The raindrops hit the glass window pane, pat… pat… pat, echoing the soft rap of her knuckle on my bedroom door.
She never knocked until the day she came in, and I was lying on my rumpled bed, half-naked, t-shirt bunched above my midriff, right hand wrapped around the engorgement, body tensed in anticipation of the release. I forgot to lock the door. My trembling left hand reached for my previously discarded shorts; she ducked her head and muttered something about the laundry, the resounding door shutting behind her at one with the thumping of my heart.
A week later, she knocked and waited for my “Come in,” which I said twice for an added measure before venturing over the threshold. I sat straight-backed in the middle of the bed, my head and torso resting on the dulled blue velvet cushion of the rectangular headboard. She took the chair abreast of my messy reading table opposite the bed and leaned towards me, her slender arms crossed over an extended knee.
My eyes darted around the room, avoiding the chair.
“”I’m your Mum. Stop being weird around me.” I dragged my eyes from the rectangular aperture behind the cluttered desk to meet her playful browns.
“It’s easy for you to say—you don’t…you know.” My eyes returned to the blue, linen-covered window. She darted off the chair, hands outstretched, nudging me to scoot aside. Side by side, our heads inches apart, the digits of her right hand nervously plucked the hem of her running shorts; the only sound in the room was the distant whirl from a neighbour’s lawnmower.
“It’s normal to be curious…to explore your body…hey…look at me.”
My eyes went from her minted pink toenails to meet her now thoughtful browns.
“Stop running in the opposite direction when you see me…or into another room when I come into the one you’re in… pretending to be on the phone… it’s silly and unnecessary. There’s nothing new under the sun.”
“You don’t know how it feels.” I return to contemplating her toes.
She gently nudges my shoulder with hers, “You are fifteen. I am forty. Do you honestly believe I don’t have the life experience to assure you?”
“Girls don’t wake up with boners.”
“We don’t, but we have similar experiences…and are curious just like you…. would you rather Daddy spoke to you about it?”
“Did you tell him?”
“No… but it’s no big deal, Akin. Stop acting like it’s something shameful. It’s natural for you to be curious.…how you handle it is what is important.”
“What do you mean?”
“You shouldn’t become so preoccupied with it such that is all you think about.”
“But it feels good.”
“Not everything that feels good is ultimately good for you, and vice versa. Take exercise, for instance, uncomfortable but good for you. You’ve got to practise mind over matter…direct your mind from there elsewhere, towards a productive exercise.”
“It is productive.” I dragged the second word for emphasis, the beginning of a chuckle escaping from my lips.
Her head rolled back against the headboard, her raucous laughter obliterating mine as it gathered traction. The door swings open, and Dad comes in, the beginning of a smile spreading across his face.
“What’s so funny?”
I watched the drops of rain trickle on the glass pane—a teary map—pooling on the window ledge, a puddle no doubt gathering beneath it. I huddled under the blanket, my head half-covered by the concave pillow; my right hand fumbled and found the smooth rectangle under the pillow cradling my head. The apple emblem dots the middle of the screen. The screen saver was the last upload from the photo gallery, a picture of us — Mum and me; my smile, a dim reflection of hers. Before the accident, I never enlarged any of the pictures she took, never pored over details. My glances were usually a cursory, polite acknowledgment to appease when she passed me her phone after taking a picture, “What do you think, Akin?” I would nod and respond the same, “Nice.” Now, I zoom in on details, noticing the uneven slant of her lips as they turned up corners were slightly dry around the edges. The thick eyebrows she tweezed into submission had a few strands in the middle joining the pair into a unibrow; the dimples that pierced her twin cheeks were a mirror of Ayo’s. I released a ragged breath into the base pillow.
Her hair was a mass of springy black curls, fringed in with dustings of coarse grey strands; she wore the blue t-shirt with the slack neckline from too many washes. Her head cocked to the side, touching mine, her black afro overshadowing mine.
“What do you think, Akin…should I dye it?” She asked, peering at the phone, her forehead furrowed, her index finger pointing where her greys contrasted the inky cloud. I mumbled under my breath, the shrug of my shoulders conveying disinterest. She turned to Dad and repeated the same question.
“Come here, Akin … take a picture with me….”
I never said no, unlike Ayo. And because she didn’t insist, most of her pictures were of us. Daddy didn’t care much about taking photographs but obliged to make her happy, so she had a couple of them, too. Now, each print was a shiny piece of currency I dare not spend, a reminder of the sting from a fire ant.
We were coincidentally wearing the yellow and green ankara shorts Aunty Lara sent by DHL. I darted back into my room when I saw she was wearing hers, but it was too late. Eyes sparkling, slender arms injected with excitement waved frantically above her head, “Akintunde Ayobami! Don’t dare take them off! Today na today!” And because it was in my nature not to insist, I slunk back out, a reluctant smile tugging at my lips, her hands clutched at my arms, irritation fired in my veins as she pulled her phone from her back pocket. Before the “perfect picture,” she took several, instructing me to change positions, bend my head closer to hers, shuffle objects around in the background, and close the blinds to get the proper room lighting. Before her thumb tapped the screen to freeze our image, she would whisper through clenched teeth, “Smile…please,” and I would because her eyes beckoned; a storm brewing in my belly. As she maneuvered the car out of the garage, I screamed, as a sting on my right calf jerked me forward, my palm smattering the fire ant, startling her, her foot pressing hard on the brake. I stayed angry about taking pictures earlier, after her tongue had dabbed the moistness of saliva at the tip of her thumb and rubbed my puckered skin vigorously. After administering an ointment, she whispered a “sorry.” It took the bite from the sting but left me bereft of my initial enthusiasm when I grabbed those ankara shorts from my cluttered closet.
It was a rough couple of minutes of her unbridled tongue. She hated how I ignored the shoe rack in the corner and scattered my footwear on the floor, under the bed. How I never put my dirty clothes in the hamper by the door, how my room was a potpourri of nasty body odour, how I never opened my windows for cross ventilation. “How can you live like this?” She hollered, cracking open my bedroom door, pinching her nostrils down, eyes scrounged, lips downturned.
“If you don’t do your laundry, sweep your room and change your sheets, I will seize your phone and laptop when I return, oloorun,” she yelled before running out the door that morning wearing a pair of pink shorts and a sleeveless white t-shirt with the inscription, I run for me in cursive.
My closet was no longer a musty smelling jungle where clean clothes joined ranks with the dirty but a uniform furor of shirts and pants at attention on hangers and rows of folded t-shirts and shorts. I flattened my palms on the sheet under me, her teasing voice in my ears, “I see you laid your bed.”
I vacuumed all the rooms, did the laundry, and changed the sheets on all the beds every Saturday.
After the accident, Dad searched for her phone around the house believing she had it on her when she was struck, but I knew she left it charging in the foyer and didn’t come forward with it. He scurried the site several times, with a couple of neighbours joining in the search. When he came in from combing her running route, head downcast and shoulders slumped forward, I squashed the fiery stings of guilt. Every night, I reached into the breast pocket of the dark suit Aunty Lara bought for the funeral, confirmed the door was locked, and climbed into bed. It was my last-thing-before-sleep and early morning ritual to look through the pictures. There were many, but there were a couple I was partial to: the one with both of us sporting matching adire shirts she ordered for the whole family. My right arm was draped casually over her shoulder, and she had both arms extended out, thumbs up, her smile more expansive than mine; it was her WhatsApp profile picture, and the post with the most views and comments on Instagram.
“I want to follow you on Snapchat,” she announced at lunch. I swerved panic-filled eyes at Dad, who started to chuckle.
“Because my friends’ parents don’t follow them on social media, Mum, please…no!”
“Angela’s Mum follows her, she told me. I want a peek into your world.”
“You’re already in my world, Mum. Angela has a dummy account her Mum follows… that’s not her real account!”
“Don”t tell her Mum, please. She is such a helicopter, doesn’t allow her to have any privacy, always searching her room, emptying out her pockets and backpacks. That’s why she set up a dummy account.”
Thankfully, Dad waded in.
“Leave him alone, Funmi.”
“I promise not to comment on any of the posts….”
Dad guffawed, “You won’t comment, but you will drill him no end on everything you read. Leave him, stay in your lane.”
“How can you know he won’t make bad choices?”
“We have to trust he will make smart choices.” Dad turned to me, “Don’t post what you won’t be proud of showing your younger brother. Don’t text mean and hurtful things to others, and don’t respond if someone says something unkind to you. What did I tell you to do if someone misbehaves despite your encouraging them to do the right thing?”
She fell silent for a minute.
“Ehhnnn…so Angela’s account is a dummy one, and her mother was boasting on how close they were. These children are something ….”
I scrolled down the gallery. Ayo is making a funny face – pink tongue jutting out between rows of pearly whites, his left hand lifting up his shirt to expose his bare torso, and his right hand rubbing his midriff. I found videos of Ayo alone I hadn’t seen before. Mum is out of view, but her voice coaxes him; he is in a denim blue onesie, tottering on chubby limbs, arms outstretched at whoever is filming,
“You can do it. Take those steps for me.”
He is blowing out a solitary candle on a colorful two-tier confectionary, a shimmery red party hat slipping off his crown. It’s his first day of school, and I’m telling him to smile from the background; he turns away from the camera, stubbornly refusing to comply, “Leave him alone, Funmi,” Dad’s voice juxtaposes mine. The longest was a little over ten minutes. She is surrounded by colourful packages; an “It’s a boy” banner above her. She lifts her shirt, chubby cheeks pulled back in a smile, an engorged shiny, elongated crescent, to the camera. Guilt pushed past my defenses, gliding between my sheets. I must return her phone to Dad. Not today, though. Maybe tomorrow.
The last upload was the one with her and me wearing matching orange and green Ankara sneakers from an online buy-one-get-one-free promo. “Look, Akin, they are more beautiful and cheaper than those yeye Nikes you’ve been raving about.”
The same pair of sneakers she was wearing that morning.
I heard the screech as rubber met tar, a dull thud, an overlap of discordant screams, and the ensuing blare of a siren from my room, but stayed put as I grudgingly tidied my room.
The teenage driver was texting.
I remember vaguely dropping the remote control when Dad stumbled into the living room held upright between uncles Felix and Olumide, his front shirt muddied with dirt and blood, his face awash with sweat and tears. The rest was a haze, and the days and weeks that followed were sequences from a nightmare borne from that haze. My aunties flew in for the burial and stayed for several weeks. We all seemed suspended by the pause from a remote control—frozen, waiting for someone to hit play, to move us forward. I thought, “Move forward to where?” What future would have her in it?
I overheard one of the aunties ask Dad whether I had cried. He said, “As far as I know, only that first day.”
The aunties went back.
Dad was never much of a talker like she was, but now, I watched him trying to fill long pauses with cheerful banter, to which Ayo responded, and I stayed close-mouthed most of the time. The accident happened at the end of spring. As we approached the beginning of fall, I extended my cleaning to the pantry, freezer, and fridge, rode my bicycle along the path she ran, and self-isolated as Dad and Ayo spent more time together.
I could hear Dad and Ayo moving around in the kitchen; the smell of eggs, toast, and oats made my stomach rumble.
“Go and get Akin.” The grating of a chair on the tiled floor was followed by the light thud of my brother’s feet on the wooden panel floor.
“Akin! Akin!” I could see the shadow he cast from under the door. He turned around and went back to the kitchen.
“He is awake, Daddy, but he didn’t answer. I heard him moving around earlier. He never wants to talk anymore. All he does is clean.”
Heavy footsteps approached my door, then the heavy rapping of his knuckles on the wooden panel.
‘Akin. Are you awake?’
“Breakfast is ready.”
Mum insisted on making breakfast alone, constantly declining any help. She made a pot of coffee for herself and Dad, tossed vegetables in a pan, and then made eggs, toast, and oats. She would cut fruits in a bowl and insist we all had a serving of whatever fruit she served in the flowery pyrex bowl she set on the dining table. Ayo ate anything, and everything put before him. Dad didn’t like apples, and I didn’t like bananas; we would wrinkle our noses at the bowl, but we never protested. She would stand over us with that stern look that beckoned no arguments.
Dad made breakfast, but without the vegetables, coffee and fruits. He poured a serving of orange juice into each cup and made sauteed scrambled eggs, not the variety of omelets she did. Ayo asked him once why he didn’t make coffee anymore, but he didn’t respond.
I walked down the corridor that led to the kitchen, past the black and white framed pictures arranged on opposite walls, beautiful moments captured seamlessly by her knack for freezing the now to forever. For a long time, Ayo’s baby picture hung in the living room; she responded the same way when anyone raised the fact there were varieties of only my image on the walls.
“I will take Ayo’s picture and frame it when he stops making monkey faces!”
He didn’t seem to care until the day before his sixth birthday. “I promise not to make monkey face, Mummy.” He changed his outfit three times, too. When the pictures were printed, framed, and hung, he was beside himself with excitement, and for several weeks after their installment, he stopped to admire them every time he passed, several times a day.
Most days, I was a ball of tingling numbness until I looked at her phone, and I welcomed the stings inside my belly, eyelids, torso, and extremities of my incomprehensible loss. Each painful jab was assuaged by the pictures and videos. They were a comforting accompaniment—a soothing balm, like the ointment she administered the day I was stung by the fire ant.
“Good morning, Dad. Hello, Ayo. You sleep well?” I turned to my brother, careful to keep my eyes above his head.
“Good morning, Akin.” Dad placed his right hand atop my head. He did that for as long as I can remember. It was the first thing he did in the morning, the last thing at night. I shot him a forced smile as I shoveled food in my mouth.
“Are you mad at me, Akin?” Ayo’s lips quivered.
My spoon froze midair.
Her sad brown eyes.
I swallowed the lump in my throat.
“Angry at you? Of course not! What made you say that?”
Dad sat down and started eating.
Ayo smiled, relief softening his features. Her smile.
“You don’t talk to me anymore…” his voice trailed away. A sting jabbed at the base of my stomach.
Dad stopped eating. He looked at Ayo and then at me.
Now would be the time Mum would ask a series of questions. “What is going on?” “Why are you ignoring your brother?” She was deft at peeling back what was at the fore until she got to the core. That was her forte, not Dad’s.
He set aside his fork and crossed his arms over his chest, sitting back in his chair, thoughtful eyes swiveling between my brother and me.
Despite the eight-year difference between Ayo and me, we had been close. I played his computer games with him, let him pick shows on TV, and helped him build his toy robots. I welcomed his birth with an enthusiasm that probably dwarfed my parents, Mum used to say. She often told a story of how, holding Ayo in my arms for the first time, I raised my face upward and said, “Thank you, God. Now my life is perfect.” I have no recollection of saying so but know it was true because I do recall believing a younger brother, not a sister, would make my life complete.
How do I tell him it’s painful to look at him? That every time I see him, I see her. That my chest feels like it’s about to explode. How do I put that in words for an eight-year-old to understand?
“I’m sorry. I will try harder. It’s just that it’s difficult without Mum.” My lower lip began to quiver. Ayo pushed back his chair, the grating against the floor tiles the only noise in the kitchen. He wrapped his arms around me.
“I miss her too.”
My chest unknotted as my throat constricted, sobs erupting from my lips, graduating into wails. With his arms still around me, Ayo climbed on my lap. Dad’s bigger arms enclosed us both.
In the tight circle of both their embrace, I watched the raindrops hit the rectangular window panes, and imagined the sky weeping, synchronised with those shed for our loss.
grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, and has a B.Sc and M.Sc in Microbiology from the University of Lagos. She works in financial advising in Illinois, where she lives with her family. Her works have been published in Afritondo and African Writer magazines, upcoming in Kalahari, Flash Fiction Magazine and Free Flash Fiction. She posts fiction and poetry on omobolablog.wordpress.com. Her social media handles are @OmobolaOsamor and @omobolaosamor on twitter and Instagram.