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[Story] Retracing Steps – 9jaflaver

[Story] Retracing Steps

Story by:- Judith Okwuefuna

It was past
12 in the middle of a harmattan night.
The night seemed long and
unusually cold. Maria
glanced at her window which was
covered with frost. All she wanted to see was the
brightest star. For once, she never believed
stars actually granted wishes. For her,
stories about stars granting wishes
were all myths. All she believed in was hard
work. Though she liked to believe that
someone somewhere might hear her. Captured in her thoughts, she barely noticed the sound of heavy footsteps. Turning toward the
direction of her creaking door,
she jumped off her bed and into the closet and peeked out through
the holes only to see someone
she would never have expected
to appear under the circumstances, the KingPin; Mr
Bero with his right-
hand man Hakim. Maria was terrified that she wished
she had earlier believed in the stars to
make a wish that
moment and see if something miraculous happened. She never
had an inkling that Mr Bero would
ever find out where she lived. And
Hakim! Who always pushed
her patience past the breaking
point, she had
hated him since the
beginning she’d met him
and hated the fact that
Mr Bero only listened to him.

In the past Maria
had engaged in some business
transactions with Mr
Bero by helping him
sell illicit drugs such as cocaine, marijuana, nicotine, codeine and other narcotics.
She had been caught on several
occasions but had a
smart way of getting out. Though the
last occasion was different, she couldn’t
escape the police. It
all went down to jail
by serving
a seven years sentence. During
this sentence, neither Mr Bero
nor Hakim
visited her whom she believed had the powers to have dissolved
everything before ending up behind
bars. Apparently, she was abandoned
for seven good years. However, Maria
had made up her mind never
to go back to selling drugs
which meant her disconnection with Mr
Bero. For Mr Bero, in his
words “it is either you’re in or dead.” His thought was
that, if an agent was caught
he was likely to give out
valuable information which would help the authorities haunt him down. He knew Maria
had such information in her possession. But one thing he
didn’t know was her staunch service to him until he
abandoned her in prison.
While in detention, Maria had a tough
time keeping away from drugs
and no one wanted to mingle
with a drug dealer and a schizophrenic. She was
taken to a rehabilitation center while
serving her sentence. And
this time, she knew he had
come for something, and that
was to eliminate her and take the documents.

Moonlight drifted in through
the window and she was
able to see clearly.

“It is obvious
you gave the wrong address.”
Said Mr Bero glaring at Hakim.

“I came to check for myself after Sir P told me this was the
place, I’m certain she lives here chief.” Replied Hakim.

Still in the closet, Maria
recalled how she had
approached a policeman and disclosed Mr Bero’s secrets,
not knowing he actually went behind her and contacted
him. He was the only
person she had told about
the situation on ground. Sir P began to act strange since she refused giving him the documents.
Little wonder Hakim
got to know about her hide out.
“Sir P is a wolf in
sheep’s clothing.” She declared.

“If so, where is she? I believe Maria is
no fool to keep hanging around
finding out she
was been followed.” Mr Bero sneered
at Hakim and searched thoroughly the left pocket of his trouser, he picked out a key holder which
contained happy dust
and suddenly sniffed it.

“She must have sensed our coming and hid somewhere chief.”
Hakim looked puzzled.

“What then are you waiting
for?” Still sniffing his
happy dust. “Ravage the whole place, we must find her and
that document before someone else does.” He Hissed and kicked a
chair beside him.

“Yes chief.”

Eventually, the closet caught Hakim’s eyes. He moved forward
to check it out.

For Maria, it was
a presage of something bad happening.
She shuddered, her heart fell
and beat louder and
twice faster. Her lips
trembled, she covered them with both hands. Tears gushed
from her eyes and tightly
she shut them. Luckily for her, a raucous was heard outside.

Hakim, let’s get
out of here now!”Commanded Mr Bero
putting away the key holder as if someone was looking.

“But……” Stammered Hakim with complete resentment
still continued approaching the closet. The noise
became louder.

Je’kalo oloshi,
oloriburuku… ori oda” Mr Bero uttered with rage.

Immediately Hakim followed Him with eyes still fixed
on the closet until he
took a bend. Maria heard
footsteps fading, she was
relieved. Whoever had caused that raucous,
Maria was forever grateful. She made
sure the coast was clear
before she moved out of the
house because definitely Mr Bero would
come back for her. She collected
some few important documents and hit the road.

Maria walked a long distance
without proper harmattan kits to keep her
warm from the excruciating cold. She  had
no gloves, no pair
of socks, no scarfs, and no
windproof jacket. All she
wore was a green long sleeve
top with a black jean
trouser. Her eyes became heavy,
she wanted to take a nap,
and she had no idea
where she was heading.
She just wanted to stay
away from Mr Bero and Hakim. Suddenly,
she heard a crackling sound from
a distance. She wanted a warm place
to pass the rest of the night. Already
perceiving the fume produced
by the fire she felt a little
bit warm. On getting there and discovering
there was no one around, she
seized the moment by laying her head on a long metallic
bench close to the fire. Chirping
of birds and insects with the thought of Mr Bero finding out her location partially kept her awake. She
had no intention of going back
to him. She had rather died than continue living in
a world of deceit, betrayal, drug addiction and lies.
As her mind fluxed, picturing a life with no one to share her
pains with, no one to offer a shoulder
when she cried and no one to look out
for her, she dozed
off.

It was already
8 O’clock in the morning,
her deep steady breath indicated she
was still deeply asleep. At some point, she
rolled over and felt a sort
of comfort. The sudden
brightness of the room blinded
her, and she shielded her eyes. Comfortably burrowed under the quilt, she felt
a soft touch on her forehead which suddenly
moved across her face to her
neck. It felt so warm and smooth. Her
half closed eyes vaguely saw where she was. A figure seated right
next to her, she hardly saw the face but knew it was
a masculine figure when she  looked from the  head to
the shoulders down to his waist.
His chest was bare and his
muscles bulged out of his
arms that the veins became prominent.Damnnnnnnn…. He looks
hot with those  packs plus  he’s
soooo fine with is
neatly carved haircut. O.M.G!
His body
smells really nice,”Maria’s heart fluttered. But the idea of his
soft palm correlating with his body still made her wonder.
While she escaped her raunchy mood, the most
wonderful thing she thought
was what she was doing
on a stranger’s bed. She
tried to recall what had happened
before dozing off in an open place but all she
could think of was the
figure next to her. “Is he an
agent? Did Mr Bero send him?  What did
he do to her? He might
be a serial killer? ”She thought as her mind ran down
a list of possibilities of who he was and
what he would have
done 
to her. As she  realized her clothes were still on, she
quickly dashed out
of the bed and headed for the door but unfortunately
for her, it was locked.

Who
are you and what do
you want from me”?Maria
screamed while she pushed
her left hip forward
as if to break down the
door.

“You’d only harm yourself,” warned the stranger.

Maria realized he
had left his position, and headed toward her, she
quickly grabbed a short wooden stick nearest to her
and threatened to hit
him if he got any
closer.

Woaw!
Woaw! Take it easy now.”
With his hands which gestured her to calm down. I’m just
here to help you. Found
you out there in the cold, was
wondering what a beautiful
lady like you was doing out
there at such ungodly hour.”

“And what do you care?Replied Maria who took
a moment to calm down but
still held the stick firmly.

“You looked stranded my
dear and really innocent, I just decided to help.” Explained the stranger.

“Decided to help….? Ah…
Kiloshele, kilodeh naw.
Wetin concern you concern where i sleep. For this Lagos
everybody dey mind im businez
ooo. Dis is Nigeria,
you no know wu
be criminal”.

The dude noticed her slangs, chuckled and sunk
his head. “Why are you laughing?”
Maria questioned gruffly. He the expression on her face and changed the topic
immediately.

“By the way my
name is Oluwatobi but my friends
call me Tobi for short.
What’s yours?”A flicker of a smile crossed his face. His voice alone melted Maria’s heart and made
life worth living despite
all she had struggled.
It was incredibly sweet whenever he spoke a word to her. His
lips were attractive, she imagined
a faint moan escape her labium as she hoped his
soft warm lips would
lock with hers. He waved his hands before her face. “Helloooo….. Did you hear me?”

“Yeah…. yeah…. What did
you say?” Maria uttered after recovering
from a short trip of obsession.

“You must be
hungry.” Said Tobi
with a smile as he
turned around to
go prepare something for Maria.

Maria fixed a gaze
on his back until
he took a bend to the kitchen.
Finally she put  down
the stick and decided to go check for her documents.
It was lying safe on the cabinet close to the bed.
She checked if it had been
tampered with but found
it was still intact. After few
minutes, Tobi came
back with a receptacle which contained a white tea cup, two flat round dishes covered with
transparent plastic bags
and slices of bread. He
set it on the dining table
and gestured Maria to come over
and sit down. Maria without
hesitation went straight to the dining and
sat comfortably. She didn’t
realize she was quite
hungry until she
perceived the aroma of fried eggs and broiled chicken with steamed vegetables served with
hot tea and toasted bread.
She salivated, and when she
leaned forward to transport
a slice of bread into
her mouth she was
interrupted by the thought that
he could have poisoned it.
She looked at him with
uncertainty, both individual’s
eyes locked for few seconds, she unashamedly guzzled the
meal without further thoughts.

“You haven’t told me your name.” Said Tobi.

“My name is
Maria.” She replied
without looking at him. “What a nice name.”

“Thanks.” She mumbled.

“So what do you do for a living Maria?”

It caught on her like opening
a fresh wound. She hoped to forget
about Mr Bero and move
on with a new life she
had long prayed for. She
unconsciously swigged the whole
tea which caused a burn on
her tongue. However she left
the dinning with her documents and went for the door
which was still locked. He proffered
to give
her the key only
if she promised never
to expose herself to such danger he
met her last time. As
he spoke, she knew she
would dream of him that night.
A sudden flush of excitement came over her, hearing
a voice of care and sincerity.He
was still sitting at the dinning when she went back
to collect the key. While
he held a tight grip on it, she forced her forefinger in
between his tightly closed thumb protecting
his middle finger, she squashed
it on the table and snatched the key out of his
hand she quickly ran
out of the house.

Although she easily got him because he never intended to
hurt her.

Back on a journey of
no destination,
the sun was already
setting. She felt a dragging
tiredness that seemed to sap
her energy. Maria had nothing
on her: no I.ds,
no ATM card just few
bank notes. It was a
frustrating experience for her. She
had engaged in several menial
jobs after her release from jail
by been
a waitress, a dish washer, and
a sales person but none actually
ended up well. She was
either accused of stealing her madam’s
money or trying to
seduce a customer. Though she had always survived through thick and thin.
Her cloth was a mess, she had to do something about it before been mistaken for a mad person. She went to
the nearest Buka to get something to eat and overheard a fair chubby lady
talking to a slim
lady of needing a sales assistant at her store. Maria desperately needed a job and so she approached the chubby lady although
without an application letter and without considering
what kind of store she operated. Fortunately for Maria, the lady
was in a good mood and decided to give her a chance to
prove herself. She was
accepted without a thorough background check.
Her madam
seemed like a carefree person so Maria
had liked her from that day onward. She was
ready to receive any amount
of salary as long as she
was paid when due. They both went to the store, in there they sold male and female wears, shoes and accessories. It was a big place
indeed. She never
thought she would
be employed in such a place
so  easily.

Her madam shook
her head expressing a sign of disapproval while observing Maria.

“You need to change into something else. I don’t want my customers thinking I brought in a crazy
person to attend to them.
And goshhh…. What’s that smell?”
She crinkled her nose in disgust.
“Have you had your bath
in a week? Am sorry to
say but you smell so awful.
If not that I see the zeal in you, I wouldn’t have employed you.”

Maria’s head was buried
downward. She never
minded the words
because she knew they were
true. After her madam’s advice, she pulled out a
golden clutch from a big red handbag and
opened it. As Maria raised her head, understanding what her madam
intended to do, she immediately
turned to the opposite direction. Then looking at the customers, some been
fussy about what they wanted while some found it difficult
to pick the right accessory to match their outfits and the rest
took photos which was obvious they came for window shopping. As her madam
spoke she turned back to her original
position.

“Take these and find yourself
some cheap neat clothes, make your
hair coz it’s a mess and take a hot bath. Start work
tomorrow that’s if you don’t
find this money too much to run away
with.” Her madam acted without concern. 

Maria was nonplussed
that a person she just
met few minutes ago was ready to entrust her with such an amount of money.
Though she didn’t count
the money in front of her madam which would show a sign of disrespect, she felt
it was above 10k. Her knees went directly to the ground,
her voice broke and tears began to gush from her eyes.
She immediately hid them.

“Madam, na only
Oluwa wey dey heaven go bless you, bless your generation generation, your
children will not suffer,
you will live long
to reap the fruit of your labour.”
At that moment Maria was
unconscious of what she
was doing. All she could hear was a faint “Amin…Amin…Amin” from her madam. Her weeping
and loud prayers had drawn
attention, still she fired more of them.
“The plans of your enemies
shall never prevail in your life. No weapon fashioned against you shall prosper. Fire will
burn your enemies…scatter them…
kill th…” When her prayers
became too much for the environment,
her madam interrupted by placing her soft palm on her shoulders. 

“It is okay my
dear, God has answered your prayers. This is
the least I can do for you.
Just make sure you start work tomorrow.” 

“Yes ma, I will.
And I will not disappoint you ma. Thank you ma. God bless you ma.” Maria still showered appreciation as she turned to leave. 

She did exactly as she was told. Nonetheless, she had no idea
where to pass the night. Her
mind flashed back to what Tobi
had earlier told her that morning.
She still thought of him, she thought of his attractive body, his sexy
lips, and how his soft hand ran
gently over her face, how
it felt warm and smooth. Thereby, she unconsciously bit her lower lip. Finally, she
resolved to lodge in
a motel along Matthew Ojo Ikotun,
Egbeda, for that night,
then as time went by, she
would probably tell her madam she
was homeless. Maria was
grateful to God for a newly found
job, she couldn’t wait for the
next day to start working.
She said her prayers and slept
off.
Dawn broke through the window of her room and dimmed
the electric bulb. Maria
squinted to catch a glimpse
of the little round black wall
clock, and it was
9am. She jumped out of bed and into the bathroom. She
had a quick hot bath, re-did her hair, put on a light make up and dashed out
of the room.

The traffic on
Lagos roads had enormously risen over time.
It was thwarting, annoying and
incredible as much as most
Lagosians hated to be stuck.
“The Third Mainland Bridge is
the longest of three bridges connecting
Lagos Island to the main bridge,”
so she heard. A road
that should normally have two lanes became five lanes because everyone was in a hurry to
move at the same
time. This cacophony went on
for a while until they got to a point where
the road channeled to what should be
a lane or two probably due
to an intersection of the road,
people began to interfuse
and return back to the original
two lanes. While some people
begged for access, Danfo
drivers just rushed
into the road like they
owned it and lots of private vehicles
stood no chance. Then, there was the
woman who wouldn’t let anyone whether a man or a woman like herself move in front of her because she felt
they were about to cheat her.
There were the pedestrians who tried to cross the road especially where there were no pedestrian
bridges and no one wanted to be patient enough
to allow them pass because
they could experience the wrath of the other cars behind them or the few minutes they had to wait to allow them pass might cost them hours of traffic. There became a bluster when
two cars collided just after
the taxi Maria boarded
drove off. The driver had
unknowingly tuned into
a channel of his radio
set and the next thing she
heard from the radio
presenter was: “Welcome to Lagos!” This
alone thrilled Maria.

On getting to work,
it was past 11 already, she found her madam seated on a sofa close to the counter.

“I was beginning to
think you ran away with
the money.” She said to Maria with a feeling that there was something amiss in her behavior.

“How can?” replied Maria with a faint smile.

“Is there anything you’d
like to tell me or rather anything I should know about
you?” Asked her madam as she
moved toward Maria.

Maria floundered, she felt a flutter in her
chest and stomach from fear of been caught
by the one person who would
have been of great help to her. She quickly
recollected how she
had clumsily left the documents
on the counter the previous
day. She believed her madam would have
digested every piece of information labeled inside the documents. Whatever she was going to say
to her would better be nothing
but the truth. At least,
what she was good at was been
a loyal servant, even if she had
done lot of bad things in
the past.

She began to unravel
the story of how she
grew up without her parents nor a sibling. At
the age of 10, she lost her both parents
and Kasiobi her big brother in
a religious violence in
Kaduna. The hoodlums looted
their homes and stores and burned
them to rubble. She barely escaped
the violence due to the
headmaster’s order that no one left the
school premises. She was
brought to Lagos at that same age to live with her maternal
Aunt. Aunt Funke was really nice to her
that she put her through proper
education. During her third year in the university, Aunt Funke caught an illness
and died without a husband nor
a child. And because she had never been married, all her properties she left in her possession. Nothing really much though,
just a self-contain with some
material things but
she sold them all to put food on her table plus she dropped
out of school as a result of lack. As time passed, she became stranded because she  had
to sell the house too. Mr Bero found
her and trained her to be one of his
agents. She accepted his
offer owing to the fact that
she hadn’t anyone left in
Lagos. Her paternal uncles
and aunties have longed
washed their hands of her family’s affair ever since her Igbo father married her Yoruba mother. Been
caught and thrown in jail was
a horrible memory that
would forever remain in her
heart. As she stopped to wipe her tears, she received a light pat
on her shoulder.

“You’ve gone through a lot dear.”

By the sound,
Maria noticed her madam’s voice
had totally changed. It sounded manly.
She knew she had
heard that voice somewhere before. Suddenly, Tobi leaned his head forward
behind her, that she could feel his breath on her
neck. She cringed at the idea of Tobi
hearing about her past. 

“What are you doing
here, Tobi?” She faltered
for a moment as she glared at her madam and then at Tobi.

“Don’t worry dear,
he’s my son. I had no idea he
was visiting today.” She said with
a sincere tone. “At least
he would
help take today’s
stock.”

Tobi grinned sheepishly.

She continued. “I’m really sorry you had to go through
a lot. At first, when I saw the dossier
and after going through them,
I thought you worked for the police.
And then I began to wonder
why a police would want to work in
my store. But whatever you intend to do with
those documents, be smart
about it. This would
not only bring him down
but people of his sort who
abuse  the
lives of young boys and
girls with dreams by taking
advantage of their vulnerability.”

Maria realized she
was in possession of a very important
document and had to
be more careful from that time onward.

After the moment
of sympathy was over,
Tobi volunteered to show Maria around the store so she would take proper stock of the available goods and the ones needed
to be ordered. They both walked
in silence
for a short while.

“So what about Mr Bero. Where’s he now?” Tobi asked by
breaking the silence.

As much as Maria
hated the thought of that evil man, she still had to get rid of
him by divulging those documents. She told him what had happened
when Mr Bero broke into
her house to the moment he found her at such “ungodly hour.”
She said quoting him.
They both giggled.

“He wants me dead.” uttered Maria as if less concerned about
the issue.

“What!” Exclaimed Tobi. “And
you think it’s a joke?
I mean why not report to
the police since you already have
proof?”

”Hmm… Nigerian police? Don’t forget I’ve been there
already. He would only bribe his way
out. Moreover, not all
police are to be trusted.”
She recalled her adventure with Sir P.

Maria knew she had
no constructed plans for Mr Bero and wasn’t willing
to go into deeper issues she eschewed
at that moment. They both stared at each other’s eyes
struck dumb. Her long eyelashes
drifted shut hiding her dark eyes, her almond eyes
were fixated on him steadily,
and her long black
hair cascaded down her shoulders.
He was caught up with
the beauty of those eyes. He focused his gaze only on her and concentrated on ignoring anyone else
in the store.

She felt a deeper
coldness which settled
in her stomach. His
question caught her wholly off guard.

“So….. Dinner?” Tobi asked with a raised eye brow.

Her lips twitched and she figured he
must have noticed it. Her face
was lit by a small private
smile as she turned to continue what she
was doing.

“That was a question, you know.” He smiled wryly.

“Just dinner right?”
her eyes were settled on his face as she cracked
to take her cue from his expression.

“Of course, just dinner. Except you want something else.” He
sarcastically replied. She
looked at him indignantly.

“Wha…….t?” Tobi furrowed his brows with a smile.

She carried on without saying a word. And he
followed her.

It was dinner
time, Maria went straight from work
without changing. Tobi had
made reservation at one of the
pricey restaurants in Lekki. She wondered why he would want
to spend time with her instead of those Lagos slay queens as they called themselves. Maria was
given the menu and
she ordered for Amala and
Ewedu. Tobi stared at her quite perplexed though ordered for the same thing.
While they waited for the food,
they both stole glances at each other.
Tobi knew he wanted more than a casual relationship.

After the meal, he
took her to his place. Maria was able to get a better
view of the house compared
to the last time she was
there. By the look
of things, he was
a well-to-do guy and she could say he was born with
a silver spoon. As they both
entered the living
room, Tobi whirled her around against the wall, he
leaned closer and pressed his chest deeply to hers that they both felt their
heartbeats. He smooched the
underside of her jaw, she let
out a soft little grunt.
She wasn’t sure what he
was about to do but whatever
it was, it felt really raunchy.
As he moved from the jaw upward
to her lips, she abraded and snuggled
her lips before she could retreat. He grabbed her tightly and whispered
in her ears “you’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” His breath ran down her neck and his hands worked down softly to her hips, her body thrilled. She closed her eyes and felt his
lips rubbed on hers and their tongues curled. That soft ravishing kiss
took her breath away. They were both lost in the mood but
Maria had to pull out
without delay.

She had to admit she
enjoyed every bit of it, though she wasn’t ready to give into
her intoxicated animal instinct.

“Take me home.” Maria commanded.

“You and I know
you don’t have a home.
So why don’t you pass the night here
and tomorrow I’ll see what I can do?” Tobi said with interest.

For Maria sleeping
with a man wasn’t one
of the things she had done
in the past. Though she got advances
from Mr Bero’s biggest clients, she knew their medicine by using sedatives in their drinks on every occasion making them believe something
really happened. Maria
still kept herself intact. She never
bought the idea
of sex before marriage. She
could only tolerate the urge. For
her, a girl loses self-esteem when
she succumbs to a guy’s advances
by having sex with him
before marriage. Thereafter his
heart begins to waver, and then loses that original
interest he once had
in her. He starts to notice
her unnecessary naggings, her childish behaviors, her
bad smell
or her lack of proper sense of
dressing. As a result of these,
there is a break in
communication, he no longer calls as usual, it then starts with flimsy excuses because he knows she’s a “push-over”, being easily persuaded. At least for Maria, holding out a rational
distance  of time would
make a man want you more.
And that distance of time for her was after marriage. It can’t be disputed that
the guys love the “chase” that is the stimulating
moment before sexual entanglement. Nevertheless, with the chase
they start to hold on to
the relationship somehow.

Maria accepted his
offer of sleeping over
but not on the same bed with
him. He agreed and prepared
the guest room for her where she had quiet time thinking about
him and what transpired earlier. All her worries were diminishing, she began to see life from
a defined mind. She remembered
one of her favorite quote by
Maya Angelou that, “Life is not measured
by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that
take our breath away.” And
that moment was the day she opened her eyes to Tobi. She
was finally heard by someone
and was grateful to Tobi and
his mum.

Maria had decided to get rid of Mr
Bero by going to the police
headquarters the next morning
and handing over the documents
to them so that Bero and his accomplices taking advantage of innocent youths
would finally spend the rest of their miserable lives in jail.

BY JUDITH OKWUEFUNA

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