Books and food.
Those were the two things that had kept me sane and happy for the past sixteen years I had been alive. My mother used to say that my face lit up like the candles we used to read books with when we used to live in our village, a small place, deep in Akwa Ibom. But like the fire in the candles, she was gone too. Leaving just my brother, father and me.
I tried to bring Eno into it but, I don’t know, he just prefers to stay on his iPad all day, playing games. It wasn’t like that when I was ten though, but I guess it’s different now.
I loved school, contrary to what most of my mates would say, I loved learning and absorbed any and everything I could. It was fun to me, the whole process, but sometimes, school drained the enjoyment out of it, making it a cold, mechanic thing.
I got to class that day early as I normally did. I made it a point to be early for class, no matter what. It started out because I wanted to leave the house with my brother as fast as possible before my father woke up. He was always… unstable in the mornings. Leaving early kept Eno safe so leave early we did.
As the classroom was suddenly filling in with faces I had grown to know over the years, I prepared my fake smile.
“Uyai, how far o.” John said, shaking my hand before he took his seat two seats beside me.
“Hi Uyai,” a girl waved from the front. I waved back with a smile. Some people called me one of the popular kids. But that was so far from the truth. I had just realised that if you smiled and acted as outwardly as possible, less people stopped to ask you what’s wrong.
Like why you had worn the same shoes for the past four years. Or why you were always early but left late. Or why you took a break from every class at 12pm in the afternoon.
My mother died in a car crash when I was ten and since then, I’ve had to somehow become a father and a brother at the same time, struggling to keep everything together.
With all this and school, I had to keep up appearances, hiding the tears beneath warm bright smiles and witty anecdotes.
It was the only way I could stay sable.
The only way I had known.
I was wondering why Mrs Anyanwu was coming late, she never does that. Even when she was pregnant, she still came to the school.
I saw Ebube, Teni and Lisa all file in at the same time, they had some sort of click in the class. They matched all their jewellery and hairs styles. It seemed like a lot of stress to me, but then again, it was their bodies, none of my business.
And then, he walked into the classroom.
He wasn’t anything much, lowcut with a strong jawline and brown eyes that could pierce even the darkest heart. He was around my height and the way he carried himself, he made even our drab uniform look fashionable.
But then again, Efe made everything fashionable.
I steeled myself as he approached and smiled at me, raising his fist for a fist bump and I raised mine, our hands connecting and he went to his seat behind me.
I didn’t understand the way I felt about him, but I knew I wasn’t meant to.
There was a word for people like me who felt this way, a dirty word. And I knew that if anyone ever found out, that word wasn’t the only thing they’d throw at me.
I had prayed and prayed against the feelings bubbling inside me but they never changed. I had never even told anyone about them, I had a lot of people to talk to but none of them were my friends. I didn’t trust them. And I couldn’t tell Eno about it, I would never burden him with something that was my problem.
He was too young even, too fragile.
My reverie was interrupted when a man walked into the classroom. The confusion in the class didn’t even need words to be understood: where was Mrs Anyanwu?
The man was tall with a thin frame. His head was bald and he had sharp cheekbones. He wore a wine suit with a bright red tie that stood out among the dark colours. His eyes were large and a strange shade of brown, it was like they were dark and bright at the same time.
I didn’t stare at him for too long, it felt wrong somehow, did normal boys stare for that long? If they didn’t then how long were you supposed to stare for?
He had an easy smile, no lines around his face so he was probably in his early twenties. I don’t know but something about his presence was electrifying somehow. To the point that I wasn’t even properly listening to anything he was saying.
It was when John asked a question and he answered that something rang inside my head, something that told me that there was a problem.
Substitute teachers didn’t just come in and introduce themselves, where was Mr Chinedu, our principal? It was weird, here was this man, in our classroom teaching us maths and nobody but himself had introduced him. Did our principal, Mr Chinedu, or Chin Chin as we called him, even know that this was happening?
Regardless, Mr Anisan, was actually a great teacher. I was already weeks ahead of class but normally, other classmates would come to me to ask when I would be free so I could explain to them but this time, it didn’t happen. Everyone nodded like they knew what this man was saying and they were even taking notes.
For my class, that was a stellar improvement to the headbanging the week before.
Still, the man stuck in my head, his strange demeanour, this aura he exuded. Something about him was off, and deep inside me, I knew I was right.
I was walking out of class with some guys to our next class, a Chemistry lab practical that I loathed. Chemistry was one of my least favourite subjects. The formulas and reactions always running circles in my head. I had to study twice as hard to understand it and that always bothered me.
I stood with John and Ebuka as we all packed our stuff and like always, they had to be disgusting.
“Look at that one, her ass looks good today.” John said, rubbing his chin.
“Naa, I’m more of a boobs guy,” Ebuka said his eyes following our classmate, “What I would do to that Mọ́remi babe ehn.”
“You guys,” I said, laughing to not seem threatening. “These girls are people, you know. So maybe we shou—”
John jostled me. “Uyai, what’re you saying? They’re just babes, my g. Ahn ahn, are you a fag?”
The word made me wince inwardly. I hated that word so much, it sounded so dirty and wrong. A painful stab in my chest. But they, they used it with smiles and laughs, to them it was funny, to me, it was anything but.
I laughed with them, covering up my mood, like I always did and we went for our lab practical. I let them walk in front as I used my sleeves to wipe away the escaped prisoners from my eyes.
As we left, I saw Miss Agnes harassing the Mọ́remi girl John and Ebuka talked about earlier and I told them to go on without me, that I had to use the toilet.
I ran to Mr Chinedu’s office and luckily, he was just coming out.
“Ah, Uyai, our star student, how are you?” He asked with a smile on his face.
“I’m fine it’s just uhm, there’s an issue happening in front of our classroom that I thought you could help sort out.” I said hurriedly as I turned back to leave, Mr Chinedu’s confused expression staring at my back.
The day passed like a blur until the dreaded moment came. Most people wanted to leave school, in fact, they looked forward to it. I, was scared of it. Home, meant him. And I tried my best, for Eno’s sake to avoid him as much as possible. When my mother was here, he was a better man, he smiled and laughed. But as she left, so did the light in him.
He’d been jumping from job to job, drug to drug, woman to woman, all the while our savings were going down fast. I had to even sell some of our clothes to make enough money for groceries. He didn’t ask questions about where they came from. I suspected that he was too drunk to even notice. But I knew we needed to do something quick.
I was running out of shirts.
Eno, somehow was blind to all this. To him, our father was this great man who was just suffering from a setback. Whose time to shine was like a glacier, slow moving but inevitable. But I knew it was deeper than a temporary lapse, something in that man had died and was never coming back and after what I saw the night before, I found it hard to have faith in him. He was like an empty husk now.
I went to the primary school side of Riverside and got Eno from his class, his gleeful expression was all I needed to lift me up for the day. I loved him more than anything in the world and I would rather let everything burn than see him hurt for even a second.
We walked home as he told me about his day. Normally ten-year olds aren’t particularly interesting but the way he narrated his day, it made me interested in how Ayola had taken his pencils but Sarah had seen him take it so he confronted him and got them back, even reported him to the teacher.
He skipped as he held my hand, looking up at me. “So, what about you?” He said. “What happened in school?”
“Nothing much, I said, but, well—” I paused .
“Tell me,” he said, dragging my hand as I gently pushed him to the side so he only narrowly missed a woman selling fruits on the street. She was talking to the man who shined shoes. I overheard them talking about a robbery the night before, someone had broken into the jewellery store apparently, stealing something very important.
“We had a new teacher today, Mr Anisan.” I said. Spotting our house at the end of the street.
“Oh, what was he like? Was he old or young? Was he skinny or did he have a,” he made a semi-circle gesture on his stomach, “big stomach.”
I smiled at him. “He was young and skinny, he was fun too and he actually taught well.”
“Like daddy, does!” He said, letting go of my hand and skipping into our compound as we reached it.
“Yes,” I said, quietly. “Like daddy does.”
I went into the compound to our house that had only been sustained by some supernatural power. I fished the key out of my pockets as Eno was busy jumping about. But as I was about to slide the key into the lock, I smelt something and moving closer to the door, I knew what it was.
I opened the door hastily and Eno saw him first, and he screamed. It was a sound that hurt my very soul, one that made my heart ache even more than what we saw.
It was our father, lying in a pool, of his own blood.