The Danger Zone

It's a thin line between love and war. A young woman learns this the hard way when she loses her best friend to a horrific attack.


***TRIGGER WARNING*** ----- This story has been fictionalized but it's based on a real murder case in Kenya. It includes themes of stalking and violent death (nothing drawn out or overly dramatized but still, take care if such themes trigger you in any way). ***


When I think of you, I think of nursery school. We were expected to wear uniform, but every so often we’d have Home Clothes Day. I lived for this day because it was the perfect opportunity to flaunt my fashion sense and impress whichever boy I liked at the time. So, when it finally came around the summer I turned five, I had the perfect outfit: a black jumpsuit romper my mother had bought me for my birthday. It was silky, spaghetti-strapped, with polka dots and a ruffle top. I couldn’t wait to get to school and show off.

Except as soon as I walked through the gate, I knew something was wrong. Instead of a chaotic melange of colours, I saw a coordination of forest greens and white. Somehow, I had gotten my days mixed up and I was the only one in the entire school not in uniform. I stood at the gate paralyzed, my palms and butt muscles throbbing presciently: a forewarning of my impending punishment. I couldn’t think. The assembly bell would soon ring and my rendezvous with the school cane would be sealed.

I glanced behind me, hyperaware that my mother had already left for work. I heard my name and turned to see you, in full uniform, staring at me, confused. You looked at my clothes and your mouth gaped in mute horror. Seeing my fear clearly reflected in your eyes prompted me to turn and make for the gate. Your voice faded away as I outlined the plan forming in my mind. I had no concept of how long it took to drive to school, but it was long enough to get through five or six songs on my favourite Bob Marley mix CD. I had barely gone ten steps with my tiny feet and already I felt dizzy. The whizzing cars and roadway lined with hawkers peddling to passing caravans overwhelmed me. But I had decided; I would walk home, trusting that the road would reveal the way, change into uniform, have Sally forge a note from my mother excusing me for my tardiness, and then she could accompany me in a tuk-tuk back to school before resuming her duties at home.

Beyond the school walls, the bell rang signalling the start of assembly and I felt like the first raindrop that falls to earth ahead of a rainstorm. Someone yanked at my arm and I turned to see your terrified face looming close. “Mercy, we have to go line up for assembly!” you said. I yanked my arm back. There was no way. You must have seen the resolute determination on my face because you stopped trying to pull me back. You turned to the school gate, swallowed, and then started walking in the same direction as me. You walked quickly, as if trying to outdistance your fear, so I had to walk faster to keep up with you. I said nothing, so grateful for your company and so afraid of saying anything to make you reconsider.

We never made it home. About 15 minutes in, a car pulled up to the side of the road in front of us and there we were, staring into the shaken face of my aunt Cassie, my mother’s younger sister. And so, the thing that was meant to spare me a spanking was the very thing that sealed my ass-whooping. Aunt Cassie dropped you home after a brief phone call with your mother, and then took me home for an intervention with my brother and Sally. When Aunt Cassie left for work, my brother beat me breathless and then left for school, and Sally made me sit in my room all day, dreading my parents’ arrival. In the evening, I got a second spanking from my mother as she spewed statistics about stolen children and threatened to lock me in a boarding school until I made it safely through puberty. I cried myself into a drought until my father intervened.

The next day at school, I learned that you had also survived the beating of your life. I couldn’t believe you were still speaking to me when your bruises were my fault. I couldn’t look above your neck. But during morning break, you waved me to a table on the playground. We both winced as we sat, locked eyes at the same time, and burst out laughing.

That was how our friendship was cemented.

*

I can’t bring myself to read another news article or social media comment about you, and yet that’s all I want to do. I want to memorize everything they say about you; every lie, every slander, every careless conflation of you with your killer. The lovers. My temples throb wherever I read that. The nerve. The irresponsible journalism. I imagine how your blood must be boiling in heaven at this act of crowning your killer with a status he neither occupied nor earned.

I keep a folder bookmarked with all the stories written about you. The Ivy in that folder is a foreigner; someone I’ve never met and probably would never be friends with. But I also know, just like your family knows, that that Ivy has never existed. That Ivy was assembled from your ashes by faceless ignoramuses whose only superpowers are to click, comment, and carry on with their lacklustre lives after lighting little fires across the internet. They are emboldened by your eternal sleep, knowing you won’t rise from the grave to speak for yourself, so it is up to those of us you’ve left behind to scrape your name from the dirt and restore its dignity. They will not win, Ivy.

*

When we were kids, I wanted to draw paper dolls and design paper clothes for them to wear. I didn’t have a name yet for the profession I was prepping for, but I knew I loved wearing and drawing nice clothes. You humoured me (sometimes) but mostly you wanted to play your game. Nothing lit you up like your game. But since doctors require patients, your game needed more persuading. Oh, how I enjoyed torturing you, making you beg to check my temperature and heart rate.

You would hover over me as I lay on my stomach, pencil poised over paper. You would be in your white doctor coat, with a stethoscope around your neck that thumped out an electronic heartbeat, and a medical carrycase that stocked all your plastic tools: a syringe, a prescription pill bottle with giant tablets, tweezers, bandages, scissors, a scalpel, a bedpan, soap, and a thermometer that flashed and displayed numbers when you inserted it into someone’s ear.

I didn’t mind your game but once we started, you would want to role play for hours and I wanted to play my own game too so often we fought, and you would storm off to find Anthony. He was your family friend who lived next door and had known you longer than I had. He was only about three years older than us, but you said you didn’t like playing with him because he looked at you funny. I didn’t like him because he was always third wheeling and tried too hard to get your attention. He would play dolls with us and you would feel bad for him because you heard kids his age calling him names so you insisted we let him play with us. So, when I didn’t want to be your patient, you went looking for Anthony because he was always eager to let you boss him around.

*

About two days after your murder had made headlines, I came across an online forum asking, “What would you do if somebody infects you with HIV/AIDS knowingly?” I would’ve scrolled past if it wasn’t your name that made my fingers freeze. Someone had commented, Kill them. Like that Ivy Mungai chick. She infected the guy who killed her. I would do the same NO QUESTION.

At first, my mind drew blanks. They’re not talking about my Ivy. Not you. After all, how many Ivy Mungais existed in Nairobi alone?

But by the time I had seen the post, it had already made its virtual rounds and had cemented its spotlight in the media. The nausea returned as I watched your parents look into the cameras and beg androids to stop spreading malicious lies. They arranged for an HIV test to prove how Christian you were. It was then that I learned how resilient infections can be: how they can cling to life in a dead environment for up to a week. The test came back negative, as we knew it would. But the damage had been done. The lie had germinated and was quickly building a forest.

Soon, you not only had HIV and had given your killer motive, you were also a gold digger, a sugar baby, and a tease. Again, your parents summoned the courage to tell the world that nobody paid your school fees except their modest salaries and the government. But the trolls had clairvoyant knowledge that you were being sponsored by your killer; the benevolent benefactor of your slay queen existence who you were taking advantage of. You dated your killer, led him on, bled his pockets dry, had your fill of exploits in the love triangle you starred in, and the man snapped. Who could blame the guy?

Your death was weaponized to justify their contempt for women like you. Women who are unapologetically ambitious. Women with the audacity to own themselves. Women who dare to say no. Your crime was failing to see the lethal price tag of your agency. No matter how this would’ve played out, the consensus among a segment of the population would remain the same: you caused your own death, Ivy. Your mutilated body perfectly packaged into a radio show punchline: “She died because she wasn’t loyal.”

*

We were nine when you told me you liked Anthony. At first, I thought you were joking. Though you insisted he play with us, you also mocked his pinched nose, his permanently chapped lips, and the way his head was shaped like a bow. You never said these things to his face, ofcourse. Only to me. But then suddenly you were offering him your Chapstick, calling him “Bowhead” to his face, and talking about how his eyes were like two wells that you could stare into forever.

Next thing, you were holding hands and spending more time with him than with me. I wasn’t jealous because I knew it wouldn’t last. You were the type of person who bought all the pringle flavours so you wouldn’t wonder what you were missing out on as you devoured the first can. You were also the type to hastily open a can, sample a pringle, and then toss the can aside to open a new one. You loathed routine and monotony, which was why you chose medicine; it seemed the only career that catered to your massive heart and hunger for stimulation. Choosing medicine was the first and only time I’ve ever seen you latch onto something and pursue it mercilessly.

You and Anthony lasted a week. He tried to get back with you afterwards, even enlisted my help. Though I was secretly glad to have you back to myself, I pitied the guy, so I started talking him up to you. But it made you think I liked him and wanted my turn with him hah! You gave me your blessing, so I had to break it to the poor guy that you had moved on. He withdrew after that and we didn’t see him much. He eventually moved away.

You got into one of the most competitive secondary schools in the country. Then your straight As earned you a government sponsorship to the top medical school in the country. We stayed in touch, but you were so busy with medical school and working parttime at Pizza Inn that we only saw each other once or twice a week. I did well for myself too; I attended fashion design summer camps and won a young designer international competition and scholarship to the National Institute of Fashion Technology in India.

You often stayed late at the teaching hospital, following up on patients. You were usually the last of your cohort to leave the building after rounds. Every night, I jokingly chastised you over the phone for how easy it would be for a serial killer to ambush you in the dark and make you disappear. But it wouldn’t take a serial killer or darkness to cut your life short. You would be murdered in broad daylight by someone you know.

*

It was sometime during the first year of your residency when you called to tell me you had received a friend request on Facebook, and that I wouldn’t believe who it was. “You remember Anthony?” My brain whizzed through an inventory of all the Anthonys I knew but nothing pinged. “Bowhead from when we were kids?! The tiny nose?!” you said. My mind conjured up a hazy outline of a familiar face. I remembered him, though the image in my mind was a bit blurry. You sent me a screenshot of his profile but after you accepted his friend request, it wasn’t long until he had sent me a request too. He had the same bow-shaped head and shrunken nose but his lips were smoother and he smiled a lot more in pictures. He lived about three hours from Nairobi and worked as an IT specialist for a telecom company.

The first time he drove down, we met him together at a coffee shop in Prestige Plaza. He had grown tall, and conversation flowed a lot easier with him now. We danced around our nostalgia and when the night was over, he paid the bill, dropped me at my estate gate and dropped you off at your dorm. You told me later your mother was pleased to hear you and Anthony had reconnected; it was no secret she had high hopes for you two.

At first, the incessant texts didn’t bother you; the thrill of reconnecting with an old friend was understandable. He asked often about your plans for the evening and when you told him we were going for a movie or for drinks, he asked if he could come along, which you thought was hilarious because he lived three hours away. He would send you money via mobile transfer and tell you drinks were on him and you would thank him and think what a sweet friend. Then when you started taking too long to reply to his messages, he bombarded you with calls. Then he started driving down more often, sometimes in the middle of what was supposed to be a workday. He would offer to buy you lunch, you would say no, and he wouldn’t leave until you agreed to get in the car and go with him. Still, you thought he was harmless and went along for the ride.

He repeatedly asked you to be his girlfriend and you said no and began to realize his kindness came with strings attached. Eventually, you started putting your phone on airplane mode so no one could reach you for hours. You were regularly late for rounds because you would see him through the curtain in your dorm window, standing by the gate for hours, waiting for you to come out. Or he would park by the teaching hospital and call out to you when you surfaced from its depths. You ghosted his calls and texts, so he started blowing up my phone to find out where you were and what you were doing. The deja-vu of him reaching out to me as kids to help him reconcile with you made me snap and I told him off because his behaviour was no longer cute. I felt sick when I saw the hundreds of missed calls and texts on your phone. I wanted you to report him to the police but deep down I echoed your belief that this was a phase that would pass.

I was planning a party with your family and closest friends for when you finished your five-year residency, and it was supposed to be a secret but seeing you so miserable made the surprise come spilling over my lips. It was worth telling you just to see the spark return to your eyes. You just needed a reminder of how far you’d come and how much there was to look forward to.

Neither of us knew that one month before graduating medical school, you would be hacked to death.

*

We have these misplaced anxieties about strangers lurking in the shadows ready to harm us and while these boogeymen very much exist, the real monsters lurk within our inner circles, our most sacred sanctuaries. They minister to us, marry us, mother us, make friendship pacts with us, then when we fail to fit snugly in their palm, they murder us. Real monsters don’t hide in shadows; they exist in the kind of broad daylight that makes their deception aesthetically pleasing.

You were murdered on a late Monday morning as you strolled out into the warm glare of a sun you didn’t know was conspiring with your killer. After all, what dangers could possibly lurk in bright daylight on a campus teeming with witnesses? I wasn’t there so most of what I know, I pieced together from news stories and your colleagues.

You had just finished morning rounds at the hospital, and you were walking out of the building with some of your coworkers. You were so engrossed in conversation, you didn’t see him until he was on you, jamming an axe into your head. The world around you screamed. It fell into chaos. Some tried to lunge towards your attacker, but he swung the axe indiscriminately. You were on the ground, the gash in your head already seeping cranberry into your white coat. Your killer pulled out a knife and stabbed you in the neck multiple times. Then he ran and was intercepted by an angry mob of motorcycle riders. The mob pummelled him with rocks and kicks until the police intervened.

When I saw his bleeding face on the news, I couldn’t believe I was looking at Anthony. Even before they identified the victim, my gut told me it was you. It could only have been you. Anthony would later tell police he had reached his breaking point when his financial and emotional investment in you didn’t reap the returns he wanted. His distraught mother would insist to the cameras that she never had any issues with him, that he was not a violent person, that he was well known as a calm person.

*

No amount of years in prison will make up for the you-shaped hole in our lives. Now, when I need to step away from social media, I go into autopilot and find myself at your memorial in front of the hospital. But no matter what I do, my brain still echoes with the world’s ignorance everywhere I go.

Maybe if you were more loyal, Ivy…
Maybe if you hadn’t worn…
Maybe if you hadn’t gone…
Maybe if you hadn’t said…
Maybe if you hadn’t had the audacity to exist.

When the ringing in my ears brings me to my knees, I stay down and pray for you until it stops. Sometimes I stay down a little longer, waiting for that tiny flicker of hope that maybe one day we’ll stop waging war against the ones we claim to love.

It’s only a flicker but it’s enough to fuel me to fight another day.

*