By FLONNY SAIWA
Second-prize winning short story in the 2020 Makewana’s Daughters Competition
My eyes fluttered open as I let them adjust to the rays of sunshine seeping through my curtains. My body was tingling, with the events of the previous night flooding my memory. His escapades always left me longing for more, each adventure more indulging than the last.
Dragging my body out of bed, I paced around my dorm room preparing for my morning class. I could still grab his musky scent on the jacket I stole from him as I walked to class. University calculus was a bore I had to endure. He had become the only exciting part of university. The day crawled by as I waited to spend time with him. Suddenly, everything was about him. There was a point in time I could have sworn to never be the girl I am now. So dependent on someone else; let alone a boy.
As per our rules, we met halfway between his dorm and mine at exactly 10pm. Grabbing his hand in mine, we began to trot around the campus like it was ours to conquer. The stares and mutters were something we got used to quite easily. Settling down beneath a tree that centered the campus and was older than the university itself, I lay my head on his laps as our laughter subsided.
“I missed you” he said as he tilted my head to look up, showing me his square-jawed, stubble-filled face.
“Not enough. Why didn’t you reply to my text?” I asked as I faced towards the stars.
“I was working. And as per ou-”
“As per our agreement we only talk after 10pm. I know.”
Not all of our rules made sense to me but he requested most of them, and since that’s what it took for us to see each other, I never questioned it. After bickering about whose turn it was to come up with a new adventure, we decided to come up with one together. The thrill we got in our adventures was unbearable. To begin our weekly adventure, he made a call to his dealer and an hour later we were walking around campus, just the two of us. At this point it was past mid night. Most of the university students were in their rooms.Together, we were walking high in the stars with the moon on our feet, we could see our bodies glimmering just like the stars. Right before the sun crept in, he escorted me to my room and planted a hazy kiss on my lips.
University did not offer me many friends. Over time, I either distanced myself from the few I had or they distanced themselves from me. I did not take offense, I accepted it as part of the process of growing up. Nate became a part of my life long before I knew he would mean something to me. His character was always much livelier than mine, and I guess that is what kept us balanced. He always kept things interesting. So much so that we had to set some ground rules to ensure that we wouldn’t get so engulfed in our own little world and forget the real world beyond us. Ever since the semester of our final year had started, we have been meeting under the school’s oldest tree. It holds an engraving of ‘Nate + Elaine’ inside a heart shape, courtesy of me.
After another wild weekly adventure, it was 11.58pm on a Friday night and our final exams were approaching. My degree in economics and his demanding architecture program meant finding time in between our schedules for ourselves and our must-do activities. As I sat across him on the freshly cut grass with my legs crossed and my hands fiddling with his, we talked about readjusting our schedules to meet the demands of our studies in the school. Nate and I both have extremely strict parents with high expectations. I’m an only child and my future was set out for me at my father’s firm the minute I was born. Nate’s brothers were already successful and he was expected to be just as, or even more successful than the surgeon, lawyer and business man. As the last of the four boys, he was left with the pressure of overachieving in everything he did. It was however, left up to him to study something of his choice; and architecture was it. His passion made him highly attractive, but it also made him distant causing me to fight him for his time.
“Three times a week, on any of the days but Mondays.” He proposed.
“No way, five at least. With a goodnight text each night before you black out on your laptop.” I counter argued.
“Babe, it’s just two weeks then we can do whatever.” He said.
“Three days… with constant proclamation of your love for me.” I replied.
“Deal.” He smirked, as he took my hand to his mouth and gave it a light peck.
Getting back to our casual, random, chitchat, we begun to think of ideas on how to master up our last adventure before exams started.
“The last time we trashed the school we barely got away with it. We’re not doing it again” I reasoned.
“Well then you come up with something, oh mastermind of brilliant ideas.” He replied sarcastically.
“It’s like we’ve used up all our great ideas and the only thing that could top it is, I don’t know, burning the school down or something.” I joked.
He turned to face me and raised an eyebrow suggestively.
“Haha… I was just joking. Unless,” He wiggled both his eyebrows.
“Nate, no. We have no reason to burn down the school.” I stated even though I knew he was joking about it.
“Well we wouldn’t burn down the whole thing, just a little part of it.” He said as he pulled out a lighter and playfully lit it up.
“Put that away.” I said trying to grab the lighter from him.
He put his arm in the air to put the lighter in his hand out of my reach as its flame dangled around while he kept relighting it. After rolling over a few times I grabbed his hand and brought the lighter towards me. In the process a few strands of grass sparkled up next to him and his thin cotton shirt was victim to the trail of sparks.
He quickly patted off the growing flames leaving a residue of three black holes on his shirt.
“Jeez girl, I know you like me but I’m better raw than barbequed.” He winked as he got up and gained his composure.
Ignoring his innuendo, I placed the lighter in the back pocket of my jeans as I pulled myself up with the hand he pulled out for me to reach. I began walking him back to his room as we discussed a case scenario of him burning alive.
As I slipped into my bed ready to dream about all things good and pretty, a loud ringing flooded my ears and suddenly doors were banging and girls were screaming. Getting out of bed and opening my door, I caught the words “stay calm” and “fire” between all the clamor.
“Where’s the fire?” I asked one of the familiar faces I talked to every now and then.
“The campus tree. Apparently it’s catching on quick, the auditorium is already smoking up, look.” She showed me a video taken by one of the students watching the fire grow at the scene. I stared at the phone screen displaying what used to be a healthy oak tree burning up and creating a trail of flames to the surrounding buildings, including the auditorium that connected to the administration block that was conjoined to the rest of the school, including the dorms.
Well crap, I thought as I watched the video. It couldn’t have been us, we put the fire out. Pulling out my phone, I texted Nate If he had heard. But He didn’t reply; he never replied. It did not help that all the buildings in the university were connected, so all students were being led to the pavilion which was an open space. Drifting my way through people to Nate’s room, I could see the smoke catching up to all the other buildings. Once I got to his room, I swung the door open only to find his roommate packing up a bag with his laptop and his, kettle? I looked at Nate’s side of the room and noticed he changed his beddings. Dismissing the thought, I got back to the matter at hand.
“Where’s Nate?” I asked, panicked as I stood by the door.
“Who?” He replied as he shoved and ran past me wearing only his socks, shorts and t-shirt, whilst zipping up the bag in his hands.
Frustrated by Nate’s roommate who was too jittery to even remember his roommate’s name, I began screaming Nate’s name throughout the dormitory corridor. After getting no response, I thought maybe he’s already at the pavilion, or maybe he’s also looking for me back at my dorm room. Rushing back to my dorm the fire was catching onto the building, it was getting smoky and probably dangerous for anyone to be inside or anywhere around the building, but I had to look for Nate. Quickly running up the stairs to my room on the first floor, I called out for Nate one last time and got no response. I concluded that he must have made his way to the pavilion with the rest of his friends already.
Rushing out of the building, I was faced with a thicket of black smoke. Unfortunately for me, the only exit was where the smoke was coming from. Taking a deep breath, I rush into the clouds of smoke and I could feel the heat of the fire as I got closer to the door that would lead me to air. I tried pushing the door open but it wouldn’t budge. My coughing caught the attention of some of the people that were guiding everyone out. One of them rushed towards me as I heard them say they made sure everyone was out of the building I just tried to exit. I could hear the sound of sirens grow closer as my lungs gave out and my vision got blurry. The last thing I felt was a pair of hands support me before black spots flooded my eyes and my vision went completely black.
“She’s been distant from everyone lately.” Kate said in a hushed voice.
As one of the people who distanced themselves from me, I wondered what she was doing here. Wherever here is.
As my eyes flattered open it took a little while for them to adjust to the bright ceiling light positioned directly above my face. Events of the fire flooded back to my memory. I noticed Kate was talking to my family doctor who held a file in his hands and was dressed in hospital scrubs and white lab coat. Doctor Wilson was very familiar with my health conditions as I visited him monthly except this time, I seem to be in a hospital bed with tubes uncomfortably tagging up my nose.
“Doctor Wilson?” I questioned in a coarse sounding voice. My throat felt dry and irritated.
Doctor Wilson turned his head towards me upon my call and walked up to the bed as he replied “Good. You’re awake.”
Seconds later I saw my mum entering the door and looking like she had when she found out the new gardener had dug out all the carrot seedlings from the vegetable garden at home.
“Hy mum.” I said with my croaky voice.
“Oh Elaine. You’re up.” She replied taking a seat on the chair next to my bed.
“We just need to check her vitals once more and give her a glass or two of water and then she can go ahead and give her statement.” Doctor Wilson said.
“Statement? Where’s Nate?” I asked.
“The police are waiting outside Lane. They want to ask you a few questions about the fire. One of the students said they had seen you at the point where the fire started but I keep telling them it’s all a misunderstanding but they need to hear it from you. You can give it to them tomorrow if you need some rest. Your father says his plane home has been scheduled for tomorrow but he wants you to rest. ” My mum explained as I felt my heart beat a little harder after each word she spoke. She’s usually the one around during most circumstances whilst my father is out travelling for work.
“Its fine, I’ll do it today.” I replied.
After checking my vitals and drinking two bottles of water, I noticed no one answered me when I asked where Nate was. So I asked again. My mum rubbed my hand and Kate looked at me apologetically. I started to think the worst.
“Lane, Nate’s gone. He has been gone for a while. Doctor Veronica will come in with the police for a check-up. I’ve got to get out now, I’ll be back right after the officer and Doctor Veronica are through.” My mum walked out with Kate and Doctor Wilson leaving my head spinning with confusion. Doctor Veronica was my therapist whom I stopped seeing months ago.
“Hey Lane. The Police are going to ask you a few questions. You only have to answer what you remember okay?” Doctor Veronica said as she walked in with a police officer behind her.
“Elaine Andrews? I am Officer Peter. Do you recall the events of yesterday’s fire? I only want to know where you were from 10pm to 1am and anyone who was with you at the time.”
I wanted to start explaining that I was with Nate but my mind kept repeating to me what my mum had said, that he’s gone.
“Lane, we talked to Kate and she said her and other students have been seeing you walk alone every night to the campus tree where the fire started. They say you have been talking to yourself and standing outside his old dorm and getting high? It’s okay to act out Lane, but you have to talk to someone.”
“We have a witness who saw you playing with a lighter. We searched your room and fou-…” As Officer Peter talked my head was spinning trying to process everything.
Sitting on the hospital bed I thought to myself how Nate could never reply to my texts again, because there is no Nate. The sheets in his room didn’t change, they were never his. His roommate didn’t know what I was talking about, because Nate’s dead. Dead. Nate’s dead. I repeated it as I felt the tears roll down my face remembering what had happened to him. He died in a fire at exactly 10pm.