Click here to read the previous chapter; Behind Her Smile – Chapter One, Behind Her Smile – Chapter Two, Behind Her Smile-Chapter Three, Behind Her Smile – Chapter Four, Behind Her Smile – Chapter Five, Behind Her Smile – Chapter Six, Behind Her Smile – Chapter Seven
It was with a sigh of relief that I got off the bus when we arrived at the hotel, however it was unfortunate that we were to stay at the same hotel my parents and I lodged in when we arrived in Osun state. I squinted at the building in the bright afternoon sun and noticed that there were no improvements whatsoever and the signboard still had a few letters missing. Only twenty-four students were present for the trip and I was lucky to have grabbed a spot.
“Finally!” Anna threw her hands in the air. “The smell of freedom.”
“Sorry to burst your bubble but I think that’s the smell of cigarettes,” I said.
“Oh shut up, don’t ruin the moment for me.” She stuck her tongue out at me.
“Gather round everyone.” One of the coordinators said to draw our attention. “You’ll be shared into groups of four, partner up so that we can assign you all to your rooms and remember to be on your best behaviour.”
Anna and I teamed up with two other girls named Kelechi and Samantha. I smiled politely at the girls but didn’t bother to make any conversation with them, instead, I let Anna do the talking. We walked into the reception and I couldn’t say that I was surprised to see the same lady from my previous visit seated at the front desk. I did notice that she seemed weaker somehow but she didn’t seem to remember me, not that I expected her to. The night was uneventful as we simply settled in after we had dinner. The girls decided to watch a movie but I fell asleep halfway through. I was up earlier than the girls but I didn’t make the same mistake of leaving the room by myself at such an early hour of the day, instead, I took my time in taking a bath and getting dressed. It was seven am when we set out with the rest of the teams.
“Listen up,” Our coordinator, Mr Femi, said when we arrived. “Today, we’ll start out with a simple activity since it’s likely to be your first time doing something like this. Our first location would be Ede where we would explore the area, take pictures of the environment and make our observations.
We were given jotters for our observations and as we trekked through the streets, I made a few notes on the scenery.
“Students from the Biological Sciences, feel free to explore as much as you need for your projects.”
I broke away from the others but when Anna noticed, she called out for me to be careful.
“I will.” I waved a hand in the air as if I could brush away her concerns.
Their voices faded a bit in the background as I went farther from the group. I diligently wrote down names of the various species of plants and animals I could identify while I took pictures I thought might be useful. As I peered at my phone screen, I thought I saw movement to my left. I lowered the phone and looked around carefully. Dead leaves rustled somewhere nearby and I took a step backwards, suddenly regretting wandering so far from the group.
A low hissing sound became more audible, I turned behind me to find the source. A sharp scream pierced the air and it took me a moment to realise that I was the one screaming. I’d stepped too close to a python that was now uncoiling itself to spring at me. At that moment, I was frozen and it seemed like all common sense had deserted me.
It all happened so fast that I didn’t see it coming. The snake sprang towards me and I threw my hands up across my face in defence but the strike never came. Slowly, I lowered my hands and looked to find it dead at my feet, a large stone smashed its head into a bloody pulp. My eyes followed a pair of feet encased in black leather sandals all the way up the long, muscular legs to a broad chest and finally, my gaze met that of the stranger who stood before me.
“You should be more careful.” His voice was deep and calm like a soothing baritone.
I nodded stupidly as I stared at the snake again.
“Pythons are very common in this area,” He said before he glanced in the distance. “Are you by any chance part of the students ahead?”
I nodded again and raised up my ID card tag for confirmation. He didn’t seem much older than me and I guessed he studied in one of the universities nearby or maybe he was a recent graduate.
“Well,” He glanced at my ID card. “Precious, you need to keep your eyes open.”
“I will, thank you.”
His smile was brief but it reached his eyes and when he turned around to walk away, I noticed he had a slight limp although I didn’t notice any deformity in his legs.
“Are you hurt?” The words came out of my mouth before I could reign them back in.
“Oh, you mean this?” He gestured to the side of his abdomen. “This happened quite some time ago, I’ve had worse.”
“Wait,” I called out. “May I at least know the name of the person who saved me?”
“Didn’t anyone warn you about talking to strangers?” He smirked as he folded his arms across his chest.
“You know my name but I don’t know yours.” I shrugged.
“Fair enough,” He said. “I’m Isaac.”
“Thank you, Isaac.” I smiled and as I did so, I wondered why it felt so natural to smile at a complete stranger.
He simply stared at me in silence until the sound of voices interrupted. I distinctively recognised one of the voices to be Anna’s. I guess I’d been gone too long. I looked around to guess the direction of the voice and then turned back to face him.
“I need to…” I trailed off and looked around me in confusion when I discovered that he was gone.
I shook it off and returned to the rest of the group.
“Where did you disappear to?” Anna nudged me.
“I was just checking out some interesting stuff.” I said, deciding not to mention the encounter I had.
Anna was most likely to ask me questions I might not be able to answer.
“Well, come on, we’re heading to a different area before it gets late and we have to head back to the hotel.”
“Sure,” I said and followed her. I turned to glance back one more time just in case but there was no one behind me.
I was glad that there was no traffic like was common in Lagos so the journey was smooth and quick. Hawkers stood by the roadside calling out the names of their wares to potential customers.
“Pure water, buy your cold pure water!”
“Do you want anything?”
I looked behind me to see a guy who I recognised from campus but rarely spoke to.
His expression dropped slightly and he looked like he was stalling for time.
“Um, so, Precious, what do you think about the trip so far?”
“It’s alright,” I replied simply.
I realised I didn’t know his name but he knew mine. He licked his lips nervously and cleared his throat.
“I don’t think I’ve introduced myself.” He said, ” I’m Teju.”
“Nice to meet you Teju.” I smiled lightly.
It seemed that was all the encouragement he needed because he rambled on and on for the duration of the trip. The driver stopped at a small restaurant so we could stretch our legs and get refreshed before we continue. When I felt like I couldn’t take any more of Teju’s ramblings and was only a second away from snapping at him, I firmly excused myself and went to the restroom. It was the only place I was sure he couldn’t come in to start a conversation.
“Looks like you’ve made yourself a new friend.”
I looked behind me to see Anna grinning mischievously.
“It seems so.”
“So why aren’t you more excited about it?” She frowned.
“He speaks at the rate of a thousand words per minute.”
“While you say nothing at all.”
“Don’t tell me you planned this?” I raised an eyebrow at her. She raised her hands innocently.
“Why don’t I believe you?”
“Honestly, I had nothing to do with it.” She said. “This should make you realise something.”
“People are interested in getting to know you, in talking to you and being friends with you but you always push them away, why?”
I shrugged, not knowing what to say.
“You need to work on that.”
“Why’re you so interested?” I asked.
“What if I just want to live vicariously through you?”
Although her smile was broad, I could tell that there was a deeper meaning to her words.
“Anna, don’t be like that. You still have your own life to live.”
“I’m not so sure about that.” She sighed.
“Don’t give up already, wait until the test results come out, okay?”
“Fine,” She nodded. “Anyway, this isn’t about me. It’s about you coming out of your shell and getting to know people.Do you really plan to go through four years without a single solid friendship or anything close?”
“You aren’t going to quit this are you?”
“No, not until you realise that I’m trying to help you. You’re always trying to fade into the background and disappear.” She took in a deep breath before she continued. “Listen, I may or may not have long to live but at least I know I got to know some awesome people and I got to do some things I’ve always wanted to do. Of course, not every decision I made was wise otherwise I wouldn’t even be in this position in the first place but at least I lived a little you know.”
Her words struck me and I realised how it must feel for her to be uncertain about her health while she watched me live a healthy one. She felt I wasn’t using the opportunity I had.
“Anna, I can’t be someone I’m not.”
“I’m not asking you to be. I’m just saying you shouldn’t waste the life you were given.” She gave me a final look before she walked away.
I turned to face the mirror and splashed some water on my face before I patted it dry with a disposable face towel. I need something to cool me down. No one understood that I hadn’t always been like this but then I didn’t feel like telling the story of my life to anyone. They were deep scars that were yet to heal and ripping them open now wasn’t going to help the situation. I returned to the bus with everyone else but Anna was noticeably quiet for the rest of the day. When we returned to the hotel, she went to bed earlier than everyone else after declining Kelechi’s offer for a movie night in the hotel lodge. If we were lucky, we would be the only ones there, after all, there weren’t many guests at the hotel.
“Are you sure she’s fine?” Kelechi asked me quietly.
I nodded but I don’t think it was very convincing.
“Aren’t you guys close?” Samantha said.
“We’re…” I trailed off not sure what to say.
“I don’t mean to pry but we know how Anna usually is and she isn’t acting like her usual self these days.”
“We just want to be sure she’s okay.”
I didn’t know whether they were seeking gossip or genuinely interested so I decided to play it down.
“Anna’s just having a rough time, she’s alright.”
Their faces dropped slightly in disappointment and when they exchanged glances I knew I had made the right decision.
“That’s fine then,” Kelechi said.
Not long after, I also left the lounge and went to the bedroom to get some sleep.
On the final day of the trip, it became glaringly obvious that Anna was determined to prove her point by giving me the silent treatment.
“So you’re just going to ignore me right?” I asked just as the bus pulled up to the campus gates.
She glanced at me but didn’t say a word.
“I just don’t understand why we would argue over something like this. This is ridiculous.”
Her eyes narrowed as she stared at me.
“Okay, I don’t mean that. What I mean to say is that you need to respect the fact that we’re different types of individuals.”
Her face softened and I could see her loosening up.
“It’s not that I don’t respect that. I just don’t want you to always try to live life in the background or you’ll wake up one day and realise your whole life has passed you by.”
I didn’t notice the bus was already emptying out until the coordinator made an announcement.
“Alright everyone, we’re glad you could come on this trip with us and we hope you had a great time while learning!”
I got off the bus alongside Anna who was more approachable than before. Teju smiled as he walked past us and I returned it which seemed to make his smile even brighter while Samantha and Kelechi waved in our direction.
“Come on.” Anna smiled and I decided that I prefer the happy side of her to her other side.
When we walked into the room, we found Ada and Nafisa seated on Ada’s bed and they were deep in conversation. They turned to us and welcomed us with smiles but something didn’t feel right.
“What’s wrong?” Anna asked with a frown on her face.
“Nothing.” Nafisa twirled her braids around one finger.
“Something’s up,” Anna said as she crossed her arms and dared them with her eyes to say it.
“You guys should get settled in first okay?” Ada said.
“No, tell us here and now.”
“Okay, listen up.” Ada began. “There’s a rumour spreading around the campus that you were seen at the medical centre and frankly, people think you’ve got something to hide.”
News sure travels fast, I thought.
“Is it true?” Nafisa asked Anna.
“So what?” Anna scoffed. “Is that such an unusual behaviour?”
“Not at all, unless people think you’re pregnant.”
Anna’s jaw dropped in surprise and I think I felt mine drop too.
“Hey, calm down. We didn’t start the rumours.”
“Why on earth would people think that?”
“It’s mostly because Kelechi said she saw you and Nafisa follow Mr Essien to his house on the night of the Fresher’s party.” Ada shrugged.
I knew it! All she had shown earlier was fake concern for Anna. It really was gossip she was after, just gathering information to dish out.
“So why am I the one being accused of pregnancy?”
Nafisa looked like she was trying hard to hold back her words but Anna turned to her and asked her to spit it out.
“So I’m the one who’s capable of that kind of behaviour?” Anna’s face was filled with disbelief. “Wow, it’s nice to finally know what people really think about me.”
With that, she spun around and slammed the door so hard that the frame rattled on her way out.
“Well, that went well,” Ada said, her voice was laced full of sarcasm.
“You guys, we need to find a way to clear this up,” I said.
“We already tried but gossip like that spreads like wildfire and you can’t quench it easily.” Nafisa shrugged.
“Look, Precious is right, we need to stand up for her. She may have her flaws but even I don’t believe she would do a thing like that.”
“So what do we do?” Nafisa shrugged.
“We need to shut down the rumours from the source.” I began, “And since we already know the source, it shouldn’t be too hard.”
“You’re right,” Ada got up from her bed and walked towards me. “Let’s do this.”
They may not know the full story behind what happened that night but knowing the fragile state of
Anna’s mind, I was worried that she might do something she’ll regret if this doesn’t clear up as soon as possible.
To Be Continued…