroom for a quick shower. I hugged myself as icy water met my scalding hot skin, hitting home. Even forever wouldn’t be enough to acclimatize to the merciless temperature. At this point I couldn’t tell whether I shivered from fever or from the cold enveloping me. Thoughts of the ongoing conversation in the living room littered my mind, making me almost oblivious of the cold. Done showering, I stepped into my room to find Cynthia gone. I heaved a sigh of relief and clad myself in a yellow polo and a pair of faded blue jeans. A knock too gentle to be Cynthia’s or her mother’s, brought my attention to the door. 

“Vicky?” Stella’s voice lenetrate in from behind the door. I rushed to the door and opened it, too eager to know the details of their discusion. Stella’s blank face greeted me. What news did she have for me? News of hope or news of my death? “Vicky,” she said, taking my hands in hers. “What happened?” I spilled out the words through a clenched throat. “Your presence is needed,” she said. Swallowing a lump in my throat, I nodded, willing her to go on. “Please, don’t feel intimidated. This is your chance to break free from all her evil advances.” “I don’t understand. What’s all these about?” “Helping you.” She caress my hair. “Those men you saw outside are my friends. They will help you. But you have to do one thing for us. For me. For yourself.” “What? I asked” “We need you to tell the truth, she replied. Tell it and tell it all. Leave out nothing. Can you do this for me, Vicky?” I reflected back on one of the lectures I had listened to from dad. After telling Cynthia and I a bedtime story, he had asked us to tell him the morals we learnt. The girl in the story had lied to save her family…. “I don’t understand why you chose this story,” an eight-year-old me said. “Every story you tell has moral lessons. But in this story, I don’t see any.” “You also see none?” Dad asked Cynthia. She snored in response. Stifling a yawn, I rubbed my eyes to oppress sleep and perhaps send it on exile, but it seemed to be overwhelming me. Studying me for a moment too long, dad said, “Don't fight it. Go to bed. Tomorrow is only a few hours away.” He made to stand, but I threw my arms around him. He'd been away at work all day. Now that I had him, I wouldn’t let go till sleep finally stole me over. “The story, dad,” I said, half-yawning. “She didn’t speak the truth.” “What is truth?” “Truth is…the opposite of lie?” I cowered inwardly, hating my vague answer. “Is that all?” “Yes.” “Truth is a word you must define for yourself,” dad replied. “It is much more than the opposite of lie, my dear. Much more. Defining it like that confines the word ‘truth’ to just that context, and it would be unfair, for truth is a great word, covering a multitude of sins, just like love.” I waited for a definition of truth but it never came. Dad obviously wanted me to speak before he went on. “What is truth?” I asked. Dad smiled at me. “You know now. You are my smartie. Link the story to what I’ve just told you.” He stared at me, gave me some moment to arrange my thoughts. “Now let’s hear your definition of truth.” Ijeoma had lied to save her mother from King Edochie’s wrath. And according to dad, truth covered a multitude of sins. Truth covered her mother’s sin. It kept their family together. I summed up these details. “Truth is any statement made to build up one’s family.” Proud to have a definition that sounded good in my ears, a smile tugged at the corners of my lips. “That, my sweet, is truth,” dad said. Tightening my arms around him, I said, “Love you, dad.” “Love you too, my fairy princess.”

 *** Hysterical sobs of a woman greeted me as I sailed back into reality. Before me laid a scene I could not fathom. My step mother, in tears, relaxed in Cynthia’s seemingly comforting embrace. I stiffened at the thought that Stella’s friends had hurt her. Had they? Sensing my fear, Stella placed her hand on the small of my back and led me forward. “What’s going on?” I asked, eyes round as saucers. “Do you have no regard for family?” Cynthia said, the brittleness of her voice melting my heart into a bloody puddle. Her words sliced through me like a two edged blade. “What have we ever done to you that you brought in these men and lied against us?” “I have never…” My stepmother’s voice trembled with emotions. “Never assaulted her. Why would I? Why would I work against the family I have worked so hard to build?” Stella and her friends exchanged befuddled glances, and then their eyes rested on me. My mind darted, searching for a word to say, but words eluded me. “I am Sergeant Charles Davies,” the bald man said. Like I had suspected, he had a husky voice. He tilted his head toward his partner. “Sergeant Evans Fineface of the Nigerian Police Force.” “We need to ask you a few questions,” the one called Evans said. I nodded, swallowing a lump in my throat. Although I pinned my focus on the policemen, I could see Cynthia and her mother from the corner of my eye. “Child abuse is a very serious crime,” Evans said. “We received word concerning you and we would like you to tell us the whole truth.” My wounded gaze zeroed in on the notepads in the cops’ hands. They would write down every word I uttered, or at least every word they found relevant. They had obviously interrogated my stepmother till she broke into tears. I had never seen her cry, save for when dad died. She never allowed a fellow human intimidate her. So what had these men done to her? “You should sit down,” Stella said. “We want you to be comfortable.” “I’m okay,” I said.

 “Okay,” Charles said. “Let’s start from the marks on your face. The nurse testified that they are new. You’ve had them for no more than two hours, true?” I nodded. “Donyiu mid telling us how you get them?” My mind worked fast, remembering the lie I had told Stella at the gate. “I…fell.” “You don't sustain that kind of sound from falling,” Charles said. Stella gave my shoulder a gentle squeeze, wordlessly reassuring me of her support, and reminding me of my promise to tell the truth. I opened my mouth to speak, but Evans advanced to me. He scanned my wounds with a knowing look in his eyes. “It sure isn’t,” he reported back to Charles. To me he said, “It even extends to your ear.” “I fell,” I insisted. “And then I…I scratched my face by accident.” “With what?” Evans asked, training experienced eyes on my fingers. His eyes told me he could see through my little white lie. I clenched my fists to hide my nails. But Evans had already seen them. “Your nails are so blunt for this accusation,” he said. A sudden bolt of self-defense hit me. “What? I can’t cut my nails again or what?” As though I’d whirled at him brandishing a gun, he raised his hands in surrender.

 “Okay. Okay. Let’s drop the whole scratch thing.” “Care to tell us how you got those scars all over your back?” Charles asked. He had just crossed the room to meet me. My lips stayed glued together. I could not tell them my stepmother had done that to me. I would not see her behind bars for my sake. Moments passed, and I said nothing. “Victoria?” Stella called, reminding me of the unanswered question. “Tell them. Your statement is important if these people are to pay for all the things they have done to you. Please.” My stepmother stood up. Arms folded, she said, “Tell them. Don’t be ashamed to tell them a family member was depraved enough to do this. Tell them! Go on! Tell them how your Uncle Ben assaulted you.” Stella turned to face her. “What are you saying?” “Perhaps we should turn around the question,” Charles suggested to Evans. Evans nodded. Keeping his eyes trained on me, he said, “Who is responsible for the scars on your back?” ‘Tell them how your Uncle Ben assaulted you,’ My Stepmother’s voice rang in my ears. ‘What happens in this house stays in this house. Do you understand?’ I recalled dad’s words. ‘Truth is a word you must define for yourself.’ ‘What is truth?’ ‘Truth is a great word, covering a multitude of sins.’ Dad’s voice, loud and clear, seemed as though he was standing right beside me, giving me the advice I needed to tread on the right path. I reflected back on the words I had told Stella. ‘My stepmother and her daughter make the whole world believe they love me, but they don’t.’ “Speak to us,” Evans pressed on. “Who is responsible for this abuse?” “Uncle Ben,” I blurted out. Stella’s eyes widened. She shook her head. “No. You…you told me—” “Uncle Ben did this to me,” I said. “Why are you covering up the sins of this woman?” Stella asked, pulling at my arm. “She does not deserve this act of kindness. Why won’t you speak the truth?” “I am speaking the truth,” I said. “My mother would never do this to me.” “Stepmother,” Stella corrected. 

She seems so disappointed from her facial expression. I was unable to behold her gaze, I looked away. Charles cleared his throat. He wasn't really convinced by my story. And neither did Evans. But what could they do? 

“So…a certain Uncle Ben did this to you?” Charles asked. I nodded. “Full name?” he asked. “Ben Brown.” “Ben Brown.” He scribbled in his note and looked up at me. “Father’s brother?” Again, I nodded. “Care to tell us how it happened?” “Holiday,” I said. “I went to spend holiday at his place. Dad had just passed away, so my Uncle asked me to come spend a few days with him and his wife.” Uncle Ben had made physical abuse his new lifestyle, so fabricating the story came easy. “Do they have kids?” “No.” “So…your uncle did this to you?” Charles asked. How many times would he try to verify this information? Squinting, he studied me as though the truth would leak through my features. Again, I nodded. A nod too mechanical. At least to me. I prayed they found it genuine. “Where is your uncle now?” Evans asked. “He’s an alcoholic,” I said. “Committed petty crimes. Spending seven years of his life in jail.” “What’s he jailed for? Abusing you?” I shrugged. “I’m sure his profile is somewhere in the police archives. He was arrested not too long ago. Should not be hard to find.” Uncle Ben had a reputation for abusing people, especially when alcohol held him hostage. He had beaten his ex-wife to near- death. At least when Charles and Evans found such information about him, it would put their minds at ease. Staring at his notepad, Charles flipped to another page.

 “Tell us about your health?” “My health?” I asked. Although I understood his question, I only wanted him to expanciate on it. Thinking, it would buy me the needed time to come up with another lie. “You mentioned that your stepmother neglected your health,” Stella said. “Since the death of your father, you have been struggling with what you know to be malaria. Your state of health has been off for the four years, and she won’t pay any attention to you. Isn’t that what you told me?” “Me?” my stepmother asked,  Rubbing a palm to her chest. 

She squeezed her eyes and shook her head as she clutched on to her chest like she’d just been stabbed.  Bursting into another fit of tears, she advanced to me and stuck out her hands. Before Stella could react, my stepmother enclosed her fingers around my arms and squeezed, shaking me so hard, tears started rolling down my cheeks. I sniffed, trapping the tears . “Tell me!” she cried. 

“Tell me what I ever did to you that has made you slander me like this! Tell me what I ever did to you.” “Mummy, please.” Cynthia held her from behind and made to pull her from me. “Mummy please calm down.” “No,” my stepmother insisted. “She has to tell me what I did to her. Why would she lie against me like this? Why?” She pried her hands off me and turned away, sobbing. Cynthia took over as words failed her mother. “What is our crime? Why do you go out and spread awlful lies against us? Do we not love you as our own? Doesn't mother treats us equally? Don't we attend the same school, eat when we eat and sleep when we sleep?” My stepmother sobbed, her shoulders shaking. My heart broke into pieces to seeing her cry, to hear her choke on her sob. “This is too much for me to bear,” she said. “If it had been an outsider who  threw stones at me, I would overlook it. But now, my own daughter is doing this. This is too much.” 

Guilt gnawed at my soul. The tears I thought I had trapped behind my eyes found their way out. Streaming out like rivulets, they tickled my cheeks. “Mrs. Brown.” Stella paused to make sure she had my stepmother’s attention. “If you love Vicky as you claim to, you would do something about her ill health.” “Ill health?” my stepmother asked. Her brows furrowed. “I was not informed.” Stella folded her arms. “In the presence of mutual love and understanding, a daughter would always tell her mother about her deteriorating health. But in this case, it’s obvious the love is one-sided. I would use the school’s facilities to care for her, but that would be illegal since the school provides only first aid to day students, saving intense medical care for those in the dormitory.” My stepmother waved a dismissive hand at Stella and glued the back of her palm to my forehead. “Are you sick?” I took in a deep breath, savoring the feel of her touch. For the first time in many years, my stepmother had touched me in a non- violent way. As much as I wanted this to last forever, I knew it would only be a moment before things returned to normal. For now though, I had to concentrate on my role in the movie we acted, and enjoy it while it lasted. A movie where my unapproachable stepmother played the role of a caring mother. I nodded in answer to her question. My head throbbed at the subtle gesture. “I am sick, mum.”    I stared at my stepmother to gauge her reaction, and as expected, she’d stiffened when I called her mum. But she tried hard to mask her indignation with care. “Now that this has been brought to my notice, I will see to it that you receive treatment,” she said, wrapping an arm around me. “Okay?” “She has to go to a hospital,” Stella said. “Don’t you think I am well aware of my duties as a mother?” my stepmother asked. “I know she needs a doctor. And I will take her to see one.” Pulling me out of my stepmother’s hold, Stella draped an arm over my shoulder. “We need not spare one more second. The sickness has eaten her up for way too long. I will take her right away. You don’t need to stress yourself. Just go bring the money for her treatment.” 

My stepmother’s expression had changed from care to wrath she failed to hide. Seeing through her facade, Stella went on, “If you really want to take her, no problem. But I do want to come along, just to make sure that everything goes on fine.” Stella nodded at Evans and he bought out an A4 with a typed message. Stella took it from him and gave it to my stepmother. “Here here it is.” Disbelief spread on my stepmother’s face as she read through the paper. Cynthia stared at it from her side. “This is huge,” my stepmother said. Pointing a finger at Stella. “How can you come into my house and accuse me of not been a good mother, and then try to teach me how to run my own family. But you don't even have one.” 

My stepmother locked eyes with Stella, just to rub in her last words. She no doubt expected it to hit home, but her attempt at provoking Stella yielded no result. Even if it had, Stella knew better than to express such feelings. Paying no heed to my stepmother’s game, Stella held a black pen a few inches from her face. “Take it.” “I will not sign this.” My stepmother threw the paper to the floor and folded her hands in defiance. “Leave us,” Stella said to the policemen. Once they were gone, she turned to face my stepmother. “Sign that document and free yourself from the penalties that will push through if you don’t sign it. You think I buy that little show you just performed? That can only buy you a space in Nollywood. So are you signing the document or nah?” Tentatively, my stepmother reached out and grabbed the pen. I noticed she had dropped her good-stepmother act, replacing it with pure venom. If looks could kill, Stella would drop dead. But her courage never wavered. My stepmother’s fury crumbled before Stella. Instead of getting to Stella, it bounced off the armor of esteem she clad herself in; an armor too expensive for my possession. I would give anything to show off a measure of her courage; to stand tall in the face of my stepmother’s fiery wrath without being consumed. 

My stepmother signaled to Cynthia to pick up the document. As soon as Cynthia gave the document to her, she signed it and handed it back to Stella. Stella smiled. “For a start, we need twenty five thousand Naira.” “Let me bring you the money,” my stepmother said, defeated. She made her exit, with Cynthia trailing behind her. 

“What is wrong with you?” Stella exploded. The disappointment flashing across her face could not be mistaken. So intense, it looked like rage. Or did she feel both rage and disappointment? “Do you realize you have just blown your first real chance of freedom?” she asked. “Why on earth would you shield her when all she’s done is cause you harm?” Settling in a chair to rest my wobbly legs, I buried my head to shield myself from Stella’s scorching gaze. “I’m sorry” 
“Do you have any idea how humiliated I felt when you testified against everything I told those police men? Do you? Why did you act like that? You promised me you would speak the truth. What went wrong?”

“My dad once taught me another dimension of truth,” I said. Slowly, I raised my face and held her gaze. “He made me understand that there is much more to truth than just the opposite of falsehood. Truth covers a multitude of sins, just like love. Truth, in this context, is a function of love. It is any statement that builds up one’s family. By telling those men the whole story as it actually happened, I would be tearing down this family with my own hands.” Stella shook her head. Splaying her palms in the air, she said, “This is a very destructive way of thinking. This is just…absurd!” “What will I gain if my stepmother goes to jail?” I asked. “Freedom. Uninterrupted freedom. You would finally receive justice.” “You assume that is what I’m after? Justice?” “We are fighting for your justice,” Stella said, emphasizing on her last word. “Isn’t this all you ever wanted? A chance for them to pay for their wrongs?” “This is where you’ve got it all wrong,” I clarified. “You assume I am after justice. But it’s all wrong. The only thing I’m after is a happy family. I crave a chance for love.” 
Silence fell upon the room. Stella’s eyes begged me to reconsider. They screamed out for me to withdraw from this seemingly unrewarding path I had chosen. Any sane person would grab the first chance at justice. It took a moment for Stella to break the silence. “Then I’m afraid you don’t know what you want.” “This is what I want,” I said. “It’s what I’ve always wanted. Their love. Can I get this while my stepmother is locked away in jail?” “You are fighting a hopeless war,” Stella said, taken aback by my enthusiasm. Her voice dropped to a whisper, “These people will never love you. Don’t you understand? They will never accept you.” “Dad told me to keep hoping.” I remembered him referring to hope as a bridge that leads us to where we want to be. 

“There is nothing to hope for,” Stella said, her voice flaring like fueled fire. “All these years the only thing they’ve felt for you is hate. What makes you think they will ever change?” “I don’t know.” Studying her face for a second too long, I added, “I know you are not exactly happy with my decision.” “Unhappy doesn’t cut it. I am disappointed. I just don’t understand you. No sane person would toss such a chance into the gutter.” I nodded. “I need to know if I am alone on this path I have chosen. Do I still have your support? A lone tear glided down my cheek as I awaited her response. I had been close to her for no more than twenty-four hours, but after the little time we had spent together, I doubted I could survive this on my own. “Always,” she said. Perching on the arm rest of my chair, she pulled me into a hug and smoothed her palm over my hair. “This path of yours is a crazy one. But my support is unconditional.” With her non-dominant hand, she reached for the document she had placed on the chair beside mine. “Here. I know you’re dying to see what it says.” 

Grabbing the document, I let my hungry eyes devour it. I, Esther N. Brown, hereby swear to serve the stipulated child abuse sentence if at any time it is discovered that: •My stepdaughter reports to school later than 7:30am. •My stepdaughter fails to get medical checkups every four months. •I fail to pay for my stepdaughter’s medical expenses. •My stepdaughter receives unfair treatment in my household. •My stepdaughter is not allowed to join my daughter in the vehicle that takes her to and from school. My stepmother’s reluctant signature stood underneath her name. I looked up at Stella with a quizzical look. She smiled knowingly. “Wondering if your stepmother can live by these conditions?” I nodded. She had read my mind. “Quit wondering then,” she said. “When we’re done with the hospital, I will go have this document signed by the court, after which I will make two photocopies. One copy will be forwarded to your stepmother, just so she remembers to live according to code. And if she doesn’t, oh well. We got her in a pretty tight corner. So your problems are half-solved. No credit goes to you since you weren’t exactly cooperative.” She punctuated her last words with a transmissible giggle. I mused over every effort she had made to help me. She didn’t have to, but she had taken my problems as hers. “You have been an angel to me. You’re a fairy godmother sent from above. How can I ever repay you?” Stella smiled. “A simple thank you would be just fine.” 

Walking into view, Cynthia placed a brown envelope on the armrest of my chair. “That’s all the money you need for her treatment. Mum says to get in touch if it isn’t enough.” Without waiting for a reply, she walked away. Stella picked up the envelope and peeked at its contents. It seemed to satisfy her. I could tell from the smile that crept to her face. “Let’s go get you tested,” she said. We headed out of the house and met Evans and Charles standing beside a Range Rover parked a distance away. 

“How did it go?” Evans asked. “Piece of cake,” Stella said, crushing her thumb and pointer together in an ‘okay’ gesture. She held the signed document and the money-filled envelope in Evan’s line of sight. Taking a remote control from her front pocket, she unlocked the doors of the jeep and ducked behind the steering wheel. While I sat in the front passenger seat, Evans and Charles warmed the back seat. Memories of the last time dad took me shopping clouded my mind. That had been the last time I enjoyed the comfort of a private vehicle, or any other vehicle for that matter. After his death, no one found me worthy of any means of transport other than foot.

 *** The drive, quieter than I had expected, gave me an inner peace I hadn’t experienced for eons. It felt great to enjoy the company of people who wished me no harm; people who sought nothing but my best interests. Stella and the cops didn’t blast me with tons of bothersome questions like I’d feared. Once or twice, they brought up random topics like the weather and the deteriorating Nigerian economy. Every so often, I would cast Stella a side glance. I had a confession to make. How would she feel when I told her I let the whole world see a part of me that didn’t exist? Would she find me crazy, or would she understand I did this for my family? I watched her slow down as we neared a junction. She glanced at her friends from the rear-view mirror. “You can take a cab from here, right?” “Yes,” Evans said. “Thanks for the ride.” “No, thanks guys. Really, I’m the one who should be thankful.” Pulling over, she turned to face them. “Really, guys, thanks. You’ve been really helpful today.” “It’s nothing,” Evans said. “Can you do one more thing though?” she asked. “Yeah, just name it,” Evans said. Charles shifted in his seat. But I didn’t hear his voice. I wouldn’t say he fancied the idea of another assignment. “Just forward this document to the court and have them stamp it.” Stella presented the signed document to Evans. “After that, you are to make two photocopies. I’ll pick them up tomorrow evening. Think it can be ready by then?” “Yeah, why not?” Stella beamed. “Thanks. You’re a darling.” Stepping out of the car, Evans and his partner waved us goodbye. I waved back and watched them cross to the other side of the road. 

When I looked back at Stella, it stunned me to see that she made no move to start the engine. Arms folded, she leaned back in her seat and stared at me. “What?” I asked, unable to contain my curiosity. Did I have something on my face? I gazed at my reflection in the side mirror. So far, so good, I looked normal. No horns or fangs. Nothing out of place. “Are you ready to talk now?” she asked. “Talk?” I echoed. “Yes, talk. Now, don’t act funny. I’ve been watching you. You’ve been restless. Listen, I have an idea in psychology, so I know when a person is dying to say something, okay? Now that we’re finally alone, let’s hear it.” I could really use a listening ear. Besides, it couldn’t be that bad. I had already told her the bigger things. Why then should I hide this seemingly trivial one? “What I’m about to tell you is a secret that no one else knows,” I said. Stella nodded. She waited for me to begin, but I didn’t know where to begin. I stared out through the window, training my eyes on every pedestrian. Stella’s undivided attention told me to take my time, to speak at my own pace. But we didn’t have all day. 

“What do you see when you look at me? Do you see a strong girl? Or a weak one?” My question wouldn’t make much sense to her. Even to me. But at least I’d given our conversation a head. “What does this have to do with—?” “Just answer,” I cut in. “Please.” “Brutally honest?” she asked. “Yeah, that would be really appreciated. Just tell me what you think of me.” Comforting myself with the knowledge that whatever she thought of me snaked around the false image I let the world see, I braced myself for what she would say. “I’d be a blatant liar if I called you a strong girl,” she said. “A strong person would not drink in all the abuses at school and at home. No, she would fight for what is hers. She would always speak up for herself, let her voice be heard. I wouldn’t tag you as weak either. A weak girl would not hold on to her priority the way you do. Through thick and thin, you make your family your number one priority.” “What you see is not what I am. And what you don’t see is what I am,” I said. “I mentioned that Cynthia saw everything as a competition. In a desperation to change her wrong line of reasoning, I changed me.” “What do you mean?” Stella asked. Like water prepares the ground for cultivation, with a well-thought question I would prepare Stella’s mind for my confession. “Would you perceive threats of a competition if you and your potential rival stood at extreme ends? If you were superior, and she inferior?” Stella thought for a moment. “No, I guess not.” “I thought so too,” I said. “I thought by constantly placing myself as inferior, she would forget the silliness of a competition and love would find its way into her heart. I gave up on everything I ever was.” “I still don’t get it.” The look on her face confirmed that I had twisted her brain into knots. “Cynthia wanted to be the outspoken one,” I explained. “The one who would utter just one word and the world would hail her smartness, her wisdom. I let her be the smart one. I transformed myself into the dull one, the seemingly shy one who could never say anything impressive. She wanted to be the brave one. I let her. I became the coward. The stupid one. She wanted to be one of the popular girls in school. I let her. I let myself sink into oblivion. I mastered the art of invisibility, leaving behind the social child I once was. My interest in soccer led me to join our school football club, and I excelled as a great player. It made me forget my problems. I could finally be myself, in a place she was not.” “I thought I saw her in the game against Emerald Comprehensive High,” Stella said. As the school nurse she attended every game to render her services when injuries occurred. I remembered her carrying me out of the field while I writhed on the stretcher in a pain purposely inflicted by my sister. “She joined last year,” I said. “She obviously wanted to show me that whatever I can do, she can do better. She wanted to be the best on our team. And I let her. While she scored beautiful goals, I would create beautiful goal opportunities, only to ruin them on purpose.” 

The knowing look on Stella’s face told me she remembered every goal I had missed. Our game with Emerald Comprehensive High no doubt remained fresh in her memory. Too busy pursuing a chance to score, I’d lost sight of my priority: my relationship with Cynthia. At the last moment, though, I’d thought about how she would react to my goal. She would hate me even more for being the hero. I didn’t want that. And so I’d wasted Western High’s final chance at victory. “It would be just you and the keeper and you would let the chance slip,” Stella said. “It always amazed me how a very brilliant girl in class could be so miscalculating on the field. It just didn’t make sense.” A thought occurred to her. “Talking about your brilliance in class, you didn’t sacrifice that, did you? Because if you did, you wouldn’t have won the scholarship.” My silence. The pained look in my eyes. Stella calculated. “Don’t tell me you sacrificed that too!” Again, I said nothing. “Okay, fine. Go on with your story.”

 “Actually, I had also sacrificed my educational performance,” I said. “What?” Stella’s shrill pierced through the closed windows. Alarmed, passersby stared at us till they walked past. “What was I to do?” My voice flared defensively, matching hers. “She wanted to be the intelligent one. And I let her. I forced myself to lag a great distance behind her. I just couldn’t help it. She would come home, showing off her straight A grades and few Bs. And I would go lock myself in my room, crying over my disgusting end-of-year evaluations. I mostly had Ds. Only once in a while did I let myself soar to a C.” “You would fail exams on purpose?” Stella asked. “Not exactly fail,” I corrected. “I would write just good enough to be promoted to the next class, but bad enough to make Cynthia feel secure that there was no competition because she’s by far superior in all things. But although I presented myself as lacking in all departments, father loved me regardless. He would always tell me to try hard. He would always tell me the sky is my limit and if I tried hard enough, I would rekindle my old flame. It was during the scholarship exam period I realized that if I was to keep my education, I had to unleash the brainiac in me.”

 “Why would you hide who you are?” Stella’s question hit close to home, but I held back from taking offense. Had I not already told her everything I did, I did to hold my family together? “This makes no sense,” she said. “Your self- sacrificing spirit is ridiculous. Life isn’t meant to be this hard for anyone. What were you thinking, coming up with a plan as ridiculous as this? And to think that you’ve been at it all your life. What on earth were you thinking?” “I wasn’t thinking,” I said. “I just wanted to kill the competitive spirit growing inside her is all. I wanted us to be family. I still do.” Stella regarded me with a sorry look as she watched me dab my teary eyes with my fingers. “And did it work? Everything you did, and still do, is all for nothing. They don’t hate you any less, for God’s sake! Stop this insanity.” I had been right to assume she would find me crazy. “It could have been worse.” 

“Victoria, this is far too extreme! You should never have done this! You paint yourself as the weak one, when in reality you are not.” “I have to be the weak one. Don’t you get it? I’m afraid of letting them see the real me. They will double their efforts to break me! This will break our family more than it already is. I don’t want that.” She could never understand me. Telling her had been a terrible move. “If you plan to spend the rest of your life under this pretense,” she said. “Then telling me was a big mistake. I’m sorry, but I can’t watch you waste away like this. I can’t hold back from interfering.” I opened my mouth to speak, but she held out her hand, silencing me. “I’m sure you knew I would interfere, but you told me anyway. You know why? It’s because you want me to interfere, but you don’t realize it yet, or you’re too scared to admit it.”

Starting the engine, she joined the main road, leaving me to weigh the consequences of my big mouth. She would definitely do something to bring the real me out of hiding. And I certainly would not enjoy this one bit. 

To be continued........