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Leslie propped the pillows behind Ojiugo, trying to ensure her maximum comfort in bed. The sheets had been changed to bright shades of pink and purple. The room itself had undergone some transformation. Ojiugo had remarked a few times about how dull the place looked so just before she came home, Leslie spent hours redecorating. He changed the position of her bed to give a better view of the window and on the walls, he put up colourful wallpapers, landscape paintings and some of Ojiugo’s favourite quotes. For all his hardwork, he had been rewarded with eyes that shone bright and a warm smile the second she walked into the room.
“You transformed it!” she had said with child-like delight and Leslie found pure contentment in that moment.
“Can I get you anything?” Leslie asked once he stepped away from the bed.
“Some water please.”
Leslie stepped out of the room and returned momentarily with a bottle and glass in tow. He placed the bottle on the table by her side, right next to a monochrome picture of them sitting side by side on an extensive patch of grass. Ojiugo took the glass he offered with a smile and sipped from. As she set it down, she noticed the picture and she smiled.
“I liked it there you know. I know I gave you such a hard time on that trip, but I really liked it.”
Leslie smiled in return.
“True confessions. I wonder how many more of those I’m going to get in the coming weeks.”
Ojiugo grinned widely.
“Look who’s making jokes now.”
Leslie swallowed hard and turned away.
“I know I don’t have that much time left Leslie. Thank you for not making it tough.”
With his back still to her, Leslie shrugged and focused on smoothening the sheets at the end of the bed.
“Have you heard anything about Belema yet? Did you ask Ikem about her?”
Leslie sighed and he turned to face Ojiugo again.
“No darling. I didn’t. And you must stop worrying about her too. It’s how we landed in the hospital again. Stop doing this to yourself please. It’s hurting me too.”
Ojiugo’s face fell.
“Sorry. I’m just wondering how she’s doing and something about her has me really drawn to her. I can’t get her out of my mind.”
Leslie smiled mischievously.
“I’m getting replaced by a woman. So that’s how you choose to swing in the latter days?”
Ojiugo laughed softly but soon began to cough. Leslie’s face was overcome with concern as she held her head tenderly.
Ojiugo nodded and once the coughing subsided, she was wearing a smile.
“Made wants to come by and spend next weekend with us. That woman will be the death of me Les. And she wouldn’t let me say no.”
Leslie snorted in an attempt to keep from laughing but failed.
“One weekend honey. Let her come and stay. Please.”
Ojiugo turned away. Made was her best friend. When Ojiugo lost both parents in a plane crash at 6, Made’s parents took her in and the two girls grew together like sisters. Work kept them in different cities but they stayed in touch often. Made cried her eyes out when she found out about the cancer. Ojiugo kept it hidden from her for over two months and when Leslie got tired of the cover up, he told Made the truth. As much as Made was always busy with work, she created time the very weekend Leslie told her and flew down from Calabar. Made was such a worrier. And that was the major problem Ojiugo had with her. It was why Ojiugo kept the issue with her health a secret and it was also why she didn’t want Made coming over now. Because Made would worry and fuss and probably burst into tears at random occasions without warning. It would stress her and she did not feel up to it.
“If you say so. But she’ll be your headache when she starts with the drama. I love her but even you know she can be more than a handful.”
Leslie smiled and rubbed her hands.
“I’ll take care of her darling. Not to worry.”
Ojiugo smiled and shut her eyes, falling asleep almost immediately. Leslie observed her for a few minutes before getting up and leaving the room. Once outside, he took in a really deep breath then exhaled slowly. Just before leaving the hospital, he had another talk with Dr. Ikem who encouraged him some more to give Ojiugo as much support as he could emotionally. He spent a few hours surfing the internet, trying to look for clues on how to deal with a loved one who was nearing their death and he did find some helpful information. It was why he easily flowed with Ojiugo’s jokes today. Usually, whenever she attempted to make some light hearted comment on the topic of her limited time left, Leslie would take it to heart and get in a mood. But he was gradually understanding and accepting that it was part of her coping mechanism, a way to find her peace and he was not going to stand in the way of that anymore.
He also knew Made would be better off not coming by the house but he had no means of keeping her away. She loved Ojiugo too much to not visit her in her final days. He sighed as he contemplated what to do in the one week before she turned up then he suddenly remembered Ojiugo’s comments about Belema. He decided he would try the house one more time and probably set up camp there till someone came to tell him where Belema was. But that would have to be tomorrow. He was tired and needed to get some rest himself.
He went into the kitchen and took some beans from the freezer to microwave. Ojiugo would likely be asleep for a long time. He would use the opportunity to get some shut eye before he had to cater to her again.
Mrs. Ochoga looked like she had just been hit by a truck. Belema would had laughed had the circumstances been different but she knew there was no room for humour. She had come to the end of herself. She was tired of bottling things up. She needed her mother and as she sat there holding her gaze and waiting with bated breath, Belema hoped that her mother would prove an ally and come through as a mother would, just this once.
“Is it Seun’s?” Mrs. Ochoga finally asked
“Yes. But I can’t tell him and I can’t keep it either.” Belema said.
Mrs. Ochoga had no words. She stood up and walked to the other end of the room and folded her arms, looking out the window.
“Say something please.”
“Like what? That my first daughter keeps trying to embarrass and disgrace me?”
Belema gasped in shock. Here she was, having just opened up to her mother and the first reaction she got was fear for her mother’s image as opposed to concern for her wellbeing. She cautiously dropped the wine bottle she had been holding and just as quickly as she had opened her heart, she clamped it shut again.
“Well, I’m sorry all I have ever done is embarrass and disgrace you. I’ll take care of this myself. Don’t worry.”
“And what is that supposed to mean?” Mrs. Ochoga snapped. Even in her anger, she remained passive. She could not bring herself to yell or throw things around the house, even though that was exactly how she felt on the inside.
“First you try to commit suicide, and now you want to commit murder?”
“I never said anything about murder mum.”
“Really? So abortion is what? Life transformation?”
“I didn’t say anything about an abortion either and would you just stop jumping to conclusions? I hate it! This is exactly why I gave up the first time. You don’t listen. You don’t care and you don’t try to protect your children. It’s always about you and what you want or how you feel or what people would think of you. Not a single thought ever goes to your children. But that’s fine. I don’t even care anymore.”
Belema rose and walked out of the room, leaving her mother standing by the window with tears in her eyes. As she walked to her room, she heard Nengi and Olanna laughing in Nengi’s room and another wave of sadness hit her. She greatly desired a bond with some friend similar to what Nengi had with Olanna but no one in her life came close. The gulf between Seun and herself was widening daily and there was nothing to do about it. She got into her room and slammed the door shut but seconds later, someone was knocking on it.
Belema lay in bed and refused to acknowledge the person. She was certain it was her mother coming either with some other weak apology or to further berate her but she was not in the mood. The knocking soon stopped and the door opened cautiously and Olanna peaked through it with Nengi bearing over her. Belema looked at them and was oddly reminded of cartoon scenes with mice peering to be sure a cat wasn’t about and the image made her laugh. Olanna then opened the door fully and the two girls poured into the room.
“Sorry, we weren’t sure if you were here” Olanna began to say.
“Stop lying jor” Nengi interrupted.
“We heard you come in and slam your door like you were trying to cause an artificial earthquake. Are you okay?”
Belema smiled inspite of herself.
“Yeah. Your mother wears me out, no matter how hard I try. But you already know this.”
“Well try this on for size, I want to put Olanna up for sale for the exact same reason.”
Belema laughed and looked from one girl to the other. Olanna had a twinkle in her eyes and shrugged when Nengi made the remark. It was obvious the girl had no intentions of going anywhere.
“Your sister is being a complete learner. One guy likes her and is making all these romantic gestures but she is forming for him as if good guys are not scarce in the market. Meanwhile Valentine is around the corner.”
Nengi jumped into Belema’s bed, picked up a nail file that was lying on it and began filing her nails.
“Well, since he is so good, why don’t you have him?” she retorted.
“Because he wants you, not me.”
Belema smiled warmly and watched on in silence as they continued their banter. But in her heart, she was grateful for her baby sister who she knew had come to her room to provide comfort without knowing the details of what had her upset. And Nengi never bothered questioning her or pushing to share more than she was willing to per time.
She soon noticed that Nengi had launched into a monologue while Olanna busied herself rummaging through Belema’s book collection.
“You only have romance here.” Olanna remarked suddenly.
“Huh?” Belema looked up.
“Your books. Is it only romance you read?”
“Yeah. Those are the ones that interest me the most.”
“Hmmn. Okay. But I think you could try other stuff sha. Maybe you’d find some other thing that appeals to you.”
“Non-fiction? Biographies? Self-help books?”
Belema made a face
“Ugh. I hate those.”
Nengi and Olanna burst out laughing.
“I swear. Nengi knows. Bunch of self-absorbed people telling you how they think you should live your life. No thanks. I’ll pass.”
“Save your breath Ola. I have tried and failed with my sister on that one. She won’t budge.”
Belema smacked Nengi with a pillow and the latter laughed some more.
“I get persecuted for the truth. But issokay. Jesus was killed for the truth.”
Belema shook her head and got off the bed.
“Why don’t you bring me one of your most favourite non-fictions books and I’ll give it a shot.” She said to Olanna.
Olanna smiled brightly.
“Sure thing. Tomorrow.”
“I need some fresh air. You guys fancy some pizza? Maybe we can go to Dominos?”
“Yessssss!” Nengi yelled excitedly, jumping off the bed in seconds.
“Food will kill you.” Olanna teased.
“Then I shall die happy.”
Belema smiled and shook her head. So maybe she did not have a friendship like Nengi had with Olanna but she at least had both girls and occasionally shared in their friendship. In the interim, that would most certainly do.
Mrs. Ochoga woke up the following morning with a nagging pain in her chest. No matter how hard she tried with Belema, she always ended up failing. They did not have the special bond most mothers had with their first daughters and it made her sad to know that Belema thought her selfish and uncaring. She wondered what she could have done differently. Belema was 30 and responsible for her choices but there was no doubt that those choices would always reflect on her one way or another. And why did Belema not want to tell Seun?
Someone knocked softly on the door and she turned on her side and invited them in. The door opened and Nengi walked with a smile as radiant as the sun. The girl was always so bubbly and energetic.
“Hi mum!” Nengi called out cheerily.
Nengi walked to the bedroom windows and pulled the drapes apart. Sunlight came pouring in, forcing Mrs. Ochoga to shield her eyes.
“I didn’t see you last night and you haven’t gotten out of bed this morning. Was the fight with Belema that bad?”
“What did she tell you?” Mrs. Ochoga asked tiredly.
“I haven’t asked her yet. At least not directly. If she didn’t tell me with all the hints I was dropping, I take it she’s not ready. So I’m here asking you instead.”
“Go and ask your sister Nengi, because I am tired.”
Nengi went and sat beside her mother in bed.
“Mum, she’s still recovering and I think we should handle her with care. I don’t want us to do anything that will send her back to that depressed place where she tried to commit suicide.”
“Nengi, your sister is an adult and I will not walk on egg shells around her just because I’m afraid of doing something that will make her want to kill herself again. So somehow that’s my fault too?”
“I didn’t say that mum.”
“Then what are you saying? Because Belema blamed me yesterday for her suicide attempt.”
“Mummy, I’m very certain she didn’t mean that. Maybe she just got really upset over whatever it was you guys were fighting over and she said that because she was angry. I don’t think she meant it at all.”
Mrs. Ochoga remained adamant.
“Just tell your sister not to do anything stupid again. I need some peace and sanity in my life.”
She got out of bed immediately and went into her bathroom. Nengi sighed again. Who had cursed her with this unending charade that was her family?
She stood up and walked out of her mother’s room. She honestly did not want to know what the fight was about. She just wanted Belema to be happy again and for her home front to not be chaotic. But that was apparently too much to ask for.
As she walked into the living room, she was surprised to see a tall guy in glasses sitting with Belema. Something about the young man was vaguely familiar but Nengi could not place it. They both looked up as she walked in.
“Hello,” Leslie said with a smile
“Hi.” Nengi returned the smile.
“Nengi, this is Leslie. He’s the boyfriend to the woman who rescued me on New Year’s Day.”
Nengi’s smile warmed up some more.
“Oh hi, it’s nice to see you again. But why are you here so early in the morning though. Everything okay?”
Belema stared at Nengi in shock and tried to make subtle faces to keep her from making further tactless comments and Leslie laughed.
“We were just concerned. Actually, Ojiugo is. She hadn’t heard from your sister here in weeks and each time we came here, we never met anyone at home so I promised her I would come and check one more time, really early, in the hope that I would at least find someone here.”
“Ohh. Right. Well, it’s nice to see you again.”
“Same here.” Leslie responded warmly.
To Belema, Nengi said
“Belz, can we talk later? I’ll be in my room.”
“Sure.” Belema responded and Nengi walked out.
Belema turned her attention back to Leslie.
“Sorry, you were saying?”
“Ojiugo would like to see you again. She’s actually been worried about you.”
“Well, that’s sweet of her but I don’t think seeing her again would be necessary. I mean, you could just tell her I’m fine and won’t be taking another dive anytime soon. My family has been supportive and I’m on medication.” Belema said politely.
Leslie’s tone was urgent when he responded.
“But you need to. I’m begging. It would mean so much to her.”
Belema shook her head.
“I’m sorry. And I know this might come off as rude, but I don’t think we have any further business with each other. She rescued me, I’m grateful for that. But I don’t want to force a friendship. It’ll be awkward for me. I’m really trying to forget what happened that day and I don’t see how visiting her will help.”
Belema stood up to indicate she was done with the conversation but Leslie remained seated. He took off his glasses and looked her straight in the eye.
“Ojiugo is dying. She’s got cancer. The least you can do for the woman who saved your life is grant her dying wish.”
Belema gasped and promptly sat down again.
“Jesus! I had no idea.”
“Of course you didn’t. But please, this is important. She got so worried about your disappearance, she landed in the hospital again a few days ago. She’s got a limited amount of time left Belema. Please. One dinner. Come by the house, talk to her, listen to her talk. A couple of hours at most.”
“Yeah, sure. Sure.”
She stretched out a hand and took Leslie’s.
“I’m so sorry. Honestly. This must be so hard for you.”
Leslie shrugged and pulled his hand back then put on his glasses.
“I’m alright. I’m crazy in love with her and will do any and everything possible to ensure she transits peacefully. There’s nothing else to be done.”
“What kind of cancer please? If you don’t mind my asking that is.”
“A tumour in her brain. We discovered it late and surgery was not an option.”
Belema swallowed hard and fought the tears that were pooling in her eyes.
“When do you want me to come? I can come with you right away if you like.”
Leslie shook his head.
“No. Tomorrow night. Valentine’s Day. If you don’t already have plans. She can’t leave the house so I’m making dinner and having one or two of our mutual friends over. She needs as much cheerful company as she can get.”
“Alright then. Send me the address and time please. I’ll be there.”
Leslie nodded and stood up.
“Thank you for your time.”
He walked out of the house and into his car, all the while thinking how he did not like Belema. He thought she was a selfish ingrate. He had not wanted the cancer to be a bargaining chip. He had hoped that she would be willing to come see Ojiugo just at the mention of her worry and concern but her reluctance had annoyed him. But he reminded himself that this was for Ojiugo and the mild irritation Belema brought him was a small price to pay for the peace of mind of the woman he loved.