A FRESH START by Nadya Ngumi
It was late at night when she got the call. She wasn’t asleep; no, she’d been hoping, waiting, for it. “It’s me. Can’t really talk, but I’m okay and everything’s fine. Will you come get me? I’ll be waiting by the river at the Adamson Bridge.”
The night was cool. The breeze gently ruffled her curls and she pulled her sweater tighter around her. He stood motionless under a tree by the river bank. His silhouette was unmistakable; however, the broad shoulders she’d once hugged and his lean, muscular frame were shrugged under obvious tension. “I knew you’d come, I knew it,” he whispered as she drew closer. His voice sounded hoarse and regret dripped off every syllable. She froze where she stood, but it was too late as out of nowhere, sirens sounded and she was bathed in bright light. She’d been caught.
The sunlight slanting through the faded red curtains was too bright. She shifted on the bed, eliciting a groan from the worn out springs in the mattress. The room was shabby, materializing in front of her as she finally allowed herself to open her eyes fully and take in her surroundings. There had been no time, no presence of mind last night to do so. She’d driven miles before she found the lone motel, her mind numb, her eyes hardly seeing as she sped along the highway trying to put as much distance between her and home. Home. A place she doubted she would ever see again…did she even want to? A silent tear slipped out of her eye and rolled down her cheek. It had been just yesterday…
Cally was excited to turn eighteen. Like her peers, who saw it as limitless freedom and independence, she had been looking forward to this day. Since her father, Rob, died six years ago, all she had known was living with Martha, a step-mother who wanted nothing to do with her. Cally knew Martha’s only concern was the large estate, which she was holding in trust until Cally turned twenty one. True, she was only going to be eighteen tomorrow, but that meant she could move out, owing to the considerable monthly allowance her father’s estate afforded her. She and Jack, her boyfriend, had already rented a hip apartment on the far side of town, as far away from the woman who’d made the last six years of her life miserable.
It wasn’t that Martha had done anything outrightly horrible, it was how she had abandoned Cally emotionally after the funeral, how she had ignored the very presence of the girl in the large house they shared, how she had made snide and derisive comments about Rob during the lavish dinner parties she gave occasionally, how she had purged the entire house of personal items belonging to her late husband and how she blatantly entertained other men right in front of her step-daughter even before his bones had gone cold. All these things could have gone unnoticed if Martha hadn’t started off as the most loving, caring and the sweetest woman Cally had ever met. What an actress! Martha had weaselled her way into Rob’s heart by proving she could worm her way into Cally’s. There had been a myriad of women in Rob’s life, but none had managed to thaw the ice that was his young daughter, until Martha came along. Cally still remembered how happy she had been to have a mother, something she’d never known, in addition to a confidant and friend. The three had gotten along like a house on fire, so Rob had married her, satisfied he had found a mother for his little girl and a companion in life. Then two years later, he’d died, and everything had changed.
The morning before her eighteenth was normal in every respect. Cally got up, got ready for school and had her breakfast alone in the expansive kitchen before heading out the door. She slid into her car and gunned the engine, slipping out of the driveway. The drive to school was beautiful; the tree-lined avenue with the birds chirruping in the branches and the sun making its way over the hills that bordered the town, made it a picture perfect morning. Cally rolled down her window, breathing the crisp morning air deeply and feeling closer than ever to escaping her reality and living her dreams…
“Just till tomorrow,” she murmured to herself.
Jack was waiting at their spot when she pulled into the school car park, his signature lazy grin stretching across his handsome face when he saw her. As she walked up to where he was sprawled on a bench under the oak tree where they’d first kissed, she smiled at how just his presence made everything okay.
“Hi babe,” he said as he grabbed her and kissed the top of her head.
“Hi Jack,” she replied, burying her face in his chest and inhaling the smell that was spicy and warm and just him, “ I couldn’t sleep last night thinking about our move, I’m so excited. Besides, Martha’s become super cold lately, and I don’t like the way she looks at me…it’s, it’s like she’s thinking…oh, I don’t know.”
Jack gently pushed her away from him so he could look into her eyes, “I think you’re working yourself up over nothing. She’s probably pre-occupied with the latest…”
“Argh, forget it! What do you know anyway, you’re not the one living with her,” Cally suddenly exploded.
She was tired of how everyone couldn’t see what type of woman Martha was, how they always thought she was making it seem worse than it was.
“Cally I don’t want to argue, I can’t wait for tomorrow either babe and as for Martha, you know I’m always on your side.” He reached for her again, crushing her to him and effectively quashing her bad mood. She looked up at him and smiled, then hearing the school bell ring, grabbed his hand and headed in for class.
It was a spectacular sunset. The rising moon in the east and the setting sun in the west set up a dazzling show of lights and pastel colours in the evening sky. Crickets sounded as twilight gave way to dusk, setting off a cacophony of sound that accompanied Cally on her way home. She pulled into the driveway and was shocked to see the kitchen lights on. Martha was home. Martha was never home so early, she was always out at some function or another until the wee hours of the morning, one of the perks of not needing to work for a living.
“Caaally!” Martha’s voice sounded, as she walked into the house and hung up her coat and keys. She walked into the kitchen to find her step-mother seated on one of the barstools along the counter with the usual dour look on her face, this time however, tinged with a slight look of…happiness?
“Cally you will be eighteen tomorrow,” she begun before Cally could sit, “and that means I’m no longer responsible for you. I know you and that boyfriend of yours are planning to go shack up together somewhere, and I don’t care to have to stop my life to chase you around town. It’s for this reason that I had the lawyers change a clause on the trust…”
“What?!” Cally cut in, a thin sliver of panic rising in her chest.
“Would you shut up and let me finish!” Martha hissed in a stinging tone, “I had the lawyers change a clause on the age limit, allowing you access to your trust once you turn eighteen. I think you are old enough.…”
Martha’s lips continued to move but Cally could hear nothing over the roaring excitement she was feeling. Was this really true? Was she free, three years in advance, from this woman for good?
“Cally I’m talking to you,” Martha’s annoying voice cut into her dreams of a future she had been too scared to consider until now, “I’ll need you to sign here and here,” she was saying as she handed over a sheet of paper. Cally reached for it, and seeing her hands shake with an excitement that was almost palpable, exerted control immediately over her emotions and sat down to read through. Martha gave an irritated sigh, “The lawyers have been through it Cally, just sign it already, I’m late for a dinner.”
“Well then you go get ready and I’ll be done when you come down. I’m going to read all of it,” retorted Cally stubbornly. She was young but not stupid.
It took her all of ten minutes to realize why her step-mother was in such a hurry. The estate and all its assets had been liquefied, totalling around a hundred and fifty million, minus thirty million for the upkeep and maintenance throughout the six years following Rob’s death. That left a hundred and twenty million to be shared, according to his will, in the ratio of 30% to Martha and 70% to Cally. That meant, Cally quickly did the calculation in her mind, she was to receive eighty-four million and Martha a comfortable thirty six. But what was this? A long list of false claims later, and Martha was slated to receive almost fifty million, in addition to the house. The house she had grown up in, where she had learnt to walk and talk, where she had had a lifetime of memories with her father way before Martha had shown up. There was no way…none at all, that Martha was getting away with this last slap in the face of the girl who’d once looked at her adoringly and shyly called her “Mom”. Cally pushed the image of that memory angrily away, steeling her mind as she felt the venom and bile of the last six years boil over inside her. She was seeing red as she stormed up the stairs, the paper clutched in her hands, and into Martha’s room, colliding with her at the door in her haste.
“OH! Look what you’ve done! Stupid, clumsy…” Martha’s rant slowly stopped, as she took in the vision of the girl in front of her.
Cally’s eyes blazed with a fury she had never seen, and shewas breathing so hard she looked like a bull about to charge. Martha stepped back, a small ball of fear in her stomach, had she gone too far?
“What.Is.This?” Cally spat out the words as if it were painful to speak, “My house!?”
She was shaking with the effort to keep control over herself when Martha smirked and nonchalantly said, “Cally don’t act irrational like a little kid,” and swept past her into the hallway headed for the stairs.
“My house! Mine! How dare you!” Cally was screaming now, veins bulging out from her forehead and spit flying from her mouth as she followed Martha into the hallway. Martha turned at the top of the stairs and yelled back,
“You whiny, ungrateful girl! I’ve given up my youth to take care of you and now you say I don’t deserve my due? Well wait and see, I’ll get my share whether you like it or not!”
“My father …” begun Cally.
“I don’t give a damn about your father, he’s dead!” retorted Martha, her tone icy cold.
A fury unlike any she’d ever known gripped Cally and her mind went blank as she lunged for her step-mother. Martha saw her coming and tried to move out of the way, but the long hem of her dinner dress got caught in one of her heels, and she stumbled back instead. She seemed to fall in slow motion, arms flailing wildly, her dress rippling as if in water, her mouth open in a silent ‘O’, her eyes registering shock and fear, all the way down and crumpled at the foot of the stairs.
It took Cally several minutes to register what had happened. She stood numbly, looking at the prone figure swathed in an expensive, black dress and felt nothing. No sorrow, no shock, no panic, no fear, just an empty nothingness, out of which emerged her next move. She had packed everything she could think of wanting or needing and loaded it into her car. Then going back into the house, she had signed the trust fund document which already had Martha’s signature on it. It was better to take what she could now, and come back, someday…maybe, for everything else she was leaving behind. Then she got into the car and drove without looking back.
The bed was deathly uncomfortable. Deathly, how ironic, she thought to herself. She rolled off it and stretched, shaking off the cobwebs of unsatisfying sleep. She had to make it to the bank as early as possible, and she didn’t know where the bank was in this sleepy town she’d found herself in. She went into the bathroom, showered and dressed, then packed her things and went to check out.
“Tall, young, nice looking fella was asking for someone like you miss,” the man at the reception said as he took back the key Cally was handing him. “Description sounded just like you, but I can’t divulge guests’ information, so…”
“Thank you sir, but I doubt anyone I know would be around here. Anyway, can you tell me where the bank is?”
The morning was cool despite the sun, and a gentle wind blowing brown, yellow and orange leaves cooled the day further. Cally found the only bank in the town easily enough, and was soon seated across from the manager, a pudgy, balding man with a pleasant and kind face.
“Withdrawing an amount like that, transferring the rest to these Swiss accounts?…Well, it’s highly unusual. There are procedures, and today? Right now? Well it’s just all too quick,” started the manager as Cally pouted and enlarged her cat eyes, “but I’m sure there’s something I can do. Give me a few minutes please.”
“Thank you,” she replied breathily as he left the room.
She slumped forward and put her head in her hands.She inhaled deeply and fought the first stirrings of fear she’d felt since it had all started. Where was she going to go? Weren’t they going to catch her eventually? What would happen then? She knew she was innocent, but who else would believe her? Had they even found Martha yet? Martha…sprawled cold and motionless on the floor…a wave of nausea hit Cally and she retched violently as the bank manager walked in carrying a duffel bag.
“Are you okay?” concern etching his face. “Can I do something?”
Cally willed herself to settle down and choked out, “I’m fine, just a little stomach upset.”
She signed the documents as he hovered over her, trying to extend her stay, then showed her out, pointing her in the direction of a breakfast he claimed would ‘fix her up in no time’. Cally wasn’t in the mood for food, but she needed to sit and think, so she drove over to the little café and sat at a solitary booth in the corner.
“What can I get you miss?” a pretty waitress with bright red lips that matched her nails was standing over her, notepad in hand.
“An iced coffee, two sugars and hold the milk.” It was her order, but not her voice that made it. Jack stepped out of an adjacent booth and stood facing her. Cally gaped like a fish out of water, her mouth opening and closing several times before she did the only thing she could, and flung herself out of her seat and into his arms. They stood there for what seemed an eternity, before a gentle cough from the confused waitress brought them back to the present moment.
“What he said,” Cally smiled at the girl as she and Jack sat back down, “What are you doing here? How did you find me?”
“First, take this,” he handed her a small black phone and flashed her an identical one in his other hand, “I never want to not be able to reach you again, okay?”
She smiled, he was always worrying about her, “Oops, I forgot mine when I was…” she faltered as his expression darkened, and Cally knew immediately that he knew.
He looked down at his hands and said tightly, “I came by your house late last night; you’d told me Mar… that she’d be out. The lights were on, so after knocking for awhile, I got the spare key from under the mat and let myself in.”
“I didn’t do it Jack, I swear I didn’t,” she cut in, but her voice shook and she knew she wasn’t convincing him, “she fell by herself, she just stumbled and fell, there was nothing I could do.”
Desperate for him to believe what she was saying, she launched into an explanation of what had happened, but by the time she was ending her story, she could see she had only made it worse. Telling him of the fight they had had, and his knowledge of her dislike for Martha had only served to make her look completely guilty.
“I didn’t do it Jack…you know me, I wouldn’t,” she finished off weakly.
His eyes were impenetrable, his lips set in a thin line and she could see a vein in his neck throbbing wildly. “I drove all night after you, I didn’t even know if I was going in the right direction, or what I would do if I found you.”
“And what are you going to do Jack?” Cally asked, searching his face.
He didn’t answer straight away, and then he sighed, “I think you, we, should go back. Explain what happened and clear all of this up.”
There was a moment of absolute silence, the seconds stretching into minutes. Then Cally slammed her empty cup of coffee onto the table and stood up, “I’m not going back. Never. Do you think they will understand when you, you who know me so well Jack, think I’m lying?”
She turned on her heel and marched out the door to her car. Jack scrambled to his feet and threw some money onto the table as he ran after her. He reached her just as she was clambering into the driver’s seat, and he hauled her out and spun her around to face him.
“You are going nowhere without me, do you hear? I care about what’s happened but I care about you more. I don’t know what you plan to do, but heck…I’m coming with you.”
They’d taken her car which was newer, leaving his parked by the side of the café. They’d been driving for over an hour. Jack was in the driver’s seat, allowing Cally to stretch out beside him and sleep. He thought she was sleeping, but she had her eyes slightly open, observing his profile while her mind worked at a million miles a second. He was a girl’s dream, she thought, loyal, loving, protective and with a killer smile to boot. He’d been her rock for so long, she knew she would flounder a bit if he wasn’t around…and now, leaning back against the seat, she knew why she suddenly was feeling excitement instead of the nervous dread that had been her companion since last night. They would drive away, and live wherever they wanted to and do whatever they felt like…she had the means, and with him now by her side, she had the hope.
Jack glanced from time to time at the girl sleeping next to him, seeing her slender frame, her perfect features…the sultry cat eyes, the puckered lips, the wisps of jet black hair that caressed her cheeks…she was his, he thought. His life had turned from black and white to a kaleidoscope of colours since meeting her, and regardless of the doubt and fear he felt, he was sure of the decision he had made. Besides, he thought, looking at the upturned button nose and the innocent expression on her face as she slept, she couldn’t really have done it, could she? No, he knew this girl lying next to him, he knew her and he loved her.
“Jack,” Cally yawned and stretched, “can we stop and get food, I’m starving.”
“Sure, and I need a bathroom. There’s a pretty big town up ahead, we can stop there.”
It wasn’t a long drive before they saw the turrets of the town’s church, grey towers juxtaposed against the clear blue of the sky. They pulled into a gas station on the outskirts of the town, a large, dry and dusty place, where the people bowed their heads against the gusts of wind throwing dust into their eyes. There was an old man, haggard and thin, sitting motionless at one of the gas pumps.
“Sir, where are the bathrooms please?” Jack asked and the man stretched a gnarled finger pointing to the back of the building.
“Do you want anything?” Cally asked as she started towards the store.
“Just a coke babe, and something sweet like you,” he grinned and winked and went round the building to the restrooms.
Cally smiled at his cheekiness and felt her heart lighten, he always made her laugh. But she should have known happiness is fleeting, that was a lesson she had learnt over and over again. As she stood at the counter to pay, she looked out the dusty store window and felt her heart drop into the pit of her stomach. Two policemen were standing next to her car, intently looking at the license plate. She watched them walk over to the old man, watched him point his finger in the same direction he’d pointed Jack in, then watched in horror as they unfastened their holsters and moved slowly in that direction.
They had asked for the driver of the vehicle assuming it was her, and it dawned on her almost as quickly as she started to move towards the door, there was nothing she could do for Jack. With their backs to her, she quietly slipped out of the store and into the car just as the two cops rounded the corner. He’d left the keys in the car…oh! He was saving her even when he wasn’t with her. How could she leave him now? After all he’d done, was doing and would do for her? She turned the ignition and stepped on the gas. She let instinct take over, the innate need to survive, to save herself, and she refused to feel anything else.
It was a dark night. The wind was blowing gently, but out here in the country, it had an eerie howling sound as it rustled through the trees. She drove down the deserted highway, every minute making her more and more excited so she couldn’t sit still or keep the car steady. He was okay! They’d questioned him and let him go, because he obviously didn’t have anything to do with what had happened. He was only guilty of being foolish and young. She had sped off from the gas station that morning and driven miles, before she allowed herself to stop and re-think her plan, pulling off the road into a dense clump of trees. She had sat there, willing herself not to break down and cry, Jack was gone and once more she felt the familiar loneliness she’d felt since her father’s death. The orange-gold rays of the sun had grown dimmer as she sat there, turning pink and finally giving way to the night. It was late at night when she got the call. She wasn’t asleep, no; she’d been hoping, waiting for it.
“It’s me. Can’t really talk, but I’m okay and everything’s fine. Will you come get me? I’ll be waiting by the river at the Adamson Bridge.”
The night was cool. The breeze gently ruffled her curls and she pulled her sweater tighter around her. He stood motionless under a tree by the river bank. His silhouette was unmistakable; however, the broad shoulders she’d once hugged and his lean, muscular frame were shrugged under obvious tension.
“I knew you’d come, I knew it,” he whispered as she drew closer. His voice sounded hoarse and regret dripped off every syllable. She froze where she stood, but it was too late as out of nowhere, sirens sounded and she was bathed in bright light. She’d been caught.
“Jack?” Cally’s voice was a whisper and her face was deathly pale, “Jack how could you?”
His face swam before her eyes as the tears began flowing down her cheeks. Then there were hands on her arms and she was being walked and put into a vehicle and then they were moving. Cally leaned back against the cool leather of the backseat, closed her eyes and blacked out, she had taken all she could handle.
There was something familiar about the town the police vehicle slowed down in, and Cally only recognized it when they passed the café she had been at only hours ago. She was taken to the police station and put in a small, cramped basement office with a stone face cop outside the door. There was a desk with two battered chairs, two full walls of boxes and files, a window set high into another wall and a naked bulb hanging miserably from the ceiling. The room looked just how she felt. Her mind had barely registered what was going on around her, she was still in shock as she sat down stiffly in one of the chairs. Jack? The one person in the world she’d thought would always stand by her? A second wave of tears threatened to overwhelm her and she fought it back, recognizing she was going to have to be strong and in control.
“Cally? I need you to answer some questions.”
Her head snapped up and she looked into the face of a young woman, whose youth belied the authoritative air of someone in charge. The woman sat down across from her and fixed her with a pointed stare, “We know you killed Martha. We just need to know why.”
That was it. She was guilty and there was nothing she could say to defend herself. ‘She just fell, all on her own’ sounded almost laughable in her head…if only it weren’t true. Cally sighed deeply and was about to resign herself to her fate when a pungent, choking smoke suddenly seeped through the ventilation. A minute later, there was a commotion outside, followed by raised voices throughout the building. The young detective cocked her head to listen, and looked undecided about getting up until a second dose of the smoke billowed through the air ducts, thicker and more choking than before. She pushed her chair back, an irritated look on her face and left, telling the guard, “I’ll be back in a second.”
Cally, more concerned with the black smoke that was making her eyes smart than anything else, almost didn’t hear the squeak of the glass in the window above her. She squinted her eyes, waving away the smoke in front of her to see clearly. A louder squeak, a low grating sound and the window popped out of its socket. Jack’s face loomed in the haze.
“Quick babe! The chair…now!”
In the hallway outside, she could hear the commotion getting louder and more panicky as they sought the source of the smoke that was now flooding the station. She didn’t hesitate, carrying the metal chair over to the window and getting up on it. He reached down and clasped her outstretched arms, lifting and pulling her out the window. The cool night air hit her, and she drew large gulps of it as she stumbled to her feet beside him. He didn’t even look at her. He was busy lighting a piece of cloth tied to a nondescript bottle, which he flung into the ground level window before grabbing her arm and starting to run.
“The café, Cally, quick!”
Her legs felt like they would let out from under her, her mind was reeling and the pungent smoke still stung the back of her throat. He was half carrying her, half dragging her as the commotion in and around the station reached a crescendo. She felt the explosion shake the ground before she heard it, just as they rounded the corner and reached the café. Jack threw her into his car, still parked out front, gunned the engine and drove off.
The wind was whistling through the window, throwing her hair around her face. She looked wild, ethereal even. Jack sneaked small glances her way as he sped down the highway. She didn’t speak or move, and if it wasn’t for her blinking eyes, he would’ve thought her a statue.
“What?” He slowed the car just a fraction and looked at her, “they told me you were turning yourself into clear everything up and avoid getting me in trouble…they said you wanted to see me first…that I should stand by the tree and wait for you. Babe I never…”
“It wasn’t me on the phone Cally, they took it immediately they arrested me. They must have used someone with a similar voice. I would never do that to you, I swear…” he dropped off as Cally begun to laugh, a high pitched laugh, tinged with hysteria.
A chuckle escaped his lips, relief washing over him. She was going to be alright. “Just as a distraction, I wasn’t going to hurt anyone. But I wasn’t going to let them take you either. Even after they said you wanted to turn yourself in, they had to threaten my mum to get me to wait out in the woods for you, saying they would harass her now that I’d left home.”
The sky towards the east was getting lighter. Small, early birds were already filling the forest with song as they flitted from one branch to the next. Jack and Cally stood under the oak tree and kissed, just as they had years ago, albeit under a different tree in what felt like another lifetime.
“Where to babe?” he asked as they got back in his car.
Her smile dazzled him, “We’ll know when we get there.”
Nadya Ngumi is a 24 year old Microbiology student, writer and poet. She has written party reviews for zabamba.com and fiction for the East African.