“Zube, come on, it’s break time.”
“I don’t want to go.” Twelve years old Zube shrank in his seat and looked up through the corner of his eyes at the person standing above him and gesturing. Ike was turned sideways, one leg already turned to the direction of the door. Outside waited Paul, fourteen years old and the other members of their neighborhood gang of boys. It was exams next week and Zube wanted to study. He also did not want to hang out anymore with Ike and the other boys, especially Paul.
“You’re wasting time,” Ike said. He’d not heard Zube and was halfway across the classroom
“I don’t…” Zube dragged to his feet as he spoke and shuffled behind Ike as they walked into the bright sunshine.
“Come on,” Ike yelled, sprinting forward with a glance over his shoulder.
Zube shaded his eyes with his hand and saw Paul standing in the distance with about three other boys. Sweat break out on his upper lip and he wiped at it with a balled fist as he increased his pace. He had dreamed of the day he would join that close-knit group but now, he hated them. Paul had started the group in their secondary school as a study group, but since they all lived in th University campus where the school was located, the boys ended up meeting after school too.
Zube had asked his classmate Ike, who lived in the same building with Paul, to get him in. Last week, Paul invited him and gave him the rules. They were a gang of brothers who did everything together and never questioned orders. They studied together, helped each other in their housechores and came together if an older boy tried to harass any of them. It had seemed easy till they invited him for an outing the next day, which involved going one of the boy’s house, whose mother was their English teacher. There, they had broken into her desk and took notes from the already prepared test papers.
After doing everything required of him, Zube had gone home and cried. He loved studying and felt deceived; this was not want he wanted. he almost confessed to his father, a lectuer in the university but in the end, could not go through with it. And now here was Paul again, standing with hands across his chest and glaring at him through slitted eyes. Zube stopped walking.
“Did you bring the money?” Paul demanded.
Paul’s voice was already breaking and the deep tones sent shivers down Zube’s spine. He scratched the suddenly itchy spot at the top of his back and looked everywhere but at the boy before him.
“I did not bring it.”
“What?” All the boys crowded around Paul’s loud voice.
Zube moved a step backwards, eyes wide as he shook his head.
Paul marched closer, nose flaring and mouth tight. “Where is the money? Or don’t you want to be part of us again?”
His tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth so Zube shook his head again. Paul picked up the corners of his shirt collar in one hand and pulled him to the tips of his toes. Zube closed his eyes and clamped his knees together. he was not surprised at the blow that hit his jaw a moment later. Stars burst behind his closed lids and he staggered away. Two boys ran behind him and pushed him to stand before Paul again. Zube held up his throbbing jaw with a clenched fist and looked to Ike, who lounged beside the leader.
“Don’t look at me. You promised to bring the money last Friday, that was the deal.”
Zube’s heart pounded as he shook his head, still avoiding Paul’s eyes. After the last outing, he had been asked, to mark his full entry to the group, for one thousand Naira to treat everyone to ice cream and meatpies at the nearby Mr. Biggs during break. When he pointed out that he did not have so much money, Paul told him to take it from his father’s wallet if necessary. He’d debated with himself all weekend long, before taking the money without his father’s knowledge. The money was currently burning a hole in his backpack, but after their Moral Instruction lesson that afternoon, he made up his mind to return it.
“You coward,” Paul snarled, “Make sure you don’t come to us for anything, especially when the seniors target you. Idiot!”
The two boys behind him pushed him from one to the other, laughing. Zube tried to shield his face but they did not hit him. Dust rose in the air and into his mouth when he fell to the ground after a particularly vicious push. He couldn’t stop the tears anymore, and they gushed down his face, soon followed by drippings from his nose. It wasn’t blood, he noted after he stood and wiped at his face, but knowing how dirty he must look, made him cry harder.
“Why did we even allow this chicken into our group?” Paul asked. Turning to Ike, he said, “It’s because of you o.”
Ike walked up to Zube. “Did you tell anyone? Did you?”
“No.” Zube answered, pleading with his eyes. Ike was supposed to be his friend. The pain in his stomach took him by surprise and he collapsed to the ground again, harsh sobs tearing past his throat. He covered his head with his hands and curled into himself, fearing more blows. None came and after a minute, the boys dispersed.
As he walked to the school tap to wash off some of the dust, Zube sighed in relief. He realized that the pain was worth it to be out of the gang. He did not want to get into the habit of stealing, not to make friends, and not to pass exams too.