2: For serenity

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If you have only one smile in you, give it to the people you love. Don't be surly at home, then go out in the street an start grinning 'good morning' to total strangers ~ Maya Angelou

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“You guys already met Miss Lucy,” Jessica said, and everyone at the table laughed.

Every table had ten chairs — five on both sides. She, Jessica, Emily and Grace were seated with their backs to the doorway while the rest sat across them. 

Their table, though, looked like it was at the center of the hall and aside that, everyone wanted to hear what she and Emily had to say. Even Opeoluwa appeared interested. Everyone except Joel. But that wasn't what bothered her. What did was the fact that people from other tables were also staring at them, hoping to pick up something — anything — from their table. That was what had her feeling uneasy.

Isabelle has always hated being in the spotlight; the popularity. The attention. It freaked her out, but Emily loved it.

Emily enjoyed being the centre of attention and that was who she was. She was the jovial kid everyone knew while Isabelle was the best friend in the shadows. And Isabelle has always preferred it that way.

Sitting at Jessica's table had seemed like a good idea in the first few seconds; but after a while, Isabelle grew uncomfortable.

“The freak that smiles her head off. But as soon as you turn your back, she's like a bedtime monster,” Emily ranted off.

“That's an impressive description,” Bankole mused.

“Spot on.” Jessica clapped in celebration.

“Clever as a fox.” Grace clapped Emily's arm with a giggle.

“I try,” Emily feigned a nonchalant shrug. “Although, Issy and I were arguing: who's creepier? Miss Lucy or Mr. Stan?”

“Emmy,” Isabelle called.

Isabelle wanted to warn Emily not to say much. Jessica and her friends seemed like nice people. But that didn't change the fact that this was a new environment and it was best not to get into trouble just by speaking out of place.

“It's fine,” Jessica placed a reassuring hand on Isabelle's shoulder. “You won't get punished for speaking your mind.”

Isabelle sunk back in her seat with a simper. 

“But your question, Emily, remains unanswered till this day,” Jessica said, and they were interrupted by a girl with glasses.

She was dark-skinned and looked about their age. Isabelle was sure she saw her in class too. The girl was amongst the few that were actually paying attention in class.

“Your note,” the girl said and handed one notebook to Jessica and the other to Grace. 

“Why thank you, Jemina.” Jessica smiled and collected the book. “You're such a darling.”

Jemina pushed up her glasses and plastered a quick smile as she appeared to be waiting for further instructions.

“Here you go, Issy,” Jessica handed her note to Isabelle.

Isabelle collected the book, though hesitant.

“My handwriting is way better, but you'll still be able to understand that one.” Jessica added as Grace frowned at something in her book.

Isabelle was torn between saying a thank you and trying to figure out why Jemina was writing notes for them.

“Thank you,” Isabelle finally blurted out and shoved the note into her bag.

“You can go. We'll see later,” Jessica waved the girl away.

“Jemina, you didn't try o,” Grace said, still frowning at her note.

Jemina peered into the book, looking perplexed. “What did I do wrong?”

“Don't worry. Later, we'll talk.”

“Okay,” Jemina said and turned away with her head bowed.

She met with another girl a couple of distance away. This one was fair and she clapped her hands, sneering before walking away.

“So where was I,” Jessica simply went on.”Ehen, I have my own question for you guys. Would you two like to attend my party this Saturday? It's going to be small. Just to kick off the new term spirit.”

“Sure. We'd love too!” Emily jumped in like she hadn't seen what just happened.

Isabelle turned to stare at Emily, who was more interested in what was across from her. Tracing Emily's line of sight, Isabelle discovered it wasn't a what. But a who — Bankole. Though Emily had her eyes on him, Isabelle could have sworn he cast her a sidelong glance and winked at her. Unwittingly, she had blinked.

“Isabelle,” Jessica tapped her shoulder, and she turned her way. “I asked if you were coming?” 

“Oh. Uh.” She grimaced, rubbing one side of her neck. “Sorry, I can't make it.” 

She dropped her gaze on her untouched food. Just like everyone else, except Opeoluwa, their food remained untouched, making Isabelle a lot more anxious. She was dying of hunger and was starting to wish she had ordered more than just a sandwich. But she hadn't wanted to be stared at as a glutton on the first day of school.

“But why?” Jessica asked her.

Isabelle knew this conversation too well. She had been in this position before, and she knew what their reactions would be to her reply.

“I go to church on Saturdays,” she said.

Eyes went wide and even Joel glanced up. Isabelle caught him looking before he returned his attention to his phone.

“Saturdays? I've never heard of that one,” Bankole said.

“Oh. I think I know this one,” Grace popped in, eyes wide with a cognizant look. “My uncle attends a church like yours. Seventh-day adventist, right?” 

“Close enough. But different,” Isabelle said.

Emily was quiet and Isabelle could sense her go rigid. Emily wasn't a fan of Isabelle's religion and disliked talking about it the most.

“How?” Jessica asked.

“Erm...” Isabelle pursed her lips, shifting her weight in her chair. “It's a long history, but all I can tell you for now is that we're Christians too.”

“You guys read the same bible as us?” Grace watched with curiosity.

This was one of the many questions Isabelle hated, but still answered. “Yes. We do.”

“Wow. Big world,” Grace said and the table agreed with a low murmur. “But you can still come over later, right? I mean the party doesn't start until five.”

Isabelle curled her toes and felt her buttocks growing sore, her heart pounding heavily in her chest. She pursed her lips.

“If the girl says she can't make it, just give it a rest,” said Joel, having everyone's attention.

No one realized he had been listening and staring away from his phone, and Opeoluwa appeared to be the most surprised.

His gaze held Isabelle's for a while as she felt her heartbeat returning to its normal pace.

“Yeah. Isabelle's never really free on Saturdays,” Emily finally chipped in.

“Oh. Okay,” said Jessica, who finally took note of her food.

Isabelle looked away from Joel to meet Bankole's scrutinizing gaze.

~~~

It was their free period after lunch and Joel decided it was time he gave them a tour of the school as instructed. 

Badmus High consisted of three building. The first one, a three-storey building, which was a couple of distances from the main gate, had two sections. One part contained four laboratories and the library, which solely occupied the last floor. The second part had the administrative office, staffroom, nurse's office and meeting hall from bottom to top. 

The second building was where every home room belonged. Every senior class was divided into section A, B, C and D. A belonged to the Science students, B to the Commercial, C to the Art and D to the Technical students. For the lower level, they were divided into only A and B. A was for the smart kids and B was designated for those who found it difficult to grasp quickly. Isabelle didn't agree with such arrangement, though it was a good way to be able to focus more on the latter. This sometimes led to stigmatisation and low self-esteem.

The third building, which was separated from the second by the school's stadium, was where every club met. It was a three-storey building too. The top floor was the locker room opened for every student on only sport days (Wednesdays). However, the students who majored in sport during extracurricular activities were free to go in whenever.

They were coming out of the library, when Emily whispered to Isabelle that she needed to pee.

“What's wrong?” Joel asked.

“I'll be right back. I just need to get something from the class,” Emily said before Isabelle could reply, and ran off.

There was dead silence between Joel and Isabelle as they walked. Listening to the distant voice of a teacher in one of the laboratories, she wrapped her arms around herself, feeling exposed — so to say — and wished she hadn't left her bag in their classroom. 

Reaching the bottom of the stairs, Joel crouched and she came to a halt. He cleaned his shoes with a neatly folded white handkerchief. Isabelle furrowed her brows and stared down at her own shoes. The school was barely dusty and her shoes were still as black and shiny as they had been that morning. So was Joel's.

He straightened and she turned away. With a quick side glance, she saw him dispose the handkerchief in a waste-basket close to the stairwell and brushed his palms together. 

They had made their way out of the building, when Joel suggested they waited out there for Emily, so she wouldn't't have trouble finding them. Isabelle agreed, watching him gesture nervously that she went before him. A mezzanine floor separated the ground floor of both sections, and they stood by the one glass door that led in and out of the place. 

Silence hung in the air like an icy death grip, which tried squeezing out the sanity in Isabelle. To shake off its annoying hold, she rocked back and forth on her feet, arms around herself. She stared up at the sky. The sun glared back and she looked away.

“Nice weather, huh?” She said.

Joel shielded his eyes with his left hand and took a glimpse of the sky before humming in reply. They returned to former state, silence mocking Isabelle with its inaudible cry.

“Thanks,” Isabelle spoke again. “For what you did at the cafeteria.”

He stared at her with a confused look.

“For making them stop with the questions.”

“Oh. It's nothing.” 

He looked like he wanted to say more, but shut his mouth instead and looked away.

The awkward silence was starting to wreck Isabelle's nerves, and she wished she was a good conversationalist like Emily. It was starting to feel like an unusual battle she wanted to win.

“So, how long have you been here? In Badmus, I mean.” She decided to ask.

She wasn't sure he'd reply. But when he did, she was successful in hiding her surprise.

“Since JSS1,” he said with a thoughtful look.

“Wow. That's quite long.” 

“Yeah...”

“You guys have been friends for that long?” Isabelle asked.

“I won't say friends, but we've been close. I'm closer to Davies though. I've known him my whole life.”

“Childhood friends, aye?” Isabelle flushed, regretting her last word as soon as it left her mouth. But Joel found it amusing.

“Sorry,” she said. “Sometimes I say stupid things. Especially when I'm nervous.”

“Nervous?” He looked alarmed. “Do I make you feel uncomfortable?” 

“No. No,” she waved at him. “It's just... Being new. It makes me feel uncomfortable. Trying to fit in and all, and I...” she sighed deeply. “I don't want to make a mess of myself on the first day.”

She waited, hoping she was right about him. Unlike his other friends, she felt comfortable around him, or maybe that was because he had helped her out.

“I understand. I remember my first day here. I hated it,” he muttered the latter. 

“Why?” 

He shot her a quick glance, tightening his jaw as his eyes suddenly grew dark. It was like the memories were playing in his head and from the look of things, it certainly wasn't fancy.

“But it got better. Right?” She asked.

“Well...” A pause. “Not really. I just found a way to cope.”

“But at least you have your friends. Things should've gotten easier and... Funner.” 

A faint twinkle was present in his eyes, which grew more noticeable when he spoke. “Funner?” 

Isabelle grinned nervously. “Funner wasn't the word I was looking for, but since it was close enough I decided to use it.” 

He chuckled. “That's... Creative.” 

It was the first time she saw his face fully light up, and it made her smile that she was responsible for it.

As he looked away from her, she studied his profile. The familiar vibe he gave off was there again and it was starting to get on her nerves. He faced her, and their eyes met. She looked away, embarrassed, but turned to him again.

“Uhn. Have we– I don't know... Have we met before? Like somewhere away from school?” She asked.

Joel examined her face, his face crinkling into a slight frown before he shook his head. “I don't think so.”

“I'm back,” Emily interrupted as she joined them.

Joel cleared his throat. “You got what you needed?” 

“What? Oh. The stuff from my bag. Yeah,” Emioy replied and Isabelle snickered.

~~~

Emily picked a cupcake from the tray, swaying her hips as she hummed a tune in her head. She started singing aloud and Isabelle joined her from the dining room.

“I can't, believe what I did foooor looove!”

“Gosh, stop!” Emily shouted from the kitchen, the back of her hands to her ears. “Just stop!”

Isabelle cackled with her hand to her belly.

“You're an ear-sore, you know?” Emily said and turned to take another cupcake.

Isabelle suppressed her laughter and wiped a stray tear at the corner of her eyes. She hadn't been gifted the natural ability to sound as musical as Emily always did, but that didn't mean she didn't enjoy taunting Emily with her voice.

“Is it just me,” Isabelle said as she tapped the tip of her pen on the table. “Or does Joel look familiar?”

“Is that why you were flirting with him when I left?” Emily called.

She stood at the doorway to the kitchen and took a large bite from the cupcake in her left hand.

“Flirting?” Isabelle asked.

She put her pen down and turned in her seat to watch as Emily joined her in the dining room, sitting directly across from her.

“Yeah. Flirting. You two were totally eye-fucking each other,” Emily said and licked around her mouth.

“Emmy!”

“What? That's what it looked like.” Emily winked, raising one corner of her mouth. 

Isabelle scoffed, though smiling, as she shook her head. “Actually, eye-bucking is what Dave was doing to me at the cafeteria.”

“It's eye-fucking, silly. And it's impossible for Dave to have been doing that to you.” 

Isabelle frowned in annoyance. “And why's that?”

“Because you and Dave... two different worlds. You're a nerd, and he's the spitting image of movie bad boys.”

“Great, Emmy. Thanks a lot for making sure my self-esteem hits rock bottom,” Isabelle mocked with sarcasm and got out of her chair, crossing over to the kitchen.

“You know that's not what I meant,” Emily laughed.

Isabelle came to the doorway of the kitchen, narrowed her eyes and turned on her heels, which earned her a guffaw from Emily.

“Seriously! Okay, listen to this. I found out from a kid in our class, that where we sat at today is what is referred to as the Popular zone. So everyone knows everything about them.” Emily set down both cupcakes on the table.

No wonder everyone was watching their table like it was a telenovela, Isabelle said to herself.

“Jessica: a Badmus and a social media star. I got her Instagram handle and you should see how many likes and followers she has. I even checked out her videos and, damn, can that girl dance! Bankole Davies — that's Dave. His surname is Davies. His dad owns a big shot law firm and the boy changes girlfriends like channels. But there's a current rumour that he's dating Jessica.”

Isabelle returned to the dining room with two cupcakes on a plate stacked upon an empty one and a mug of cold chocolate in her other hand. She set the items down, except the empty plate, which she then used for Emily's cupcakes.

“See why I said it's impossible.” Emily shrugged with her hands midair. 

Isabelle sat in her chair as Emily picked up her half-eaten cake. 

“But honestly oh, that boy is... damn!”

“Well, good luck to them. Dave might be handsome, but I prefer Joel. He seems nice, and reserved.” Isabelle smiled into her mug as she stirred. 

“Oh, no you don't.” Emily interrupted, laughing. “Ope: the one who looks like a tomboy? She has a huge crush on Joel and everyone knows about it.”

“But they're not dating, are they?” Isabelle's sour face stared at Emily.

“No. But are you sure you'd love to be involved in any boy-girl drama this early?”

Isabelle watched the brown liquid in her mug move in a circular motion, and then shook her head. “You're right. Anyway, who cares?” She sighed and picked up her mug. “I didn't come to Badmus high for the boys.”

Emily's mouth hung open as her eyes widened.

Isabelle laughed. “Okay. That was partly the reason, but you know what I mean. And besides they're all in the same popular zone.”

Emily dabbed at the corner of her lips with her pinky. “All I know is today was fantastic and I can't wait for tomorrow. Can you believe we were at the popular zone?” 

She squealed and Isabelle almost choked on her drink.

“Sorry,” Emily grinned sheepishly.

Isabelle wiped her mouth with her hands. Finding her hands a bit sticky, she entered the kitchen to wash them. “I don't think we should sit there tomorrow though.”

“What? Why?” Emily blurted out each question.

“I don't know. Going there ourselves might make us seem... Clingy,” Isabelle said and came to sit

“What? For how long do you intend one being a backbencher? We're in one of the biggest schools in Lagos and you want us to graduate as nobodies?” Emily scoffed, fanning herself with her right hand.

Isabelle laughed. She knew Emily would be against her idea, but she had to try. She preferred being at a corner with her own small group of friends — people who understood her. And people like Jessica and her friends didn't seem like those kinds of people. Making someone write their notes for them with such attitude was quite upsetting. It was also obvious that moving with the likes of them guaranteed they'd be in the spotlight 24/7. Besides, when has it ever happened that the cool kids wished to mingle with people outside their small circle?

“That's not what I'm saying,” Isabelle told Emily. “All I'm asking is that we take things slow. Jessica and her friends seem nice, but I wouldn't want it to be like we're intruding.”

“They invited us to sit with them! Not the other way around!”

“I know,” Isabelle defended. “But let's not try to get used to it, so we don't look clingy. Okay?”

Emily sunk back in her seat and scowled. “Yeah. Whatever.”

“Thank you. Now let's return to planning your birthday that's still weeks away.”

“Three weeks and four days is not far enough,” Emily defended.

Isabelle chuckled.

“Besides, it's my eighteenth birthday. I want it to be grand.” Emily squinted as she pictured the air with her fingers.

Isabelle rolled her eyes. “Big deal.”

“What did you just say?” Emily slammed her palms on the table.

“Emmy, calm down.” Isabelle rose to her feet, laughing.

“You take that back.” 

Isabelle thought about it for a moment. “No.” 

She already knew what was coming her way, so she didn't wait to hear Emily's war cry before running into the sitting room, Emily chasing after her.

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