He ignored my shocked countenance, pushing me to side as he brushed past me. He boldly walked into the living room like he owned the place.
I moved to close the front door and go after him but decided against it, leaving the door slightly ajar.
"What are you doing here" I gritted out, not wanting Zozo to hear me.
He turned from admiring the living room's intricate designs and settling his icy gaze on me. He hadn't changed much, his thin rugged look had been beefed up with a little fat here and there but his eyes still held the same fear-inducing effect it did years ago. He was on all black; vest and trousers with a black and red checkered satchel slung across his shoulder in such a way that it rested on the other hip.
"You look surprised to see me," he said
"How did you find me?" I asked, ignoring his statement.
"You know that friend of yours, what's her name again" he snapped his fingers in the air as he tried to recollect. "A-han, Angela... Bumped into her a few days ago. You know, I used to tell you that she had a very loose mouth on her, who knew it would be to my advantage one day"
"She let me know that you moved here. Pinpointing you was, well a bit of a hassle but I wouldn't bore you with the details" he said casually.
My eyes kept drifting to the stairs as he talked, hoping and praying that Zozo doesn't choose this time to come out. One, I wouldn't know what to do or say to her and two, I didn't know what Kunle's line of action would be.
He resumed his admiration for the living room. "What a beautiful house this is".
He ran his hand over the sofa, feeling the texture of the material. "Finally, found an unfortunate rich guy to sink your fangs into" he muttered underneath his breath.
"You're sick if you think I left because of money" I seethed with anger.
He held up his hand to me. "I didn't come here to argue with you--"
He reached into his satchel, brought out a brown envelope and flung it at me. "-- that would be done in court."
I gave him a death glare, I didn't register his words until I opened the envelope. As I pulled out the stapled papers in it and glanced at the contents on the first page, my heart plunged into my stomach. I felt like wind was knocked out of me as well sucking life out of me. My fingers all of a sudden weakened and the papers vibrated in my hands.
No. No. This cannot be happening right now.
He was filling for the full custody of Zozo.
"You can't be serious" I whispered out
He walked up to me with fast, menacing strides. "You really thought that I would let you take my daughter away and not come back for her"
"She's not your daughter" I managed to retort.
A wicked smile that made me break into cold sweats appeared on his face. "We'll see about that"
"You can't do this" I shot back
"This says otherwise" he pointed to the papers in my hands. "I'll take my leave now, I've wasted too much time here"
And with that he walked away, leaving me standing heart wrenched in the middle of the living room.
I pulled into my driveway and brought the car to a halt. The drive back home was tedious, a trailer had collapsed on one side of the road causing massive traffic. We all had to pass a one-way road just to get out of that area.
It had been a really long day and I just wanted to go in and see my family. A whole week with close to no communication at all was quite challenging because there were times I just wanted to hear both their voices but couldn't.
Now that I was finally back home, I wasted no time in grabbing my travel bag and heading to the house. On approaching the front door, I found it slightly ajar which made me pause for a couple of seconds to examine it. I jiggled and turned the handle to make sure it wasn't tampered with but it was completely fine.
Why was it left open?
"Babe?!" I called out as I stepped into the house.
I got no response so I closed the door gently behind me.
I walked into the living room to find Ijeoma seated at the end of the three-seater sofa with her head bowed down. Her hands were placed by the sides of her head supporting it.
"Hey. Why was the door unlocked?" I questioned as I approached her.
She didn't raise her head or move from her position to acknowledge my presence or even welcome me. I knew right there and then that there was something wrong. I dropped my bag on the floor immediately and rushed over to her.
"Babe, what's wrong?" I placed a hand on her back and crouched down to her level.
I couldn't see her face because her hair fell to the sides covering it but I could feel her body vibrating against my palm.
I became worried. "Did something happ--"
"Daddy!!" Zozo screamed as she rushed down the stairs.
I stood to my feet and turned around in time to catch her as she ran and jumped at me. I placed her. I placed her on my hips after a quick hug, then placed a kiss on her cheeks.
"Hi Angel, Did you miss me?" I said with a wide smile
She nodded vehemently.
I placed a big kiss on her cheeks causing her to squeal loudly as she tried to push back my face. I turned around just in time to see Ijeoma rise from the sofa and quickly wipe her face. She faces us and plastered a fake smile on her face, for Zozo's sake.
"Uhm... I ordered dinner so how about you go freshen up and come back to eat" she faked a chirpy tone.
"Okay..." I tried to search her eyes but she averted her gaze to the floor.
"I'll just go and reheat the food," she said before dashing to the kitchen.
What was going on with her?
I placed Zozo down on the floor and she ran towards the kitchen, joining her mom. I picked up my travel bag and headed upstairs.
Dinner was extremely quiet except for Zozo's little chatters. I watched Ijeoma stare into space throughout the whole meal, she barely touched her food. A dinner she clearly went all out on.
Her lost, sombre mood began to dampen mine, I couldn't understand why she was acting this way. I had tried to come up with different scenarios but none of them made sense.
Once I cleared the food off my plate, Ijeoma immediately got up and picked the plates even though her plate was almost as full as it was when she began.
Zozo began to get drowsy, so I decided to take her up to her room and tuck her in while Ijeoma was busy in the kitchen. It took five minutes for Zozo to eventually doze off. I placed a light kiss on her forehead, turned out her lights before stepping out of the room.
Ijeoma was standing in the middle of the living room by the time I got down from the stairs. She had a brown envelope in her right hand and her eyes were fixated on the wall, lost in thought. She looked at me once she heard me approaching.
"What's going on?" I asked, placing a hand on the side of her face.
She didn't respond instead she handed me the brown envelope, I eyed her warily before taking it.
She took a shaky breath before saying. "Kunle was here"
Kunle? Who the hell was Kunle?
"Zozo's biological father" Ijeoma added, reading my expression.
"Why was he here? Hold on, how did he know you lived here?" I said as a lot of questions ran through my mind.
"He didn't say much. He just came to deliver this personally" she said tiredly, pointing to the envelope in my hands.
"What's this?" I asked
"Open it" her voice broke a little.
I opened the envelope and pulled out the content. I looked back at her after reading the header on the paper.
"He's filing for full custody"
She nodded weakly.
I looked back into the paper and skimmed through the remaining contents.
"This doesn't make sense. He's saying you ran away with his daughter... That you basically abducted her" I stated
"I did run away with Zozo," she said
"Noah, there are some things that I haven't told you about yet and I think it's time I did," she said. "Can we sit down, please?"
We both walked towards the sofas. She sat on a one-seater and I took the one next to hers. I angled my body in such a way that I could see her face properly.
She rubbed her palms together and took in a deep breath. "A couple of months after Zozo was born, Kunle showed up at my friend, Angela's place. She was the one who housed me throughout my pregnancy and after. He came to apologise for abandoning us and not taking responsibility for his child and that he wanted to be a better man. He said he had gotten a well-paying job and he had an apartment of his own and that he wanted us to move in together. He wanted us to live like a family. Despite my anger for him leaving me when I most needed him, I was desperate. Desperate for love, desperate for someone to want me... To need me and so I forgave him and moved in with him. It was stupid of me, I know"
She paused for a while before continuing. "Things were fine at the beginning, he went to work and I stayed at home taking care of Zozo. He was extremely caring and understanding towards me, buying me gifts and all. I had a feeling he was only doing it because he felt guilty for abandoning me initially but I didn't care, as long as I got the love and care I needed. Little did I know that we were just in the calm before the storm."
I watched her mindlessly play with her fingers on her lap as she talked.
"The company he worked for went through some financial hiccups and had to lay off some workers. Unfortunately, he was part of the people they let go of. He went out day after day, going from one job interview to the other but there was no luck. With no money coming in, I had to step up and get a job. I didn't have a degree so I got two menial jobs that didn't require certificates, one in the day as a dry cleaner and the other at night, as a bartender." She went on.
"Kunle gave up on looking for jobs after countless disappointments and took up drinking for a hobby. He gradually transformed into something I couldn't recognize anymore. He started yelling at me for the smallest of things, coming back home late and drunk out of his mind. I would always make excuses in my head like 'he is just frustrated' or 'once he finds a job, things would go back to normal'. I made those excuses even when he started hitting me."
She chuckled humorlessly. "Now that I think about it, I realize how stupid I'd been. He didn't punch me or kick me but he slapped me around and my not being able to cook didn't make things easy for me. I just took whatever he threw at me but what almost destabilized me was when he started forcing himself on me. The doctors had to cut me down there during labour just so Zozo could come out and after that, I didn't feel up to having sex anymore. One night, I came back from the nightclub I worked in and I was so tired, all I wanted to do was breastfeed Zozo and go to bed but he had other plans for me. After I was done breastfeeding and putting Zozo to sleep, he started kissing me and I knew he wanted to have sex but I just wasn't ready. I tried to tell him that I wasn't in the mood and that I wasn't ready not to talk of how tired I was but he wasn't having it."
She stopped and did a little breathing exercise but it wasn't working like she wanted because tears streamed down her eyes. I got up and walked over to her, knelt and enveloped her in my arms.
"You don't have to talk about it," I said
"No, I want to. I want to finally be able to tell someone about it... I need to tell you" she insisted
"Okay" I took her hands in mine and gave it a light squeeze. "Do you want me to stay by your side?"
"Yeah" she nodded. "We can move over there"
She pointed to the three-seater sofa just so we could sit side by side. I was fine either way as long as I was next to her, giving her as much comfort I could. Once we were seated, she took in a shaky deep breath and continued.
"I- I couldn't scream or shout because I didn't want to wake Zozo who was asleep in the next room, I just struggled against him but he got what he wanted at the end. That night, I couldn't sleep, I laid awake on that bed next to him thinking 'did that just happen to me'. I was numb, I didn't know what my next line of action would be. The next day, I went about my day normally and at night, my hell began again and it began every day that I didn't even bother to fight him anymore. I just laid there and let him do whatever he wanted." She said
"I needed someone to talk to so badly, someone to tell me that what I was going through was normal. I narrated my ordeal to a co-worker at the nightclub I worked in but I didn't let her know I was the one and she said, in her words 'Is that one rape? What does she expect, she lives with the man and already has a child for the man. Does she expect him not to ask for sex?". At that moment, I understood the cries of women whose husbands raped them. Nobody ever saw wrong in what happened to them, they always justified the men saying 'it was their property and their right'. I knew that I wasn't married to him but I might as well have been. We already lived in the same house and had a child together, all that was left was a quick exchange of rings in a church."
"The last straw for me was when..." She paused and lifted her head to the ceiling as if to drive the tears back. "Was when he flung Zozo across the room. She was just learning to walk and he came back one night and staggered towards him. He didn't even care that she was just a baby, he just... He just pushed her away and left her crying on the floor. I felt like the worst mother in the world knowing that I left her alone with him every day, who knew how he treated her when I was out working. I already knew he wasn't doing a good job in taking care of her because I would sometimes come back from work and find her alone in the house but I couldn't do anything about it. At that moment I knew that I had to get away from him. It was like I finally got the strength that I needed to leave him for good. The next day after he left to get drunk, I grabbed all the money I had saved, packed all our stuff and just left with no destination in mind.
"Last minute, I decided to take a bus to Anambra since it was my hometown and I would be able to stay with one of my many relatives. Luckily Fola, my friend from high school reached out to me and invited me to stay with her and her sister when I told her I was coming to Anambra state. She housed me till I got my job at the hospital and was able to get my own place" she concluded
My heart was shattered knowing that she went through all of this at such a young age. I finally understood why she was hesitant towards me in the beginning and why she was so insecure. At the same time, I developed a newfound respect for how strong came out to be, despite everything.
"I'm so sorry you had to go through all that," I said, taking her hands in mine.
"It's not your fault" she shrugged her shoulders.
"I wish I could go back and protect you from all that happened to you but I can't. What I can do is promise you that I would do everything in my power to keep that man far away from our daughter" I said firmly.
She wrapped her arms around me. "Thank you"
"I would always be here for you," I said, gently rubbing her back. "Always."
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