Today's Reading

THAT NIGHT, AFTER her bath and dinner, Araba waited for Mama to come up and tuck her in. To pass the time, she looked through her old dog-eared fashion magazines, examining the dress styles, the hairdos, the shoes.

Mama came in. She went by her middle name, Miriam, not her indigenous name, Yaa. She had a tiny waist and wide hips, the kind that always had men staring. But Araba had never seen her father show affection to his wife.

"Are you okay, love?" Miriam said.

"Yes, Mama." Araba put her magazines away. Her parents constantly checked her reading material to be sure there was nothing to encourage an interest in boys before she was old enough for that—eighteen, in her father's view.

Miriam sat at the edge of the bed and rested her hand near Araba's cheek. "How was Auntie Dele?"

"Oh, fine," Araba said. "She let me do a lot of sleeves and hems today."

"That's good," Miriam said, smiling sweetly. She had never appeared to have a problem with Dele, as far as Araba could tell.

"By the time I get to fashion school," Araba declared, "I'll already know a lot."

"Okay, well, we'll see," her mother said, smoothing Araba's covers. "You know Daddy wants you to have a job like . . . like—"

"Yes, I know," Araba said. "Like a nurse. Is that the only job in the world?"

"Now, now," Mama chastised gently. "He only wants the best for you."

"The best for me is what I want to do," Araba said.

Mama chuckled. "Well, you have a few more years before you know for sure. Things might change."

Araba played with her mother's gold wedding ring. "But I'll never change," she said. "I'm going to be a fashion designer."

Mama kissed her on the forehead. "All right, dear. Na-night, and sleep well, my love." She turned off the light, left the room, and closed the door quietly behind her.

LATER THAT NIGHT, the power went off. This time of year, it was hot and stuffy day and night, and without the air conditioner, Araba woke up sweating lightly. She threw her covers off and opened the windows to let some air in.

Her door cracked open, and she looked up to see the shadow of her father. He was a big, solid man. If you punched him, he probably wouldn't budge.

"Are you okay, Araba?" he whispered, coming into the room and shutting the door.

"Yes, Daddy."

"I'm sorry I couldn't come to say good night to you earlier," he said, sitting on the bed the same as his wife had done. "I was on an important phone call."

"Okay, Daddy."

"Give me a hug." He embraced her—he always did. "I love you, okay? God loves you too. It's a special love we have in the Lord, you understand?"

Araba nodded. "Yes. You're squeezing me so hard, Daddy."

"Ah, I'm sorry. My goodness, you're sweating. Why not let's change you into some dry clothes?"

He turned on the light and looked in her chest of drawers. "Here—a T-shirt and some panties." He dropped them on the bed. "I'll help you."

He took off her blouse. She flinched and shielded her developing breasts from him.

He laughed. "Come on, don't be shy. I'm your daddy."

She hurried to put on the shirt and turned away from him in bed as she put on her panties.

"You're growing so fast," he said. "Do the panties still fit you?"

"Yes, they're okay," Araba said, covering herself.

"I don't think so," he said, gently pulling the covers away. "Look at the hem—too tight."

"They're okay, Daddy," she pleaded.

"Right here," he said. "Too tight."

She caught her breath and held it, looking away as he slipped his finger under the lace edge of her panties. His breathing was irregular and sounded loud in the quiet room. It always did.

"You know I care a lot about you, Araba," he said. "These special little times we spend together are just for us and for God, right? It's not for others to know about because they won't understand. They'll say you're a bad girl, but I know and you know that you are good."

He pulled Araba's hand toward him to make her touch him, but she wriggled from his grip. Soon Araba became aware of the other sound—him stroking himself. She dared not look. She fixed her gaze elsewhere as Daddy spluttered and gasped—a strange choking noise pushed down against itself.

He stood up, kissed her on the forehead, switched off the light, and left without another word. Outside in the hallway, Araba heard him say, "What are you doing there?"

"Nothing, nothing." It was Mama, speaking timidly. "I thought I heard a noise, so I came to see if everything was okay."

"Well, everything is fine," he said tersely. "Go back to bed."

Mama's steps retreated, and then Araba heard Daddy going downstairs. Her parents did not sleep in the same room, let alone the same bed.

Araba brought her knees up to her chest, staring at the wall through the thick darkness.

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