As I walked into the door of my apartment that day, I saw Janice sprawled on the couch, exhausted. Time to retire for the day, as well, I thought to myself.
"Hey," she said, muffled as she was lying face flat into the couch.
"Wontcha c'mere and let me give ya a lil' kiss after coming home from work, you breadwinner you," she laughed.
"Are you drunk or something?"
"No, I'm not." Giggle.
Obviously, she must've had a drink or something before I came back. I tsk-tsked disapprovingly. At that, Janice got up from her planking position and tipsily made her way towards me, draping her thin arms around me. I could smell the faint hint of wine.
"Where's Joy?" I asked.
"Ooh. I thought you were supposed to pick her up today."
"What?! Didn't I tell you I had a meeting today and will be back late? Damn. I'll be right back. Janice, Janice, won't you snap out of it ??"
Janice pouted like a little girl who got scolded for being mischievous. "Fine."
"For God's sakes, Janice, she's your little girl. Don't you at least have a sense of responsibility ? Who knows what could have happened to her-"
"DON'T YOU DARE TALK ABOUT RESPONSIBILITY TO ME!" She started wailing, but I have no time for this. In a wave of panic, I grabbed my car keys from the table.
"I don't have time to argue with you. I'll be back," and I rushed out the door, but careful to ensure that it's locked just in case Janice does something stupid while I'm gone.
As I reached the primary school, I saw Joy sitting down, leaning against the school building wall, sulking. It was raining that day and I guessed that she was playing in the rain with the way she was soaked down to the skin. I breathed a sigh of relief.
I cursed to myself because I had forgotten to bring an umbrella. As I rolled in as close as possible to Joy, I called out to her to come into the car. "Thank God, Joy you stayed in school and didn't wander off, I was getting worried-"
"I know, I'm sorry. Come in the car and let's get you home."
So home we went, and all the way Joy was giving me the cold shoulder. Well, how could you not. Your parents picked you up two and a half hours late from school, and there was no one else around, but the security guards. What in the world could have happened to you. I shuddered when I thought about the news of missing children I read in the paper. Their ends were always not pretty. I looked at Joy, and I uttered a silent praise to God that He'd protected her from harm. The next time wouldn't be as lucky.
As I walked in the door for the second time that hour, the house was ominously silent.
"Janice!" I shouted.
I walked towards the kitchen. Nope. Then, to our bedroom. There was Janice standing over a huge luggage bag with clothes haphazardly thrown in.
"Janice. What in the world-"
"I'm running away." She announced, child-like.
"God, Janice. Pull yourself together-"
Abruptly she brushed past me, but I quickly grabbed both her wrists, preventing her from running away from me.
"Let me go!"
I didn't notice how thin she had grown. Both her wrists barely filled my grasp, it was like she wasn't there.
"Listen to me." I said firmly.
"Stop fighting," a small voice said. It was Joy.
"We're not fighting." I let go of Janice's wrists. She stood there staring at me. All eyes were suddenly on me, anticipating an explanation. "I was just trying to -talk to her."
"It's not talking to when you're hurting."
"Look, I'm not hurting your mama. She-"
Janice sped off to the bathroom and slammed the door. She started sobbing and the next moment I heard her throw up. God, now I'll have to clean that.
"She's crying." Joy said, accusingly.
I sighed. Joy was becoming more precocious by the day. Well, I guess she's at that age when she starts observing the world around her, and how she wouldn't move once she's dug her heels in.
I had tried my best to keep her sheltered, to ensure she had as normal a childhood could ever get, but I suppose, she and I mutually knew, that's not going to happen.
I stooped down to level her gaze. "Your mama and I just have some things to sort out, okay?"
Her face was far from convinced, but she closed her eyes, and diplomatically said, "yeah, I guess. Just don't hurt her." Sometimes, Joy was far more mature than her mother was.
"Thank you, Joy, for understanding. I promise I won't hurt her. I'll talk to her after this okay ? She's my best friend. I wouldn't do anything to hurt her."
I don't know if Joy was still at that naive age when she would believe any promise made to her, but her face was unreadable for that moment, but as if to conceal what she really felt, I saw her features softened a little.
"Now, go get yourself cleaned up and I'll make dinner okay?"
I got back up and watched Joy disappear into her room. Janice was still sobbing in the bathroom. I'll have to check on her. Just in case.
I stood there, thinking about what I just said to Joy. It was true indeed. Janice was my best friend. After all these years. I had known her since we were both in kindergarten. We'd played together and went to primary school together. For five years I went away to boarding school, then we'd somehow ended up in the same university afterwards. She had a boyfriend then. After I went out of the country for my postgraduate and then returned to look for a job, I haven't heard from her in a while, until one day, she showed up on my doorstep, her face full of injuries and her body was mangled. I had no idea how she managed to track me down, but since that day, we've been living together and I took care of her.
Amidst the chaos in the household that day, I decided to take a breather, collect my thoughts, and get cleaned up myself. I sat down near the hairdresser, took off my jacket. unbuttoned my shirt, and undid my bun. My hair tumbled down to the side of my face. I looked at my face in the mirror. The charade of the day is over. That tired face looking back at me, is who I am. I am the man of the house, although I am anything but a man.