Will you be my best friend?
The voice was soft and slow, and very, very clear. It had come from her room, she was sure of that because the house was silent and her mother had gone out to get some things from the market.
Her father was asleep in his room, and there was no way he’d be asking her if she wanted to be his best friend. Not in that soft, slow voice.
She placed the novel she’d been reading—basically just a young readers series about twenty pages long, which seemed almost too long for her—on her bed and rolled off, groaning at the thought of leaving the bed and at the same time curious about the voice she’d just heard.
She didn’t hear the voice again, at least for the full minute she’d spent kneeling by the side of the wall, where she thought the voice had come from.
A braided strand of her hair fell over her face, the tip decorated with colorful beads most of which had either fallen off or were about to. Holding her hair and subconsciously pulling at the beads on it, as she was fond of doing (which was why her mother almost always complained about the rate at which she had to replace the beads), she stood up.
Where did that voice come from?
She was sure it hadn’t been her imagination, but hadn't her mother said, the other day, that her thoughts had the power to get loud enough for her to hear them, and that her imaginations sometimes had voices?
That could explain the voice, and so she decided to go back to the book she was reading. Although she was perfectly okay with staring at the wall—her mother had gotten her a literature text and asked her to read some chapters, saying she would ask her questions when she got back.
Anything was better than reading about a poor girl who couldn’t go to school but somehow managed to overcome her misfortune and win a scholarship, ending up as a lawyer or doctor.
“Why do people always have to be lawyers or doctors, or engineers?” she’d asked her father one day. She tried to recall the answer he’d given her as she walked back to the bed, her feet dragging against the ground. Giving up a few seconds later, she picked up the book and continued reading.
“Chapter six,” she mumbled—which sounded more like a frustrated sigh—and touched the space beside her, groping for the pencil she used in circling relevant points for quick memorization when her mother came back.
She was sure her mother wouldn’t read the whole text, and so she guessed the few places where the questions would come from and circled them with her pencil.
Questions like: how old was the poor girl? Or who gave her the scholarship? That was the idea, but now a different question formed in her head as she squinted her eyes and looked around.
Where is my pencil?
The sheets on her bed were rumpled, the colorful designs of cartoon characters misshaped by the way the sheets folded.
Placing the book on the frame of the bed, she lifted the sheets and arranged it neatly, hoping to see the pencil fall off but that didn’t happen. She did, however, hear a scraping sound from the side of her bed, and also a soft giggle. Curious, she climbed on the bed, rumpling it again, and crawled to the edge. The edge of her bed, where her feet usually lay when she slept, was positioned a few inches close to her clothes drawer.
Between that space was a pile of her clothes which she’d been too lazy to pick up and fold, even though she knew her mother would yell at her and call her incompetent (whatever that word meant).
She stared at that pile, for it moved ever so slowly like it had some living creature underneath it. She hoped it wasn’t a rat—she hated rats—but then she heard the soft giggle again and it came from the pile of clothes.
It had to be her mind.
If not, how could she explain hearing the sound of a little child coming from the spot where her clothes lay? there was no way her clothes were big enough to hide her completely.
She knew this because she’d tried that before, a year ago, when she had a puppy. She’d always played hide and seek with it, even though the hiding part was a bit too difficult as there wasn’t any good spot in the house to hide, at least a place where the puppy couldn’t get into, and Luna—for that had been the puppy’s name—had been good at sniffing her out.
Her favorite spot was the space between her bed and her drawer, crouching there and covering herself with her clothes. She sighed and tried not to remember those times, for the puppy had died a few months ago—It’d strayed out of the compound and fallen into a mud pond where it drowned.
Leaning against the frame of the bed, she stretched out her hand and tried to reach the pile of clothes. Her fingers wriggled slowly as it reached for the clothes, the giggles still audible and the movements under the clothes still obvious. Just as her fingers grazed against the light fabric, she heard a shrill noise from behind her. Letting out a gasp, she turned around to see that the TV had just come on.
At first, she thought it had come on of its own accord, but then her eyes caught the slow rotation of the ceiling fan; power had been restored.
She forgot about the pile of clothes and rushed to her light switch. She was much too slow though, she realized as she spotted her father’s hairy arm on the light switch. He snapped the switch and the bright light in her room fizzled out.
“Sarah,” his bold voice came as he opened her room door wider. Her father, just as tall as the door, bent into her room, his face tired-looking and his eyes red. He scanned the room with his eyes, taking in every inch and then stopped his gaze at her.
“Sarah, those power holding people have given us light and all the bulbs in your room are on?” he asked and looked at her TV which still showed static and let out its annoying shrill noise. He walked to it and unplugged it. “You know how high the bill is each time you leave everything on.”
“Sorry, pa,” she said and bowed her head. In truth, power had been out for a week and they’d been using the diesel generator parked at the backyard every night, and this always made her father grumpy as he always complained about diesel prices—actually, he always complained about everything.
He was even complaining at the moment, his lips moving fast and the veins in his neck straining, even as she let her thoughts roam and barely paid any attention.
“Are you even listening to me?” he snapped and scratched his chin which was covered with stubble, which he’d probably shave off very soon. His head was just as smooth as his chin would be if he does shave it.
She nodded slowly, not sure what he had said before the ‘are you listening to me’ part. She thought of the perfect, most generic reply and gave it to him.
“Sorry, pa.” Spicing it up by clutching her hands in front of her as if in prayer, and staring straight at him.
“Your mother will soon be back,” he said and held the door, ready to leave. “You should finish your book before she comes and starts complaining to me.”
Sounds boring. Let us play instead.
The voice was clearer this time, and louder, too. She gasped and turned around, expecting to see a little boy on her bed, for the voice had sounded like that of a boy her age, possibly a bit older.
“What is it?” her father asked and she stared at him, a puzzled look on her face. Did he not just hear that voice? She wanted to ask him, but she was sure he’d link it to ‘too much time in front of the TV’, as he did with everything else, and then that would be the end of TV in her room (a hotly debated topic in their home).
She shrugged. “Nothing.”
Her father narrowed his eyes at her and then looked behind him, mumbling something about how the power had gone out after just a few minutes of coming on.
“Read your book. It’s almost two, I have a program to watch.” He said that with the familiar grumble in his voice; the one he had whenever he knew he had to turn on the generator and consequently waste more diesel.
“Yes, pa,” she said and watched as he left the room and shut the door.
The ceiling fan in her room whirled slowly as it came to a stop. Now, she was beginning to feel slightly hot, although the room was a bit breezy and dry--it was December, after all, and the harmattan had kicked in early. A moment later, she heard the slam of the back door, and soon after that, the low rumble of the diesel generator as soon as it came on.
The fan whirled fast now, circulating the cold harmattan air around the room, making her sleepy as it always did, but sleep wasn't an option, not with her mother possibly on the way already, just like her father had said. And also…
A sound cut through her thoughts and made her turn around immediately—a slow ripping sound, the type she was all too familiar with when she made a terrible drawing and became upset enough to rip it to shreds. She looked around for where the sound had come from and then she realized that her bed was rumpled. More rumpled than she'd left it and her book was gone.
She heard the ripping sound, and this time there was no mistaking that it'd come from underneath her bed. Another ripping sound and a piece of paper flew out from under her bed. It stopped just by her feet and she looked at it. She could only make out the bold CHAP of 'CHAPTER', and the words were hard to see because the paper had been ripped from the side, roughly to the top.
I'm in trouble, she thought, but in truth, that was not the first thought to cross her mind; it was more like the fourth, behind 'who is under my bed?' 'Thank god I don't have to read that book again', 'oh no, what will I tell mother?' and finally, 'I'm in trouble'.
Inhaling slowly, she took a slow step towards her bed. The moment she pushed her foot forward, the ripping sound stopped and she heard a scramble under the bed. She dropped to the floor and looked under the bed, hoping to catch the person, whoever they were.
It was dark under her bed, and full of cobwebs and dust, not to mention the old shoes and toys, and a large trunk in which her old books were (because buying new ones were not enough, apparently, and the old ones were supposed to be ‘important’).
Her frail hand pushed against these cluttered junk, shifting and probing further, trying to ignore the dryness of the dust and tickling of the cobwebs against her hand.
"Ah!" she gasped when she felt the thin cover of what she was sure was her book. Her fingers clasped around it and she held it tight, but something tugged it in the opposite direction.
She tried to pull it out, stopping only to take a peek under the bed to catch a glimpse of whatever was in there. She tugged hard and it tugged harder, stretching her hand further under the bed.
Her shoulder bumped against the bed and she winced in pain. That was when she heard the giggles again, and this time it was much closer to her; so close that she could feel a rising warmth, like someone's breath, against her neck.