“She’ll be fine,” the doctor assured again, then going quiet and allowing Ben to his thoughts; it was as though he knew Ben needed a moment.
He was glad Rita would be fine. But he would never be fine, not after having to watch her stagger from the force of the bullet which went through her left shoulder, thank God it didn’t lodge and didn’t destroy any nerves; the doctor said she’d heal nicely. He’d never be fine after watching her fall and wasn’t in time to catch her; that shit would remain in his memory until a sweet memory took its place. He couldn’t be fine, knowing that his uncle was a killer; he’d been ready to shoot him, his nephew, if not for Rita. What the hell? He’d grown up with that man. It was just too much to handle.
“Can I see her now?” Ben couldn’t recognize his voice, hoarse from screaming her name in a bid to keep her conscious.
“Yes, you can, Sir.”
Ben nodded and left the office. Now he was turned; she’d whispered her apology but then there was the matter of her having used him to get to his uncle. Could he overlook that and embrace this breathless feeling he’d never had for anyone else?
He’d just made the corner into the corridor of her ward when he saw the DSS team lead going into Rita’s room. What now, he thought, quickening his steps but hesitating when he got to the entrance. If he found out now that she had a man, he had no idea what he’d do, well, apart from killing anybody who dared to touch her. She was his, goddamnit!
Ben stood to the side of the open door, not wanting to be seen. A nurse hurried out of the room, carrying a tray with syringes and cotton. He knew her; she’d been with the doctor when he’d been attending to Rita. She stopped to inform him that she’d given Rita a sedative that would take a while to kick-in, so he could go talk to her. Ben nodded his thanks and she moved on while he listened.
“How’s Okpara?” he heard Rita’s weak voice and his heart somersaulted.
“Is that what you call her?” there was humour in the deep tone of the DSS guy.
“Yes. I’m sorry for everything.”
“You shouldn’t be. Okpara is fine and she did what she did because she’d been raped as a kid too.”
Ben’s knees buckled, almost sending him to the ground. Uncle Zach had raped her? Oh God, what...dear God. His hand pinched his nose to control his emotions.
“I didn’t know,” Rita whispered.
“She didn’t tell people ...well, except me,” there was pride in his tone; this guy sounded like he wanted a lot more than work partnership with Rita’s cousin, was she even her cousin? There were so many lies to unravel.
“Well, you’re her partner.”
The guy sighed heavily in the ensuing silence. “I’ve wanted to be more,” he replied, confirming Ben’s thoughts.
“Aww. I believe she likes you too. Maybe, we can fix that when we get out of here? Ask my friends, they’ll tell you I’m good at fixing up people’s relationships.”
“Is that so?” he chuckled. “I’d appreciate that, if you’re sure you can handle Oge.”
No reply came, so Ben assumed she had nodded. He wanted to see her, to hold her and know she was fine. So he stepped into the door way, seeing the DSS guy stood at a respectable distance, good.
“Well, err, she did a good job, both of you did...and your friends. The man will be arraigned in court. The video evidence, testimonies from his victims will lock him away for a long time, not to talk of the attempted murder charge.”
Ben cleared his throat to get their attention, he was tired of waiting. The guy turned, shifting enough for Rita to see him and Ben finally caught her eyes, though only for a moment, but the slamming force still left him breathless. He needed to see more of her eyes, when it’d closed back at his uncle’s house, he’d gone berserk.
“Um...I’m really glad you’re okay. I’ve never seen Oge worried about anybody like she did for you. I’ll tell her you’re good. See you soon,” was his parting shot and when he passed by Ben, he touched his shoulder and finally they were alone.
But Rita wouldn’t look at him. Ben marched to her bed and tenderly raised her head with a finger under her chin. His heart thudded, bolting like it wanted to jump out of his chest when her eyes met his.
He released a breath he didn’t know he was holding. “Hey,” he said slowly. “The nurse said she gave you a sedative.”
She glanced away and would have wanted to drop her head but he wouldn’t let her, so she nodded and looked at him.
“I’m sorry, Rita... I didn’t know... I swear if I did, I’d kill him for doing that to you...for doing that to anybody, not to talk of teenage girls.”
He didn’t understand why she frowned as though she couldn’t comprehend what he was saying and why. “What are you talking about?” she whispered, her eyes focused on his, giving him a feeling of highness.
Ben swallowed with difficulty, feeling like a board of sharp nails scraped his chest at the thought of Uncle Zach forcing himself on an innocent Rita. How old had she even been when it’d happened, he wondered. “I’m sorry for what my uncle did to you,” he choked on his words, swallowing the lump that blocked his breathing but refusing to look away, refusing to hide his pain.
Rita shook her head. “No he...he didn’t rape me, he raped my younger sister, she was 16 and she committed suicide when the police made it seem like she’d lied and her friends denied ever taking her to his hotel room and the hotel swore no girl visited...”
“Shh, shh, don’t cry. I’m still so very sorry.” Oh thank God it wasn’t her. He wanted to hug her but he couldn’t risk hurting her wound. “When was this?”
She sniffled. “Four years ago.”
“I’m so sorry, Rita. I had no idea...”
“I’m sorry that I lied,” she whispered, her eyes drooping, the sedative was taking effect. “I wanted someone to befriend and get to him but when I saw you...”
Ben’s heart thumped as he waited, turned between letting her rest and shaking her to complete her sentence. But when she saw him, Ben could only hope everything had changed.
Rita was discharged seven days after she’d been admitted, with medication, home care advice, a future appointment for check-up and the big news.
“Who else knows this?” she asked the doctor gravely while sitting on the hospital bed, dressed, left hand in a sling while waiting for her friends to come take her home.
“I...no one. I believe as there were no relatives, just friends, you needed the option of not sharing until you’re ready.”
Rita smiled at the doctor, nodding, because she hadn’t even known she’d needed that option. The first day here, it’d been Ben handling everything and when she woken up, he’d been gone and her friends, who’d taken over from him, told her nothing. She’d received the message loud and clear, he didn’t want her. Maybe, he was afraid of what people would think, him being with the same person that had sent his uncle to prison.
“Thank you, for that option and everything else,” she added as her friends clattered into the room. The doctor nodded, smiled and walked out. Rita vaguely wished she had enough sense to shoot her shot at the handsome doctor. He seemed like the kind of guy that wouldn’t care if a woman carried another man’s child, as far as he liked her and of course, if she had no more ties with the baby daddy. But, no, she had no such sense if she was hurting from Ben’s silence and disappearance.
“Let’s get you home, miss actor.” Eka said this and they all laughed, leaving the hospital in smiles and chatter.
Two weeks later, Rita’s shoulder had healed, her arm out of a sling, so, her friends could finally be away from her house for more than 24 hours.
She’d appreciated their sacrifice, their tender loving care, their ever present help, and she’d be eternally grateful that she had such friends, her only family but she’d been ready to be alone for a long time.
Except, when she’d finally gotten her solitude three days ago, her formally occupied mind, a service her friends had rendered with no charge, had become idle and stuck on Benjamin Inyang, like it didn’t have better things to do.
Rita survived the first two weeks after discarding the sling by taking up the back log of designs waiting to be delivered. She called the clients to explain why it was late and they all sounded nice, claiming Kate, her manager that she was going to have to make partner soon, had explained everything to them.
When the designs were complete, she started going for decorating jobs with her crew, a fit she’d gladly let Kate handle, but with a need to not obsess about a certain melanin dude, she’d taken interest in her first passion again.
But it wasn’t enough. How could it be when she felt empty despite being full of a growing human in her womb and morning sickness that just wouldn’t quit? Rita knew she had to do something about it or go crazy, so, she’d called her friends five weeks after the hospital and told them about the baby.
As expected, they were crazy happy and supportive but were tentative when they asked about Ben as they wanted to know the stance they’d take, to abuse him or be patient. Rita hadn’t been able to say anything and no matter how she tried, she could not avoid the excitement of expecting a baby, not when she had a pregnant Eka as friend.
Eka was already twinning the birth process and child rearing and it was driving Nene crazy with envy. Rita wouldn’t be surprised if Nene ended her self-imposed baby making hiatus and turned up pregnant.
She was happy about the baby, but things with Ben had been left uncertain. And Rita had always hated the pang of uncertainty. It was why as a young adult who’d discovered that some men were just plain mean to chubby women, preferring to string them along, enjoying their weakness and dependency for the scrap affection and acceptance they offered, Rita had taken it upon herself to ensure certainty in all her dealings.
Most of those men, before she’d decided to avoid men entirely, had been shocked at her audacity to breakup with them when they’d began acting impatient and busy around her. She knew she had a huge shy thread in her DNA but she also detested hanging in a balance or not knowing her stance, so she did something about it.
She broke up with those men who made her feel as though she was lucky to be breathing their air and therefore believed she’d beg for their attention if they denied her some. Her business thrived from being clear about the clients’ wants, having an agreement and signing a contract to that effect. That way, everyone is happy and there’s no uncertainty in sight.
When her sister had committed suicide and she’d been helpless in finding justice for her, uncertainty had been a big, wet blanket suffocating all she did until Okpara had walked into her life. Rita had been the only person, among Zach’s numerous victims and their families, willing to go the extra mile to get him. It was why she’d opened that second branch office when Okpara had found out that he’d rented the building for his company, she’d had to pay extra because the landlord had wanted to rent the last floor to Zach too.
And when it had come time to getting close to Zach, she’d needed an in, she’d been willing to befriend anybody, become a client or girlfriend, if it required it, because the fire of vengeance burned bright in her soul. That was until Kate pointed out Ben and the heat of vengeance gave way to passion.
Rita had wanted him instantly and it was no surprise that she’d gone for him despite her shy gene thread. She’d developed a try-first kind of attitude. She knew that if she’d found out Ben had a girlfriend or wife, she’d have weaned herself of him and the butterflies in the belly that fluttered at the sight of him. The point was doing something about whatever bothered her.
And Ben’s silence after the hospital bothered her. After reviving her proactive attitude to life, she grabbed her phone and dialled James, he answered at the first ring.
“Hey there, woman!” Rita could hear the grin in his tone, especially, after she’d all but ordered Kate to agree to his dinner date which seemed to have flourished into a relationship.
“Hey, James man,” she grinned too, appreciating his friendship. She probably would have given up on Ben and weaned herself earlier, if James hadn’t been her ally.
“You’ve abandoned me since Ben left, right?”
Her breath hitched at his casual comment. He left? Deep down she’d suspected this but had hoped not and had been afraid of confirming her suspicion, which is why she’d let off calling this long. She shut her eyes to suppress the sharp pain in her heart and breathed through it to keep her voice devoid of hurt.
“Left? I’ve been so busy catching up on work. I didn’t know he wasn’t around. You know, Mr. Uwa really got me a lot of jobs from his recommendations.”
Rita heard weight shifting on leather and she knew James was sitting forward to get into the conversation; she’d seen him do so the many times they’d conversed.
“Ah, that’s good. I’m happy, especially since you did it without payment.” James was a consummate gossip, he paused to see if she would take the bait, she didn’t.
Rita forced a chuckle instead. “Yes, it’s God blessing my sacrifice. How’s Kate?”
James scoffed, “Isn’t she your manager?” and laughed, sounding happier than she’d ever heard him be. “She’s awesome, Rita, I will marry that woman if she’ll have me.”
Could her heart break any tinier than it already had? Not that she wasn’t happy for Kate; but since meeting Ben, she’d forgotten how not to want marriage and a conventional family. And it was ironic that she was good at repairing conventional families or, in James and Kate’s case, creating one.
“Yay! I guess this is why I called today. My work here is done, James. Go out there and get that lovely woman a ring!” she forced a cheer and ended the call while James laughed.
Rita flung her phone and covered her face in despair. Ben had left. Her heart hurt enough to cry, but tears didn’t come; maybe it would come at night. She sighed, picked her phone again and dialled Ben’s number. It rang twice without answer.
Her throat clogged. Rita was good at getting silent messages. It was clearly over between them. She sucked in a deep breath and concluded that the universe was just giving her what she’d always wished for, a baby without the hassle of a man in her life. She typed out a friendly text message to him, one she wasn’t expecting a reply.
Yes, she’d wanted a baby – check. She’d wanted it with a handsome, intelligent, charismatic man – check. She’d wanted a night with Ben – check. She’d wanted a life free of men – double check. Her wishes had been fulfilled but could she live with them?