The Price Of Freedom
Maria winced as she heard those words. It was Joshua. Her personal terrorist whose apparent life mission was to make hers hell.
”Are you deaf?” he called out.
They were both in primary three and she’d lived this nightmare of a life for four years- since Joshua joined this school in Nursery two. It had started as a shove here, some hair pulling there and then one day in primary one he’d started throwing her lunch away before she’d have a chance to eat it. School terrified her, but she couldn’t tell her parents. She didn’t want them to know how much of a wimp she’d been, didn’t want them to know she gave him her lunch money everyday and that was why she devoured the food her mother made her when she got home like a ravenous wild animal. He started his torture at about the same time everyday: Break time.
She was not fat, Maria thought, okay maybe a little chubby but not fat. He called her that anyway. She remembered the one time she’d tried to stand up to him. She had gotten angry because he’d been harassing her just after school and it had been more infuriating because her father had come to pick her up that day. She hated that she was still terrified of him when her own father was outside and she could just scream or run away. She did not scream. She’d only tried to threaten him;
”My dad is just outside. If you bother me, I’ll report you to him” she’d said in her bravest voice.
Joshua had laughed, a menancingly mocking laugh and then he had said;
” Oooh is your daddy the president too?” and then he’d shoved her against the wall and laughed again as he walked out. She’d wanted to cry, but she couldn’t let her daddy see her crying and so she put on her best fake smile. For an eight year old, she was getting really good at fake smiling.
She felt the now familiar hard shove Joshua usually gave her when he wanted to start with her.
”Give me the money!” he ordered.
”Take it!” she said thrusting the one hundred naira note into his outstretched palm.
”Just one hundred?” he said, a frown creasing his sweaty brow. He must have been playing football as usual, Maria thought, he smelled like sweat and evil.
”We have ha-lf day today” she said feeling the word ‘half’ catch in her throat as she took a step back right into the swing set on the playground.
”It’s a lie!” Joshua said in a whisper that gave her chills. Something about him reminded her of the villains in those scary movies. He was a burly kid and he was very strong. Many of the other boys were scared of him. She felt sweat run down her armpits in a trickle. He was standing very close to her now and threatening her as the bell rang to signal the end of the break. She tried to shimmy out from under him. Instead, he grabbed her hand and pulled her to a corner away from the center of the playground for more questioning, she assumed.
Something kept telling her to resist, to scream so Mrs Adebayor her class teacher would come and save her. Mrs Adebayor always asked her why she wasn’t eating after the break like she knew something was wrong. Everyone knew Joshua’s parents were poor and could barely afford his fees, but somehow, he always seemed to have more than enough cake and doughnuts to eat after the break while she sat and pretended to read a book and ignored her rumbling stomach.
Now she felt the little spikes on the painted school wall under the staircase pressing into her pinafore as Joshua pinned her and tried to search her pockets. He’d started to feel more in control these days as she fell more into submission, convinced she’d never get out of this situation. He got frustrated and tightened his grip on the shoulder by which he was pinning her to the wall;
”What did you do with the other hundred naira??” he asked. She could see arteries popping on his sweaty forehead. Why was he so angry? It wasn’t even his money! She suddenly felt anger flame in her heart and she started to struggle which only seemed to anger Joshua more. Sensing she was about to scream, he placed his dirty palm across her mouth and she bit hard on it. He turned aside cradling his hand. She turned and started to run screaming. She felt so liberated. She could scream and tell everyone how much she’d suffered, even though it would make her seem weak. Joshua chased her. As she crossed to the center of the playground, she saw Mrs Adebayor come out of her classroom. She was so happy to be free. She thought of how much joy it would bring her to report Joshua. She made plans to change schools as soon as possible after she’d told her parents everything. She should have focused on running, because then she’d have seen the stone they had used to hold the see-saw in place before she stumbled over it, slamming her head in to the see-saw.
Maria died a few hours later. In her last moments, she’d felt free. Safe. She’d also felt regret. She’d wished she told her parents. She felt sure they would have understood and protected her. She shouldn’t have been afraid, especially not of Joshua. Joshua would be reprimanded of course, punished even, but to the public, he was a child, acting under the duress of poverty and a twisted mind. And she was the victim. Her mother would wish she’d asked why she was always so hungry when she took money and a lunch pack to school everyday and Mrs Adebayor would wish she’d followed her instincts and tried harder to help. It was too late now anyway.