‘You can’t leave,’ Rebecca hissed as we entered Kemi’s living room. The beat of the music thumped against my chest as I glanced around at the thirty or so people scattered in sporadic clusters across the room. They all shone with a soft, brown hue. Strange. I blinked, scanning the room until I spotted small, bulbous lamps placed here and there and veiled with chestnut-coloured silk scarves. The dimmed light coated Kemi’s guests beautifully, they shimmered as they swung their hips to the beat, creasing their eyes in laughter. The party was in full swing. I took a cautious step forward and smooth waves of excitement and fear rippled through my body.
I’d been to Kemi’s house—if you could call a ten-bed mammoth building sitting on 400 acres of land a house—once before, but I still had to fight the urge to gawk at its splendor. Everything in her house was lavish. Well, no, it was more than that. Similar to Kemi herself, every square foot of her home exuded pristine style. Every item, every placing, every detail, all worked together tirelessly to put onlookers in a daze, leaving them feeling special and inadequate at the same time.
The scent of spiced wood drafted through the room in a warm breeze that reminded me of the summer nights I could only revisit in my dreams. I watched the smiling people dancing before me. They looked so happy, so free. My chest seemed to have shrunk to half its size. The only sentence my brain seemed capable of forming was: what was I doing here? From the slight curl on the lips of the people that glanced my way; it was clear I wasn’t the only one thinking this.
‘What? I didn’t even say anything,’ I replied defensively, avoiding contact with Rebecca’s large black eyes. She stepped in front of me with a stern warning splattered across her face. The youthful look of the two large black Afro puffs at either side of her head gave her round face made her scowl look almost obscene.
‘Don’t what me. You’re making that face.’ Rebecca sighed audibly.
‘I don’t make faces,’ I shrugged, in what I could only describe as a reflex, I looked back at the open door that we had just emerged from, turning back to her sheepishly as she released yet another sigh.
I could have kicked myself right then and there. If she hadn’t suspected anything, then I might have had a chance. I could have left after 30 minutes—an hour at the most. By then, Rebecca would have been fully engrossed in the party’s rhythm. She would have been none the wiser about my sudden departure. But now that her suspicions were raised, she wouldn’t let me out of her sight. I ignored the heavy feeling pressing down on my shoulders and attempted a smile.
‘You do. You make faces, Ife, a lot of faces. In fact, you’re doing one right now. This is a party full of your friends, not a prison,’ she hissed under her breath.
‘Full of your friends you mean,’ I muttered, scanning the room. It was filled to the brim with some of the most sought-after personalities in the borough.
They were all perfect. They either did amazing things or came from families who had built extraordinary empires. Most times it was both. To be fair, they weren’t completely awful. They were polite at times, and at the very worst they just ignored me. After all, Rebecca was my best friend, and if anyone belonged, she did. It was undeniable that she was destined for greatness. She was wildly funny and acceptably loud. Her internship at Lemon.X made her prospects of becoming a well-renowned designer more of a promise than a dream. Rebecca had always belonged here, and she had always insisted that I did too.
We had just finished our exams when Rebecca had approached me about coming with her to Kemi’s party. I had just emerged from my self-isolation, and she had caught me in a post-exam high, induced by a mixture of exhalation and exhaustion.
‘It’ll be cool,’ she had said. ‘Kemi has such a cool vibe, and you remember her house! It’s amazing, right? Plus her dad signed that thing—that banking deal, the biggest acquisition or whatever—either way, they’ve just got richer, so you knooow it’s going to be out of control,’ Kemi had exclaimed. I had looked back at her unconvinced.
‘Also,’ she had added, ‘you owe me, you barely responded to my messages for two months. Two months, Ife! And don’t give me any of that studying bullshit—we all know that you don’t need to study.’
I had squinted back at Rebecca, allowing her points to bounce across my mind. As a party it wouldn’t be the worst to go to, I had thought. I liked Kemi far more than most of the people in the borough. At the very least, it could serve as a good excuse to avoid any of the other less-than-desirable events that would undoubtedly crop up over the summer. So, like a fool, I had said yes and now I was facing an evening filled with awkward small talk and feeling completely misplac—
I turned to Rebecca in a panic and she rolled her eyes before shaking her head with a knowing smile.
‘Yes. Your boyfriend is here,’ she giggled.
‘Shhhh,’ I hissed frantically, turning my back away from Wale. Please don’t see me, please don’t see… please see me.
‘You realise this is ridiculous?’ Rebecca said, rolling her eyes again as her smile widened. ‘He’s not an alien if you like him ju—’
‘Rebecca, please,’ I begged quietly as I ran my hands through my braids, a gesture I prayed made me look unbothered. It wasn’t ridiculous at all. Wale was… Wale. He was nice. Really, really nice. He was too good-looking to be that nice. Too perfect to be that considerate… and nice. He was really nice.
‘Rebecca!’ exclaimed Azra. As she approached her eyes swept over to me before bulging slightly.
‘…And Ife, you’re here too? Well, that’s nice… we don’t usually see you out. You know,’ she exclaimed with an amused grin, ‘you actually look quite good today as well,’ she gushed.
‘Thank you?’ I murmured before plastering a smile on my lips. I let my gaze fall back on Rebecca, who in turn looked at me with pleading eyes before turning back to Azra.
‘Azra, how are you?’ Rebecca asked.
‘I’m good now that you are here! You guys have to come over to save me from Lois, she’s in a mood,’ Azra said, rolling her eyes before moving closer to Rebecca and adding in a lower voice,
‘Anyway, it’s a downer,’ Azra said as she rolled her eyes, sweeping her long thin fingers across the air as though she wanted to clear it, ‘and this is a party after all, not a God-awful lecture on Swahili,’ she said smiling at her own joke before turning to me with surprising urgency, ‘How did you find the exam by the way?’ Azra and I took nearly all the same classes as St Ursula’s and for the most part, she never addressed me, except of course to ask that one question.
‘Well I-,’ I started before she waved her hands in front of my face.
‘Sorry - I’m being such a bore!’ she exclaimed, ‘Rebecca, we have to save Michelle from dreary Lois, it’s only right, it’s practically your duty since you dumped her so viciously!,’ she exclaimed, pulling on Rebecca’s arm and dragging her into the nucleus of the room. Rebecca looked back at me to see if I was following along.
‘I’ll just get a drink,’ I said, another smile plastered on my face, as Rebecca mimed ‘don't leave’ before melting into the party.
I walked over to the counter at the corner of the room. It was clear, save from a few empty, crushed plastic cups with spots of dark liquid still splattered within them. I looked out at the party and saw Rebecca laughing loudly in the new group that she had formed with Azra, Lois and Michelle. The group looked a little strange without Noah, the tall, thin boy whose baritone laugh would often resonate throughout the room. It was far stranger that he had popped. I had never thought that it could happen in our borough. Popping had always felt like a distant, strange occurrence that happened in the distant north. A scary tale that we told each other with torches in our hands and hushed voices. Not something that could ever happen to someone as real as Noah. The usual feeling of discomfort that ran through my body whenever the subject of popping came up sat awkwardly in my stomach. I hated thinking deeply about it; every time I did it seeped into my soul like poison.
Rebecca’s face suddenly lit up and she became even more animated, pulling me out of my thoughts, as she threw her hands up in the air. She looked completely at ease, far more so than I felt. I never understood why she needed me to come with her. I often felt like a childhood bear that she had long since grown out of, but still wanted near for the sake of comfort.
A familiar feeling trickled down my spine; I felt completely misplaced. I scanned the room, for lack of a better thing to do. I watched the groups of beaming people from afar. The room was warm with activity and the smell of plant-based hair oils and expensive perfumes whirled around the space vigorously. Rebecca was right; it was a nice vibe. A song that I recognised but couldn’t name suddenly came on and the room collectively jumped with unbridled joy. A row of hands was flung up in the air and streams of bodies twisted to the beat.
‘Hey,’ a deep, familiar voice said from my right. I flinched and my heart began to race so hard I had to fight the urge to clutch it. Instead, I turned towards the owner of the voice. Wale stood in front of me. His dark eyes were slightly narrowed by his large smile, framed by the dark shadows of what in a few years would become a fully-fledged beard.
‘Hey,’ I said as I turned away from him and towards the counter, clasping my hands in front of me to stop myself from fiddling. I was starting to feel dizzy as wafts of his scent circled and then enclosed me. He handed me a red drink in a clear plastic cup.
‘It’s that raspberry and elderflower drink that you like,’ he said. ‘If you don’t want it, it’s cool, I can get you something else?’ he added, unsure. I looked up at him, confused.
You know what I like to drink? Wale, I’m in lov—
‘Erm, no, it’s—that’s really nice. Thank you,’ I said as I took the drink. His fingers brushed mine in the exchange and I took in a shallow breath.
‘I’m glad to see you out today. I haven’t seen you in the art room for a while,’ he said as I took a sip of the drink. The art room was our place, at least it was in my mind. I would come there after school to study sometimes, and Wale would be in there working on his sketches.
At first, he didn’t matter to me at all. He was just one of the many boys at St. Ursula’s who would look past me as though I were nothing but air. We had all come to an agreement, I had decided a while ago. They would ignore me, and I would ignore them and we would all go about our merry lives. Wale broke that agreement. He had sat by me one day in the empty art class and worked alongside me, not saying a word.
We had worked like that for a few weeks, sitting side by side in that large empty room. A silent dialogue had begun to build up. One of us would look up and smile when the other person had arrived, shifting around the objects on our station to make room for the other. I would shift in my seat and he would get up to close the window. He would look around the room with a squint and I would place my rubber by his paper. Eventually, we had started to use actual words. Soon enough, I had realised that he was sweet and awkwardly funny and his laugh was a deep, sweet rumble, like heavy rain hitting a drum.
‘There’s no alcohol in this,’ I replied curiously as I took a gulp of the drink he had just handed me.
‘Should there be?’ he replied, a thick eyebrow arched as he began to form one of his easy smiles.
My heart clenched.
‘Well, it is a party,’ I shrugged, stealing glances at him as he let out a deep laugh.
‘Sorry, I didn’t know you that you were such a partay animal,’ he chuckled back at me as he turned to the counter.
‘Sometimes,’ I lied. ‘Also did you just say partay?’ I scoffed as he winked back at me.
He stepped a little closer, before turning to lean over the counter. He drew his arm over and began to search for something underneath it. I watched as his arm muscles flexed. His grey t-shirt suddenly lifted up slightly, exposing a small section of his midriff. I looked up quickly. He turned back to look at me with a large bottle of rum in his hands. He opened the bottle and silently poured a little bit of the clear drink into my cup.
I brought the cup to my mouth and smiled my way through its awful taste. I looked back up to see him still staring at me; my heart leapt to my throat but I maintained eye contact. His smile widened and he took a step closer to me.
‘Wale’s found another bottle!’ Chidi yelled as he clambered across the room and snatched the bottle out of Wale’s hand. Chidi was Wale’s best friend; they played in the St. Ursula’s football team together. Everything about him was large, his personality, his frame, everything. I often wondered if that fact ever terrified him. He might live in the South borough, but as Noah had proved, you could never be too safe. After all, there was an undeniable pattern to poppings—large black males were the most likely to go.
‘Now, where did you find that?’ Kemi giggled as she joined the group, letting Chidi pour a drink into her cup before turning to me with a smile. As usual, she looked effortlessly beautiful. She wore a singlet vest and a short denim skirt. Her neat, waist-long dreads draped her face. She was makeup-free, except for a sweep of glittery eyeshadow. She was definitely the most simply dressed person at her own party, and yet somehow she looked exquisite.
‘Ife, I’m so glad that you could make it,’ she said brightly as she moved over to hug me. I smiled back at her earnestly, mumbling back thanks as Rebecca entered the slowly forming group with Lois, a girl who was known for harbouring an envy-inducing collection of wigs. I smiled at her, but it was as though she couldn’t see me. She allowed Chidi to pour her a drink, but as he moved away she grabbed the bottle and proceeded to pour a little more in her cup. Chidi cleared his throat awkwardly.
Rebecca had completely ignored this interaction, instead, she had been fighting to catch my eye. When she did, she flashed a smile, letting her eyes bounce excitedly from Wale back to me. I smiled back, feeling the warming effects of the alcohol hitting my stomach. Wale stood close to me, leaning further into me as he spoke. Every now and again he would gently place a hand on the small of my back, and I would keep on sipping my drink. My face began to tingle slightly, and I found that I was starting to enjoy this party. The safe little haven that had formed wasn’t too bad at all, well, that was until Lois said:
‘I just can’t believe that Noah popped.’
The crowd suddenly went silent. She had seemed distracted and muted throughout the whole conversation. Strange behaviour for a girl who usually thrived on being the centre of attention.
‘Yeah, it happens,’ Chidi said vaguely before taking a deep breath and clapping his hands. ‘Did you guys hear what Mrs Uba said about the—’
‘Yes, it happens and it is happening more now,’ Lois said firmly. ‘Not talking about it is not helping. Noah never spoke a word about it and now he’s…’
‘What is wrong with this babe?’ Chidi whispered loudly to Wale, who responded by clenching his jaw.
‘Lois, you probably shouldn’t-’ Rebecca began cautiously,
‘How else are we going to understand it or stop it? Popping could happen to any—’
‘Wow, see wahala— I don’t want any of it. I’m out,’ Chidi announced before pushing his way out of the group. Lois turned her body as she watched him go.
‘I just…’ she started. She did not continue. Instead she stood frozen in thought for a long time.
‘Lois?’ Kemi asked softly. Lois turned her head to look at us, with a strange, eerie expression on her face.
It happened quickly. One moment Lois was before us, and the next moment she was gone.
The first time I had seen it I had been nine years old. I had been shopping with my Mother and I had managed to sneak a packet of Skittles into our shopping. The red-haired cashier lady beamed at me, her cheeks were tickled pink as she swiped my sweets and then… she popped. I still remember the sound of the Skittles hitting the ground and the slight movement in the empty air that she had once filled. I’d tried to ask my mother about it and she had slapped me hard across the face before I could say a word.
‘We never talk about that,’ she had said, ‘do you hear me? Never.’
It was the first and last time my mother had ever raised her hand at me. I had allowed the tears to run down my cheeks silently, and my question to wither on my tongue.
At first, people had demanded answers. They had protested, campaigned for research, fought for something that resembled a solution. The more that people spoke about it, the more the poppings occurred. At its peak, hundreds of people had popped in one day alone. Soon enough, the protests had stopped, the discussions had come to a halt. It took a few years but eventually, the crying had stopped too. It was widely understood that the more you spoke about it, the more likely it was that you could be next.
I looked blankly at the space that had once been Lois. No one said a word.
‘So,’ Kemi murmured, her voice thick and quivering slightly as she bent down to retrieve Lois’ cup from the ground, ‘that’s quite a mess,’ she muttered letting a frail laugh flow through her. She paused as she reached the ground, remaining there solemnly staring at the discarded cup.
No one said a word. A bright song filtered through the still room and I watched as its inhabitants tried and failed to blink away their terror. Fear tore across all their faces. I wondered briefly whether my expression matched theirs. My mind raced as I looked down at the red cup slacked in Kemi’s hand. I knew the rules, I knew that acknowledging Lois’ popping, even thinking too deeply about it, was a sure way to get popped myself, and yet, I couldn’t run from the fact that Lois had just popped in the middle of Kemi’s living room. How could I, how could anyone, not think about it?
A loud whistle suddenly broke through the air.
‘Kemi! You’re really trying to tension them, yeah!” Chidi called from across the room, a huge grin splattered on his face, his eyes were tight and shone with a thin layer of liquid that he blinked away before letting them run across Kemi’s bent body. A series of laughs erupted at the impromptu joke, it started off pitiful and glum, but it soon roared into something that felt almost real and suddenly the group collectively exhaled.
Don’t think about it. The thought flashed briefly in my mind and I found myself joining in on the room’s glee.
A song by Solange began to play, it was smooth and easy, just how I wanted to feel. I took another gulp of my drink and relished the strange light-yet-heavy feeling that had begun to spread over my body. Don’t think about it. I felt myself swaying to the beat.
Suddenly Wale’s hand circled around my hips and pulled me close. I looked up at him and smiled. He brought his head down to my ear.
‘Let’s dance,’ he said, and my heart burst with delight. I’m not thinking about it. I nodded.
I let him lead me into the middle of the room. We were completely coated by the subdued brown light and we began to move our bodies together. I turned around and felt his hand rest lightly on my waist. I found myself lowering towards the ground.
I looked up to see that I was facing Rebecca, who was visibly excited. I smiled at her and shared in her delight. I moved back up and Wale swivelled me around to face him. He looked at me like I was someone else. Someone amazing. I moved closer to him and his head bent down towards me. My hands brushed past his rough chin and found their way to the nape of his neck.
The song came to an abrupt stop and the lights brightened to a harsh white light that disorientated me for a moment. Rebecca came towards us with my coat in her hand and a large smile on her face.
‘Sorry to interrupt, but we really need to go. I’ve held off as long as I could, but the party’s over now and there’s a cab outside. If we get this one we can split it with Azra who’s on the way. It’ll work out cheaper than getting a bus back home—but only if we get this one. So… bye Wale!’ she explained as she dragged me towards the door.
‘Bye,’ I mumbled at Wale as I allowed myself to be taken away.
The icy night air hit my skin, but I didn't feel cold. Rebecca and I looked at each other before bursting into a series of nonsensical giggles as we approached the black car. I opened the door to get in and felt a pull on my left hand. I looked back to find Wale.
He smiled at me and took his phone out. ‘So, can I get your number?’
‘For what?’ I blurted out.
He laughed. ‘So I can call you… and maybe take you out to somewhere other than the art room.’
I looked back at him and bit my lips in confusion before reciting my number. He smiled and looked down at me. He stepped a little closer to me and lowered his head towards mine. I could feel the warmth of his breath against my lips.
‘Listen, lovebirds, this is a longer journey than I anticipated and I’d like to go home at some point tonight. You can do this another time,’ the cab driver called as Wale took a step back onto the pavement, covering a laugh.
‘I’ll text you tomorrow,’ he said as I lowered myself into the car.
I woke up with a smile on my face. Memories floated around me like a cloud: the smell of oak and cinnamon, strong hands on the small of my back and the promise of a kiss on my lips. The morning light streamed into my room and I felt so… happy. I glanced over to my phone and I could see a bright notification flashing across my screen.
I kicked my feet in the air. ‘Wale Akande is texting me!’ I yelled out to my slowly rising house. I could hear my sister rumbling in the next room. I laughed as I grabbed my phone.
Rebecca: Wale popped.
‘Ife, do you want eggs or pancakes?’ my dad yelled from the kitchen. I stared at my phone as my eyes pricked. Don’t think about it.
‘She’ll have eggs,’ I heard my sister reply. I took a shallow breath and placed my phone face down on my pillow.
‘No, I won’t,’ I murmured as I walked over to my door. I reached out to clasp the handle before doubling over. My hands dug into my knees as I fought the wave of tears threatening to flood my room. My body shook as I clawed away at my thoughts, willing my mind to remain blank. Don’t. Think. About. It.
I straightened up and dabbed the wet corners of my eyelids. I breathed out slowly and closed my eyes, standing deathly still for several minutes. I opened my eyes and opened my door.
‘Dad, did you hear me? Pancakes!’