The room sat on the ground floor, neat but overcrowded. Four bunk bed were arranged, three on each wall and the fourth in the middle of the room. The ends of the bunks overlapped, leaving barely enough space for the occupants of the room to wriggle through. All but one of the roommates had gone for lectures. The young woman, a habitual truant, sat cross-legged on the lower bed of the bunk placed parallel to the window, a hardcover notebook between her thighs. Her eyes shifting from one end of the book to the other, she struggled with her focus, trying in vain to make sense of the block of letters staring back at her. The words swam in her head, drowning helplessly in the cacophony of voices that distracted and held her attention.
Why is this course hard like this?
What will I do when my money finishes?
Maybe I should call Mildred and ask her to connect me with someone.
I will miss that eight o’clock lecture if I go out this evening.
What will I do now?
Startled out of her reverie, Yemisi dropped the notebook and winced when she was stuck by the sharp edges of the book. Her eyes gleamed with delight when she saw who it was.
Jumping up from her bed, she threw her arms over her friend’s neck and pulled her in a hug.
“I am happy you came my friend,” she cooed, swaying side to side as they hugged. Finally she drew back, held Pero by the shoulder and studied her. “You look different o Pero. I will not even recognize you if I meet you on the road.”
Pero laughed and looked round the small room. There was nostalgia on her face when she threw her red bag on the empty top bunk bed above Yemisi’s bed. Picking the fabric of her black and white printed palazzo trouser and bunching it up between her thighs, she lowered herself to the lower bed.
“I have missed this place,” she said, her right hand crawling up her growing bump and sitting there.
Yemisi harrumphed, crossed her legs and rolled her eyes.
“What are you missing in this crazy hostel that people like to fight every day?”
Pero laughed. “So how have you been?”
Yemisi let her shoulders droop. A dejected sigh escaped her.
“My friend, it has not been easy.”
They had talked the day before on the phone about Yemisi’s financial challenges, her floundering grades and the temptation she felt to yield to the overwhelming urge to give up on school. Pero gave the hand the sat on her jean-covered thigh a comforting squeeze.
“Remember everything you did to get into school. Don’t give up now Yemisi.”
Pero reminded her of the things she had tried to forget. She looked ahead, her eyes vacant as images from her past played like a movie on the screen of her mind. She saw him again, the man in the motel. His grayish black face slack with death, yet his eyes looking right through her as if he could see into her soul. A sliver of terror ran though her but remained trapped in her past, unable to look away. Jupiter’s red eyes glowed brightly from his puffy face, his towering form casting a long shadow over her as she cowered in a corner of his small room at Magodo. She linked and unlinked her fingers, shaking her head at the memory of his beatings. She saw him as he stalked her, his hands bunched into tight fists that rained blows down on her face, neck and back.
“Don’t give up Yemisi,” Pero said again, her hands settling over her own and squeezing gently. “That life we used to live…it was dangerous. Anything could have happened to us.”
The memories faded away and life returned to Yemisi’s eyes.
“I will try,” she said, smiling thinly.
They talked about the old times and the adventures that had taken them around the city. They laughed at near misses and scrapes with men of questionable character. When they sobered up, they saw that time had sped up, leaving Pero with just a few minutes to make her appointment with her faculty officer. They hurried with their goodbyes, hugging each other again. Downstairs, they mingled with the women who ran errands for the students and a few students who had skipped classes like Yemisi.
They walked to the small green Toyota Corolla parked across the hostel and Pero dipped into her bag for a white envelope she handed over to Yemisi.
“Please just manage it. It is all I have for now.”
Yemisi thanked Pero, her voice filling with tangible relief and gratitude as she collected the money.
“You have really helped me. I don’t know how to pray for you.”
Yemisi stood waving as the Corolla sped out of the pebble-strewn hostel grounds towards the smooth asphalt road that led cars, visitors and students to the imposing faculty buildings of the campus. She approached the entrance of the hostel, her steps light and bouncy. Two porters stood in the open doorway of the porter’s lodge, conversing loudly in Yoruba. She passed them, bobbing her head and dipping nervously in a half curtsey. She received a sly wink from the younger of the two, a father of two and a notorious flirt the students did their best to avoid. Anxious not to offend because of the man’s rumoured closeness with the hall supervisor, Yemisi gave him a broad smile.
“Hey, long time.”
The painful feeling of sharp fingernails digging into her flesh made her turn away from the porter. She frowned at the well made up stranger smiling at her with familiarity.
“Your name is Yemisi right?”
A shadow of hesitation crossed Yemisi’s face before she gave a small nod.
“You don’t remember me?”
“No. I don’t.”
The stranger pulled her to a corner, far from the ears of the young porter still shooting Yemisi interested looks.
“But you know Mildred.”
Yemisi’s heart began to race. Had Mildred confessed their involvement in the death of the man at the motel to this stranger? Was she in trouble now?
“Yes,” she said finally, her voice hoarse with worry.
“I am Mildred’s friend…Biodun.” She paused, a smile on her face as she waited for Yemisi to make the connection. Her smile dropped at the clueless look that remained on Yemisi’s face. “Anyway, I have something for you. Collect my number.”
Yemisi did and they parted ways. In the room, Yemisi called Mildred to tell her about Biodun. There was incredulity in Mildred’s voice when she spoke.
“You don’t know Biodun? She is one of the Islander girls.”
“She said she has something for me.”
A touch of envy in her voice, Mildred told her she was lucky. Yemisi listened to her rave about the Islander girls and the wealth of the men that sponsored them. She bit her nails as she listened, contemplating the promise of a new life that beckoned invitingly at her. A small voice whispered suggestions at the back of her mind, telling her not to miss the opportunity to be part of the Islander girls. In the end, her resolved melted like sugar in water.
It’s just one night. After that, I will not go out with them again.
Kachi knocked on the gate, waiting breathlessly as the cold night air stung her face. Above her a full moon beamed down on the cluster of steep roofs, disappearing briefly behind a bank of fast sailing clouds driven by a strong wind and reappearing again. Kachi pulled down her dress, stretching it over skin beginning to break out in goose bumps. She stared at the number on the wall beside the gate and down at her phone as the hem of her dress snapped back in place, sitting high on her upper thighs. Her carefully carved eyebrows drew together. The address was the same, so why were they taking so long to open the gate?
A sound of metal panel shifting interrupted her thoughts and she looked up to find a face looking at her from the peephole that appeared on the gate.
“Good evening. I am here to see Mr. Layo.”
The cool dark eyes looking back at her scrutinized her with such unblinking intensity that she began to feel currents of impulses travel through her nervous system, activating panic inside her.
“Please is this Mr. Layo’s house?”
The owner of the eyes spoke, his voice disembodied and ominous.
“Yes. Who are you?”
“My name is Kachi and I have an appointment with Mr. Layo.”
Metal clanged softly and the gate slid back on well-oiled hinges, admitting Kachi into a big compound with twisting concrete driveway that led to an elegant mansion with steep pyramid shaped roof. She looked once at the man that stood at the gate, her earlier fear of him dispelled by the mild look on his face and well ironed uniform of white and black.
She studied the mansion as she drew close to it, impressed by what she saw. Mr. Layo had been the least flamboyant of the group that accosted she and her friends at Ikoyi club. She had watched with regret as her friends ended up with his more colourful friends and cursed her bad luck as they spoke loudly of holiday homes in the Bahamas. Now she walked to the front door of the mansion thanking her stars for agreeing to meet him again. Who would have thought he lived in a house like this?
Another uniformed man opened the door of the mansion for her, silent and watchful as she swept past him to meet Mr. Layo who stood smiling beside a contorted tree stump with gnarled branches that twisted into a variety of forms; clasping hands, a smiling face and an animal in the throes of death. He kissed her on the cheek as he had done at the country club. Only this time, she didn’t giggle or try to turn away from him as she had done the first time. Now he was a rich man and she did not mind the superfluous exotic mannerisms of rich men.
He did not wait for an answer, but led her to an elegant dinning room with glass doors and chandeliers that hung low from the vaulted ceiling. He pressed a bell and a man appeared with bowls of mouth-watering dishes she tried to eat while he watched her without a word. Sometimes he broke the silence to instruct her on table etiquette.
No, you don’t hold the fork with your right hand.
Why not use the tongs for the potatoes instead of your fork.
Kachi was glad when it ended, grabbing her bag and climbing up the arched staircase that led to his bedroom and another living room with more free standing sculptures and plush white fabric sofas dotted with black throw pillows. She spied portraits of his smiling wife and children in the living room as he pushed the door to his bedroom open.
The muted lighting of the room helped Kachi relax and she soon found herself laughing at Mr. Layo’s stories of wild student years at the University of Ibadan. He asked her about life on campus and showed interest when she told him about her dreams of running a business of her own. Kachi thought to herself how nice he was and thanked her stars again for meeting him.
He yawned when the clock struck eleven.
“We should sleep.”
Kachi took the hint and made her way into the bathroom where she took a hot shower in a glass stall with stone cut marble sauna benches and shelves holding soaps that made her skin feel like silk. She left the bathroom naked, her chest thrust forward and her hip rolling with each step. Wearing nothing but his boxers, Mr. Layo welcomed her with a short warm kiss. She moaned loudly, inspired by thoughts of money when his mouth covered her breasts. There she was, after all the names she had been called, in the bed of man with servants for every task. He would be her permanent aristo, she was sure of it. This was not a one-night stand. He had courted her with a dinner and a conversation. He was a keeper. She ignored thoughts that reminded her of the portraits in the living room. Nothing could stop her now. Not even a family he proudly displayed in every conspicuous space of the house.
“Okay, come here for a minute please.”
Kachi snapped back to the present, looking at him as he lowered on his back to the bed. She took the hand he offered her and went to him. He looked deep into her eyes.
“Go down on me.”
Her smile confident and seductive, Kachi slid down his body, making sure to graze her nipples along his sides. Holding his eyes, she opened her mouth and began to slide it over his manhood but he stopped her, one hand on her shoulder.
Kachi felt momentary confusion.
Kachi’s eyes widened in surprise as he drew his knees up, parting the cheeks of his buttocks so that the brown puckered orifice between them stared her right in the face.
“You…you want me to put my mouth there?”
He smiled, his eyes fixed and darker than she remembered.
“Yes. It turns me on.”
Overcoming the initial instinct to turn away from what he had asked her to do, she remembered her debt to Sonia, her roommate. Revulsion coursing through her, Kachi did as she was told, gagging every time he pushed himself in her face. Her dreams of glamour fizzled into nothingness and she doubted her choices as she pleasured him. Maybe she had been wrong. Maybe this was not the life for her.
Daniel finished the meeting with members of his team, sending them on their way with campaign assignments for a leading player in the soft drink industry. He flipped through sheaves of papers scribbled with ideas and stacked them into a small pile on the left side of his desk, next to the silver pen holding statue of a bowing knight that had been a gift from his god-father. He heard the door open but did not look up. The scent of her perfume was everywhere at once; invading his space and overpowering his senses until he could feel his temples begin to throb with a headache.
He looked up to her smiling face.
She stole across the room and planted herself in one of the chairs facing his own.
“Want to do lunch?”
He leaned back into his chair, observing her for some minutes. Their dates had become too frequent for his liking. He found himself constantly filled with irritation at her unannounced visits and flirtatious smiles the rest of the staff had begun to notice.
“No.” He pointed to a red plastic file on his desk. “I need to go through the strategies Gbemi came up with for the campaign proposal.”
“There isn’t much work here,” she said, making a face. “The company already has an established template. All we have to do is use it.”
Daniel stroked his beard. “Tempting.” His hands dropped from his face and he shook his head at her. “But lazy. We need to do something more than the usual subliminal.”
“Thirst has worked for so long, why change it?”
“Because the competition out there is fierce. We have done thirst, friendship and traditions. We need something new.”
“Get a musician, actor or popular socialite then. People love stars.”
“No. The competition has that on lock down. We will end up looking like poor imitators.”
She shrugged. “Maybe.” Her hands settled on his desk as she pushed her weight off the chair. “We…can talk about – ”
He cut her off. “Mercy?”
She gave him a questioning look but stayed where she was.
Her struggle with chagrin and surprise showed on her face. He watched it, enjoying the moment until it passed.
“Okay, I was just coming over there to meet you,” she said, the fabric of her blue chiffon blouse straightening as she pulled back her shoulders. “But I guess I will just go back to my office now.”
The door closed with a loud click and a cold smirk grew on Daniel’s face, his fingers drumming on the arm of his high backed chair. He had taken everything from her – the body she offered him so readily, the power she once wielded over decisions in the company and her pride. He felt a sense of accomplishment that was only displaced by the thought of another woman. The smirk on his face disappeared and his right knee bobbed in a rhythmic manner.
He wanted to see her again.
Leaning forward his desk and reaching for his phone, he dialed a number. An excited female voice squealed in his ear.
“Hey cutie. How are you?”
“Want some pizza this evening?”
Another loud squeal vibrated through his ear as she expressed her delight.
“Yes, yes I do. And some ice cream too.”
Daniel made an appointment for seven and rang off. Soon after he tidied his desk, leaving instructions with his secretary and calling his friends to tell them of his trip to Unilag. He had one more mountain to conquer.
Ejiro toyed with her braids as she waited for her date with Abel. Around her, the voices of her roommates rose, lowered and rose again to a nearly deafening crescendo. The smell of beans cooking on a hot plate filled the air and someone shouted about her missing bucket. A message lit up her phone and Ejiro smiled, slipping her feet in her flats. Her face changed when she realized that the message was not from Abel.
I am in your school. You are at one of those hostels not far from the mosque, right?
She replied his message, her heart accelerating.
Great. What’s your hostel?
Will find it. Should be there in a few minutes. I am in a Honda.
She found him in the dark end of the hostel car park in a wine coloured Honda C-RV with tinted windows. They exchanged cordial greetings and looked each other in the eyes for a few minutes.
“It’s been a while.”
Ejiro nodded. “Yes.”
He complimented the off shoulder dress she had worn for Abel.
“You look good.”
His smile was warm when he asked her about lectures. Following the mood, Ejiro told him about her day. Words stumbled from her rapidly and she told him of other things he had not known before – like her first degree and her age. The hint of surprise in his eyes pleased her and loosened her tongue further.
“So you came to see your girlfriend?”
He chuckled. “No.”
“You don’t have a girlfriend then?”
He shook his head slowly at her. They were reclined low in their seats, their faces turned towards each other.
“I want to kiss you,” he said, his voice low and intimate. Encased in the cozy darkness of the car and his powerful aura, Ejiro said nothing. She felt self conscious in the continuing silence and she stared into the hypnotizing depths of his eyes, drawing close to him till she could smell his cologne. His hand caressed her face with a touch that felt like heaven. Ignoring the voice that warned her she was playing with fire, she waited, breathless with anticipation. He took his time with her. Looking into her eyes, brushing her hair, nuzzling her neck and teasing her lips with light feathery kisses.
“You taste really good.”
Tired of waiting and emboldened by his words, she took control. She kissed him, her tongue brushing erotically against his own. They broke away to catch some air and she returned to kiss the line of his jaw, his neck and his shoulder. His hands found her breasts and squeezed them through her dress. Seatbelts snapped loose and his weight settled over hers. He pulled her to him, his fingers slipping under her to keep her in place and they continued to kiss.
Ejiro began to rock against him, pleasure condensing where their hips met and radiating out in waves that ran through her body. Her breathing grew ragged when he touched her inner thighs, slipping past the barrier of her panties and stroking her. She twitched in pleasure and then realizing how far they had come, began to exert pressure on the hand that tormented her.
Her heart hammering in her ears, she met his eyes.
“I am sorry I can’t.”
He watched her intently as he had done that night in his apartment. Still warm from the fires that smoldered within her, Ejiro swallowed.
They adjusted their clothes in silence and watched the blinking timer on his dashboard until it was ten o’ clock. They said their goodbyes then and Ejiro turned away from his car, walking back to the hostel on legs that felt like rubber. She did not pick the phone that rang with Abel’s call that night and did not answer the questions of her best friend. She sat on the corner of her bed and listened to the voice that told her it would be last time she heard from Daniel.
Daniel drove away from the campus, tensed and angry with himself. He had expected her rejection but had been caught off guard by his reaction to it. The strange sensation sank deep in his stomach, weighing him down.
“You keep kissing her like you are trying to make love.” He shook his head at himself. “Chill man.”
His eyes narrowed as he thought hard about what had happened. He remembered her kisses and the way she looked at him when he touched her. She wanted him. There was no doubt about that. He sped back home, certain now that she was toying with him. His former impression of her as a naïve young woman now discarded since her revelation that she was older than he thought her to be, he flirted with the notion that he was dealing with a worthy adversary. The corner of his lips turned with a smile. If she wanted to play games, then he would play them too.