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Against All Odds (Excerpt)

By Tope Adeagbo (Nigeria)

Excerpt from Against All Odds

Gringgggggggggggggggggggg, Gringgggggggggggggggggggggg, the sound of the bell went.  Innocenta checked the alarm clock perched on the desk by her bed; she gave a loud ‘hrrummp’ as if she was tired even before the day had begun. How she hated the sound of waking bells. At times while she slept all she would dream of was concocting excuses as not to wake up at pre-dawn. To her, it was sheer wickedness on the part of the school management body who woke them 5am every day.  

Although she should have gotten used to it, after all she had spent five years in the school but, ‘grrhh’. She turned and stretched like a kitten dying of boredom. She squeezed her face as she performed her morning routine exercise before she joined the other students outside for morning devotion and sports.

After 30minutes of the usual everyday drill, most of the other students had come alive. They responded to everything with zeal, eagerness and strength; something only teenagers could summon so quickly. But Innocenta tried as much as she could, could not concentrate on what was happening around her. She felt so drained and tired that despite the yoga and all sorts they were doing, her shoulders were slumped like atlas carrying the world weight.

By 10.00am, she had developed a very nasty headache that won’t just go despite pouring water on her closely cropped hair. Most of her teachers noticed her lackluster attitude. Something she had developed two weeks ago when she returned to school after taking permission to attend her mother’s disaster wedding. Some of them tried talking to her as to fathom how it had affected her. However, it seemed the sweet, shy girl they knew had burrowed deeply in her shell.

 They had all heard tales about the dramatic wedding despite all the family had done to prevent the press at the event. Gossip magazines had saw an opportunity to make money and they exploited it to the fullest without consideration for the feelings of those concerned. The teachers pitied the poor girl who was unwilling to share her troubles with anyone.

Days after she returned to school, the school counselor had invited Innocenta for a chat but she had become reclusive. It seemed the more they all tried to reach to her, the deeper she burrowed. The school was in dilemma, it would be inconsiderate if they involved her mother by telling her of her daughter’s strange behaviour. The poor lady had just been publicly humiliated at her own societal wedding. So, they all they could do was to keep an eye on Innocenta without seeming to do so.

Mrs. Lewis the counselor wasn’t too shocked with the girl’s reaction to the happenings in her family. Who wouldn’t be? The incident became an issue discussed and analyzed on the social network. Worse still, Inno had always been an introvert though with a learning ability that had surpassed that of her peers. It took the school two years to let the flower inside her blossom. But looking at her that morning with her slumped shoulders, creased face and lack of gaiety and interest in things and those around her, the counselor had no choice than to call for another chat in her office.

When Innocenta was told to go to the counselor’s office, the headache instantly multiplied and it was as if her skull would break from the pounding inside her head. Though, she lacked the appetite to eat breakfast, once she slipped outside the classroom, she looked left and right to be sure no one was paying undue attention to her the way they had been doing since she came back. She opened her small purse, brought out a sachet of Paracetamol, removed two from the foil and quickly swallowed it without using water or any liquid. It tasted bitter, very bitter but it was alright by her as personally she didn’t care.

When she was about getting to the counselor’s office, she started dragging her feet, wishing the distance could grow longer. As she was about opening the door, the door was opened from inside, and Mrs. Lewis smelling as lovely as ever and smiling her million watts smile that had endeared students to her over the years and made them confide secrets to her, was holding a delicious smelling steaming cup of beverage in her hand. On the table in front of Innocenta was a plate with slices of heavily buttered bread and two boiled eggs but before she could react, the woman gathered her close, pulled her to a comfortable chair and looking pleadingly asked the girl to please share her breakfast with her.

The girl was perplexed, but decided to take it in stride, peradventure the woman who was tagged in the school as; ‘the woman who knows all’ had discovered that she skipped breakfast or saw her taking those pills but whatever it was, it won’t be to her advantage to refuse. So, sitting gingerly, she took a cup of beverage from the woman and forcefully swallowed it. It took more than sheer efforts on her part to swallow the bread that were like rocks in her throat but not to allow the woman initiate that she visit the school’s infirmary, something which she hated so much, she forced the unwanted meal down her throat.
While she ate, she looked up again and again, gazed at the woman but Mrs. Lewis paid her little attention. She was just humming and munching her meal. This gave Inno considerable time to think about what she was sure the woman wanted to discuss with her, the fateful catastrophic wedding of her mum and how it had or was still affecting her.

 All her life, she had had to live with the shame and embarrassments kids unknowingly heaped on her especially when they flaunted things bought by their dad or asked annoying questions about her father and why he wasn’t with them. Though a good girl, she had had to tell countless lies over the years to her peers as to stop them from harassing her. It was not uncommon for her to tell her friends her dad had travelled outside the country. Though this lie held for some years, but when the kids came back after hearing contrary things from their own parents who were at first also eaten up with curiosity about herself and her mum, she had to start telling them her dad was dead.

 At times, she would spin tales that had Guinness Book of Record heard about it, they would probably have written her name as the world best liar. To worsen things, she had stopped asking after her dad when she realized that whenever she does that, her mum would shed tears and would most likely be moody for days after that. When this happened, she got spanked for slight misbehaviors, something her mother rarely does. Engr. Lawal’s death gave her a cover as she could tell everyone her father was late until one of the smarter and naughtier kids asked her that, if the late Engr. was actually her father, how come she wasn’t called Innocenta Lawal? That day, she cried till nightfall though she didn’t tell her mother her reason for crying.

Most people don’t know how difficult it is being raised by a single mother. Though she was very close to her mum and loved her wholeheartedly but, she had to grow up much faster than her peers. She was the one who listened to whatever was bothering her mum and had to watch her mum’s struggle and trials without being able to do anything about it. There were countless nights she cried for her mum and her lonely life particularly because her mum rarely had female friends.  Most of those friends tried to match make her and if she refused, avoided her because they were scared she was after their husband. Neither could she have male friends as most of them were only interested in her money.

She remembered that time when she was barely seven and a neighbor had shouted on and embarrassed her mum. This was because the woman’s husband had been in their flat a couple of times; she was not even daunted by explanations that her man was just being nice and brotherly. It was that pathetic!

She swallowed the bread she had been chewing, picked the egg and took little bites. The phone on the table suddenly rang; Mrs. Lewis picked it, listened for some seconds and in that soothing voice of hers excused herself. When the door closed, Inno breathed a sigh of relief, but maybe it was the warm cup of beverage she’s holding as she had read somewhere that it had a way of soothing the nerves. She also realized her headache had reduced considerably, however she continued with her train of thoughts.
Being in an exclusive all girls’ school slightly helped but that didn’t stop her from feeling dejected with how hard her mother had to work. She compensated her mother by being obedient and extra smart; never got lower than being 3rd position since she started school. When her mother’s wedding invitation was sent to her, she felt trepidation and had double feelings though she tried to be excited for her mom.

She tried been excited as it would boost her morale at finally having a father figure. After all, her peers had made it seemed like the biggest loss. I mean growing without a dad but realistically, fear of the unknown grew by bounds when her friend Juliet shared the experience of how her step dad raped her elder sister. She was no longer a kid, but deep down was fears of all those horrible things she had heard about steps, either step dad or step mum.

At times she wished her mum would stop bothering about getting married. It embarrassed her that though she was in senior class, her mum was getting married and doing a societal wedding at that. Not that Kayode her mother’s fiancé was a stranger to her; it’s just that fear of uncharted waters that made her anxious.

Few years back, she had asked her mum why she was been sent to a boarding school. However, her mum had explained to her that it was because of the nature of her job as a doctor. As she would have had to stay at home alone most of the time or with a maid and this could be dangerous especially when she had to do night shifts. She knew what her mum was trying to guide against but she couldn’t help but feel cheated that if she had a complete family, that wouldn’t have been the case. Imagine! She never even knew what her father looked like.

Most of the things she learnt about her dad and even mom were from her grandma. Grandma had done this so she could realize the extent of her debt to her mother who chose to keep her rather than had an abortion or dropped her with her ‘useless’ father. She so wanted the girl to do well and behave herself as a payback for all her mum had suffered. But to the old woman making her feel guilt for been born was the surest path. The best way the old woman could think of was by telling the girl about the horrible past. Not that she blamed those who told her those stories; it was just that they had given her a driving force, a self-motivational factor which had sort of turned her into a stiff collar among her peers.

Don’t misunderstood, not that she had in any way blamed her mum, but she just felt cheated out of a complete life. If not, why should she remain the only child of her mother? She was at an age when she questioned everything and she was doing it. Her diary was filled with diverse emotions and thoughts that could sink a ship. To worsen things, she had been so scared of relating to opposite sex, and her sexuality was scaring living daylights out of her.

She took her mind to the wedding, to each scene on that fateful day. She was so immersed in reliving the pain that tears almost spilled down her face. When she remembered that lady raising her hand that she was not in support of the wedding, she could hold it no more.  Pain gripped her tiny heart and tears rode down her cheeks in accompaniment.

Though she would have loved to stay back as to be with her mum at that crucial moment, she had to return to school. She had to because promotional examinations would soon start which she had to partake of. The thought of school however, made her shivered as she knew everyone in school would have heard the humiliating story.
She had felt like commanding the ground to swallow her alive rather than return to the school. Everyone at home was filled with pity for her mum and all they thought of was supporting mum. At the end not an iota of pity was left spared for her. Some people had even advised her to take good care of her mum. No one thought that peradventure she was suffering as much as her mother or even slightly more than her. To them only her mother was a victim. But what of her, isn’t she more of a victim of a situation orchestrated by her mom?

Being in a blue blood school filled with all those rich and spoilt kids had not helped matters. The school had been bursting with gossip about the infamous wedding when she got back. She even saw some students show themselves pictures from the wedding that were in soft sell magazines. She felt violated by the way they kept talking, pointed fingers at her and gave her those horrible sidelong glances she had come to hate.

 How would she explain all these to Mrs. Lewis please?  That she was annoyed at everything and everyone for being denied a chance to grow normally? That there was that horrible fear of whether any man would ever love her without considering her background? Before the horrible incident, she had worked towards being made the head girl and student president. This was a position for the best of the best student, which was deeply coveted by all students even their junior secondary school day. It was coveted because of the prestige associated and also because such a girl after her final exams would be given scholarship to further her education, wherever she desired.
Inno was selected with other prospective candidates and had taken two out of the three stages of required tests. The tests were necessary because most of the students were extra-ordinarily brilliant, and was done in stages as they disqualified candidates after each stage.  However because of what had happened, she had not been able to concentrate on reading, neither had she completed her project. It was all so unfair, so unfair!!! She swallowed hard, forcing back the tears of self-pity that were threatening to spill again. Just then, Mrs. Lewis returned and brought sunshine to the gloomy atmosphere.

To Innocenta’s biggest surprise, the woman didn’t even ask her a single question. She only smiled and inquired if she enjoyed the meal. She even apologized for leaving her alone for such a considerable long time. Amazing still, the woman started chatting about things happening in the school. She spoke like someone sharing gossip with a colleague and not a troubled student but when they heard the sound of the bell, she told her to go. Inno was puzzled but relieved all the same. She thanked the woman for the meal and silently left her office. Going back to the class, her heart became heavy once more, as she’s sure most of her classmates knew she was called into Lewis’s office.

Though she had never told her mum, she had been treated in the school on countless occasions for insomnia, melancholia, migraine and all sorts. There was a time she was barred from writing tests in the school because they feared her mental condition. The school nurse told her she was being too serious minded. According to their diagnosis, it had affected her thus being the cause of the insomnia.

Two weeks before any examination, she would stop eating and sleeping which, mainly caused the migraine. The school had written to her mum but she had been able to intercept such letter by bribing their maid at home to read any mail from her school before. She had taught the girl to read, so unless it’s the annual report, all letters that had to do with the concern of the school over her health and mental well-being, never got to her mum.

Her friend Regina had taught her forgery, something almost every student of the school had done at one time or the other.  The students did this so that certain reports would not get to their parents. As to join the band, one holiday, she stole her mother’s office letter-headed paper. This had enabled her to reply any letter from the school herself once Titi the housemaid had sent the original copy back to her. After which she would drop it off in the school’s mail box.

Students in the boarding school are so full of mischief that even at a school as highly reputed as hers, outsmarting the school authorities was a kind of competition. While those who had been able to invent and had successfully carried out such mischief on the school were acknowledged as the ‘swag queen’.

For instance, though receiving letters from anyone not recognized as your registered relative was forbidden, the students had opened their own unofficial mail box. This was behind the last hostel next to a thick bush. A cleaner whom they bribed from time to time brought such letters and posted theirs.

 Another example of their dare devil attitude was the issue of lesbianism in the school. Senior students initiated their school daughters (favorite junior girls) into such cult, and they were taught the act of lesbianism. They were even made to swear on a coffin with a cross marked on it with red. They swore that should they divulge the secret of the group that practised sex orgy at light out, or have sex with boys; such girl would die horribly. They were a known secret among fellow students and there were even rumours that maybe one or two of their teachers were their patrons. There had been countless tales told of girls who disappeared in their dorm mysteriously or developed strange illness. These were believed to have happened because they disobeyed. Although no one had a proof of those horrible tales, yet they spread like wild fire among the girls.

When Innocenta started having insomnia and had to be drugged to sleep, she repeated bizarre things in her sleep. This made Chinyere and her gang, a set of malicious girls who had been her nemesis since JSS 1 to spread tales about her. They said she belonged to the dreaded cult and because of her fickleness had betrayed them. This according to them was why she was experiencing hallucination and those strange sicknesses.

They even whispered to others that anyone who moved with her would most likely be affected, which made almost everyone to nearly avoid her like plague. Being one of the most brilliant students in the school should have attracted throngs of junior girls to her. Alas! They were all too scared of what the consequences could be to associate with her. Many ignored her, which made her live an almost solitary life in the school, thus the cause of her melancholia.

She had hoped that if she was elected student body president for the year, it would endear students to her. It would also enable her use the opportunity to make new friends and also use her influence to prove her innocence of all charges.  How she could be a lesbian when no one had proof of a sexual advancement from her to anyone was beyond her. But, high school’s students’ mindset rarely made sense!

 She had even gone to the ridiculous extent of befriending a boy from an all-boys school that at times socialized with girls from her school. The only thing that achieved was to further cement her colleagues’ mind that indeed she was fickle.

A few days to the third step of the student body president selection test, Innocenta was as usual unable to sleep. She turned up and down on her bed thereby disturbing her bunk mate. After she heard repeated hissing and murmuring from Silver, she stood up, opened her purse and brought out sleeping pills. She hated having to do this especially since the school nurse had warned her against using pills to lure herself into sleep. Unfortunately by then, she developed a crutch and won’t sleep without it.
The school had stopped giving her sleeping pills when they noticed the danger she faced from been too used to it. She however sorted herself. She was able to sneak in supplies sent by her boyfriend and the one sent by Titi through their illegal mailbox. However that night, though she knew she wouldn’t blink an eye without it, she felt reluctant to use it.      

  ‘Well, tomorrow is Saturday’ she thought ‘I will use that opportunity to sleep late’.

Having concluded in her mind, she uncapped the bottle and instead of two, swallowed four pills her usual way. Which was, swallowing drugs without taking water and in less than 15minutes, she fell into deep sleep.

Around 2.30am, one of the students in Elegance dorm wanted to charge her phone, unfortunately the school authorities had removed all the sockets. This was done to prevent the students from trying to use boiling ring in the hostel, ironing or even attempt to cook. These are sins for which they had had to expel some students and had suspended others in the past. All these however, did not deter the students; she took two sticks to bring out the red and black wires. She cautiously stripped it and with greatest care wrapped each of the coils to the mouth of her charger. She was not scared; it was one of those things that students did all the time and even a year one student would do it without being scared of getting electrocuted. When she was satisfied with what she had done, she went back to sleep.

Around 3.45am, Silver, Innocenta’s bunkmate woke up from her delicious sleep. She was happy that for once she could sleep without Inno using her bad sleeping habit to disturb her. It was too good to be true. As much as she tolerated her ‘bunkie’, she hated when anything disturbed her sleep. She could’ kill’ because of it and many nights Inno had had to bear the brunt of her anger. She stood up, stretched lazily and made her way to the bathroom. Coming back, she had the urge to go outside for some fresh natural breeze instead of the air-conditioned air in the dorm though this was prohibited.

Tiptoeing and moving as silently as a cat stalking a mouse, she opened the door and stood on the balcony. She stared at the moonless sky that was decorated with billions of jewel-like stars that were doing all they could to illuminate the night. It was so beautiful and she sopped up the serenity awhile.

Suddenly, light was switched on in a building not too far from where she was and quickly ducked, heart in her mouth. She waited awhile but sensing her house mistress was also probably going to answer the call of nature she relaxed. At first she thought the woman had seen her but still, it would be disastrous should the matron look in her direction and see her silhouette.

She hurried inside, locked the balcony door and was about returning to her bed when she noticed that the air in the room was heavy. Peradventure it was because she had been outside a while. She stood still, looked around the dorm for anything out of place. But, it was difficult to ascertain as the room was dark. She moved towards her bed, pulled back the covers and was about to jump in when she decided to do another surveillance, she almost missed it.

She jumped up, looked at it very well and yes, beside Jumai’s bed by that socket where they did their illegal charging, smoke was coming out. The whole wire was red and was glowing and some things had caught fire. At first fear held her tongue but as if by magic it loosened it, she swallowed hard and screamed;

‘Fire, Fire, Fire, everybody wake-up, the dorm is on fire fireeeee’

She was screaming so hard, that almost everyone woke up instantly. Unfortunately, articles of clothes flung in haste accidentally towards that direction became engulfed. Pandemonium rose, to worsen the situation, their dorm was upstairs so they were all clambering towards the stairs. Some were coughing so hard that they had to be held by their fellow dorm mates. Two or three went towards the balcony and decided to risk their limbs rather than burn alive.

In a matter of minutes the whole compound came alive and even those whose dorm were far from theirs had joined in the noise. The dorm mistresses quickly left their rooms and hurried to the scene of the outbreak to put out the fire and save what they could. Fire extinguishers were brought out, students and even non-teaching staff could be seen with buckets of water striving to put out the fire.  One of the teachers picked her phone and quickly dialed the fire service.

While they were doing this, it occurred to one of the teachers to count the girls from Elegance. They noticed four were missing out of fifteen but no one was sure whether they were still in the room. This was because each of the girls was busy trying to escape the fiery arms of fire to notice anyone else. When the head dorm mistress was notified, she became scared that per adventure the missing girls were in the room. Against the advice of her colleagues; she decided to risk her life to enter the burning Elegance.

She tried to recollect all she had learnt about fire rescue. She soaked a towel in water, tied it round her mouth and nostrils and went towards the fire while the others held their breath, though most of the students were crying. She remembered reading somewhere that when you are in a burning room you try to stay flat on the floor, though she couldn’t recollect why. She went flat on her belly and snake like tried climbing the stairs but it wasn’t easy. When she was hit by the full force of the smoke that was trying desperately to escape, she almost ran out but then, the thought of facing the parents of the four kids pushed her on.

She had not been gone long when men of fire service entered the school, and before long they moved everyone away while they did their work. After almost two hours of great battle, the fire was put out. They rescued six person altogether plus the head dorm-mistress from the furnace. The students were forced to go into the hall, so they wouldn’t behold the ugly spectacle. Tears rained from their teachers’ eyes when two of the girls were brought out dead, burnt so much that it was horrible to look at. However, the others were unconscious, and from the look the chances of their survival was very slim.

Quickly, they were placed inside the ambulance and were rushed to the hospital. However, because it was a Saturday, the normal route that the ambulance should have taken to the hospital and gotten there in 25minutes took him over an hour. The ambulance had to detour more than once whenever he saw canopies on the government roads. Canopies placed there by people who were having parties that Saturday morning and had decided to block the road instead of renting a hall or using a school field.

Who would willingly pay the exorbitant fees charged by event centre owners when you could pay chicken fees to those greedy local government officials and make use of government road? Such money could even be used to buy more food and drinks for your guests or what do you think? Everyone else could go to hell.
Indeed, students of Ave Maria Intl College did go to hell, because by the time the ambulance could get to the hospital, two of the remaining victims were dead. One was the Head dorm-mistress and the other was Innocenta Remilekun, her mother’s only light in a cloudy sky.

Against All Odds - by Tope Adeagbo (Nigeria)

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3

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