We all reach for that which is forbidden
Like Adam, eve and the apple
A longing beyond our reach
A love fragile, uncertain and unstable.
You see, the satisfaction isn’t in the getting
For the forbidden can be easily forgotten
Leah flipped her eyes open in the dark. She blinked rapidly, trying to adjust to the darkness. It took a while for her to get her bearings and when she did she realized that it was the middle of the night and she was on her back, on the floor, in Ter’s room.
The blankets she was lying on- hers and his- were thin. They made a poor bed. Her muscles ached from being unaccustomed to sleeping on the floor. She stretched them, moving slowly into a sitting position.
Gradually, her eyes adjusted to the dark and she saw that the room was dimly lit by the fluorescent lights in the hallway, coming in through the space at the bottom of the door. Ter’s sleeping presence and the steady beam of light made the shut door not to be a problem.
He was the only one in this place who had some semblance of an idea why she was there. When she’d told him about the other night, he’d offered to let her stay with him. She’d been skeptical. She truly loved him already like she did her own brother, but she was wary of confusing things. His reassurance in the chapel had decided for her.
She was glad she had. She hadn’t slept so well in a while. Having someone else in the room took the sting out of the silence.
“Can’t sleep?” Ter asked, his voice low and quiet but fully awake.
Surprised, Leah flipped her head in his direction. He was lying on his back as he had the two nights she had been there, his head turned in her direction.
“I can,” she said softly. “Just woke up.”
He grappled along the bed until he found his watch and checked the time. “It’s two a.m.,” he informed her.
Leah smiled in the dark. “I wake up a lot. Why are you up? Did I wake you?”
“Mmm mmm,” he denied. “I couldn’t sleep.”
He was quiet for a moment. She couldn’t feel his face but she was sure he was watching her. Suddenly, she wanted to wrap the blankets around herself.
“I don’t know,” he finally said. “Just thinking. You know you’d sleep better if you agreed to take the bed.”
She relaxed. “Mtcheew. Just because I’m a woman I can’t sleep on the floor? Feminists everywhere will burn their bras if they hear you say that.”
Ter chuckled. “Or maybe it’s because I’m a gentleman.”
She smiled to herself. “I know. Your mother must be a strong woman.”
“She is,” Ter said, the amusement evident in his tone. “Too strong. I can still feel her hand on my ass when I went out of line.”
“Remind me to thank her,” Leah said, lying down again and stretching into a comfortable position. “And I’m good on the floor. It’s very comfortable,” she lied.
Ter laughed deeply. “I’ve lain on that floor before. You’re a liar.”
She laughed too. “Yes, I am.”
The next morning Leah woke up before dawn. She rose swiftly, folding up the blankets and placing them at Ter’s feet on the bed. She tapped him awake and he rose groggily. She felt a twinge of guilt to be intruding on him so much. She would like to let him sleep in a bit more but at this hour the entire place would be still and deathly quiet. She couldn’t possibly navigate from the boys’ dormitory on one end to the girls’ dorms on the other end by herself.
She stood behind Ter as he opened the door and carefully exited first to scope out the hall. He nodded back to her and she came out as well, shutting the door behind her. They didn’t speak as they began their journey to the other side. Neither wore their shoes to avoid the noise, instead they held them in their hands, swinging beside them with each step.
They were almost at the door to the male section when she heard a noise. Leah stilled, clutching at Ter’s arm, bringing him to a stop.
“What?” He whispered. She pressed a finger to her lips to quiet him. She turned slowly, her eyes scanning the length of the hall. There was nothing in sight but she could feel someone watching them.
“There’s someone there,” she whispered.
“Where?” he asked, whispering too as he searched.
She did a quick once over of the place. “I don’t know, but someone’s there.”
Ter looked around for a second. “There’s no one there, Lay. Let’s go.”
She didn’t move immediately.
“If there’s someone there, let them watch,” Ter said impatiently, tugging her along. They walked through the doors back to the female dormitory where he left her at her door.
The rest of her day went by quickly, flowing from one activity into another seamlessly. In her process group- led by a young female Psychiatrist who Leah was sure was fresh out of school- they were pushed into delving into their insecurities. She pushed them to expose what made them vulnerable.
By evening, Leah was tired but in a good way. Ter noticed her good mood and suggested they take advantage of it.
“Never waste a high,” he said.
He liberated some playing cards from the rec room and invited a few others back to his room. They waited until after lights out and after the attendants had gone around for inspection before they converged.
Because the game was in the male section, very few women agreed to it. Besides Leah, only Mamita and Ita were present. The men more than outnumbered the women. There were the regulars; Brima and Mushin, as well as six others all crammed into Ter’s room. Leah ended up on the floor, her legs folded under her, next to Emeka. Every now and then, she noticed a look pass between him and J.J who was standing by the door, leaning against the wall.
“What are we betting?” J.J. asked before they started.
“The joys of winning?” Ter asked, sarcastically.
J.J. snorted. “How much?”
On the other side of her, Leah felt Ter begin to tense. She patted his knee absently to calm him before it turned into a male show of dominance.
“Five hundred per person,” she said.
“Only?” he asked, staring at her down.
“Only,” she returned, refusing to yield. “Are you going to sit?” she asked him, inclining her chin towards the floor. He looked at her bemused, as he moved slowly, finding a place on the far edge of the group.
The game lasted well into the night. A few people dropped out along the way, the rest were beat out until only Mushin and J.J. were left. The others watched them intently. It had never occurred to Leah before, but seeing the intensity of Mushin’s expression, his wild fervour and remembering all the times he had pressed them to bet on trivial things, she realized that his relationship with gambling was more than casual. He had said he came to the Centre for anger management. He was always getting into fights and with his size, it meant he was always putting people in hospitals. Now she wondered if that was only half the story.
He won and whooped loudly causing everyone to shush him forcefully. They all quieted to listen for any indication that they’d been found out. After a moment, they relaxed and one by one began to pay Mushin what they owed him. The tension cut, Mushin and J.J. laughed and shook hands, bonding over their game. Leah massaged her shoulders with her fingers, suddenly tired. She glanced at Ter and found him looking back at her. They exchanged a silent look. He nodded slightly, barely visible to anyone but her.
“Okay,” he announced. “This was fun. It’s sha getting late. Everyone get out.”
The group broke apart slowly, taking care to be quiet. The girls got ready to leave together.
“Aren’t you coming?” Mamita asked, when she and Ita were by the door.
Leah shook her head. “I’ll meet you guys.”
“We’ll wait for you,” she insisted.
“Go,” Ter intervened, giving her a look. “I’ll bring the thing tomorrow.”
She nodded and followed the girls, trailing behind them until they got to their dorms and dispersed into their rooms. Inside hers, Leah left the door slightly ajar and hovered around the doorway waiting. Ter arrived not long afterwards, pushing the door open soundlessly and gesturing to her to come along.
They circled back to his room where he disappeared into the bathroom and Leah began setting up her bedding. Once she was done, she climbed on to it and closed her eyes. She was asleep in minutes.
Her dreams came to her in vivid, disjointed bursts. She had visions of contorted faces enveloped in darkness and voices that sounded familiar but changed just as she was beginning to place them.
She woke with a jolt to the sun streaming into her face and for a moment, she stared at the window, not comprehending what was happening. Once she did, she shot up into a sitting position.
“Ter,” she hissed at him. He remained sprawled on the bed, the covers thrown to the side.
“Ter,” she tried again, but he remained motionless, passed out in front of her.
Leah rose hurriedly, checking her time simultaneously. It was past six which meant in a little while the attendants would be around for the wakeup call. She had to get back to her room before that happened. She balled up the blankets and tossed them onto Ter. There was no point in waking him at this time. The two of them together would just attract more attention anyway.
Leah gave the room one last look, making sure she hadn’t forgotten anything then headed to the door, pulled it open and ran straight into J.J.’s tall, hard frame. She staggered and regained her balance while he picked his phone which had clattered to the floor. He straightened, facing her directly. His eyes roved over her dishevelled appearance, flitting briefly to open door behind her. He didn’t seem surprised. It was almost as though he’d already known. Leah thought about the previous day, being sure that someone was watching them.
Her face tightened. “Were you waiting for me?”
His eyes narrowed in response. “Because I have nothing better to do?”
“I don’t know, do you?”
“Trust me, love, I do.”
“Don’t call me that. I don’t know you.”
He gave her a small, smile. “Sure love.”
Leah exhaled, trying to contain her irritation. “Just pretend you didn’t see me,” she told him evenly.
He glanced over her head into the room again. She could almost see his mind working, putting her and Ter together, making assumptions about things he didn’t understand.
“This is none of your business,” she told him.
“I agree,” he replied.
Hope swept through her. “So this will remain between us?” she asked.
Leah caught his momentary hesitation and tensed again. “Are you planning on telling someone?”
“I might,” he said tight-lipped.
“Because somehow this very important news has to be shared with someone else?”
“There are other people involved,” J.J said, sighing.
“What?” she asked, confused. She waved her hand, shrugging it off. “I don’t have time for this. I am asking you not to tell anyone you saw me. Will you or won’t you?”
J.J. looked exasperated. “Why is it always the complicated ones that everyone likes?”
Leah gave him a dark smile. “Because we make things interesting.”
His eyes inclined towards the door. “I can see that.”
Leah’s patience snapped but before she could speak, he cut in.
“If you’re going to make this a habit, be gone before people wake up. It’s the simple logic of doing bad things. You never know who might be watching. At least make it hard for them. And of all the guys, you chose that one,” he said, shaking his head.
She immediately stepped up to Ter’s defence. “You don’t know him.”
“I know a hundred of him.”
“I know a hundred of you,” she retorted.
He smiled, mockingly. “You can come out of my room too in yesterday’s clothes…I don’t get,” he said, sounding disgusted. “You could have at least brought a different set of clothes to wear so people would assume you came this morning.”
Leah remembered her terror the other night.
“I wasn’t thinking with my head,” she said then realized how it sounded. He gave her a knowing smile, making her want to hit him. “I don’t have time for this,” she said, throwing up her hands and giving up on convincing him.
She stalked to the door and moved to pull it open, but something at the back of her neck, made her pause. It’s just him, Leah thought, but a movement in her peripheral vision made her twist slightly to the right. From the open door of the game room, she caught the flash of someone’s clothes as they dashed quickly out of sight.
Her hand dropped from the door handle. She walked slowly to the room, taking a few steps inside where she scanned the empty room and then cautiously peered behind the door. There she saw one of the male patients she had seen around the Centre but never spoken to. He stared back at her with unconcealed repulsion and she knew without a doubt that he had been the one from the night before.
She felt J.J.’s presence, towering over her from behind and turned. He glared at the man, vibrating with a dangerous tension. Leah was taken aback by it and almost stepped between him and the man, but J.J moved, taking a step backwards, his eyes drifting shut briefly like he was calming himself.
After a moment, they snapped open and he glanced down at her. “I guess you found your stalker.”
Leah looked into his face, remembering some of the things he had said. She wasn’t quite ready to absolve him entirely. “I can have more than one.”
Leah walked out of the double doors onto the wide verandah, glancing up at the brilliant horizon. The sky was a clear blue and white, without a hint that darkness would ever come. She walked down the short steps that led to the field.
It was rec time. A group of men and women were playing football, a much smaller group were pitching volleyballs.
Leah made her way to a cluster of white lawn chairs, occupied by Brima, Mushin and Mamita, who sat watching the football game. She was distinctly aware of people watching her as she moved. All day everywhere she went people had been staring at her and talking amongst themselves.
“Hi,” Leah said brightly as she sat.
“Hi,” the men returned.
“Hey,” Mamita said with a big, mischievous smile. “I hear you have been getting into trouble.”
Leah glanced around. The men looked away, distinctly uncomfortable but attempted not to show it.
“What do you mean?”
“You and Ter. It’s everywhere,” Mamita told her.
The men suddenly became intently focused on the match before them. Leah’s heart plummeted. “Who told you?” she demanded.
Mamita shrugged. “Like three people. Everyone knows.”
Everyone knew but there were only two people who could be responsible for the news spreading. Leah didn’t trust either of them.
Ter appeared and sank heavily onto an empty chair with a whoosh. “What’s up?” he asked, oblivious to what was happening.
Everyone quieted noticeably. Leah sighed, looking at their faces.
“Okay, since you people won’t ask,” she said directly. “I’m just going to tell you. Nothing happened. We played the game and we slept. End of story.”
They glanced in her direction, examining her. Seeing the seriousness clearly visible in her features, they relaxed.
Brima laughed. “Next time, come and crash in my room. I don’t trust that boy,” he nodded towards Ter.
Ter threw a water bottle at him which he bent swiftly to avoid. Leah’s smile returned, relieved to at least have her own people believe her. She swung her legs onto an empty chair and leaned back to relax.
“Gooooal,” the men screamed, leaping to their feet as one of the teams scored, making her smile. She glanced in Mamita’s direction and noticed a bulge in her jeans pocket that had a familiar shape to it. She reached out and poked it with her finger and as she suspected it was the hard feel of a slim phone.
Mamita glanced at her and held a finger to her lips. She hopped from her seat on to Leah’s and eased the phone out of her pocket, slipping it between their bodies.
“My sister snuck it in when she came to visit,” she whispered to Leah. “Two months without that phone? Who dem born?” she said and chuckled. Mamita pressed a button on the side, bringing the phone to life. On the screen Leah saw a message notification.
“Don’t look,” Mamita said playfully, and brought the phone up close to her face, shielding it in her cupped palms. A moment later, she brought her hands down onto her thighs, her elation gone.
“What happened?” Leah asked.
Mamita stared straight ahead without responding.
After a moment, she came to her feet and began walking away. Something in her face, made Leah reluctant to follow. Concerned, she watched her walk away and disappear into the building.
As she turned back to the game, Leah spotted J.J. crossing the far edge of the field, one hand in his pocket. The sight of him made her chest tighten, thoughts of Mamita temporarily pushed to the side. A slow kindle of anger began to burn inside her.
Each evening, closure group was consistently the most sober time of day. As they each filed into the room, a heaviness descended on them, like it was in the air there, stuck to the plastic seats arranged into an oval shape.
The Psychiatrist rotated for Education and Closure groups, each taking different days- or in the case of Education, topics according to their expertise. Leah had noticed how they all had their own way of going about it. Some preferred a more subtle approach, others were pushy in getting them to speak. The men she noticed were particularly more impatient. Like they all had long days and couldn’t wait to get home to their wives.
Today she noticed how the pudgy Psychiatrist , Ahmed, kept glancing in her direction, his eyes dropping to her body before flitting to the others to encourage them to speak about what they’d learnt that day and the progress they had made. Closure group, Leah had learnt was about who could tell the best cliché’s in the most convincing manner. She thought she could win but she didn’t try too hard. Considering her personal sessions, Dr. Sulo would counter it anyway.
Once the group ended the weight lifted and chatter filled the room. By the door, an attendant stopped Leah as she left with Ter.
“The director wants to see you,” he told her. He nodded at Ter. “You too.”
They exchanged glances. They both knew what it was about. Ter gave her a reassuring smile which only made her feel worse that she had included him.
“We’re badasses,” Ter whispered to her as they followed the attendant. She chuckled, lightening.
As they followed the man, Leah felt like a child summoned by her father. Her actual father had never been involved enough in their lives to bother disciplining her or Stephen, but her grandfather had been a strict father figure. She used to tremble when he called for her after she’d done something wrong.
At the door of the Director’s office, the attendant knocked, waited a second then pushed it open. “They’re here,” he said, standing in the hallway. Mr. Melvin didn’t respond but the attendant stepped to the side and waved them in to the room.
Leah went in first, followed by Ter. Mr. Melvin gestured to the two black, leather chairs on the other side of his impressive desk. Once they sat, he leaned forward shifting the weight of his heavy torso onto his elbows perched on the desk.
He went straight to the point.
“The two of you aren’t children. You understand that there are rules and boundaries in place for a reason. In normal circumstances relationships are complex things. You have to manage them carefully. In this circumstance, relationships are even more complicated. They are a distraction. They are not what you’re here for. You’re here for one reason and one reason only, for your own personal development,” he emphasized the last two words. He paused gauging their reactions. They stared back at him with blank expressions.
“You can’t afford to take the attention off yourself and invest it in someone else. Right now all your energy has to be focused inwards. On you. It’s why we have these rules against relationships between patients.” He paused to inhale audibly. “We take what we do here very seriously. When you breach these rules it affects more than just you. It’s a slippery slope. Other people see your conduct and start to think it’s acceptable when it’s not. Our usual reaction to this type of thing is expulsion from the Centre…for the sakes of everyone involved. But,” he said glancing from Leah to Ter. “In this case and this case only, we’ll make an exception.”
Leah examined him critically. “And why is that?”
Mr. Melvin appeared bemused. “Your grandfather is a friend of the house. Out of respect to him and your family, we will forget about this and help you to the best of our ability. We want you to go home to him healthy.”
“And happy?” she asked, sarcastically.
He stared back at her impenetrably without responding.
“I’m lucky I know you,” Ter commented.
Mr. Melvin darkened. “Make no mistake, there will be measures put into place. To begin with, from this point on whatever is going on between the two of you ends. Contact between the two of you will be monitored and limited. There will be no physical contact of any kind. You will both be supervised by attendants each night to make sure you remain in your individual rooms. Do you understand?”
Leah glanced at Ter. His entire body had tightened, his hands dug into the arms of the chair.
“Yes,” Leah said.
“And starting from tomorrow,” Mr. Melvin said, “Your groups and common activities will be varied. We’ll mix you up to make sure that you’re focused on what’s important.” He finished speaking and tapped the desk definitely, signalling the end of his speech.
“Do any of you have any questions or something you want to say?”
Leah opened her mouth to speak and closed it again. Nothing she had to say would change anything. Even if she told them the exact circumstances that had her on Ter’s floor, she was sure Melvin would maintain his position to keep her coming to them and not to Ter or anyone else.
“No,” she said.
“No,” Ter repeated.
“Good,” he declared. He called out to the attendant, waiting outside the door and asked him to escort them to their rooms. They rose and left the room with the attendant following closely behind them as they trudged down the hall. The other patients watched their parade, some of them stilling to the sight of them being escorted like criminals.
At the juncture where their paths diverged, Leah paused, turning to Ter’s serious face.
Guilt assuaged her. “I’m sorry,” she said, reaching out and squeezing his hand.
“Mmm mm,” the attendant murmured, pointing at their hands. She released his, hers falling at her side.
“Seriously, I’m sorry,” she told him sincerely.
“No,” he said, taking a step towards her. “It’s fine. Don’t worry,” he said firmly.
“E don do. None of you is dying,” the attendant said. He put his hand on Ter, nudging him in the opposite direction. Ter walked backwards, keeping his eyes on Leah.
“That’s what he thinks,” he said with a self-deprecating smile then turned and walked away with the attendant.
Leah waited until they were gone to head to her own room. She moved slowly, not speaking or acknowledging anyone. She arrived at her door and placed a palm on its surface pausing for a long moment to brace herself. Finally she turned the knob, and walked inside tentatively. Her heart sped up as the all too familiar tension seeped into her shoulders.
She shut her eyes, silently praying that all her demons would not come flooding back.