“Do you not care at all about your life, Victoria?”
Somewhere close, a bell jingled. The richness of this sound filled my ears and wrapped me in a tingling cloak. To everyone else, the bell only served to usher in eight hours of sitting down, watching men and woman flaunt their expertise. But to me, the ringing bell meant much more. It officially announced eight hours of undisturbed freedom.
For the next few hours, I would enjoy relative bliss, breathing in unadulterated air. But, in a while, my time would be up. I would hear the closing bell. The same sound that brought me comfort would snatch it from my grasp without any qualms, and against my will I would stuff my books into my backpack and drag myself back home, into the rusty old arms of slavery.
Slipping through the school gate, I started toward the two-story building standing tall and prestigious in my line of sight. The building’s red bricks gave off a western setting I admired. Since its founding, Western High had won several awards for its unique ambience and physical environment, organization, staff quality, and exceptional student performance. To top it all, they delivered this package at a price affordable for the exclusively rich who could spend millions on one child’s educational concern and yet, their pockets would not groan.
A disquieting silence embraced me as I made for the stairs. I squinted at the pitch-black leather wristwatch Amarachi had bought me last session. 9:37am and ticking without mercy. I shook my head at the person I’d been forced to become. Who would believe I woke up by 4:30am every day?
I would do anything to stop being late for school. But each day, I ran in long after the corridors had emptied its occupants into classes. Victoria Brown, the award winning latecomer in all of Western High. Not cool.
People would always talk. The facts never mattered to anyone. They only wanted someone to be the object of their derision. And at Western High, I fit the bill in ways more than one.
Gripping the ornate wrought iron handrail, I mounted the stairs leading to my class. My lower back felt like a rock had been placed on it. After the arduous chores I had been forced to battle with for four hours, and the glaring distance I walked to school, maintaining a proper posture posed a challenge I didn’t know how to tackle.
The damp fabric of my white long-sleeve clung to my torso. I couldn’t be happier our uniform had a navy blue waist coat to hide my hopeless perspiration. How would I survive the day when I had already died from the start?
A throbbing pain in my head caused me to halt. My headache had awakened. For the past few days it had become an unwanted best friend, coming and going as it saw fit. It would persist, hammering as hard as it dared. Sometimes, I feared I would never escape its clutches.
“Heeey, easy!” a deep and unfamiliar voice said from behind me.
I didn’t need to turn to know my abrupt halt had almost caused ‘him’ to crash into me. Apologizing for the inconvenience would be in order, but his next words stopped me cold.
“What are you? Sleepwalker or zombie?”
Anger welled through me, swelled like a bubble and threatened to burst. Everyone knew me as the greatest latecomer ever, but the terms ‘sleepwalker’ and ‘zombie’ had never been heard. Had those become my new tags?
Amidst my wounded pride, his voice swirled around in my head. From his accent, I could tell he was no Nigerian. With its syrupy r’s and e’s, it was probably American.
A familiar throbbing in my head jolted me out of my thoughts. Gripping the straps of my backpack, I whirled around to descend the stairs, but found myself staring at an emerald-eyed boy I had never seen before. His skin, a flawless olive shade, held a glow to die for. Silky, raven hair, styled in a spiked faux hawk pulled me in, bringing to mind those celebrities on TV. For a moment, I gaped. He probably believed I gawked at him because I’d never come face-to-face with a foreigner, but then he would be a fool to think that, because we had over a dozen of them in our school.
A sudden wave of self-consciousness swept me over as my gaze fell on his finely sculpted nose as opposed to my average Nigerian nose. How did he breathe with nostrils barely as wide as buttons?
My gaze traveled along the length of his slender build. Although he stood one step below, I noted he lingered on the tall side, probably three inches taller than my hopeless 5’4. My gaze lingering on his face, I mentally shook my head at the generous spray of stubbles framing his high cheek bones. I looked forward to the look on his face when our principal asked him to get rid of his facial hair.
A familiar pinching sensation in my nose overwhelmed me, severing my thoughts. A sneeze forced its way out, jerking my head forward and almost knocking it into ‘Mr. White’. I hadn’t seen that coming, at least not until the final moment. Gross.
If I hadn’t been fast enough to pinch my nose while I sneezed, all hell would have broken loose. And in his face. It would have been a really snotty moment. Double gross.
An apology would be in order, but I didn’t give myself a chance. Tugging at my collar, I descended the stairs, taking two at a time. I could feel Mr. White’s gaze bore a hole through me. Other than being a zombie and a sleepwalker, I had also ended up becoming a clown for his entertainment. How awkward could our encounter get? Sneezing didn’t make a crime, but doing it in someone’s face did.
Musing over the mess I had just made of myself caused me to fall sick all over again. I needed the sickbay. Class could wait. I needed something to quell the throbbing pain inside my head. And apart from that, I needed to stay away from Mr. White. Amarachi would laugh so hard when she heard of my recent blunders. Two in a row. Just perfect.
I walked as fast as my back ache permitted. As luck had it, no teachers were in sight so I didn’t have to answer to anyone for loitering during school hours. We had Literature—a subject I could easily understand—for first period, so missing this class would not affect my performance. Or so I hoped.
A wave of calmness stole me over as the sickbay hit my line of sight. I traipsed into the room, an uncertain smile flitting across my face to match the nurse’s welcoming smile. Clad in a smart white gown, she sat behind the counter, reading an Awake! magazine.
“Good morning,” I said.
Advancing toward the counter compared to walking down an aisle. A pathway stretched between the counter and the door. On each side of the room stood three petite beds, dressed with blue covers and matching pillows.
“Good morning,” the nurse said, her smile accentuated by dimpled cheeks. “You really don’t look well. What’s wrong?”
I resisted an urge to roll my eyes. Of course I didn’t look well, else I wouldn’t even be here. Something on my face must have alerted her. She dropped the magazine on the counter and walked around it to meet me.
“It’s nothing much,” I said. Before I could utter another word, the back of her palm greeted my forehead.
“There’s no fever.” Heaving a sigh of relief, she touched my neck to double-check.
“It’s just a headache,” I said, sneezing into a checkered handkerchief I had just pulled out of my backpack. “And catarrh.”
“Aww. Poor thing. You’ll be fine in no time. Paracetamol should do the trick.”
It amazed me how she never failed to obey the laws of phonetics. She would definitely fit as an English teacher. Had it never occurred to her?
“You speak just like an English teacher,” I said.
“What?” she asked. “Nurses don’t get to speak good English?”
Definitely not the response I expected. What did I expect? Thank you? Mentally, I kicked myself. I definitely should have stayed silent. Sue me.
“No, sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. I was just saying you, uhm…” I trailed off, gesticulating frantically as though it would help complete my statement and save the awkward moment.
She waved off my incoherent comment with a strained laugh. “Don’t kill yourself there. Yeah, I get that a lot.”
Easing myself onto a bed, I watched her return to the counter. She plucked a card of Paracetamol out of its carton and cut out two tablets with a pair of scissors lying idly on the counter.
“And then you’ll need this for that catarrh of yours.” She placed another drug beside the Paracetamol. Turning to the C-Way dispenser behind her, she grabbed a disposable cup. But then she turned to face me, a quizzical look on her face. “I take it you had breakfast, yes?”
My stomach rumbled in response to her question. I had nothing for breakfast. Breakfast only came after chores. And today, like every other day, chores took up all my time, making breakfast a no-no. With a subtle shake of my head, I supplied the answer to her question and waited for an outburst.
“What?” Her voice rang out. Although I’d seen that coming, my headache flared in response. I slammed my eyes shut, allowing the throbbing in my head slide back into my zone of tolerance.
“You want to take drugs on an empty stomach?” she asked. “Do you know how harmful this practice is? Do you know it’s just as harmful as this headache, and other sicknesses we run from?”
With half-closed eyes, I watched her go on and on. It couldn’t be that bad. Why did she react like I’d tried to commit suicide?
“Don’t just sit there gawking at me. I don’t administer drugs to people who haven’t eaten. Go find something to eat first, and then come take your medicine. They will be on this counter waiting for you.” Her voice had a tone of finality. She obviously thought this to be for my good. What then did she think of the raging war, a Clash of the Titans reenactment inside my head?
She sank back into her chair and picked up the seemingly fascinating magazine. Seconds stretched into minutes and she seemed oblivious of my presence. My stomach rumbled again, reminding me of my task to fill it.
“Can I just use the bed?” I asked, hating the sudden dryness of my mouth. The nurse raised her eyes to look at me. She cocked her head, a wordless statement that she hadn’t quite heard me.
“I mean, the cafeteria won’t attend to students until recess,” I said. “And I really can’t go to class in this state. My head is pounding so hard I won’t grab anything they’re teaching. Please, I’d just like to use the bed for a while. Surely the headache will subside. It comes and goes everyday anyway.” I snuffled, gluing my handkerchief to my nose. Curse my runny nose.
The nurse raised her neatly trimmed eyebrows at me. “It comes and goes every day?”
“Yes?” I said. Why did she seem surprised?
“Two weeks,” I roughly estimated. I wanted out of this question and answer session. I needed a pill to quell this headache. And since I couldn’t have that, I could use a moment of undisturbed rest. Settling for less had become my thing anyway.
The nurse seemed genuinely scared. “And you don’t attend to it? Do you not care at all about your life, Victoria?”
My lips parted to let out an answer, but I sealed them shut. I would not tell my life story to a stranger. I’d visited the sickbay a number of times, and the nurse had been a staff for as long as I could remember, but I still considered her a stranger. And even if I managed to tell her my story, she would probably doubt its genuineness. And if she did believe every word, it wouldn’t change anything because she had no power to do anything. She could only sympathize with me. And I didn’t want that.
I pushed aside her inadvertently hurtful question and lay prone in bed. Sleep would find me and steal me away from the unbearable headache. Even though it would only last a moment, it would definitely be worth it.
Heavy eyelids glided over my eyes. The room and everything it held disappeared around me as I slipped out of consciousness.
“Victoria!” an indistinct voice called. A gentle tap on my shoulder followed almost immediately.
The unrelenting pounding in my head and an emptiness in my stomach greeted me as I slid halfway into consciousness. My eyes lazied open and I saw the nurse standing beside me, an A4 sheet in her hand. How long had I been asleep? An hour? Two?
Handing the paper to me, she said, “The cafeteria will let you eat once you show them this permit.”
I bolted upright in bed and grabbed the paper, too eager to read its content.
To the cafeteria:
I know it is against the school rules to attend to students during this hour. But our students’ health is our priority. Please, kindly attend to Victoria Brown so she takes the drugs I have administered.
Decorated with white and navy-blue stripes, just like my four in hand necktie and flare skirt, our school logo stood proud beneath the complementary close.
“Earth to Victoria?” Fingers snapped between my eyes, flaunting purple polish on artificial nails.
“Thank you,” I said, grinning.
My walk to the cafeteria went undisturbed, save for the sun’s ruthless intensity and my sneezing and snuffling. I felt like a walking tank of boiling water. Actually, saying I walked would paint a wrong picture of the situation. I didn’t walk. I tottered.
It stunned me how my health had deteriorated in the blink of an eye. Hadn’t I walked to school this morning in near-perfect health, with fatigue and headache being the only exception? Why then did I feel so sick all of a sudden, unable to take one step without faltering?
As though my sudden sickness couldn’t ruin my day on its own, Sir Aaron’s voice pierced my eardrums, bringing my struggle of a walk to an abrupt intermission. “Hey, you!”
My insides churned at the menace in his high-pitched voice. The very same voice policemen reserved for catching thieves red-handed. Why did it have to be Sir Aaron of all people? This man had a face of stone and a heart of rock. To top it all, he had a voice that could melt iron.
Holding my hands behind my back, I turned to face my least favorite teacher. “Good morning, Sir.”
“It’s barely even eleven and you’re already loitering,” he said. “Is this the example you’re setting for your juniors?”
With every word he spat out, my stomach tightened. I craved to be away from him so I could finally breathe fresh air. I could feel my blood getting hotter by the second. No, I don’t mean it as an idiomatic expression. Literally, I could feel the hotness of my blood, a sickening feeling that had only arrived a moment or two ago. I blamed the orb of fury burning intensely above me.
Too sick to speak to the man before me, I presented the nurse’s permit in his face, silencing him. Hopefully, for good. His quietude stretched over a few moments. And in this little time, my headache seemed to aggravate.
Plucking the note out of my grasp, Sir Aaron drew it close to his rather wrinkled eyes. After a moment too long, he said, “Hmm. Sorry about your ill health.”
Learning is an everyday process. And in my final year in Western High, I discovered Sir Aaron, the most feared teacher, had a fraction of a heart. Wide eyed, I stared at him, noting how the look on his face transformed from irritation to sympathy. And for the most part, he wasn’t faking it.
I let out a mental sigh. I should be in the cafeteria already. But here I stood, stuck with my least favorite teacher, and at the mercy of the ferocious sun.
“What’s wrong with you?” he asked. “How bad is it?” Had his voice softened in reality, or had it only softened in my head?
I opened my mouth to tell him about my headache, but then I reconsidered. The man standing before me had a heart of stone. He could consider headache and catarrh too trivial for a nurse’s permit, and that would implicate the kind nurse.
While I still conflicted about how to answer him, the back of his palm rested on my sweaty forehead. Genuine fear washed him over. “You’re burning. You’ve got a fever.”
“What fever?” The words flew out of my mouth without warning. I had a fever? The nurse had checked my temperature an hour or two ago and found nothing. So where did it come from?
“Quick, go attend to your illness.” He returned the note like he would burning coal. I turned to leave when he spoke again. “And Victoria—”
What? He knew my name? Impossible. He had never called me by name, but always barked out a ‘you there!’ or a ‘yes?’
“Be sure to get well soon,” he said.
He walked away, leaving me to continue my floundering walk. I had a fever. I touched my neck to be certain. Underneath the back of my palm, my skin burned with the power of a thousand suns. That explained why I felt like a tank of boiling water. How wrong I had been to blame it on the sun. Poor sun.
Two realizations dawned on me. Number one, I had malaria. I didn’t need a test to know it. The symptoms were all there. First, the persistent headache. Then a runny nose. And now fever, accompanied with a cold I’d never paid attention to until now. These symptoms had become a part of me. For the past four years, they would come up every now and then, but I’d never had a chance to treat them. My stepmother never saw me as worthy of medical care.
After persisting for a week or two, the symptoms would walk out of my life, and I would be good as new. I hoped this time would be no different. But for how long would this go on? This sickness had been gnawing at me for far too long, accumulating day after day. It likened to a pile of books being topped with more books with each passing day. One day, that pile would not be able to take in any more books, and it would collapse. If I didn’t get treatment sometime soon, I would break down just like that pile of books. Each time my good health slid from my grasp, I always looked forward to the inescapable breakdown, but it hadn’t struck yet. It stood around the corner, calculating, waiting for the right time to knock me off my feet.
My second realization concerned Sir Aaron. We had all been wrong to paint him as a monster. A fraction of him knew humanity.