Surrounded (1)

"Busayo, did you say you didn't poison my mother's food?" Mr. Fletcher asks again.

The room is chill. The air conditioner is directly opposite me yet I am sweating. Dripping actually, from head to toe. I squeeze my palms to curb my ugly crying. "No, sir. I didn't. I wouldn't do such a thing," I respond emphatically. He has to believe me. Madam Theresa was an angel to me. Mr. Fletcher knows the details of our relationship and the magnitude of my love for her. When I found her dead in her room one week ago, my heart went numb. She was sprawled on the floor with foam oozing from the corner of her mouth. I shut my eyes to wave off the memory because it comes with an ache in my chest. But it doesn't go away. Not when I am faced with my worst nightmare.

The autopsy results came in yesterday. Mr. Fletcher told me. She died of food poisoning. Something - I don't remember what - was found in her body. Something that must have been deposited in the last meal she ate. All fingers point to me, the cook. The tears do not stop pouring, mucor and hiccups included. I look like a wreck with unkempt hair and faded clothes —a sleep-deprived wreck with a murder accusation looped around her neck. Through my cloudy eyes, I see Mr. Fletcher nod and then look outside the window. It's bright. From where I am seated, I can see the garden. Such beauty in flowers and vegetables. Suddenly in a flash, I see madam Theresa holding the hibiscus plant. She's smiling and saying something about a zobo video she saw on Instagram. I see myself smiling and teasing her about using social media at 69 years. Then puff, the memory goes away. In its place, I feel the familiar ache in my chest."I believe you." I didn't hear that right. So I ask, "what did you say, sir?" "I believe you, Busayo," he repeats. Before I think about it, I am on my knees crying intensely. The mucor from my nose stretches till it touches the ground. The hiccups come in quick succession but I have to say the words screaming in my head.

"Thank you, Mr. Fletcher. Thank you. Thank you, sir. Thank you." I feel one of his hands on my shoulder and the other underneath my arm, trying to lift me. "Stop crying," he echoes to me. This man doesn't know what he just did for me. The first son of my madam believes me. He is on my side. He knows I didn't do it. The ache in my heart finally eases a bit. He waits till I am seated again before releasing my arm. He returns to his seat. I wipe my tears with the hem of my tee-shirt. "Can you remember anything out of the ordinary from that day?" He asks. I think hard, replaying the events of that day in my mind.***

Madam Theresa's signature kionk echoed from the stairs as she walked down that Saturday morning. It was about 11 am. I rushed out to meet her at the bottom of the stairs. "Mummy good morning ma," I greeted. It was the first time I saw her that morning."Good morning, child. How do you do?" "How do you do?" I replied. She smiled in her usual way, nodding in approval. "Great! What's for lunch?" She asked, making her way into the kitchen. "Chicken curry sauce and rice ma. I have already prepared the juice and the apple pie for dessert," I replied, trailing her behind. I went to the sauce pot and opened the lid. Madam Theresa sniffed in the aroma and smiled again. I returned the smile and shut the lid. "Did you add parsley to the rice?" She asked, motioning to the rice pot. "No ma. I didn't." "Hurry to the garden and get some. You know Fletcher's children do not eat rice that doesn't have any greenish stuff in it. They should be here soon." I nodded and ran off through the kitchen door into the backyard and then to the garden. It took me ten minutes to get back to the kitchen.***

I stare at Mr. Fletcher, taking a break from the memory. Is ten minutes enough to poison food? Maybe so. But I wasn't so far from the kitchen. Plus I am sensitive to sound. The pot we use is heavy ware, there's no opening or closing it without sound. Plus I am a meticulous person. I would have noticed if anything was out of place. My detective mind tells me that ten minutes is enough to poison food but not to completely wipe out traces. I quickly scan the occupants of the house. There's Frank the gateman. Pat and Zechariah, the housekeepers. Salome, the gardener. Me, the cook. Madam Theresa's children are all grown and live abroad. Oh, except Mr. Fletcher. But he wasn't around when I was cooking and didn't enter the kitchen throughout his stay.

Who could have entered the kitchen in that ten minutes? I am aware that Pat hates me and can do anything to see me in trouble. But she couldn't have been the one, Madam sent her to shop for groceries long before I left the kitchen. It couldn't have been Salome either. I saw her in the garden. Frank can't disappear from the gatepost to the kitchen and back to the gatepost within that time. He is not flash. That leaves only Zechariah. But that guy is the lousiest, most disorganized fellow I know. He is hardly anywhere without traces. That rules him out. Mr. Fletcher is still looking at me. There are wrinkles on his forehead, like frown wrinkles. Then, I realize he is mirroring my expression. Serious, dig-dig detective face. I go back to the memory lane.***

I chopped the parsley and sprinkled it on the rice. Next, I set plates on the dining table, just about when the doorbell rang. The children, Richie and Belinda, run in first screaming "grandma, grandma." Fifteen minutes later, lunch was served. It went on well, punctuated with occasional laughter, family bickering, and stories. That was it. The only time food could have been accessed. Nothing out of the ordinary.***

I lift my eyes to Mr. Fletcher, shaking my head in the negative. "No, sir. I didn't notice anything out of the ordinary." The wrinkles on his forehead deepen. His voice is as grave as his face when he speaks. "The police will be here anytime now to investigate everyone. What are you going to do?" Police… What are YOU going to do?... These words dance before my eyes, and the words Mr. Fletcher is not saying. He is telling me (without telling me) that I am the primary suspect. Which I already know. It's just sickening to hear it (without hearing it) from another person. I can feel the tear-storm brooding behind my eyelids. Because Mr. Fletcher is also telling me that he has faith in me. But not the police. Not the other occupants of the house. Not Madam Theresa's children. Suddenly, the weight of what lays before me sits on my chest. I think about my lungs actually because I can't breathe. What's the fastest way to die?

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