6: Double trouble

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There will always be someone who can't see your worth. Don't let it be you.

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So many thoughts raided Isabelle's mind the moment the strange woman stepped out of their kitchen. Dreadful ones that made her clench her hands.

“Don't you know how to greet?” Grandma demanded from the couch, body twisted to the back so she was glaring at Isabelle.

Isabelle tried steadying her breathing as she looked at the woman. “Mama, good afternoon.”

“Is that where you should be greeting me from? It looks like that your mother doesn't teach you manners, eh? Chai! If you were a boy now, I'm sure you'd have learnt some respect through your father.”

Isabelle looked to her father, whose face held a plea. With lips set to a straight line, she went to kneel before her grandma and greeted again.

“What of our visitor?” Her grandma referred to the young lady standing beside her dad.

Isabelle silently wished she had listened to Emily and not come home yet.

Calling out a cold 'good afternoon' to the woman, the lady replied with a smile that didn't quite reach her eyes and she returned to the kitchen.

“Mtchew. Be going,” her grandma dismissed her with a wave.

She got up and went to meet her father. “Who's that in mom's kitchen? Does mom know about this?”

“Go change first and come out for supper.”

There was a mix of worry and dread in her father's eyes and it made her curious.

After changing, she came out to find everyone already settled in the dining room.

“I don't know how long it'll take you to just change your clothes.” Her grandma let out a disapproving sigh.

“Mama,” her dad reproached his mom.

“What? Did I say anything wrong?”

When it came to her grandma, it was impossible for Isabelle to do anything right. After all, she was just a girl.

Isabelle sat across the guest, repeating to herself to stay calm.Their supposed visitor was quite young and appeared to be in her late twenties. On the left side of her nose was a small full-stop ring. She was wearing a straight look, which didn't waver until grandma whispered something into her ear and she smiled. This one reached her eyes.

A short prayer was said by Desmond and everyone began to eat.

“Where's mom?” Isabelle asked her dad.

“She's still at work. She'll soon be back.”

This prompted her grandma to let out a cynical laugh as she clapped her hands. “Does she not know I'll be coming today?”

“Someone had to stay back and finish up,” Isabelle's dad defended.

“So? Is she not the wife? So, if I didn't bring Mma with me,” — she put her left arm over the young lady's shoulder and Mma leaned in with a wide grin— “That's how all of us will starve, abi?”

“Nobody will starve,” Desmond said. “Besides I can cook.”

“Taa, anaghị anwa anwa ikwugharị ihe ahụ (don't you dare repeat that)!” grandma shouted. “Don't you know you're the head of the house? You'll be here cooking while your wife is at work. What does she know she's doing?”

With a loud screech, Isabelle shifted her chair back, and then faked an apology as she pulled it back in place.

“Uh. If you like, hit your head on the wall, it doesn't change the fact that your mother is lazy.”

Isabelle dared a glare at her grandma.

“Mama, that's enough,” Desmond pleaded.

“Who are you looking at like that?” Grandma raised her hand in an attempt to hit Isabelle, whom then looked away. “Gozie. Gozie, look at how you have allowed that woman to spoil this girl.”

“Mama, please I am begging you. Stop all these.”

Grandma finally shut up, and Isabelle caught a ghost of a smile on Mma's lowered face. Who the heck was she, she wondered.

“I heard you have changed Chinonye's school,” grandma said after a while. “Is that what is important now? Changing her school? What about building your own house?”

“We're already working on that,” Desmond replied. “By the time the house is finished Isabelle should be done, and then we'll move.”

Isabelle probed at her food some more and decided she was no longer hungry.

“Where to?” Her grandma asked as she rose to her feet.

“I'm not hungry.”

“O ma ka na nne gi esiri ya (Is it because your mother didn't cook it)?”

“I'm just not hungry.”

“O buru na m na asu Igbo, i na za m n'asusu bekee, okwa ya (So if I speak in Igbo, you answer me in English, right)?” 

“Agụụ na-agụ m (I'm not hungry),” Isabelle corrected herself and picked up her plate to take to the kitchen.

A small smile tugged at her lips as, for a split second, her grandma looked stunned before she cleared her throat and returned to her food. Quite often, Isabelle didn't speak to her parents in their dialect, but after the offensive criticism she had received from her grandma — during her last visit (which was a long time ago) — she made sure she polished her accent and hoped to shock the woman the next time they met.

“I'm going out for a walk,” Isabelle said when she returned from the kitchen.

“Bia (come) Chinonyerem, where are you going? Have I finished eating? Who is going to pack these plates?” Grandma asked.

Isabelle saw her dad cast his mother a weary glance, before answering her: “Don't take long.”

“Eh?” Her grandma let out in shock.

Isabelle left for her room, as her grandma continued to scold her dad, collected her phone, slipped on a hoodie and hurried out of the house. She heaved a sigh, her back to the door and took some time to recover from exiting the hellhole her house had suddenly become, before starting down the stairs, dialling her mom's number in the process.

“Hey, honey.”

“Did dad tell you we'd be having any other visitor apart from grandma?”

“Good evening to you too.”

“Sorry.” Isabelle rubbed her forehead. “Good evening, mom.”

“Evening. Now what's the problem?”

“Grandma brought a woman with her. She seems young and she was in your kitchen.”

Since Juliet never really let anyone do the cooking, Isabelle was accustomed to calling it her mom's kitchen.

“In the kitchen?” Her mom sounded surprised, which was evidence enough that she didn't know. “Is your dad home?”

“Yes. I met them when I returned.”

Isabelle paused to greet an older neighbour getting into her car. The woman replied, asked how Isabelle was doing, got a reply before entering her car and Isabelle proceeded to the gate, where she mouthed a greeting to the security man.

“Mom, what's going on?”

There was a brief pause from her mom's end. “Don't worry. I'll be home soon. Where are you now?”

“I couldn't stay in that house. You know how suffocated grandma makes me feel. So I'm going out for a walk.”

“Don't be long, okay?”

“Yes, mom.”

Isabelle put her phone on silent, not wanting to be disturbed, and slid it into her side pocket, looking both ways. If she followed her right side, she'd be faced with the main road in no time. But to her left meant she'd be going deep into the street.

She made a left turn and started walking. Though it was hard, she tried making her head void of all thoughts. The sun was starting to set, and although the wind was growing cold and strong, it was a nice time to take a walk. And she was also glad she had chosen to wear a hoodie. A moving lorry passed her from behind with a load of furniture, and she marveled at it.

“Wow. That's some furniture.”

Isabelle didn't know much or anything at all about furniture, but the black, leather chairs she had found fascinating.

Taking out her phone, she checked the time. It was already a few minutes past four, and she wondered if Emily was already on her way to get her cousins. Silently, she again regretted coming home alone.

She walked on some more, taking a right turn into another section of the street. The street was empty and quiet — this was no surprise to her. There was power supply after all: the neighbours could be stuck to their TV screen or doing whatever required the electrical power.

Still marching the way she had been, she bowed her head, staring at her feet as they moved.

“One... Two... Three...”

“Hey, watch it,” was the next thing she heard as she collided into someone's shoulder.

“I'm so sorry...” she looked up to say, but stopped, recognizing the angry face that stared back at her. “Joel?”

His features softened a bit, and then as quickly as it did a crinkle appeared on his forehead.

“What are you doing here?” He asked.

He didn't sound too happy to see her.

“I live here.”

There was no reaction as he stared down at his phone and reinserted his earphones, which must have removed due to their collision.

“What about you?” She asked when she realized he won't be saying anything soon.

“I just moved in,” he replied, barely sparing her a glance, his eyes glued to his phone.

“Oh. So you're the one moving in. I saw the moving truck while I was coming.”

He didn't give her a reply and kept scrolling through his phone. Why he seemed off today — angry, in fact — baffled her.

“So, we're like neighbours now?” She tried on a smile for a change.

He nodded, still scrolling as he plugged the earphones into his ears.

For confirmation, Isabelle took a good look at him to be sure he was the Joel she had talked to in school. He was wearing a blue polo and a pair of cream chinos with black shoes. The outfit did made him look different from the schoolboy she had met. It enhanced his features, making him look a lot mature and good-looking too. But that didn't change the fact that he was the same Joel she had talked to the day before.

“Do you know where I can get hand gloves from?” He finally looked up to ask.

“Cooking gloves?”

“No.” His brows knit together slightly. “Just regular safety gloves.”

“Oh. I could show you where to get one.”

He had a disgruntled look on his face. “You can tell me where to get it from, so I don't delay you.”

“It's fine. I wasn't going anywhere in particular.”

“I'll be fine on my own,” he deadpanned.

“Oh.”

There was definitely something wrong.

She gave him directions and with a mumbled thank you, he was on his way. Isabelle watched his receding back, tilted her head, frowned and then shrugged. She had only taken a couple of steps forward, when she heard a loud commotion behind her. Turning, she saw Joel had collided with Mama Junior — a neighbour she knew too well because of her high-pitched voice and readiness for a fight.

“Are you blind?” Mama Junior shouted.

Isabelle started walking their way. Joel was crouched, picking up the fallen items scattered across the ground. With his back turned and voice low, she didn't hear his reply, but she was sure it was a retaliation enough to have Mama Junior fired up.

“Hey! Look at this good for nothing boy o. You're not blind? How will you know you're blind, when you don't even have common sense? I'm talking to you–” Mama junior nudged Joel's forehead with her forefinger, and he was about to speak, when Isabelle finally made it to them.

“Mama Junior.” She grinned at the plump woman, who was already removing her scarf to tie around her waist.

“Ah. Isabelle. How are you, my dear?”

Isabelle shot a quick glance at Joel, who was almost done picking up the packed food items from the ground.

“I'm fine, ma. How about you, Junior and daddy Junior?”

“I'm fine o. Everybody is fine. How are your parents?”

“They're all doing well. You're coming from the grocery store, right?”

“Yes o, my daughter. I decided to walk there — so I can be in shape — before I met this fool,” Mama Junior pointed at Joel, who rose to his full height and stretched the grocery bag to her.

Eyeing him evilly, she snatched the bag from him. Joel matched her stance, eyes not backing down from a glaring contest.

“Let me help you out sef,” Isabelle cut in, holding a brilliant smile as she took the grocery bag from Mama Junior.

“Oh jare, thank you my child.” Mama Junior grinned, handing the bag to Isabelle. “I just keep thanking God that there are still good teenagers like you.”

The woman talked on as Isabelle followed her to her house. It was two blocks away from where the incident had occurred and in no time, they were in front of her gate.

“Thank God nothing touched the ground,” Mama Junior said. “If not, that idiot would've paid for everything.”

Isabelle plastered a smile, her cheeks already hurting from maintaining the bright look. Another thing about Mama Junior was that she was loquacious, which was exactly why she could be easily swayed if you cared a little or too much about her needs.

“Have a nice day,” Isabelle said.

“You too, my dear.”

Isabelle turned away as Mama Junior entered her house. She saw Joel hadn't moved from the spot she left him, eyes narrowed and she wondered if it was because of the sun, although it was almost out of sight now.

“Sorry about that,” she said, on getting to him. “Mama Junior can get a little too crazy.” she laughed.

“What do you want from me?” Joel asked out of nowhere.

Isabelle did a double take, searched behind her for whom he might have been referring to. But there was no one around, except the two of them.

She put a hand on her chest. “Are you talking to me?”

“Are you that dumb or are you just playing stupid?”

Isabelle was starting to think he had hit his head somewhere.

“Or do you just think I'm that dumb?” He went on. “You live here?” He scoffed. “You think I don't know your kind?”

She crossed her arms over chest. “And what is my kind?”

He stood directly in front of her, eyes looking straight into hers.

“You see a cute boy, you obsess over him. Pull stupid pranks like pretending to live in the same area as him. I look familiar?” He sneered. “Give me a break. That pick-up line is as old as time. If you had done more than just obsess over me, maybe you'd have known that much.”

Isabelle's blood boiled. Her nose flared and her eyes narrowed.

“You know for someone who claims to be smart, you really are delusional. What makes you think I'd make up something like me living here or saying you look familiar, just because I'm obsessed with you?”

“Aren't you?”

“What?” She put a hand on her temple, a pulse starting to throb.

“Then tell me you never for one second believed you had a crush on me?” He raised his chin, shoulders squared and gaze unwavering.

Isabelle couldn't believe his guts. She was beyond speechless to the point she could only scoff repeatedly.

“Exactly,” he said and turned away.

Her face was heated up now as she balled one hand into fist and the other hand turned him back to her.

“You must be insane! I must have been an idiot to think you were any different from your fake friends. Even dumber to have liked you!”

“So you liked me?”

She pointed a finger at him. “And that's a mistake I'd never, ever, make in my entire life, you psychotic maniac!”

“Listen here,” he grabbed her wrist, eyes dark and red with fury. “If anyone's a psychotic maniac here, it's you.”

His grip tightened around her wrist, and she winced.

“Let go,” she cried as she tried to pry his fingers off her hand.

“This is me being nice, so listen well so I don't have to repeat myself,” he seethed, teeth barred. “You. And I. There's never going to be a 'we'. So quit your stupid act and get yourself a brain before I beat some sense into you.” He let go of her hand in a rough manner and turned away.

Isabelle had never before seen such anger in a person's eyes. It had scared her to the point she thought her wrist would be broken. She tried rubbing some feeling to her wrist as tears rolled down her cheeks.

“Isabelle,” she heard over her shoulder.

It was Mama Junior approaching her. She sniffed, wiping her cheeks clean.

“What happened?” Mama Junior asked, staring down at Isabelle's clutched wrist. “I came out of my house to throw away dirty when I heard shouting.” She glanced at Joel. “Did he hurt you?”

Isabelle looked at Joel's back and turned to Mama Junior, shaking her head.

“I- I fell,”

But her lie only made the woman grow suspicious. There was no sign of a fall on Isabelle's body after all. “Are you sure?”

Isabelle nodded. Mama Junior was always a concerned neighbour, but that was because she was a devoted gossip. Isabelle knew if she told her anything, the woman would spread a different thing to the whole neighbourhood. Though, regardless of whether Isabelle said anything, she was sure the woman was already cooking up a story to share.

Isabelle examined the reddening handprint Joel's fingers left behind, tears escaping her eyes as she walked home. Continuously, she wiped the tears away, cursing and hating Joel as she went.

“Isabelle!” 

She looked up to see Emily nearing her with her cousins. She wiped her face with the neck of her dress and took out her phone from her pocket. It was already 5:15pm, and she had four missed calls: two from her mom and two from her dad.

“Oh my goodness,” she gasped. “Have I been out for that long?”

Usually, it wouldn't have been a problem she lost track of time during her walk, but with her grandma around every move was a fault.

“Is my aunt home yet?” Emily whispered when she got to her, eyeing the complex at the same time.

Isabelle's eyes darted at Mercy's tear streaked face and David's angry face.

“I don't know. Why are you just bringing them home?”

“Mercy, please stop crying,” Emily begged.

Mercy jerked her shoulder away from Emily's reaching hand and stomped into the compound.

“Yay! I'm in trouble.” Emily folded her hands over her head as David went in too.

“Not as much as me,” Isabelle said as they entered the compound. “I couldn't stay in that house one second. But now that I lost track of time, I'm sure my grandma has a lot to say about it.”

“She's upstairs?” Emily asked quietly, as though the woman would hear them if she was any louder.

Isabelle nodded. “Why are you late, though?”

Emily paused to examine Isabelle's face. “Were you crying?”

Isabelle froze for a second, and then she blinked. “No.”

“But your face–”

“I fell.”

Emily started to look her up and down.

“Why are you just coming home?” Isabelle blurted out.

Emily cleared her throat and continued walking. “We went to celebrate after the match, and by the time I remembered I had to pick them, it was already late.”

“Mercy's sure to tell on you,” Isabelle empathized.

“That's what I'm scared of.”

At the top of the stairs, the two wished each other good luck and entered their separate homes.

Isabelle's grandma turned in the couch as soon as she closed the door. Grandma was already changed from her lace gown to a blue blouse with a wrapper around her waist.

“Oh. So you decided to come back?”

“Isabelle, where have you been?” Her dad asked. “You weren't picking your calls. You had me worried.”

“I had it on silent. Sorry,” Isabelle explained. “And I lost track of time.”

She noticed Mma, their supposed guest, was dozed off on the armchair.

“What did you lose?” Grandma asked.

Desmond was about toexplain to her, when the door opened and Isabelle stepped aside to allow her mom in. Juliet's eyes first held the presence of the sleeping Mma, before she greeted her mother-in-law, kneeling.

“Our wife, welcome o!” There was a load of sarcasm in the woman's voice as she addressed Isabelle's mom. “Your mates are at home tending to their husband while you're out doing only God knows what.”

“Mama, please that's enough already.”

Desmond was starting to grow particularly irritated with his mom's need to cause trouble and it was taking everything in him not to disrespect her.

“Can't you see she's tired?” He added.

Juliet indeed looked tired, which was exactly why she didn't reply her mother-in-law.

“Isabelle, I was calling you. Why didn't you pick?” Juliet asked as Isabelle helped her to her feet.

“My phone was on silent.”

”Okay. Has everyone eaten?”

“Uh, so you think without you, we won't eat, okwa ya (right)?”

“Mama, don't make me disrespect you.”

“Disrespect me na. It's because of this barren wife of yours that's you're shouting at me na.”

“Mama,” Juliet's voice wavered.

“What? Are you not barren?”

Isabelle narrowed her eyes at her grandma. Her hands itched to grab the woman by her hair, but common sense and years of parental training was the only reason she was holding back.

“Anyway,” grandma was on her feet as she refolded her wrapper around her waist. “I've brought my son someone who can give him a son. Since you've killed all the ones you were supposed to give him.”

“What?” Was Juliet and Isabelle's simultaneous reply.

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