Out, damned spot! Out, I say!—One, two. Why, then, ’tis time to do ’t. Hell is murky!—Fie, my lord, fie! A soldier, and afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?
The blood stains would not come off. She’d scrubbed and scrubbed and bleached but they remained on all her clothes two inches beside where her belly button would be when she wore them. Nobody else seemed to pay any notice to the stains though(or at least they pretended not to), which always seemed strange when she brought it up. They’d hold the dresses and the blouses up to their faces and stare intently at the spot she was pointing out and would feign ignorance, she’d yelled at many drycleaners on account of that.
Sometimes, she felt as if she was losing her mind. She would throw all of her clothes on the ground in her room and stare at them for hours, wondering what was wrong. Maybe there was one piece of clothing that was staining all the others(she’d bought herself an entire new set of clothes more than once, discarding all of the stained ones with no effect. As soon as she wore them, they got stained). Maybe it was her skin, some sort of chemical reaction that she was not aware of, the doctors had told her that there was nothing wrong with her skin but what do doctors actually know, right? They just speculate. She had tried wearing only red clothes but that had become so strange to the people around her that after a while she’d stopped.
The increasingly frustrating part about it all was that no one at work said anything about it. It made her inherently ill-tempered to the lot of them. She owned the place, she could get away with treating them less than fairly.
The clack-clack of her shoes on marble tiling echoed across the large-ish reception area of her building. It did not drown out the voices of the other people in the building so much as emphasise the absence of them, they were terrified of her and for good reason. They did not speak in her presence unless prompted to and on days like this when her ill temper was worn on her face like a mask, even the background noise of the building seemed to hush.
Her personal assistant, a small, almost thin woman in her very early twenties who had graduated from college with excellent grades and wild optimism about her future but now spent her waking hours wishing for her two year internship underneath the designer brand heels of “Cruella”(as the entire office called her boss behind her back), scurried alongside(slightly behind) her holding up a sheaf of papers in one hand and her phone in the other ready to read off appointments for the day. Just as the first syllable left her mouth, her boss’ hand went up to silence her, she wasn’t in the mood for her schedule yet. The personal assistant tailed off to her desk to shuffle appointments.
As she reached the door of her office, she spun round, finishing the spin with a loud clack! of her heel on the floor. Every eye gravitated towards her as she surveyed the physical and figurative expanse of her domain. Her chin went up just a little bit higher but her scowl never left her face.
“Good morning.” She said, as completely impersonal as a human being possibly could and glided into her office.
As the door closed behind her, she heard the soft murmur that always followed her departure of a room and smiled a small smile, that had done the trick. She felt powerful, in control.
The lights were off in her office but habit told her where to hang her coat and scarf. She clapped twice and the lights softly came on in degrees, smoothly transitioning from pitch black to artificial illumination. She did not like natural light, it made her eyes water. She bent down to take off her shoes and slipped into the more comfortable slide-on slippers that she wore when there was no company in her office.
Her phone rang as she sat behind her desk.
“It’s Mr. Afolabi.” Her assistant said.
“Patch her through.”
Mr. Afolabi was her therapist. Titi believed that all people who were in positions of power had to have therapists. How else would they deal with the ghosts of the careers they had killed and the people that came attached to those careers? To lead, one must be able to hurt people(oneself included). Therapy helped with the guilt.
“I was wondering if you would be able to move up our tomorrow appointment to this evening.” His voice was placid, devoid of any anomalies in tone that would convey emotion. She knew he purposely made it that way when he spoke to her, that he had figured out that when she poured out her demons, she did not want a reaction.
“It’d be just fine, tell my assistant what time would be suitable for you and she’ll pass it on.”
The call ended. He was the only person she spoke to on a regular basis outside of work. She had no social life or spiritual life or any other life for that matter. She had poured her all into the company she ran.
Her phone rang again.
“Ma, there’s someone who wants to see you-”
“Doesn’t he have an appointment?”
“No, ma. But-”
“Tell him to make an appointment.”
“Yes ma. But you should know…he says his name is Chijioke. He says you’d know him.”
Her mind raced. Chijioke. She hadn’t even thought of him in half a decade. They used to date, back when she still believed in the fallacy that was love. It was before she had had her Awakening.
“Let him in.”
Her door opened soon after and he walked in. Chijioke. He was still a fine human specimen. He wore a suit that was of considerably less worth than the body that carried it deserved. Her thoughts flashed back to hot nights spent in the middle of power outages, naked as the days they were born, reveling in each other’s company and the lust that came with it. Even in those times when money was THE problem, his smile would never leave his face, the edges of his eyes would crinkle to accommodate his cheeks as his smile pulled them apart. He smiled now, as he entered her office, the edges of his eyes had developed crow’s feet from all the years he’d spent smiling. But his smile stopped there. It didn’t reach his eyes. In his eyes, she could tell that his smile was hollow.
“Titi.” He said.
Her first name. Nobody around her used it anymore. It had died along with her affiliation with anybody below upper-middle class. The name and the person saying the name flooded her mind in waves of vivid nostalgia.
She didn’t move. She still sat in her armchair, legs crossed at the knees, unresponsive. She didn’t even motion for him to sit.
He smiled again. It looked like he had expected the turn of events. She didn’t like that very much.
“You can sit if you want.”
She leaned forward in her chair and put her elbows in the table, clasped her hands together and placed her chin on top of them.
“Chijioke?” He laughed a short laugh, “you never used to call me that. It sounds strange from your lips.”
“Chijioke.” She said the name slowly, enunciating every syllable. “How are you?”
“My life’s pretty shit right now actually but I think we should get to that after pleasantries and whatnot. How are you Titilope? You look good.”
She bristled. Not visibly, she hoped.
“Look around you.” She said, twirling her forefinger in a lazy circle. “What do you think?”
“I’m not asking how much money you have. I’m asking how you are. It’s been a while since you left us…I almost couldn’t believe the Titilope Ajao that turned up in my Google search was the one I used to know…”
“Chijioke, you’ve come here for a reason other than small talk. What is it?”
He was getting her annoyed with all his talk of the past.
For half a second, he looked hurt. It broke her down a little. She remembered his little sister, Chioma. She’d been like her own little sister.
“How’s Chioma?” She finally said.
“Ah, you see…” He ran his fingers through his hair, “Chioma…” He visibly struggled to get his words out. His eyes had turned glassy with tears that pride would not allow to drop. “Chioma is dying.”
The words hit her heart first before it registered in her brain. Her heart began to race in her chest. He continued to speak about her condition, how she’d been diagnosed with some form of cancer, how she’d been given months to live, how he’d spent all he had and more on treatments that didn’t work, how she wasn’t even conscious at that moment… The words didn’t register properly. Instead, images of a 16-year-old Chioma stormed through her mind, the girl had had too much life to now be on the brink of death.
On the surface though, she was stoic.
“The last doctor I met told me that he knew someone that could try an experimental treatment on her. It could kill her quicker, but it could also save her life.” He said, once he’d gathered a bit of his composure back.
She stared at him, chin on clasped hands, unmoved.
“I have no more money. I have debts I’ll be unable to pay off in my lifetime…” He continued, “you’re the only hope I have left.”
“How much does the procedure need to be done?” She asked.
“32 million naira.”
“What chances of survival did the doctor give her?”
His face fell. He knew what was happening.
“He gave her a 10% chance of survival.”
She sighed audibly, almost dramatically.
“You can see how those odds do not favor me investing that sort of money…”
“INVESTING?” He yelled. “This is a human life we’re talking about! This is Chioma for fuck’s sake!” He was standing now, utterly incredulous.
“Look Mr. Momah…” His surname. He fell to his knees, beaten, broken. There was no more pride. The tears flowed freely down his cheeks.
“I just want a chance to get my sister back.” He said, so low it was almost a whisper. “Give me something, I’ll find the rest.”
“No, you won’t. You said it yourself. This is your last resort…”
Before she finished, he’d gotten back to his feet, smoothened out his shirt and walked out of her office. He did not say a word to her nor did he turn his head to see her again.
Her hand unconsciously went to wipe at the blood stain on her dress.
“And why did you decide to turn him down? You’ve told me how you empathised with him while he told you what was happening, so why did you still turn him down?”
Mr. Afolabi’s was stately without being overbearing. It had the usual trappings of the archetypal psychotherapist’s office. A wall was hidden behind a bookshelf stacked to its fill with books on subjects ranging from psychotherapy to medicine to philosophy. Wood paneling trimmed the entire office. A huge desk and seats took up one half of the office, the half facing the massive window. The other half only had three pieces of furniture: two high-backed armchairs and a chaise lounge. She’d never used the lounge. She preferred to look in his face as he looked in hers.
“It made little financial sense. She had a 10% chance of survival. The risk was too high.”
“But this was not a financial dealing. You were never going to get the money back even if she survived. This is purely emotional and I know you know that. I’d prefer if we didn’t mess around with untruths Mrs. Ajao.” He said it completely devoid of expression. She smiled. Best therapist imaginable.
“I couldn’t do it. To have given him the money would have made me vulnerable. In my business, vulnerability is not excusable.”
He took down notes.
“Are you still seeing the stain?”
She tensed. She was not comfortable talking about the stain. She was convinced in her head that it was a real stain but even Mr. Afolabi had told her that her head was deceiving her. It suggested that her mind was weak, it had a vulnerability and by extension she did too.
“Yes. Yes I am.” She half-whispered.
She looked down at her midsection. She was wearing an off-white dress with black linings and surely enough, the stain was there, same size and shape as it always was.
“Yes. Even now.”
He took notes.
“Are you still taking the medication I prescribed?”
She nodded. She never missed a dosage.
He stared at her through wire-rimmed glasses. It felt like he was inserting a probe into her soul.
“What you will do now for me, Mrs. Ajao, is tell me about your past with Chijioke Momah.”
She lay on her back staring straight up at the fan on the ceiling, willing it to move. It was night and there had been no electricity for three days straight and they were running out of saved up water. The heat and humidity had robbed her of comfort and the shortage of water had robbed her of the brief respite of a cold shower. She couldn’t sleep.
Chijioke had no problems sleeping. He lay on his stomach, naked as she was, one arm across her stomach like an innate need to protect her. She liked that about him. He always said that he had only two things of value in this world and they were his sister and her. He set out everyday trying to prove it. They were both in the University of Lagos, both in the final year of their programs, both almost entirely broke. He worked half-and-half jobs to pay his and his sister’s fees, accommodation and feeding. She got just enough money from her mother to pay her fees and she lived with him.
She used a finger to lazily trace circles along the skin on his arm. His stomach growled loudly and his body tensed in pain. He’d gone to bed hungry again. He would often lie to Chioma that he’d eaten when the food available was not enough. Chioma never believed him, she was old enough and smart enough to understand their lack but young enough to be able to replace those unwanted thoughts with other trivial things. Youth always held that charm.
She was still staring up when, like an answer from the divine, a siren wailed in the distance and the fan began to turn. Slowly enough at first that she almost thought her mind was playing tricks on her and then the creak of rusting mechanisms followed and she said a silent thank you to the universe.
Chijioke shot up from the bed like a man possessed, his eyes were red and dried up drool clung to the edge of his mouth. She smiled at his ridiculousness.
“Chioma! Wake up and go and put on the pumping machine and come and carry the big drum to fill” He yelled, still not fully aware of his surroundings but well aware of his mission.
“You and Sister Titi should wear cloth abeg! I don’t want to come and be seeing the evidence of your fornication.” Chioma yelled back from the other room.
The fact that Chioma called her ‘Sister’ meant a lot. Every time Chioma would say it, she would feel this fierce wave of protectiveness wash over her. She loved the girl.
Chijioke almost literally jumped into a pair of boxers and rushed into the bathroom to gather buckets while she tied a wrapper around herself. Chioma came into the room and they both carried the big drum to a tap, Chioma rattling out words as they came into her head as she always did and she listening and laughing.
Later that night, when all the water had been fetched and the whole compound had been rid of the flurry of action that punctuated their night’s sleep, she would peek into Chioma’s room as she slept soundly, smiling before walking back into the room she shared with Chijioke. She would kiss the top of his head and whisper how much she loved him into his ears, she would listen to his breathing and watch his chest rise and fall and wonder how such little things as those came together to make one person fall in love with another.
Towards the end, her voice had started to shake. Nostalgia had forced emotion back into her heart before she was ready for it. She stared at her toes that peeked out through the front of the shoes that she was wearing. She missed that life. She missed the laughing and the crying, she missed the people, she missed loving and being loved in return.
“What happened? Why did it change?” Mr Afolabi asked.
The question swirled around for a while in her head before she answered. She had graduated from the University, lobbied and secured a scholarship to the UK for postgraduate studies. She still remembered the small “party” they had had in their apartment when she told them the news. They all cried the day she left, even Chijioke who normally would never let what he called “weak emotions” show. There she had lived a life that had convinced her that returning to the struggle she’d endured was foolish. From then, she had cut everyone off to focus on her career. She had felt bad, guilty even, but the guilt had been drowned out by duty a long time ago.
“Life is a balancing act, Titi. Too much focus on one thing often means not enough focus on another thing and I think deep down in our subconscious, we can tell when we are swaying too wildly to one side. I think some things we experience are our subconscious trying to tell us to check ourselves.”
“Are you talking about…?” She was reluctant to say the word ‘hallucinations’.
“I cannot answer that question. I do think that you have a more important decision to make. You have to question whether you value your invulnerability above emotion.” His voice never rose or dropped and octave. His face never shifted to show emotion.
She paused to think for half a second.
“I think I have a call to make.” She finally said.
“So you do.” He replied and just before she excused herself from the room, she could almost swear that she saw the ghost of a smile cross his face.
“Did you collect his number when he came?”, Titi asked as she walked hurriedly towards her car in the parking lot of the office building. Her driver was waiting.
“Yes, ma”, her PA replied. She made a mental note to give the woman a raise the next day.
A moment later, her phone buzzed and a message with Chijioke’s number and address popped up in the notification bar. She dialed the number twice and got the “the number you’re trying to call is currently switched off” message twice and mentally thanked God her PA was overly efficient enough to have gotten Chijioke’s address.
An hour later, the car pulled up in front of a two-storey apartment building in Ikeja. The building was old and definitely in gross violation of health codes. As she came down from the car and made her way into the compound, she remembered the life that she’d had, imperfect that it was and the life she could have after that day, without the constraints of insufficient finances. She imagined the look on Chijioke’s face when she told him she’d changed her mind and she imagine Chioma waking up and seeing her again. She smiled.
“Sorry ma. Abeg you sabi Chijioke Momah?”
The woman had been spreading clothes on a line at the side of the building when Titi asked her. She nodded and pointed up.
“As you dey climb the stairs so, this first storey, the door wey dey your left. Na there him dey.”
“Thank you ma.” She smiled at the woman.
“Na your boyfriend?” The woman asked, prying, as expected.
“Ah no ma.” She laughed.
“Ehn na wetin una dey always talk.” The woman said with a huge grin on her face.
Titi smiled as she walked up the stairs. She couldn’t help it. She missed Chijioke. She knew she’d fucked up in her office but he’d forgive her. She knew he would.
She got to the apartment door and knocked. It swung in a little. Unlocked. Not even closed properly. Strange. She stepped in.
The apartment wasn’t big by any standard. He must have heard her. The parlour was empty. Maybe he was in his room, brooding, chewing on his lower lip like always used to when he was thinking of how to make money for them to eat. He walked towards the room and saw him lying on the bed.
“Chijioke.” She said.
Still nothing. She shook her head and smiled a small smile. Still a heavy sleeper. A piece of paper was on top of the drawer beside his bed. It had a pen on it like he’d just used it. She picked it up and read.
“If you know or care enough, I couldn’t bear to watch her die.”
The realisation dawned on her as she noticed that his chest did not move and he lay. There was no breathing. An empty bottle of pills and a half full bottle of water stood on the headrest.
Her mind spiralled.
No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No.
She lay her head on his chest. No heartbeat. Her mind clouded over. Her thinking stopped. A scream tore itself from her throat and tore the air apart along with her mind. Soon after, the woman from downstairs would rush into the apartment with Titi’s driver close behind to see her in the corner of the room, one hand holding the midsection of her dress up and the other attempting to scrub off the bloodstain that just wouldn’t go.