“You know the most curious thing happened at the mall.” Chiedu said as he unpacked the shopping bags.
When it came to their monthly grocery shopping, Chiedu handled it, and always in the company of his first lady, who right now was unpacking the beverage bag while trying to shoo away her eager-to-assist brother.
“What happened?” Isioma asked, only half interested, since the report she was editing was on her mind.
“We were at the ice cream aisle… oh, and First lady, have you put the ice cream in the refrigerator?”
“That was the first thing I did, Daddy.”
“Smart girl.” Chiedu said with a wink and then went back to his story. “So, there we were by one of the ice cream refrigerators and this fellow stopped on the other side of it and just stared at us.”
“Stared at you, why?”
“Actually, it was Dinma he was staring at and I would have strongly rebuffed him if the stare was in anyway suspicious or perverse. But his expression only looked shocked. Like he was seeing something, or in this case, someone he had not expected to see. Or maybe never expected to see.”
Isioma stared at the contemplative frown that was now on Chiedu’s face and felt her heart miss a beat.
“Anyway, I asked him if there was a problem and he said nothing.” Chiedu continued, gave his head a shake as if to shake off lingering puzzlement. “He made as if he wanted to walk away, then stopped to apologise for his staring and then said that he had only be awestruck because Dinma looked so much like someone he knew. First lady, don’t entrust that tin of Milo to your brother. He’s going to pound it on the floor and likely force it open.” Distracted once again, Chiedu switched his attention to the children.
“I’m taking it from him right now, Daddy. I only gave it to him to distract him from the cookies. You know he will want one once he sees it.”
Isioma heard them, heard Dinma’s playful rebuff to her brother before she snatched the tin of Milo, but her ears were buzzing. Buzzing loud enough for her to hear the sound of it too.
“And you, why are you looking like that now?”
Isioma jolted. “What… like what?”
“Like you’re hearing something strange or shocking.”
“Well, it is strange, is it not, the way he was staring at Dinma and only because she looked like someone he knew? He probably was just fishing for an excuse because he’d been caught. You keep hearing about all these perverts trying to abuse little children, but you never know in what form they can come.”
“True, but his stare wasn’t in any way perverse or even sexual. Gosh, the thought of that disgusts me.” Chiedu pulled a disgusted face. “Anyway, I told him it must be a case of doppelganger. A look-alike that’s almost like a twin and yet not one. I’ll take the soaps and detergents to the store. Be right back.”
“Okay.” Isioma nodded and after he was gone, exhaled slowly.
What was she thinking, that it was Awele who’d been staring at Dinma at ShopRite? And why had that even be her first thought?
Because it was possible, her mind responded. Surely Awele would still be at Asaba and not yet gone back to the UK?
And what if he still was in Asaba, that didn’t mean it was him, not some random weird stranger Chiedu and Dinma had met at the mall, did it?
Isioma exhaled again and forced calm into herself. Good gracious! She was allowing these nightmares to play with her mind and that has to stop. This irrational fear has to stop.
But if she succeeded in burying her fears over the weekend, Awele resurrected them when he came to her office.
“I thought I told you not to come back here.”
“Yes, you did but something happened on Saturday that warranted my return.”
“I saw a man and a little girl at ShopRite.” He interrupted her. “I thought I’d seen… I don’t know, a ghost, or maybe a reincarnation of my sister as a little girl. I couldn’t think. I just stood there and stared at the girl.”
Isioma swallowed, her heart began to pound. “I don’t know why you’re here or why you’re telling me this story, Awele…”
“Since my sister doesn’t have any child and we don’t have a case of missing children in our family, I knew something was not right.” He interrupted her again. “
“Stop this ridiculous story and leave my office, Awele.”
“I knew because there was also something familiar about the man with the girl. I’d seen him before. Well, not in the physical,” he corrected himself. “I’d seen a picture of him before. I didn’t remember it straight away but after I got home, my memory clicked and I recalled where I’d seen him – on the Facebook post you’d made of your upcoming marriage seven years ago. The man is your husband and that little girl… Who is she, Isioma?”
“What kind of stupid question is that?” Isioma demanded. “How dare you come in here, tell this ridiculous story and ask me such a stupid, senseless and insulting question?”
“I think you should calm down, Isioma. There’s no need for raised voices. I’m not here to insult you, but only to rest my mind.” Though he spoke calmly, he did not look calm but disturbed. “Isioma, do you know the things I’ve been thinking about all weekend?”
“I don’t know what you’ve been or are thinking and I don’t care.” Isioma snapped, sprang up and pointed to the door. “Get out of my office and stay out of my life, Awele.”
“No, I’m not leaving without an answer, Isioma. That girl… Dinma. I went to Facebook, but we’d un-friended each other after your wedding, so I moved to Instagram. I saw pictures of her. She had a birthday two months ago; her sixth birthday…”
“Enough!” She couldn’t bear to hear anymore. She would have a heart attack if she heard more. “Enough of this nonsense. You’re stalking me online now? What is this, are you insane?”
“Who is she, Isioma? Who is Dinma, my daughter or your husband’s?”
“My husband’s, of course. How dare you insinuate differently?” Her teeth wanted to chatter but she held desperately on to self-control. “We had a relationship in the past, Awele, but I am a married woman and I have been faithful to my husband from the day I married him.”
“And what about before you married him?”
“You are vile. Despicable!” Trembling, she swept past him to the door, but didn’t open it. “Get out of my office now.”
“You know what we did, Isioma. And that thing we did could have resulted in…”
“It resulted in nothing.” She snarled. “A mistake. Biggest mistake of my life, that was all it was, all it will ever be. Go, Awele. Get out of here and leave me alone.”
“Fine, I will go. I don’t want a fight, and definitely not at your office. But I will come back for my answer, Isioma. If that girl is mine, then I’m not giving up my right as her father.” He stood up and walked out.
“Oh my God, what have I done!” Weak, trembling and terrified, Isioma collapsed on her knees.
“I’ve ruined my life. I’ve ruined Dinma’s life. I’ve destroyed my family.”
She’d run to her sister. She was the only one she could tell; the only one close enough who wouldn’t condemn and judge her harshly.
“Stop crying and talking incoherently and tell me what is wrong, Isioma.” Uche pulled her up from the floor and pushed her down on the sofa.
“I… Uche, I did something terrible.” Tears burned her eyes as they poured out. “Something disgraceful.”
“Something disgraceful?” Alarm made Uche’s voice sharp. “What did you do?”
“I… Awele and I…”
“You and Awele…? Which Awele are you talking about and what did you two do?”
“My… ex. That Awele. He came to see me two days before the wedding and we… I… it wasn’t supposed to happen. I don’t know how it happened.”
“You don’t know how what happened?”
“He… ah, he said he’d heard I was getting married and wanted to wish me well.” Oh God, what had come over her that day? “We were sitting together on the couch and… out of nowhere, he kissed me. I didn’t stop him. I don’t know why. We kissed and… and then ended up having sex.”
The utter shock in Uche’s eyes both shamed and killed her. “I don’t know what came over me that evening, Uche. I swear to God, I don’t know. I wasn’t even carrying a torch for him. I’d forgotten him until he came that day and… and it happened.”
“Oh Chi’m!” Her eyes still wide with shock, Uche gaped at her. “Isioma, you… what were you thinking? What came over you?”
“I don’t know, Uche. I don’t know how it could happen, but it did, and afterwards, he… he apologised and left. And I tried to forget it; to pretend like it never happened.”
“Chi’m oh! This is horrible. Terrible. Disgraceful.” Uche pressed a hand against her mouth.
“Yes, it is. I disgraced myself; shamed myself. Did something I never thought I could ever do. I’m a disgraceful woman.”
“Wait. Stop crying. Isioma… Isioma, stop crying.”
Isioma shook off Uche’s soothing hand. “No, no, I can’t stop crying because the worst has happened.”
“What again happened?” Uche asked in a quivering voice.
“Awele is back and he saw Dinma. He saw her and… he thinks Dinma is his daughter.”