“Any regrets?” Captain asked.
I stared at him. “I forgot to ask his name. I don’t know his name.”
Captain smiled. “Well, too bad dead men don’t speak.” He walked to where I stood and stared at the man. “Remarkable, Biancavitch.”
My hand unfroze and I let the gun down.
“You know what Biancavitch means?”
“Bianca Witch, because you love to move about in the dark. You remind me of a witch.”
“There’s something disturbing about you. Let’s not also forget the dark sense of fashion and the personality you hide away in oversized sweaters with hoods.”
“That doesn’t make me a witch.”
“But you don’t care that everyone around here calls you that behind your back. In fact, you enjoy it. You love being different. At the same time, you can be quite anything you want to be. Like an illusionist or shapeshifter.”
He sounded impressed.
“I should christen you Biancawitch, but that would be too boring. Vitch sounds… sexier. Biancavitch.”
The name stuck from that morning. Everyone began to call me that. I tweaked the spelling later to Biyankavitch because friends called me Yanka, a moniker that caught as much as the pet name I grew up with, which was Bibi. But I didn’t feel like Yanka or Bibi anymore. That morning, my heart died with the man I killed. Emotions, feelings, all things warm and sentimental went with the blast of that gun. The Institute did that to you. It pushed you down the slope of forgetting your humanity.
For me, it started with an eight-year journey away from home. I had been abducted on the night of my eighth birthday, taken from my bed while my family slept, after a long day of partying. The men who took me dumped me in a place called The Academy. When morning came, and I was awoken from my drug-induced stupor, I found myself in the company of children I had not met before. None of them seemed bothered by the fact that I had appeared in their midst from nowhere. Maybe it was because I was dressed in the same manner as they were. Gray pajamas with black square pockets in front.
I wondered if my elder brothers were playing pranks on me, as they always did. At the same time, I was scared. What was this place? Why was I here? Were my parents looking for me?
The Academy seemed every bit like a normal boarding school. So that, in a short while, having not gotten any answers from anyone as to why I was there, I got over the shock of being taken against my will and accepted that abducting kids at night from their families was the school’s manner of admitting new students. Also, since no one from home had come for me, I believed my parents were in on the whole thing.
But when Christmas came, and we were not granted leave to go home, I knew then that something was off. I began to see beyond the luxury educational facilities and beautiful environment that made one feel they were in some foreign country. Even the kindly faces of the men and women in charge of us seemed to hold dark secrets. I found suspicious the guards that walked about the premises. Would they hurt me if I made a run for the gates? Did they have guns? Why did they bring me and all these other kids here?
I dared to come out of my shell to socialize with my peers whom I had snubbed for months, to ask questions, but I didn’t get the answers I sought. No one knew anything, and they were as disturbed as I was but were too afraid to speak up. The older kids who were about the ages of twelve and thirteen would not talk to us, even though they gave the impression that they knew something the rest of us did not. Hence, I went to our tutors, often referred to as handlers, whom I believed would tell me when I could go home.
They, however, had nothing to reveal. I fell ill afterward and had to be taken to the clinic where I was admitted for a few days. After I got better, we newbies were summoned to the assembly hall to meet with the principal. I had not met her before now. Aunty Judith was what they called her. She was a chubby woman, motherly in her looks, bearing a kind smile in her eyes. But her first words were far from her appearance. Once uttered, they dashed my hopes of escaping this prison.
“Your mommy and daddy are not coming for you,” she announced. “You had better accept that this is your new home. Get used to it, and we won’t have any problems.”
Her eyes settled on me, and I glared back, mad at her. Mad at my parents who had not come to rescue me.
One of the girls burst into tears and another followed. I was on the verge of an outburst too, but I held back when a guard struck the first girl on the cheek. The other girl clasped her hands over her mouth and silence dropped on the hall.
“Welcome to The Academy,” Aunty Judith said, walking out of the hall, her pointed heels making an eerie clacking noise on the floor.
From then on, our minds and bodies were broken in and reshaped to fit into our new reality, which we were yet to comprehend. We were neither starved nor treated harshly, but we were raised like little zombie soldiers, trained in all manner of martial arts. They also taught us skills that normal children were not exposed to. We learned the world’s popular languages under the guidance of tutors and handlers who prepared us for a life of refinement and affluence. They made us believe we were elite, although a few of us already came from wealthy families. Not a day went by that we weren’t reminded we existed for a higher purpose.
I refused to believe them. They were unable to break my will to rebel and escape. I was unruly and fought them at every turn, even at the risk of constant punishment. But as time passed, I accepted my fate and began to find my place amongst my peers. Still, I questioned all I was taught and kept a special place in my heart for hate. I was not one who could easily forgive. Something in me was going to break free someday and rescue all the children in that school.
That never happened, of course. For every time I tried to be a hero, my captors found many more reasons to be villains. Years went by, and I witnessed the arrival of thirty-four kids into the academy. I also noticed when they stopped bringing newbies after my third year. Eleven months later, just a month shy of my fourth year there, Aunty Judith invited a bunch of us to the assembly hall to inform us that we would be taken to a place called The Institute.
“I want to go home,” I said out loud, cutting her off mid-speech. My handler, standing with her, looked my way in the manner she always did whenever she wanted to let me know I was being insolent. “I don’t want to go to any institute!”
Aunty Judith stopped speaking and smiled at me. She was still motherly in her appearance. I had never seen her treat anyone unkindly, neither had I heard her raise her voice at us.
“Bianca,” she called in her usual gentle tone, “you will go home someday, but not today.”
I crossed my arms in a most petulant manner. “I didn’t ask to come here! Take me back home! I want to go home!”
I saw the look the other kids gave me, as if I were out of my mind to speak to Aunty Judith that way. But I did not care. I didn’t understand what this academy was about and why they took us away from our families to bring us here. Almost four years and no one had told us a thing.
“It’s not fair!” Tears filled my eyes. I was not known to cry, but I could do nothing to crush my overwhelming anger.
“Restraint!” my handler bellowed. It was a trigger word. For each training we had gone through, we were left with trigger words that prompted us into action, activated only by our handlers. ‘Restraint’ came from a year-long drill on how to put our emotions in check.
For a moment, it seemed as if I was going to obey my handler, but I screamed all the louder. “I want to go home!”
Tall, intimidating, and without a single feminine bone in her frame, my handler marched toward me. “Restraint,” she repeated in a firmer tone. I stared back in defiance, and then, looked at Aunty Judith with tears bathing my face. “Please, may I go home?”
She regarded me with a smile that disappeared too quickly. “See me in my office after this.”
I cried the whole time she gave her speech on that cold, wet morning. My handler made me stay back after everyone had dispersed. With her hands clasped behind her, she scolded me, walking around me in an unending circle. She said I was a disappointment, that my mates would go on to become great women and men while I wallowed in tears and useless thoughts about home because I was a weakling.
Still, she couldn’t break me. I wept so hard that I got the hiccups. Seizing my arm, she dragged me to Aunty Judith’s office.
Aunty Judith was having a cup of tea when we got in. She had her secretary prepare a cup for me after she dismissed my handler.
“You will go home soon, Bianca,” she said, looking into my eyes. She came toward me and perched on her desk. I took my eyes away and stared at a photo frame on the wall behind her. It had a photo of a teenage boy and girl. The girl was dark and beautiful, and she wore a blue dress, much like the one Aunty Judith wore.
“You’re special to me, Bianca. Maybe because I know Victoria and Idris, personally.”
I brought my eyes back to her.
“Yes, I know your parents. And yes, they are aware that you are here.”
Her words cut me. I had gone through different assumptions about Idris and Victoria’s knowledge of my being here and had concluded that they knew nothing of where I was.
But what if Aunty Judith was lying?
“In fact, I have something for you.”
She went around her desk and opened a drawer. Out of it, she drew out a folder, which she handed to me. I hesitated before taking the folder. I opened it, and the first thing I saw was a postcard of my siblings in some place where it snowed. They all wore winter jackets.
I brought the postcard closer, tears returning to my eyes.
“Yohan, Tanko, Polo and Muna,” I called, just to remind myself.
“They are all doing fine,” Aunty Judith whispered. “And they miss you.”
I turned the card around and read the note written in Victoria’s handwriting. Christmas 2002, Ohio.
Holding on to the postcard, I looked through the folder for more memories from home. It was clear Victoria had been sending postcards to me, and each of them told of some event in the lives of family members that I had missed. For instance, I had a new brother, and his name was Jethro. He had been born before the family holidayed in Ohio. He was still a baby.
“You will reunite with all of them, soon,” Aunty Judith assured me.
I began to believe her. “When?”
“Very soon, Bianca.” She patted my cheek. “Let me have this,” she requested, referring to the folder.
“No!” I clung to it.
“Bianca, you can’t take this to The Institute.”
“Because The Institute is not the type of place for something like this.”
I shook my head. “Then I’m not going there!”
“Here’s what we’ll do. I’ll let you pick your three best photos and I’ll keep the folder for you.”
I shook my head again.
This was another trigger word. I released the folder into her care like one controlled by a button. Opening it again, she asked me to pick my best three. It wasn’t hard to choose. I took one with only Idris in it, another with Victoria carrying Jethro on her lap, and the third was of my siblings in Ohio.
“You’re going to be great, Bianca. I know this. Don’t let your fighting spirit die, okay?” she said, stroking my cheek.
She put the folder away and passed my cup of tea to me. It had gone cold, but it tasted fine. Abandoning my dining etiquette, I downed the tea in one long gulp and slammed the cup in its saucer. This earned me a reprimanding stare from Aunty Judith.
“I’d like to be excused, Aunty Judith,” I said.
“You may leave.”
Clutching my postcards, I left her office.
After Aunty Judith and Captain’s staff broke us at The Academy, soldiers took over at The Institute and turned our broken hearts to stone. The first two years there threw me into shock like I had never experienced before. At The Institute, no one prepared you for what was to come. You went to bed a normal kid on your first night there. The following night, you were staring into the face of darkness as it stared back at you.
They called the first- and second-year students ‘outlaws’. They said our minds and bodies were not yet worthy of belonging to The Institute. But once we made it to our third year, our names changed to ‘assets’. It meant we had dealt with some pretty messed up shit and we survived.
For four years, The Institute trained me in the art of espionage and assassination. I went through it in numbness, as if someone was using my body for their pleasure, and I was only a witness. I never knew the enormity of what I learned and how much I was made to take in as a teenager until years later.
Captain always talked about a looming war for which he needed to train our bodies. He said we were soldiers of the future, the ones who would change the country and make it better. He injected us with a twisted form of patriotism—the type that was willing to burn down an entire ecosystem, just to save a few—and we believed him. We believed we were the good ones, and this made it easy for us to forget that we had been forced out of our former lives to become what we were.
To survive, we made alliances and forged bonds. You couldn’t be an island at The Institute, no matter how much of a hard guy you were. That place would fuck your mind up so badly, you would try to take your life at random moments with no apparent triggers. If you had no one to lean on, you were screwed. Coming out of my snubbish nature was more about strategic connections. For deeper bonds like friendship, I kept just that one friend. There was a girl named Nafisa, codenamed Desire. She was one of my tutors and a senior at The Institute who took a special liking to me as one would a younger sister, even though she could not show it to avoid being accused of favoritism.
Ndeye was the one I called my best friend. Ndeye Ousmane. She was half-Senegalese, half-Nigerian, and she spoke French better than she did English. It wasn’t that she couldn’t be fluent in English—she just didn’t care. Ndeye was pigheaded, and it was one of the reasons we connected. Hers wasn’t an open kind of rebellion because you hardly saw it, being that her lively, friendly nature always fooled you into thinking she was harmless. She hated confrontations; hence, she would hide her hurt and grudges as she plotted revenge. Sweet as she was on the outside, she was the most malicious person I ever met. Yet she was everyone’s darling at The Institute. Most of them were attracted to her because of her looks. Ndeye was beautiful and had an exotic face that made boys line up for her consideration. I knew I wasn’t crazy about the male gaze at that age, but on occasion, I wished I had what Ndeye had. I didn’t see myself as much of a looker. The only group of people I fascinated were our handlers and the soldiers. I was that annoying kid in class the tutors loved to use as a reference from whom other kids could learn. This got me many antagonists and a handful of secret admirers. I didn’t care for either, although I would confess, if pressured, that the former aroused me.
Just as Captain had stated, I was considered weird. Ndeye was the spice that brought balance to my life.
She had a huge flaw, however, and it was a lack of intuition, which was odd because her father was a notorious seer and voodoo priest. But Ndeye hated her father and had sworn to die first before having anything to do with the man. Unlike my parents who didn’t have the balls to hand me over to Captain themselves, Ndeye’s father had prepared her for a life far away from home. Firstly, he sent her and her mother (one of his six wives) back to Nigeria, to live in poverty, somewhere in Yola. On the day Captain’s soldiers came for Ndeye, there had been no one to rescue her. She watched her mother weep wretchedly as the car that came for her drove off a dusty road. She was then taken to a different academy than mine and spent only two years before graduating to The Institute.
Ndeye and I, close as we were, fought now and then—and this was hardly my fault. Her lack of intuition sometimes got her into trouble, and she would name me as an accomplice to her crimes. Being that I was super loyal, I would serve the time and fight her over it afterward. One of our biggest quarrels had to do with a troubled girl that drove a stake into the heart of our friendship. Shai Girl, whose real name was Shiloh, was batshit insane. A week after she came into The Institute, she rammed a boy’s face into a wall sixteen times because he had stared at her for a total of sixteen minutes on different occasions. Everyone stopped staring at her after that.
Shiloh was openly gay at her young age. She would also let anyone know that she was a misandrist. Many of us didn’t know the word until she began to throw it around. She also made us look up words like polymath, narcissistic, sadist, and classist—all terms she used to describe herself. She was only twelve years old, even though she looked much older because of her curvy and plus size frame. This made it easy for her to bully other kids, including our seniors. She was always in the doghouse for one infringement or the other, which earned her respect from our peers. Around here, being rogue was a thing for cool kids. Just to be clear, everyone who made it to The Institute was already fucked up. Shiloh took hers way too far.
She influenced Ndeye a great deal, especially when I wasn’t watching. Ndeye was competent in the art of dark magic to some extent, but she had been banned by her dad from dabbling in it, because it was hard to control. Shiloh, however, had influenced Ndeye into trying it out a few times because one of the things Ndeye loved to do was to make voodoo dolls of people who had hurt her. I had seen her with one or two of those dolls, but when Shiloh became a feature in her life, I found a lot more under her mattress. When I asked her about them, she laughed and said she was just fooling around. I knew she believed in the spirituality of it, but I wasn’t sure what it meant to Shiloh.
Of course, I didn’t believe in such things, even though I was fascinated by the art of illusions and had gone as far as convincing one of our handlers who was a master illusionist to take me under his tutelage, after he trained us for an entire semester. Ndeye thought it was a waste of my time, as illusion was an imitation of the real thing. She tried without fail to pull me to the dark side. I was certain this was Shiloh’s doing.
As we got older, I noticed that Shiloh was also interested in me. Maybe because I always beat her at the arena games and during our mixed martial arts tournaments. In fairness to her, no girl in The Institute was a match for my MMA skills. That was because I took my drills seriously for four years at The Institute. It was all I knew, and I clung to it as a means of survival, even though I wasn’t aware of what I was doing. I just knew I had to get through my situation, and in doing so, The Institute became the only life I knew. I wasn’t sure what the outside world held for me.
On the morning I killed the man who had repeatedly raped me, I spotted Ndeye and Shiloh walking toward the bathroom. Rumors held that they were lovers, and some idiots had dared to ask me if the rumors were true, but I gave no answers. Whatever Ndeye had with Shiloh had nothing to do with me. It was bad enough that I had to let her into my space; I didn’t want to know if she was sticking her fingers into my best friend.
That morning, as I left Captain’s tent and headed toward mine, I heard him instruct the soldiers to pack up camp. We were to leave for The Institute at dusk. This was roughly a ten-hour journey.
I remembered my first-ever trip to this place two years ago. We had not been told we were going somewhere cut off from civilization. They snatched us from our beds while it was still dark one morning and pushed us into military trucks that brought us to a place with less comforts and harrowing mountains.
I was lost as everyone else was, but I was certain we were somewhere in the north. It felt good to be let out after six years of confinement. The weather was freezing and blustery, and the wind loved to slap our cheeks from all angles, making our teeth clatter and our necks clench. I had a taste of my first cigarette here. You were rewarded with a couple of sticks if you completed a task. Sometimes it was better than food. We ate tasteless meals and got drilled like soldiers, and every morning, there was a shooting training. Every evening, they made us combat each other. You acquired points for beating an opponent senseless. There was this boy who lost his hearing after a single punch from me. He was beefy and had sunken eyes. I felt nothing when I saw him hit the ground and blood oozing from his ear. A soldier picked him up, flung him over his shoulder, and went away with him. We never saw him again.
On some afternoons, it got hot and we went about in our underwear, which wasn’t much of a thing, since boys and girls shared the same bathroom facilities. We weren’t allowed to have sex, but some people did it anyway. Behind rocks and in the makeshift bathroom. I didn’t care much for anyone’s dick. I was not a vagina person either. I was more consumed with why I was there in the first place. I wanted to know why Captain had chosen me. At that point, I had accepted who I was, although I didn’t know exactly what to think of myself. While my friends complained about the camp situation, I was having a ball.
This last camp visit was our fourth, as I was told by Desire. She also said we might graduate from The Institute after this.
“In our time, during our final camp visit, Captain lured some of us into killing each other, by pairing us and giving everyone a murder weapon,” she told me. “He set a timer, and once it went off, we had the option to kill our partners.”
“Did you?” I asked her.
“No. As I said, it was a trick. I knew him so well not to fall into his trap.”
“What happened to those that killed their partners?”
“He had someone get rid of all of them.”
“Is he going to ask us to do the same thing?”
“He’s going to ask you to do many things you wouldn’t want to, Yanka.”
I watched Captain now as he took a short walk around camp with a cigarette burning between his lips. I strutted in his direction until I caught up with him.
“I heard this might be our last camp visit.”
He kept walking. “You heard right.”
“And we’d soon graduate?”
“That’s right too.”
“Where will we go after that?”
I stopped. “Why?”
He turned sideways to look at me. “Why not?”
“I don’t want to go home,” I uttered. “I want to remain with you, here…”
“Here?” he laughed. “This is…nowhere.”
“I meant, The Institute.”
He smiled again. “The Institute made you, Biyankavitch. Now, you must go out there and show yourself worthy of all you learned within its four walls.” He tapped my cheek. “You’ll be fine, soldier.” He walked away, and I felt fear like I had not felt before. I didn’t know what home meant anymore. I had forgotten it, and it had forgotten me.