The curtain swirled about the room, and a cold breeze followed, turning virtually everything in the dim, tiny bedroom around. Ihe quickly jumped off the bed, almost stepping on Clay, the old cat, and made for the only window in their four square meter bedroom. He trapped the air out, in as much as it was needed, because he got home to a broken fan, and they couldn’t afford the bills for an air conditioner. Unfortunately, that night, they resorted to leaving the window open. Afterward, he picked up his phone by the bedside stand, pressed a button, and the lights came on to reveal an unread email. Who could it be, then? Ihe searched his mind with a deep frown. He stood close to the window, looking out, not necessarily having anything in view; the storm had cut the electricity distribution, thereby enveloping the whole of Prince Street in a canopy of darkness. His mind kept looking at an unknown object beyond the thick darkness till he felt a mass of fluffy hair that crawled and nestled around his feet with a ‘miaw-miaw’. Did Clay want his attention at two in the morning? He wondered why his wife kept the cat. She hadn’t moved throughout the scenario. The departmental store was on off-season sales, and this meant working back to back for supervisors who had so much to sort, count, and moderate. Fortunately, her line manager was benevolent enough to allow her to come in early for dinner for the sixth month.
Sitting on the tiny dining set, the lights came on again. He extended his arm, exposing the tiny dot in-between his inner elbow. He didn’t want to remind himself that he had a doctor’s appointment somewhere after the last time he slumped at work due to exhaustion; he ignored the arm and picked up his old, battered laptop. He wondered how it had lasted that long; it was a gift from a wealthy uncle upon gaining a scholarship to study accounting in college. He navigated his way to his box, and his eyes glanced suspiciously at the email address, and a groan escaped him through his stomach. 'Confidential’, the subject read. He gave the address another glance, and he noticed that they blind-copied his wife, which means that the email was only meant for him, and probably among those whose names didn’t seem familiar but were in the same line of profession. He looked back to where he came, to make sure that no one was in the tiny room except him. He exhaled and clicked "read". Immediately, the whole message cascaded down before his weary eyes, and the trade of discussion went on and on until he got involved. It was there, highlighted in yellow: foetal brain tumour. He left his position and, with a few strides, sought refuge in the calm view of the streets again. The storm has calmed down and has probably moved on to other parts of the city. A shadow walked by, and when it got to the street light, he made out the form of a dog with what seemed like a piece of bread hanging loosely by the corner of its mouth. The image made him chuckle, and he embraced the few seconds of psychological tranquility. He needed it, but what of his wife, who slept peacefully, and whose peace of mind would probably be crushed in the days to come?
He walked back to the chair, looking at his screen. He didn’t know what to make of the email. One thing was receiving devastating news at two in the morning, and another was feeling as though you had been dropped in a maze to figure everything out yourself. For him at that moment, it was not rocket science to see that the end of the tunnel seemed quite too bleak for a miracle: there were tons of bills to settle, he was in desperate need of a new job, his wife was expecting their first child, and then this. They could barely afford to make ends meet, much less make unplanned trips to the clinic. Obviously, they had written to him, which means that it was an emergency. He gradually scrolled down the message, and he found a number to call—probably the main doctor who was in charge of the case. He picked up his phone and started typing. The line clicked at the first instance, and a tired voice answered:
“Dr. Rivers speaking.”
Ihe swallowed a hard spittle before he said:
“This is Joyce’s husband.”
The doctor took a moment to go down and dig up the names and faces of his numerous patients. He comes by each day to fit a name to a face before he responds:
“Yeah! Case 212. That’s right. When would you be available for an appointment?”
He thought that this would just be a call, and instead of him being the one to ask for the appointment, it was the doctor who was doing the asking. He felt embarrassed, but he could hear the undertone of urgency in the man’s voice. Although he tried as much as possible to sound casual and professional and make him feel at ease, the alarm bells in his ears rang dangerously. And as they discussed, his mind asked a thousand questions, knowing fully well that they both had begun a journey of fate.
When he dropped the call, he heard something behind him, and before he could turn, a feeble voice asked:
“Was that Dr. Rivers?”
His heart skipped, and the phone fell off his arm and dropped on the table. Turning, he held his right arm to his chest and exhaled:
“Jeez, you scared the crap out of me, babe.”
He didn’t want to answer just yet because he didn’t know how much of their conversation she had heard or how long she had been standing there.
“Are my test results out? He insisted I run some tests the last time I went for an antenatal visit. I had some money on me from the bonuses they paid us, and I didn’t want to bother you. So, I paid, and he’d promised that he would send the results as soon as they were out.”
He didn’t say a word. He kept looking at her. Ihe had never lied to his wife, and he didn’t intend to start that morning. He just studied her form—her protruding belly that showed through the white cotton nightgown, which swept the floor each time she wore it, and her corn-rows he made her the last time. Funnily enough, her colleagues were usually surprised whenever they learned that her husband was her make-shift saloon. Unlike many students, he had the singular opportunity to work and study, and coming from a family where gender never interfered in house chores or choices a person made, he got a job in a hair salon. This was because he already had a good background in the trade since it was what his mother used to train all of them in school; being the third wife of a drunk, she had no option but to source a means of livelihood for herself and her five kids. Then they used to be the joke of the town each time the boys gathered around a customer’s head, trying to lend a helping hand to their mother. Oftentimes, neighbours or passers-by couldn’t hide their disgust at such a despicable sight. One man lambasted their mother and accused her of turning her boys into weaklings by subjecting them to carrying out tasks only meant for women. Funny enough, when he arrived there, he met men who worked as nurses in hospitals, pedicurists and manicurists, masseuses, and hairstylists. Coming out all the way changed his understanding of life. It was from the same job that he saved enough to send back home to his mother to pay his sibling’s school fees until they were able to stand on their feet.
“You are not saying anything?” Joyce asked with a worried tone, “Why are you silent?”
Honestly, he didn’t know what to tell her, and he didn’t want her to move closer either. His side covered part of the screen of his laptop, and he knew that any step further would reveal what he had hidden behind him.
“Well, it is because there is really nothing much to say. We will go together on Monday to pick up your test result.”
He tried to put on a smile to reassure her that everything was fine. She looked at his face searchingly and just nodded. She turned to go back to bed, but before she did, she turned again and asked:
“Are you not coming back to bed?”
“Uh..not now." I have some emails that I need to respond to. You just go, and I will be right there with you."
“At this time of the night? Can’t it wait till morning or until you get to work?”
She asked worriedly.
“I don’t think so. My boss would blow a fuse if I didn’t get these in before the morning. And also, I am looking at getting a new job, and all that you know.”
“I get it. It is time you got a better offer. You have been working out your ass in exchange for so little, and the baby would need it too.”
She growled and dragged her feet back into the room. Immediately after she left, he exhaled hard and bent a bit to relax his back properly on the seat. Immediately, his phone beeped with a text message. When he picked it up, he read: Monday morning at eight. The doctor had confirmed their appointment.
His office was in downtown Baltimore, the central place that serves as a major area for business in the city. From his cubicle, he could see Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and also the coastline that surrounds the city. At times, he would be lost just gazing into that space, having nothing in particular in mind.
Someone called his attention amidst the phone calls, the discussions, and all that came with working in an establishment that was knee-deep in accounting services. He turned and saw that Joe, his line manager, was beckoning him right from his office. He had a not too friendly face, and he saw that he stood in his full form in front of his office, which was a partition away from all the noise and distractions they created in the central office. Ihe got up from his seat and made for his boss's office, wondering what he wanted this time around. Joe was half black and half Hispanic, and he often made sure that he consulted his subordinates before making any major changes or taking undue actions. He was in his late fifties, considerate, and homely. The last time they had a meeting, it was about the company’s decision to lay off some members of staff, and he, in turn, suggested that instead of letting some of his few good hands go, knowing fully well that these were men and women with so many responsibilities, he suggest a cut to their pay to make up for the loss and the excesses that would be incurred. This decision was made after he consulted them firsthand. Rumours have it that his granddad had a stake in the company, and as a result, he too had a voice.
When Ihe got to him, he walked in, went round to sit on his chair, and said:
“Close the door, my good man, and come and have a seat.”
Ihe did as instructed and noticed that his boss was watching his every move. This made him feel a bit awkward. For him, it was mostly working and going home to his wife with no hassles. Joe waited for some moments to pass before asking:
“How are your little lady and the baby doing? I sure hope they are alright.”
Joe had a touch of country in his voice. He normally emphasised that he grew up as a barn boy and might return one day to milk his cows.
“Yes, sir." He said, “They are both doing well. Thank you for asking.”
He responded without looking at him, avoiding eye contact as much as possible. The last thing on his mind was to start spilling out his problems to anyone. Although, in the past, Joe had come through for him on many occasions, he didn’t want him to feel entitled to help him out each time things were tight.
“So, and you? How is it with you? You have been quiet of late.”
Joe pressed further with his voice and his eyes, which almost wanted to bore a hole through a man’s forehead. Ihe wondered where all these questions emanated from, and after a moment, he just said:
“I am very well, sir.”
Joe stood up, went to the door, locked it, and put down the shutters. Ihe followed every motion he made. He came back and perched on the table before him, looked Ihe straight in the eyes, and said:
“You know, boy, we are all here to watch each other’s backs: black, white, yellow, brown, whatever colour you are or whoever you are. We are simply a family, and I would be the last person to sit and watch one of my able men go down six feet under for no good reason.”
He exhaled loudly, waited a bit, and continued:
“Straight out of college, you walked through that door, and we both have never regretted it to date. You have worked your ass out for this company, and you deserve all the help you can get from us.”
Ihe was sure to hear a pin drop somewhere, and he was also sure that Joe could hear the loud pounding in his chest.
“When was the last time you renewed your permit, son?”
Ihe’s heart skipped. Joe turned the screen of his computer over to face Ihe, and lo, he read it.
“The immigration office wrote to the company about you, and the chairman had me in copy.”
He allowed that minute of silence to pass for the information to sink in.
“You know that it is actually unethical for this to get to us, and this simply means that you have been holding up and jeopardising the trust we have in you in return, and therefore putting the reputation of the company at stake because it would seem that we are harbouring you on US soil. I am awfully sorry about your situation, son. I understand what’s on the ground for you with so much paycheck and all that.”
He repositioned the screen and went back to take his position in his chair.
“Thank you, Sir. I understand what to do from here.”
Ihe later found his voice where he had initially dropped it. He got up from the seat to leave, squeezing the doorknob, and his boss said:
Ihe turned to look at him:
“You know that the elections are fast approaching, and he is on a rampage. Immigration is getting meaner with each passing minute, and I don’t want you to get caught up in the web of activities.”
Ihe just nodded, opened the door, and stepped out. He noticed that immediately after he let himself out of the office and as he made his way to his seat, some of his colleagues turned to take a second glance at him. When he got to his cubicle, he changed his mind and turned back to the exit end of the long hall. Stepping out onto the streets, his eyes travelled all around, and for the first time, he noticed that people went about their business, and at that moment, only he and his problems existed.
The man in the white lab coat quietly put up the scan and x-ray results on the light board while Ihe and Joyce followed his every movement. Ihe made sure he held on tight to her and rubbed her back in the process. Afterward, the doctor came and sat opposite them, with his desk separating him and his patient. They had come by the early bus into town. After the appointment, both would find their way to work, either by bus or on foot. The car was gone. Ihe had to put it on sale immediately after he got back from work after the meeting with his boss, and made the payment, but he noticed that it hadn’t been acknowledged for too long now, and there was the tension of the deportation of immigrants all over the country. He didn’t want that to worry him at all.
"So, madam, as you can see, you have the healthiest baby any woman can think of.”
The doctor assured Joyce with a wide smile.
“Although the recent test results came back with a new development, or I would rather say a good discovery, we found a slight growth in your baby’s head, and we are suspecting a tumour. But not to worry, this could be treated.”
His lenses were fixed on them throughout his explanation. The doctor really wanted to have an idea of what their thoughts were and how best to approach the situation. He knew from experience that the slightest lapse in his explanation could cause a whole lot of damage, and that was what he was trying as much as possible to avert. He stood up after a moment and went straight to the board. Pointing to the skull of the baby, directly on a green shapeless figure, he said:
“Ideally, the cases we have come across are much more severe than this because, in most situations, they are larger than this and are discovered very late. Unfortunately, these wouldn’t be controlled or treated that easily. We were really amazed at the sound health of the baby despite the growth. Normally, the baby would have started losing energy and we would have no other choice but to evacuate.”
Ihe made sure to watch Joyce’s reaction at each instance, but he was surprised that she kept a straight face throughout the explanation. Her breathing was normal, and in this situation, he was the one who was tense about the whole thing.
“I already suspected that something was wrong the minute you asked me to run another test two months before delivery. I just didn't want to ask.”
Joyce spoke up after some time in a tiny, shaky voice. She turned to Ihe and said:
“I knew about the growth.”
He nearly fainted at her words.
“Yes, that night. I couldn’t help it from your suspicious reaction when I asked what the doctors said. I couldn’t sleep, and right at that moment I felt you had fallen asleep. I went straight to check your emails, and I read every word of it.”
She looked down on her bulging tummy, touched the upper layer through the cotton top she wore, turned back to the doctor, and asked:
“Doctor Rivers, please, what options do we have?”
Within a split second, Ihe was taken back to the bus station. It was winter that year, and some drivers were on strike. He had been kept waiting for more than two hours, and already he felt his insides gradually turning into ice. His arms and feet were blocked already, and he was fast losing his senses to the extent that when the bus came, it actually had to honk its horn to get him to cross the road and hop in. He realised that there were no vacant seats on board, and he could not get down to face the cold. While he was contemplating how to stand for more than thirty minutes that day to work, a hand tapped his shoulders, and on looking back, a lady said:
“Hi! You can have my seat.”
When she saw that he wasn’t willing because she was a lady and also had some clutches on, she said:
“I will be dropping off at the next turn, so no need to bother about my legs.”
It was as though they were the only ones who boarded the bus that morning. It was months later that he discovered that she worked at a popular department store, and she had fallen off a ladder and sprained her knees while trying to stock up a shelf because no guy was available to do so. Some years down the line, after surviving the accident, they got married, and she got promoted to a supervisor for her dedication.
They busily set the table for dinner while the news was on. The voice of the president came up:
“We are in a strict match to make this nation great again, and that is why we have tightened our grip on immigration.”
“Have you paid for the permit?”
Joyce asked coldly. They hadn’t gotten over the dispute just yet.
“Sure, I have.”
Ihe didn’t want a continuation of what happened the last time. He was already feeling bad and didn’t want to get her all worked up for nothing.
“Have you received a response yet?” She asked.
They have already settled down to eat. He looked at her and answered:
“They denied my application.”
She moved the chair with so much force that as she stood up and stormed into their tiny bedroom, it hit the floor with a loud bang.
After breakfast, he put out his plates, grabbed his jacket and leather case, and left. Usually, they left together, but Joyce had decided to have some alone time since everything started. He also decided to give her some space because he felt that she was being too hard on herself. Her supervisor has already promised to give her some time off from work as soon as the baby arrives. Ihe got off the bus, crossed the street, and went into the office complex. Immediately he opened the door, all eyes turned on him, and cold shivers ran down his spine. As he stepped further into the office, making his way to his cubicle, Joe’s door swung open and a group of men in a dark and grey suit emerged with Joe and came straight at him. Joe looked at him with so much pain in his eyes and said:
“Son, I am so sorry. I thought that I would have helped or something.”
The men were too civil not to talk. He saw the badges on their jackets. He just nodded at Joe, picked up his jacket and bag, and led the way to the exit end.
The last time he visited the airport was when he had to travel to another city on an assignment from the office. This time around, it seemed crowded and rowdy. The voice that came and went on the announcement, people calling out to their loved ones, and those waiting for arrivals and departures. The men were so patient with him that they gave him one week to round up whatever it was he had to do. They also allowed him to sleep in his home, unlike other deportees who slept at their office till their flight was booked. They sat close to him, the two of them. One brought out a cigar and a lighter, and then offered him:
“Thank you. I don’t smoke.”
Ihe said. Although his father was a chain smoker, none of his siblings ever picked up that addiction.
A solemn voice came to life on the speaker, and one of the men nudged him, indicating that his flight was ready. As they made their way to the door after checking in, someone screamed his name:
The three looked back, and a young lady was running towards them. When she got closer, he noticed that it was Meg, Joyce’s best friend.
“It is Joyce." She said, “She is in a critical condition, and we rushed her to the hospital from the office. There is absolutely no one with her.”
Ihe screamed. Those standing by turned to stare.
“ Let's go!”
One of the men said. Ihe turned back to face the door, but the man placed his hand on his chest and said:
“I mean the hospital, man. Your wife needs you.”
“I will drive.”
His partner added, and immediately, they all turned and hastily made their way back to the exit end.
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