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“Reaching for the Stars” — A Short Story by Somtoochukwu Benedict Ezioha

I enjoyed driving. Enjoyed the feel of the engine revving, so powerful, so thrilling. But this particular night, I was not so keen on driving. I was just bent on getting to my hotel room, and jumping into bed. I had an early flight to catch. The only thing gratifying thing about my tiredness was that I completed the business deal I came for. I own a software developing company; I would have allowed some other person to handle the deal but this case was different. It involved the largest software company in the East. There were a lot of companies that wanted it but MedCorp was the highest bidder.

Thank God I was not on high speed or I would have knocked her down. Luckily, I applied to brakes early enough. She frantically waved at me to stop. I had already stopped, so she immediately came over and leapt in through the passenger door. Immediately, some men came out of the junction that she also came out from. She let our an almost inaudible moan of terror. I needed no persuasion to get out of the area. As I passed the men, she crouched so low that I wondered how she could twist and fold herself so.

When we were well past the men, I signaled for her to sit up but she was too afraid to move.

“Hello, we’re past the men chasing you. You can sit up now,” I said with the gentlest of voice. Tentatively, she sat up, still darting her eyes here and there. Perhaps to see if she was followed. You could see the raw terror on her face, it was so palpable. In a bid to calm her down, I reached out and touched her shoulder. She let out a blood curling scream that immediately sent shivers all the way down my spine. What could have put such terror into her? And who were those men? She was looking very haggard, her gown was torn in different places. She had blood on her nose and lips. The bruises on her face was turning purple. Her eyes were bloodshot and blank, as if she was in another planet. What do I do? I can’t take her to my hotel room; even if I could, not with her looking like a character from a horror movie.

I started looking for any place I could buy clothes for her. I was unfamiliar with the city, so I couldn’t go out of my route for fear of being lost. Then I remembered that I bought some clothes for my younger sister, Maria. That would do it. Looking at her, she would be the same size. How do I now make her understand? Because she very well could have been so traumatized that she could not speak.

“Uhm… are you heading anywhere in particular?” She shook her head. “Okay, can you go to back and change? I have some clothes there and I think they would be your size. Don’t worry, I will stop the car and wouldn’t look,” I added. She looked at me quizzically. “You won’t go down?” she asked. At last she spoke. Not that traumatized then.

“Well, my dear, as much as I would want to make you feel relaxed, I can’t just get out of the car. If you look at the seat behind you, there is a pair of crutches that belongs to me. So, it would be an unnecessary stressful stuff for me. Don’t worry, I will bend my head over the steering wheel to give you maximum privacy,” I replied with as much humor as I could giving the circumstances and the dangerous location we were. Not that I saw anyone here — that’s the problem, no one was in sight — it made me nervous.

She reluctantly nodded and went to the back of the car. I bent over the steering and started whistling, mulling over the current situation. Two minutes later, she was done and came back to the front seat. “I’m done.” I nodded and drove off.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

At the hotel, since I did not drop the keys at the reception, I was heading to my room when the receptionist saw me and the girl. She winked at me. I took no heed of the meaning behind the wink and resolutely headed to my room. As I opened the door, her bearing became more relaxed. It was obvious she wanted the security of a roof over her head.

Contrary to what I had planned, I had to make sure she was comfortable before taking my bath and flumping on the bed and dozing off. “Make yourself comfortable. Let me take a shower, I’ll be right back.” And I went into the to bathroom. As bathed, I went over the events of the past hour. Who was she? And why was she so scared of those men? I was certain it was no ordinary scenario here.

When I was done, I came into the room and saw her sitting on the edge of the bed. She was looking so forlorn, my heart went out to her. She noticed my presence and stood up.

“Hey, calm down dear,” I began. “What’s your name?”

“C-Clara.”

“OK, Clara. My name is Ifeanyi. Can you tell me why those men were after you?”

At the mention of ‘those men’ she froze. I thought she wouldn’t answer, but finally she gave a brief nod. “They wanted to… to kill me. I barely managed to escape,” she answered amidst sobs that racked her body. I was not sure what her reaction would be if I went close to her, but I had to try. Gently, so as not to scare her, I went to her and put my arms around her.

To my surprise, she held onto me and cried the more. I could only imagine what she had been through. We just stood there. “Hush now dear. You are now safe. They can’t get to you here, OK? You’re completely safe here,” I said with as much reassurance as I could.

After what seemed like five minutes, she slowly pulled away from me. Her lips were still quivering but she wasn’t crying anymore. “Can I use the bathroom? I’m afraid I look like a zombie.” Was that humor? Good. She’s getting herself back then. I just smiled and motioned that she could go on.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The next thing I knew, I woke up with a start. I had slept off on the couch. Oh well, she was sleeping on the bed, snoring quietly. I decided to let her be. She’d had a pretty rough night. I stared at her and found myself admiring her; she was actually looking pretty now that she had freshened up. She had an oval face with a strong jaw, her nose was… well, she had the most beautiful of features. What could have terrified her so much? Who was she? She could be a criminal for all I knew, but looking at her, I seriously doubted it.

Wanting to get some sense of normalcy back, I picked up my cell phone and dialed my secretary, Jumoke. She was my best friend. She was there when my business started and has been a constant source of good advice and moral support. She picked up on the third ring.

“Hello,” she answered sleepily.

“Ju-ju,” I called her nickname, “How are you? I’m sorry I called so late. I have a bit of a situation here.”

“It’s alright. I suppose it goes with the job. What is this situation you are talking about?”

“I have a girl I picked up on the road today. As things stand, her life is in danger. Can you get an extra ticket for her on tomorrow’s flight?”

“Girl, huh? I didn’t figure you out to be among those that ‘pick girls up’. I’m too tired to argue anyway. I’ll see what I can do but I wouldn’t bet on it.”

“Alright. Thanks.”

“Anything for you, boss.”

With nothing to do but wait, I decided to go over some documents concerning one of our software programs that was being developed for an agricultural project. I was so engrossed in trying to decipher a way to prevent malware attack that I didn’t notice her shaking until she screamed. I immediately closed the document and went to her side. She was shaking and couldn’t control herself. I just held her hands not wanting to scare her.

“It’s alright dear. You’re safe now. Just take a deep breath and calm down,” I said, gently stroking her palm. “It was just a nightmare.” She nodded, but calmed down a bit.

“He nearly killed me,” she let out fresh bursts of tears. I just held her, murmuring soothing words. Later she became a lot calmer. “Thank you very much.”

“You’re welcome. But you have to tell me who those people were and why they were chasing you.” She shook her head. “It’s alright dear. You have to tell me so that I can be able to help you out.”

“They are the goons of my boss. My boss hosted a party in honor of his son who finished school abroad. I was bringing some documents to him when I overheard him talking to someone on the phone about a drug deal,” she answered.

“Drug deal?” I queried.

“Yes, drug deal. He hardly takes calls in my presence. Now I know why. When he noticed I overheard him, he told me come closer. I couldn’t because I suspected that he was not happy I found out about his shady business. I turned and ran downstairs. As I was about to leave the gate of the premises, one of his bodyguards slapped me. I fell down and started crawling away. He grabbed my hair and pulled me towards the house. I knew that if I went inside that house I would not come out alive. So I twisted myself and hit him in the groin. That gave me the opportunity to run out of the compound. The rest of his bodyguards chased after me. One even shot at me but I was barely grazed by the bullet. I now came out of the junction and saw your car. The rest you know.”

As she finished her story, I was very quiet. I was at loss of what to say. Luckily, my phone rang. Jumoke had managed to secure another plane ticket for her. My angel, she knew how to get things done.

“Well Clara, you would be going back with me. How do you see that?” I asked.

“Really?”

I nodded. She gave me a look of appreciation that melted my heart. Tomorrow, I thought, you would forget about your terrors.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Six months later, and look at her! Who would have believed that she was on the verge of death a mere half a year ago? She was working at a law firm as a secretary and today I’m taking her out to dinner. The past months have been a little crazy for everyone concerned. She had to battle with nightmares, my family was against me for taking in a girl I hardly knew anything about, my friends thought me lost in love. But I just extended a hand of help. That’s all. OK, there’s the fact of my growing feelings for her but it wasn’t the reason she still slept in my guest bedroom. We were just being cautious.

She came out of the office looking resplendent. How can she manage to look amazing on any cloth she wore? Today she was wearing matching blue trousers and a blue jacket; she wore a silver blouse inside which matched her stiletto heels. She came into the car and gave me a peck. “How are dear? And how was work today?” she wanted to know.

“Well, I’m fine. I just lost the nanotech deal today. They said it was not as good as they thought. Can you imagine?”

“Of course I can understand that some people do not like something good. Don’t fret about it too much, okay?”

I just smiled and drove off. At the restaurant, she chose seats close to the window. She liked seeing people through glasses, she said. We ordered the same food: fufu with egusi soup. After eating, we were relaxing when she said, “Tell me about your days in the military.”

I laughed. I had promised her I would tell her all about my military days when she got over her nightmares. It was some sort of challenge between us. Anyway I’m glad she was past the traumatic events.

“What is there to say? I was a major and also a communications expert. One day, we were sent to rescue some hostages being held by a terrorist group. I was supposed to scramble their communication system but they ambushed us. Bullets flew like mosquitoes, there was so much carnage that I thought that would be my end. My best friend stepped on a mine and got blown away. The force wave threw me onto a rock. I hit my back on it and thought I was dead.

I woke up later in a military hospital, I was among the lucky few that survived. But at a great price — I had lost control of my legs. It took three months of physiotherapy to get me to this level of movement. Sadly, I am doomed to forever use crutches. When I got better, I decided to leave the military and opened my software company. That’s the story.”

“I’m sorry about what happened.”

“It’s not your fault, dear. I wouldn’t have met you otherwise,” I said looking into her eyes.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

When we got home, it was my younger sister, Tiana who opened the door for us. Immediately, she saw Clara, her face tightened in hostility. She had never grown to like Clara. It wasn’t just her, my whole family had this inexplicable acrimony towards her; I had tried my best to make them see her for who she is, but all to no avail.

Tiana had come for a holiday at my house. Her presence in the house will be of great inconvenience to my girlfriend, but I could not ask either of them to leave. I just hoped that I could handle things.

We went upstairs to my room. I’d wanted her to be at my place because from there, we would be going to my parents’ house. My decision has been long overdue; I wanted to marry Clara. After I’m done convincing my parents that she was the best woman for me (which I knew was going to be a Herculean task), I would head to her parents’ house.

She went into the bathroom to freshen up and I was sprawled on the bed, looking up at the ceiling, and remembering what she told me about her family. Her parents were poor, and found it extremely hard to feed her and her four younger siblings. Her father, a commercial driver, had borrowed a lot of money in order to send her to school. But in her final year, he died of complications arising from diabetes. After her school, she had found it hard to get work, but later she got one at MedCorp, where she worked until the unfortunate incident happened.

The beep of my phone brought me out of my reverie. I opened the email, and got the shock of my life. What I was seeing just unimaginable, yet I it was staring at me in the face. The email contained some pictures of Clara in bed with my best friend, Tony. I could not understand it. Why would she betray me? What have I not done for her? Immediately she came out, I thrust the phone into her hands.

“Can you tell me what this means?” I said in my iciest voice.

You could see the shock on her face. She tried explaining but I didn’t hear a word what she said. What was there to say? She touched me, with tears in her eyes, she said,

“Please my dear, give me a chance to explain.” Strangely, as bad as I wanted to be furious at her, I just wasn’t angry. I was just… sad, and forlorn. Perhaps, that was why I gave her a listening ear.

“There is one thing I didn’t tell you about myself. Before I got the job at MedCorp, I was a prostitute; it was the job I did to survive. I first met Tony during my days as a prostitute. He was with my former boss the day we met. They had come to where we stayed and requested for some girls for the night. I and a friend was picked. The boss took an interest in me and after our night together, gave me a job as his secretary.

“When you brought me to this city and Tony saw me, he immediately recognized me. Later, he called me and said that he would tell you of what I used to be if I did not agree to sleep with him. I refused at first, but I didn’t want to lose you, so I agreed to do it.”

As she was spinning her unbelievable tale, my head was pounding with anguish. So all these happened under my nose yet I didn’t find out? I must have been thoroughly blinded by love. Not anymore, I decided.

“I’m so sorry… I never meant it to be like this.”

I didn’t know that my sister was eavesdropping on us until she burst into the room shouting and raining abuses on Clara.

“Harlot! That was what I called you. But my brother would not listen. He was busy looking at a beautiful face. I said it! Have you seen it Brother?”
My nerves were already high strung already without her adding to the whole thing.

“Tiana,” I called, “can you please leave—”

“Instead of you to throw this prostitute out of your house, you’re asking me to leave? I don’t blame you!” She turned to Clara, and said: “As for you, my brother wanted to marry you, right? Let’s see how possible it is when I tell my parents all I heard.”

She stormed out of the room. After she, there was this deathly silence that was very hard to break. I asked Clara to sit down and wait for me. I planned on confronting Tony. Why would my friend betray me like this?
That was the last time I saw Clara alive. When I came out of the bathroom, she was nowhere to be found. I went downstairs and my gate man informed me that she left in some sort of distress. I dressed up, and drove to her place but I didn’t find her. As I was pulling out of her house, I got a call from her.

“My dear Ifeanyi, you brought joy and happiness to my life when I thought it was not possible. You’ve made me believe in love and for that, you’ll always be in my heart. But I have wronged you terribly, that is what I can’t live with. Also I don’t want to face your parents as an undeserving daughter-in-law. So I have decided to end it all. Goodbye my love. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me.” And she clicked off.

I shouted and pleaded with her not to do whatever she wanted to do, but I was only talking to myself. Where do I start to look for her? I rushed to her friend’s place, hoping against hope that she would be there. But she wasn’t. I and Jenny, her friend, now started looking for her. But we could not find her. Not until two days later.

~~~~~~~

Two days later, her body was washed up in a river close to the city. She had jumped into the river and had drowned. I had cried my eyes out as I held her cold, lifeless body. She had committed suicide because she thought I would not love her again, but could never have stopped loving her. Her death was a shock to everyone. Even my sister and parents were speechless when they learnt of how she died.

I was able to locate her parents, and she was taken home and buried. After her burial, I told Tony, who was also my employee to go as far away as he could from the city. If he didn’t, I told him, I would make his life a living, breathing hell. Well, he left and my misery did not abate.

Slowly but surely I would get over her. But it would be a long time coming. I would have to.

Read Also==>“Chained” — A Short Story by Somtoochukwu Benedict Ezioha

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