The Honda CRV coughed and spluttered its way along Adelabu Street, Surulere. It was faded black, with an engine that had long since tired of running. It was held together by all sorts of tape, and glue, along with the hopes and dreams of Angel Nnewi as she quietly prayed that today, just like the other days, the car would take them home in one piece.
“It’s not that easy,” Angel was saying to her daughter, honking at a man in front of her driving who was driving like a snail. “We can’t just walk out and leave.”
Star put her feet on the dashboard as she narrowed her eyes. Then, she folded her arms as she stared through the window beside her. “Mummy,” she said quietly. “He… hurts you, and he’s a bad person. We should leave.”
“Star,” Angel sighed, her breath leaving her like a deflated balloon. She brushed a stray braid out of her face. “He’s your father, Star. And he’s my husband — I can’t just… leave him. You don’t just leave when things get hard. My mother, she…she taught me that.” She gripped the steering wheel tightly as she swerved past the man, ignoring his hand gesturing.
He was pointing to something ahead.
The groceries in the back of the car swayed this way and that as they barrelled through. Today had been Star’s last day of school before her Easter break and Angel had gotten some groceries. They were going to make meat pies that evening. With extra pepper, just like Star liked them.
Star shook her head. “It doesn’t matter, mummy. None of that matters!” she said. “He’s still a bas — …bad person.”
Angel shot a look at her daughter.
Star was never one to back down: she narrowed her eyes right back and they locked eyes.
Then, they both burst out laughing.
“You ehn,” Angel said, smiling. “You’re such a restless girl now, you used to be such a nice, calm child.”
“Don’t change the subject.” Star crossed her arms, still scowling. Then, “But, tell me more about how I was as a baby. I’m sure that I was a lovely peac — ”
“I was lying,” Angel said, careful to look straight at the road. Their house was straight ahead.
“You were hell wrapped in a headache wrapped in a child.”
“No, I wasn’t,” Star said, thinking. “I’ve seen all those pictures, even the one where grandma was holding me carefully and everyone was staring at us.” She cradled her head and looked at her mother, pouting her lips.
Angel nodded. “My mother — God bless her soul — ” she said, “had just threatened to give you up to an orphanage in Enugu if you threw up on one more of her clothes. And my mother wasn’t known for making jokes.”
“Great people are never appreciated,” Star shrugged, “just like Jesus.”
Angel scrunched her eyebrows. “Did you…did you just compare yourself to Jesus Christ?”
“No,” said Star. Then she thought more, “Maybe.”
Angel clucked her teeth as she shook her head, stopping at a traffic light. “What kind of child do I have, Lord?”
Star managed to hug her through the seatbelts. “The best one in the world.”
Angel looked down at her and smiled. “Maybe. Just maybe.”
Star looked at her mother and her mother looked at her.
She had tried, and failed to think of what she wouldn’t do for her. She was her world, and she knew her mother only saw the universe in her. They would have been a happy family, a perfect one, if not for him.
Her mother’s hair was black and long, and she had what Uncle Mike had called ‘piano fingers’. But if you looked closely enough, past the large sunglasses, past the long sleeves in the scorching Lagos weather, you could see, quite clearly, that something was wrong.
She looked through her rear-view mirror with the rosary dangling on it, stared at something else that was in the backseat and said, “Star Nnewi, when will you start playing that guitar your daddy bought?”
Star groaned. “I play it all the time.”
Angel shot her look. “When?”
“When you’re not there. I like… privacy.”
They slowed to a stop at the last traffic light and Angel looked at Star for a moment.
“Okay,” Star said. “I don’t play it — but that’s because I’m bad at it. Really bad.”
“And that’s because you don’t practice,” Angel said to her daughter as the light went green and she put the car in drive. “How will you get better if you don’t practice?”
“Okay, mummy,” she said. “I’ll practice.”
“Promise?” Angel said, tapping the angel necklace on her chest.
“Promise,” Star replied, tapping the star necklace on hers. Her mother’s necklace was silver but Star’s was glow-in-the-dark plastic.
Three years ago, when she was 9, her mother had bought her a book of stars and planets — but Star didn’t really care about all of that. She loved the glow in the dark stars though, they came with the book, and after seeing how much she liked them, Angel had helped her make one of them into a necklace.
They were close to home now and Star reached slowly and parted her mother’s braids away from her forehead and removed her sunglasses. Braids and sunglasses that had been strategically placed to hide the bruises, the cuts, the things that would make people pause, look, and ask if she had been fighting bulls.
Star grazed her face carefully, and she sighed, her eyes watering. They had done their best at home to reduce the swelling, with ice and with towels, but it was still an angry purple.
“You changed the subject again,” Star said in a quiet voice as she stared at her mother’s beaten up face. She hated to see her like this, she knew how much it must have hurt. How much it still hurt. But still, every day, her mother would wake up, and make her food, and get her ready for school, or church. She never stayed in, she always made time for Star.
“I know,” Angel said, staring at something ahead. “But Star… where would we even go?”
“Anywhere,” Star said, bouncing on her seat. “Instead of going home to him we could just keep on going, driving on and on and on. Then it’ll be just the two of us.” She rested her hand on her mother’s thigh, and Angel winced as Star cursed herself: there were bruises there too.
Angel smiled to herself. It was a sad smile.
“But where would we stay?” She asked. “My parents are gone, and all my siblings are… You know how Aunty Chichi feels about us after what happened, and Uncle Mike, well…Who would pay your school fees?” She shook her head, her eyes tearing. “Who would pay for your hospital bills when you get hurt, or your football practice? Who will pay for the DSTV or buy groceries with that ice cream you like?” These were questions she had asked herself every time she thought about leaving.
She had asked herself those questions a lot.
Star sank into her seat as her mother drove past a man selling credit on the road, he was pointing at something. A driver passed them, he was saying something to them, but they couldn’t hear. “I don’t know, mummy,” she said as her eyes started to water, “but he can’t keep doing this, he can’t keep hurting you all the time. Why would you stay through all of that?”
Angel looked at her daughter and she smiled. It was a happy smile.
“Some things are worth going through hell for,” she said. “And when things have been bad, when they have been dark and I couldn’t see,” her hands found her daughter’s, “I’ve always had you, my own little Star to show me the way.”
Star held her mother’s hand closer and then, she let go and looked at the road. “This morning, he said I was eating too much,” she said quietly, “that I looked like a fat pig.”
Angel clucked. “Don’t mind anything he says,” she said. “He doesn’t mean it. Not really.”
Star looked at her mother. “But he says it all the time. That I’m fat and that I’m this, that I’m that.”
Angel gripped the steering wheel until her knuckles were light brown. “My baby,” she said. “Your father is just…he has a lot behind him.”
Star’s head was down, her fists were clenched, and tears rolled freely down her face. “It doesn’t mean he has to be this way. It doesn’t mean he has to say bad things to me or do bad things to you.”
Angel nodded. “No,” she said, “It doesn’t.” Angel saw another driver, a woman in a car beside hers, slowing down. But she was focused on Star.
“Then, why do you keep staying!” Star cried out. “He keeps hurting you and you keep staying! If we ran away, we wouldn’t have much, but we would be safe, mummy. Just you and me. We would be safe.”
Angel looked at her daughter, her sweet, sweet daughter and opened her mouth to respond, then her eyes darted up as she heard a screeching sound to the right — that terrifying sound that heralds a trailer’s brakes failing, its tyres losing grip on the road, and she barely had time to shout before the world was nothing but glass, and shards, and pain.
The car tumbled and turned and flipped in the air.
And then, the world was nothing, nothing but darkness and screams.
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