Behind Her Smile – Chapter Six

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CHAPTER SIX

*****

The library was a quiet place where I felt at peace most of the time, so it was only natural that I went there after lectures the following day, I also admit that I was doing my best to avoid running into Leo on campus. I found a seat in one of the isolated sections that contained a lot of ancient history books. After I was through with studying some practice questions for PHY101, I looked around for a book to read. I walked through the different sections until I found something that caught my interest. It was a worn-out, leather-bound book with a plain cover. I wondered where the title was and flipped the book open to check. The book was a collection of research papers on social practices amongst campuses in the nation that spanned several decades and included reports on popular universities too. The most recent article was dated three months ago and before I knew it, I had secured a seat in that section of the library and started reading.

A section of the book was on the origin of popular activities on campus such as hazing, confraternities, etc. My gaze was glued to the part that talked about confraternities and which ones were popular in each university. Ever since I heard about Orion and witnessed the raid on campus, I’d been wary of them. Apparently, Orion was formed in the year 1994 by a group of youth who had formed a stronghold on their campus to defend against the misuse of authority but as generations passed, it had developed into a secret society that performed violent activities and was prevalent in nearly every part of the country.

I didn’t realise how much time I had spent until I noticed how dark it had become outside. The generators didn’t come on till about 7 pm and several students had left already. I tried to borrow the book but I was told that it could not be taken out of the the library because there was only one copy of it remaining. I reluctantly left it behind and made my way back to my hostel. I kept my head low and my steps swift so as to avoid the dark. I hated dark places and what they usually represent.

As I got closer to the hostel, I noticed a few students hanging around in groups with loud music blaring from the wireless speakers they carried. They laughed uproariously and some girls grabbed attention when they started dancing, that made the guys hoot and make catcalls. At the center of it was Leo, looking like he was thoroughly enjoying himself. Three girls danced especially for him and the sight of it nearly made vomit crawl up the back of my throat. Never had I imagined that I would come to hate a human being as much as I hated Leo, especially not when I was so consumed by him two years ago. I slipped away quietly so as not to catch his attention and entered the room to a scene that shocked me.

Anna was curled up into a ball by her bed and crying in a manner that alarmed me, huge sobs that seemed to be torn out straight from her core. I’d never seen this bubbly, social butterfly of a girl cry or even look sad. When she noticed she had company in the room, she tried to pull herself together but it was too late. I dropped my bag by the door and knelt beside her.

“What’s the problem?” I asked.

At first, I didn’t think she would respond but she suddenly started talking.

“I’ve messed up,” She shook her head sadly. “I’ve messed up really bad.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

She looked up at me with tear-filled eyes and sniffed.

“Mr Essien.” That was all she said.

“What about him?” I asked as I shut my eyes, knowing that I wouldn’t like what I would to hear.

“I didn’t want this to happen, I swear.” She sobbed.

I got up and locked the door before I sat down beside her on the floor.

“Tell me exactly what happened,” I said.

“It was after the Fresher’s party, remember Nafisa and I stayed at his quarters for safety during the raid. Around midnight, I went to ease myself and I met him in the hallway, he dragged me to his bedroom. Nafisa was fast asleep by then so she didn’t hear a thing.”

“You need to report this,” I said.

“I can’t.” She shook her head. “He said he’ll fail me and his course is a major one, it is four units.”

“So you’re going to keep quiet?” I frowned.

“What else can I do?” She shrugged.

“Anna, don’t be stupid.” I ignored her look of surprise. “He only threatened you because he’s scared of the consequences of you reporting to the authorities.”

“My GPA is at stake here.”

“What if he tries it again?” I asked.

She looked hesitant as she considered the possibility of that happening.

“I…I don’t…know…” She trailed off.

“He could use it to his advantage if you let it go.” I said. “Do you want to go through the whole session or maybe even the whole duration of your study on campus with this hanging around your neck?”

“I feel terrible, Precious.” She sighed. “Dirty, used, I can’t even describe what exactly I feel. I just can’t bear it, I’ve thought about…”

“You’ve thought about what?” I looked at her carefully.

“I just want to end it all, dying would be so much easier.” She hugged her knees closer to her chest.

“Don’t say that Anna,” I forced her to look at me. “Don’t ever say that. Suicide isn’t the answer, that’s just giving up.”

She was silent.

“I want to give up.” She looked at me with eyes that were void of emotion.

“I won’t let you.” It was my firm reply.

***

By the time Nafisa returned to the room, Anna was fast asleep from the exhaustion of crying so much and I was searching the internet for more information on Orion. I planned to return to the library after lectures the next day to look for the book again. There were pieces of articles from a few newspapers that talked about the destructive activities of the confraternity and the places they’d struck within the past few years. I realised that we were lucky they didn’t unleash what they were really capable of. Ada hadn’t returned to the hostel yet but she called to check on each of us and reassured us that she’d be back the following day. I wanted to know what was going on with Zach and Leo but she said she’d explain when she got back.

On Sunday morning, we prepared for church service but Anna was still wrapped up in her blanket and didn’t budge, not even when Nafisa yelled at her to get up. Usually, Anna was the first one to bounce off from her bed and get ready with a few extra minutes to spare doing her makeup in the mirror.

“Anna, what has come over you?” Nafisa asked. “It’s almost time for service, you’ll be late.”

Anna didn’t say a word. I signaled Nafisa to go on and that I’d catch up with her later.

“You’re sure I shouldn’t wait for you?” She asked me.

“Don’t worry, I’ll come later.”

She stood there for a moment, looking suspiciously at Anna and me but she shrugged and left the room. When she was gone, I went to stand by Anna’s bed.

“Are you going to lie in bed all day?”

She mumbled something unintelligible and rolled over.

“Fine, be that way.” I sighed.

“I said I don’t feel too well.”

“Let me take you to the medical center.”

She groaned and stood up, nearly swaying off her feet. She grabbed the edge of the bed frame before she could fall and leaned against it.

“You don’t look so good,” I said.

“Tell me something I don’t know.” Where she got the strength to roll her eyes, I didn’t know.

I gave her some time to freshen up but when she returned from the bathroom, she was clutching her stomach with a worried expression.

“What’s wrong?” I asked and quickly got to my feet.

“I don’t know. I just feel a lot of pain.”

“Get dressed quickly and let’s go.”

Later at the medical center,I sat in the waiting room while Anna went inside to be attended to. I flicked through a stack of magazines on the table, not really paying them any attention. Half an hour later, Anna stepped out of the room with an unreadable expression. I stood up and met her halfway, waiting expectantly.

“What’s the update?” I asked.

She opened her mouth to speak but no words came out.

“Anna?” I held her shoulders and turned her to face me.

“I have to come back for the test results in two days but the doctor says it is possible that I might have an STD.”

“No way,” I shook my head.

“If the test comes back positive then I’m finished.”

“Don’t say that it might be negative.”

“I desperately hope so.”

Together, we walked out of the medical center and I was sure we were a strange sight to see. There I was dressed up in my Sunday best while Anna had simply worn a caftan over a pair of worn-out jeans. But neither of us was bothered because all we could think of was whether or not Anna’s life was about to take a tragic turn. I’d promised not to reveal a word about it to anyone, not even when Nafisa and Ada gave us strange looks as if they suspected that something was wrong.

***

On Monday morning, I tried to force myself to pay attention to Mr Essien during the lecture but I was failing miserably. All I could think about whenever I looked at him was how Anna was cooped up in the room, possibly depressed while he carried on with his life as if nothing was wrong. I wanted to scream at him and call him names, I wanted him to rot in a cell somewhere. I wanted justice on Anna’s behalf, the justice I realised I never got.

Two Years Ago…

Over the next few weeks, Leo and I became as close as peas in a pod. There were times when I felt like I’d known him all my life but there were also times when I felt I didn’t know him at all. In my moments of doubt, I focused on how wonderful he’d been as a friend and justified his strange behaviour to be part of his quirks. No one is perfect after all.

One quiet evening, Leo called me and he sounded ecstatic. He had written his JAMB exams and passed. He’d chosen the University of Lagos along with a private university which I hadn’t bothered to ask the name. I was so sure he wouldn’t need the second choice and would gain admission into Unilag. He told me that he had a surprise for me and I wondered why he would plan a treat for me when he was the one who should be celebrating. Half an hour later, we were strolling through the quiet streets of Lagos.

“Where are you taking me?” I asked as Leo guided me with one hand covering my eyes.

“Shh,” He whispered. “And no peeking too. It’s a surprise.”

“I’m getting nervous.”

“It’s nothing to be nervous about, I just want to surprise you, think of it as an early birthday present.”

“My birthday isn’t until like a month away.” I laughed.

“That’s better. It’s a very early birthday present.”

“Well, I hope we’ll be there soon because I feel like I might trip any moment now.”

“I’ll catch you if you do.”

A few minutes later we stopped and I waited in anticipation. He slowly removed his hands and my eyes adjusted to my environment. We were in front of what looked like a small restaurant.

“I’ve got food at home you know,” I turned to him and rolled my eyes. “We could’ve just prepared something.”

“Don’t ruin the moment please.” He said as he led us inside.

The place looked empty but there was soft music playing from hidden speakers. The low lighting and plush chairs created a cozy feeling and when we were seated, I looked around expectantly.

“There’s no one else here.”

He smiled but didn’t say anything. Moments later, a waiter opened a door that I hadn’t noticed earlier and walked towards us with a food trolley.

“Welcome.” He said before he set about the task of laying out a delicious-looking array of food on the table.

“Okay, I admit this looks way better than anything I would’ve prepared.” 

“I had this one made especially for you.” Leo said as the waiter placed a swirly chocolate and strawberry sundae before me.

“We’re having dessert before the meal?” I laughed.

“It’s allowed.” He shrugged.

I briefly wondered how he was able to pull off all of this, the empty restaurant, expensive meals and excellent service. Sure, I knew Leo was in a different league of his own and unlike any regular student i knew but I never realised he could do this much. I didn’t know whether to be impressed or suspicious.

“Your expression suddenly changed, what’s wrong?” He asked with a slight frown.

“Nothing,” I scooped up a spoonful of chocolate and took my time with it.

“Come on, tell me.”

“I was just wondering how you arranged all this.” I gestured round.

“Oh, that’s what you’re bothered about?” He chuckled.

“Well we’re both students after all.” I shrugged.

“I have a few friends in high places.” He said.

“What kind of friends?” I asked.

“Listen,” He pushed his plate away. “Let’s just have a good time alright. This isn’t the time or place for interrogation.”

Afraid that I’d annoyed him I agreed and we continued in silence. It seemed like eternity before he spoke again.

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright.” I shrugged, relieved that he’d spoken first.

“I’m a bit older than you think so this isn’t really a big deal for me. I also have many friends who are either my age or even older so some things I do are normal to me but unusual to you.”

“I guess that makes sense.” I said. “So, how old are you exactly?”

“You’re the curious type, aren’t you?” He laughed. It was low, deep and masculine and it suited him perfectly.

“I admit, yes I am.”

“Alright then, I’m at least three years older than you.”

“How old do you think I am?”

“I know almost everything about you Precious, so how can I not know your age?”

“But why do I feel like you’re keeping secrets from me?” I didn’t mean to say the words but once they were out, I realised that was really what I felt.

Leo’s jaw clenched slightly as he looked at me and I wondered if I’d made him angry again.

“Why would you think that way?” He asked slowly.

“I just feel there’s a side to you that even I don’t know and there isn’t much time to discover it because you’ll be gone soon.”

“Just because I’ll be in the university doesn’t mean we won’t be in touch anymore.”

“It won’t be the same.” I looked away as I suddenly felt my heart sink in disappointment.

Wait, that wasn’t my heart. It seemed my whole body was sinking slowly. I dropped my spoon and it clattered noisily unto the table as I felt my stomach heave. My head suddenly felt heavy and my limbs grew weak. Through half-closed eyes I looked at Leo whose face showed no expression at all and behind him was the waiter who suddenly didn’t seem like a waiter at all. The last thing I registered was the feeling of arms lifting my body off the chair.

***

“Miss Badejo,” The voice of Mr Essien broke through my trip down memory lane. “You seem to have better things to think about during my class.”

I snapped alert and blinked at the lecturer who now stood before me. I heard a quiet giggle from behind me and when I glanced back I found the chubby, baby-faced girl making doe eyes at Mr Essien. The sight made me want to puke.

“Do you have anything to say for yourself?” He asked as he waited expectantly.

I quickly thought of what to say as my eyes drifted round the room. I locked gazes with Kolade for a brief second and he narrowed his eyes at me as if he too was waiting to hear what I would say. I looked back at Mr Essien and my mouth suddenly felt dry. No matter how angry I’d been just by looking at him moments ago, I couldn’t speak.

“If you have nothing to say then see me after the class.” He snapped and walked back to the front of the room.

Kolade tossed me a disappointed look before he picked up his pen and focused on the lecture too. I licked my lips and looked down, disappointed in myself too. After class, I waited behind although every part of me wanted to walk out the door like everyone else. The chubby girl whose name I still didn’t know gave me a curious look as she walked past me but I averted my gaze.

“Have a seat.” Mr Essien said as he sat opposite me in his office.

I did so and waited for him to speak.

“I noticed you seemed a bit absent-minded in my class today.” He watched me carefully as he rolled a pen between his fingers. “What’s the reason for your behaviour?”

“I was a bit distracted.”

“What were you distracted by?” He asked.

“I had a few things on my mind.” I really wished he would stop asking questions because he wouldn’t like what I had to say.

“Such as what?” He pushed further.

“I don’t want to discuss it, sir.” I clenched my teeth together to suppress the anger that built up in me.

“I take the mental state of my students very important so-”

“Okay, then.” I cut in. “What I was really thinking about is how much disgust I feel whenever I see you.”

“I’m sorry, what!” He sat up in his chair.

I admit that it felt great saying that.

“Yes,” I nodded emphatically. “With all due respect, I can’t stand the sight of you when I think about what you’re doing to your female students.”

“What’re you talking about?” His eyes widened and the white colour in them contrasted his dark skin.

I thought about my next words quickly and said them before I lost my nerve.

“Reliable sources have narrated their encounter with you and I think it’s safe to say that your private activities are not so private anymore.”

“Are you threatening me?” He narrowed his eyes.

“Not at all, I’m simply saying the truth.”

“Leave my office now. Get out!”

I stared at him silently and didn’t get up until I was sure he got my message loud and clear. As I walked out of his office with a façade of bravado, I tried to ignore how badly my knees shook. I couldn’t believe that I actually did it. I was bursting with the need to tell somebody so when I was far away from the building, I called Sylvia immediately.

“You wouldn’t believe what I just did.”

I quickly narrated what happened to her only pausing for breath once in a while.

“I’m glad you were bold but you need to be careful, Precious.” Her voice sounded hesitant and cautious.

“Someone had to do something.”

“Listen, just be careful, okay?”

“I understand,” I mumbled as my euphoria died down quickly.

When I thought about it, I realised I’d really taken a risk and it was one that I hoped wouldn’t come back to haunt me but when Anna received her lab results the following day and tested positive to HIV, I knew I’d done the right thing. If I could stop him from doing the same to another female student, then maybe just maybe, I could stop others from suffering the same way I did. The same way Anna was now.

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