I can’t believe it’s only 5 more days to release Through the Fire. I’m so excited, and I can’t wait to share this love story with you. But for those who can’t wait, here’s chapter 2.
(Possible triggers: Suicidal ideation and intent)
His eyes caught the time on the clock by his bedside, and he let out a long sigh. Four in the morning.
For the love of God. It had come back again. The waking up in the early hours of the morning for no reason at all.
Wearily, Arinze massaged his eyes with his thumb and forefinger and pulled himself upright on his bed.
Stretching out his arm, he pressed the switch by his bedside, and light flooded the room. No use trying to go back to sleep. All his attempts to shut his brain down and drift back into the land of blissful oblivion would only fail, leaving him even more exhausted.
The phenomenon had started shortly after Mary got her diagnosis. Cancer.
The words from the doctor’s mouth—metastatic malignant tumour of the stomach—were like shards of ice piercing his eardrums. Other lethal words—terminal, palliative, and untreatable—had followed. And yet, he’d barely heard any of them, his soul already out of his body, floating off to an alternate universe where he and Mary would be safe.
They were not. Instead, they were thrust into a world of endless cycles of fear. Just six months later, his beloved wife died.
From the day they received the final CT-scan report, sound sleep had eluded Arinze like a boxer dodging his opponent’s blows. He would wake up suddenly in the morning, no matter how tired he was, staring endlessly at Mary, worried sick that she would die while he was fast asleep, that he would miss her last moment.
His sleeplessness worsened when Mary’s health deteriorated, turning into full-blown insomnia, and he barely caught an hour of sleep each night. The hell went on for six months, and then, she was gone. Which was when Arinze’s real hell began.
Following her death, his brain seemed never to have recovered. Maybe he kept waking up hoping she would be there. Arinze didn’t know. Whatever the reason, sleep and he had become strangers.
Arinze buried his face in his hands and shook his head. Would he ever get back to normal? Would his life ever go back to what it was before the love of his life fell ill?
He ground his jaw and hissed in frustration. He thought this shit was going away, that his sleeping pattern was getting better. A few months ago, he’d started dating again. His friend, Oke Amayo, had set him up with a lovely woman who looked and behaved just like his Mary. She’d been like a dream come true. A wonderful salve for his loss. After three dates with Nkem, a divorced single mother, he’d started to come alive again, slowly crawling out of the deep hole of heartache he had sunk into.
He’d even begun to sleep through the night again, gradually getting more than just four hours of slumber. But even that was short lived. It was clear that Nkem was still hung up on her ex-husband. That hadn’t been the only reason, though. To be totally honest, he, too, was still hung up on his late wife. The match with Nkem had an expiration date before it even started.
Now, here he was again, back to being alone, his mind unable to shut down and his body laden with a deep-seated lethargy that had less to do with physical tiredness than with fatigue of his spirit.
Dragging in a laboured breath, Arinze stood to his feet. He lumbered over to the corner of his room and stood in front of a large painting of a young ballerina dressed in a white leotard and bright pink tutu, her arms and legs suspended in the air as she danced, her gaze intensely focused, as if competing for gold.
A tightness clutched at his chest as he stared at this prized possession—his last Christmas present from Mary. Neither a terminal cancer diagnosis, fatigue deep in her bones, nor pain beyond measure could stop her. She’d vowed to finish this painting. Her determination to carry on working, even in the face of such weakness, had upset him. But he’d tried to be supportive, telling himself maybe her love for her craft might keep her with him longer. Besides, when Mary made a commitment, she kept it. And she’d promised the client.
Not until Christmas morning, as they sat by the Christmas tree, and she watched him unwrap her gift to him, did Arinze know that her promise was to him. That he was her last, most beloved client.
He had broken down and cried like a baby, pulling her into his arms and holding her tightly for several minutes. It had felt like a parting gift, and it really had been. She died only a week later.
Arinze swallowed hard, blinking back the tears in his eyes. Two years since Mary passed and this painting still had the power to reduce him into a quivering mess. He took a long breath in, stilling himself against the pain of loss, and lifted the painting. He pressed on the button behind it and angled his gaze sideways, watching as the wall parted to reveal his safe.
He punched in the code number on the embedded metal shelf and lifted the lid. His eyes locked on the shiny black semi-automatic handgun resting amidst all his important documents.
Arinze lifted the Glock and inspected it, turning it from side to side. He opened the bullet chamber and sighed in satisfaction. Fully loaded.
Reaching back into the safe, he flicked through multiple documents until he found what he was looking for. A final letter to his family.
He closed the safe again and walked back to his bed, gun and paper in hand. Sinking back onto the edge of his plush mattress, he eyed the gun one final time and inserted the muzzle into his mouth, closing his eyes as he curled his finger around the trigger.
One. Two. Three.
One. Two. Three.
One. Two. Three.
He pulled the gun out of his mouth and enabled the safety lock, tears rolling down his face. He couldn’t do it. Couldn’t bring such pain and grief to his parents or siblings. His body trembled as he cried. They didn’t deserve to lose him like this. He had to find a less gruesome way. Maybe even make it look like an accident. That would be much better. They would never know how much pain he was in, or blame themselves for his death.
Arinze wasn’t sure exactly how long he remained seated there, gun in hand and sobs racking his body. But the next thing he knew, he woke up again. He was sprawled out on the bed, the muzzle of the semi-automatic staring him in the face. He turned to the bedside clock. 8:15 a.m.
Seated at the executive chair in his office, wearing a black custom-made suit paired with a red-and-white silk tie, Arinze put on his game face. As always, he buried the pain in his heart deep down. He had to so he could function. And function he must. His entire family depended on him to run the Ibeh empire like clockwork, just as he had been doing since he graduated from university.
As the first-born child with a brother and a sister, he’d always been called upon to shoulder the responsibilities of the family. Especially during the years his father had been jailed by the military government for financially supporting the few newspapers bold enough to speak up against the government’s tyranny. And so, at the tender age of twenty-two, he’d been expected to step up and take charge of the tech security company his father had started. He’d done so and expanded Standard Security Enterprise into an empire which now included real estate. Eventually his siblings had joined him in the business, but everyone still depended on him to run it.
“So what are you saying, Arinze? I’m not sure I understand,” Nnanna asked, drawing him out of his musings.
Arinze smiled at his younger brother who sat on the sofa opposite him, amused by the younger man’s incredulous facial expression. Although he was seven years older than Nnanna, they were close.
“I’m saying we have to take more risks. Use our own people to create these gadgets we keep importing from China and Malaysia.”
“But how can we be sure they would be able to produce quality products?”
“Why wouldn’t they be? Do the Chinese producing these have two heads with two brains that I don’t know about?” Arinze countered. “All we have to do is get an engineer from China to teach our top engineers here, and we can actually make the products ourselves. It would be cost effective for us in the long run, and we would be employing our own people.”
“Hmm … it’s like you’ve never been stabbed in the back before,” Ezinne, his younger sister, mumbled. Seated beside Nnanna, dressed in one of her typical multicoloured Ankara skirt suits, she fiddled with one of the blond locks that had escaped from the pile on her head.
Arinze turned to her. “What do you mean?”
“So, we teach our engineers to create state-of-the-art security technology that will make us millions, and we don’t expect one or more of them to use that expertise to start a competing company?”
Arinze shrugged. “That’s what non-compete clauses are for. We can have them sign one if we like.” Then, he lifted a pen from his desk and twirled it in his fingers while thinking. “But honestly speaking, competition is the spice of life. It makes people work harder and boosts creativity. Our family has monopolised this industry for way too long. Why not give others a chance?”
Two pairs of startled eyes stared back at him. Arinze suppressed a chuckle, completely understanding their surprise. He’d been cut-throat most of his adult life, doing almost anything to expand the family business. But after Mary fell ill, he’d begun to reconsider his values, what he found important in life. Feeling the need to change his way of thinking and make more room for others, he’d become involved in several charities, including founding Butterfly Children to help support orphans.
“Look, guys, we are blessed to have so much,” Arinze explained. “More than we need. Let’s employ more people, empower more of our citizens. If one of them decides to break free and soar on their own, I will consider it one of our great achievements.”
“Have you discussed this with Daddy?” Nnanna asked, eyes still wide as saucers.
Arinze bit back an annoyed retort. His brother knew all too well that their father had ceded all executive functions to him. “Since when do I need to ask his permission to make decisions?”
Nnanna raised a palm to Arinze. “I … I … sorry,” he stuttered anxiously. “Of course, I’m not saying you have to, but—”
“Forget it,” Arinze cut in. “Actually, I spoke to Dad about it, and he’s game. You know he’s always been about empowering the people. It’s a great way to do so.”
“You know what …” Ezinne said, nodding her head several times as if still mulling over what she wanted to say. “I’m beginning to really like this idea. Nigeria has loads of brilliant electrical engineer graduates who are either unemployed or wasting their talent working in a bank. We would be putting their knowledge to good use and fulfilling their career dreams.”
“Finally, you get it,” Arinze said with a huge grin tugging his lips. “If we stop importing ready-made goods and make them ourselves, we not only empower fellow Nigerians, but we will also eventually save on costs.”
Silence ensued. Nnanna tapped his nails idly on the desk. Arinze could see that his brother wasn’t yet convinced. Typical. It would take time to win him over. As close as they were, Nnanna’s personality was way different. He lived his life precariously, indulging in fast cars and just as fast women. At only 27-years-old, he had showed no signs of slowing down. And for his extravagant lifestyle, he needed money. Boatloads of it. Any threat to his massive salary or bonuses would make him nervous. Arinze could understand that, but the young man needed to learn to curb his excesses soon. Life wasn’t always guaranteed. One needed to be more grounded and less materialistic.
“So, have you found the engineers to use?” Nnanna asked, breaking the silence.
Arinze shook his head. “Not yet. But I’m hoping to recruit the top five graduating students from the universities of Lagos, Nigeria, Abuja, Benin and Port Harcourt. We need about twenty to start off.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Ezinne said, giving Arinze a thumbs-up sign. “A really good plan, brother.”
Nnanna simply nodded without saying anything, clearly not yet on board. Knowing it would take time, Arinze steered the discussion to other issues and soon ended the meeting with plans to meet up again for lunch.
Several hours later, he stepped into Lighthouse Restaurant with his sister. The chilly air from the air conditioning soothed his skin.
“Damn, such a difference being indoors makes,” Ezinne mumbled.
Arinze chuckled. “I swear, the heat outside could roast a complete turkey without any need to be in a kitchen.”
“Honestly. This mid-March weather is from hell.”
Laughter rumbled through him as the hostess led them to their table in a quiet corner. Arinze loved these moments with his siblings. Because they worked in the same building, they usually found themselves socialising mostly during lunch time. He cherished being able to laugh with his family without talking about business all the time. More so since losing Mary.
“Where’s Nnanna?” he asked as soon as they settled down in their seats.
“He texted me to cancel. Didn’t he text you, too?”
Arinze shook his head as he pulled out his phone from his trouser pocket and spotted the notification from Nnanna.
Sorry, have to cancel on you two. Having lunch with a hot mama instead.
“That boy and the girls, eh …” Arinze shook his head, twisting his lips in amusement.
“I swear. I hope he is double bagging sha. Because there are many desperate women hoping to become his baby mama.”
“What?” Arinze’s face heated up. Hearing his 25-year-old sister talk about sex always made him uncomfortable. He remembered holding her as a baby in his arms. Now, here she was, engaged to be married to a close family friend.
“Don’t act so shocked. His last girlfriend actually poked holes in a condom. He saw the packet she’d tossed in the bin, and she confessed. Thank God he talked her into taking the morning-after pill.”
Arinze’s mouth fell wide open. Na wa o. His siblings really were from a different generation. So freely talking about situations in which he couldn’t even imagine himself being in the first place.
Mary had been his first and only love. They’d been together since they met in the prep JAMB classes for the university entrance exams. The first time she’d walked into English class wearing a pair of shorts and a white t-shirt, her hair done into thick cornrows, her beauty had captivated him. He approached her during the lunch break, and she’d gifted him with the sweetest smile he’d ever seen. His heart melted.
They had become good friends before he’d allowed himself to think of her as more. When they finally crossed the line from friends to lovers, he was done for. He loved Mary so much that he’d not been with any other woman since then. He hadn’t attempted dating someone until eighteen months after her death, and it had been a disaster.
Listening to his sister talking about condoms made him feel so old and out of touch with the world around him. And he was only thirty-four.
“How are you?” Ezinne’s question, with a concerned lilt in her voice, reeled his mind back.
Arinze swallowed saliva. “I’m fine,” he said, offering his typical response to wade off any further questions.
“You … I’m worried about you.”
Before she could answer, a young waitress stepped up to their table. Arinze waited patiently as his sister placed her order of roasted plantain, peppered stew, and fried turkey.
He knew everyone in the family had been concerned about him when Mary passed, but he’d assured them he was okay, and they’d stopped questioning him about his feelings long ago. Why would his sister bring this up now?
She couldn’t possibly know about his repeated suicidal thoughts. How would she? He’d never said anything about it to anyone, had made sure not to worry anyone with his challenges. Had she somehow found the gun he hid in the safe? Impossible. Nobody knew the password except his lawyer.
“And you, Mr Ibeh … your usual?” the waiter said, turning to Arinze, halting his train of thought.
“You know my brother … of course, he always has fried rice and roast turkey. I don’t think he knows anything else is on the menu.”
Arinze chuckled. “My darling and annoying sister is right. Fried rice and roast turkey for me.”
“Okay, Sir,” the young girl said with a wide grin. “Your meals should be ready soon.”
They thanked the waitress and remained silent as she walked away. He turned to his sister when they were alone again. “Why are you worried about me?” he asked, still concerned that she was aware of his suicidal tendencies.
“Well … I … you’ve been a hermit for months. You hardly socialise anymore.”
“Oh!” Relief sliced through him. The last thing he wanted was to bother anyone in his family with his internal struggles. He was the first-born child, the one in charge of the family business. If they worried about his mental stability, all hell could break loose.
“I mean, you’ve been isolated. Driving from home to work and back again, and only briefly showing your face for your charity events. Nothing else.” She gazed at him, eyebrows knitted, and forehead creased with worry. “What about the woman you were seeing? You seemed happier when I saw her with you a few months ago.”
Arinze shrugged. “I don’t need a woman to be happy.”
“I’m not saying you do. I’m just … I’m saying you came out more and became more of your old self.”
Arinze had to agree. The one month he’d spent with Nkem Edun had given him some hope, made him feel a bit more positive about dating again. But it had only been a mirage. Nkem reminded him so much of Mary, which was the only reason he’d chased after her. Not because he really wanted her. No other woman could hold a candle to Mary. How could he ever want someone else?
“We’re done,” he answered with a wry twist of his mouth. “She is back with her ex.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
He made a non-committal sound. “It is what it is.”
“But there are other women you could go out with … I can set you up—”
He stopped her with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Nope. Don’t need any more setups. I’m too screwed up in the head to date anyone for now,” he muttered. “I miss Mary so much. I’m just not ready to move on yet.”
His sister released a resigned sigh. “I understand, Arinze, but it’s been two years. You need to try and move on. Mary wouldn’t want this for you. She wouldn’t want you to be isolated and miserable.”
“I’m not miserable,” he objected in a low tone.
She huffed. “Yes, you are. And I believe you’re depressed.”
“Depressed? So now you’re a psychiatrist?”
“I don’t need to be one to know that you’re not the same Arinze I knew before all this happened,” his sister said in a matter-of-fact tone, as though reading an article. “You keep to yourself. You stopped playing golf. And you’re always so distant, as if in your own world. Plus, I can’t remember when you last went on vacation … or did anything for yourself.”
Arinze opened his mouth and then pressed his lips back together. Much as he wanted to contradict Ezinne, he could not. He spent his days immersing himself in work, ensuring his mind stayed occupied. Because any time he allowed his thoughts to still, the pain of his loss flooded the empty spaces in his mind. He hated being around people, seeing everyone else happy when he was locked in his grief. So, he avoided family gatherings as much as possible.
“Arinze,” Ezinne called out softly. “I think you need to see a doctor for depression.”
“What? I’m not depressed.” He shook his head vehemently. “I’m grieving. There’s a big difference.”
Without responding to his objection, Ezinne unhooked her sling bag from where it hung on her chair, reached into it, and fished out a card. “There’s the name of my family doctor,” she said, handing it to him. “She’ll know what to do to help you.”
Arinze glanced at the card for several beats, taken aback by the decisiveness of his sister’s approach. She really seemed convinced he needed help. Did he? Was he depressed?
“Please see a doctor, Arinze. The rate of suicide in men is higher because of denial of their mental health problems.”
His heart lurched as his gaze jumped back to Ezinne’s. Did she know? Had she sensed his frequent battle with the desire to end his life?
“Remember Alex? My classmate who didn’t face his depression until it was too late,” she said, her voice shaky, her eyes glossing over with a film of tears. “I wish he’d seen a doctor before … before …” She trailed off, wiping the errant teardrop that had rolled to her cheeks.
Arinze swallowed hard and glanced at the card again. Yes, he recalled how devastated Ezinne had been when she recounted the news about Alex. He’d committed suicide last year by jumping from a tall building. But was he in the same category as Alex? Surely, grief and depression weren’t the same thing. Was his sister right? Did he really need to see a doctor? The waitress appeared at their table with their food, interrupting his thoughts. He tucked the card into his breast pocket, shelving his uncertainties