“We need to talk.”
His words flew over her head like a bird winging past. She shoved her textbooks into her backpack and pretended he wasn’t standing so close to her.
She zipped the backpack.
“Did you hear me?”
“I’m late for school.”
“No, you’re not. This is just three minutes after six, and the school bus doesn’t get here until six-thirty. We have enough time to talk.”
Tabitha kept her head bowed and crossed her arms. This was their first conversation since Dugo showed up. The girl had gone silent mode on him. It was something he was used to. Whenever she chose not to speak to him, it would bother him for the whole of five minutes, and then he would get over it. He didn’t ask her why she was mad this time, because he knew. She was pro-Dugo, and Dugo’s visit a few days ago had kicked off her angst against him. However, something about this silent treatment didn’t feel like the others. He felt she deserved an explanation.
“I know you’re angry at me over some things… I don’t know what exactly. I wish we could communicate more. I’d like for you to tell me what I did wrong and I’ll try my best to fix it.”
“She’s nice. I like her,” Tabitha said of Dugo. Luper’s eyes caught the red polish on her fingernails. She was going to be punished in school if she was caught with painted nails.
“She likes me,” Tabitha continued, “and she’s real. Not like those other ones… But you’re treating her like them. You want her to just come and go and not disturb you.”
“That’s not true, Tabi…”
“I want to go and stay with my mom.”
Luper’s heart sank. “Come on.”
“You don’t like women. You just like using them.”
“I want to go to my mom’s.”
Her eyes watered, her nostrils flared. She uncrossed her arms and picked her backpack.
“Tabi, I love Adaugo. I respect her, and those other women. I have never done anything to harm any woman in my life before.”
Tabitha rolled her eyes and the tears dropped. She pressed her lips.
“You have to believe me.”
“You raped my mom.”
“I did not, Tabitha.” He placed his hands on her upper arms. She tried to shake him off. “The story you were told was a lie.”
“Listen to me, Tabitha. I did not rape your mom. Your uncle did.”
Tabitha stopped moving.
“Your uncle, Terwe, did. I’m sorry.”
She seemed to shrink in his hold. “No.”
“Yes. It’s a long story, and I’m sorry that we’ve hidden the truth from you…”
She broke away and started towards the front door, but she stopped, looked up the stairs and decided her bedroom was a perfect place to hide. Luper picked her backpack and followed her. He knocked on her door.
“Tabitha, you forgot your bag.”
He heard her on the phone. Her words were said in sobs. And then, she was screaming, asking repeatedly, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Luper waited until she went silent and he heard her sniveling. He knocked again. A few seconds passed and she opened it. He handed the backpack to her. She looked up at him.
“Why did you say it was you?”
“It’s a long story, Tabi. And I want to spare you the details.”
“I want to know.”
“Tabi, you’re too young…”
“I’m not a baby.”
“You’re my baby, Tabitha. And I have vowed to protect you, even if it means me having a bad name.”
“No, you’re protecting Uncle Terwe.”
“Then tell me. I want to know!”
Luper exhaled. “Can I come in?”
She moved away from the door. He entered her bedroom. It was clean and tidy. Not one thing was out of place. Even the blue teddy on her bed was sitting perfectly.
Luper closed the door and rested his back against it. Tabitha sat on her bed.
“What did your mother tell you just now?” he asked.
Luper drew in his breath. He took his time with the story about Idenyi’s rape, but ensured to keep it PG13. There was a harrowing look on Tabitha’s face when he was done. He left the door to sit beside her.
“The past doesn’t matter, Tabi. What matters is now and how much you mean to me and your mother. We both love you, and would do anything to see you happy and protected. You don’t have to accept Terwe into your life or even talk to him. When you’re old enough to handle the emotions, you can decide how best to approach him – if you want to approach him.”
Tabitha heaved and burst into another sob. Luper put his arm around her. She rested her head on his chest.
“I’m so sorry,” he said to her. “So, so sorry.”
They stayed that way for a while, and when her sobs mellowed, he asked her, “Do you want to stay in today? I can call the school and tell them you’re under the weather.”
Tabitha gave a nod.
“I’ll also skip the office. Is there anything special you’d like us to do?”
She shook her head.
“Have you had breakfast?”
“There’s stew. I’ll cook rice and you can do the dishes from yesterday. Then we can sit and watch Black Mirror on Netflix.”
Luper stood up.
“I’m sorry for all the things I said to you about…”
She stopped, her chest heaving.
“It’s fine, Tabi. You had no idea.”
He went for the door. She stopped him again.
“Please, you and Aunty Dugo should come back together.”
“Tabi, it’s complicated.”
“I messed up, she messed up…”
“And you can’t call each other and say sorry? You especially, Daddy. She came here to see you and then you with that woman. Why can’t you call her or go and look for her?”
Luper had no defense left.
“If you people don’t get back together, I’m going to stay with mom.”
“Hey, you can’t pull that card out anytime you feel like.”
Tabitha folded her arms over her chest and gave a ‘try me’ expression. Luper left her bedroom. He went into his, which was a contrast to Tabitha’s. There were clothes on the floor, on the bed and everywhere else. He hadn’t had time in a while to take his clothes to the laundry. He thought to himself that he needed a housekeeper.
He fished for his phone beneath his pillow and dialed the school to inform them that Tabitha wasn’t coming in. He also dialed the bus driver, telling him not to bother to stop by. When he went downstairs, he saw Tabi already washing the dishes. She had her headphones on, which was her general warning to be left alone.
He boiled some rice, defrosted the stew stored in his freezer and served their meals before calling his office to inform his partner that he would not make it in today.
As he reached for the bottle of ketchup on the kitchen counter, his thoughts sailed to Dugo, recalling how she liked to add ketchup to everything. He caught himself smiling at a certain incident in which she had mixed her egusi soup with ketchup, hated it, and ended up finishing his.
“Daddy, this rice is too much for me,” Tabitha complained.
“You’re not watching your weight, are you?”
As he passed her plate of rice to her, his thoughts remained on Dugo, and at how mad he was at her. The last time he held this much anger over a woman was when he was with Shipinen. He hadn’t known how much he was into Dugo until she left without explanation. It had taken more than he dreamed he could bear to get over the pain. Alcohol had given him the willpower to stop groveling after her. The random women he slept with were there to make him stop feeling. But all Dugo had to do was to show up and he felt like crap again. For two nights since her return, he had constantly thought about her.
He wanted to see her, to express himself, to ask how she had been, to know if she was okay. She had looked leaner than when she left Nigeria. He worried that she had fallen ill or worse.
He only wanted to see her.
Luckily, Ace was steps ahead of him on the ‘seeing’ issue. His call dropped in just as Luper picked his plate of rice.
“Guy, how far?”
“I dey, man. How waka?” Ace asked.
“We dey push am.” Luper left the kitchen.
“So, I’ll just make this quick. You and Dugo.”
“Me and Dugo. What’s up with that?”
“I just want to bring two of you together and have you talk to each other. There’s a huge misunderstanding here, and I blame you both for lack of communication. Dugo didn’t express her reasons for what she did, and you didn’t give her the opportunity to. Asides that, man, you were hiding what was happening on your end from her.”
Luper didn’t argue with Ace. The guy was right. Luper knew he messed up, but he had been going through his own stress at the time and didn’t want to dump it on Dugo. Udazi had wrought her sorcery on the Torkuma clan to turn against him because of Dugo. They claimed they were mad at him for sticking with her after she brought shame to the family and tried to destroy Acadia’s legacy with her scarlet past. They were oblivious of the fact that Luper was no longer dating her. He didn’t feel they deserved to know that he wasn’t. He kept his life away from them. He also had pressure from church and his friends. Because he hadn’t explained how much Dugo meant to him, they all pressured him to leave her. His reaction to the email sent to her from the British porn company was an outcome of the outward pressure he felt, combined with the fact that he was mad at her for wanting to be alone. He had regretted his actions two days too late, and after three months without her and tasteless encounters with other women, he wanted to take it all back.
Still, he needed answers from her.
“So, are you cool with the time and location?” Ace had just fixed a date for them for later that evening.
“Cool. I’ll buzz you later.”
After the call, he sat with Tabitha to watch Black Mirror.
Ace had an opinion, after all. Taking photos of Dugo in an ever-busy market, he weighed in on the Dugo and Luper breakup.
“You walked out on him, Ada. What did you expect? He’d be waiting for you?”
Dugo hadn’t expected to meet hugs and kisses from Luper, but jumping into bed with other women wasn’t part of what she had anticipated from him.
“Did our relationship even mean anything to him?”
Ace reached over from behind his camera and tweaked up the sharp arc of Dugo’s left eyebrow and stepped back to stare at her face through his lens. He asked her to lift her head up a little. After several shots, he announced that they were done for the day.
“Did the relationship mean anything to you?” he asked.
“And yet you walked out on him just because he said things that hurt you.”
“He was judging me.”
“He was angry. He didn’t know you weren’t taking the deal from the British guys.”
“I tried to explain.”
“You should have waited for him to calm down na, babe. And seriously, why did you even want that email in the first place?”
Dugo was quiet. She stared ahead of her, at angry and serious faces going about their businesses, carried by rushing feet. A harmony of colors and voices, goods and people, dirt and urgency—that was what Nigeria was to her. It was one of her few times out of the house, away from the comfort of the popular spots she loved visiting that were a reminder of her life in Germany. This was different and distracting, taking her mind off Luper. She was glad she listened to Ace when he suggested bringing her here for her shoot. She was ready to tell the world her story, to put herself out there. This was the first step.
“You’re not answering me o.” Ace was presently going through the pictures he had just taken. He loved street photography. His photo studio had framed photos taken by him that were selling at a steep price because of his creative brilliance.
“Go on,” Ace urged Dugo.
“It felt good to be wanted again, not to be judged. I just wanted to see them need me. Everything happening here made me feel unwanted, like I was trash.”
Ace gave her an understanding stare.
“Apart from that, I felt it was rude to Mila to say no to her in front of the guy.”
“But Luper didn’t let me explain.”
“You didn’t give him the chance to let you explain. You walked away. You even walked away before it all happened. I don’t know why you women are so flaky. Any small thing, you walk away. You don’t sit and sort shit out or be there for the long haul. It’s so childish, to be honest.”
“You’re talking about Joana now.”
Ace let his camera hang on his chest. “I’m talking about you, Deedee. You fucked up.”
“I fucked up?”
Dugo was silent as he unpacked his tripod. She kept her peace as they walked to where the car was parked. Her mood was low, which didn’t surprise her. She had been that way since that morning at Luper’s. She felt lackluster. Picking up the bits of her life after returning to Nigeria was more difficult than she had imagined.
“Your mood reflected in your pictures, Deedee.”
“Hmm?” She looked up at Ace who was standing at the other side of the car. He was concerned for her.
“Should we blame it on your period, since you’ve been denying that Luper is not responsible for how you’ve been?”
Ace unlocked the car. “Just to take your mind off Luper for a second… Joana is married,” he announced.
They both got into the car.
“When? And to who? That same guy?”
“You’d think he’d be smart by now.”
“He probably loves her.”
“Joana’s charm though…” Ace smiled warmly. “It’s a gift from the gods. Their wedding was in November. Loud and colorful. Photos were everywhere…”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Escaped my mind, I guess.”
“How did you feel?”
“How did I feel?” Ace shrugged, starting the car. “Normal.”
“No VAR here. I felt normal, compared to what I thought I was going to feel. Yeah, it hurt a little. Maybe for two minutes.”
“That’s two hours.”
“Or two days…”
Dugo laughed. Ace smiled tenderly at her.
“Good to see you laugh.” He steered the car away from the parking spot and onto the street.
“Well, that chapter with Jo is over,” Dugo said.
She shot him a judgmental glare. “You wouldn’t.”
“She’s pregnant for me.”
“Get out of here!”
“I’m serious. She’s about four or five months gone now. I’ve not been counting.”
“So, you’re still talking to each other?”
“Not really. She came to the house a few days to the wedding to drop the news. Made me touch her belly and then told me to swear to love the child even though Sebastian’s name would be on the birth certificate.”
“I told her I didn’t even believe her. I’m waiting for the baby to be born first and we’d do a DNA. But she says she’s very sure it’s mine.”
“And if it’s yours?”
“I’m going to take my child. I’m not playing with any morrafoka.”
“Idowu!” Dugo laughed.
“Joana is mad. She’ll soon smell the fart she’s dishing to me.”
“How has Titi been?” Dugo asked as they came towards a traffic stop. The light had just turned green.
“I don’t know for that one. Last I heard, she wanted to leave Naija.”
The trip wore on, with Ace getting Dugo up to speed on incidents she had missed. They continued at home, while having lunch. Dugo fell asleep towards mid-afternoon, Laika lying quietly beside her. She stirred when the clock struck six. Laika was not with her. She could hear Ace playing a game of FIFA in the living room. When she peeped in, she saw that he was with a friend. She withdrew and sought the luxury of her bathroom for a bath. She got caught in the moment, as was her habit these days, listening to music and allowing the heat of the bathwater soothe her lower tummy that was beset by menstrual cramps.
Ace came knocking when she was just about leaving the tub.
“You have fifteen minutes to dress up.”
She left the bathroom, wondering what outfit would be perfect for her date. Her mood was still low, but her strength had been refreshed. She consulted Ace for fashion advice. He walked to her closet and returned with a pair of black pants and a beige top.
“Calm, and not so amorous.”
He watched her put on the clothes, and helped her hair style the edges of her hair. She chose a nude color for her lips, left her full brows unfilled and smoothened her face with loose powder. Ace told her she looked sad-sexy-beautiful.
“He won’t take his eyes off you.”
As they set to leave the house, Laika complained in an annoying whine. The air outside was windy, almost brittle. Dugo made a mental appointment to go swimming once her period was over.
“Are you nervous?” Ace asked as soon as they got on their journey.
“Happy to see him again?”
“Then what are you feeling nau, sweetie? You’re too sad for my liking.”
Dugo wasn’t sure what she felt. She just wanted to get over the evening, and move on with her life. She loved Luper, but was ready to let him go. She had been heartbroken by him once. Her heart was now girded up not to let it happen again.
But her grit and guts came to shreds when she walked into the blue-themed restaurant and saw him seated alone at a table. Her tummy was held in knots as they approached him. She thought he looked gorgeous in the shadowy lighting of the restaurant. He had on a denim jacket over a black t-shirt. The light from his phone reflected on a beard that could do with a trim, but remained inviting enough for her to want to touch.
“How far, man?”
Luper dropped his phone and responded to Ace’s greeting with a handshake. “I dey.” He looked at Dugo. “Hello, Ada.”
Ace pointed Dugo to the vaulted couch Luper sat on. She sat and shifted in to let him sit, but he remained on his feet.
“My job is done here,” he said. “You guys should fix this mess.”
And before either of them could speak, he was out of sight. Dugo moved back to the edge of the couch.
“You want to drink anything?” Luper asked. She placed her purse on the table. He pushed the drinks menu to her. She had been here with him before, and had chosen a cocktail she couldn’t recall.
“Between The Sheets?” Luper inquired.
“What?” she asked with a frown.
“The cocktail you had the last time. Between The Sheets.”
She felt some embarrassment for assuming that his words meant something else.
Luper beckoned a waiter over. The man came by and took their order. He left. Dugo lifted her eyes and caught Luper watching.
“So, how does this go?” he asked. “We do small talk or just get right into it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do I start or do you?”
Luper took off his jacket, placed it beside him and buoyed forward. He put out his hand. She looked at it, and up at him, into his eyes. She stretched out her hand and rested it in his. The familiar touch and warmth almost made her smile.
“I’m sorry,” he muttered. “I judged you before hearing the full story. I’m so sorry, Chums.”
His words went slowly into her like an intravenous drug, overcame what she felt inside, and left her speechless.
“You don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to. It would be fine by me. I fucked up, Ada. I’m sorry.”
Even though she was certain that he was earnest, she feared that the words came out too easily. Just as he had easily gotten tired of what they shared and moved on to other women. She took her hand away and picked her purse. “I’m sorry, Luper. I don’t think I can do this.”
Dugo hurried away from the table and walked as fast as her heeled sandals could take her. She had barely stepped out of the lounge when Luper’s grip on her arm brought her body into his. His eyes had that thirsty look they bore whenever he craved to kiss her.
“Forget the chick you saw in my house that day. Forget what Tabi told you about the other women I’d been with. That was just me coping, trying hard to forget you, Ada. All the time, I thought about you. All the freaking time.”
“You will hurt me again,” she breathlessly told him.
“Chums, no.” The space between his brows creased. His eyes showed sincerity.
“You told me to go and spread my legs for strangers, that you didn’t care…”
“I didn’t mean it.”
“How can you be with me and not know me? And not know that you are the only man I want to be with? That I am done with my former life? How can you not know it? I forgave you and your mother and put my past behind to start a new life with you, but you still saw me as a whore. A fucking fortze! Just because of one email, Luper.”
He put his hands together in a pleading gesture. “Forgive me.”
“I did not want to take that job or any other job.”
“You don’t have to explain.”
“You’re doing it again. You didn’t hear me then and you’re doing the same thing. Again!”
He took her hands and pressed them to his lips. “Please, don’t shout. Please, I’m so, so sorry. We have a lot to talk about, me and you, and I’m afraid that this place is not the right place. We could go to my house. Or yours… Or a hotel.”
“I want to go home.”
“Okay. We’ll go home.”
She was pushing hard to know how much he wanted her.
“I’m not letting you leave me again, Ada. Don’t even think about it. I’m stuck with you now.”
“We’ll talk tomorrow…”
He gave her a shake of his head with a smile. “Stop being difficult, Chums.”
When his hand moved to her waist, she didn’t push away. He drew her close and once his body touched hers, she felt all the exhaustion and sadness leave her body. He smelled her hair, breathing in noisily.
“God, I missed you.”
He possessed her, his arms gently wrapping around her upper body. They stayed that way for some time.
They turned to find the waiter smiling apologetically. “I’m sorry to disturb you, but your drinks are ready.”
The waiter returned. Luper freed Dugo. “Are you alright?” he asked.
“Ah.” He smiled. “I missed that ‘ya.’”
They went in and sat in for a few minutes to finish their drinks.
“Mine or yours?” he asked again.
“My room is scattered.”
On their way to Luper’s house, Dugo had the chance to tell her reasons why she left. She explained that it had nothing to do with him, but their breakup had made her stay longer than planned.
Luper listened to her speak. The sound of her voice was soothing to him. He had missed her so badly. Her classiness and style, the gentleness that was like a second nature to her. He had missed her laughter too, and her neediness for him. But he didn’t tell her these things. He ogled her brazenly instead, as much as his eyes could let him. Driving was a distraction. He wanted to get her home, lie beside her and just stare at her. He was yet to know how to get over the Africaness of her beauty.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “For going away.”
Her hand reached over and touched his beard contemplatively, and then rubbed it fully, diffing her fingers in to scratch his skin lightly.
They got to his house and Tabitha let them in. At the sight of Dugo, she shrieked, throwing herself into Dugo’s arms for a hug. Luper left them and hurried up to fix his bedroom. He was surprised to meet it cleaned up, with everything in place. Dugo and Tabitha joined him upstairs.
“I called the drycleaners to take your clothes,” Tabitha told Luper.
“Thanks. And for the room too.”
“Aunty Dugo, you’re sleeping over?”
“I don’t know.”
“She is. Now, go to your room.”
Tabitha walked away, smiling at the duo. Ace tugged Dugo in, shut the door and held her against it. He touched her lips with his, delicately, as if trying to be sure they were the same lips he had missed for three months. Dugo wasn’t so patient. She pulled him closer and went deeper to taste him. She sighed as she kissed him, and then giggled when his palms went for her bum.
The kiss wasn’t fiery, but it was consistent and intense. They went from the door to his bed where the kiss went on for a while. Luper then supported himself on an elbow and concentrated his gaze on Dugo.
“Gosh! You’re so beautiful, Ada. Don’t do that to me again. Don’t ever leave me. I suffer from separation anxiety and a lot of horniness. ”
Dugo laughed. “Sadly, I’m on my period. I’m sure you’ve had enough sex that you don’t need me.”
“Shut that sexy mouth of yours.” He had himself over her and started a new kissing session that went from slow to sizzling. They paused to catch their breath, and continued again.
A soft knock on the door stopped them.
“Yes, Tabi?” Luper answered.
“There’s food, if you’re hungry.”
“Okay, darling. Thanks.” He looked at Dugo. “Are you hungry?”
“Tabi’s all over our matter. She’s been mad at me over you.”
They laid their head on pillows and faced each other. Dugo told him about the things she did while she was away. Luper filled her in on how his life had been in her absence, the different women he slept with. There was no condemnation from her. No sadness. Just smiles and that look of adoration that had doubled. He felt the same way, even more intense than before. Maybe their separation was a good thing. Dugo returned to him like manna from heaven. Fresh and divine. He had just realized that he had fallen deeper.
Dinner was had in bed. Luper dashed out to get Dugo tampons in a nearby store and came home with three bottles of wine. They consumed them, leaving Dugo tipsy and in a hilarious mood. Everything he said made her laugh. They spent the night talking and making out, until Dugo succumb to sleep and passed out in his hold. He covered them both and slept soon after.
His buzzing phone woke him up. He opened his eyes and saw that it was morning already. The phone stopped ringing. There was a text from Tabitha. She said she was off to school. Luper was on his way to checking who had called him when the phone began to buzz again.
He took the call, supposing it to be a client.
The voice on the other end responded in a mumble.
Something about the way his name was called made him uncomfortable.
“I hope you slept well?”
It was a man speaking. A voice he didn’t recognize. Deep and gruff.
“Who is speaking, please?”
“It doesn’t matter. What matters is that I have your mother.”
Luper extracted his hand from beneath Dugo and slowly sat up.
“Who is this?” He was less patient now.
“I have Udazi with me and she’s not making it out of this place alive.”
“What type of nonsense joke is this? Who the hell are you?”
“Using that tone on me will not change anything. Udazi is evil and she needs to disappear from the universe entirely. There are a lot of people who would have her head rolling and her body parts chopped and fed to dogs. It is my pleasure to give them what they want.”
“No, I’m the one talking here. You, listen to me. Make your peace with the reality on ground. Call your brother and sister and tell them that your mother will die in the most painful way. I and my men will rape her for the many times my sisters were raped. Well, I don’t know how many, really. And I can’t ask my sister, because I haven’t seen nor heard of them in almost eighteen years. Udazi took them away and that was all. She took money from my family, promised us the gates of heaven and the streets of gold, and then took my sisters away from us forever. She will die for her sins.”
Luper felt his heart hitting against his chest rapidly. He got off the bed. “Can we talk about this? How much do you want? Anything. Just tell me.”
The voice laughed, and Luper thought he caught the sound of his mother’s whimpering in the background. He pressed the phone to his ear.
“I don’t want money. I simply want revenge. Every day, I will send you a video of your mom being raped. A new one each day. Raped by different men. That was what my sisters and all the girls she trafficked went through. You get to watch it all. Good morning.”
The line went off.
“Hello? Hello!” Luper tried to call back the number but it was unavailable.
“Who was that?” Dugo asked. She had woken up and was seated on the bed. Luper looked at her and couldn’t thread words together to form a sentence.
A notification popped up at the top of his phone screen. A text message dropped in that read:
‘The first session. Click on link below to watch.’
Luper thumbed the link. Something in his mind told him that this was a joke. Someone was pulling a prank. But when the link opened and he clicked on the video that was displayed on a page, the first thing he saw was Udazi’s face. Her mouth was tied and she had a look of terror in her eyes. The camera panned down to reveal she was nude, making Luper take his eyes away from his phone.
“Luper, what’s happening?”
Dugo left the bed and walked up to him. He handed her the phone. “Watch that video. What do you see?”
“Ada, watch it,” his voice shook as badly as his hands. “Tell me what you see.”
Dugo stared at the screen. “Who is this?”
“That’s my mother. Just watch it!”
“Udazi? Oh my God. There’s like three guys there. All of them are… Oh God, Luper. What’s this?”
Luper keeled over, tears fighting their way to his eyes. “Are they raping her?”
“I can’t watch this, Luper.”
He straightened up. “Please, I need to know what is going on there.”
“You don’t have to. I’m not watching it.”
“What did you see?” he almost shouted.
“Yes! One of them is…” Dugo shook her head. “I’m sorry, I can’t watch again.”
Luper walked to the door as if he was leaving the room, but he turned around and slowly let his weight down to the floor.
“I’m fucked, Ada. I’m so fucked up right now.”