Amoke sneezed twice.
The second sneeze more painful than the first.
She tried to sit up, but she couldn’t.
She looked around the dimly lit room and couldn’t find anything familiar.
It wasn’t Chinyere’s house and it wasn’t hers.
She attempted to sit up again, inhaling sharply in pain.
“Oh don’t do that!” a man’s voice came from beside her.
Amoke looked down at herself. She was wearing a long shirt that definitely wasn’t hers.
Attempting to comprehend what was happening gave her a headache.
The man, helped her lay flat on her back.
“Who are you? Where am I?”
“I was minding my business and heading home, when I saw you dart into the triplets alley. Mind you everyone in the market knows that that road is off limits, unless you’re just begging to be attacked.” he paused.
“That still doesn’t answer, why I am here or who you are.” Amoke replied.
“I went and got help, and by the time I returned, you’d managed to vex them. They had beaten you to number nonsense.”
“You dont have a mobile phone, so I couldnt call anyone and I also couldnt leave you on the floor to die, so I brought you to my house.”
Amoke tried to embrace herself but it was too painful to move her arms.
“You were quite undressed when I picked you up, if that bothers you. I cleaned your wounds and put you in dry clothes.”
She laid in silence for a moment, replaying the evening, still tasting the ‘big guy’s blood in her mouth.
“You know you can’t go to that market for a while.” he paused again; “not like you can even if you wanted to.”
Amoke winced in pain.
“Why can’t I go to the market. They don’t own…” she winced again.
“Relax madam. Body no be wood. The triplets are not forgiving, they dont forget small debts, talk less of Mike tyson like you, biting a man’s arm off like its sallah meat.” he turned to face her.
“You try sha. Only God knows how that would have ended if you didnt fight back.”
Amoke attempted to sit up again and winced, “I dont feel like a winner.”
“You’re stubborn, and I’ll have a lot to say about that, but since it saved your life; I’ll shut up!”
“So who are you and why are you also on this bed with me?”
Even in the dark, Amoke knew he was frowning at her.
“Excuse me, Queen Elizabeth. I didn’t realize that you wanted to be left dying on the market floor.”
“ I didn’t mean it like that , I ….” her voice trailed off
He muttered under his breath, “Madam, just go back to sleep and get better. I have an early day. I’m going back to sleep.”
“What’s your name?”
“Amoke.” he repeated.
Amoke woke up alone on the bed. The apartment was small and cramped.
“Bachelors” she muttered.
She tried to sit up again and winced in pain.
The door opened as she was struggling to get off the bed.
“You know what? Im not even surprised!” he leaned against the door and shook his head.
“I cant just lay in this bed all day!”
He sighed and helped her sit up, “Good thing youre sitting up because you need to eat!”
Amoke noticed the container of food in his hands.
“Theres a lady down the street that sells the best rice and stew in Lagos.”
Amoke crinkled her nose at the container of food. “Am I brick layer?”
The container had rice, beans, spaghetti, and yam all heavily doused in stew.
Kareem looked from the container to Amoke and back to the container, “Aunty, you haven’t even tried it!”
Amoke pushed the container away,” I don’t feel like eating.”
Kareem leaned close to her and nudged the container towards her, “My house, my rules. You went to form world wrestling champion and now you’ve broken yourself. You’d do as I say!”
Amoke leaned as far into the wall as she could, using the bowl of food to create space between them.
“Why are you home early? What kind of work do you do?” Amoke asked stirring in the stew in the food
Kareem gave her a funny look, “Did you think I’d leave you at home all day, alone?”
Amoke shrugged, taking a bite of the food.
It was a very weird mix, but it tasted nice.
“Your face is giving you away. Fix your face, bricklayer!” he chuckled and sat beside her with his own bowl of food.
“I went by your stall and told your friend Chinyere what happened. She said she’d try to come by and visit you after work.” he said between mouthfuls
“How did you know-”
He held up her retailer’s card with her stall number. “It was in your purse.”
Kareem worked in the meat section as butcher. Amoke ate silently listening to talk about the meat market and how he got started.
She’d heard about him before. In one of the committee meetings, she’d heard about the secondary school graduate with revolutionary ideas, who sold meat in the market.
He talked about meat with an odd enthusiasm.
As he spoke Amoke stole glances at him.
He was muscled and lean. His palms a rough, parched dark gray. He had the darkest brown eyes she’d ever seen that flowed into a slim nose. Thick high cheekbones that could open a bottle of coke, and a smile….
Amoke blinked and quickly looked away. He had caught her staring and had beamed into a wide smile.
“Were you even listening?” he chuckled.
Amoke smiled into her bowl of food. “I was listening, I heard every word.”
They spent the rest of the evening swapping stories and when Chinyere came, they couldn’t stop laughing.
Mama Ibeji had sent an agbo, herbal mix with mysterious contents that could cure everything. Martin had bought her a phone and Vincent sent clothes.
“Thank you. You saved my life by bringing me here.” Amoke said as Kareem shut the door behind Chinyere.
He smiled, walked up to the bed and helped her recline on her back.
“I’m glad I did, or I never would have met Amoke, omo adamo.”
“You should drink some of mama ibeji’s agbo. I dont know what they mix in it, but I know it sure works.”
Just as he began pouring some of the drink, the lights went out.
“Nepa!” they both chorused and laughed.
Using the light off his phone, he walked over to her and helped her drink the glass of the mix.
“Hope this makes you feel better.” he adjusted the sheets over her shoulder and then settled in beside her.
“Thanks again Kareem.”
“Good night Amoke.” he adjusted nestled himself into the bed and began to breathe softly.
Chinyere returned with Martin in the morning. He had borrowed his friend’s car and they’d come to take her home.
Kareem lifted her off the bed and helped her into the car.
Amoke could feel the heat off his arms and chest. He smelled bitter sweet, a mix of blood and soap.
He set her down in the back seat and helped her with the seat belt.
“Dont get into any more fights!” he pinched her cheek playfully and shut the door.
The rest of the month was a blur.
Chinyere called her phone, everyday, to give her the latest market gist.
Of course she and Martin had broken up and she’d found a new boyfriend- in the makeup and jewelry section.
The triplets had combed the market looking for her, making threats and overturning people’s wares. When Mama Ibeji heard about their riots and that they were the ones responsible for beating Amoke up, she’d set her thugs in them.
Word on the streets was that the triplets were never going to return to the market.
Her swellings had reduced and the wounds healed nicely but she now needed a cane to walk.
The only other time she had been beat up that badly was about three years ago.
It was a Saturday and Lagos was extremely hot and busy.
The gala seller was in a heated argument with a customer over gala he’d sold the week earlier in the day, when a driver whistled for Amoke to bring peppers to his car.
Amoke ran to the owners corner and began to negotiate with the madam when she stopped and just stared at Amoke.
It was as if she was searching her face for a sign.
Amoke thought it very odd and also returned the woman’s stare with a glare of her own.
“Customer, do you know me from somewhere?”
The woman quickly snapped out of it told the driver to drive off.
Hours later she returned with an expensively clad woman.
The woman looked like she didnt belong in the scene, standing by the roadside with a pepper seller . Her bright yellow dress and gold jewelry glistening in the midday sun.
She held a handkerchief to her face to fanned herself with her right hand.
The woman in yellow offered her business card and begged Asake to visit her in the office.
“I knew your mother, she was a very good friend of mine.” she smiled.
“Please come to my office on Monday. I would like to help you, I believe I owe your mother this little favor.” she squeezed Amoke’s palm and floated away in a cloud of yellow.
Amoke was filled with excitement. Too many hours she’d spent daydreaming about her alternate life. A life where she was in high school, living in a house with people who loved her and treated her like family.
She wanted to tell her new friend Chinyere, but she was selfish with her joy and didn’t want to share the moment of connecting with her dream life with anyone.
She barely slept or ate, too anxious for Monday.
Amoke borrowed an iron from her neighbor and pressed her best dress, dressed and redressed her hair until it was perfect.
As soon as the woman spotted Amoke. She beamed and welcomed her into her shop.
She sent one of her girls to go get Amoke food and pulled a chair close to her.
“Tell me all about your childhood.”
The food came as Amoke was talking about escaping the burning house.
As she ate, she didnt notice the persons who walked in and out of the shop. She didnt notice the three huge men walk in and rest on the glass counter.
The woman pushed her seat backwards and got up, “ You are like a little cockroach. Do you know that?”
Amoke gently placed the container of food on the floor beside her. “Oh aunty, did I say something to upset you?”
The woman hissed and snapped her fingers at her thugs, who dragged Amoke to the floor.
“Why wouldn’t your filthy generation just die.”
Amoke laid on the cold tiles, thinking a hundred thoughts a minute.
“I’m confused, what did I do to you. I didnt come to your house to look for you or ask you for anything!”
The woman frowned, “You’re alive and that stupid story you just told, makes you a liability.”
She replayed the woman’s face over and over and let out a soft gasp.
She was her late father’s wife.
The woman snapped her fingers again and the thugs dragged Amoke out the shop.
Behind her the woman was giving instructions to the thugs, “Just bloody finish what you started. I paid you to get rid of all of them, get rid of this one!”
Amoke was stuck between pain and panic.
She couldnt comprehend how anyone could be so knowingly evil, at the same time, very conscious that she was being stuffed into the trunk of a car.
She woke up in the hospital and panicked. She didnt have money for medical fees and in the middle of the night, she ran away to her friend Chinyere’s house.
Chinyere had been dating a politicians thug at the time and though Amoke was forgiving, she wasn’t.
She gave the business card to her friend and the woman met the same fate that Amoke’s mother had.
There was a gentle tap on her door, Amoke checked her reflection again before opening the door.
Kareem smiled as she stepped out the house.
“You look really beautiful.”
They took a boat to land and made their way to the island.
“I want to show you something.” he said as they got on the bike together.
As the bike driver swerved and sped along the busy lagos roads, Kareem wrapped his arms tighter around her waist.
They got off just in front of the gate and paid off the bike driver.
“This is the best place in all of Lagos, and its also where my side business is.”
He took her hand and guided her as they walked along the beach.
The beach was alive. Young lovers ran in and out the ocean, holding each other and giggling out loud, while older couples, reclined and embracing on the sand.
Loud music played from different beach houses, with huge burn fire grills in front.
Amoke and Kareem walked a fair distance and stopped.
He pointed to one of the beach houses, packed to overflowing, also with its own independent party.
“I own this house and I supply all the meat for the suya as well.” he said with beam of pride.
Amoke replied with an impressed head nod.
Kareem, snapped his fingers and boys quickly brought out a table and chairs for two.
Minutes later, they returned with drinks and plates of fresh fish peppersoup, suya and fried yam.
Kareem moved his seat to sit beside her, and gently took her hand in his as they watched the parties on the beach.
After Chinyere had taken her home, Kareem had called and texted everyday.
His father was a violent drunk that used his wife as his punching bag and when Kareem stood up to him; hitting him in return; he turned his son into the streets.
Kareem was sixteen and had to learn to survive on the streets quickly. Starting out as a bus conductor, he saved up his money and attended evening school. The money from conducting was barely enough to survive so he found additional work in the market selling meat until he finished secondary school.
His hands felt as rough as sandpaper and told the story of his hustles.
“Truth is, I havent been able to stop thinking about you. It doesnt make sense, but I feel like from the moment I saw you walking into that alley; I felt responsible for you. I dont know why or how.”
He tilted her chin into the light and looked into her eyes, “I dont know everything about you, yet, but I want to. I want to be able to be there for you today, tomorrow and forever.”
Amoke’s eyes darted away, gazing instead at the sky.
He pulled her seat closer.
“Amoke, Apon b’epo re, Eji wun mi, Eyin’ju ege, El’ese osun. Mo feran e” Kareem leaned in and gently kissed her on the cheek.
Amoke smiled and took his hands in hers, “Emi na, feran e.”
Kareem fell back into his seat and pretended to have a seizure.
There were no huge formalities, no white dress, no reception party.
Amoke packed her things and moved in with Kareem the week after.
She used the money she’d been saving to open her own beach house, expanding the suya market to include Asun, Nkwobi and roasted corn and business boomed.
They rode on the bus to work together in the morning and waited for each other to be done to ride home together.
On the weekends they went to the beach and slow danced under the stars as the ocean chorused a love song.
They helped each other until their dreams became their reality. Amoke owned several stalls in the market, saving enough money to go to school.
Kareem’s beach houses were raking in so much profits that he was able to attend university.
Amoke rubbed her swollen belly as she supervised the construction of their third beach house.
Chinyere waddled towards her, wagging her fingers and cursing.
“That man is lazy, just lazy” she spat in the sand.
She had fallen head over heels in love with one of the construction workers and never let him leave her sight. Where he went, she went.
“Alata mi da?” Kareem called from behind her.
Amoke pouted, “ I’m in school now, you can’t call me that. I’m going to be an architect!” she pouted.
He embraced her and rubbed her belly, “Oyinbo! Queen Elizabeth you’ll always be my Alata, and I’ll always be your eleran!” she giggled as he kissed her neck.
……and they lived happily every after……