You come from a heap of floating logs on the sea and worn wooden houses swaying on stilts to the rhythm of the ocean breeze. And many many decrepit canoes; handmade with a fervour borne of passionate need. You come from a need so profound it feeds on itself, embellishes its acute lack with an urgent ingenuity. A more forgiving place would call it innovation, but you know it’s a simple matter of survival. You come from a place whose inherent endurance seeps inside your skin and teaches you that nothing is so barren, so painful, so desperate, that it cannot be made bearable, even beautiful, even fruitful.
The heap of logs from which you come is tied together with ropes woven from plastic bottles that have been flattened, stretched thin and pliable. The logs amass and sprawl out, biting chunks out of the fetid lagoon to become quite a magnificent slum.
You come from a gorgeously magnificent slum, its name is Jagajaga, and you love it ferociously.
You love that your home has legs; the house that your mother built with discarded slabs of termite ridden teak wood and mahogany stands on thin legs in deep water. And it reminds you with every groan, bend, and sway that you are lucky to be alive. Lucky, because despite how you tempt fate by existing in that house, in that slum, you and your people are yet to be swallowed up by the filthy water. Instead, the water feeds and yields to you. It cradles you. The water has marked you and your people; a deep blue and webby constellation of veiny lines climb your feet, all the way up your legs and torso, arms and neck, delicate cursive lines snake around your faces. They make an intricate map of your body and adorn your skin so that one look and it is clear that you are slum water people. It started in your grandmother’s grandmother’s generation. They thought it was a disease, grotesque, tried to pray it away and ate fistfuls of white medicine, but it persisted. Now your people understand: it’s just Siṣa, the water’s mark that makes it so that you cannot drown, and no matter what else lives inside of it, the water will never poison you.
You are in your neighbour’s canoe with your sister, Lailai. You’ve tied the boat to a crooked leg of the house that you share, and it rocks you both gently in a soothing cadence. You tilt your face up to the inky sky, and you unburden your mind.
You say, “Walahi I’m exhausted!”
And you are. The feat to make ends meet is exhausting. Tonight, for example, you will work a shift at Sun Bukkah. You will dance on the crooked and scuffed mirror stage for measly tips, and you will massage the backs, shoulders, and groins of new and regular, often handsy, customers for a bit more. Tomorrow morning you will hope that the gum patch on your canoe has adequately sealed as you paddle to the Jagajaga community school, where you will teach the children of last night’s customers basic math and spelling. Afterwards, you will care for the infants at the House of Yemaya, so that their mothers can worship and commiserate without the constant interruption of wailing babies. For this, you will get paid in food that will last half the week, maybe a day more if you are frugal about portion sizes: cooked rice, peppery vegetable stew, smoked catfish. And prayers, which will last however long blessings are said to live on through the ears of the creator.
You tell your sister, “I’m considering going to Ọrun. I can find better work there, send you money so you can rest, come back every few months…”
Lailai’s thick eyebrows make a tight knot; she shakes her head and flicks her thumb in an outward motion on the bottom of her chin: “Don’t.”
She doesn’t speak with words, never has. In all her eighteen years no voice has grown in her throat, so with swift hands, she signs, “Nobody comes back from Ọrun, don’t leave me here.”
You reach for her hands, but she moves away from you, rocks the boat precariously with her sudden jerking movement. Salty tears come quickly; they fill her large eyes, she is crying convulsively because she can see that you’ve already decided.
Lailai is wrong; people do come back from Ọrun, or more truthfully, one person has recently come back from Ọrun. Paradise, a childhood friend who left with Labour Recruiters six years ago, showed up earlier in the week at the primary school where you teach. She’d waited until you sent the children home before stepping into the classroom.
You didn’t recognize her on first glance; you thought she was one of those misguided and insufferable aide workers because her skin was plain, blank, no Siṣa curled and dotted down her bare arms or peeked over the high neckline of her stiff and impeccably clean kaftan. But you recognized the song of her voice when she spoke your name, “Ife!” she exclaimed, “long time!”
“Paradise?” You’d asked, eyes narrowed. “Kai! Long time! What are you doing here?”
“I’m looking for you now!”
“You look…” You’d shaken your head, nearly at a loss for words. “Well, you look very well. What happened to your skin?” You gestured to the plainness of her lean arms.
“I’ll gist you later, but you, you still teach here?” Her question was punctuated with a high note that you registered as pity.
“I do.” You nodded and swallowed a scoff.
“And you’re still at Sun Bukkah?”
“I am.” You nodded again, wringing the damp rag in your hands.
“And dredging?” Her tone grew more incredulous with each question; her eyes widened as if in disbelief. She grew up in Jagajaga, she knew how it was.
Shame crept up the back of your neck, but you kept a placid smile, shrugged and said, “When there’s demand, yes, whenever I can.”
“Oh girl, you never tire?!” She sat cross-legged on the desk directly across from you, the fabric of her tight trousers shone like sleek black oil.
You recalled the year Paradise left, the same year your mother vanished without a word, the same year you started to dance at Sun Bukkah to keep Lailai from hunger while you both mourned your mother’s absence. It would have been too much. It was still too much.
You surrendered, relaxed your jaw, your shoulders, looked your old friend in the face, and told the truth: “I don tire.”
Now you tell Lailai what Paradise told you:
Ọrun is heaven, the water is sweet, the work is plenty, and they pay well. And nobody can vanish there. Camera eyes everywhere and it is safe. But Lailai remains unconvinced. She shakes her head and signs, “Nobody comes back from Ọrun.”
You will leave in two days, but in those two days, you will work more than you will not, so you say your goodbyes now.
For a long time you cling to each other in a tight and tearful and painful embrace, then Lailai pulls away and signs, “Don’t forget that Ife is Love.”
You attempt to memorize the details of her face awash in the cool and electric moonlight, the way that her Siṣa underlines her right eye with a thin outward curving line, the thick twisted locs framing her face with a blunt fringe, her broad nose, and cheeks still round with puppy fat late into her teenage years. You say, “I won’t forget that Lailai is forever. I will come back”
The motorboat that takes you from Jagaga to Ọrun has the word ‘Shakara’ written in red across its shiny white body. It is small, but it moves like new. You don’t believe you’ve seen a new object since you were small. Even the donated screens at the school first passed through the soft hands of mainland children before they got to your students. This boat is new, its solar panels are intact, almost pristine, and it moves swiftly through the water that gets clearer and bluer the closer it takes you to Ọrun.
There are six of you on Shakara. Two Labour Recruiters, identical thickset mainland men with plain skin, introduce themselves as Uche and Caleb. They are sitting with the boat captain. Paradise is sitting between you and Chichi Girl, one of the mothers from House of Yemaya. Chichi girl is crying silently; she is leaving her ten-month-old, Oyin. Oyin’s name is fitting. Like her mother, her skin is the colour of dark honey; their Siṣa is almost identical. You reach a hand across Paradise to hold Chichi Girl’s hand. You say, “My sister e pẹlẹ. She will be there when you get back.”
She turns to look at you, but it’s too raw, the anguish in her eyes, so you avert your own. You look at your hand on her hand and squeeze.
Paradise shifts in her seat with impatience or annoyance, you’re not sure, so you release Chichi Girl’s hand and ask, “Paradise, how long between home and Ọrun?”
“Abeg, that place is not my home. No dey ask me long question.” She doesn’t look at you. Her features are stoic. All the warm familiarity of a few days ago has melted away to reveal a cold indifference. Taken aback, you roll your neck, raise your eyebrows, and blink slowly for effect.
“Na me you dey follow talk like that? Because I dey ask simple question? Na wa o!” You suck your teeth and look away.
Chichi Girl has stopped crying. She is staring ahead, blank-faced, resolved. You try to mimic her demeanour even though by now you worry that the work arrangement promised by Paradise and the Labour Recruiters will not be quite as they described. One of the Recruiters, you’re not sure which one, gestures for you to stretch out your arm, and when you hesitate he grabs it with less force than you expected. He circles a thin silver hoop around your wrist. He does the same to Chichi Girl.
Turning back to look at you, he says, “ID bracelet. They will scan it at the port.” He points a thick finger inches from your nose. “You are Aminata.”
He turns to Chichi Girl and says, “You are Caro.”
Next, Paradise joins you. She opens a slim metal case, small enough to fit in her slender palm. Without looking at you, she says, “I have to put these lenses in your eyes. The same as the bracelet, it’s for the biometric eye scan; it has all of Aminata’s information. Don’t rub your eyes or they will suspect.”
You see it long before the boat docks. Ọrun is sprawling splendour, sparkling buildings clawing at the sky with their spires of polished metal and glass. You wonder how they keep it so clean; for many miles, before you reach it, the water is clear. No plastic bags, no plastic bottles, no tangled mass of filthy garbage. Instead, only bright pink buoys dot the sea, large balls with undersides encrusted in tiny dark mollusks, swaying up and down in the calm waves that grow more restless with the boat’s arrival. You get close enough to one of the buoys just as a seagull swoops down to peck at it. Even the bird is unnaturally clean. Fastened to its left leg, just above its webbed feet, you see a thin strap with a blue oval half the size of the nail on your little finger. In the oval, a blinking orange dot. An identical oval is blinking on top of the buoy. Eyes. You heard about the eyes everywhere. You didn’t expect to see them from this far out. You turn your face away on instinct.
Paradise and the Labour Recruiters are waiting outside by a white van with the words Gaskiya Inc. written across the door in green cursive lettering. You and Chichi Girl enter the back of the van after Paradise, with the Labour Recruiters hulking behind you.
Seated beside Paradise, you ask without looking at her, “Who is Aminata?”
“She is a sim,” she responds with aloofness. “She doesn’t exist. Madame has her hackers create sims to transport workers. For now, you are Aminata.” She scratches her elbows and looks around the van in agitation. “But we can deactivate the sim whenever we want, and then you will be no one.”
Still scratching, she looks through the front window as the van begins to weave its way through the impeccably paved streets of downtown Ọrun. The traffic rushes forward, and bright people in their colourful clothes and shiny bicycles populate the sidewalk. You speed by dazzling storefronts and massive screens advertising facial reconstruction sessions, virtual reality fitness plans, new television series, the jackpot lotto—currently at fifty-six million Ọrun Nairas—Gaskiya teas and spicefair trade, organic, ethically sourced, fair labour certified, and Ringer Networking.
“Madame?” Chichi Girl asks, panic rising in her voice with each word. “Who is Madame? You said we could stay with you until we find work.”
Laughter erupts from the driver’s seat. From the rearview mirror, you see bloodshot eyes, familiar crinkles at the corner.
“Paradise, you need to come up with better lies.” You recognize the voice and lean forward for a closer look. You know the driver—Brother Fatai.
Brother Fatai is from Jagajaga. You haven’t seen him in at least three years. A single father, his daughter, Kele, was one of your students. She was eager, sharp, funny; vanished when she was eleven years old. Vanished like your mother; like so many others back home. No explanation, no word, no body. The absence of a corpse makes the mourning that much more painful. Brother Fatai became a crumbling building, rotting and collapsing from the inside. His light dimmed and dimmed. The community rallied, brought him food, cleaned his place, donated money for his rent, never stopped searching for Kele. When he left with Labour Recruiters eight months after her disappearance, the community sighed in collective relief; he needed the change.
Now he is here, and you are here.
You want to announce yourself, but you bite your tongue and bide your time.
“Who is Madame?” Chichi Girl asks again.
“You will meet her shortly,” Brother Fatai says. “Welcome to Ọrun. Paradise told you it’s heaven abi?” He chuckles, and it sounds like a cough. “You will soon find out for yourself.”
Genevieve Fath Korede, better know by her employees as Madame, is a deputy minister in the Ọrun Municipality Department of Labour. She is a senior board member of Ọrun Ethical Work Association, the CEO of Gaskiya Inc., and, you learn, a key player in an extensive human trafficking network. She’s a well-honed business person, and nothing turns a profit like free labour. A small woman, fine-boned and elegant, she glows with wellness as she sits within the folds of her vintage silk kimono.
“Welcome my friends!” She beckons you and Chichi Girl into her office. You walk in, followed by Paradise and the Labour Recruiters.
Madame scans you both with shiny eyes. “Do you like the identities I rented for you?” Her petite hands gesture for you both to fill the two empty seats across from her.
“Rented?” Chichi Girl asks; this elicits a commiserate mhmm from Madame.
“Aww you slumling,” she coos, “nothing in Ọrun is free, sweetie. I rented you those identities; you know, biometric contacts aren’t cheap.”
She cocks her head to the side and asks the Labour Recruiters. “Are they cheap, my boys?”
“No, Madame,” Caleb and Uche reply in unison from behind you. Out of eyeshot their monotone voices are indistinguishable; one of them snickers, but you cannot tell which one of them is laughing at your plight. You decide to hate them both equally.
Chichi Girl turns to you, her features scattered in bafflement
“Ko ye mi.” She doesn’t understand.
You reach for her hand, and through gritted teeth, you say, “Paradise lied to us. When she told us that we could stay with her until we find work here, she lied.”
You keep your eyes on her face and choke back any trace of the tears that are struggling to pour out of you. “What this woman, this Madame is saying is that we owe her for this.” You shake the silver bracelet on your wrist. “And for the transportation from Jagaga to this place.”
Still speaking to Chichi Girl, you turn to face Madame. “What she hasn’t said yet is that she will deactivate our identity bracelets and report us to the Authorities if we don’t do whatever she asks.”
“I told you she was sharp,” Paradise says from behind you, her tone is solemn, almost sorry.
“Sharp indeed.” Madame arranges her features into a shape that would convey sorrow if you didn’t know better. She offers, “I’m a benevolent employer; I will give you many options.”
These are your options: You can borrow from her supply of paint to cover up your Siṣa and, using your identities as Aminata and Caro, you can work as housekeepers or cleaners in any of the corporate buildings to which Madame supplies workers. You can work in the Pleasure Parlour, dance or fuck for money. If you don’t want to borrow paint, you can only work in the Fetish section of the Pleasure Parlour. You can work as tea pickers on the Gaskiya Inc. tea plantation; you will live on the plantation if you choose this because the commute is much too long to expect Brother Fatai to drive you there and back every day. You can work washing dishes at one of the many fine dining restaurants in Ọrun. You won’t need to cover up your Siṣa for this, but you will earn considerably less if you choose not to. You can work as housegirls for an expat family—clean, cook, soothe fussy babies, never complain.
Whatever you choose, you must pay fifty percent of your earnings for housing, twenty percent for the paint to cover your Siṣa, ten percent towards your transportation, and another ten percent for you Identity bracelets. The remaining money is yours to keep for food and savings. However, if you eat from the kitchen, then you must pay five percent of your earnings because, as Madame says, nothing is free in Ọrun.
The room you will share with Chichi Girl and eight other trafficked women is in the bowels of Madame’s four storey house. It is a stark and disheartening contrast to the opulence of the rest of the house. Five bunk beds line the walls of the dank room, and a solitary fan turns lazily, half-heartedly beating the thick air from where it hangs beneath the low ceiling.
Paradise shows you and Chichi Girl the empty bunk closest to the heavy entry door. Chichi Girl collapses on the bottom bed; stunned she asks, “Paradise, you knew?”
“Abeg abeg no dey ask me rubbish question,” Paradise retorts with harshness.
Rage flares up inside you. You shove her against the door, and the sound that escapes your throat is loud and guttural. You inhale, exhale, compose yourself and with as much calmness as you can manage,”You lied to us. Because of you, they’ve trapped us.”
“It was you or me.”
You shake your head and hiss with contempt, “They lied to you. If it’s me, it’s you; there’s no ‘or’.”
“She promised to clean my skin.” She is crying suddenly. “Madame said if I get replacements, they will clean my skin and I won’t have to be borrowing paint from her… I can save the money.”
You ignore the pity that wants to sway you away from rage. You rebuff, “Paradise are you foolish? Have you never been wounded? Siṣa runs down to the bone. It cannot be ‘cleaned.’ There is nothing to ‘clean.'”
“But Madame promised, she swore… I cannot live here with this Siṣa. Even after I finish paying Madame, I won’t be able to find work that pays well. I’m tired. Madam’s paint makes me sick, and the good one is costly. My Siṣa, the marks make my work cheap.”
You shake your head and turn away from her, towards the bunk bed you will share with Chichi Girl. With your back to Paradise, you caution, “Your Siṣa makes Jagajaga home, these people and this place make your work cheap. You should have stayed when you came to recruit me. We should have both stayed home.”
You are nearly asleep, close to the placid threshold of dreamless dark, when you are jerked awake by the creaking sound of the door opening, the muffled thud of a body landing on the stone floor, and the door slamming shut. You sit up from your perch on the top bunk that barely fits the length of your sore body. In the darkness you see a form rise from a pile on the floor; breathing heavy, a tall, lean familiar frame with locs swinging in thin curling tendrils down to their waist.
You ask in a hushed whisper, “Are you okay?”
“No,” a tense voice replies, “no I am not okay.” They walk further into the room, closer to your bunk and you see outlines of features that you recognize.
“Ẹbun Mimọ?” You ask in utter disbelief.
She halts two feet away from you, gasping, “No.”
Ẹbun Mimọ rushes to the side of your bunk and searches for your body with her slender hands, “Ife? No, go home.”
“Ẹbun, my sister, what are you doing here?”
You find each other’s hands and clutch tightly in the darkness. There is a long moment of heavy silence before Ẹbun Mimọ reveals, “I was working as a housegirl on the mainland, but the money was rubbish, I couldn’t even save enough to go back to home once a month. When I found out what the other girls were making, I told my madame that I deserved an increase in wages, and she said she knows what kind of woman I am. She pointed to my lap and said that if I gave her any wahala, she would tell all the other mothers so no one would hire me.”
“God punish her,” you say. Sadness is taking concrete weight in your body now, wedged beside the exhaustion.
“I’ve petitioned mama Yemaya to deal with her cruelty.” Ẹbun Mimọ continues, “I heard that Ọrun was different, that I could live free, in peace, and work for money that makes sense.”
In the darkness, you can smell the sharp scent of sweat from her body, mingled with the sweat and tears of the other sleeping women in the room, and moisture from the plumbing in the guts of the house.
“Maybe it is better here. Maybe they can see me clearly here like at home, but I don’t know because these people won’t let me go.” She cries out, “It was humiliating; the Madame upstairs made me strip down, she wanted to check the ‘merchandise’ as if I’m…I’m…”
Your grip on her hands tighten. “Then she told me I wasn’t ‘the kind of woman that they normally work with,’ that I can work as a man or in a fetish club. Ife, I was on the path to becoming a priestess in the House of Yemaya. I cannot violate my oath for anything.”
“I know,” you say, “I know. I’m sorry my sister. I’m so sorry for this.” That is all you can say. It is all you can muster as your own faith is fast depleting.
Ẹbun Mimọ asks about your sister Lailai and your heart breaks. You see Lailai’s face before yours, bright as a new picture. When she turned thirteen, she shadowed Ẹbun Mimọ at the House of Yemeya, learning the rituals, offerings, and healing ceremonies.
Ẹbun Mimọ was vibrant and powerful, and she loved Jagajaga deeply. But even she, holy or not, exhausted with the constant hustle, chose to leave for better work. She eschewed the Labour Recruiters that routinely turn up and went to the mainland for familiar work. And yet, she still ended up here, in bondage with you.
Eight months. You do as Madame bids for eight bleak months, and you are not even nearly a quarter way to paying off your “debt.” You are not surprised, but disheartened. And this disheartening plunges deeper than you knew possible; you are not in your body, and only barely in your mind. With Chichi Girl and Ẹbun Mimọ, you clean the bathrooms and service boudoirs at a fetish club near the Port called aGauche.
At aGauche you also shower for show; bathe in a glass enclosed shower with cameras displaying throughout screens in the club. It’s for little extra pay, not as much as selling a fuck, but you’ve seen how the customers treat workers with Siṣa like yours. You’ve seen some of the femmes leave boudoirs with swollen eyes, chunks of hair missing from raw, weeping patches on their scalps, and worse. They walk out with empty faces, and that is what frightens you most.
None of you want to pay for paint to cover up your Siṣa because you can’t bear to be further indebted to Madame, but also because you can see how it has burned harsh discoloured maps on Paradise’s skin. When she scratches her arms, she comes away with peeled paint and bits of dead skin and gritty scabs underneath her fingernails. She hasn’t spoken to you since your first evening here. She leaves the room in the morning with the rest of you, and brother Fatai drops the lot of you at your respective work assignments and picks you up many hours later.
This evening you are waiting by the back entrance of aGauche, waiting for brother Fatai to collect and drop you off at Platinum Plaza, the one hundred and forty-five-floor office building in the condensed and dazzling center of Ọrun. You are one of eighty-five workers, only a handful from Madame, who will clean cubicles, boardrooms, bathrooms, and staff break rooms until just before three a.m. when brother Fatai will take you back to Madame’s basement. You look around for Chichi Girl and Ẹbun Mimọ who should be waiting with you, but there’s no one else by the back entrance except for you and the many camera eyes scanning you, registering Aminata. This idea stirs up rage in you, but it is quickly dampened by worry; where are Chichi and Ẹbun?
Brother Fatai turns up in the white Gaskiya van, the door slides open smooth and near silent as usual. “The other girls aren’t out yet,” you say upon entering the vehicle.
“I know,” Brother Fatai replies, pushing a button to slide the door shut. He hasn’t directly looked at you since your first encounter at the Port months ago, hasn’t acknowledged that you know each other from home. Now, alone in the van together he keeps his eyes fixed on the road, and you do the same.
You ask, “Did you pick them up earlier? They came to work with me this morning…”
“Are they okay? We usually leave together.”
This, he ignores.
You try again, prompting, “Did you take them back to Madame’s house?”
He continues to drive in silence. When he pulls up to the north-facing door of Platinum Plaza, he lets you out of the car with a nod, his first gesture of acknowledgement. You step out choking on your annoyance. You know that you are being scanned by the blue oval eyes planted throughout the building, the whole city; you want to return their gaze and scream until something shatters. Instead, you walk in with your head down and proceed to clean for six sluggish hours.
Back in Madame’s basement, Chichi Girl and Ẹbun Mimọ are absent from their hard creaky beds. You attempt to keep your voice steady when you ask Paradise if she knows anything about where they might be. And you tighten your fist to keep from lashing out when she sucks her teeth, rolls her eyes, and continues to pick at the sores on her arms. You don’t sleep; you rise at seven a.m. with the rest of the workers to fill brother Fatai’s van. Still no Chichi Girl or Ẹbun Mimọ.
At aGuache, in the din of the eternal pleasure that it sells, you ask co-workers what they know. “Have you seen these girls? They’ve been gone too long?”
Most of them shake their heads impatiently, but one, Casha, a cleaner like you, says, “Yesterday a customer wanted to buy your friend, the tall one, but he—”
“She,” you correct her.
She only shrugs, “Eh, yes, she said she doesn’t sell fucks, she just cleans. But the customer is a big man in Ọrun, plenty of money, so Oga said that he—sorry, sorry, she—must go with the customer.”
Bile is rising in your stomach. Ẹbun Mimọ doesn’t want to do sex work; even in Jagajaga, she worked every possible gig, but never Sun Bukkah.
“What happened?” You ask, clenching and releasing your fist to move the tension that is mounting in your weary body.
“Ah, sister it was bad o!” Casha lowers her voice and leans closer to you. “Your friend fought the customer. Oga had to send security inside—they called your people’s agency, and they came and collected her. It happened quick quick.”
“And the other one, Chichi Girl?”
“The one that is always crying?”
“When Oga called your agency, he said they should take both of them because they are spoiling show in his club.”
You are going to break, you know it, you are going to break. You wheeze, struggle to inhale, to catch the air that is escaping you. You feel tears wet your cheeks just as your body begins to tremble.
“Sister,” Casha says, “sister I’m going to touch your shoulder now, okay?” She places a tentative hand on your bare shoulder; her hands are colder than you expected.
“Sister, look at me,” she continues, “look at my face.” Casha’s face is the colour of milky tea, unmarked, she is not from your slum. Maybe a mainlander. Her eyelids are dusted with gold glitter, lips painted black, she is being kind to you. Her hand on your bare skin is reminding you that you have not been touched with tenderness in a long time. It evokes intense memories of your sister, Lailai.
“What is your name? Your name that your people call you?”
“Okay, Ife, stay focused. Remind yourself who you are. Worry about your friends when you leave. Oga is still very angry. Okay?”
You nod, Okay. You want to say to thank you, but you are afraid you will cry if you open your mouth.
Alone in the van with brother Fatai again. As soon as the door slides shut you ask, “Where did they take them?”
He ignores your question.
You lunge forward, lodge your body into the space between the driver and passenger seat, and snatch the keys out of his dry calloused hands. “Brother Fatai, what did they do to them?”
He is stunned by your outburst. He looks directly at you for the first time. He stares for a long moment before saying, “You remember me.”
“Of course I do.”
“I wasn’t sure…”
“Please tell me, where are Chichi Girl and Ẹbun Mimọ? Are they alive, did Madame have you harm them?”
He shakes his head slowly and scoffs without joy, “A dead worker is not profitable.”
You feel tears roll down your cheeks, your fist tightens around the jagged teeth of the car keys.
“She sent them to Gaskiya farm, to the tea plantation. She says it’s the only place that they are profitable, they can cry and pray all they want, as long as they pick tea.” He starts the engine and begins to drive.
“How can you do this to our people?”
“You know my Kele loved you?” he asks after a long pause. “I remember before they started donating screens to your school, you used to let her bring your screen home.”
You remember too. Kele was often eager to get a head start on the next lessons, so you lent her your only screen to practice at home. She always remembered to bring it back, covered in greasy finger smudges but with the next day’s lessons done, mostly correctly.
“She was one of the few who could do the work on her own,” you say, softened by the memory.
“She loved you for it.”
He pulls up at the north-facing entrance of Platinum Plaza and turns off the engine. He takes his black hooded jacket off and throws it on the car floor beside you.
“Hood up, head down. Sister Circle, a blind shelter so no cameras, no questions. If you run now, you will be there before city sweep.” He says this quickly, and in such a low tone you are not entirely sure if you’re hearing correctly.
“The phone in the pocket,” he continues, “emergencies only, nothing is analog.”
You are frozen to the seat, stunned at what he is telling you until he shouts, “Go!”
You grab the jacket off the floor, throw the car keys at him, and dive out of the car, pulling it over your body as you stumble across the sidewalk, then you run. You run.
To be continued…