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Wednesday, 5 December 2018

the forbidden house of tianna

“Do you not care at all about your life, Victoria?”
***
Somewhere close, a bell jingled. The richness of this sound filled my ears and wrapped me in a tingling cloak. To everyone else, the bell only served to usher in eight hours of sitting down, watching men and woman flaunt their expertise. But to me, the ringing bell meant much more. It officially announced eight hours of undisturbed freedom.
For the next few hours, I would enjoy relative bliss, breathing in unadulterated air. But, in a while, my time would be up. I would hear the closing bell. The same sound that brought me comfort would snatch it from my grasp without any qualms, and against my will I would stuff my books into my backpack and drag myself back home, into the rusty old arms of slavery.
Slipping through the school gate, I started toward the two-story building standing tall and prestigious in my line of sight. The building’s red bricks gave off a western setting I admired. Since its founding, Western High had won several awards for its unique ambience and physical environment, organization, staff quality, and exceptional student performance. To top it all, they delivered this package at a price affordable for the exclusively rich who could spend millions on one child’s educational concern and yet, their pockets would not groan.
A disquieting silence embraced me as I made for the stairs. I squinted at the pitch-black leather wristwatch Amarachi had bought me last session. 9:37am and ticking without mercy. I shook my head at the person I’d been forced to become. Who would believe I woke up by 4:30am every day?
I would do anything to stop being late for school. But each day, I ran in long after the corridors had emptied its occupants into classes. Victoria Brown, the award winning latecomer in all of Western High. Not cool.
People would always talk. The facts never mattered to anyone. They only wanted someone to be the object of their derision. And at Western High, I fit the bill in ways more than one.
Gripping the ornate wrought iron handrail, I mounted the stairs leading to my class. My lower back felt like a rock had been placed on it. After the arduous chores I had been forced to battle with for four hours, and the glaring distance I walked to school, maintaining a proper posture posed a challenge I didn’t know how to tackle.
The damp fabric of my white long-sleeve clung to my torso. I couldn’t be happier our uniform had a navy blue waist coat to hide my hopeless perspiration. How would I survive the day when I had already died from the start?
A throbbing pain in my head caused me to halt. My headache had awakened. For the past few days it had become an unwanted best friend, coming and going as it saw fit. It would persist, hammering as hard as it dared. Sometimes, I feared I would never escape its clutches.
“Heeey, easy!” a deep and unfamiliar voice said from behind me.
I didn’t need to turn to know my abrupt halt had almost caused ‘him’ to crash into me. Apologizing for the inconvenience would be in order, but his next words stopped me cold.
“What are you? Sleepwalker or zombie?”
Anger welled through me, swelled like a bubble and threatened to burst. Everyone knew me as the greatest latecomer ever, but the terms ‘sleepwalker’ and ‘zombie’ had never been heard. Had those become my new tags?
Amidst my wounded pride, his voice swirled around in my head. From his accent, I could tell he was no Nigerian. With its syrupy r’s and e’s, it was probably American.
A familiar throbbing in my head jolted me out of my thoughts. Gripping the straps of my backpack, I whirled around to descend the stairs, but found myself staring at an emerald-eyed boy I had never seen before. His skin, a flawless olive shade, held a glow to die for. Silky, raven hair, styled in a spiked faux hawk pulled me in, bringing to mind those celebrities on TV. For a moment, I gaped. He probably believed I gawked at him because I’d never come face-to-face with a foreigner, but then he would be a fool to think that, because we had over a dozen of them in our school.
A sudden wave of self-consciousness swept me over as my gaze fell on his finely sculpted nose as opposed to my average Nigerian nose. How did he breathe with nostrils barely as wide as buttons?
My gaze traveled along the length of his slender build. Although he stood one step below, I noted he lingered on the tall side, probably three inches taller than my hopeless 5’4. My gaze lingering on his face, I mentally shook my head at the generous spray of stubbles framing his high cheek bones. I looked forward to the look on his face when our principal asked him to get rid of his facial hair.
A familiar pinching sensation in my nose overwhelmed me, severing my thoughts. A sneeze forced its way out, jerking my head forward and almost knocking it into ‘Mr. White’. I hadn’t seen that coming, at least not until the final moment. Gross.
If I hadn’t been fast enough to pinch my nose while I sneezed, all hell would have broken loose. And in his face. It would have been a really snotty moment. Double gross.
An apology would be in order, but I didn’t give myself a chance. Tugging at my collar, I descended the stairs, taking two at a time. I could feel Mr. White’s gaze bore a hole through me. Other than being a zombie and a sleepwalker, I had also ended up becoming a clown for his entertainment. How awkward could our encounter get? Sneezing didn’t make a crime, but doing it in someone’s face did.
Musing over the mess I had just made of myself caused me to fall sick all over again. I needed the sickbay. Class could wait. I needed something to quell the throbbing pain inside my head. And apart from that, I needed to stay away from Mr. White. Amarachi would laugh so hard when she heard of my recent blunders. Two in a row. Just perfect.
I walked as fast as my back ache permitted. As luck had it, no teachers were in sight so I didn’t have to answer to anyone for loitering during school hours. We had Literature—a subject I could easily understand—for first period, so missing this class would not affect my performance. Or so I hoped.
***
A wave of calmness stole me over as the sickbay hit my line of sight. I traipsed into the room, an uncertain smile flitting across my face to match the nurse’s welcoming smile. Clad in a smart white gown, she sat behind the counter, reading an Awake! magazine.
“Good morning,” I said.
Advancing toward the counter compared to walking down an aisle. A pathway stretched between the counter and the door. On each side of the room stood three petite beds, dressed with blue covers and matching pillows.
“Good morning,” the nurse said, her smile accentuated by dimpled cheeks. “You really don’t look well. What’s wrong?”
I resisted an urge to roll my eyes. Of course I didn’t look well, else I wouldn’t even be here. Something on my face must have alerted her. She dropped the magazine on the counter and walked around it to meet me.
“It’s nothing much,” I said. Before I could utter another word, the back of her palm greeted my forehead.
“There’s no fever.” Heaving a sigh of relief, she touched my neck to double-check.
“It’s just a headache,” I said, sneezing into a checkered handkerchief I had just pulled out of my backpack. “And catarrh.”
“Aww. Poor thing. You’ll be fine in no time. Paracetamol should do the trick.”
It amazed me how she never failed to obey the laws of phonetics. She would definitely fit as an English teacher. Had it never occurred to her?
“You speak just like an English teacher,” I said.
“What?” she asked. “Nurses don’t get to speak good English?”
Definitely not the response I expected. What did I expect? Thank you? Mentally, I kicked myself. I definitely should have stayed silent. Sue me.
“No, sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. I was just saying you, uhm…” I trailed off, gesticulating frantically as though it would help complete my statement and save the awkward moment.
She waved off my incoherent comment with a strained laugh. “Don’t kill yourself there. Yeah, I get that a lot.”
Easing myself onto a bed, I watched her return to the counter. She plucked a card of Paracetamol out of its carton and cut out two tablets with a pair of scissors lying idly on the counter.
“And then you’ll need this for that catarrh of yours.” She placed another drug beside the Paracetamol. Turning to the C-Way dispenser behind her, she grabbed a disposable cup. But then she turned to face me, a quizzical look on her face. “I take it you had breakfast, yes?”
My stomach rumbled in response to her question. I had nothing for breakfast. Breakfast only came after chores. And today, like every other day, chores took up all my time, making breakfast a no-no. With a subtle shake of my head, I supplied the answer to her question and waited for an outburst.
“What?” Her voice rang out. Although I’d seen that coming, my headache flared in response. I slammed my eyes shut, allowing the throbbing in my head slide back into my zone of tolerance.
“You want to take drugs on an empty stomach?” she asked. “Do you know how harmful this practice is? Do you know it’s just as harmful as this headache, and other sicknesses we run from?”
With half-closed eyes, I watched her go on and on. It couldn’t be that bad. Why did she react like I’d tried to commit suicide?
“Don’t just sit there gawking at me. I don’t administer drugs to people who haven’t eaten. Go find something to eat first, and then come take your medicine. They will be on this counter waiting for you.” Her voice had a tone of finality. She obviously thought this to be for my good. 



What then did she think of the raging war, a Clash of the Titans reenactment inside my head?
She sank back into her chair and picked up the seemingly fascinating magazine. Seconds stretched into minutes and she seemed oblivious of my presence. My stomach rumbled again, reminding me of my task to fill it.
“Can I just use the bed?” I asked, hating the sudden dryness of my mouth. The nurse raised her eyes to look at me. She cocked her head, a wordless statement that she hadn’t quite heard me.
“I mean, the cafeteria won’t attend to students until recess,” I said. “And I really can’t go to class in this state. My head is pounding so hard I won’t grab anything they’re teaching. Please, I’d just like to use the bed for a while. Surely the headache will subside. It comes and goes everyday anyway.” I snuffled, gluing my handkerchief to my nose. Curse my runny nose.
The nurse raised her neatly trimmed eyebrows at me. “It comes and goes every day?”
“Yes?” I said. Why did she seem surprised?
“How long?”
“Two weeks,” I roughly estimated. I wanted out of this question and answer session. I needed a pill to quell this headache. And since I couldn’t have that, I could use a moment of undisturbed rest. Settling for less had become my thing anyway.
The nurse seemed genuinely scared. “And you don’t attend to it? Do you not care at all about your life, Victoria?”
My lips parted to let out an answer, but I sealed them shut. I would not tell my life story to a stranger. I’d visited the sickbay a number of times, and the nurse had been a staff for as long as I could remember, but I still considered her a stranger. And even if I managed to tell her my story, she would probably doubt its genuineness. And if she did believe every word, it wouldn’t change anything because she had no power to do anything. She could only sympathize with me. And I didn’t want that.
I pushed aside her inadvertently hurtful question and lay prone in bed. Sleep would find me and steal me away from the unbearable headache. Even though it would only last a moment, it would definitely be worth it.
Heavy eyelids glided over my eyes. The room and everything it held disappeared around me as I slipped out of consciousness.
“Victoria!” an indistinct voice called. A gentle tap on my shoulder followed almost immediately.
The unrelenting pounding in my head and an emptiness in my stomach greeted me as I slid halfway into consciousness. My eyes lazied open and I saw the nurse standing beside me, an A4 sheet in her hand. How long had I been asleep? An hour? Two?
Handing the paper to me, she said, “The cafeteria will let you eat once you show them this permit.”
I bolted upright in bed and grabbed the paper, too eager to read its content.
To the cafeteria:
I know it is against the school rules to attend to students during this hour. But our students’ health is our priority. Please, kindly attend to Victoria Brown so she takes the drugs I have administered.
Stella Adewale
School nurse
Decorated with white and navy-blue stripes, just like my four in hand necktie and flare skirt, our school logo stood proud beneath the complementary close.
“Earth to Victoria?” Fingers snapped between my eyes, flaunting purple polish on artificial nails.
“Thank you,” I said, grinning.
***
My walk to the cafeteria went undisturbed, save for the sun’s ruthless intensity and my sneezing and snuffling. I felt like a walking tank of boiling water. Actually, saying I walked would paint a wrong picture of the situation. I didn’t walk. I tottered.
It stunned me how my health had deteriorated in the blink of an eye. Hadn’t I walked to school this morning in near-perfect health, with fatigue and headache being the only exception? Why then did I feel so sick all of a sudden, unable to take one step without faltering?
As though my sudden sickness couldn’t ruin my day on its own, Sir Aaron’s voice pierced my eardrums, bringing my struggle of a walk to an abrupt intermission. “Hey, you!”
My insides churned at the menace in his high-pitched voice. The very same voice policemen reserved for catching thieves red-handed. Why did it have to be Sir Aaron of all people? This man had a face of stone and a heart of rock. To top it all, he had a voice that could melt iron.
Holding my hands behind my back, I turned to face my least favorite teacher. “Good morning, Sir.”
“It’s barely even eleven and you’re already loitering,” he said. “Is this the example you’re setting for your juniors?”
With every word he spat out, my stomach tightened. I craved to be away from him so I could finally breathe fresh air. I could feel my blood getting hotter by the second. No, I don’t mean it as an idiomatic expression. Literally, I could feel the hotness of my blood, a sickening feeling that had only arrived a moment or two ago. I blamed the orb of fury burning intensely above me.
Too sick to speak to the man before me, I presented the nurse’s permit in his face, silencing him. Hopefully, for good. His quietude stretched over a few moments. And in this little time, my headache seemed to aggravate.
Plucking the note out of my grasp, Sir Aaron drew it close to his rather wrinkled eyes. After a moment too long, he said, “Hmm. Sorry about your ill health.”
Learning is an everyday process. And in my final year in Western High, I discovered Sir Aaron, the most feared teacher, had a fraction of a heart. Wide eyed, I stared at him, noting how the look on his face transformed from irritation to sympathy. And for the most part, he wasn’t faking it.

I let out a mental sigh. I should be in the cafeteria already. But here I stood, stuck with my least favorite teacher, and at the mercy of the ferocious sun.
“What’s wrong with you?” he asked. “How bad is it?” Had his voice softened in reality, or had it only softened in my head?
I opened my mouth to tell him about my headache, but then I reconsidered. The man standing before me had a heart of stone. He could consider headache and catarrh too trivial for a nurse’s permit, and that would implicate the kind nurse.
While I still conflicted about how to answer him, the back of his palm rested on my sweaty forehead. Genuine fear washed him over. “You’re burning. You’ve got a fever.”
“Whatfever?” The words flew out of my mouth without warning. I had a fever? The nurse had checked my temperature an hour or two ago and found nothing. So where did it come from?
“Quick, go attend to your illness.” He returned the note like he would burning coal. I turned to leave when he spoke again. “And Victoria—”
What? He knew my name? Impossible. He had never called me by name, but always barked out a ‘you there!’ or a ‘yes?’
“Be sure to get well soon,” he said.
“Yes, sir.”
He walked away, leaving me to continue my floundering walk. I had a fever. I touched my neck to be certain. Underneath the back of my palm, my skin burned with the power of a thousand suns. That explained why I felt like a tank of boiling water. How wrong I had been to blame it on the sun. Poor sun.
Two realizations dawned on me. Number one, I had malaria. I didn’t need a test to know it. The symptoms were all there. First, the persistent headache. Then a runny nose. And now fever, accompanied with a cold I’d never paid attention to until now. These symptoms had become a part of me. For the past four years, they would come up every now and then, but I’d never had a chance to treat them. My stepmother never saw me as worthy of medical care.
After persisting for a week or two, the symptoms would walk out of my life, and I would be good as new. I hoped this time would be no different. But for how long would this go on? This sickness had been gnawing at me for far too long, accumulating day after day. It likened to a pile of books being topped with more books with each passing day. One day, that pile would not be able to take in any more books, and it would collapse. If I didn’t get treatment sometime soon, I would break down just like that pile of books. Each time my good health slid from my grasp, I always looked forward to the inescapable breakdown, but it hadn’t struck yet. It stood around the corner, calculating, waiting for the right time to knock me off my feet.
My second realization concerned Sir Aaron. We had all been wrong to paint him as a monster. A fraction of him knew humanity.
‘What happens in this house stays in this house. Do you understand?’
***
Eyes closed, I lay in bed, waiting for a horrendous lump in my throat to dissipate. Stella probably thought I had fallen asleep. But then I sneezed, and in that moment I feared the pills I’d swallowed would pop out of my mouth.
I knew it would only be a moment before she engaged me in a conversation. I couldn’t blame her though. The boredom in the air had enough intensity to sicken the heart of an average person.
“So, you’re sick with fever, headache and catarrh?” Stella’s voice cut through the silence.
Did she need me to answer that? Obviously not, for she went on, “Fever isn’t necessarily a bad guy. It is your body’s natural reaction to the real bad guys. It is your body’s response to an untreated sickness or a hidden infection. This could be anything from a urinary tract infection to tuberculosis.”
“Mine is just malaria,” I said.
“Care to tell me which doctor gave you that diagnosis, Victoria know it all?”
I looked away sheepishly. “I’m sorry, I just thought—”
“Do you know how dangerous what you’ve just done is?” she asked.
My thoughts hovered over her choice of words. Dangerous? When did it become life threatening to look away from someone when offering an apology?
Knitting my brows in concentration, I tried to put two and two together. And then it occurred to me she hadn’t questioned my diverting my gaze, but my self-diagnosis. I knew self-diagnosis didn’t count as a good idea. I knew the risks involved. But what could I do?
Mistaking my silence for ignorance, she lectured, “It has led many down the wrong path. By self-diagnosing, you would be wrongly assuming you are well informed about your current health condition. What if a more intense sickness masquerades as a trivial one, or a trivial one as a more intense one? What would happen?
“You would be misdirecting any clinician who attends to you into prescribing drugs that don’t see your situation as a whole. Even worse, he could administer drugs that are way too high for what you’re experiencing. Side effects are always around the corner, waiting to strike. Is this what you want for yourself?”
I sighed. “No.”
“Good,” she said. “Now that’s a start. Goodness! I should get Sir Amadi to let me address you students about this issue. I really should. Anyway, once school is over, go see a doctor to get a blood test done ASAP. You should find out the root cause before you start taking treatment. Do you understand me?”
If she awaited an answer, she would never get one. Her lecture had just erupted painful memories. Embracing myself, I turned to lay on my side. Hot tears blistered my eyes. I knew it would only be a moment before they spilled onto my cheeks.
If I had a mother, she would always be there for me. My health and happiness would be her priority, and I would never have any reason to cry.
But I never had a chance to meet my mum. Dad told me she’d suffered from amniotic-fluid embolism and died two days after my birth. If I hadn’t been born, perhaps she would still be alive.
As much as dad had always told me never to think like this, I could not stop nursing these thoughts. For me to exist, mum had to go. I wished this tragedy had never struck. My life would have been different if I had her with me. Although we had never met, I missed her. The tears I tried to fight spilled out of my eyes and plopped onto the bed.
I missed my dad. He had always been there for me, trying hard to bridge the gap of not having a mum. And he had been exceptionally good at it. I would only have to cough to find myself at a hospital. Several tests would be run to detect any hidden sicknesses. And each time, I would try to resist. I would cry and try to talk him out of it because I feared needles. But he never succumbed. He would hold me through the tests and afterward he would take me shopping to make up for the discomfort he had caused me.


Now I would give anything to feel the sting of a syringe. I wanted things to go back to the way they used to be. I wanted my dad. But some prayers could never be answered. And I just had to deal with reality.
My thoughts settled on how Stella had mistaken my silence for ignorance. I wished I could tell her how much she had hurt me with her little lecture. I knew the health implications of self-diagnosis. But what could I do?
At home, they didn’t care if I existed or not. Nobody paid more attention to me than they would a stray dog roaming the streets. While dad still lived, they had treated me as their own. Or so I’d thought. But in the blink of an eye, it all came crashing down. I watched them toss the very essence of my existence into the gutter. How could I have known they would change dramatically?
A few weeks after dad’s death, my deteriorating health had knocked me off my feet. Shivering with fever, I had approached my stepmother with the news. I could remember vividly the words she told me.
‘You have fever. You have cough. You have catarrh. So what should I do? I should throw myself in front of a train abi?’
She had also said, ‘It seems you’re forgetting your place in this house. You are no child of mine. So why should you worry me with your problems? Even the Bible says each one will carry his own load. Look here my dear, your well-being is no responsibility of mine. It was solely your parents’ duty, and since they have decided to leave you, well, there’s nothing left for you.’
Although she had said those words four years ago, it still stung when I reflected on them. My stepmother’s cruelty remained a mystery I could never decipher.
My dad. Why did he have to leave me? He had been more than a father to me. He had been my mother, my best friend, the glue holding my side of the family and my stepmother’s side together. He had assured me he would always be there for me. But life never gave him a chance to keep his promise.
Why me? Why did all the bad things happen to me? Had my birth been a crime? Why then had I been born in the first place? Why should anyone be born to suffer like this? First, my mum left without even knowing me. She had only been allowed to cradle me for a few hours, after which death snatched her away.
But no, mum alone could not satisfy its hellish blood thirst. It had to take dad as well. Why did it end there? Why hadn’t it taken me along?
Why should some people be happy and satisfied with life, and others miserable, having despair where joy should be? Maybe life was a game and the privileged used a cheat the rest of the world didn’t know of.
Each morning I would awaken with a sigh because my suffering continued. Living compared to a race and I didn’t know how to hit the finish line. I did not even know the direction of the finish line to start with. No, I wouldn’t call this living, but survival.
Years ago, I had plenty to eat and drink. I would stay cuddled in dad’s arms and fall asleep watching TV. Twice a year I would visit the orphanage, giving help to the less privileged. And most importantly, I had dad, my reason for joy. But now I’d been stripped of everything I ever had. Now I had close to nothing.
My thoughts rested on the stillborn children who never had a chance to see the world and all its depravity. They had left this cruel world for somewhere safe, somewhere peaceful. They had faded into nothingness, where no one could ever hurt them or make them feel worthless. They would never have to gulp down the spicy dish of cruelty the world had to offer. Why hadn’t I shared with them in their fate?
I peered toward the future, aiming to catch a glimpse of my life a few years from now, but the darkness of my present, a mass of black smoke, filled my vision. Could there be any truth to my stepmother’s words that nothing good could ever come out of me?
If I didn’t live to see the next day, would anyone notice? Would anyone even remember a girl like me existed? Surely their lives would go on as though nothing happened. They would look to where I used to be, and would barely even remember my name. Only Amarachi would grieve.
As much as I wanted death to put me out of my misery, I didn’t want to give my haters the satisfaction of driving me to my grave. For them I would be strong. For them I would cut off my ears to spite my face. I would survive.
“Victoria,” Stella’s voice severed my thoughts.
I lowered my head and wiped my tears with the back of my palms. She couldn’t see me cry.
“Take care of yourself,” she said. “I’m out to get recharge card. Will be back in five.”
Letting down my guard, I raised my face and watched her advance to the door. And when I least expected, she turned around, her eyes catching the glister in mine.
She dashed to my side, her eyes searching mine. “Are you alright?”
“Yes.” If I said more, my voice would wobble, giving me away more than my puffy eyes already had.
Stella sat beside me, the additional weight causing the bed to groan. “What’s wrong? Do you feel worse?”


“It’s not…the fever.” And like I feared, my voice betrayed me. It sounded too brittle, I almost didn’t recognize it.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. Her eyes told me she cared. The softness of her gaze assured me I could trust her. “How am I to help you when you won’t even speak about it? When you told me about your headache, did I not give you pills to subdue both the headache and the fever?”
“It’s not about my health,” I said.
“So what’s wrong?” she pressed on.
I stared at her, conflicted about what to do. How could I tell her about my despair? Where would I start from? Would I not be betraying my family by speaking to an outsider about our problems?
“Do you want me to call your sister?” she asked. Wounded by her suggestion, I shook my head with a questionable vigor.
Silence lingered in the air. But it only lasted as long as I let it. “Have you ever lost a loved one?”
I had thought by asking that question I would chase the silence. But no. More silence ensued and I realized I had chosen the wrong start for our conversation.
With a voice as tiny as a mice’s, Stella spoke, “Yes.”
“Who was it?” Raising myself to sit, I leaned against the bed’s backrest.
“Someone special,” she said. I waited for more details, but they never came.
Someone special. A reply as simple as that, but weighing so much that it knocked her emotionally off balance. Her rue-cheerlessness mirrored mine. Whoever had died must have meant a lot to her. At this point I had no idea what to do or say to make up for awakening memories she had put to sleep. Guilt clawed at me for transferring my broken spirit to her.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“It’s fine,” she said. A little white lie. It would never be fine. Deep down, she knew. Just as I hadn’t been able to get over my dad’s death, she hadn’t been able to get over hers either. Silence stretched between us, so thick that if I reached out to touch it I just might find something tangible.
“You were going to get recharge card?” My voice sliced through the silence I had brought upon the room, sounding weirdly thin amidst the awkwardness between Stella and I.
“Actually, that can wait. There’s plenty of time to do that. Now is story time.” She punctuated her statement with a wiggle of her fingers.
Wearing a serious look, she said, “Have you ever heard of Miriam Adewale?”
Of course. I had heard that name more times than I could remember. But where?
I gave up on trying to remember. “It rings a bell.”
“Of course,” she said.
“Who is she?” I asked.
“Was,” she corrected.
Was. That only meant she no longer existed. I put the facts together. Miriam Adewale. Dead. And suddenly, I remembered. I had read an article of her in one of our school yearbooks. She’d been among the first set of students to study in Western High. She died on the 24th of May 1996.


A shocking realization dawned on me. “She was your sister.”
How had this never occurred to me? Other than sharing the same surname, they possessed similar facial features. I regarded Stella with my empathetic eye. It must have been hard watching her sister’s health deteriorate, and even harder accepting her powerlessness in saving her sister’s life. It must be hard confining herself to a place brimming with bitter memories. During idle times, would she not be tempted to relive painful experiences? Didn’t she feel smothered by those memories? Did they not fight to steal the air from her lungs?
“I’m sorry about your sister,” I said.
“That was her junior year,” Stella said. “I was two classes behind her. We lived in Ondo state, so we had to stay in the dormitory. Schooling so far away from home gave me the creeps. I wanted to be close to home. But I didn’t stand a chance. All Mimi’s friends were going to this school, and she wanted to be in the same school with them. At that time, Western High was the newest and most popular school in Nigeria.
“From our childhood, Mimi and I schooled together, so it was totally expected I was sent to the same school as her. Things were going great. I loved the school. My new friends. The atmosphere. The infrastructure. The teachers. And then I was proud to actually be a student of this school. Students of Western High were recognized as one of the best students nationwide. And till date, this hasn’t changed.
“One evening, Mimi had a very high fever. Her friends and I rushed her to the sickbay. And the nurse…she was eating.” Her face contorted grotesquely as she mentioned the nurse. Narrowing her eyes to slits, she clenched her teeth. “She whined on and on about how she’d been extra busy all day and was in no mood to attend to anyone. She said she’d been attending to others at the expense of her own stomach. She asked us to leave with Mimi and return in the morning, but we didn’t. We placed Mimi on a bed and I assured her she would be fine. My sister lay in one of these beds.”
She pointed to the bed adjacent ours. Sadness clouded her features as she stared at the bed and through it, reliving the moment she had just described. In my mind’s eye, I could see a picture of what that day possibly looked like. Thinking back to the photo of Miriam in the school archives, I conjured an image of a sick version of her lying in that bed, hoping the nurse attended to her.
“It was all too late when the nurse attended to my sister. All she gave her was a lazy dose of Paracetamol. There was more she could have done. But she didn’t. My sister lay there for six whole hours before receiving proper treatment. Couldn’t a test have been carried out during that period to know the underlying cause of the fever? But no. The only thing she did was force three stupid Paracetamol tablets down my sister’s throat! That woman did close to nothing to save my sister’s life. She barely even paid her any attention. Instead she said she was only pretending so she wouldn’t have to participate in the inter-house sports.”


“God!” I gasped, shaking my head in horror. How could someone think that?
“Horrible, right? That’s what you get when you hire staff who don’t have the right motive. Her motive for being a nurse was purely financial. Totally wrong. A nurse is someone who must make saving lives a priority. Money making and any other thing must only come after it. Not before. For two days, my sister lay in this bed, getting worse by the second, dying slowly. When the news reached our parents, they hit the road at once. My sister was transferred to St. Martin’s hospital. That was the last time I ever saw her again.”
It broke my heart to hear her voice become a lifeless monotone. If I could I would take away her sorrow and mine. But wanting to do something was one thing, and having the power to do it another.
“I’m sorry.” I had just said sorry for the third time. It served to comfort, but did it? In my case, I would be a liar if I answered in the affirmative. No amount of sorry could make me feel better over my father’s death.
Apparently, Stella shared my feeling toward the word ‘sorry’, for she said, “Sorry is an empty word, Victoria. It does nothing but make us feel sorry for ourselves over and over again. Have you not already realized that for yourself?”
“Please forgive me. I didn’t mean to—”
“You’re always sorry. Don’t you ever get tired of being sorry over nothing?” Mimicking my voice, and failing dreadfully at it, she said, “Sorry. Please. Forgive me. Are those the only words you know?”
Driven by a sudden urge to share my story with her, I said, “Those are the only words they make me say.”

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