Sunday, January 28, 2018

Short Story: The Other Face

Hello readers,

I hope you all are doing great!

It's been a while I've posted anything, especially short stories, but it's because I've been working on some other big stories. So, here's something small until the something big comes.

You can read the story below.

Short Story description:
A couple is troubled by their daughter’s erratic behaviour, but have no clue what is causing it. With help, they finally get to the bottom of the problem, which comes with a shocking revelation.
***

Phidelia sat on the floor and shook her head as she wondered aloud to herself. She turned her head from left to right occasionally, as though someone was there, listening to her as she spoke. She sat that way for a while, so lost in her one-sided conversation that she didn’t see her husband, Festus, walk up to her.

“Ah, Phidelia,” Festus said, clearing his throat. “This one that you’re sitting on the floor, talking to yourself, is everything all right?”

Phidelia shook her head. Everything was not all right.

“Where’s Faith?”

Phidelia pointed towards the house, indicating that Faith, their daughter, was in there.

Festus looked at the door that led into their two-bedroom bungalow. He had nailed the door himself, as the man of the house would do to protect himself and his family, but as he walked past Phidelia to enter the house, he felt uneasy.

He halted and turned around, then asked, “Is she okay?”

Phidelia turned her head and looked at him. “You mean: Is she sane? Because the answer is no. She hasn’t slept in three days and I think it’s affecting her now.”

Festus walked back, then sat next to Phidelia. “What happened?”

“It has started again. After all this while, her madness has come back fully.”

“Don’t call Faith mad. She just has episodes, and if she was able to control them for three years, then there’s a possibility she would be able to control them for life. What made it come back?”

Phidelia said nothing. She folded her arms under her breasts and stared at the red sand that covered the ground in front of their house. A mango tree stood not too far from their house and Festus had put two benches under it, in case he had guests. He had also carved a small seesaw for Faith to play with her friends, but it was rotting away since Faith stopped using it a little after she turned eight... when her madness started.

“Phidelia!” Festus called out. “I asked you what caused it to come back.”

“I don’t know. Why don’t you go inside and find out for yourself?”

“What do you mean by that? Will the answer be plastered on the wall when I get inside there? You know how Faith gets when she has her episodes, so asking her for answers is out of the question.”

“Festus, I said I don’t know what caused it to come back.”

“And you think leaving her alone inside will make things better?”

Phidelia didn’t bother responding. She continued looking at the red sand.

“Phidelia,” Festus called, but she didn’t respond. “Phidelia, am I not talking to you?”

Phidelia still didn’t answer.

Festus looked at her angrily, then looked at the front door, then finally turned back to look at her. He couldn’t admit it to himself or to her, but he was afraid of entering his house. He didn’t know what to expect and also didn’t know what he would do if Faith attacked him. He summoned up courage after a few seconds, opened the door and entered the house.

Phidelia contemplated joining him, then decided to. As she stood up, her eyes locked with another pair of eyes from her neighbour’s house. She didn’t know how she had seen the eyes, since the house was across the street, and she didn’t know who it was or how long the person had been there, watching her, and then watching her and Festus, but she figured it was either Mama or Papa Emma.

The two had been living alone in their house since their three daughters got married and moved out, and their son left for Lagos some years back. Their son returned every holiday for a while, but hadn’t come back in the last three years. Their daughters, on the other hand, only came visiting during Easter with their families. And since it wasn’t Easter yet, it couldn’t have been any of the children. Phidelia turned around, but she still felt the eyes on her, so she looked directly at the person and waved her hand to acknowledge that she had seen whoever it was, but the person didn’t wave back. She shrugged, then entered the house.

*
Inside the house was chaotic. The small parlour that had one settee and three armchairs was in disarray. The cushions had been removed, and some were torn with foam sticking out. The TV and cassette player were on the floor. Festus frowned. It was the fifth time he was fixing the TV that month and he hoped that the screen hadn’t cracked.

The centre table was on the cushion-less settee, and he wondered where Faith always got the energy to turn the house upside-down. Sometimes her madness lasted for straight long hours and she would run round the compound without getting tired or she would take a shovel and start digging up holes, then covering them back. Other times, she would scatter the whole house and break everything in the kitchen... they now used only plastic in the kitchen.

Festus and Phidelia observed the mess in the house, but didn’t say anything. They had another problem to take care of. They walked quietly to Faith’s room and stood in front of the door.

Festus raised his hand to knock, but stopped to do the Sign of the Cross. Before he was done, Phidelia hissed, wondering why he had to do that to see his own daughter. She walked past him, then opened Faith’s door and entered. Faith was sleeping on the planks of her bed. She had removed the mattress and stuck it in the window, finally breaking all the glass louvers.

Faith had used her mother’s eye pencils and nail polish to paint on newspapers. If the painting had been done on white paper, maybe they would have looked good. She pasted the paintings on the wall with Cellotape that she had taken from her father’s desk. Her parents observed the paintings, which appeared to make no sense.

“Should we wake her up and talk to her? At least to check if she’s okay,” Festus said.

“Are you mad?” Phidelia asked, pointing a finger to her temple to support her question.

“What does that mean?”

“She hasn’t slept in three days and you want to wake her up? I repeat, are you mad?”

Festus said nothing. He knew his wife was right. He looked around the room one more time, then saw a knife by the bedside drawer that had been emptied. He exchanged glances with Phidelia, and it meant that they were going to place Faith on suicide or murder watch, and also hide all the sharp items in the house. Festus quietly picked up the knife, then when they were done looking around, they retreated and went outside the house to talk.

*
“Should we go back to the pastor’s place?” Phidelia asked, worried, when they stepped out of the house. “Apart from the sleepless nights, she was actually doing okay today. We even went to the market together. It was barely one minute after we crossed the road and entered the compound that she started her madness, as if something had triggered it. In fact, she has been doing the same thing for the past month. Maybe going out is a bad idea for her.”

Festus said nothing. Apparently, he was lost in thoughts.

“Festus, won’t you say something? Should we go to Pastor Eli who delivered Faith when she had her last display? She’s sleeping now, so we can hurry there and come back before she wakes up.”

“That pastor is a criminal. He promised us that Faith would be healed when her episode first started in 1994. Since then we’ve been going to see him all the time.”

“Not for the past three years.”

“But it has started again, for a month now, and that’s the point, because it means that we’ll start giving him ridiculous sums of money to cure her of whatever it is he said is wrong with her. What he’s just after is money and I won’t indulge him again. Never.”

“Is it better we go to the native doctor instead?” Phidelia opened her palms, as she asked.

“Isn’t he worse? He asks for more money than Pastor Eli, or the heads of wild animals and strange items. In fact, I’m afraid that he even adds more to Faith’s predicament than he removes. If at all he removes anything.”

“So what should we do? We’ve already been to all the pastors in this community and we’ve also seen the only medicine man here, but still nothing.”

Festus pondered for a few seconds, then looked at Phidelia. “There’s still one place we haven’t been to yet. Let’s go.”

***

“No, no, no, no, no,” Phidelia said, shaking her head as they approached the only clinic in the community.

“What do you mean by ‘no?’ Do you have a better alternative?”

“Anything but the clinic. We had decided a long time ago that we wouldn’t take anything the white man gives. I hear they’ll lock people up in prisons if they decide that such people are mad. They can’t lock Faith up. I won’t allow that.”

“They won’t lock anyone up. Besides, it’s a Nigerian man running the clinic not a white man.”

“It’s the same thing. I’m not entering that place. Have they ever produced anything good there other than to cure headaches?” She pointed at the hospital, a yellow-coloured building with three floors. The ground floor had ‘Lab Services’ written on one side and ‘Chemist’ written on the other side. The second floor had ‘Community Clinic’ on it, and the last floor was still uncompleted. It was uncertain what that floor was going to be used for when the roof was finally fixed and the windows done.

“We have to go to the clinic and check what’s wrong with Faith, so that we can stop wasting money on spiritualists and pastors. For all we know they might be the ones making her mad.”

“So then you agree that it might be spiritual, and the so-called spiritualists and pastors can help.” Phidelia rolled her eyes.

“In this new millennium you’re still backward. I’m going in, you can join me if you want.”

Those words sounded very familiar to Phidelia. She had heard the same words earlier in the day from a woman in the market. If she didn’t know any better, she would have concluded that the woman had met Festus and convinced him to take Faith to the clinic to be locked up like a mad person.

But the truth was that, since they entered the year 2000, everyone had been using that line, and some people who came from Lagos for the New Year holiday always asked if others were ‘Y2K compliant.’ They always laughed after asking the question, but Phidelia never did. She didn’t know what was funny about it.

Phidelia had argued with the woman in the market about going to the clinic, but the woman insisted otherwise, telling Phidelia that she was backward in the new millennium. She also added that Phidelia knew nothing about what happens in the clinic because she had never been there. The only places she went to were the market, church, and primary school, when Faith was still a pupil.

Phidelia had stopped to think. As annoying as it sounded to her, it was the truth, and it was Festus’s fault. He never wanted her to socialise, so that village gossip wouldn’t land on their doorstep. So she was like an outcast in the community. The most she said to her neighbours were greetings, and those she saw in the market or in church, she made small talk with, either about the prices of products in the market or about the concluded church service.

It even got worse when, in 1994, Faith’s madness first started. It made her stay indoors the more. Faith would always start to throw tantrums unannounced. She turned hot or cold in a matter of seconds for reasons unknown. Not only had Faith been a constant source of embarrassment to her parents on certain occasions, she had also been a source of gossip to others.

Phidelia didn’t spend too much time pondering over whether to go into the clinic, she ran in

***

By the time Phidelia got to the waiting room, a nurse had called Festus to see the doctor, so Phidelia followed him into the office.

The doctor stood up and smiled as soon as he saw Festus, then stretched his hand. “Good that I could convince you to come.” He looked at Phidelia. “Is she the one?”

Phidelia looked at the doctor, perplexed, then threw an angry look at Festus.

“No, Doctor,” Festus replied. “This is her mother. She’s at home sleeping.”

“My daughter isn’t mad and I wouldn’t let you lock her up.”

The doctor smiled. “I’m not here to lock anybody up, but to help. Have a seat, please.”

Phidelia grumbled as she sat down, probably threatening Festus in whispers.

When they were both seated, the doctor spoke. “So, explain to me what the issue is, as well as the signs and symptoms, and I’ll take it from there.”

***

Faith’s parents argued and almost got into a fight as they explained to the doctor what the signs and symptoms were. But they were both able to agree on some facts that the doctor felt were important: Faith had always been a peaceful and intelligent child until she turned eight. She stopped playing with her friends, especially on the seesaw her father had made for her. She became reserved and stopped talking to people, but started talking to herself. It was not until a few months later that she started to exhibit her madness.

When she wore ‘the other face’ she had, she was uncontrollable. She would run round the small two-bedroom bungalow and throw things around. She would break all the plates in the house and use charcoal to destroy the walls. Even the neighbours were victims of her explosive and unpredictable behaviour. They knew her to be hot and cold. She would be happy, calm, peaceful and loving sometimes, then out of nowhere, she would be the total opposite and cause havoc. She even had to leave school because of her tantrums, and it seemed obvious that she didn’t either like crowds, or meeting and being around people.

They had visited pastors, and a medicine man, who had prayed, delivered, cured, sacrificed and even given Faith drugs, but nothing happened. Sometimes, Faith would calm down and other times she would be a walking disaster.

Faith had displayed such behaviour continuously for about three years until she was about eleven years old. Since that year, she had calmed down and everyone noticed it. She hardly threw tantrums and her mood swings had significantly reduced. It was a relief for her family and her neighbours.

But all of a sudden, since the past month, the madness had come back again. Phidelia felt that something in the compound was disturbing Faith; maybe the wooden seesaw... it had to be taken down. Festus felt that it was the market place causing issues for Faith... the seesaw wasn’t going anywhere.

*
“Your daughter might be suffering from a mental disorder. All the signs and symptoms you have mentioned are clearly those of a disorder,” the doctor stated, as soon as Phidelia and Festus were done talking.

They both said nothing. For one thing, they didn’t know what the doctor was talking about. They had no idea what type of mental disorder Faith could have, and why, but Phidelia felt it was a trick to lock Faith up.

“My daughter doesn’t have that thing you just mentioned. I don’t know what it is, but she doesn’t have it.”

The doctor shook his head and wondered why some parents never wanted to accept the truth for what it was. If only some of them sought medical help from the onset and quit being ignorant, they wouldn’t leave their family members, with such conditions, to get worse. There were a lot of troubled people roaming the streets and the doctor was sure that with good medical help, he would be able to detect the problem and help the troubled people, but surely not treat them as ‘mad’ with spiritual causes.

“You spent three years going to pastors, and a spiritualist, while the answer was just right in front of you all the time.”

“What do you mean?” Festus asked, taking charge. He felt that Phidelia had spoken enough.

“It’s clearly a case of bipolar disorder, but it doesn’t mean that your daughter is mad. She’s just reacting to something that is troubling her.”

“I don’t understand what that is.”

“Well, bipolar disorder is characterized by periods of increased mood swings and periods of depression.”

“My daughter is not depressed,” Phidelia shouted, but Festus shushed her immediately.

The doctor continued. “The elevated mood is significant and is known as mania or hypomania depending on the severity or whether there is psychosis. During mania, a person feels or acts abnormally happy, energetic, or irritable; behaviours that you both explained to me. Those suffering from the disorder often make poorly thought-out decisions with little regard to the consequences, which isn’t far from your daughter’s case. And the need for sleep is usually reduced. I’m sure it’s the case with your daughter. Isn’t it?”

Both Festus and Phidelia nodded.

“Has your daughter been crying, does she have poor eye contact with others and does she have a negative view of life?”

Phidelia didn’t know where the doctor was going with his questions, so she didn’t want to answer. But when she remembered the knife she saw in Faith’s room, she glanced at Festus and they both nodded.

The doctor also spoke of the risks of suicide and self-harm, and other associated mental health issues, such as anxiety disorder and substance use. Festus and Phidelia both nodded to the first two risks, but not to the last two.

“But doctor, I think the main question here is: what causes this problem?” Festus had been itching to ask the question, but he didn’t want to use the words ‘mental’ or ‘disorder.’

“Well, it’s difficult to say, but both genetic and environmental factors play a major role.”

“It can’t be genetic, because no such case has been reported in my family,” Festus said.

“Neither in mine.” Phidelia shook her head. “So what are the environmental causes?”

The doctor sat back in his chair. “Well, those factors include long term stress and a history of childhood abuse.”

Festus and Phidelia looked at each other again, silently blaming the other for whatever it was that the doctor was arriving at.

“It is obvious that our daughter doesn’t have long term stress, unless the stress was caused by this current problem. But when you say ‘childhood abuse’ what do you mean?”

“I mean the four main types: physical, sexual or emotional maltreatment, or neglect of a child.”

Festus didn’t want to imagine that Faith had been maltreated or had suffered any of the first three types of childhood abuse. He turned to Phidelia. “If you didn’t neglect Faith, she wouldn’t have this mental problem.”

Phidelia stood up, angry. “What do you mean by that? Have you ever spent a day with her before? You’re talking about neglect.”

“But I made her a seesaw. I buy her toys.”

“That ugly thing you’re calling a seesaw isn’t even balanced.” Phidelia turned to the doctor. “In fact, one time our daughter used the nonsense, she fell off and broke her leg. I’m sure that’s what gave her physical and emotional problems.”

Festus also stood up, but before he could attack back, the doctor intervened.

“This isn’t necessary. Please, both of you, take your seats. Nothing is sure until I run some tests on your daughter, do a physical examination and also have an interview with her, then I’ll be able to get a diagnosis. I suggest you bring her in here as soon as possible.”

The doctor picked up the phone receiver on his desk and made a quick call. “Emma, please bring the folders I brought in from abroad to my office right now.”

They all sat quietly for a few minutes, then someone knocked and entered. The person was surprised to see Festus and Phidelia, and they, too, were surprised to see the person.

“I take it that you know Nurse Emma,” the doctor said.

“Yes,” all three of them replied, smiling.

“Welcome, sir, ma,” Emma said. “It’s been a while.”

“Yes, it has,” Festus replied. “When did you come back home?”

“Not too long ago,” Emma replied. “But I’m back for good now since I’ve gotten a job.”

“Emma was studying nursing in Lagos and just recently finished his housemanship in a teaching hospital in Lagos. Afterwards, he carried out his one-year service with the National Youth Service Corps, then worked as a nurse in a hospital owned by one of my colleagues for a year. I happened to run into him in the market a few weeks back and he told me that he wanted to move back home, so that he can be closer to his parents and help the community.”

Both Phidelia and Festus looked at Emma, smiling, making him shy, and possibly blush, but it couldn’t be noticed on his dark cheeks.

“Well done, my son,” Festus said. “You have done well to come back home and give something back to the community.”

“Yes, sir,” Emma replied, in a courteous way, bowing his head.

The doctor stretched his hand to collect the folder and noticed a bandage on Emma’s wrist.

“What happened to you?” the doctor asked.

Emma laughed. “Just a little accident in the lab when rearranging things.”

“I thought medical practitioners never injure themselves or fall sick,” Festus joked, and they all laughed.

“But we do,” the doctor said, then waved Emma out of the office.

After Emma left, the doctor handed over some flyers and brochures to Festus and Phidelia on mental disorders and a new program that had been put in place to help patients, supported by a medical association abroad. So the first case that the doctor was going to take would be sponsored. It wasn’t like he went around searching for patients. He had put the folder away initially, as he didn’t think anyone would ever come forward with such a case. But with Festus and Phidelia in his office with a similar case, he was going to start the project.

***

When Festus and Phidelia got home, the door was ajar. They had been out for roughly two hours, but that was a lot of time to leave their troubled teenager alone in the house. They crept in quietly — the house was now arranged, which meant that Faith had had her energy surge and put things in order.

They checked everywhere first before going to her bedroom. When they entered, Phidelia screamed, but Festus managed to control himself. Faith was lying on her bed, as she had arranged her room and put her mattress back in its place. However, the knife was in her room again. It wasn’t by her bedside like the last time, but she was holding it, and it had traces of blood on it. She also had blood on her body and her face, and her clothes were torn. Without wasting any time, Festus leaped towards her and carried her up in one full scoop, then dashed out of the room. The knife dropped in the process. Phidelia picked it up and ran after Festus.

***

Festus and Phidelia sat in the waiting room for close to three hours not sure what to do and with no idea of what was going on. The clinic was relatively small, with only two doctors and several nurses, but it was difficult to get any information about what was going on with their daughter. They wanted to know if she was dead or alive after what they assumed to be a suicide attempt. They had just started to argue about ‘neglect’ again when Emma jogged by.

Phidelia jumped to her feet and held his shirt. It was yellow in colour, the same as the colour of the building, and so thin that Phidelia thought it would tear if she pulled it.

“What’s happening to my daughter, Faith?”

Emma had a confused and worried look on his face, that it scared both Festus and Phidelia. “I don’t know. I’m not allowed in the room. I only walked in on the doctor, standing over Faith and doing a physical examination on her. She just saw me and started jumping around. The doctor asked me to leave and call another nurse, but he sent me to go and check if the blood tests are ready.”

The only thing Festus and Phidelia got from the conversation was that Faith was alive, and funny enough, they were actually happy she could still throw tantrums, which meant that she was sort of okay to them. Emma scampered off, and shortly after, another nurse ran past them.

“Nurse, what’s going on?” Phidelia sprung up again and asked.

“You’ll be able to talk to the doctor soon, and see your daughter. She’s doing just fine, but I have orders to call the police immediately and check the blood sample results from the lab.”

“Police?” Phidelia repeated. “I also thought that Emma just went to check the blood sample results in the lab? What’s going on, please?”

“I can’t explain now.” The nurse sounded like she was in haste. “The doctor will speak with you soon.”

Another ten minutes passed, but slowly, and Faith’s parents were almost going crazy, they panicked. They needed answers and were going to have to get the answers themselves. As they stood up and approached the examination room, the door swung open and the doctor put his head out, shocked to see them standing there.

“I was just coming to call both of you. Please, come in.”

Festus and Phidelia counted their steps as they walked into the room. Sitting on the right side of the physical examination table was Faith, with her knees to her chin, her hands wrapped around her legs, and her body squeezed up. She looked at her parents and didn’t say anything to them. They were scared. They had never seen Faith look so intently at them.

“Doctor, was she hurt?” Festus started, breaking the silence.

The doctor nodded, but they were too scared to even go and sit by her or ask where she had hurt herself. They were afraid she would harm them. A few seconds later, the female nurse ran into the office with a couple of papers, which were evidently blood test results.

“What took you so long?” the doctor asked.

“I saw him downstairs trying to steal the results and run away, but I told the lab assistant what was going on, so the lab assistant held him down until the police arrived. They want to speak with you first before they make any move.”

“Doctor, what is going on?” Phidelia asked.

“Just give me a minute,” the doctor said to the nurse, and when she left the room and shut the door behind her, he looked at both Festus and Phidelia. “When last did you talk to your daughter, or even worse, when first?” he asked.

Festus and Phidelia sat speechless. Faith closed her eyes. Phidelia wanted to get up, but hesitated.

“You can actually hold her, talk to her, she won’t bite,” the doctor said, nodding towards Faith.

Instinctively, Phidelia went to Faith who was wearing a clinic gown, then took her back to the chair and shared it with her.

“Your daughter had been sexually abused.”

“What?” both Festus and Phidelia exclaimed.

The doctor pushed a report on the table. “This is the result of the physical examination and mental evaluation I conducted on Faith when you brought her in.”

Neither Festus nor Phidelia took the report, they listened to the doctor instead.

“Faith suffered long term abuse from when she was eight until she was eleven. It didn’t happen all the time, but only during holidays, and that’s why her tantrums were occasional; only when her attacker came back home. She had no serious issue since then because her attacker wasn’t around for about three years, until recently when he just came back to the community and she sighted him in the market. She often sees him on the way back home right after she crosses the street and looks at the house opposite yours.”

Like twins, both Festus and Phidelia began to feel their blood vessels expand and their blood pressure spike up. They knew immediately who it was... Emma, their neighbour’s son who had gone to school and come back occasionally, then finally come back home recently.

Phidelia also remembered seeing a pair of eyes staring at her and wondered if Faith had seen those same eyes earlier that day. There was no doubt that it was Emma.

“So where did all the blood come from today?” Phidelia asked.

“The attacker had waited for you and your husband to go out, and probably waited for a while to ensure that you weren’t coming home soon, before he struck. When he entered the house, which was left open, he met Faith cleaning her room and he tried to attack her again as before, but she had a knife with her. She just wanted to scare him away, but she cut him on the wrist and he ran away. There was blood everywhere and she didn’t know what to do, so she lay in bed, holding the knife, then slept off.”

Festus and Phidelia had barely digested the news when the police walked in with Emma in handcuffs. Faith almost started another tantrum, but the doctor calmed her down and told her that everything was under control and that Emma couldn’t harm her anymore. Her parents saw the bandage on Emma’s wrist and knew that it was the same wound that Faith had given him, just about thirty minutes before he came into the doctor’s office and smiled with them.

The police asked a few questions and requested evidence of Emma’s crime. The blood on the knife matched Emma’s own. The result he was trying to steal had the information on it. The police officers didn’t even wait to leave the room, they started beating Emma on the way out.

When everywhere was calm again, Festus turned to the doctor. “Doctor, what happens next?”

“The effect of child abuse and bipolar disorder lasts a lifetime, but with proper treatment, she’ll learn to control it. The most important things she needs are her parents to support her and always be there for her. Like I said before, there’s a program that is funded by...”

The doctor continued talking, but Festus and Phidelia looked at Faith with sadness and pity in their eyes. They didn’t know what to say immediately, but all that came out was that they were sorry for not paying attention and being there for her, and also for leaving the door open. She smiled at them. They then shared a mini-bonding moment, but came back to reality when the doctor concluded his information by saying:

“Ignorance is always afraid of change... action is the proper fruit of knowledge.”

*****
Copyright © 2018 C. M. Okonkwo

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Thanks a lot :),

CMO.