Aunty Grace had breezed in on a Monday afternoon, her rusty-red weave bound in a turban. She’d managed to squeeze herself into a low-cut dress with short-puffy sleeves and a sweeping skirt. Bright, colorful prints that made Nene gasp in the hallway. Undeterred, Aunt Grace fixed me with her usual appraising glance while she smothered step-daughter with one of her bear hugs. Nene gasped again, untangling herself just in time to grab one of the suitcases.
I stood there, Deji and Amanda twined round my legs while I gawked at the three suitcases just inside the door. How long was she planning to stay? How the hell was I going to survive?
We were barely three steps in when Aunt Grace grabbed me by the elbow and yanked me toward her. “Bola, how are you?”
“Fine, Ma,” I said, struggling to right myself. “How was your trip?”
“We thank God.” She gave my elbow another yank, so hard I almost fell back. “You’re so lean now.”
“It must be running around with these kids.”
“And doing all the cooking and cleaning. Who needs to hire help when you’re around?” She let go before I had the chance to swing one of her bags at her and flashed a smile at Nene. “You’re the luckiest woman in the world.”
I watched her walk in the general direction of our bedrooms while my wife gave me a frenzied slash pleading look. I took a deep, slow breath. Then another.
The first time I met Aunt Grace, I’d been an eager, young corper, my cap pulled down low over my eyes, my feet rammed tight in my scuffed boots. I was hopelessly in love with Nene Obasi, which also meant I didn’t understand one thing. That most mothers didn’t take too kindly to poor, out-of-work young men who couldn’t take care of them. I’d been tolerated the first few weekends, sneered at the next few. Then one particular Thursday, Aunty Grace flew at me, clutching a knife, threatening me with grievous bodily harm if I ever darkened her front door again. Nene had stood in the doorway, her arms folded in a meek one-armed cross. One week later, Nene walked into my hostel in the middle of the afternoon, her face streaked with dust and tears, her bags sitting at her sandaled feet.
Those were good times.
But now, we sat down in the living room, ankles crossed as we sat jammed in our frayed chairs. I picked at the threads thinking how good an idea it had been yesterday to arrange the furniture in a semi-circle so nobody had to sit directly opposite one another. Or more specifically, I didn’t have to sit opposite Aunt Grace. But Nene had done some more shifting and as luck would have it, I had to sit directly next to her, admiring the way she chomped on a piece of meat or blew out her huge, bleached cheeks or wiggled her blue nails at my son.
I wriggled in my seat, pulling a wary Deji further onto my lap, casting side glances at Nene as she marched back and forth from the kitchen. Luckily, Amanda had gone to sleep hours ago and soon this one on my knee would soon be out. Then I’d call it a night.
I looked sideways at Aunt Grace just in time to see her unraveling the last of her turban onto the floor, looking every bit the self-satisfied cow that she was. Her plate was empty, the pieces of chicken probably already on their way to join the rolls of fat on her neck. “It’s so good to see you, Aunty.”
She smiled the fake kind she reserved for me, and then looked at the half-asleep boy in my lap. “You are such a good father.”
I blinked. A compliment. I shifted backward in my chair and wished again it wasn’t so tight. “Thank you.”
“Nene’s father was like that. His children just loved him.”
She leaned back in her chair, her eyes fixed at some point on the ceiling. “I wish you had met him. He had such high hopes for Nene. Wanted her to study abroad.”
“He definitely didn’t want her working in some nondescript company working for peanuts.”
“Oh. Well, that makes sense.”
“But these days you need to thank God for little blessings. For instance, what if one didn’t have a job?”
She looked at me suddenly. “Did you say something, Bola?”
“No. not a thing.” I swallowed. “You were talking about Nene’s father?”
She shrugged, wiggling her fingers at Deji. I could feel his recoil against my chest. “But now things didn’t work out at the office, she has more time to spend at home, or she could consider other opportunities.”
She gestured toward the kitchen. I followed her gaze, just in time to see Nene stride out of the kitchen. This time she had a phone cradled in her shoulder, her lips pinched. Her stepmother waved a hand at her. “Come and sit with us, dear.”
Nene looked over at us and took the phone from her shoulder. “Does anyone want anything?”
“Come, sit. We have things to discuss.” Aunt Grace’s voice had taken on a very sweet and pleasant tone and I felt something cold ride up my back.
Something was wrong.
Nene’s gaze swept across the room, settled on me for a few seconds then back to her step-mother. “I told you not to say anything, Mama.”
Not to say anything about what?
“Doesn’t your husband have the right to know what’s happening in his own home?”
“I told you-“
“Come and sit down. Stop acting like a child.”
“Tell me what?” I heard myself ask, hating the barely restrained fear in my voice. “What happened?”
Nene stood there for a time, the phone in her hand, her figure stiff and unyielding in the soft glow of our parlor. “I didn’t get the promotion.”
The promotion. That promotion. The one with the sub-manager’s position. The one with the higher salary and the company driver that came along with the company car. The one I knew she’d been praying for, the reason she’d struggled to get to work an hour earlier everyday for the past two years.
I pulled Deji closer to me, untangling his limbs from my knees. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“She’s telling you now,” Aunt Grace snapped, rolling her eyes skyward. “But you don’t need to worry…the both of you. I know you have some bills to pay, so I’ll help out. Like I always do.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I repeated, looking at my wife, ignoring Aunt Grace. “Why didn’t you tell me first?”
Nene’s gaze hardened. But she stayed quiet as if daring me to do something, to say something that would matter. And she was right. Why should she tell me? What was I going to do about it?
What the hell was I going to do about anything?
Nene stood there for a sometime, her eyes cool and hard. Like she was daring me to do something.
This was my fault.
I leaned back in my chair, cradling more of Deji’s prostrate form in my arms. He was fast asleep now; I could feel the soft rise of his breathing, the smell of talcum rising off his buttery-black skin.
You’re going to throw away six million?
I looked up at the two women and pasted on a smile. “I have good news.”
It was five in the morning when the sound of Miss P’s cell phone vibrating across her night table woke her up. She blinked herself awake and stared up at the ceiling. She should just ignore it. No need answering phone calls at this time. Probably one of the many friends that she’d made in this town whose names she didn’t care to remember, numbers she didn’t care to keep. What she was going to do if she managed to stay awake this long was let herself drop to the floor beside her bed and crawl toward what was left of the Jack Daniels in a frosted glass on the floor somewhere.
There was another beeping sound, then the repeated sound of curved plastic thudding against wood. Miss P imagined it already teetering near the table’s edge. She squeezed her eyes shut, cursed and pushed herself up from the bed. Untangled herself from the sheets. The mattress squeaking as she stumbled for the phone in the darkness. At last. “Hello,” she said her voice hoarse.
“I don’t have time to wait for a cheque to clear. I need cash now.”
Pamela bolted upright. This was Bola Makinde, right? She’d know that voice anywhere. “Hello…Bola?”
“And I need it tomorrow.”
She closed her eyes, steeling herself against the sudden giddiness that washed over her. Thank God. “Bola…” she said eventually, making her voice deliberately low and disinterested. “It’s five o’clock in the morning.”
There was a pause on the other end. “I’ve decided to take you up on your offer.”
“But like I said-“
“I know…I know…you need money. You can’t wait for a cheque.”
She twisted herself to her right side, wincing as she did so. “So…how much are we talking about.”
“A hundred thousand.”
“I can get you fifty.”
“I need to settle things at home.”
“Oh, the wife and kiddies. Well, I can get you seventy. But that’s the best I can do at such short notice.”
There was pause. Pamela held her breath. Maybe she’d gone too far. Maybe.
“Okay,” the voice on the other line eventually said. She let out another sigh of relief.
“I’ll be ready to leave for Uyo by the end of the week,” Bola added.
Pamela shook her head. As if he could see her. Ridiculous. “No. We leave tomorrow evening.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Pack light. Toothbrush, toothpaste, bare essentials, okay?”
“I told you. I have commitments-“
“Goodnight, sweetie, “Pamela said quickly and thumbed her phone’s screen. She couldn’t trust herself to say much more, her hands were still trembling.
She pushed back her blankets and walked barefoot across the room toward her dressing table. Then she pushed aside a pile of dirty laundry off a stool and dropped onto its flat surface. Now she needed to be packed and ready.
She raised her phone, dialed and watched the screen until the words ‘CONNECTED’ showed up in big, bold letters.
She put the phone to her ear.”It’s done,” she said quickly.
“Good,” the voice on the other line said. The voice she hated. “Did he give you any problems?”
“That doesn’t matter now. We’ll be there the day after tomorrow.”
“Even better. At least you didn’t have to screw this one straight out of the gate.”
Pamela blinked, a familiar pain scraping against her chest. “Well,” she managed to say. “See you then.”
“What? What do you want now?”
“Remember. We have to be careful this time. We’re not getting another chance.”
“I know that,” snapped Pamela. “What do you think I am? Stupid?”
“After what happened the last time? Yes. I do think you’re stupid.”
Pamela closed her eyes. She needed to get off this phone. It was a mistake calling before she’d prepared herself, before she’d steeled herself against old memories. “Are you done?”
“Relax. I just have one more thing to say.”
“This time when I say ‘we kill him’, I mean it.”
The phone went dead.
Pamela threw the phone across the room, not caring when she heard the all-too-familiar dull thud against the wall. Instead she let herself slide off the stool to the floor and began to cry.