?A Chance For Love?
“And then I knew my heart had led me to the one I wanted to spend my whole life with.”
Rumors of me living with Sir Aaron had spread all through the school, and everyone believed he had ulterior motives, but he didn’t seem to care. So why would I?
Just as the teacher for last period made her exit, Raheem advanced to me. “We need to talk.”
Nonchalantly, I threw my books in my bag. “If it’s about the rumors—”
“Screw those rumors,” he said, his voice loud enough to steal everyone’s attention. “I just want my Toria back. Is that too much to ask? You won’t even speak to me. Farah’s upset. She thinks I hurt you somehow, when in reality you’re the one hurting me.”
My Toria. He’d called me his Toria. But why?
I ignored the butterflies in my stomach. “Please keep your voice down.”
Raheem smirked. “Is that a yes?”
“A yes to what?” I asked.
“Going home together so we can clear things up,” he said. “You must think ill of me.”
“I can’t go with you,” I said. “Sir Aaron—”
“I’ll go talk to him. I’m sure he’ll be okay with it.” He turned to leave, but I sprang to my feet and grabbed his arm.
“Please, don’t,” I said. “I’ve got a phone now. I’ll give you my number so we can talk.”
Without waiting for his response, I picked up my pen. As though reading my mind, a grinning Amarachi presented a piece of paper on which I wrote down my number. “Here.”
Raheem took it with a smile. “Look how desperate you are to give me your number. It’s not like I asked. Gee, thanks.”
Sir Amadi’s voice screeched over the intercom. “Victoria Brown. Main office. ASAP.”
“Someone’s in poo,” Amarachi said.
“Oh Lord, what have I done now?” I thought aloud.
“Let’s go find out,” Raheem said.
“What? No. There’s no way you’re going with me.”
“So you think.” Winking at me, he walked out of the class.
“Someone’s twitterpated,” Amarachi said.
“Keep me updated.”
“Okay.” I waved her goodbye and headed for the main office, only to find Raheem waiting for me in the stairway. Wordlessly, I led the way.
The familiar figures seated opposite Sir Amadi made me freeze. What did they want? Had they come to drag me home with them? Now, I couldn’t be happier Raheem had followed me. With him around, they wouldn’t be able to harm me.
“You sent for me, sir,” I said.
Sir Amadi glared at Raheem. “Why is he here?”
“Why?” Raheem asked, seemingly unaffected. “Hate me that much, good sir?” Turning to me, he said, “I’ll be in the reception.”
“You don’t have to go,” I said. “It’s all fine. You know everything already anyway. With you here I know no harm will come my way. For all I care, they’re murderers. They killed Bruno. They can do that to even me.”
“That is no way to speak of your family,” Sir Amadi said.
“Family?” I asked. “No, sir! This woman is no mother of mine, and I certainly don’t know that girl sitting beside her!”
Cynthia gasped as the words left my lips. She could never have thought I’d ever speak about them like this. And surprisingly, I could never have thought so myself.
Vacating her seat, my stepmother turned to look at me. Her eyes glistened with tears. “My daughter. I know you hate me. And I deserve it. I know I’ve been unfair to you. I know I never gave you the love you needed, but please believe me when I say I’m sorry. I’m so so sorry. I never intended for things to go this far.”
She hiccupped between sobs. “Bruno’s death was a mistake. The poisoned bread was meant for the rats disturbing the house.”
“Mum, please,” Cynthia said. “Stop it. There was never any rat. It was your plan to kill him, and you did it, showing no remorse.”
For once in her life, my supposed sister had given humanity a chance. I could only stare in awe. I’d be fooled if I didn’t know the people before me were skilled actresses. How long had it taken them to rehearse their roles? A day? Two?
My stepmother sobbed like a child. “What was I to do? At a tender age I was attacked by a vicious dog. That encounter instilled in me a fear of dogs, and I’ve never been able to live through it. For this reason, I never want to be around dogs. They make me relive that painful moment. Seeing that dog in our house scared me into thinking it would hurt one of you. I didn’t want that. I did what I had to do for my children.”
“Bruno never posed a threat, and you know that,” I said. It took much effort not to yell. But I didn’t know for how long I could keep my emotions in check.
“I’m sorry, my child. I’m so sorry. Please forgive me.”
“Is that all, Mrs. Brown?” I asked. “Have you come all the way to fill my head with lies? Do I look like a fool to you? Your crocodile tears don’t fool me. You should know that by now.”
“Stop it!” Sir Amadi yelled. “This is no way to speak to an elder. I will not condone this. Not in my office!”
“Forgive me if I strike you as disrespectful, sir,” I said. “But every ill trait I have, I learnt it from this woman. Now, Mrs. Brown, what do you want?”
“Please come home,” she begged. Her request left me speechless. “Please, I beg you. Your departure has left a hole in my heart. I promise to be a better mother. I’ll let you have the privilege I deprived you of. I will be your mother. Please, just come home. I’ll be better, I promise.”
Drawing nearer to me, she glued her palm to my cheek. “My daughter, life has not been the same since you left.”
I would be moved into returning with her if I didn’t know her intentions. Snatching my face from her evil hold, I put my hands together to applaud her brilliance. “Bravo, mum! Just bravo. I’ve been away for eight days and you never thought of wanting me back. Why today? Why now? You won’t speak? Okay, I’ll say it. This morning, my guardian went to speak to you of his plan to take custody of me, and he requires you to give me a monthly pay of thirty-five thousand naira. And you don’t want that. You know that it might lead to you facing the child abuse sentence. You know that getting me back and forcing the public to believe you’re a good mother would save you from facing the sentence. Prove me wrong.”
“Honey, this has nothing to do with your guardian’s visit.”
The word ‘honey’ contorted my face with disgust. How dare she call me that, after everything she’d done to me?
“Did he not come to you with the custody request?” I asked.
“He did. But…but—”
“There,” I said. “So I am right after all. You are the same conniving snake you always have been. Please, don’t try to contact me again. My guardian wouldn’t like that. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, he’s a perfect father figure. And his wife, she’s everything you’re not. Their children treat me like I’m a part of their family, and in their company I don’t even let my mind wander off to people like you. You can rot in your sea of riches for all I care. I, Victoria Brown, refuse to keep being your slave.”
My stepmother fell at my feet. Gripping my ankles, she said, “My daughter. I’d do anything. Anything—”
“Can you bring Bruno back to life?” I asked. Only when she brought him back would I return to being her loyal dog.
Tears spilling out of her eyes, she shook her head. “No, you know I do not have the power to—”
Seething, I snatched my legs from her grip. “Then how dare you take his life like he meant nothing? How dare you, mum?”
“I’m sorry, my child. I’m sorry—”
“Don’t call me that,” I yelled. “You’ve never called me your daughter or treated me like one, so do me a favor and stay away from me.”
“You can’t possibly ask me to do that,” she begged. “Please just give me one chance to prove myself to you. Return home, please.”
“Come near me again and I will publish a newspaper article of everything you’ve been doing to me since dad’s death. Everything, from your words that cut deep like a two-edged sword, to the scars you’ve inflicted on me. And I mean every word I say.”
With that, I stormed out of the office. Raheem trailed behind me like a bodyguard.
The scene in Sir Amadi’s office played on and on in my head. I’d never thought the day would come when I’d speak to my stepmother with so much bitterness. Father hadn’t brought me up like this, but what could I do?
“Your food is getting cold,” Sharon said, advancing to me.
“I’m not hungry,” I said. “I just need some time alone.”
“You’ve had two hours to sob,” she said. “It isn’t your fault you lost control. Don’t torture yourself so. Please come and eat.”
“Sharonita, there’s a girl at the door,” Vicky said, standing in the threshold.
“Who is it?” Sharon asked.
Vicky shrugged. “Never seen her. Should I let her in?”
“Let me go see who’s at the door,” Sharon said. She walked away, with Vicky trailing after her. I picked up my phone and found four missed calls from Stella. I’d expected one from Raheem, and although I tried to hide my disappointment, it gnawed at my soul anyway. If he cared as much as he made it seem, shouldn’t he have called to know how I fared?
Vicky skipped into the room.
“The girl says she’s a childhood friend. Should we let her in?”
Childhood friend? I had no childhood friends. At least, none that I knew of. “Did she tell you her name?”
“Tonye C.B,” she said.
What did she want? Drying my eyes, I dashed to the living room to see her. And there she stood, holding a paper bag. For some reason, Sharon didn’t seem to like her. She hadn’t even allowed her step into the house.
“Victoria, do you know this girl?” Sharon asked. “She claims to be your childhood friend. I don’t know, but sorry, she doesn’t look like one you’d associate with. But then again, I’m probably wrong.”
“She’s a friend,” I said.
Sharon didn’t seem convinced. But she let it slide. I stared at my guest. She seemed to have been crying. She’d never fancied her native name. But today, the name she so detested had let her see my face. If she’d introduced herself as Cynthia, Sharon would have slammed the door in her face.
“Sharon, do we mind if we use the room?” I asked.
“It’s okay,” Sharon said.
I advanced to Cynthia and took her by the hand. Gasping, she snatched back her hand. Following her gaze, I found Sir Aaron staring at us with fire in his eyes.
“Why is she here?” he asked.
My mind went blank. “She—”
“You can throw me out if I create a scene,” Cynthia said. “Or if I exceed ten minutes. But I must have a word with my sister.”
Sister. For the first time in seventeen years, she’d called me sister. And she meant every letter of it, from the S to the R. My heart leapt with a hope I hadn’t seen coming.
“Please, sir,” I begged. Surely, whatever she’d come to say meant a lot.
“Ten minutes,” he said.
Nodding my appreciation, I led Cynthia into the room and closed the door behind us.
“Why are you here?” I asked.
Teary-eyed, she gave me the bag she’d brought along. “Your mother probably wanted you to have this. It contains every jewelry that belonged to her, including the ones she used on her wedding day. Although my mother gave them to me, I know I don’t deserve them. They’re yours. And then, there are pictures of her. I’m sure you’d love to have them. I’m sorry I kept them away for so long.”
“And then there’s a letter from your mum. Remember that letter daddy told you about? He said he was going to give you when you were older, and then after he died mum kept it from you?”
“Thanks,” I said. “For the letter.”
“You will never return to us, will you?” she asked.
“Look, if your mum sent you here—” I said.
“I came on my own,” she said. “Vicky, I never thought a day would come when I’d miss you. I see you in my dreams, you know. I can’t believe you walked out of my life. I thought we were sisters. You just abandoned me. Life has been hard.”
I rolled my eyes. How stupid did she think I was? “Only because you have to do the chores yourself.”
“Screw those chores,” she said. “I miss having you at home. But I will not beg you to come back. It is your choice. If I were in your shoes, I’d have done this long ago. You just made me realize how unfair I’ve been to you all along. We are sisters. And I feel horrible right now. I see you in class every day, and you have fun with your friends, but you don’t even look at me. Am I that insignificant? I know you’re mad about Bruno’s death. And I am too. The day it happened, I cried so hard. Do you know that? I stayed locked in my room, crying because an innocent soul was lost and I hadn’t done anything to stop it. An innocent life was taken by my own mother. You probably don’t know this, but before that incident, things were starting to look up. And just when I thought I could finally put aside my bitterness and find out what you have that drives Raheem, Stella and Sir Aaron crazy, this happened, pushing you out of my reach. But like I said, I won’t ask you to come back. No, you’ve suffered enough in our house, and I don’t wish that for you. At least not anymore. Find happiness, okay?”
She turned to leave, but I dashed to her side and wrapped her in an embrace I’d longed for all my life. Her arms around me felt like heaven.
“Did you mean every word you said?” I asked.
“Every word.” Disentangling from the hug, she looked into my eyes. “If life presented me another chance to have you home with me, I would stand by you, support you, and protect you from mum’s hate. We would be sisters. But is it possible for you to still want me after everything? I know I have sinned against God and against man by treating you the way I did, and asking for forgiveness is asking too much, but—”
I took her hands in mine. “Shh. You mustn’t think like that.”
“I have to go now,” she said. “I just had to come give you what’s yours.”
Without a word of goodbye, she walked away. I had found my lost long sister. I would not let her go again.
“Are you alright?” Sharon asked. I hadn’t noticed her presence.
“I don’t think she is,” Vicky said. “She’s crying.”
“Did that girl hurt you?” Sharon asked. “If she did, I swear I’m going after her.”
“I’m alright,” I said. “She didn’t hurt me.”
Vicky sat beside me. She didn’t seem convinced. “Then why are you crying?”
I smiled at her and ruffled her hair. “I’m not crying, silly.”
I emptied the bag Cynthia had given me. It contained a jewelry box, a letter, and volumes of pictures of mum and dad. Later, I would check the pictures, but now, I needed to read mum’s letter.
“Is that a letter?” Sharon asked.
“It’s from my mum,” I said. “She wrote it before…before she died.”
“Okay,” she said. “We’ll let you read it in private. Come, Vicky, she needs to be alone.”
They had barely left the room when I yanked open the glued envelope. A mix of grief and excitement drove tears to the brink of my eyes.
?‘If you’re reading this, then I didn’t make it.
Reading this letter would send me on a tearful journey, and would reopen my wounds, but I ached to read every word of it.
And I am so sorry, my darling. Can you ever forgive mummy for leaving you all alone in such a big world?’
Mum wouldn’t have left if she had a choice. So, she hadn’t done anything to be forgiven for. I, on the other hand, had sent her away with my presence.
?‘I cradled you in shaky arms. I watched you breathe, watched you cry. And despite the pain ripping me apart, my reason for joy abounded. I had you. My Victoria. Smart, intelligent, and beautiful, you are everything I am and more. I can see you in my mind’s eye, my Victoria, and I see a charming young lady. A girl who has the soft heart and beauty of her mother, and the strength of her father. I sincerely hope the image I see of you is what you are.’
My gaze strayed from the letter and fell on a photo of mum and dad. Mum’s eyes sparkled with an emotion I could rightly call love. The photo was taken on their wedding day, afterall. I stared intently as though I were watching her picture for the first time. It enchanted me how we shared similar features, save for the angelic smile on her face; a smile that could make the world stand still in awe. She had a reason for joy; something I didn’t have.
I couldn’t help the wave of guilt spreading within me. Had I not been born, she would still be alive, and happy. But I had to come along, bringing her life to a premature end.
I gazed at dad, a light skinned man with a smile that could light up the world. His eyes brimmed with emotions that matched mum’s. Life would have been a lot different if I had grown up with them.
I returned my attention to the letter.
?‘How are you, my darling? Does life treat you well? While I hope it does, because you deserve the best, I’d be deceiving myself to believe your life is all smiles and no tears. Life isn’t a bed of roses. Good times will be here, and bad times too. But either way, we always have to find a sliver of hope in the darkest of times; a sliver of light in the darkest of places. Where there is none, we can make ours.’
In the darkest of times I had found my Fairy Godmother. I wished I could tell mum about her, my new family and their intention to free me from my stepmother’s clutches.
?‘Baby, I don’t know what situation you’re currently facing, or will face in time to come, but always remember that you are stronger than every thorn. When things get tough, don’t give up. Don’t let any situation break you. But forge ahead, and someday you’ll look back and say ‘wheew, that was a bumpy ride.’
I wish I were there with you, and we’d engage in conversations, opening up our hearts to each other like friends would. I know there’s a lot you want to share with me.’
Raheem. For a reason I didn’t understand, I thought of him way too much; way too much that it started to scare me. I wished mum was here so I could tell her about this craziness. I wished I could tell her about my dreams. Together we’d have found a way to transform them into reality. Although, to be honest I barely had any dreams other than a chance for love.
?‘With each new day comes new decisions. Don’t rush into them, ever. I would tell you to follow your heart. But it’s not 100% safe to do so. I did a number of times, and the places it got me were undesirable. Only once did following my heart yield good results. That was when I met him. My rock, my best friend. And then I knew my heart had led me to the one I wanted to spend my whole life with.’
I smiled as an untold love story flashed through my mind. I wished mum had written a thing or two about it. If she had written another letter, I trusted she would have included it.
?‘But even still, the heart is a really twisted ally and will lead you down the wrong path. So it’s best to use your head to follow your heart. Since I mentioned your father, it wouldn’t be fair to not tell you how we met. But your father will tell it and tell it all, I promise. It’s a story that deserves to be developed into a script. I just hope he tells it all. If he doesn’t, I’ll groan in my grave.’
The word ‘grave’ made me cringe. How did mum feel so comfortable speaking of the grave?
?‘Take care of yourself for me, my dear. And take care of your father. I will write him a letter, and if the pain allows me, I will write you another. If I am unable to, please forgive me. Know that I just couldn’t.
If I could, I would fight this sickness to be with you. I would cross seven seas to watch you grow, hear you call me mummy, smile with you when you find your first love, and comfort you when you have your first heartbreak. But life is no movie, and here I am, confined to this bed, waiting for the end to come.
Poor death, it thinks stealing me away has separated us. It doesn’t know I live in you. Or do you not see me in your dreams? Do you not see me in your mind’s eye? Do you not think of me so much that I’m real enough to actually be touched?’
I clutched the letter to my chest, and with a shaky breath, more tears stung my cheeks.
?‘Sweetheart, sometimes you blame yourself for being born. You torture yourself with the thought that I’m gone because of you. I know. Please stop. This was meant to happen. And just so you know, if I was meant to die for you to live, I’d do it over and over again, because you are a blessing to the world, and I’d be selfish to hide you away.
I would write on and on. No, I would do more: live on and on (if only). But the pain forces me to drop my pen.
Stay safe, my darling. And stay strong. I love you.’
“I love you too mum.”
Mum’s letter would always be a part of my life. I would tattoo it in my heart, where it could never be erased.
Hours later, mum’s words continued to float above the surface of my mind.
“You should enlarge it and frame it,” Amarachi said. “That way, you always see it just before bed, and once you awaken.”
Musing over her words, I let a sad smile stretch my lips only slightly. I would take her suggestion. Surely, Sir Aaron wouldn’t mind helping me convert this vision into reality.
Seeing Nancy and Precious sitting alone during recess struck me as weird. Cynthia had never absented herself from lunch. But today, she had. She’d become a walking ghost, a shadow of herself. Guilt ate at my heart each time I tried to analyze this.
“You’re not touching your food,” Flora said.
I bolted to my feet. “I have to go.”
“What?” Amarachi asked. “Where are you—”
I didn’t wait to answer. I dashed to our classroom and found Cynthia in her seat with her head resting on the locker.
“Cyn,” I called. Tentatively, she looked up at me. I gasped at the sight of her teary eyes. “What’s wrong? Are you alright?”
She broke into tears. “It’s mum. She has a very high blood pressure and the doctor says she could have a heart attack. I’m so scared, Victoria. I don’t want my mum to die. Without her I’m nothing.”
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