SIX MONTHS LATER

This is it! The final step!

Amara repeated these words under her breath as she sat in front of the vanity table, staring at her artfully made-up face in the mirror. The cosmetician who worked on her face had proven how good she was at her job. Amara’s brows were drawn to perfection, sleek, dark lines that arched over eyes so shadowed and plucked that her hazel eyes were made even more striking than they already were. Her cheeks were so rosy one would think she was blushing, especially given how startling her light complexion was against the rouge. And the swell of her lips, ruby-red and sensual, was rumpled into a moue as she inhaled and exhaled in rapid succession.

Just then, there was a knock on the door – three rapid raps, then a beat before a final tap.

It was her father’s signature knock.

“Come on in!” the twenty-six-year-old called out softly.

Mazi Peters jerked the door open, and his gilt-topped walking stick tapped its way ahead of him into the room. Amara turned to behold her father as he advanced into the room. The man was sixtyish, widowed, and looked very dapper in the tuxedo that held his slight paunch in quite well. His well-trimmed salt-and-pepper hair finished off the stately look the wedding planner had been aiming at for the Father of the Bride.

As Amara rose to meet him, her eyes taking him in, really taking him in, she suddenly realized that his hair was more salt than pepper; her father’s hair was almost completely white. She also found herself wondering if his face had always been so withered with age. When had her father gotten so old? His apparent mortality struck her in that moment, and she felt a tug of melancholy at the thought that she was braced on the cusp of a new life, whilst her father’s was expiring.

“Are you ready?” he said, his Igbo accent thickened around the words.

Amara dredged up a smile, took one last inhalation and upon expelling it, said, “I’ve never been more ready.”

She watched the paternal pride shine through her father’s countenance as he watched her approach him. She knew he was thinking about her mother, about how she probably reminded him of her on the day he stood at the end of an aisle, watching his bride advance. Amara had grown up forever hearing remarks about how she looked too much like her mother. Oyirinneya, some of her aunties had taken to calling her. She watched her father blink rapidly over the moisture she’d spotted in his eyes, saw the delight brimming there, and wondered if perhaps he was more excited about this day than she was.

As she drew up next to him, she stretched out her hand to him, and he took it.

“You look beautiful, Amarachi nwa m,” the man said in a voice made husky with emotion. “Your mother would be so proud!”

Feeling a surge of emotion in her chest, Amara embraced her father briefly, blinking back the tears that threatened. The last thing she needed was to ruin her makeup now. Then she pulled back, and her father beamed at her again, tapping the hand in his comfortingly. She turned and picked up the bouquet that was riotous collection of reds and yellows, and allowed her father to lead her out of the room.

Word travelled ahead of them as they approached the chapel, and just as the father and daughter came up behind the bridal train that was about to proceed into the church, the church organ burst out into the rich melody of ‘Here comes the bride’.

Amara rolled her eyes.

“I know, I hate it too,” Mazi Peters said with a chuckle, apparently catching her fleeting exasperated expression.

They both entered the chapel laughing.

Walking down the aisle felt like the scariest thing Amara had ever done. Even with her father by her side, she felt alone. And it didn’t help that she didn’t know more than half of the guests smiling at her from the pews as she walked past them. Most of these people were her father’s business partners, pompous-looking men and women who no doubt would make nice contributions to the start of her married life.

Her stare soon moved from somewhere ahead of her to the altar and the people standing there with expectant smiles; the priest with his flowing robes flanked by her bridesmaids on one side and her dashing husband-to-be and his groomsmen on the other.

The sight of them waiting should have made her feel just a little bit better, but it didn’t.

Soon, she was standing in front of the man who was going to be her husband, ready to exchange vows with a man whose suit fit him a little too perfectly, whose face was so flawlessly structured and whose bright smile evidenced how sure he was about the choice he’d made to marry her.

Amara found herself wondering why she couldn’t find solace in that, why she didn’t share his confidence in their nuptials.

After a lot of preceding talk, full of verses solemnly dispensed from the bible, the priest began, “Do you, Kareem Musa, take this woman, Amarachi Peters, as your lawfully wedded wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do you part?”

“I do,” her husband-to-be quickly responded as he looked deeply into her eyes.

The steadiness of his stare caused a niggling of discomfort to flutter inside Amara, and she looked quickly away from him, breaking the eye contact.

“And do you,” the priest said, turning to her, “Amarachi Peters, take this man, Kareem Musa, as your lawfully wedded husband, to have and to hold –”

He was cut off when the bride let out a loud cough, one that startled the entire church into a deeper silence than the one that accompanied the vows.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she muttered hastily.

“That’s alright,” Kareem murmured, his warm voice drawing her gaze back to his face.

He was still smiling, but the newly self aware Amara noticed how the smile wasn’t properly anchored. She saw the tenseness that ran along the edges of his mouth and observed the wariness that was creeping through his countenance. What was wrong? Was he no longer sure of this – of her?

“Please go one,” she mumbled to the priest, before looking quickly away, sweeping an unfocused look over the seated guests.

Then she stiffened. Her gaze focused on the woman seated way in the back of the chapel. Her wedding guests were a bright dazzle of pomp and pageantry, and still she could distinguish her from everyone else in the room.

You’re here! Oh God, why are you here! She wanted to scream the words, even as a tide of emotions rose within her, threatening to overwhelm her.

“…until death do you part?”

The finishing words of the priest came to her then, and she was startled around, first to look at his face, grave and expectant, and then her groom’s, which was wary and questioning.

I do. You’re supposed to say ‘I do.’

She opened her mouth and the words wouldn’t come. She was struck by a fleeting sense of panic, her hands clenching harder to Kareem’s as they held each other.

What was she doing? she queried herself as her panic rose. She was the same woman who, five years ago, scoffed at the idea of marriage and fulfilling the heteronormative culture of man. She’d been a hard-core feminist, one who was passionate about her commitments.

How did she get from there to marrying a man she didn’t love?

“Amara…” Kareem said her name softly, with a thread of alarm not unlike the one she was feeling.

He tugged at her hands, causing her to suddenly become aware of the slight buzz that had broken out in the chapel. The guests were giving her looks that ranged from bewilderment to speculative interest.

“Baby, are you okay?” Kareem said again, tugging her hands again.

“Amara!” someone hissed behind her, one of her bridesmaids, she presumed.

The murmur from the pews was graduating.

Amara stared up at Kareem. The tenseness was becoming more prominent on his face. Then she turned her face to the pews again, seeking the woman she’d seen just moments ago. But she wasn’t there anymore. She was gone.

Taking in a deep trembly breath, Amara turned back to Kareem and muttered, “I’m sorry…”

“What – babe, what are you talking about?” Kareem stuttered as his eyes widened with shocked realization. “Amara – babe –”

“I’m really sorry,” she said softly again and then yanked her hands from Kareem’s.

She began to move away from him, realized she was tottering on her stilettos and paused to kick them off. Then she gathered her gown into her hands and proceeded down the aisle in a dash, sweeping past the pews and scarcely registering the crescendoing of the shocked hubbub amongst the guests. People were rising from their seats; some were even reaching out in half-hearted attempts to hold her back.

But no one could stop Amara as she sprinted away from her matrimony, each pounding step down the aisle punctuating the pounds of burden that seemed to fall off her shoulders.

For the first time in her life, Amara was throwing caution to the wind.

However, a small part of her unaffected by the elation she was feeling knew this wasn’t going to last; that this joy she felt at her abandonment of everything that was stifling and untrue was going to be fleeting.

She however didn’t realize just how momentaneous it was going to be. She soon did when she heard a sharp uproar cut through the chaos she was leaving behind. She stopped right at the exit and whirled around. Her heart stopped as well, when she saw people gathering around what appeared to be someone on the ground, someone who wasn’t moving, someone beside whose right leg the gilt tip of a walking stick peeked accusingly at her from.

***

“Thank you so much, Calabar! And good night!”

Demoniker Dawson called out those words sultrily into the crowd of screaming fans as she blew them a kiss seconds before turning and sauntering back out of the impressive stage.

Moments later, the singer was backstage, getting greeted by applauses and whistles from all the people who’d helped make the night possible.

She curtsied before them, genuflecting as she said, “Thank you, thank you.”

“You were absolutely great out there!” someone enthused.

She looked up to see Joshua Bassey approaching her. He had the air about him that was uniquely his, a persona that mixed dapperness with the countenance of one who was perpetually harried. His smile was wide and sincere as he said, “Congrats! You did it! Your first album tour in Nigeria!”

“Couldn’t have done it without you,” Demoniker replied as she reached in for a hug.

Joshua embraced her, and then said as he pulled back, “Nah, I just handled the business. You did all the work. You are the magic.”

Demoniker tossed her head. “Well, what can I say? I slay!”

Both she and her producer burst out into laughter at that.

Then she sobered up at the intrusion of a thought. Without thinking, she gave voice to the thought. “I just wish he was here, you know?”

Josh looked at her, took in the slight despondence of her expression. There was only one person who had been able to get that emotion out of the pop star in recent times.

“Yeah, me too,” he murmured. He paused before adding, “But he made his choice.”

“True,” Demoniker agreed with a short nod.

Just then, Josh received a text message. As he glanced at his phone, he said, “Oh wow. I’m really sorry but I have to –”

“It’s okay, I understand,” Demoniker interrupted graciously. “Duty calls.”

“Yeah, thanks.” They hugged again, and he said, “You know what – since you’re on your way straight away to the hotel, why don’t I just walk with you back to your car?”

“You don’t have to, you know that,” Demoniker said with a smile that betrayed her pleasure at his offer.

The duo were flanked by the singer’s bodyguards as they left the building and made for the section of the parking lot where her vehicular retinue was parked. But it was not to be an easy trip, because photogs and celebrity news reporters swooped down on them the moment they caught sight of the superstar. This was Demoniker’s final show on her album tour, and this amount of press was expected. Their cameras flashed and their questions were hurled ceaselessly as the singer was shepherded toward her car. She ignored the questions, keeping a smile on her face as her people flanked her, forming a protective barrier between her and the news hounds.

And then someone hurled a question that had her tottering to a stop. “Demoniker, it’s been six months now, but sources have it that you once had an affair with record label owner, Ryan Bassey! Care to comment on that?!”

She stopped moving and whirled around. Beside her, she could feel Josh turning with her. Her eyes were blazing and her smile was gone, but that didn’t stop the reporter from pressing what he saw as an advantage.

“Is it true you were sleeping with Chief Bassey while he was still married to Maurine Bassey and while his son was producing your album?”

Demoniker gasped, stricken with overwhelming guilt as she felt Josh stiffen next to her. She turned to him just as he was turning to her. Their stares caught and held. Hers brimmed with contrition while his stayed inscrutable.

The reporter wasn’t finished wreaking havoc. “Tell us, Demoniker, are you a prostitute or was this just the one home you have torn apart?”

This question hit the singer like a bullet, and she staggered back, gasping at the reporter’s audacity. She watched Josh bound forward, his right arm upraised. His fist was clenched as he sent it sailing toward the reporter’s face. The blow connected and the reporter was sent flying backward, to fall into the mass of the members of his trade.

Demoniker wasn’t allowed to see anymore as she was literally shoved into the car that had come to a stop beside her by her security.

Unknown to them, the entire ruckus had been recorded.

***

I stepped out through the open doors of the building, tugging at my tie as I moved. My backpack slapped slightly against my back as I stalked down the short flight of stairs, away from the building. I was not sure how I felt, but it certainly wasn’t anything that faintly resembled the emotion reflected in Kuddus’s smile as he slid out of the Toyota Camry he’d been waiting inside.

He was smiling at me, and so I had to smile back, even though it was less genuine than his.

“Hey, stranger,” he said warmly.

“Hey,” I responded curtly.

I’d stopped before him and we looked at each other for a while, before Kuddus opened his arms, intending to hug me. That was stretching it. The smile I could reciprocate; this, I couldn’t stand. I stepped away from the hug and started toward the car, blocking out the hurt look that eclipsed his face at my evasion.

“I’m guessing it didn’t go well,” he inquired from behind me.

“You think?” I returned, the curtness ripening my tone. Then contrition pricked me, and I found myself immediately apologizing. “I’m sorry, Kuddus. I’m just a little –”

“Frustrated, I get it.” His interruption caused a small burst of irritation inside me, one which I stifled as he said, “But still…” He paused for a moment and stared beseechingly at me.

I sighed. “Look, it just wasn’t a right fit, okay?”

“You said that about the last two offers. You know you wouldn’t have to be going through this if you just asked Joshua Bassey for your job back, right? I’m sure they need you, especially now.”

I groaned. “Kuddus, I’m not returning to Highland, okay? How many times do you want me to say it?”

“Until you realise it doesn’t make any sense –”

“Oh wow,” I cut him off, feeling the spurt of irritation bubble to life again.

“Come on, Kevin. You know what I mean!”

“No, no, I seriously don’t.”

“Look, all I’m saying is I understand what you’re going through, but –”

“Oh you do, huh?” I exclaimed with mock wonder shining in the sharp gaze I turned to him.

Kuddus hesitated, recognizing my simmering animosity. “Okay maybe not exactly, but it’s been six months already –”

“And so?” I cut him off again sharply. “Does that change anything?”

“Well, no. But –”

“Good! Then we’re on the same page.”

I turned and slipped into the car, picking up the gloss-bound copy of his new book, Those Awkward Moments, and tossing it to the backseat. I heard Kuddus expel a frustrated sigh before he walked over to the driver’s side, got in beside me and turned the ignition. Within moments, he was pulling out through the gate of the compound, over which were gravened the words ‘Mad-House Records’.

***

The ride home was silent and uneventful. Normally, when I didn’t feel like the devil, Kuddus and I would make a whole thing out of cussing out reckless Lagos drivers who jockeyed for the right of the road with my boyfriend. But today, there was not to be any of that humour. I sat beside him, wearing my cold silence like a shroud so deep, it was impenetrable to him. He didn’t even try. He maintained a surly look on the road ahead for the entire drive to my house.

Soon, Kuddus had pulled up in front of the gate. He turned off the engine, and we remained seated, not saying a word and not leaving the car. I wanted to get out, to rush to the privacy of my home and yell at my walls for all the injustices I’d suffered. But I felt rooted to the car, unsure whether I was ready to leave Kuddus’s presence just yet. I didn’t admit it to myself very often, but there was a certain comfort I derived from being around him, even in my blackest moods.

After what felt like a lifetime of silence, Kuddus finally blurted, “Well, we’re here.”

“Yes, we are,” I replied.

His voice galvanized me into action and I sat up and reached for the door.

“Should I come in?”

Kuddus’s softly-uttered words stopped me. I paused for a moment, and then gave an impudent “Do what you want!”

I could feel his scowl as I exited the car. I slammed the door shut and turned around, expecting to see him coming out of the car after me. But he had started the engine again, and as I watched, he engaged a gear and zoomed off, his exhaust puffing outraged fumes at me.

He is upset with me, I told myself the obvious. But I didn’t care. Remorse may come later, but right now, I wanted to stay mad.

I stalked the rest of the way into my apartment. The house felt empty, a lot like I did these days. I was peeling my clothes off right there in the boxy sitting room, and reached for my phone. I’d refused to answer it during my appointment at the record label, and could now see that I had two voicemail messages.

I tapped on my keypad to listen.

The first message was from Sly. I could hear the faint roar of traffic as his voice came over the tiny speaker. “Hey Kevin, na me Sly…again! Tayo and I don try your phone tire but you no dey gree pick. Anyway, we just wanted to know how you’re holding up. Please call us when you get this, or at least pick up when I call you. Either way sha –”

Before the voicemail was over, I tapped my keypad, erasing the message and giving way for the second message. It was from my mother.

“Emeka, hi,” her voice sailed with some hesitation into my small living quarters. “It’s me – your mother. How are you? Your sisters and I have been trying your line all week, and it’s either switched off or you’re not answering. I hope you’re okay. I just wanted to remind you that you haven’t RSVP’d for your baby brother’s dedication which is next week Sunday. Please don’t forget. I know you’re going through a lot right now with the job search and everything. I understand, but –”

I hated when people used that word – understand. They never really could ever understand.

And just like the last one, I terminated the message. As my mother talked, I’d fetched a bottle of vodka and a tumbler. And so I plopped down on a sofa and poured myself a full glass. My expression was impassive as I took a gulp. My eyes smarted as the drink cut a fiery path down my throat. I welcomed its burn. I hoped it would benumb some of the pain I was feeling. I continued drinking in gulps until I finished the drink in the glass. I was just about to pour myself another round when my cold gaze fell on a small leaflet peeking at me from under the centre table.

I couldn’t make out the words on the paper, but I did know the part that read: Samuel J. Olawale. Gone Too Soon!

A rush of grief washed over me, causing a rise of all the pain I’d just seconds ago tried to bury. I screamed as I hurled the tumbler straight at the wall in front of me. The glass connected with the wall and exploded into pieces that fell in a shattered arc on the floor. I sat there and stared at the wall, unseeing, trembling as the tide of grief rocked my being.

Just then, there was a loud knock on the door – a series of knocks that wouldn’t stop.

“Go away…” I groaned.

Whoever was on the other side of my door must not be telepathic to intuit to my demand. The knocks persisted.

I lumbered to my feet and moved sluggishly to the door, every single part of me suddenly wishing it was Kuddus returned to envelope me in his familiar, comforting hug. I wanted him. I needed him.

But when I jerked the door open, it was someone entirely different at my doorstep.

Written by The Reverend

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