TW: death, mental health, mature language, abuse
Life is precious, love is a disease.
God makes perfection, Esi made a mistake.
Family is everything, and Olufemi is a sledgehammer barreling into them.
The aging, brown townhouses swelter in heat, even though the sun has fallen. Children run home in notice of the streetlights, mosquitoes follow them, craving to get a taste of their blood.
Inside the small Okoro home, white rice and tasty African chicken stew is set on the deteriorating white stove.
Olufemi plates first, dishing a large amount of food onto the white ceramic plate.
His youngest stepdaughter, Bo, dishes next, then Esi, then Blessing, and finally, their mother, whose food is the lowest fraction.
The sound of Sportscenter highlights compete with the chews of the Okoro family sitting in the living room, one uncomfortable loveseat, and a single leather seat chair.
The breadwinner of the family, the man who was supposed to the new male role model to Sylvia’s daughters, is a nightmare.
Between the violent words spewed at her, the slaps and the jabs, and the puppet hold he has on the family, Sylvia doesn’t know which one is worse. But she has to stay, because she has nothing without him. She can’t afford her own home with the money she makes as a receptionist at a failing spa.
She makes the food, takes care of her children, and keeps her nose out of her husband’s business.
Her middle child, Esi, takes a big sip of water from the blue plastic cup, and finally asks a question that has been eating her up for 24 hours, “So when are we getting the new house?”
Silence hangs in the air, overpowering the volume of the television.
Bo becomes excited after hearing that they might be moving out of the crowded townhouse.
Blessing receives a hateful look from her mother, whose forehead starts to perspire in sweat.
Esi wasn’t supposed to overhear the conversation by the stairs last night when her mother was telling Blessing that her sisters shouldn’t get too attached to the house, because they can leave at any moment.
What Esi missed was the key element of the conversation that was said before. Her mother is trying to find a new job in a different city, and make enough money to move towards the east coast of Canada, far away from the second man she married. But for now, she would try and find some cheap motel or hostel for them to live in until she coughed up enough money for the bigger move.
Esi thought it was some secret between her parents and older sister, not knowing that her stepdad doesn’t know about such information about moving.
Olufemi angrily places his plate on the round, black table by his legs.
Esi’s smile falters.
“What the hell is she talking about? You want to leave me, huh Sylvia?”
Esi’s mother raises her hands in front of her face in defense, as if she is going to receive a left hook punch.
A demeanor emerges from Olufemi, familiar to Sylvia, but unfamiliar to her daughters.
“Am I some joke to this family? I work hard to keep the lights on in this damn house. Sylvia, I accepted the children you had with another man into this house without a single complaint for the past five months. I didn’t even want them here.”
“Please Femi, don’t yell. I don’t know what Esi is talking about.” Sylvia cries.
Olufemi swats the food off of Sylvia’s plate, slapping her in the process.
“You want to piss me off? Fine! Esi, come here. Now!”
Esi casts nervous looks to her sisters, but Blessing’s head is down in disappointment and fear.
She walks to face her towering stepdad, and if looks could kill, she would be in heaven by now.
“Who told you we are moving to a new house?”
Esi is too sacred to move her mouth; she keeps her eyes on the torn piece of material on his shorts.
His hands fiercely grip her weak shoulders, reality setting into the situation. She gasps in pain and shudders by the touch of his fingernails digging into her skin.
That’s the day when Esi learned to keep her mouth shut, and even when she did, she still became a punching bag.
Two years later…
Like every Thursday afternoon, Esi rushes her scrawny legs out the yellow school bus that holds a grotesque musk, and walks for about five minutes until she reaches her house.
But today, it took two hours for her to get home, because her eyes were drawn to a tall boy lying on a grassy soccer field, near the bus stop. Strange music was playing from his cellphone, and Esi was intrigued.
However, the angel on Esi’s shoulder was telling her to go home. Her mother and stepfather are still at work, and Blessing doesn’t finish school until later. But Bo finishes school early, so she’s home alone, and Esi knows she needs to get home to watch her.
Esi’s feet follow the sound of the music.
She studies his foreign face.
“You know, it’s rude to stare at someone for that long without greeting them.” his deep voice rings.
Esi’s eyes widen, and she nervously laughs.
“I’m so sorry. I just saw you lying there and wanted to see what you’re doing. I didn’t mean to be weird. Sorry.”
“A true Canadian, you don’t have to apologize so much.”
Esi sets her heavy backpack down and sits beside the boy.
“I’m Esi. I live in the Lunet Complex.”
“The townhouses, cool. I’m way over there, across the field. Edgebrook.”
“Oh, you live in the big houses.”
“They’re not that big, it’s like two thousand square feet. I like to come over here because it’s quieter on this side. Nobody owns those cars with the loud engines. I’m Nessie by the way.”
“Nessie, that a girl’s name.”
“That’s a very childish thing to say. Aren’t you, like, sixteen?”
“Yeah, and your name is for a girl. I’ve never met a black dude named Nessie.” Esi jokes with him.
Nessie removes himself from the ground and sits up. He catches the logo on her backpack, and points.
“Bellview High School.” he says
“I’ve never seen you at school before.”
“That’s because I’m homeschooled. Mum teaches me, makes my lunch, and supervises my tests.”
Esi becomes jealous knowing that he hasn’t sat through the groggy lessons from underpaid teachers, endured disgusting cafeteria food, or squeezed through the smelly bodies of adolescents.
But she knows that she would kill herself if she had to be homeschooled in the depressive space she calls a house.
The sound from Nessie’s cellphone disrupts her thoughts.
Her face scrunches, “What is this?”
“You’ve never heard of Kendrick Lamar?”
“Oh my Lord, you’re black and you don’t know Kendrick?”
“I don’t listen to this music.”
“So what do you listen to?”
Nessie laughs, his back kissing the grass.
Esi explains that she isn’t allowed to listen to any music except for the old records her stepfather owns. Her father played a lot of Christian music, which she slightly misses.
After their encounter, and after school closed for the summer, Esi spent her afternoons at the soccer field nestled outside the compound with Nessie; listening to diverse music she’s never heard before, talking about public school and anything else that comes to their minds.
“Do you believe in God?”
Esi is taken by suprise by his question.
“I guess so. I don’t know.”
“How do you not know if you believe in God?”
“I believe he exists, I just don’t think he believes in me.” Esi plays with her fingers nervously.
“Like if God was really God, why did he let my parents’ divorce? Why is he making us live in that hellhole with that—“
She stops herself, not wanting to reveal too much about her personal life at home.
Nessie speaks up, “I believe in God. He’s always there in the chaos and the mess of life.”
Esi glances at Nessie, who holds a miniscule smile. She doesn’t understand what brings him so much joy in saying those words, when she feels like her family was left in the cold by God.
She grew up a Christian, but fails to see it through.
“You don’t have to listen to me, but just know that he loves you. And hopefully, one day, you can see and live in that love.”
The darkness greets the streets ‘good evening’, and the streetlights respond with activity.
Dirty yellow moths circles light sources as Esi watches them from her bedroom window.
A freedom she yearns for, the ability to find the source that gives her life. Her dreams of learning how to play the piano like Oscar Peterson, or join an expensive performing arts school in New York.
Her fingers leave the window ledge and she flops back onto her warm, floral bedsheets.
A knock on the door startles her. The wooden door opens to reveal her mother.
“Pack your stuff.”
Confusion lies on Esi’s face as her sister’s move from behind their mother’s back and into the shared bedroom.
Their mother disappears for a few minutes, and Blessing tries to explain the frantic situation to her sisters.
“So you know how Femi said he got that new job?”
Esi doesn’t remember any mention of her stepdad getting a new job. He keeps his work private from the rare family conversations that occur.
Maybe it’s a good thing; maybe they can live in a larger space.
Maybe the job can turn him into a better dad, Esi thinks.
Their mother comes back into the room, this time carrying cardboard boxes and plastic containers in her arms.
“Put your stuff in these boxes, only the most valuable things are coming. We don’t have the space to bring everything.”
“Where are we going ma? Are we finally moving?” Bo asks.
Sweat stains decorate their mother’s white shirt.
Their stepfather has just left for a one week trip to Edmonton with his new boss and colleagues for a seminar and group bonding activities to ring in his new position at the company.
Jr. Executive Financial Assistant for an Insurance company.
Sylvia has no idea what that means, or the name of the company, but it will hopefully translate into some big paychecks.
She helped him pack his nicest clothing and colognes, and he took a cab to the airport to catch his 10pm flight.
This trip leaves an open opportunity for her to secure a happy future.
“Yes, we are. Please, just pack your things and hurry up. The driver is almost here.”
Bo casts Esi a scared look.
Why would a driver be coming when they have a car sitting in the parking lot?
“Where is father?” Bo asks us.
“Shut up, Bo. Just get your things and let’s get out of here.”
If Bo was any younger, she would burst in tears, but tonight, she doesn’t want to aggravate anyone, so she keeps her focus on folding clothes into a sparkly backpack.
“Don’t talk to her like that. We’re all spooked right now, and you probably know more about this than we do.” Esi bites at Blessing.
Blessing dumps her textbooks into a cardboard box, “Mum is just trying to protect us, okay. Something good is coming out of this.”
The three sisters hear a loud warning from their mother downstairs, packing food and important documents into a travel bag, “The driver is pulling into the compound!”
The chaos from their bedroom travels down the stairs and into the landing where a chubby man helps their mother carry boxes into a silver van.
Esi turns to face the house she struggles to call a home.
Just a walk away, her best friend watches TV in his air conditioned basement, watching some anime show, feet up, drinking an ice cold Coca Cola.
Meanwhile, she still has more than half of her life left in the bedroom upstairs; novels, shoes, posters hidden underneath her bed, and other valuables.
There’s no big moving truck, like the ones in the movies.
What’s so good about a spontaneous move? Nothing even makes sense right now, she thinks to herself, and squishes between her sisters in the strange van.
Sylvia Okoro, once Sylvia Smith, formerly known as Sylvia Adebayo.
Years of pain and silence surges through her veins, hands gripping her travel bag tightly.
The destination she gave her driver is distant and unfamiliar, but it’s the only place a woman in her situation can go to.
Olufemi was a dream when she first met him. After the tragic divorce with the father of her children, Joseph Smith, a love she thought she would never have again, she found Femi in his stylish glory.
He stood proudly, emitting masculinity and stability. Sylvia thought she had finally met a wealthy, good man.
But it was too late when she realized the monster of a man he is.
He had told her repeatedly that he is the only man that can love her, and she better appreciate him fully. If she tried anything, it wouldn’t end well.
Reality set in, and she woke up.
The only person she has ever told about her situation is her eldest daughter, who can swallow the bitter pill in a careful and supportive manner.
With him being travelling to another city, she is able to collect her things and find refuge with her kids.
The roads are empty and deepened with calm stillness.
Sylvia surrenders to the moment, 'We made it out. You finally did it, Sylvia, you finally fought back and left. Good job.'
They drive into the night to reach their safe haven.
In the corner of her eye, Blessing spots the body of a red car that closely resembles the old Honda 4-seater car that sits in their parking spot at the Lunet Complex.
Its headlights shine bright behind the van, alerting the sleepy driver, and Sylvia sitting in the passenger seat.
“Hey, that car kind of looks likes Femi’s.” Blessing says.
The Honda inches closer them, leaving limited room between its bumper and the van’s tail.
Sylvia’s heart races out of her chest, trying to decipher if her worst nightmare has come back again.
'It can't be him, I saw him get into the cab. He's probably in the airplane right now. I'm just being paranoid.'
The van driver speeds up, commenting on how the car behind them is “too damn close,” and “annoying the hell out of me. It’s practically an open road.”
Sylvia narrows her eyes onto the face that drives the red car, but her eyes are disordered by a sudden swerve of the van.
The driver tries to switch lanes, but the old Honda keeps on their tail. The road is getting narrower, with rows of trees and straw-like grass on their sides.
“Ma, what’s happening?”
The three sisters hold each other in the back seat, bodies shifting in the direction of the driver’s swerves.
“That damn prick. What is he doing?”
“He?” Sylvia asks.
One sharp turn, and an invisible nudge from the red Honda, makes the silver van veer off the road.
The heavy, rough bark of a tree encases the silver van, and sends the four passengers into a detour.
The women’s shelter would never get to register Sylvia Okoro’s name in their records.
Bo would never get to finish Jr. High School, or have her own room.
Blessing would never get to help her mother and sisters move into a nice home in Nova Scotia, or go to college there.
Sylvia would never get to laugh in the face of her husbands in her newfound freedom, and raise her daughters in peace and security.
Esi would never get to see Nessie on the soccer field again.
The empty house that is owned by Olufemi would be alive again, with the bodies of the authorities.
Her family would move into a home in which the owner is always present and ready to love them, and they will live in that love.
No packing required, no driving arrangements needed, and no rush.
Just everlasting peace.