There weren’t that many of us that Tuesday evening. The bible study lagged a bit and the sky had turned black, hung low with rain. Almost everyone pulled out tiny umbrellas and braved the wind, sneaking off into the darkness. Father was on call and he’d promised to come take me home so I stayed behind with the prayer team and the volunteers who’d offered to lead the prayers for Ekile. They were all before the pulpit, in that expanse of floor that separated the altar from the first row of chairs, where the crowd gathered during blessings and altar calls. There were about fifteen of them, all standing around him, he was seated in a chair dragged up specially. I’d thought he looked bad that first day but now Ekile was worse; he’d lost so much weight around his cheeks and nose that his glasses hung loosely, constantly threatening to slip off. He looked tired but his eyes were alert, watching everything as it happened. I sat in the second row with my head bowed and I watched through the lattice of the chair before me.
The leader leant forward and put his hand over Ekile’s head and said a few words before shouting ‘pray!’. That seemed to work everyone else into action and they began to circle him, gesticulating wildly and occasionally slipping into tongues. Ekile closed his eyes and grit his teeth as the leader pushed against his head as he prayed earnestly, tiny beads of sweat speckling his temples. The leader’s hand moved downwards with each prayer point, and Ekile endured it all, stoically adding to chorus of ‘amen’s that ended each frenzied session of wailing and weeping. I said my own prayers, asking God to heal the part of the body the leader had his hand on, but I never lasted more than a minute before I ran out of things to say and opened my eyes to watch. Ekile looked in my direction a couple of times, he knew I was there, waiting for him so Father would drop us off. As abruptly as they had begun, they stopped the prayers and moved to singing. The leader said some words after before they shared grace and he disbanded the prayer group. As I walked up to Ekile, one of the prayer group, a robust woman in an old dress and pearls turned unexpectedly and pulled Ekile into her arms and began to cry. I say cry, but it was much more than that; she lost all of her composure and wept openly, snot dripping out of her nostrils and onto her top lip as she rocked Ekile from side to side and mumbled things to him. He looked over to me, eyes wide, begging for a way out. Two of the other women finally came and pried him out of her arms, turning her away and leading her off out into the church. I rushed over to him as he slowly let himself back into the chair.
“‘Why won’t God heal you? Why won’t he have mercy? What terrible sins have we committed that God won’t listen to us on your behalf?’ that was what she was saying, over and over.”
He was looking out at the rain as it pummelled the car window. It was obvious who he was talking about, the woman from the prayer group. When I’d asked him earlier in the church, he’d just smiled sadly and shook his head. Before I could press him for more, Father had poked his head in the door and called to us.
“Did it scare you?” I asked.
His voice was solemn as he wiped the fog off the car window.
“No. I just felt really bad for her. I wanted to reassure her that it wasn’t something she’d done. That it wasn’t really up to her to help. But most of all I wanted to say I was sorry for causing her to feel that bad. It’s all my fault.”
If you ignored how skinny he’d become, you’d see that he was really beautiful or at least he used to be, when his cheeks were still fuller and his eyes not so deep set. The ends of his eyes were slightly raised, pushed up by his high cheekbones that now looked like little coves on his face. He had those tapered fingers that women went to salons to get, an elongated oval that ended in a beautiful blunt point, with white half crescents at the base. I’d taken to watching him when he was distracted, observing the little quirks he had. He liked the light behind him when he read novels to pass the time whenever he got too weak and my dad cleared out a hospital bed for him to ‘rest’ for a few days. He read with the fore finger of his left hand following the words, and he always, always said the words out to himself. I was watching when he said those words and the reply came quickly, unbidden.
“Don’t ever say that. None of this is your fault, you’re a kid, you shouldn’t go through this, it wouldn’t be your fault even if you were sixty.”
He smiled. “You say I’m a kid like you’re so much older than me.”
“Well, six months counts as much older.” I replied with a laugh.
He found my eyes. “I barely recognise you Lewis; you’re nothing like the guy I went to Sunday school all these years.”
The car drew to a halt at that moment and I leaned over to peer out the window at the house Ekile had grown up in, just two streets away from my house. The little yard in front of the house had been pristine and planted with a small herb garden, the first time we drove him down. Father had remarked about it as he followed him up to the front door, adamant that he be there when Ekile broke the news to his widower dad. Ekile had smiled weakly then and told father it was one of the chores his dad gave him that he’d come to love.
“Nurturing a thing with love and watching it flourish makes me happy sir.” He’d told him. But now, there were weeds in the patch and the tomatoes were beginning to lean with the wilt. Ekile’s father wasn’t around that often either. I offered to go check in Ekile’s father was in, and dashed out of the car before Ekile or my father could protest. The front door was locked twice and a cold yellow padlock hung from the latch Ekile’s dad had added for extra security.
“Maybe you should stay with us Ekile,” my father said, leaning over from the driver’s seat. “Just until your father gets back.”
Ekile nodded, but I could tell that all he really wanted to do was lie down in own bed for a while.
By the time we got to ours, it was almost nine and mother had set out my food for nearly an hour. When she saw Ekile come in behind me, she scurried over to him and wrapped an arm around his shoulder, leading him to the dining table. He unsettled her, she grew up in a house where the bigger a child’s cheeks, the healthier they were and Ekile’s pallid body just screamed kwashiorkor to her. She piled a huge plate of rice and plantains in front of him and fussed while he forced himself to eat. I had to eventually rescue him, practically inhaling my food and waiting till he noticed and offered that I shared his with him. My mother gave me the evil eye, but I ignored her and came over to his side of the table. She never quite knew what to do when I rebelled as a teenager, father always joked her parenting skill set was peculiar only to pre-adolescents. We played cards afterwards and Ekile outsmarted me every hand we played, even though the games dragged because he took his time shuffling through his cards and making his decisions. Father drove out at 10pm and came back thirty minutes later. The padlock had still been on Ekile’s front door.
“You guys should probably move your game to Lewis’s bedroom” was all my father said.
“I don’t blame him for not coming.” Ekile announced unprompted as he fluffed one of the pillows. “He hides his emotions a lot but I know seeing me like this kills him.”
I didn’t answer; I just continued fixing the spread over my mattress. As I tucked in each loose flap of flannel, I imagined the wedge between the mattress and the frame was a gash in his father’s throat and I was pushing so he’d bleed more. There was absolutely no excuse for what he did, he was so irresponsible. We tried to distract ourselves by telling stories from our childhood, ignoring the fact that this was the first time Ekile was sleeping over and the reason why. Maybe that was the one thing that made me realise Ekile had changed me, because before that day when he fell unconscious I’d never really given anything proper thought, but now it was all I seemed to do. I was also noticing things, a whole lot of things that hadn’t seemed important before him.
“I just don’t want you to judge him.” Ekile added when he saw I wasn’t replying. “It wouldn’t be fair to him or you.”
I stopped midway into tucking the last corner and walked over to him. “I wish you’d stop, it’s frustrating.
He sighed. “Stop what?”
“This thing you do where you worry about everyone but yourself, where you’re here trying to convince me that your father running off and leaving you on your own when he knows you’re dying is somehow not his fault, because it is. It bloody is. You’re his responsibility. He’s the only person you have. So it’s not okay for him to run off and leave you alone.”
“What do you want me to do Lewis? Getting angry at him won’t make him miraculously appear and it won’t help me get any better. I’m aching every second my eyes are open, and then some when I try to sleep. I was angry at first, but I’m not angry anymore. I couldn’t keep it up for that long. Now all I am is tired.”
I don’t know what propelled me to do it; sure I’d noticed the shape of his lips and sometimes wondered how my first kiss would happen, but I’d never connected the two before then. I closed my eyes like they did in the films and leaned forward until my lower lip met his upper one. My heart ratcheted up and blood rushed through my ears as I panicked in my head, unable to control my body or undo what I’d just done. Then his lips parted and drew an inch nearer, tasting mine. I opened my eyes and noticed his were closed as he withdrew.
He broke into a smile. “I think I just swooned.”
I backed away from him and sat on the bed. He sat beside me, close enough that our thighs touched. We let the silence cover us as I contemplated the enormity of what had just happened. All the possible consequences of what I’d done fought for space in my thoughts, most prominent of which was the terror that maybe I had somehow thwarted his miracle.
He reached for my hand and drew his back when I shrunk away in alarm.
“All those Tuesday bible study prayers, I prayed about only one thing. Half of the time I prayed that I wouldn’t die without knowing what a kiss tasted like, and the other half I prayed about who I wanted my first kiss would be with. I guess God does listen, because he just answered both.”
“But…” I began to say and stopped. It wasn’t something I wasn’t ready to say out loud.
There was a world of weariness in his voice. “I have liked you for years now. It was innocent for a while, then it wasn’t, then the cancer happened and I didn’t fight it because I knew why.”
There were tears in his eyes. “Why God isn’t going to heal me.”
I wanted so badly to show him that he was wrong and there was so much he needed to fight for but my tongue felt weighted against the roof of my mouth with words I didn’t know how to mould in a way that would help so I did the only other thing that felt right, I turned and kissed him. I caught him by surprise and he struggled a bit before he gave in to the kiss. It felt like he’d been practising for years, how quickly he caught on and took charge from me. I felt his hands touch my cheek and a sigh run through him. Then abruptly he broke away and fled the bed, running over to the doorway of my room.
“If there’s a small chance that God will forgive you, I don’t want to destroy that. If he made you sick too, I would never forgive myself.”
“Eki, please.” I begged, getting off the bed.
He pressed himself against the door of my room like a cornered animal, groping behind him for the handle.
“I want this, but I can’t. I’m scared for you, God I’m so scared.”
The door flew open and Ekile fell out. He scrambled to his feet and dragged himself as fast he could to our foyer. His earlier tumble had woken my parents and they’d come out of their room just in time to see him at our front door, opening it and disappearing into the darkness, the door shutting behind him. My mother took one look down the corridor at me in my corner room and rushed over.
“Lewis what happened? Why did Ekile run off like that? Why are you crying?”