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The Girl Who Lied

The first time I saw Kemi she was causing a scene. Everyone stopped to watch—the boarding house staff, the students they were checking in, and the parents carrying luggage into the hostels. In front of the hostels, in the open space where cars were parked, a woman stood by the back door of a shiny Land Cruiser with dark tinted windows, struggling to wrench herself free from Kemi, whose hands were locked around her middle. Kemi was holding on from behind, her body bent at the waist. Her face was buried in the small of the woman’s back and her feet anchored in the sandy ground. Dark sunglasses covered the woman’s eyes, and she was muttering through stiff lips. The driver’s door flew open and a short, harassed-looking man hurried out of the car. He grabbed Kemi around the waist and pulled, his eyes bulging. When he managed to rip Kemi from the woman he carried her, kicking and screaming, off in the direction of the school matron’s house. I wasn’t surprised by the laughter that had erupted around me, but I couldn’t join in. Clearly, she was new here, like me; and she looked about eleven, so she would be a Junior Secondary 1 student, like me. I knew I could easily have been her, holding on to my mother’s wrapper and begging her not to leave me in this school in the middle of nowhere.

That evening, after a short welcome address, the matron assigned hostels, rooms and bed spaces to us J.S. 1 students, the new entrants. The rooms—each with sixteen bunk beds and lockers arranged along both lengths of the walls—felt dense, the air inside thick with the heat of bodies. The windows were few and small, and the ceiling fans slow. I was shown to my bed and locker and I immediately started unpacking my things, to distract myself from what I would be missing for the thirteen weeks or so that the school term would last—my father’s catfish peppersoup on rainy nights, sitting in the cocoon of my mother’s thighs as she massaged coconut oil onto my scalp. I tried to take comfort in the chattering voices around me, but they were mostly from senior students who were by now comfortable in this place that felt so strange to me. I glanced around the room and took count of the new students—they would be the wide-eyed ones in uniforms that were still crisp like mine, not frayed with time and usage.

I felt oddly pleased to find Kemi sitting cross-legged on a lower bunk bed at the other end of the room, her body appearing smaller than it really was. She was chomping on something out of a red packet and looking into space. I stuffed the last of my things inside my locker and made my way to her bed, where I stood trying to appear casual, looking at her until she looked back.

“My name is Tola,” I said. When she didn’t reply, I nodded at her boxes, massive and unopened on the floor. “Won’t you unpack your things?”

She eyed me for a few seconds before looking away. “When I’m ready,” she mumbled through the Maltesers in her mouth.

I waited for her to say more. When she didn’t, I said, “You were the one holding your mummy’s waist this afternoon. That was you.”

She laughed. “You saw me, ehn? Was it good?”

I wasn’t sure what she meant by “good,” but I wanted her to know I could relate to how she was feeling. “You’re not the only one,” I said. “I wish I could follow my parents back home too.”

I was surprised when she sneered.

“What, you think I’m a baby?” she said. “Please, I was just playing.”

Kemi resumed her staring and chewing, and I realized I’d been dismissed. As I went back to my locker, I decided that Kemi was a spoiled brat—her mother’s car and the big boxes, surely filled with expensive assorted goodies, the entitled, familiar way she chewed on the Maltesers. I told myself I didn’t want to be friends with her.

I lay on the narrow bed after lights out, that first night at Lagos State Girls’ Secondary School, Badagry, and stared into the dark. I imagined that, instead of standing by and watching my father’s old Peugeot disappear after my parents had dropped me off, I’d chased the car out through the school gates and all the way back to our flat in Ajah. Traveling down to the school that afternoon, leaving the noise and madness of Lagos behind and negotiating the potholed roads that ran through several kilometers of Badagry forest, my mother had sung along with the radio. My father bobbed his head and tapped the steering wheel to the rhythm, and I looked out the window at the green. Going back home with the car emptied of me, I wondered, could they have heard the songs the same way as before?

I liked to think not. I liked to think that my mother had cried, dabbing tears from her eyes and second guessing bringing me here; and that my father had patted her shoulder with his free hand, comforting her in his quiet way. Here, I was alone. It was dark, and as the room and its people slowly settled into sleep, I let go of the tears I had struggled all day to hold in.

The next morning, I woke to Kemi shaking me.

“It’s wake-up time,” she said, peering into my face. She stood waiting, her towel wrapped around her, empty red bucket in hand, while I fumbled out of my night dress. With the warm weight of sleep still snug around me, it felt natural to follow her, with my bucket, out of the room. The memory of her snobbery the day before had grown distant and I felt a gratitude I could not explain. Her towel, red to match her bucket and slippers, seemed to glow before my eyes, a beacon I could not ignore. In the predawn dark outside, surrounded by other bleary-eyed students, we lugged buckets of water from the taps to the communal bathroom, a square expanse of concrete floor enclosed by four walls and lit by fluorescent tubes.

After surveying the bathroom with disdain, Kemi lifted her bucket and wove through the bathing girls. She led us to a vacant spot by a corner and set down her bucket. She unwrapped her body, folded her towel into a neat square and set it to hang on the handle of her bucket. I tried not to let my eyes linger on Kemi’s chest, tried not to think how flat mine was in comparison. Desperate, I cast my eyes downward. A mistake. I couldn’t help wondering if the darkness below her navel was a trick of the fading dawn. I set my gaze on Kemi’s red bath bowl as it floated on the surface of the water in her bucket. She picked it up and took out a bar of soap that smelled sweet enough to eat.

“You want to bathe with your towel?” she asked me drily.

I kept a straight face and peeled my towel off, trying to adopt Kemi’s ease even as she watched me. The warmth of my towel was replaced by a crippling self-consciousness as the air hit my naked skin. By the time I had my towel folded Kemi had emptied two bowls of cold water over herself, without making a sound, and was lathering soap onto her skin in vigorous strokes, her teeth gritted against the chilly air. I scooped up water in my bath bowl and held it suspended, away from my chest.

“Is it cold?” I asked Kemi, and she stared incredulously at me until I looked away. I kept my hand hanging and took a deep breath. “Okay, I’ll count to three and then pour,” I announced to no one in particular. “One… Two…”

Kemi’s hand shot forward and she emptied a bowl of cold water over my head. I shrieked, surprising myself and silencing the other bathers for a moment with the sound. Kemi ignored my glaring eyes and clapped her hands as she laughed, sending soap suds flying.

When she was done laughing, she fixed me with a gaze so solemn it was almost uncomfortable. “Don’t worry,” she said, “I am here to help you.” And then she smiled. “Even if it means bathing you myself.”

Around noon that day, the J.S. 1 students were herded into the school’s assembly hall for the first item on our orientation program: the “School Tour.” We were divided into seven large groups, each one led by a teacher brandishing a cane. Kemi and I stuck together and ended up in the same group. Our teacher and tour guide, Mr. Yusuf, had a mustache that threatened to slip into his mouth with every word he spoke. Kemi whispered something about the mustache resembling the brush of a long-handled broom.

Mr. Yusuf led us from the assembly hall to the dining hall to the principal’s house and staff quarters. Then he steered us toward the hostels, and just beyond them, to the chimpanzee that I had noticed when I first arrived yesterday but had been too preoccupied to fully ponder. Its head jerked up as we approached, and it watched us, still and alert. We stopped a respectful distance away and Mr. Yusuf pointed with his cane.

“This,” he said, “is Chaka the chimpanzee.”

Chaka’s muscled body was coated with dark brown hair. Its eyes, gold-flecked and somber, held a kind of sadness. It pouted its lips, and then spread them to show yellowish teeth and dark gums. We chuckled as it picked its teeth with a twig held in almost human hands.

“Don’t think that because it looks like you, you can play with it,” Mr. Yusuf continued. “This animal can be dangerous, so never go too close to the cage.”

“If it is dangerous, why is it here?” Kemi asked.

“Good question. But raise your hand next time,” Mr. Yusuf said. He licked his lips. “Part of the land on which this great school was established… And when did I say the school was established?”

“Nineteen eighty-four!” we all roared.

“Very good,” Mr. Yusuf said with a grin. “But remember to raise your hands. Part of the land that was given for the school used to be a wildlife conservatory.” His eyes darted from one face to another. “And who knows what a conservatory is?”

Nobody volunteered an answer. “Nobody?” he prodded.

Kemi sighed and, her voice heavy with reluctance, said, “A place where animals are kept.”

“Brilliant! But like I said, raise your hand before you speak, ehn,” Mr. Yusuf said. “A wildlife conservatory is a place for keeping and protecting wildlife, wild animals. So part of the school, the extreme toward the principal’s house, which you have seen, used to be a conservatory. When the government allocated the land for the building of this great school, the animals were moved, but it seems Chaka was forgotten, or left behind. The authorities never came for it, so it has been here since, like an inheritance. Who knows what ‘inheritance’ means?”

Kemi rolled her eyes as eager hands shot up. The question got answered and the students were quiet again. 

“Can we feed it?” somebody asked.

“No. Feeding Chaka is the job of Sovi, one of the school’s caretakers,” Mr. Yusuf said. “You will see him around as time goes by. Never feed Chaka.”

“Why can’t we feed it?” Kemi asked, her hand stubbornly fixed beside her.

“I have just said that that is Sovi’s job. You want to try feeding it so it can bite off your finger? That has happened before to a stubborn student like you. After that incident, she got the nickname of Philo Four Fingers.”

“Can Chaka kill people?” Kemi asked.

By now I wanted to clamp her mouth shut with my palm. Mr. Yusuf seemed to be struggling for words. Kemi filled the silence.

“What if it breaks the cage one day and escapes? What if it enters the hostels one night when we are sleeping and goes to somebody’s bed?”

“Why are you asking these stupid questions?” Mr. Yusuf said, glaring at Kemi.

“You said we could ask questions,” Kemi answered, her face unflinching and guileless.

Mr. Yusuf stared at Kemi a moment longer; then he smoothed his mustache. “Moving on,” he said as he started to march off.

The other students, now subdued, followed Mr. Yusuf quickly, me and Kemi falling behind. Kemi met their accusing glances every time, holding their stares until they looked away.

After lights out that night, Kemi came to my bed. I had just started to drift off into sleep when she tapped my shoulder and whispered to me to move over. I blinked in the darkness, up at where I thought her face would be, and a question formed on my lips and lingered there. With an impatient sigh, she sat on my bed and pulled her legs up, forcing me to make room. I turned my back to her, but my eyes stayed open. She shifted around for a while, trying to find comfort. And she found it, moulding her body into my stiff back. Her breath tickled my neck, and before long I could tell she was asleep. I stayed awake long after, not understanding my need to decipher the language her body spoke in sleep: one of murmurs, sighs, and grinding of teeth, unguarded and unrehearsed.

It was our first Sunday at the school, and a visiting evangelist was part of the orientation program. Muslims had been sent to the mosque and Christians, with Catholics grudgingly following, to the chapel hall. At Girls’ Secondary School you could only be Christian or Muslim, and attendance at church or mosque was mandatory. Kemi could pick a side, a luxury that many students envied—as they did her well-known last name. She said her parents never went to church or mosque or anywhere. I found this lack of definition unsettling, but Kemi had no problem with it. She enjoyed watching Muslims perform their ablutions with water and had had a Muslim student teach her the steps. But she said she liked to dance as well and was looking forward to showing off her skills in church.

“All heads bowed and all eyes closed!” It was the evangelist.

The silence was absolute.

“The Bible says!” the evangelist thundered on, “that there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth! And it will be forever!”

I heard Kemi’s frustrated sigh beside me and marveled at her lack of fear, but I didn’t dare open my eyes to look at her.

“You might think that you are still very young,” the evangelist said, “but you are no longer children; you know right from wrong! God is watching, and all your sins will be played on a big screen in heaven on judgment day. All of you who tell lies, hell is waiting for you! You stole your bunkmate’s bath water? Hell is where you are headed! You lied to your parents for extra pocket money? Hell! Except! Except if you become born again today and turn from all those evil acts. Don’t wait until tomorrow; what if you don’t wake up in the morning? What if, as we are leaving here, the trumpet sounds and God calls His people home? Where will you go?”

The answer was silence, broken only by intermittent sniffles from around the hall.

“Who will come to Jesus today?” the evangelist said, his voice now gentle.

There was rustling and the creaking of wood as students shifted on their benches. I cracked my eyes open long enough to glimpse anguished faces and raised hands, and to see that Kemi’s hands were beside her, fingers tapping noiselessly on the bench. I closed my eyes again, raised my hand and repeated the words the evangelist said, inviting Jesus into my life yet again, just in case that other time with my parents wasn’t enough. In case my salvation had worn off.

I could breathe easier after the prayer; the air seemed lighter somehow. But the evangelist was not done. He raised his voice again.

“There is somebody here! You need special deliverance from the forces of darkness!”

“God, when is this going to end?” Kemi muttered.

“Yes! Somebody here, they are oppressing you. They come to you in your dreams! Stand up and identify yourself, and be set free!” he said.

The hall remained quiet for a while. Then, “It is me, Pastor!”

I opened my eyes to see Kemi already on her feet, her hands lifted high above her head. “It is me!”

Hushed exclamations filled the hall. Kemi’s name was in the whispers.

“Today! You will be delivered! Come out, sister!” the evangelist said, thrusting a fist up in the air.

As Kemi walked slowly to the front, I felt numb with dread. But I was also relieved that now, without having to ask, I had a possible explanation for Kemi’s foray into my bed the other night. It must have been these people, these dreams the evangelist spoke of, that had frightened her.

“Tell us what happened,” the evangelist’s voice was fatherly as he addressed Kemi. “The truth will set you free.”

“I have been having…dreams,” Kemi started. “This woman is always coming to me. She is very fair, like a white woman, with long hair, and she wears a long gown; a gold and shining gown. And she has a crown, with ‘queen of the sea’ written on it.”

I thought there was a mythic quality to the woman that Kemi was describing—like a demonic villain from one of those Mount Zion Faith Ministries movies my parents loved to watch. Or like the ghost lady, Madam Koi-Koi, who haunted the school’s dorms, described differently by every girl that claimed to have seen her, except for one thing: her high heeled shoes that went “koi-koi” on the concrete floors. But who was I to question Kemi or the deliverance she was about to experience?

“What does the woman do to you?” the evangelist prompted.

“She is always calling my name, saying,” and Kemi said this next bit in a voice I didn’t recognize; a booming masculine voice. “‘Kemi, Kemi, come and join the sisterhood! You have a mission!’ Then I shout no and start running, and she starts chasing me…but…but when I turn back to look at her, her legs are not moving. And she doesn’t even have any legs; she has a fish tail! And it’s as if she’s floating on air, and her long hair is made of snakes. Red snakes with tiny yellow eyes! Then I fall down and bang my knees against the ground, then when she is about to catch me, I shout, ‘Jesus!’ and I wake up.”

“Hallelujah! That is the name of Jesus for you–”

“And when I wake up,” Kemi said, “my knees ache, for like two days!”

“The devil is a liar,” said the evangelist. “Sister, what is your name?”

“Kemi…Kemi Oyewole-Kamson.”

“Sister Kemi, deliverance has come to you today. I will pray for you.”

The service ended soon after, but the evangelist kept Kemi a few minutes longer. I waited for her outside the hall, and as she emerged I was surprised to see a smile on her face. It was not like any smile I had seen on the faces of the newly delivered. There was mischief in it. She gave me a quick wave and I stood waiting, expecting her to join me. Instead, she approached a group of girls standing in a huddle outside the hall. They had also witnessed the service, and as she got closer to them their voices grew hushed and they eyed her with apprehension. But I watched Kemi start talking to the girls, her arms gesturing wildly, and before long their wariness melted into laughter. I couldn’t make out any words from where I stood, but I didn’t need to. There was a look of satisfaction on Kemi’s face as the girls doubled over, holding their sides and laughing. One of them even had to grip Kemi to keep from crumbling to the ground. I found a place on the hall corridor and sat, arms folded, my eyes fixed on the floor between my feet. With every spurt of laughter that I heard, the urge to go there and drag Kemi away from the girls grew. I wondered what could possibly be funny about Kemi’s problem, and why she was turning it into some kind of performance.

After the girls dispersed, Kemi came to me, laughing. “Why didn’t you join us?” she asked. “I was telling them about the queen of the sea.”

“So that’s why you left me here, ehn,” I said as I stood. “You knew I was waiting for you.”

“You should have come if you wanted to; I didn’t ask you to sit here like a statue.”

I ignored the sting I felt at Kemi’s words and asked, “Why were they laughing? What was so funny?”

Kemi stared at me, a smile slowly breaking out on her face. “Don’t tell me you believed it too,” she said, her laughter coming sharp and unexpected. “I should be in Hollywood!”

“You made it up? That’s not funny, Kemi!”

“But it is funny,’ she sputtered. “You believed it, and those girls I was talking to just now, they believed it. And the pastor! Did you see the pastor’s face? Queen of the sea, really? I almost started laughing in front of him.”

It occurred to me then that Kemi was unlike any person I knew. I’d never known anyone to trick a pastor like that, and have him not see through it; never had anyone sneak into my bed without warning and steal my sleep, disappearing by morning and causing me to doubt the verity of the memory.

“You need to be careful, Kemi,” I said. “What if something had happened to you in the chapel?” 

“Something like what?” Kemi challenged, her hands on her hips.     

“Like with Ananias and Sapphira in the Bible!”

“Ana who? Abeg, nothing happened. I was just joking around.”

“You don’t joke with God. I’ve heard of people who–”

“Relax, Tola!” Kemi said. “I don’t know why you’re so afraid of everything.”

“I’m not afraid of everything!” I started to walk away, hoping that would settle it. Kemi followed.

“You’re afraid of God,” she said.

“The Bible says we should fear God.”

“You’re afraid of the matron and all the teachers.”

“I respect them,” I said, quickening my pace. “It’s good home training.”

“You’re afraid of Chaka the chimpanzee.”

“He bites people’s fingers off!”

“You’re afraid of senior students. You can’t say no when they send you on errands.”

“Doesn’t mean I’m afraid,” I said. At this point I wanted to start running, or stuff a handful of sand in Kemi’s mouth to shut her up.

“You’re even afraid of your classmates, J.S. 1 students like you!”

I stopped walking, causing Kemi to almost run into me. “That’s not true!”

“Ehn? Then that day when Jemila tried to get in front of you on the queue at the dining hall, why didn’t you say anything? You just let her, and I could see you didn’t like it. If I didn’t shout at her and tell her to go and join at the back, she would have taken your place just like that. And you were just standing there, looking at her like a mumu. Are you a fool?”

I choked back my tears and opened my mouth to tell Kemi she was wrong. But my voice came out as a croak. I swallowed and tried again.

“You’re insulting me, abi,” I said. “Don’t worry, I won’t insult you back. God bless you.”

With that I ran off to the library where I hid my face in a book and cried. Kemi had no right to assume that she knew me so well after only a few days. So I liked to avoid trouble; it didn’t mean I was afraid of everything. And what if I always obeyed the seniors; wouldn’t that make them like me? And was it such a bad thing to let people take my place on a queue sometimes? It was better than starting a fight over it. I wondered why Kemi wanted to be my friend, since she thought I was such a fool. I decided I would keep my foolishself away from her and see how she fared. When she got into trouble, as was sure to happen the way she was going, it would not be my concern. I would watch and be secretly satisfied every time she got punished.

When I heard the bell for dinner, I stayed put, ignoring my protesting stomach. Kemi might look for me in the dining hall, and I didn’t want to talk to her ever again. I sat there in the library throughout dinner and night prep—Kemi would see me if I went to class—after which there were only a few minutes before lights out. Inside our room, I had to pass by Kemi’s bed to get to mine, and my eyes sought her out against my will. She wasn’t there, and it didn’t matter. She was probably under the almond tree behind the hostel, re-enacting her chapel performance for a fresh group of girls. I changed into my night dress and lay on my bed, trying to take up more space than my skinny body needed. There would be no room for Kemi here if she tried to squeeze in at night. I closed my eyes.

When the first bell for lights out sounded, I felt a presence beside my bed.

“Tola.”

I said nothing.

“Tola, I fetched your bath water for you, for tomorrow.”

I opened my eyes to see Kemi’s hopeful face. She said, “There were many people at the taps. You should have seen how I struggled. See, I’m sweating.” She wiped her forehead with the back of her hand and thrust the evidence at me. “See.”

I told myself I was accepting her unspoken apology so easily only because Christians weren’t supposed to hold grudges and I was a peacemaker. I resisted the urge to smile. “Thank you,” I said.

She smiled and pushed my bucket of water under my bed for safe keeping. As she went back to her locker I shifted on my bed, to make space for her in case she needed it.

We were on our way to the hostels one day after afternoon prep. The sun was beating down on us as Kemi told me yet another version of how she’d woken up in the middle of her appendicitis surgery and watched the doctors the rest of the way without flinching.

“I’m telling you, I saw when they brought out my appendix,” she said. “It was so red, but so tiny! And there was so much blood, as if somebody poured a whole bottle of Ribena on me. I mean the big size bottle, not the small one.”

As we passed by Chaka’s cage, we recognized a few girls from our class standing around it, at a safe distance. They were making chimpanzee noises at Chaka, trying to get it to stop picking at its genitals and scare them off. Kemi stopped.

“You people are cowards!” she called out.

“Ha!” one of them replied. “You want to go near him? He’ll bite you!”

“What are you afraid of? It’s just a chimpanzee,” Kemi said.

“Oya, you go and touch it now, Kemi the Brave,” another girl taunted.

“You think I can’t go there?” Kemi asked, walking toward them. “I will go there, and I will touch that cage. Dare me!”

“I dare you! In fact, I triple dare you!” another girl said, her eyes blazing.

“Kemi, what are you doing?” I knew even before I said the words that they would not stop her.

Kemi shrugged off her backpack and strode toward the cage. I called out more warnings while the other girls stared, their skepticism giving way to awe with each step she took. Fully convinced that Kemi had no intention of stopping, I ran to catch up with her and grabbed her arm.

“What are you doing?” I said. “Stop it!”

She tried to pull herself away but I held on tight, and soon we were locked in a bizarre tug-of-war. She turned around to face me, and with more force than I thought she was capable of she shoved me away from her. Her face was a picture of twisted desperation. She didn’t even wait for me to hit the ground before she resumed her march toward Chaka. I watched from the ground, too stunned to do anything more.

Chaka raised its eyes as Kemi reached the cage and gripped the metal bars. Kemi met the chimpanzee’s gaze and held it for what seemed like several minutes. I opened my mouth to tell Kemi to let go, that she’d fulfilled the dare. But Chaka was quicker. It sprang from its perch and grabbed the front of Kemi’s uniform through the spaces between the bars of the cage. It held on, banging her body over and over against the cage. The girls screamed as blood broke through the skin of Kemi’s forehead and nose. They picked up stones and sticks to hurl at the chimpanzee, but the missiles just hit the metal of the cage with a clang and fell away. Just as I thought to run for help, Chaka let go of Kemi and she landed on the ground, buttocks first. Then she fell back, her body flat on the sand. All the while she’d made no sound.

The other girls reached Kemi, and they took hold of her arms and dragged her away from the cage. When they had moved her a good distance they stopped and surrounded her. I forced myself up from the ground and ran to Kemi, shoving bodies aside to make room for myself.

“Kemi! Kemi, wake up,” I screamed, trying to shake her conscious. Tears were starting to gather in my eyes, blurring my vision. The crowd around us was growing.

“Is she…” Whoever it was, they couldn’t say the word that was on all our minds. As I knelt there staring down at Kemi’s still body, I knew I should have tried harder to stop her. I should have stood in her way, fought her to the ground.

Kemi’s eyes popped open and her swollen lips spread wide in a smile. I found the white of her smile, the ease of it, disturbing, at odds with the blood on her face. She sprang into a sitting position, her head almost colliding with mine. The girls broke into a cheer as someone helped Kemi to her feet and others brushed the sand from her clothes and hair. Like a small wave, the crowd carried her a few meters away, leaving me kneeling, watching the imprint her body had left in the sand. I struggled with a mixture of relief and annoyance as I retrieved Kemi’s bag with a shaky hand. Chaka had gone back to the mystery between its legs and Kemi, cocooned within her newest crowd, acted out being banged against Chaka’s cage, her body convulsing back and forth. Somebody offered her a tissue and she dabbed it against her forehead and nose, contemplating the blood that came away on it with a pleased look. I parted the bodies and took Kemi by the hand, announcing that we were going to the school nurse. The others quickly lost interest, and Kemi and I walked alone to the sick bay.

“Do you think the nurse will wrap a big bandage around my head?” Kemi asked. “Like those ones in films when someone has a car accident.”

I said nothing.

We reached the sick bay and I presented Kemi to the nurse. She frowned as she sat Kemi down and started to clean her wounds. “How did you get these injuries?” she asked.

“From Chaka. I wanted to give him a hug,” Kemi said. “Because he was crying.”

The nurse’s hand went still on Kemi’s forehead as she stared at her. I turned to Kemi, trying to read her intentions on her blank face.

“That’s not true, Ma,” I said to the nurse.

The nurse turned to me. “Then what happened?” she asked.

I swallowed and glanced at Kemi, trying to decide whether to defy her warning eyes and tell the truth. But I concluded that the truth—that Kemi had got herself injured on a dare—wasn’t much better than Kemi’s obvious lie.

“I don’t know,” I said, looking at the floor.

The nurse regarded me for a moment. Then she said, “Since you two won’t tell me what happened, maybe you’ll prefer to talk to the matron.”

She stepped out of the sick bay and sent a wandering student to fetch the matron. The nurse returned and started to cover Kemi’s wounds with small strips of bandage. Then she gave Kemi some Panadol and water. The matron arrived shortly after.

“I don’t know what happened to this student’s face,” the nurse said to the matron, “and they won’t tell me. But I think it has something to do with Chaka.”

I stood leaning against a wall, wishing I could disappear into it. The matron’s eyes passed over me and settled on Kemi.

“Kemi Oyewole-Kamson! You again?” she said. “Only last week you were punished for misbehaving in class. What is this now? Maybe it’s time I spoke to your parents about your behavior.” Kemi tried to keep her face glum even as her eyes lit up at the mention of her parents. The matron looked from Kemi to me and back. “What happened here?”

Kemi spoke up quickly. “Tola wasn’t with me, Ma. She only helped me to the sick bay.”

After the nurse confirmed that Kemi’s injuries weren’t serious, the matron dismissed me and asked Kemi to follow her to her house. I went to the hostel and waited for Kemi, praying she wouldn’t get into trouble. I could only imagine the way I would feel in her position. The thought of having my parents summoned because I had behaved badly felt physically painful.

Kemi was quiet when she returned from the matron’s house. She went to sit on her bed and I joined her moments later.

“What did the matron say?” I asked.

“She’s not calling my mummy.”

I let out a relieved sigh and wondered, considering the good news, why Kemi looked unhappy. “What’s wrong?” I asked her. She drew her legs up to her chin and hugged them close. I tried another question. “Why did you do that, with Chaka?”

I waited a long time for an answer that never came.

I knew she would come to my bed that night, and I was waiting. I heard her approaching and I feigned sleep, resisting the tension that crept into every muscle. Her face felt wet tucked into the space between my shoulder blades, and it occurred to me that she might be crying. I wanted to say something to comfort her, but words were like smoke in that moment, difficult to grasp. I lay still, let her body curve into mine. My vigil began the moment she fell asleep.

My mother came the afternoon of the first visiting day of the term, just as she had promised. The parking area in front of the hostels was crowded with cars and the families of students. I had been standing outside the hostels for a while, craning my neck to look up the road for my mother and hoping Kemi would get fed up with this and go inside without me. But she was still standing there, the bruises on her face from her encounter with Chaka now barely discernible against her dark skin, when I made out a figure with my mother’s rolling walk.

As my mother approached, it struck me how old and tired she looked. My eyes welcomed the familiar pattern on her iro and buba, but I could see now, for the first time, how badly the colors had faded. I pictured Kemi’s mother, her face smooth like a mannequin’s, her hips sheathed in denim trousers that my mother could never pull off. And there was that big shiny car Kemi’s mother had. For the first time, it bothered me that all my family had was the rickety Peugeot.

My mother spotted me and called out with a wave and a smile. My own smile didn’t come as easily.

Kemi followed when I went to my mother. I stepped into her open arms and buried my face in her neck—she smelled like curry leaves and asun and home—my happiness mingling with my shame at seeing my mother through Kemi’s eyes. When I let go, my mother handed me the raffia bag she had brought with her, and I bit back my disappointment at how light it felt. When she was done looking me over—complaining about the mosquito bites that marked my skin and how I’d lost weight—my mother noticed Kemi hovering beside us with a half-smile.

“Is this your friend?” my mother asked.

“Yes, Ma,” Kemi answered with a cute curtsey. “My name is Kemi Oyewole-Kamson.”

I could tell my mother recognized the family name. But she only smiled and, noticing the fading bruises and scabs on Kemi’s face, asked, “What happened to your face?”

Kemi laughed. “It’s nothing, Ma. I got up one night to pee, and it was dark, so I didn’t see the door. I walked into it.”

My mother frowned her concern as she examined Kemi’s face, clicking her tongue, trailing her fingers around the bruises, asking if they still hurt. Kemi said they did a little, and as my mother fussed some more Kemi’s eyes found mine. She smiled a challenge at me, and I could almost hear her daring me to tell the truth about her face.

At my mother’s suggestion we walked to one of the school shops to get drinks. As we went, she explained that my father was out of town on business and that he sent his love. She talked about home; how it was so quiet with me and my brother away, and that he was doing well at university. Between all of this, she would turn to Kemi, as if to make sure she was still there, and ask how she was and if her parents were coming to visit. We sat down at the shop with our drinks and Kemi stayed the whole time, making my mother laugh with highly embellished stories of our first days at the school, like how she’d had to chase me around the large bathroom with a bowl of water on our first morning, to get me to take my first cold bath. I watched Kemi charm my mother, part of me thinking I should be upset, or at least a little jealous. But there was a need in Kemi’s eyes that was new to me; and, not for the first time, I felt something like pity for my friend. This feeling was as sure as it was puzzling.

Kemi remained with us until my mother was ready to leave. I took the bag my mother had brought for me inside the hostel, to empty it into my locker, and then I went back out to walk with her to the school gates. Kemi stood too. My mother told Kemi that she didn’t have to go with us if she didn’t want to, but Kemi insisted she did. Kemi was quiet as we walked, and my mother talked about her hair salon, and how she had put off hiring an assistant for yet another month. At the gates, my mother held both our hands and prayed for us. Then she asked Kemi to wait while she took me aside.

“Your friend, she is from that Oyewole-Kamson family?”

“Yes, Mummy.”

“See, your Daddy and I were right. For an Oyewole-Kamson to come here, this must be a good school.”

“Ehn…But the food here is not sweet, and we wake up at five every morning, except Saturdays and Sundays. And the teachers like to cane us–”

“Tolani, stop complaining,” my mother scolded gently. “You should be thankful that you can come to school here. You know how much we are paying.”

“Yes, Mummy,” I mumbled at the ground.

“Don’t worry, before you know it six years will pass and you’ll finish from here.” She laughed, “What am I even saying, by the time you become a senior you won’t remember all this your whining. You’ll want to stay another six years!”

“No, Mummy,” I laughed, snapping my fingers over my head for emphasis. “Never, never, never.”

She looked past me. I followed her eyes to Kemi squatting and drawing figures in the sand with a twig.

“Is your friend OK? I hope somebody will come and visit her.”

“I think her mummy is coming.”

“OK. I hope she is a good girl. Remember what the Bible says about friends—evil communication…”

“Corrupts good manners,” I said.

Was Kemi corrupting my “good manners”? I didn’t think so. I still prayed every night as my parents had taught me to. But I remembered that on those nights when Kemi came to my bed, it was harder for me to form the words to talk to God with her body taking up that much space. Would He approve of her breath like fingers teasing my neck, of her skin hot against mine, of her smell that lingered on my pillow?

Looking at my mother’s face, I wanted to tell her everything. And I would have, before. I would have told her that Kemi made up stories and behaved badly in church; that she disrespected seniors and mocked teachers, and that I had to constantly see to it that she didn’t get us both into trouble too often. I could have told her that Kemi liked to hike up the skirt of her uniform when she sat in class, or anywhere, and that she kept doing it even after Mr. Dibia had caned her six times, even when she knew people could see her underwear. I could have told her that Kemi liked the sight of her own blood, cutting her nails so close to the skin that spots of red sprouted and that she no longer bothered to pretend it was a mistake. I could have told her about Chaka, and how even after that incident, Kemi still sometimes walked too close to its cage, laughing when I rushed to pull her away.

But I wasn’t sure my mother would see that, in spite of all these things, Kemi was not “evil.”

“I heard her father has three wives. What a terrible environment for a child…all that fighting and suspicion, and maybe the wives even use juju.”

“She told me she and her mother have their own house. Only her uncle lives with them,” I said.

“Hmm,” my mother was reluctant to concede. “Maybe that’s a little better. Still, it’s not ideal…Does she go to church?”

“Yes, Mummy.” I smiled. “She didn’t use to before, but I made her start going.”

“Good girl.”     

My mother pulled me close and wiped something from behind my ear with her thumb. Her voice was suspiciously casual when she spoke again. “When did you say your mid-term break was?”

“Next two weeks,” I said.

“Hmm…OK…” I knew she had more to say and I waited for it. “I saw your matron when you went inside your room with the bag. I asked her and she said students can stay back in school for the break if they want to. They will give you food, just as normal, and the matron and some of the other staff will be here to look after you.”

My mouth fell open. I could already hear her next words.

“I think it’ll be better if you just stay here in school for the break,” she said, without looking at me.

“But Mummy, I want to come home!”

She sighed. “I know, but the break is not long; it’s only for three days–”

“Ehn, I still want to come. Everybody else will go home!”

“The matron said there are always some students who stay back. You won’t be the only one.”

“No, Mummy, I want to come home!” I said as I stamped my feet, tears forming in my eyes.

“My dear, don’t cry,” my mother said, enfolding me in her arms and patting my back. “It’s not that we don’t want you to come home, but there is nothing in the house. Your daddy and I have spent so much on you and your brother’s school fees, and now we’re just managing at home, eating beans all the time. And I know how much you hate beans. There’s no point spending all that transport money to come home, and then when it’s time to come back there’s nothing much to give you. Or you want to come and eat beans with us every day?”

My mother held me close, making jokes about beans, and I knew it had been decided. “Be a big girl, OK,” she said as I choked on my tears. “We’ll come and see you next visiting day. Daddy will come too. We’ll buy more things for you. Just manage for now.”

After giving me and Kemi final hugs, my mother left. I watched her through the school gates until she got into a bus. Kemi and I walked back to the hostel in silence. My eyes felt swollen and my nose was dripping snot. I felt ashamed and hoped Kemi would pretend not to notice my face, at least for a while. She didn’t. She said my face looked like a pumpkin when I cried, and she went on to re-tell the story of the last Halloween she had spent with her cousins in the US and how the carved pumpkin had appeared in her dream that night to tell her a scary story. I let Kemi’s voice wash over me, grateful to her for sparing me, in her own way.

It was past six p.m., the official close of visiting time, when Kemi got a message that she had a visitor. She lit up at once and sprang from her bed, tugging at my arm and saying I had to meet her mother now. I wondered why the visit was so late, but I realized that, unlike other parents, the Oyewole-Kamsons would not need special permission for this. We hurried out of the hostel and saw the only car left outside: the black Land Cruiser looked bronzed in the light of the setting sun. As we approached the car, the driver’s door opened and the short man from the first day, who I now knew was Kemi’s mother’s driver, got out. He flashed uneven teeth at us.

“Ah, Kemi,” he said, “how are you?”

Kemi looked past him, into the back of the car. “Where’s my mummy?”

“Em, she has traveled to Dubai, today,” he said quietly, as though he was afraid to be heard. “I just dropped her at the airport; that is why I’m late. But she sent plenty things for you–”

Kemi ran back into the hostel, leaving me with the driver. After a moment of awkward silence, he let out a sigh and went behind the car to open the boot. He hefted out a large bag.

“Please…take this to her, ehn. Her mother sent it.”

I held the bag by the handles and turned to leave. Then I remembered the mid-term break and told the driver about it; Kemi should get to go home, even if I wouldn’t. He thanked me and got into the car. I carried the bag in, panting, and set it down in front of Kemi’s locker. As on that first day, she was sitting on her bed with her legs crossed, looking at nothing. I sat beside her.

“Sorry your mummy couldn’t come,” I said. And after a while, “Won’t you check what she sent for you?”

“You check.”

I opened the bag and found enough in it to last a whole term: boxes of cereal, sugar, tins of milk, cans of sardines, groundnuts, chocolates and chocolate chip cookies, packets of candy, juices and sodas, and even bottled water. My bag had contained a sack of garri, a packet of sugar, one small bottle of groundnuts, one tin of Milo, and one sachet of milk. I opened Kemi’s locker and started to arrange the things into it, cheered by the thought that I would get to partake of them. I glanced at Kemi’s face and immediately felt guilty. It was a good thing I let her have my mother for the afternoon.

That night, after lights out, the other J.S. 1 students in our room gathered around Kemi’s bed, as they sometimes did. Kemi sat in the middle of her bed, and the rest of us spread out around her on the bed and floor, disciples waiting for her stories to bless our ears. The mood was festive in the hostel, resonant with the students’ joy at seeing their loved ones again after weeks in school. Nobody was enforcing the rules of lights out. We passed around a plate of somebody’s home-cooked fried rice, the glow of a flashlight the only illumination.

“Kay-Kay,” one of the girls said. They called her Kay-Kay, these people who were not her friends. “Is it true that you have really seen Madam Koi-Koi?”

Many students said that part of the school was built on the grounds of an old cemetery, and that the school was therefore haunted. Madam Koi-Koi was the ghost of a teacher who’d had an affair with a former principal and had ended up murdered, poisoned by the principal’s jealous wife. Her body was buried in the cemetery, the story covered up, and now she roamed the school grounds seeking revenge against all female humans. I doubt that any of us really believed the stories of Madam Koi-Koi sightings, but we indulged in them. Kemi had told her own Madam Koi-Koi story many times; each version was slightly different, but nobody ever pointed that out. They were too taken with her: the way she could switch accents and make her voice scary and then soft, like she’d done that day with the evangelist; how she would stand to act out her descriptions; the masks she could contort her face into.

“Kemi has told us that story many times before,” somebody else said. “Aren’t you tired of it?”

“Yes, something new,” another girl demanded.

I wished I could make them disappear, these girls who kept pecking at her, looking to be entertained. Some had even taken to calling her KKTV, and it seemed like she enjoyed it, like she craved the attention. But it made me think of her as a fly caught in a spider’s web, resigned to its fate. The dignified victim. I was always alone in the crowd that followed us. I was the only one who noticed how the light would sometimes fade from her eyes, right in the middle of a story. I was the one who knew she was as restless in sleep as she was awake. I was the one who sacrificed sleep, those nights she would come to me, to listen, to match my breathing with hers, to make my body into shapes that allowed her to be.

“Have I told you about my appendicitis operation?” Kemi said. There was a chorus of yeses. Kemi continued, “And how I got lost when I traveled to London with my mummy to see the Queen?”

Kemi ran through a list of stories, all familiar, all recycled times over. Then she fell silent, like a deflated balloon.

“No more stories from Kemi,” somebody said, with a sigh that was really a challenge. These girls, they came and went from Kemi’s life as they pleased, taking the bits of her that they liked. There was an unspoken consensus among them: Kemi was fun, in small, carefully selected doses.

“Have I told you,” Kemi said finally, her voice a whisper, “about The Man of Night?”

Kemi paused, and we grew still with her. The murmuring of the other students in the room faded into silence in my ears.

“He lives in the shadows,” Kemi continued. “And…you know how in horror films, something will happen in a dream, but the person feels it when they wake up? That’s what The Man of Night feels like. He will come when you’re sleeping. He will whisper things in your ear and make you relax. You can’t see him; even if you open your eyes, all you’ll see is black. But you can feel his hands…touching you…But nobody will believe you when you tell. You’ve come again with your stories, that’s what they will say. Because you’re the only one who knows. You’re the only one he comes to at night.”

After a long silence, one listener asked, “So what happens next?”

“He follows you,” Kemi said. “He follows you everywhere.”

Kemi went quiet after that, ignoring the girls’ questions and promptings. This story, without scary voices or song and dance, was not the kind they had come to expect from their KKTV. I, too, was struck by this Man of Night, but in a different way than the other girls. Something about him felt real. Perhaps because Kemi did not perform him like she did her other stories, the way she let her stillness be the story. Perhaps because, as the girls peeled themselves away, Kemi allowed herself to sit there with nothing more to give, nothing left to make them stay.

It was not the kind of day when bad things happened. The sky was cloudless that afternoon, and there was an air of celebration in the school—the midterm break was barely a week away. It was laundry day, and I stood beside Kemi’s bed, my arms piled high with clothes, trying to get her to come out with me.

“I don’t feel well,” she said, her words muffled by the pillow her face was buried in. I was skeptical. Any moment now, I knew, she could be entertaining a small crowd, as though a switch had been flipped somewhere inside her. I was not going to do her laundry for her.

“Sorry, ehn,” I said in my sweetest voice. “I’m going to wash by the well behind the hostel. There are too many people at the taps. You can meet me there when you’re feeling better.”

There were three other girls washing clothes by the well when I got there. I put my pile of laundry on the ground, and then I lowered my fetching pail into the light brown water in the well. The girls were loud and excited, talking about all the things they would do when they went home for the break. I resisted the urge to point out that the break was only three days long and that they couldn’t possibly do all of those things in that time. I was still upset about not getting to go home, but a scab had grown over the pain now. It also helped somewhat that Kemi didn’t seem excited about the coming break. Whenever I complained about not being able to go, or tried to get her to talk about her plans for the holiday, she would shrug and give a vague “we’ll see.”

I was rinsing out my clothes when I saw Kemi approaching in the distance. I noticed she wasn’t carrying any clothes, and I looked back down at my washing. I knew that if I looked at her sulking face long enough, she would persuade me to do her washing yet again. When she got to me, I would try my best to avoid that face.

I heard the screams first, and then there was a splash. I looked up to see the other girls rush toward the well and I followed, fighting to disbelieve what I suspected had happened. My fingers felt wooden as I clutched the rim of the well and leaned over to look inside it. Kemi was there at the bottom of the well, the water reaching to her chest, gazing up at us. There was a patch of red on her right cheek where her skin must have scraped against the sides of the well. Other than that, she seemed unharmed. I did not let myself imagine what might have happened had the well been deeper, with enough water to bury her completely. One of the girls ran off to get help as more students, alerted by the screams, approached the well.

“Kemi! Are you OK?” I called down. “What happened? How did you fall inside?”

Another girl, one of the three who had been by the well earlier, glanced at me. “She didn’t fall,” she said. “She jumped.”

It shouldn’t have made sense to me that Kemi would jump into a well, but it did. The well had a high concrete rim; it would be difficult for anyone to fall in by accident. And then there was that time with Chaka, and the feeling it left me with: a sense of the inevitable. I had never pictured Kemi sitting at the bottom of a well, staring up at the world, but seeing her now, I got the feeling that it was always going to happen.

“Move away…make way,” the matron panted, running towards us. I saw some of the tension on her face ease when she looked inside the well and saw that Kemi was conscious. She grabbed the closest girl she could reach.

“Go and call Sovi immediately!” she said. “Tell him to come with his strong rope.”

The matron shouted questions down at Kemi as we waited for Sovi, the caretaker. But Kemi remained silent and lowered her eyes. Sovi appeared shortly with a length of rope coiled around one shoulder. His walk was not any more brisk than usual, and he was wearing the brown shorts and once-white singlet that seemed to be his only items of clothing. He glanced into the well, his face not registering any surprise at finding a girl inside it. Then he looked up and started to whistle a tune as he considered his surroundings. He walked toward the tree that stood not too far from the well, and he took the rope from his shoulder and tied one end around the tree’s trunk, tugging at it to test its hold. Satisfied, he lowered the other end of the rope into the well, where part of it disappeared under the water. Sovi gripped the rim of the well and eased himself over slowly, one leg finding a foothold first, and the other joining in. Then he transferred his grip from the well’s rim to the rope. His muscles bunched and strained as he made the torturous journey down the well, finding footholds to support his weight as he slid lower.

When Sovi finally stood in the pool of water at the bottom of the well, Kemi looked up at him. He said something to her and she nodded and sniffled. He helped her up, but when she tried to stand on her own she crumpled back down with a scream and a splash. Sovi turned his back to Kemi and squatted in the water. Kemi held on to his shoulder, grimacing as she arranged both arms around his neck and aligned her body with his back. Sovi patted Kemi’s arm and took a deep breath, preparing himself for the climb. Then, wearing his resolve as proudly as he did his brown shorts, he held on to the rope and started up. As he climbed higher, I noticed that Kemi’s right leg was hanging limp.

When Sovi emerged from the well, the matron unwound Kemi from his back. I fought my way through the watching students to Sovi’s side, where Kemi was laid down. Her clothes were dripping wet and tears escaped from her eyes, which were squeezed shut against the pain. I tried to comfort her with words I do not now remember, but if she heard me she gave no sign. At the matron’s direction, Sovi lifted Kemi off the ground. They started toward the sick bay and I followed, leaving the gawking students behind. I tried to catch Kemi’s eyes, but her face was turned away from the world, buried in Sovi’s chest.

Sovi put Kemi down on a bed in the sick bay while the matron talked with the nurse. Kemi kept her eyes closed, and I could see the muscles in her cheeks work as she clenched her jaw. I knelt beside the bed and stroked her hair, watching the wetness from her clothes spread through the bed sheets. The nurse briefly examined Kemi’s leg and shook her head. Kemi was scooped up into Sovi’s arms again, and the matron, the nurse, Sovi, and I hurried toward the matron’s house. There Sovi gently laid Kemi across the back seat of the matron’s car, and the nurse and matron drove toward the school gates.

A few hours later, we stood in a single file, us four witnesses, before the vice principal, the matron and Kemi’s mother.

“You girls were there when it happened?” the vice principal asked from behind her wide desk, looking at each of us in turn.

“Yes, Ma,” we answered.

Kemi’s mother sat on the other side of the vice principal’s desk, her back turned to the vice principal, eyeing us. Her face gave nothing away, and her eyes reminded me of the tinted, polished windows of her car. The matron stood beside the vice principal like a guard.

“Please, Ma,” I asked, surprised that I could, “where is Kemi?” I wasn’t sure which of them would answer, but I didn’t really care.

“She is in the hospital,” the vice principal said, looking slightly displeased. “She broke her leg, but other than that she is fine. Now, tell us what happened. Kemi has refused to say anything.”

The girls looked everywhere but at the panel of adults. 

“Did she fall into the well by accident?” the matron prompted. “Did someone push her?”

“There is nothing to be afraid of,” the vice principal said, impatience creeping into the soothing tone she was trying to adopt. “Nobody is going to punish you for anything you say here.”

“She fell, Ma,” one of the girls said.

“It’s true, Ma,” the others agreed quickly. One added, “She was bending, to draw water, then she fell inside the well. That’s all we saw.”

I was not surprised that they would lie. We all knew that saying Kemi had jumped could get her into trouble. The vice principal and matron looked relieved. Kemi’s mother’s face stayed blank.

“Well,” the vice principal sighed, “the doctor said she will be fine once her leg heals. We thank God for that.”

“Good thing that well is not very deep,” the matron said. “Or we might be telling a different story now–”

“She jumped,” I said. I felt every eye in the room turn to me, but I kept mine on the wall behind the vice principal’s head.

“You said what?” the vice principal asked.

“Kemi jumped,” I said. “Nobody pushed her, and she didn’t fall in by accident.”

Kemi’s mother leaned forward and fixed her eyes on me for a long time. When she finally spoke, it was to say one word: “Liar.”

I looked at her then and saw something flicker in her gaze. Seeing her struggle to believe her own accusation, I almost felt sorry for her. Then I remembered Kemi’s face after she’d been carried out of the well.

“She jumped,” I said again.

Maybe if they knew she had jumped, someone would try to see beneath Kemi’s surface, see the trouble that I had sensed but could not understand. Maybe somebody could help fix her—and not just her legs. Maybe she would be all better when she came back.

“You can go,” the vice principal said after a long silence.

We filed out, careful to make as little sound as possible, me ignoring the accusing glances the other girls threw my way. Outside the office, the girls went ahead and I paused just beside the door. I heard the matron say that I couldn’t be sure of what I’d said, that eleven-year-olds weren’t in the habit of throwing themselves into wells.

As I approached the hostels after prep that evening, I saw Kemi’s mother’s car. I wondered if she was still in the vice principal’s office and, if so, what they were talking about. Kemi’s mother suddenly emerged from the hostel gates, rolling one of Kemi’s wheeled boxes on the ground. Behind her, the driver carried Kemi’s mattress in a bundle on his head. He offered an apologetic smile when he saw me.

Kemi’s bunk stayed empty the rest of the term. I made promises to myself: I would be a better friend when she returned. I would do her laundry all the time; even her homework, if she wanted me to. I would share in her pleasure when the other girls gathered around her, calling her KKTV. I would make her sleep in my bed every night, and we would never fight again.

One day, a few weeks into the next term, a new mattress, with its new owner, found its way to Kemi’s bunk. I wanted to rip this girl and her mattress to shreds and make her know she did not belong there. Kemi had left her imprint in that space, and this stranger could never hope to fill it. Nobody could. Instead I cried. And I slowly started to accept that Kemi was not coming back.

I have asked myself, in the years that have passed since the day I last saw her, would I have told the truth if I’d known that it could mean never seeing Kemi again? I would like to say yes, that I was capable of putting her needs before mine; that I would have suffered the loss if it meant a chance at saving her. But I don’t know this. Maybe I would have taken a broken Kemi over no Kemi, and closed my eyes to all the things I didn’t understand. Or maybe I could have loved her into wellness with time, all by myself, and changed the story.

When I pray for Kemi now, the words come to me like notes from an old song. I have carved a grove into myself with these words. I pray that she is not alone. I pray that she no scars. I pray that she is not wet and broken, that my last memories of her might become a lie, a story I tell myself to take up space. And some nights I swear I feel an answer, the ghost of a breath on my neck. 


A version of this story first appeared in a print issue of Ploughshares

Uche Okonkwo

Uche Okonkwo has an MFA in Fiction from Virginia Tech, and a master’s in Creative Writing from University of Manchester. Her stories have been published in One Story, Ploughshares, The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2019, Lagos Noir, and Ellipsis. She was the 2019 Bernard O’Keefe Scholar at Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and a 2017 resident at Writers Omi. She is currently the George Bennett Fellow at Phillips Exeter Academy (2020-2021). She is working on her first short story collection.