“Crack it!” A shrill voice pierces the night sky. It sounds menacing, but she can’t tell where it came from.
“Crack it!” A baritone joins in.
“Crack it!” A little girl screams. This one, she sees clearly, except there is a huge bandage where her face should be. A red line cuts like a ribbon, straight down the middle of her scalp. It seems vaguely familiar.
A faceless crowd has grown while she studied the little girl. The chant gets louder. Angrier. They are baying for something. She does not know what.
The little girl takes her place at the front of the crowd.
“Crack it! Crack it! Crack!”
“OK. I’ll crack it.” She tries to appease them. She has to crack it. If only she knew what ‘it’ was! “Leave me alone!” Her voice sounds panicky, even to herself.
“I’m not the one who leaves.” The little girl whispers. She is now so close, her bleeding scalp is visible.
“Who then? Who leaves?”
The little girl shakes her bandaged head.
The crowd is much closer now. A wave of claustrophobia sweeps over her. She can feel the air being sucked out of her lungs. Her knees begin to buckle.
Suddenly she feels herself being lifted up. She looks up to a familiar face.
“Let’s get you out of here.” He whispers.
“Wait!” She shouts. But the word is without sound. Her abductor only smiles.
She turns her face to where the little girl is standing.
“I’m not the one who leaves!” The little girl shouts after her.
Patty wakes to darkness. She is drenched in sweat. The darkness lifts and she tries desperately to cling to the pieces of her dissipating dream.
The faceless girl had spoken! She had never spoken before. Perhaps if she could just go back to sleep- the little girl would explain what she meant.
Patty sighs. She knows she will be drowsy in school. She never goes back to sleep after this dream.
“Good morning Patty!” Dad’s voice calls. “You were up early.”
“That’s me.” Patty smiles. She looks at the familiar face of the rescuer in her dream. She goes to hug him.
He puts tender hands on her shoulders, and refrains from asking “What for?” He knows what this means. She had her dream again. He refrains from asking what she saw this time. She will tell him when she’s ready. Usually, at the most inopportune time. He knows not to push her. From his vantage height, he can see clearly, where her thick hair parts naturally to reveal the long scar on her scalp. He bends to kiss her forehead. She knows that he knows.
Breakfast is a quiet affair. Cornflakes for her. A slice of toast and coffee for him.
“The bus will soon be here.” She rises and grabs her bag. He too rises.
“Last one is a fat potato!” she challenges and makes a run for the door. He follows in hot pursuit. The bus pulls up just in time to catch the pair, giggling like little girls.
“She spoke to me.” Patty announces and bounds into the bus.
“Wait, what?” He calls after her. She squeezes her face through the window and it blurs instantly. “Love you.” He mouths and watches the bus pull away. For the first time in a very long time, he realizes just how terrified he really is. The little girl had spoken. It only took 2 years of counseling to make that happen!
“Your wife suffered severe injuries. There’s nothing we could do for her. I’m sorry.”
What was this white coat yammering about? She was supposed to be a doctor. Doctors were supposed to save people. So why was she standing there telling him that Jolly was dead? How dare she walk away from him?
“You killed her!” He shouted. Her footsteps faltered, but she kept going.
“You killed her!” He bellowed. So focused on her retreating back, he didn’t notice the men approach.
“Sir you need to calm d-”
The rest of that sentence was doused in the stars of a properly delivered right hook. Then everything happened very quickly.
When he woke up, the fluorescent lighting hurt his eyes. He blinked, and the memory budged in through the gaping wound.
“You are drunk Peter…let me drive.”
“Nonsense! This car knows its way home. Josh, get in the car!”
“Peter, look at me. Please let me drive us home.”
“Babe, I’m the man in this relationship. I’m driving. And your DL is just 2 days old.”
“Two months. Peter pl-”
“Why must you undermine me in front of our son? Why must you -?”
“OK, fine. Let’s go.”
“…there’s nothing we could do for her. I’m sorry…”
“You killed her!”
No, you did.
“You killed her!”
He was yelling his lungs out, but the accusation was loudest in his head.
Lying here in this hospital bed, the shouting was no longer necessary. He submitted to the crushing guilt.
I killed her. I’m the worst husband and father in the wor- OH MY GOD!
Where is Josh!?
He sat up so quickly, the room began to spin
“Your son was a fighter. We lost him at 3.37am.” It was a male doctor this time. He was flanked by two men and their bulging muscles.
“-any questions, Sir?”
They were actually waiting for an answer.
“Are you God?” He asked.
“Then I don’t have any questions for you.”
“Hii ime crack. Gota hiyo buda!”
“We ni mnoma jo!”
Peter listened. He loved the way kids from this part of town played with language. Even through their slurred speech, he could hear the thrill in their voices. He wondered what they had cracked. Then he bounded the corner and froze. The boys were standing over a little child.
The boys turned and ran. They need not have bothered. He had way too many ghosts to chase.
At the hospital, it was quick-fire after quick-fire.
“What’s her name?”
“I don’t know.”
“What happened to her?”
“I don’t know. Two boys were standing over her. They must have -”
“Who will pay for her treatment?”
“I said I’ll pay.”
“We’ll have to notify the Police.
Sitting in his car like a numb zombie, Peter remembers those first nights. Driving aimlessly on the East side of Nairobi. Looking for a darkness that would obliterate the darkness in his heart. Wishing he could die by the same hand, he had dealt his wife and child. It was Eastlands for Chrissake – death was supposed to run several dispensers over there. Night after night, he had come back home, disappointed that his recklessness had failed to bring home the ultimate prize.
There were other joys in Eastlands. Top of his list, was the absence of nosy friends and relatives. The pubs in his area code could not offer this level of peace. If he had a penny for every time a pair of pitying eyes had ruined a perfectly good drink!
“You’ve had enough Peter…”
“You can’t drive in this state Peter…”
Yada yada yada! Why couldn’t they just leave him alone?
Then there was his mother, dropping in unannounced to ‘check on him’, complimenting the gardener, supervising the cleaner, giving menu suggestions to the chef – all employees hired by Jolly. Peter felt especially sorry for the chef. The flowers would still blossom; the windows would still shine; but there was simply no one to appreciate the chef’s culinary skills.
“Peter, you need another wife.”
“What the fuck, Mom?”
She barely flinched at the crass language. She had known coming in that it would be excruciating. Hers was a last ditch effort to save her child from the fate he was so obviously gunning for.
“I’m not being insensitive Peter. But they are dead, and you are still ali -”
“You shall never speak of this again!” He had interrupted and stormed out, nearly knocking down the chef and whatever delicious crap he’d whipped up this time.
He remembered driving like a mad man. Drinking like one too. Wandering the streets for hours, wondering where the heck all the gangsters were.
Finding her with the boys. Picking her up. Hesitating for a moment to contemplate his ability to drive. Starting the car and making a deal with God, that if he got them safely to the hospital, he would never drink again. The mad rush to the hospital. Shirtless because he’d used his shirt to wrap her head. What a sight, they must have been. The broken child and the broken man.
The questions were endless, the answers in-existent. But he was at the hospital first thing every morning, and he left reluctantly every night. The nurses thought he was a hero for saving her. Watching her fight to stay alive, Peter knew better. The wound in his chest had eased a little bit. The woman and the boy were no longer sad ghosts stalking his lightest winks. They seemed to be smiling now. Nodding their approval for the one he had saved. Except, he wasn’t sure he had saved her. Not yet, anyway.
The wound on her head healed fast. But the child was in no hurry to heal. She wouldn’t speak. She displayed no emotion, except hesitation and confusion at the choice treats dumped on her lap. Nothing seemed to interest her. Her favorite hangout joint was a tiny corner of the cold floor by her bed.
Then one morning, not long after she’d been discovered, he found her staring rapt at a stack of chapattis in a commercial on telly.
“Chapatti.” She pointed. Up until that moment, she’d refused to utter a word.
“You want chapatti?”
“Chapatti.” There was a hint of agitation in her voice.
“OK. Let’s get you chapatti.”
“Chapatti.” She echoed.
Chapatti became the peace offering. The icebreaker. The seven course meal.
“What’s your name?”
“No. No. Your name.”
“You want to eat chapatti?”
Slowly, the pieces began to fall into place. Chapatti was a memory. A place of comfort. Chapatti cracked open a peephole to the child he knew was hiding inside this five year old blank.
So every morning, he brought chapatti.
Every morning, her eyes lit up.
Every morning, he asked for news on his ‘expression of interest’ to adopt her.
Every morning, his eyes clouded over with disappointment. He had hoped to take her home from the hospital, but the system was a truckload of bureaucracy.
When finally she was discharged from hospital, his morning visits went with her to Little Seeds Children’s Home. The Law was the Law. It didn’t care much about this child when she was out getting hacked, but it suddenly had all this red tape when someone wanted to keep her safe!
“It’s been 10 months!” Peter yelled. “10 months!”
“I understand your frustration.”
“How much longer?”
“Well, it’s mandatory for us to try to trace the child’s family. We have been unsuccessful so far. Hopefully, the panel will have a decision on your application soon.”
Peter felt his irritation mounting. The woman sounded like a pre-programed voice over. Repeating the same speech, word for word, and making it sound like she was showing never-before-seen-footage of the thrilling journey towards adoption.
Meanwhile, the little girl was slowly inching out of her shell. Aside from all the red tape, her name was the other thorn in his flesh.
“Good morning Cha -Patty.” It was a personal struggle, accepting her chosen name.
“Good morning Pe – ter.” She mimicked.
“Have you thought about a name?”
“I already have a name.”
“We can’t call you Chapatti.”
“Do you want to go to school?”
“You can’t have that name in school.”
“Do you want the kids to pick on you?”
Been there, done that. Her shrug seems to say. End of discussion. Usually.
That morning though, he pushed just a little harder.
“We eat chapatti every day.” He said.
“We used to eat chapatti every day.” She quipped.
Instinctively, he knew he had struck gold. Where was that therapist when he really needed her! Well, he would just have to wing it.
“Tell me more.”
“Mummy used to bring me chapatti in the morning.”
“She used to go to work at night?”
“And you would stay at home with who?”
A subtle nod.
“When she stayed home, the men would come home. Then I’d have to stay out on the veranda until they left.”
Oh dear God.
“One day, it was raining. I went back to the house. Mummy said I should wait outside. I started crying. The man picked a knife and came to me. Mummy jumped in front of him and told me to run. Why are you crying?”
Belatedly, Peter remembered to display stoicism.
But the wells were not to be shut down that easily. The guilt was crushing.
“You can keep the name Chapatti.” Addressing the least of his worries, he had never felt so petty. His side was her side. Whatever her name was.
“Patty is fine.” She whispered.
The number of times she’d rolled her eyes when he called her Patty!
The therapist found them clinging to each other for dear life.
Now, the little girl had spoken. Peter knows he cannot stand the suspense. He starts the car and speeds off in the opposite direction from his posh office suites. When the car finally stops, he gets out and makes a beeline for her classroom. He doesn’t get that far
“Dad! What are you doing here?”
“Patty, what did the little girl say to you?”
“I’m not the one who leaves.”
“Say it Dad.”
He studies her face, and it suddenly dawns on him. He is not the only one who needs reassurance.
“I’m not the one who leaves.” He vows with everything he’s got.
“Neither am I.” She whispers into his warm gut.
Suddenly, the curtain falls apart and golden sunlight streams in.
They have each other.