by Sophia Obianamma Gabriel
Tobe has a scar that rends his face in half, and Emery knows how it came about. At first, the two told people he was Humpty Dumpty reincarnated. It helped that he was bald as a baby’s bum since university. Now, they do not joke about it. Time marinated the pain, and silence is the only acceptable discourse.
Tobe loves a White girl, Jessica, whose expatriate father stares too long at his scar. Emery knows the beginnings of a bad story when she sees one. Although Tobe makes no fuss about why his girlfriend looks at her baby brother with a mother's love, or why her father watches the boy with poorly concealed loathing, Jessica's curiosity, especially regarding the scar, is a condiment for disaster. Tobe does not talk about it. To talk about it opens the wound.
Jessica loves Tobe like Ezra loved Emery, yearning to unravel a mystery. One hidden in his deep eyes that pull you in and let you go as he wishes.
Tobe's ears fold in on themselves, slight enough to prevent his bald head—the perfect bald head—from looking like a caricature. His intelligence and sultry voice blot out his flaws, the slight limp and imperceptible lisp. The scar, however, greets the gaze first. And though most remain polite enough not to ask at the first meeting, the eyes are sentient. Those who meet him can’t resist trying to trace his story. It is a muted one. One of the shunning of brothers.
A lorry smuggling goods from Cameroon orphaned Tobe after his tenth birthday. His family was on a trip to Enugu to visit his mother's brother, who had just received his work visa for a job in Canada.
Tobe survived because the collision tossed him out the open window before the car crashed down onto the rocks. His uncle took him to Canada, and Nigeria became a distant memory.
When Tobe arrived in Canada, a lanky child whose hair started to fall out, Emery took him under her wings and told on the black kids who made fun of him. The White kids knew to stay away and talk behind their palms. But the Black kids, cool as they considered themselves, were raucous.
Emery suffered Tobe’s silence until he told her about his family. About his youngest sister, who followed him like a duckling, calling the envy of the middle child to him. About his father's promotion and how they celebrated in the parlour until midnight when their legs ached from dancing and their stomachs distended by jollof rice. Although she had questions herself, Emery did not tolerate ignorant questions thrown at Tobe by his peers.
“Did his father really drive a car?”
“What happened to the elephants they rode?”
“Did he know what soap was in Africa?”
“Was his hair falling off because he didn't wash it?”
“Could Africans really communicate with apes?”
Tobe levelled them all with a look from under his thick lashes before he sauntered away.
“Hey, voodoo guy” became anthemic and stuck until high school, where it took on a different meaning. He was undoubtedly beautiful, able to bring anyone under his spell.
When Tobe asked his uncle why they were treated differently, even when the community was Black, Tobe received a response he did not understand then.
“The thing is—a black man living in America, Tobechukwu, is not the same as a black American. There is a large difference.”
Tobe did not see the distinction. Emery's skin was as black as his, and Tobe spoke like every other kid on the block.
In Tobe's final year of university, a neighborhood allegation of rape brought the taunts back. There were elementary level questions.
“Do African men rely on rape to get a woman because they are too ugly?”
There were riddles.
“Is your uncle unmarried because he has a certain predilection?”
There were strange calls and painful shoves in restaurants.
These remained long after the court ruled it was not rape; long after the woman publicly apologised; long after, his uncle retired into himself and his home. These remained until Tobe's hair would not sprout again, even in tufts. They continued until Tobe broke a bottle on a boy's head for asking if he helped his uncle hold the lady down.
Tobe refused to be punished by law, choosing instead to accept the wrath of large Black boys with baseball bats.
The slander probably didn’t stop, but when Tobe returned to Nigeria, he could no longer hear it.
When Jessica's father gets the nerve to ask about the scar, Tobe freezes, but Emery humours the old man with a wink.
“He plays superhero in his spare time,” she said. “Super-secret, so that's all you're getting.”
Noting the hardness in Emery's gaze, they choose to talk about other things. Tobe’s palm rests atop hers before a grateful squeeze.
When Jessica asks Emery why she followed Tobe to Nigeria when Canada was her home, Emery’s words are stuck to her throat. She never needed a reason to follow Tobe to Nigeria. His home was her home. And if she was being honest, he was her home.
Tobe playfully pinches Emery’s cheeks, and in that silky baritone voice, he says, “Because she is Dora the Explorer, and I'm her backpack.”
Emery can't help but notice Jessica's frozen smile, as though she finally understands the lifelong companionship forged by years of unbridled, untainted friendship. When Tobe and Emery rise from dinner to leave, Jessica kisses the scar on Tobe's face. It is a crack she cannot shut.
Sophia Obianamma Gabriel is from Nigeria and serves as an editing intern with Kinsman Quarterly. She is also a poet and short story writer who writes family, romance, and horror. Gabriel is a student at the College of Nursing and Midwifery and wants to better the world through her writing and her medical endeavors. Gabriel published “When Food = Love” in the Brittle Paper Festive Anthology of 2022. She further published Queen of Atregin, A Toy Story (House of Horrors), and The Colour of Desire, available on Amazon.