It has been close to a week since Juju’s murder, and Imani is still having trouble sleeping. He was someone’s father, maybe someone’s grandfather. His fate had been sealed the day he gave Bahati and Imani fruit. Had she known of the violence to come, Imani would have avoided him at all costs. Juju’s life had been taken in place of theirs.
The lights are off in the apartment, and Bahati is snoring beside her in bed. She can feel her friend’s scales pressing against her skin. It amazes Imani how the other girl can sleep so soundly as if the world is not collapsing around them. They have not left the tunnels since the last incident, but Imani still does not feel safe.
Imani’s nails dig into her hands, while she thinks. For over two months, all she and Bahati have done is hide. Ekon is looking for them, but they are too scared to do anything about it. He does have power and enforcers willing to kill for him. He has no regard for life. Does that mean Imani and Bahati should be hiding in a warm apartment underground and playing board games while the outside world and Imani’s own world are ignorant to the coming storm? She sighs.
Ten years ago, Imani was a frail five- or six-year-old girl afraid of her own shadow. She had believed in monsters when no one else had. She had no clue as to the real monsters scattered throughout the universe, monsters like Ekon. She is no longer that little girl. Now older and mature, she should be able to think her way out of this. Frustration consumes her, so she bites another nail off and chews it.
Not only has she allowed herself to be separated from her family for ten years, she has allowed herself to be controlled most recently by fear. She is scared to be caught, scared to die, maybe even scared to make a difference. She has chided Bahati for not doing more, but she herself knows she should do more too. Hiding underground is no life to live.
Imani’s eyes are open to the darkness of the room, but her dad fills her vision. He is tall, lean, and smiling, always smiling. She stands by, while he kisses the younger Imani on the cheek, and he closes the book. The little Imani is sound asleep, but her dad speaks as though she is wide awake. “Stay beautiful,” he says, closing the bedroom door behind him.
Beside her, Bahati stirs. She mumbles something incoherent then falls silent again. When she says no more, Imani runs a hand through her hair. The texture is different from her own. Thick and medium length, Imani’s hair texture changes depending on various factors. When it gets wet, it curls tightly. When it is hot out, it frizzes. Bahati’s hair is thin, but very long. It feels like brittle silk in Imani’s hand.
Bahati and Imani have argued a lot recently, yet they have gotten closer. If Bahati is not there when Imani wakes up, Imani goes looking for her. The apartment is so small, it does not take much time to find her. The moments between losing Bahati and finding her in the bathroom always feel like a lifetime. She is all Imani has.
Imani loves Bahati and can not see a life for herself without her. She fears connecting with her family means disconnecting with Bahati. Knowing the day of the UJC vote meeting is drawing nearer, Imani wonders what will happen if she and Bahati are successful. Will Imani go back to Earth? Will Bahati come with her? Imani knows the answers to the questions but finds comfort in pretending like the answers are not definite.
“Imani, why are you sitting up?” Bahati says, yawning. “Lights.” The lights turn on.
“I was thinking,” she says, not remembering when she had sat up. She rubs her eyes.
Bahati checks the clock. “The moon hasn’t even risen yet. You haven’t been sleeping. You need rest. What could you possibly be thinking about?”
“I’m tired of being trapped down here.”
“It’s not like we have much of a choice. I’m sorry if the excitement is wearing off.”
“I feel like a caged animal. This isn’t how people are supposed to live.”
“Really now,” Bahati says, adjusting the shirt she is wearing, as she sits up. “Tell me, how are people, I mean fugitives on the run supposed to live?”
“Why are we on the run? We’ve done nothing wrong. If anyone should be a fugitive, it should be Ekon.”
“We’ve been through this before. I’m tired of circling in this direction. We have no power, no connections. We’ll be lucky if we can get Mother’s journal to the UJC.”
Imani comes to her feet, her braids swaying. “What if we can’t? What if we fail? Then what? Everyone on my home planet will be turned to mindless slaves?”
“You worry too much. We won’t fail. We’ve stayed alive this far because we’ve calculated our every step.”
“Our calculated steps led to Juju’s murder. He was innocent,” Imani says angrily.
“Innocent people die every day. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong. It’s the way of the world,” she says, shrugging.
“We owe Juju’s son an explanation. He deserves to know why his father died.”
“If you’re searching for closure, you won’t find it. Nothing you say to his son will bring Juju back. Just by contacting him, we could put his life in danger.”
“You don’t have to come, but I am going back to the High District. I will wear a good disguise this time, and I will tell Juju’s son everything.”
Bahati throws her hands in the air, frustration in her eyes. “What good will that do?”
“I’ve been keeping everything bottled up in here,” she says, pointing at her chest. “I have to lift this burden off my heart. I was taken from my family by force. I don’t know what has happened to my mother or father or brother. I can’t walk away without thanking Juju’s son for what his father did.”
“I really wish I had some updates to fed you right now. They would take the edge off your emotions,” Bahati says. She tucks her hair behind her ear and yawns.
Imani takes a seat beside Bahati on the bed. “All of this is new to me as well. I was a child when I was taken, and I was drugged senseless since then. My emotions flare sometimes, and I can’t control them, but this is the right thing to do.”
“It’s fine. You’re human. Reptilians feel the same emotions as humans, just not as intensely. Some of us have no empathy or sympathy.”
“I think Ekon falls into that category.”
“That’s why he and I never bonded, even if we are close in age.”
Imani thinks about how close she and her twin brother would have been. Her memories of him are mostly murky, although a few of them are as clear as a reflection in a mirror. She wonders if he still has the limp that came with a broken leg or if he has outgrown it. Surely, age has altered his features, making his nose and lips more pronounced. If she saw him this very moment, would she know who he is? Would he know her?
She knows “know” is not the right word. She has met many people during her time on Yabisi and has not seen them again. That does not mean she knows them, regardless of if she had known them. Just as she is someone other than the little girl from ten years ago, her brother is someone else. He knows her no more than she knows him.
The updates have left a gaping hole inside of Imani she had not known was there. Without the pills, she feels a longing greater than herself. She ponders what she can fill this hole with. Love? Family? Hope? She yearns for something to make her feel whole again. The updates can dull that yearning, but she will be a piece of herself. Not half, not a third, just a piece.
Placing her head in Bahati’s lap, Imani sighs as her friend traces the lines between her braids with her claws. Bahati’s touch is therapy to a broken soul. Unconsciously, Imani’s hands relax from the balls they had become. She exhales, and the weight on her chest vanishes like the scent of rain on air.
Imani anticipates the hand edging from her head, down her face, across her neck and beneath her shirt. She arches her back, lips parting as though to beg the hand to move faster, to move at the speed of light. The hand moves slower like it has received her request and chooses to deny it. She is breathless.
Her hand cupped behind Bahati’s head, Imani draws the girl’s mouth to her own. Their lips greet each other with insignificant pecks, but gradually, those pecks become longer and longer. Imani tastes Bahati’s saliva mixed with morning breath and last night’s dinner. It is an authentic taste, natural as beauty without the pretense of makeup. Bahati’s lips are just about as soft as her own.
She loves the way Bahati smells. She does not wear perfume or body spray. Her scent reminds Imani of the ocean, the earth and something unnamable. Imani breathes in her friend’s fragrance as if it is her last breath. Her chest rises and falls quicker with each inhalation.
The hand has finally found its place, tracing a path around one of Imani’s breasts and then the other. It squeezes just enough to make her moan with the expectation of welcomed pain. Instead, the hand’s pressure settles right outside of pain’s threshold. It moves in soft circles like a dance it has practiced for years.
At some point in time, both girl’s shirts come off, leaving them as exposed as Yabisi’s orange moon in the afternoon. Imani is always in awe of Bahati’s body. Her scales are smooth as skin and feel like they have just been moisturized. Imani kisses Bahati’s face and neck, never stopping to see where she is headed next.
The two are wrapped in the moment, letting themselves mix until they can not tell one body from the next. They let the heat invade them, become them. Someone gasps. Someone else moans. Someone says someone loves someone else. Someone’s fingers touch someone else’s inner thigh. It does not matter who is doing what, as long as it gets done.
They reach the peak of exhilaration simultaneously and are rocked into shudders and shakes. The convulsions are breathtaking and mind shattering. For these moments, Imani and Bahati are not on Yabisi. They are not fugitives. They are not girls or young women, reptilian or human. They just are.
Bahati wipes sweat from her own and Imani’s face. They do not speak immediately. There is something sacred in this silence. It says what they are thinking but too exhausted to put into words. Imani’s skin against Bahati’s scales says enough to keep them grounded.
“Too bad we can’t stay this way forever,” Imani finally says.
“We could, but you want to go and save the world, save several worlds maybe.”
“It wasn’t on my agenda two months ago, but hey, plans change.”
Imani reaches across the bed and grabs Bahati’s hand. “This is what we’re fighting for as well. Us, not just for everyone else. We are a world together, and we must defend that.”
“I agree,” she replies, kissing Imani’s hand.
“I don’t want to continue to run. After we go see Juju’s son, I want to get an interstellar pod and go back to Earth.”
“What are you going to do on Earth?” Bahati says, grabbing Imani’s leg to stop it from bouncing.
“We’re going to warn them of the invasion,” she says, standing. “Now, get dressed. We have to get to the High District.”
Imani watches Juju’s son Akil, as Bahati picks up where she left off. Akil is a short man with a full beard, only four or five years older than they are. He does not ask questions, simply nods and looks between the two of them like he is searching for confirmation that the other is telling the truth. Much of what they tell him, such as their belief that Ekon killed Khalia, is nothing more than suspicion. Even their shaky details do not break his calm demeanor.
The restaurant is dark, lit only by what morning light makes it through the tinted windows. Though they can see out the windows, the few passersby can not see in. This comforts Imani, as she listens to Bahati tell the last of their story. The last thing Imani wants is another episode similar to the one they experienced while here last time. She looks at the floor beside the booth they sit in and can guess where Juju’s body landed.
Imani adjusts the black and gray wig she is wearing. The hair is much longer than her own, but it goes well with the baggy shirt and loose pants she is wearing. The sleeves of her shirt periodically fall past her hands, so she has taken to bunching the cuffs in her hands. She feels silly in the disguise, just as much as Bahati does in her own black wig and odd clothes, but they understand how important it is to conceal their identity.
“That’s how we ended up in this mess and dragged your father into it,” Bahati says, concluding the tale.
Imani stares at Akil, expecting to see anger, rage, maybe disgust. She sees nothing. His expression is blank as the wind. It carries with it something threatening and sinister. She feels Bahati tense beside her. Just when he bares his teeth and Imani thinks he is about to attack them, Akil laughs and laughs some more.
“What’s funny?” Imani asks, the question slipping from her before she can catch it.
He wipes tears from his cheeks. “It sounds like you two are in quite the situation. It’s so messed up, it’s funny.”
“I’m glad someone can see the humor in it,” Bahati mumbles.
“Your father is dead because of us. Doesn’t that upset you?” Imani asks, knitting her brow.
“My father isn’t dead because of you. He’s dead for being himself. Maybe he didn’t know what type of trouble you are in, but it wouldn’t have made a difference.”
“Why not?” Bahati asks.
Akil strokes his beard. “Because he was a good man. He would have died helping someone else if not you. My father gave me this place a year ago, but he came here nearly every day to help me.”
Imani finishes biting the last of her pinky nail. “Sounds like he loved this restaurant and you,” Imani says.
“He was always there for me,” Akil says, looking down at the table. “I just wish I would have been here when he needed me.”
“They would have killed you too,” Bahati says. She fixes the wig so the hair does not hang in front of her eyes.
He leans over the table. “You don’t think I know that? I don’t care. I would have died fighting.”
Imani touches Akil’s calloused hands. His scales are rough as dried clay. He settles into his seat, and the anger leaves him. He apologizes, but she tells him he has done nothing wrong. It is fine to be upset.
“If it matters, your father died fighting. I’m grateful for what he did for us,” Imani says.
“Thanks. It means a bunch,” he replies. “What can I do to help?”
“Your father did enough. We’ve already worn our welcome on Grot’s kindness. We don’t want to put you in danger.”
“My father died for you. He would want me to help as much as I can. Whatever it is, I can do it.”
Bahati takes the brown journal from her bag and sits it in the middle of the table. Imani reaches for it, but Bahati stops her. This book is the last valuable thing they have between themselves. Without it, they are worthless to Ekon. She explains this to Bahati.
“You’re right,” Bahati agrees. “If we get caught, this journal will be our only leverage.”
“As long as Ekon can’t find it, he has a reason to keep us alive. At least until after the vote,” Imani says, catching on.
“You trust me with this? How do you know I won’t turn it over?” Akil says, pulling his beard.
“A few months ago, I didn’t trust a soul. Someone has given me a new faith in people,” Bahati says, elbowing Imani.
“So, bots are really from Earth? I’ve heard things about it, but I’ve never been. What’s it like?”
“I was five or six when I was kidnapped, so I don’t know a bunch about it. It was a nice place to live because of my family,” Imani says.
“You’ve lost a lot. I can see why you’re anxious to get back. Do you think your family remember you?”
“I hope they will.”
Imani plays with her nails, drifting away from the conversation. Ten years ago, her mother was a beautiful woman with healthy dark skin that glowed from the inside. Maybe she looks the same. Maybe time has been bad to her and age has left her sickly. Imani purses her lips and pushes away the thought that she may never know what has become of her mother. Gloom and sadness find her.
There are pieces of a melody in Imani’s head she can not seem to bring together. They are of a song her mother used to sing to her. “If you ever get lost, this song will help you find your way back,” she pictures her mother saying. The rhyming words contain an address and phone number. The words are a mist she can not grasp. Suddenly, the pieces fall away.
“I’ll guard this book with my life,” Akil is saying, cracking into her thoughts.
“Don’t guard it with your life. If Ekon or his goons come for it, you give it to them,” Imani says, clasping his wrist across the table.
“If we get caught and Ekon somehow gets that journal from him, we’re good as dead,” Bahati says to Imani.
“You don’t have to worry because I won’t give it to him,” Akil says, promising.
“Don’t think that way. That journal is not worth your life,” Imani says.
“But it is worth the both of yours?” he asks, looking at them across the table.
“It is not,” Bahati says.
The callousness in Bahati’s tone irritates Imani.
“It isn’t, but this is our fight. We got ourselves into this. We can get ourselves out. We’ve caused you enough trouble,” Imani says.
“Any fight against the capital is my fight,” Akil says. “You’re a good person, Imani. There are not many good people left, but you have to let things play out. You can’t save everyone alone.”
That is the same thing Bahati has been telling Imani for months. The world is the way it is. There are good people and bad people, and good people sometimes get hurt. Imani does not feel comfortable with this cynical take on life. She is starting to understand that this is the culture of thinking throughout Yabisi whether in the capital or Grot or anywhere else on the continent.
She recalls stories from her childhood. Those stories have good people and bad people. The bad people always have the advantage, but the good ones always have will and determination. The bad are capable of moving mountains, while the good are weak in many ways. Good or innocent people get hurt in those stories, but they never die. The good always prevail. Imani thinks to herself that she has been living like those stories are real life. Maybe they are not, but she will not let evil win.
“I don’t want you to get hurt, but I can’t change your mind,” Imani says. Her leg bounces high and fast beneath the table.
“You’re right. You can’t. My father died, and I won’t let Ekon or anyone else bully me. I’ll pay him and his goons back for what they did,” Akil vows.
Regardless of Akil’s reassurances, Imani feels wrong. Coming here was probably not the greatest idea. Now, she has managed to get Juju’s son mixed in the chaos. She has to convince him to put his life over theirs, and she can not. Nothing she can say will change his mind. She looks away from him, frustrated. She is angry at herself for coming here.
It is like Bahati is in Imani’s head. She rests a hand on Imani’s jumping thigh, squeezing it. It is nothing more than a touch, yet it eases the strain in Imani’s soul. She swallows all other warnings she has to offer Akil. Juju did not have those warnings. He was not prepared. At least Akil knows what he is up against.
Akil taps his knuckles on the table. “Ekon being as bad as you say he is, I hope he doesn’t catch you. If he does, he’ll try to come between you two and use your relationship to his advantage.”
The word “relationship” startles Imani. She jerks forward, her wig nearly coming off her head. “What relationship? Bahati and me are not in a relationship.”
“What do you call it then? I can tell there’s something between you from how you two interact with each other, the eye contact, the way you finish what the other is saying.”
Imani is sure her dark cheeks are tinting red. She avoids Akil’s eyes, looking everywhere other than his direction. This is the most uncomfortable she has ever felt. By comparison, anger is more easily controlled than this. She searches for support in Bahati. Her thigh feels empty, as the weight of Bahati’s hand slides away. Imani feels naked and abandoned when Bahati’s hand leaves her body.
Bahati and Imani have come to know each other better under stress in the small apartment than they would have under better circumstances. Their friendship has been reinforced by hours of heated worries cooled by the embrace of the other. Imani knows they are friends. They are more than friends. It is a topic she has brought up in passing but Bahati has avoided addressing. The fact that Bahati is not ready to commit to or label what they have irritates and angers Imani.
“Imani and me will be fine. Neither of us will turn on the other. Ekon doesn’t know anything other than we’ve been on the run,” Bahati says testily.
“What if he knows more than what you think?” Akil says curiously.
“He doesn’t. I can tell him I forced Imani to come with me. That way, whatever he does to me, he won’t do to her.”
“Ekon will have to hurt me if he hurts you,” Imani says defiantly.
“There are far too many ‘ifs,’” says Bahati. “Imani, things may go bad. In the event they do, you just have to play the role of senseless bot who got caught up.”
“That’s not what a friend would do.”
“You’re worth more to me on the outside than you are sitting beside me in a jail cell.”
Imani considers this and agrees but tells herself she will suffer whatever fate Bahati does. She will not abandon Bahati.
“There’s nothing to worry about. We won’t get caught. Creo will make sure of that,” Bahati says, nodding to herself.
“I know Creo. He owns a restaurant in the Low District. I’ve never really liked the guy,” says Akil, confessing.
“How could you not like Creo? He is an honest man and super friendly,” Imani says, picking at a hangnail on her thumb.
“Maybe he has been friendly to you and Bahati, but he just about cost me my business. He gave me some products for free. I thought it was a decent gesture, until all my customers got sick.”
“It was probably an accident.”
“Could have been. Who knows? I told him about it, and he brushed me off. Didn’t even apologize. I’d be careful with him.”
Imani knows Creo is not the type to food poison people purposely. His restaurant is doing great and the food is delicious. The customers love him. When she and Bahati came running to him, he did not hesitate to give them a place to live and food to eat. He has not asked for a thing in return. She dismisses Akil’s claim as a misunderstanding.
“Regardless of what happens, it’s always good to have someone you can count on,” Akil says.
“That’s all that matters in the end,” says Imani.
“It will be time for you to open the restaurant soon, and the streets will be crowded,” Bahati says, standing.
“Get out of here while you have a chance,” he says.
He shakes his head. “This city.”
Imani is overjoyed when she and Bahati make it home without incident. She had been afraid they would by spotted by Damu. He is trouble, and she does not think another encounter with him will end well. She wants to stay as far away from him as possible.
Bahati instructs Imani to pack light. They have a long way to walk. The Fleet base is on the far northeast side of the capital, about a two- or three-hour walk. There are shortcuts that can get them there quicker but are too risky. The last thing they want is to be spotted crossing an open field or seated on the back of an airbus.
Creo is not at the apartment yet. Bahati is anxious to leave. She has packed just one change of clothes and some dried meats. Imani rushes to collect wigs, clothes and other pieces of disguises. Bahati does not see the purpose of this, but Imani does. She would rather be too prepared than under. All while Imani runs back and forth across the apartment, Bahati counts the seconds.
“Creo should have been here by now,” Bahati says, pacing the floor. Imani has to squeeze past her and the bed to get by.
“He hasn’t forgotten about us. He’ll be here,” Imani says distractedly, looking for her bag.
Imani finds her bag and sets it on the bed, while trying to zip it. No matter how hard she yanks the zipper, it will not work. A few of her items are sticking out and become jammed in the wake of the zipper. She sighs and yanks them free. Something rips, but she is too irritated to care. Finally, she tosses some of the items, the ones she figures she needs the least.
Just when Bahati is voicing her concerns about Creo’s timing, the door slides open. Creo’s clothes are disheveled. Other than that, he is fine.
“I’m sorry. Almost forgot. I had to meet someone,” Creo says.
“Who’d you have to meet?” Bahati asks.
“An old friend. No one important. Let’s do this.”
Imani is the last one to leave the apartment. She gives it one last look, before closing the door. She and Bahati have shared this place for over two months. They have had both good and bad times here. Leaving feels like abandoning a Utopia they have built themselves. Her shoulders sag, as if the weight of what they are facing has piled on.