It was all her pale lips could utter as his strong arms wrapped themselves around her. She shivered a bit. She was exhausted. Ace’s hug was more than welcome. She had felt like a floating balloon before now. His hold and the feel of his body brought her back to earth. The only problems was that she wished it was Luper hugging her. She told Ace this.
“Then why didn’t you tell him you were coming back today?”
“Tomorrow is his birthday. I want to surprise him.”
“So that means you guys are back together?”
She gave no reply. She received a peck on her forehead before Ace picked her luggage and began towing it down the alley that led to the parking lot.
A little over two weeks ago, she had buried the cremains of her ex-husband. He had insisted on being cremated and his ashes stored in a biodegradable urn and committed to the earth, at the base of a tree in his father’s home. His death had left Dugo twice richer. She didn’t know why he had believed her worthy enough to give her almost everything he had owned. It made his passing more depressing. She had planned to stay longer in Germany, but everything about the house reminded her of him. Mila’s wish was that she never returned to Nigeria.
“Now, that you have all this money and two houses in your name, you belong here, Deedee. You don’t have to fuck for the camera again. Just stay here and do something with the money. Africa is shit. You know that.”
Dugo had ignored her racist remark, but reminded her that her skin color was shit to a lot of people in Germany. She said she felt more at home in Nigeria.
Mila cried when she was leaving.
“This man you told me about, you love him that much to go back to him?”
Dugo wasn’t just returning home to Luper. She was returning to have a second start at the life she wanted. She had clarity now. Enough to know that she was to let go of her need to get back at Luper and his mother. It was not worth the stress. She didn’t have to lie or hide herself just to expend energy and retain unhealthy emotions because she wanted revenge. She also didn’t hold Luper’s sins against him any longer. Her ex’s death had taught her how life could be worthless and the pursuit of what was considered important, a mere racing after the wind. One minute you were talking to someone, the next you were burying their remains under an oak tree.
“Yes, I love him that much,” she said to Mila.
“Then go and be happy.”
Happy wasn’t exactly what Dugo felt. She felt empty. Drained. Sad. Death was bad thing. She needed Luper.
Titi was in the house when they got home. She had on one of those long, striped stockings and a nightshirt. She seemed comfortable with herself.
The house was too bright for Dugo. She asked if Ace could buy some soft lighting bulbs that gave the house a vintage color. This was after Titi had hugged her many times until Ace told her to stop being creepy.
Dugo went into her room. She curled up into a ball underneath her blanket and slept off.
Later on, she awoke to see that she had missed some calls. Luper’s was not one of them. She shut her eyes again. Joana was laughing loudly in the living room. Titi had left. Ace was becoming the regular polygamist.
The face Luper wanted to see first thing in the morning was not his mother’s.
“Happy 34th, handsome.”
She came with breakfast. A meal of pounded yam and egusi soup. He didn’t always get this type of treatment from her. It came only during birthdays and days when she was trying to be extra nice.
“I made this specially for you.”
“There’ll be a family dinner tonight. Just for you. You can invite a friend or two over.”
Luper felt like a stranger in his own home. If it wasn’t Udazi barging into his personal space any chance she got, it was his siblings making him feel like a trout out of water with their shared memories of time spent together, places they had visited around the world and the funny little things their annoying children did. He didn’t care for their presence; he had no desire to spend his birthday with them either.
“I have other plans,” he told his mother as he got off the bed.
“Look, I know this doesn’t feel like the best day to get a year older because of Tabitha’s behavior…”
“This has nothing to do with Tabitha,” he specified.
“There’s no reason to pretend that her rudeness and taciturnity isn’t affecting you. I’m a parent who has had her own share of her children finding her insufferable, so I understand what you’re going through.”
Luper got into his bathroom and shut the door. As he took a leak, he mentally planned his day, deleting the family dinner from his schedule. He wanted to pass the time with the ladies at New Beginnings, drop by the school to see how things were going, and then turn up at the party of a friend who was also celebrating her birthday. There were no plans to return home until the next morning.
He washed his hands and stepped out of the bathroom. Udazi was looking out his window.
“She just sits there, pressing her phone all day. You should make her attend summer school. Meet new friends. She’ll leave her old school, right?”
“Do you want me to persuade her to start summer school?”
“Leave the girl alone, Mom. She didn’t ask to be brought here and she utterly hates me. I don’t expect her to act any differently.”
“She snubs all of us.”
“You guys aren’t exactly friendly either.”
Udazi dropped the drapes. “Maybe you two should go for counseling.”
“Seriously?” Luper frowned, dragging his breakfast tray towards him as he sat on the bed.
“Yes. It’ll help.”
“And if the counselor asks Tabi why she wants to stab me to death and she says ‘my dad raped my mom fifteen years ago’, what do I say?”
“I’m sure the job of counselors is to help heal relationships, not judge.”
“Thanks, but I’m not interested.”
“Just give it a thought. The girl is hurting. And so are you.”
It was one of the few times Luper agreed with Udazi.
“Please, don’t miss dinner,” she said, sweeping past him to the door. “Keziah is coming over. He thinks highly of you. Don’t disappoint.”
The door closed with a soft thud. Luper placed his pounded yam in the soup dish and picked the dish off the tray. He went to the window to stare out. Tabitha was at her favorite spot in the compound. A garden bench stationed by the wall beside the gate. She always sat there for the most part of the day, if she wasn’t visiting her friend or trying to be discourteous to him. She had moved in only four days ago. Four difficult days for Luper. He had never met anyone so stubborn.
He went back to his bed and sent her a text. Minutes later, she was knocking on his door. He invited her in. She came with her famous attitude which was displayed in crossed arms and a troublesome expression.
“Good morning,” she mumbled.
“Good morning, Tabi. Slept well?”
“Ready to follow me out today so you can see the school and see that other thing I do?”
“We talked about this yesterday.”
“And I told you no.”
“Tabitha…” Luper said softly. “We have to leave the past behind and start acting like father and daughter. I can’t undo what I did, but I can show you how awesome I can be. If you let me.”
She kept her eyes upwards, lips twisting in all manner to show defiance.
“So get dressed and let’s go and have fun.”
“I don’t want to.”
“I’m not asking. I’ll be downstairs by nine sharp.”
Grumbling, she opened the door.
“And hey, no makeup.”
She kept him waiting for thirty-five minutes, during which he got into a spat with Nenge over her son toppling down and breaking an expensive figurine from a shelf in the living room.
Tabitha entered the car, wearing makeup and bearing no apology for keeping him waiting. Luper didn’t appreciate her attitude, but he was going to pick his battles. This was not a day to fight.
They visited New Beginnings first. There was a small surprise waiting for him. The ladies baked a cake and made him a native attire. He received other thoughtful gifts as well. He was overwhelmed by the warmth. Tabitha sat in a corner, pretending not to observe, but she would lift her eyes now and then from her phone and drop them whenever he looked at her.
They went to the school next. Shipinen had planned something bigger. There was a birthday banner at the entrance, and the summer school students, holding up cards that described Luper’s qualities. It was emotional for him. Tabitha was kind not to make a fuss when he asked her to take the cake one of the kids presented to him. Having dropped the cake in the car, Tabitha remained there, eyes on her phone.
“That’s her?” Shipinen asked, coming towards Luper.
“She is beautiful. Too much makeup, though.”
“So what are your plans for today?”
“I’ll be taking her shopping for new clothes and then take her back home and finally, go for Sherifat’s party. Did she invite you?”
“I got something small for you.” Shipinen passed him a bag. “Open it.”
Luper dunked his hand in and pulled out a Bayern Munich jersey. He laughed. “I thought you once swore that you’d never get me a jersey.”
“I’m no longer the wife who is ignored for football, so I can be nice about it.”
“Thank you, Shipi.”
“Won’t you come in for drinks?”
“No. I have to run.”
“Thanks again for all of this. I really appreciate.”
Shipinen stretched her frame up to plant a kiss on his cheek. When she moved away, she cast her eyes in the direction of the car. Tabitha seemed to have found herself some company with the two most popular boys in the school.
“Hey, look,” Shipinen alerted Luper. He turned.
“Oh, hell no.”
“Looks like you’ll be doing a lot more than ‘hell-noing’. She’s really pretty. Is she a virgin, though?”
Luper frowned at Shipinen. She smiled in mischief. He started towards his car.
“Mr. T!” the taller of the boys hailed as he approached, fists raised in the air. His name was Ejeh. Straight A’s student. But notorious for causing fights and having more than one girlfriend.
“Hello EJ,” Luper responded.
“Good morning, Mr. T.”
Luper looked at the other boy. He was the quiet one, but equally troublesome. His name was Sadiq. Luper nodded in response to his greeting.
“Met my daughter?”
“Your daughter?” Ejeh took a step away from Tabitha.
“Yes, my daughter. And I don’t want any of you near her.”
“Yes, sir!” Ejeh saluted, military style.
“Tabi, let’s go.”
They got into the car.
“Are we done for today?” Tabitha asked.
“Actually, we have one more stop.”
“We’ll go and get food.”
“I want to go to Stella’s house.”
Stella was her friend. The girl who lived in the gated estate he had visited on the day he went searching for her.
“I’ll take you to Stella’s after lunch.”
She didn’t seem happy with the plan, but she kept mute.
Driving out of the school premises, his phone rang. Ace was calling.
“What’s up, man?”
“I dey,” Ace answered. “How your side nau?”
“It’s all good.”
Luper was curious as to why he was calling. They weren’t exactly buddies. If anything, Luper didn’t trust him. He didn’t think a man could be that close to Dugo and not be sexually attracted to her.
“I have a bit of a situation here. Please, come over.”
“What happened? Is everything okay?”
“Just minor ish. I no fit talk for phone. Are you near?”
“Yeah. Twenty minutes tops.”
“Abeg, dey come.”
“Alright. I’ll be there.”
Luper hung up. He pretended not to see the angry looks Tabitha threw his way.
“He’s on his way.”
Dugo was fretting over what to wear. Last night, she had spoken with Luper for hours, not giving him a clue that she was back. Communicating with him had been like receiving a healing balm for her pain. If she was unsure of what he meant to her, last night made things clearer. She had never been known as someone who laughed or even smiled, but Luper easily brought out her sense of humor. She needed that more than anything now, to find that there was more in the world than pain.
“You’ve tried almost ten different outfits, Dugo.”
“Yes, but nothing looks good.”
Ace was standing by her door, feasting on a bowl of goat meat peppersoup and sliced bread.
“Is this how love is doing you?”
“Today is not just my clothes day. Nothing is looking nice on me.”
“Everything you’ve tried looks great on you. Your problem is that you want so badly to look perfect for Luper. But you know he doesn’t care. If I were you, I’ll welcome him in the nude.”
“You’re no good to me right now,” Dugo said. She was holding up a denim shirt in the air. It was new. A present from Mila. She was wondering what it would go with.
“Try it with the denim shorts you wore earlier.”
“This?” Dugo picked a pair of shorts from the floor.
She trusted Ace’s fashion taste, but she wasn’t sure about this particular combo.
“Try it first.”
She wore the clothes.
“Tuck the shirt in.”
“Now, look into the mirror, baby girl.”
Her eyes lit up when she did.
“Say thank you.”
“Grazie,” she said.
“Can we go back to speaking German, please? You spend a few days in Italy and I won’t hear word again.”
Dugo smiled. She had visited Italy to see the maman that had enslaved her and other girls for years. The woman was wasting away in prison. Dugo had wanted copies of certain documents from her. She was happy to let Dugo have them, directing her to a relative who handed them over. She had been humbled by her time behind bars. She spoke graciously to Dugo, seeking her forgiveness. It was a freeing experience for Dugo to pardon her. The rest of her time spent in Italy was to reconnect with the ladies she had known from her stay there. A few more of them had passed away. It was a bittersweet trip, one that left her nostalgic.
“So, who is on duty today amongst your women?” Dugo asked concerning Joana and Titi, as she began to apply her makeup.
“Neither of them abeg. I have to rest.”
“Your schwanz is paining you, abi? Or has semen finished?”
“As in!” Ace shook his head, sliding to the floor. Dugo laughed teasingly.
“Shebi I told you.”
“I want to dump Titi because she’s too childish.I can’t deal, abeg. But that waist. Damn!”
“She’s going nowhere.”
“She postponed her wedding because of you and now, you’re not letting her go. Are you seeing what I’m seeing?”
“You’re seeing nothing. I’m not getting back with her. She’s still paying me for my services. Have you seen my car outside? Or the shop she’s putting together for me? You want me to let all that go? No o! I’m a material boy, please.”
“What if she dumps Sebastian for you?”
“She’s on her own o. It will have nothing to do with me.”
“What if she marries him as planned and then demands that you give her a baby?”
“And my response will be ‘how much are you willing to pay to get knocked up?’”
Dugo showed disapproval. She smacked her lips to have an even spread of the lipstick she applied on them. “Trust me, you don’t want to be the father of a married woman’s children. It will hurt you and the children in the future.”
“I don’t care.”
Dugo paused from her lipstick applying activity. “I know you’re not doing this for the money, Ace. You still love her and you still want her to suffer for what she did to you.”
“All I’m saying is that don’t go too far. Know when to stop.”
“And you’re suddenly the poster child for knowing when to stop because you’ve forgiven your man’s mother for all the wickedness she did to you.”
Dugo was touching a sore spot. He had been in a mood since the night before. “Let’s not fight.”
“And you suddenly don’t want to fight because I talked about your own.”
“Idowu, stop being angry.”
He sprang up. “I’m not angry, Deedee. I just want to be left alone to do my shit my own way.”
“Okay. I’m sorry.”
He left her bedroom. She finished up with her makeup and then cleared the mess she had made with her clothes. When she heard Luper’s car driving into the compound, she dabbed on some perfume and gave herself one more look in the mirror.
Luper knocked on the front door. She exhaled and went out to the living room. A second knock and she opened the door.
The look of surprise on his face and the affectionate smile that followed was priceless. She couldn’t believe she had actually let go of something that beautiful. No man had ever looked at her that way before.
“This is more than a pleasant surprise, Adaugo.”
“I can sing for you a birthday song, but my voice will be bad. So, I’ll just say happy birthday. I’m not so good with prayer…”
“I’ve missed you, Ada. And I so badly want to kiss you, but I’m not your boyfriend anymore. So…”
“Will you be my boyfriend again?”
“I’ve been forgiven of my past?”
“Kiss first, ask questions later.”
Luper took her hand, and then her waist, and finally, her lips. He sighed and called her, ‘Ada bekee.’ She giggled, kissing him back.
“I learned a bit of Igbo years ago from this chick I was with.”
Dugo knew he was referring to her. She had taught him a few words in Igbo with which he was to adore her. How could he have remembered the words and not her?
“Is it too early to say ‘a huru m gi n’anya.”
“Too early? But that’s the way I feel, Ada. I think I’m in love with you. It’s not something I can control. It’s hitting me like an avalanche.”
He started to kiss her again. Tender, patient kisses that showed only half of what was burning inside of him for her.
“So…” Dugo moved away, but holding onto his hands. “I have a huge present for you.”
“Does it involve two of us falling on that fluffy bed of yours and me unwrapping you?”
“No. Come in.”
“Um… I came with someone I’d like you to meet.”
She stood by the door while he walked to his car. She watched him open the front passenger door. Tabitha emerged, guarded in her body language. He took out his birthday cakes from the backseat of his car. Tabitha followed him back to the house.
“I can’t keep these in the car. I hope you love cakes?”
“Ada, please meet my daughter, Tabitha. Tabi, this is my girlfriend, Adaugo.”
“Hi Tabitha.” Dugo waved. “You have beautiful hair.”
“Thanks.” She cleared her throat a little.
“Yes.” Tabitha looked downwards and then at Dugo’s hair which had been made up in a ‘frohawk’. There was a curious expression on the girl’s face that vanished immediately.
“You want to know how I did this?”
Tabitha didn’t reply.
“I’ll teach you. I know many styles.”
Luper maneuvered past them, into the house. Dugo invited Tabitha in.
“You look so much like your daddy.”
Tabitha remained silent.
“The eyes, the brows, the lips… Even the height. How old are you?”
“Wow. You’re a big girl.”
“Can I go now?” Tabitha requested as Luper emerged from the kitchen.
“Do you have food?” he asked Dugo.
“Is this where we’re eating?” Tabitha probed.
“As a matter of fact, yes,” Luper answered. He had just mentally canceled his other plans for the day.
“I’m not hungry,” the teenager stated.
“As you wish,” her father replied.
“I want to go to Stella’s house.”
“I’ll take you there, as promised.”
“Just call a cab.”
“Young lady, I’ll take you there when I’m done here. So, sit down and wait for me patiently.”
Tabitha slumped down angrily on a couch. Luper dragged Dugo into her bedroom. He shut the door and had her under the sweetness of his kisses again.
“I’ve missed you crazy.”
“Tell me about your ex.”
Dugo’s body stiffened a bit.
“I hope I’m not scratching a sore spot. If you don’t want to talk about him…”
Dugo tugged him to her bed and had him sit.
“He was sick, but didn’t tell me this whole time. He called me only when he was dying. I watched him die.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“I’m fine sha. Life – it comes and goes.”
“So, like I said, I have a present for you, birthday boy.”
“I can’t wait. But first, I have to do this.”
He gently pushed her to the bed, kissing her as he did. Her body clung to his, her hands stroking and caressing him in places she had never touched before.
“We should stop now,” she whispered. “Tabitha…”
“She can wait.”
Luper stopped, but Dugo continued until they heard Ace knocking.
Dugo went to the door.
“Did Luper come in with some teenage girl?”
“Well, she just left.”
“What?” Luper was up on his feet. “Right now?”
“Yeah. I think she called an Uber.”
Luper gave a sigh. “That child.”
He picked his phone from Dugo’s bed and dialed Tabitha’s number. Surprisingly, she answered his call.
“I told you to wait for me.”
“You don’t keep your promises.”
“What are you talking about? You couldn’t wait five minutes?”
“You were inside there for more than ten minutes.”
“Where are you now?”
“I’m going to Stella’s house and I’m sleeping over.”
“No, you’re not.”
“I’ll come pick you up by seven. And you’d better be there.”
“Be waiting outside the gate by seven sharp or there will be consequences.”
She rudely terminated the call. Dugo stared at him sympathetically.
“It’s the age,” he explained.
“I hope she’s safe?”
“Okay. So, are you ready to go?”
“Yes. Let’s go and get this surprise present you have for me. I’m excited.” He cinched her waist possessively.
They used his car. Chomping bits of the chocolate cake she had taken from the house, Dugo listened to him tell her about his family and how he couldn’t wait for them to leave.
“Your mother’s wedding is when?” she asked.
“In about two weeks. The guy is head over heels crazy for her.”
“Do you approve of the wedding?”
“My opinion doesn’t matter. I’m more concerned about him than her. She’s a succubus.”
Dugo didn’t counter his words. She still didn’t have warm thoughts for Madam America.
They arrived at their destination. It was the place she had bought and fixed up for the purpose of rehabilitating women who had been forced into sex slavery. She was gifting it to Luper. Ace had not been pleased with her decision. Last night, they almost got into a row over it.
“And what happens when he becomes an asshole and cheats on you or does worse?” Ace asked in annoyance.
“I don’t take back gifts.”
“Deedee, this is your dream…”
“And he’s making it come true. I don’t want to be stressed with starting from the scratch. Let him do everything. He’s doing it for two of us.”
“Big mistake, Ganiru! Big fucking mistake!”
Dugo didn’t persist with the argument. She thanked Ace for his concerns and changed the topic. She had thought hard about the decision before then, and even talked to her ex about it prior to his passing. He advised her to hand the building over to Luper if she was convinced about it, but also told her to ask to become a co-founder of New Beginnings. And then he added, “Tell him your story. Tell him all that you went through because of him and his mother. If he really loves you, he’ll ask you to be the front face of the organization. You can handle that and also concentrate on helping people move to, and get jobs in Europe.”
It was a risk she was willing to take. Her heart had never been this open to anyone before, but if she recalled, she once was generous to a fault. Her late mother used to say the name ‘Charity’ was fitting because she had a large heart. Handing over her property to Luper was something nobody could talk her out of.
“Okay, you’re bringing me to this unknown place. I hope I’m safe, Ada.”
“You are. Come down.”
The neighborhood was not unknown, but it was a quiet place. A high fence hedged the building in. A black gate, still in the process of being erected, led them into the compound. Completed halfway, the house had been abandoned for years when Dugo bought it. She reconstructed it, expanded the entire structure, and now it was finalized. What was left to be done was the flooring of the exterior.
“What’s this?” Luper asked.
“This is my house.”
“You own this place?”
“Wow. What’s it for? Residential?”
“Okay, let me tell you something about me. I used to dream about doing what you are doing.”
“Running a school?”
“No. The good work you do at New Beginnings.”
“It’s a very long story and I’ll tell you. But right now, I want to donate this house to New Beginnings as my own contribution to what you do.”
He stared at her without expression. Her words hadn’t gotten in.
“Luper,” she faced him, “you’re a good man. You are kind and generous. You asked if I could help in any way. This is my help. This place can be used as a hostel for the ladies.”
Now, he appeared confused. “Sorry, come again…”
She took his hand and placed a key in it. “Happy birthday.”
He stared at the key, dazed. Blinking eyes tried to focus on her. “Ada, you’re joking.”
“You’re serious?” he asked in a fading voice.
He lowered to a squat, having been weakened by her generosity. “I don’t understand.”
“You don’t have to. You want to come inside and see it?” She offered her hand. He took it and she pulled him up. He was quiet until they entered the building.
“This is not a prank?”
Overwhelmed, Luper rested his head on a marble counter that was to serve as the receptionist’s desk. Dugo gave him some privacy as she went to inspect some of the work done in the restrooms. Satisfied with what she saw, she stopped before a sink to wash the dust off her hands in the ladies’ restroom. Luper came up behind her, eyes filled with gratitude.
“If giving me this house is an attempt to tie me to you forever, you can be rest assured that it’s worked.”
Dugo laughed. He took her hands and washed them under the running water.
“I know you didn’t do it to get anything out of me.”
“Don’t be so sure.”
“What do you want? As it is, you’re already co-founder. So, what else do you want? I’ll give you. Just name it.”
Dugo smiled as he turned off the tap. “Don’t Nigerians give birthday presents without asking for anything back? I already told you, what you do is what I want to do. You have carried the weight for us, no? I don’t think I have the energy to start from the scratch.”
“Thank you, Ada. Words are certainly not enough.” He rested his chin on her shoulder. “God will bless you richly and top up where this came from. Everything that has been stolen or taken from you would be restored a thousand fold.”
“You’ll have riches without any sorrow. Happiness, good health and the best husband life can ever give.”
She lifted her brows.
“I’m hoping I get to be that husband sha. But seriously, thank you so much.”
Out on the road, he reminded her about the story she wanted to share. She responded that it was his birthday and they would keep it strictly about him. He was in a happy place. She didn’t want to bring up her sad history to ruin his day.
They stopped at a fancy restaurant for an early dinner. His friend, Sherifat called, to remind him of her party and the drinks he promised to get. His schedule for the night had changed because of Dugo, but he wasn’t going to blow Sherifat off. The plan was to pick Tabitha from Stella’s, dash in for the party, drop said drinks and then end up in the hotel he and Dugo were going to spend the night. Their last getaway had gone awry because of his confession. He had to make it up to her.
It was almost 7 p.m. when they left the restaurant. It was a long drive to Stella’s, and they got there a few minutes past an hour. He was allowed into the estate, having now made friends with the security guards after a second visit to introduce himself to Stella’s parents.
A maid in a uniform welcomed him and Dugo in, but when he asked her to call Tabitha downstairs, she replied that both girls had just left the house.
“Night vigil. They go every last Friday of the month.”
The lady mentioned the name of the church. Luper thanked her and they made their exit.
“She didn’t tell me she was going to church,” he said.
“Maybe she forgot.”
“Tabitha is not the type of girl that forgets things. She’s just being insolent.”
They made a stop at the church. There were a few people on the premises. The vigil was to begin in two hours. Tabitha and Stella were absent. Dugo was smart enough to speak to a bunch of teenagers who claimed that the girls rarely attended vigils.
“Only when Stella’s mommy comes with them,” one of the girls revealed.
A polite smile on Luper’s face hid his anger. He began marching back to his car. Dugo hurried after him and stopped him before he dialed Tabitha’s number.
“You have her friend’s number?”
“Let me call the friend instead.”
Luper passed Stella’s digits to Dugo. She put a call through to the girl. Soon, they were on their way to where the girls were located.
“Looks like you’re better at this parenting thing than I am,” Luper said. He wasn’t smiling. The way his eyes tapered to a squint gave Dugo a clue as to the type of trouble Tabitha had gotten herself into.
“Don’t shout on her when we get there. Take it easy. She’s just a child.”
The girls were waiting outside the location Stella had given them. It was a house in a crowded neighborhood. There were a bunch of boys hanging about on the street. It was not the type of place Luper wanted Tabitha to be seen at.
“Who lives here?” he questioned her the moment he stepped out of the car.
“A friend,” she answered.
“A friend, and you had to lie that you were going to church to see this friend?”
“We’re sorry,” Stella blurted. Tabitha eyed her.
“Are there boys in there?” Luper continued his interrogation.
Stella looked away.
“Stella, are there boys there?”
“No… Yes. Just two of them. But our friend is a girl.”
“Are her parents in?”
“No,” Tabitha retorted. “And we were all going to church together, anyways.”
“I want to see her. What’s her name?”
“Can we just go home?”
“What is her name, Tabi?”
Stella mumbled a name Dugo didn’t quite catch.
“Let’s go home,” Tabitha whined.
“After I see her.” Luper started towards the house.
“You’re embarrassing me. Please, let’s go.”
Dugo felt Luper was being unnecessarily difficult, but she trusted his actions.
“Aunty Adaugo, why is he being like this?”
Dugo didn’t want to be caught in the middle, but she called the girls over to where she stood as Luper disappeared into the house they had emerged from.
“He’s just doing what every father would do. People get kidnapped these days. He was really worried about you. You should have told him about your whereabouts.”
“I did,” Tabitha insisted.
“He was to take you home by seven. You didn’t tell him about church or that you were coming here, no?”
Her gentle tone disarmed Tabitha. But only for a second.
“I don’t like him,” the girl exclaimed.
“Tabi?” Stella smacked her.
“Leave me, please! I don’t like him! And I don’t want him in my life! He thinks he can just be ordering me around and telling me what to do?! I want to go back to my grandma! I didn’t ask for a father!”
“It’s okay,” Dugo said tenderly, taking her hand. “It’s okay. Calm down, Tabi.”
Her appeasement worked, but again, only briefly. Luper returned and things went from quite messed up to a shouting match between him and Tabitha.
According to Luper, there were boys smoking weed in the house. No adult presence. The girl they claimed was their friend was an older teenager. Luper wanted to know what they were doing in the house. Who the boys were. Was this where they always came to when they said they were going to church? Did they smoke weed too? What other adult things were they involved in?
Stella would have answered his questions if Tabitha was not screaming her head out. Dugo would have calmed the situation had Luper given her the chance. Thus, the two of them sat in the car while father and daughter went at each other until Luper obeyed the firm touch of Dugo’s hand on his thigh.
“We’ll continue this tomorrow!” he ended, starting the car. Tabitha sat with her arms crossed, face pressed to the window.
They drove to Stella’s home. Stella pleaded to have Tabitha sleep over. Luper was going to decline her request, but a censorious stare from Dugo made him change his mind.
“Fine. I’ll send someone to come pick you up…”
Tabitha was already out the door. She slammed it so hard Luper stopped speaking. Stella left quietly. When the girls were safely in the confines of the estate, Luper exhaled.
“I shouldn’t have gone off on her like that. I know. But the whole house was smelling of weed. What was she doing there?”
“I wish you had asked her with this voice. Not the shouting voice.”
“I know.” He hit his head on the headrest. “This is harder than I thought. It’s easier to handle other people’s children, but mine is… I just don’t want her to make the same mistakes her mother made and ended up…”
“Raped and pregnant?” Dugo completed. His gaze at her showed his remorse.
“Her mother trusted me, and yet…”
“You have to stop.”
“The worst is that I can’t even remember what I did. And I can’t talk about it. I can’t say ‘hey, I didn’t remember that I raped my girlfriend’ because that’ll be me trying not to take responsibility.”
“But you’re sure you did it?”
“Yes. It was just two of us. There was blood on the bed. The door was locked. The gateman broke it in. I did it, Ada. I don’t know if me passing out was God’s way of saving me from remembering the type of monster I was to her.”
“Maybe. Because in the end, you turned out good. You didn’t keep hurting women. In fact, you are helping them.”
“I am.” He nodded. “I am.”
His phone lit up in-between them.
“Answer your mother’s calls nau.”
“I already sent a text. She wants me to do dinner with the family. I don’t want to.”
Neither did Dugo.
“It’s after ten. Let’s drop these drinks at Sherifat’s, and then go somewhere chill. I really want to kiss you all night.”
They randomly picked a place that was a bit removed from the residential part of the city. There was a beach there, and chalets that looked like settings out of a vacation brochure. From their suite, Dugo could hear the sound of the ocean cuffing eagerly at the shore. But this was long after he had kissed her endlessly, and they had taken off their clothes, and he spent another endless moment marveling at the work of art that was her body. He told her she was one of the reasons why someone coined the phrase ‘the darker the berry, the sweeter the juice’. To this, she laughed blushingly and asked why he was fawning over berry he had never tasted. She also asked why he was taking so damn long to taste it.
The sheets were warm when their bodies hit the bed, as if someone had lain on them to heat things up before they arrived. But the air in the room was cool, conniving with Luper’s mouth to leave goosebumps on her skin. She didn’t get this type of attention from the men in her movies. Not this sort of concerted affection. It was bliss to finally feel. Not to be pressured to respond or give back in a scripted manner. To release herself in the way she had always wanted to and fantasized over.
And this Luper… He was not the boy she had known. He was a man in all manner of ways to her for the most part of the night. She didn’t know if it was him or her who couldn’t have enough of the other. Whenever they stopped to snack on finger foods or wine, somebody was asking for more. They stopped, only because Luper’s alarm rang, alerting them that the clock had struck five. He was licking off decadently thick Italian chocolate off her nipple at that moment.
“Are you sleepy?” he asked.
“Give me a minute.” He finished his work on her nipples and made her savor the aftertaste from his mouth. Her head fell softly on a pillow. He lay beside her, watching her intently as her eyes began to shut. She didn’t know how long she slept for. When she woke up she was alone in bed. The sounds of the lashing waves were distant now. She heard music. It was probably from Luper’s phone. She couldn’t tell. Her head was still full of sleep.
She heard a sound, a shifting of a leg. She turned, Luper was leaning on the dressing table, looking at her.
“Did you sleep?” she asked, rising up.
“A little. Had to wake up early to send my mom’s driver to pick Tabitha.”
“Is she home now?” Dugo let her feet down.
“Yeah.” Luper crossed his arms. Dugo picked that he had something on his mind. She was now acquainted with his expressions to know when he was in deep thought.
“Are you alright?” she asked.
“I want to ask you a question.”
“Okay.” She pulled the pillow she had lain on to cover her chest. There was something in his eyes that had begun to make her uncomfortable.
“Fifteen years ago, a few months before my unfortunate incident with Idenyi, Tabitha’s mom, I met a girl in Benin. She used to come to my family house there to fetch water.”
Dugo clutched the pillow.
“Her name was Charity. We had something. I think for a couple of nights, and then I traveled. When I went back I never saw her again. Her family had moved, I was told.”
Dugo revealed nothing outwardly. She kept her eyes on him as he spoke.
“Charity had a birthmark on her thigh.”
Luper moved away from the dressing table and went to her.
“At the same spot where you have yours.”
He dropped a finger on her thigh and ran it upwards until it stopped on the said birthmark.
“Adaugo, are you Charity?”
She couldn’t escape his penetrating stare or the question.
His finger remained on her thigh, his eyes refusing to let hers go. “Ada, you’re joking.”
“I’m not. You played Nelly’s album on your laptop on those two nights. You made me teach you some Igbo words.”
Shutting his eyes, Luper swung his head. He moved away from the bed.
“You told me you’d come back for me and take me to the UK, but you never did.” Dugo was surprised at how quickly her mood had changed and given way to pain from her past.
“Blödes arschloch,” Luper said. “That was what you called me when you were retelling our story the other day.”
“Weren’t you a stupid asshole?”
“You said I didn’t care, that I did my thing and got you…” Luper broke off as he suddenly grasped where the story was headed. He focused on her, chest heaving. “Ada, you got pregnant?”
Dugo blinked and a tear dropped.
“And you told my mom and she…” He threw his head back and covered his face. “FUCK!”
Dugo had waited for this moment, and how she would reveal the truth to him without showing any sort of weakness. She would be the strong, liberated woman who was free of her past. But reality was playing out differently. She was just grasping how unprepared she was. Or perhaps no form of preparation would have been enough. Maybe she still couldn’t forgive him. Nevertheless, she couldn’t let him see her cry.
She picked herself up from the bed, slipped on a bathrobe and dashed out through the balcony door. She inhaled as the salty wind coming from the sea slapped over her cheeks which were now overflowing with tears. She followed the stairs that led downwards. The sand beneath her sucked her feet in as she walked. When she couldn’t go any further, she sank to the ground and allowed the anguish take her.