Their chaotic thoughts and exaggerated heartbeats were the only things louder than the echo from their feet slapping the coarse ground. It was well past midnight and save for the lone street light in the distance, they could hardly see much else. Afeez was beginning to slow his pace when he heard a loud curse following a thud in front of him.
“You don fall?” He asked as he approached the petite female trying to lift her body off the ground.
“Ehn ehn! Na play I dey play for ground,” she retorted and grunted. Sitting up, she lifted her right knee to examine the bruise. She hissed when she saw the blood seeping out of the cut. Her breathing was labored and her feet felt heavier than normal. Afeez squatted next to her and winced when he saw the blood. Given the frequency with which blood flowed around him, he could not understand why he always felt a little queasy on sighting it.
“Pele,” he said as he stroked her back. She fumed, felt for her damaged slipper and with it, hit him across his face. He jumped and pushed her instantaneously.
“Nkan se eleyi ni? Abi you dey mad?” he spat out at her, resisting the urge to strike her cheek.
“WERE!” She yelled out. Afeez swiftly slapped his palm over her mouth and she froze when the loud echo of her voice reminded her that they were not entirely safe from the danger far behind them. She widened her eyes to protest the pungent smell of petrol from his palm suffocating her. She could see the raw anger dancing around in his eyes. Sometimes, she wondered how she could easily filter out anger from his bloodshot eyes. He took his palm off and looked away.
She sat in silence and watched his back heave. Up. Down. Up. Down. They could have been dead, gone and forgotten minutes ago. Besides, there was no assurance that they would see daylight and it was his fault. He cared too much for her. She appreciated it a great deal, even looked forward to his little acts that made her confident that she could rely on him, but he did not know that there had to be a line. If he did, he had no idea where that line was.
Now, irrespective of how exhausting it used to be, she missed the time when she was his backbone. When she met him, he was young, fragile and somewhat innocent.
She had just reached Lagos after running away from her mother’s torment in Asaba. She had come to understand early enough the need for survival and accepted whatever means her mother shoved at her. She begged as soon as she could form the important words; lied and deceived when she was able to decipher between right and wrong; and took, sometimes forcefully, from people that were too selfish to give willingly. When it was time for her to learn the body-for-money trade, she had no problem with it. In fact, she considered it the most lucrative means of survival. Years passed and every day she came back to their little street corner, her mother would empty her of whatever money she had made. She still was not sure why it took her so long to realise that her mother did nothing to provide for them. She had always known that the woman went nowhere; however, it never completely registered until one evening. She felt horribly sore between her legs and all she wanted was to lie down. She was walking as slowly as she could when she suddenly stopped. It felt like a wiper had, in one swipe, cleared the haze that clouded her mind. In what felt like only a couple of seconds, she went from feeling angry to having a strong sense of direction. It was then she made a decision to work for one more day and leave Asaba for good.
“I don teh you say I no dey like make dem dey toush you.” Afeez turned to find her staring at him. He was expecting a smile but she sat blank-faced. Even in the dim light, he could make out the creases etched on her forehead. He had messed up big time and he knew it. All he wanted was to keep her away from danger and he ended up putting both their lives in severe jeopardy.
“WETIN…” she started to yell but shut her mouth immediately. “How de tin dey do you? No be my body?”
They stared at each other in silence. His anger was beginning to fizzle out and the fragile eight-year-old she had decided to become responsible for almost ten years ago started to surface. He dropped his head and murmured, “You no be ashewo na.”
She sighed, lifted his head and said, “I no be ashewo. Na de money dem dey give me we dey take chop. Your small small change no go fit reash two of us chop. Ah! Afeez, you no suppose burn dat bus. Ah! Gbese!”
Disappointment took over his face. She never wanted him to find out about what she did for money. She was positive he was suspicious but chose to live in denial about it. Maybe it was time to let him know she was considering a big change.
“Afeez…” she started when they heard a loud distant gunshot. Without thinking, they sprang up and resumed their escape.
“I go carry you commot Lagos. Terror and ‘im boys fit find us anywhere for Lagos,” Afeez stringed out as they continued to run.
She thought about the offer the policeman she had become friends with had given her. Her life could change forever. She would not have to hustle anymore. But how was she to tell Afeez? How was she to abandon him?
“You hear me?” his voice broke into her thoughts.
She felt a wave of what she felt the day she saw him sitting by the garbage dump, soaked in the rain. He was her family… her home.
“I hear,” she said as she reached for his hand and squeezed it; more to reassure herself than him.
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