The Little Girl With Budding Breasts and a Bubblegum Laugh by A. Igoni Barrett

He began to love her when she was nine and had breasts the size of tangerines. She was still in her impetuous phase—she dashed about the house in her underclothes, shrieking with laughter. He was her cousin, her big brother; he was fifteen years older than her. Nobody saw anything suspicious when he clasped her under the arms and spun her—squealing and kicking—in a maypole circle, then pressed her to his chest, all the while grinning like a Nok mask to hide the consternation that her milk-and-sugar smell, her puppy warmth, awakened in his belly. When she was eleven and he came to visit because his uncle, her father, was lying on the sickbed, he placed her on his knee and stroked her legs till she roped her arms round his neck and suffocated him in a cloud of peppermint sniffles and talcum sweat. That night, while he fondled himself, her father died.

        The week she turned fourteen she came to live with his family. By this time her mother had remarried and they now called her a problem child. It was true: she was no longer the happy person he knew. She had secrets and acne eruptions, mood swings and no-sugar days. When his female friends visited she fell into bottomless silences, she darted furious glances at him, but when he tried to pacify her by reviving their games from the past, she told him, every time, fuck off. She wore makeup, she dressed like a woman. She locked herself in the bathroom and wouldn’t emerge until the whole house was bathed in the dead-flower scent of cheap cosmetics. Her mobile phone was her constant companion and confidante: she would curl up in her favourite corner of the sofa and murmur into it for hours; or sit hunched over the screen and with wild boneless fingers tip-tap the number codes to some life-or-death game; or plug in her earphones and—swinging, bobbing, wiggling her head—mouth the lyrics of ‘Whenever, Wherever’ as she sleepwalked through chores. She hated rules, restrictions, convention. His mother was always complaining of her insolence, always warning her against the dangers of the street, against friends who had no home training.

       Her quirks of temper had become so habitual that when she announced to the family at dinner one day that she had changed her name, nobody said a word. After his younger brother gathered the plates and went into the kitchen to wash up, his mother ‘ahemed’ to declare the battle open, and looked at his father.

       So what do we call you now, madam? his father said.

       My name is Shakira.

       The twins—his sixteen-year-old sisters, who attended the same school as her and watched the same MTV videos and wore the same tight, bright, designer label clothes—exchanged glances. His mother took a long drink of water. The glass clinked against her teeth.

       I see, his father said. And your surname—is that still good enough for you?

       She fiddled with her phone. From the kitchen came the clatter of plates and the hiss of running water. It was the only sound in the house.

       His mother erupted. Answer when you’re spoken to!

       She pushed her chair back from the table and stood up. Yes, she said, looking down at his father, ignoring his mother.

       Yes what? his mother said.

       My father’s name will always be good enough for me. The way she inflected the words, the way she locked eyes with his mother, the expression on her face, made his mother lean forward and grip the edges of the table. Then she turned her back on her aunt, on her three cousins all older than her, on his father who had agreed to take her in when her mother could no longer put up with her, and stalked out.

       His father turned to the woman shaking with fury by his side and placed his hand over hers. Ignore her, he said, it’s just adolescence, she will outgrow it.

       They followed his father’s advice: they acted as if nothing had happened. But she stuck to her position—she feigned deafness whenever her christened name was called. So they ignored her.

       Despite the disallowance of any mention of her adopted name, they found that, with time, they had begun, at first in ignorance, then later with mounting certainty, to blame her rudenesses on her alter ego. The longer she insisted that she was this impostor, this Shakira, the more, in their minds, she became her.

       He—who saw her as she would always be: not this teenager with telephonic secrets and trivial obsessions, but the little girl with budding breasts and a bubble-gum laugh—called her Shakira. His mother disagreed. His father, his sisters, at the behest of his mother, implored him to abandon his opposite stance. He refused.


       On the evening of Friday the 9th, September 20—, he returned from his workplace, the regional headquarters of a brand management firm, with a batch of tickets to an all-night hip-hop concert, and called his cousin and sisters to come and collect the gifts. His mother waited till the girls had run screaming with excitement out of the sitting room, and then broached the topic.

       You know we’re not calling her by that name. Don’t support her in this nonsense.

       But I have to call her something, he said.

       Call her by her name!

       She won’t answer me.

       Then let her be nameless.

Isn’t this too much trouble over a nickname?

       Look—I know she has always been your favourite cousin and you will support her in everything, but in this matter, listen to me.

       But I have to call her something, he said.

       OK. I’ve said my own.

       He trod upstairs, shed his clothes in his bedroom, and went into the bathroom.. He was in the bathtub when he remembered he had neglected to inform the girls he would attend the concert with them. He called out his sisters’ names, but none of them responded. He had soap in his eyes; the talk with his mother had upset him. So he yelled Shakira! once, twice, then again and again in a voice that rattled the loose lid of the toilet cistern. When she rapped on the bathroom door, he told her, one, to wait downstairs when she was ready, and two, to pass on the message.

       She was ready. His sisters were not. They were not going, his mother told him, and neither would ‘that girl’ if she knew what was good for her. OK, he said, his sisters had made their choice, very well, their loss, but he and Shakira would go. His mother struck back: she demanded the keys to her car, the 2002 model Toyota Camry that he had driven and serviced with his money since he started working seven months ago. He tossed the keys on the table, and signalling to his cousin to follow, he walked out.

       He did not enjoy the concert; he did not expect to. But she did. She pushed through the screaming crowd till she reached the front of the stage, and she snapped innumerable photos with her phone camera, and sent them as messages to his sisters. She danced and sang along until her clothes were soaked with sweat and her voice became a croak. She pestered him for money to buy sweetened alcohol, and sometime in the early hours of the morning, when the concert was winding down, she leapt on stage to plaster his change—note after note, shrieking with joy as she did it—on the sweat-slick forehead of her music idol.

       By four in the morning she was dull-eyed with fatigue. It was too late to head for home, too early to return to the fight that was waiting for them, he told her. To pass the time he led her by hand on a stroll of the concert grounds, till, in desperation, she suggested a hotel. Anywhere I can sleep, please, she begged, stamping her feet, tugging at his arm. He laughed, to show her he wasn’t eager. She overpowered him with a hug.

       They found a small hotel two streets away from the concert venue. By the time he finished filling the check-in form she had fallen asleep against his back. My sister—attended the concert—home is far, he explained to the receptionist, who yawned and fisted her eyes as she handed him the key and a roll of tissue paper. He carried her up three flights of stairs, her head dangling over one arm and her legs over the other. When he arrived at the room that bore their number he tried to set her down to unlock the door, but she whined her displeasure and clung to his shoulders.

       The door creaked open, then swung shut, and the darkness of the room wrapped itself around him with a smell of dust and poultry disinfectant. He felt along the wall for the light switch and snapped it on. Yellow mist flooded his vision. There was a movement—he caught sight of the tall, unshaven, wild-eyed man staring at him from across the room, a lifeless child clutched in his arms like a sack of something stolen. After the shock of recognition he found the courage to laugh at the man in the mirror, who was not him, would never be him.

       He looked down at her, this weight in his arms. He walked to the bed and placed her on it. She whimpered, drew up her knees, and crossed her arms over her chest. He pulled the blanket up to her neck, then turned on the air conditioner, switched off the light, and lay down on the carpet, at the foot of the bed.

       He couldn’t sleep. His imagination grew insect legs and crawled all over his nerves. He scratched his arms, rubbed his face, slapped at his feet. When the bug bites became unbearable on one side, he rolled over.

       He was alerted by the rustle of bedclothes, and the bed creaked as she sat up.

       What is it?

       Nothing, he said. Go back to sleep.

        You don’t have to sleep on the floor, there’s enough space here, she said, patting the bed.

       He gritted his teeth. His fingers dug into the rug.

       You heard me?

       I hear you, he said.

       He waited until she settled back, then he rose. A chink in the drapes let in a sliver of streetlight, which sliced across the bed. She was curled up on her side, and her head rested on her hands, which were clasped together. He walked to the empty side of the bed and crawled under the blanket, into the fragrance of her warmth.

       At first he lay still. Then he turned to face her back, to assume her foetal position. His movement rocked the bed, and she shifted her weight. She moved again, and again, sliding closer to him, heat rising from her in waves. She had slid across half of the bed; the blanket was bunched about their legs; they were close together, so close that tendrils of her plaited hair tickled his face. He saw the trembling in the back of her neck and heard the hum, the thump, the irregular motoring of her heart. He inched forward his hand and touched her shoulder, and she heaved a monsoon sigh, rolled over to face him, and wound her arms round his neck.


       He awoke the way one does on the eve of a long journey. It was daybreak. A spray of sunlight dappled his right shoulder, and his cousin—warm-fleshed, fully clothed—lay in his arms. His groin was wedged against her haunches. He disentangled his arms, stretched them wide, and yawned. Then he sat up and said, Good morning.

       She rolled over to look at him. The smile on her sleep-puffed face, the affectionateness,, the unaffectedness of the smile, made him want to lean down and bruise her mouth with kisses.

       Morning, she said, her words muffled by a wide pink yawn. Her teeth glistened like wet pebbles. Her breath, that old familiar, wafted into his face. He fought it ferociously, the urge that knifed through him, but he was overpowered, and he lowered his head.

       After the kiss they avoided each other’s eyes and rose to prepare for whatever lay ahead. While she used the bathroom, he fixed the bed, destroying evidence. She emerged from the crash of flushing water to find him blocking her path.

       He said her name: his voice trembled. I’m sorry, I took advantage . . .

       She shushed him with a snigger. Don’t be silly, nothing happened. And I’ve told you, but you won’t hear—my name is Shakira!


       They had breakfast at the hotel, and then headed home. When they entered the gate of the house they met the twins digging up weeds in the garden, and she skipped from his side to join them. He walked on, followed by the trill of her voice. He reached the front door and went in. The clownish falsetto of his father’s singing floated from the sitting room, above the burr of the vacuum cleaner. His mother stood midway up the staircase, polishing the mahogany banister. In response to his greeting she threw him a baleful glance, then turned away to instruct his younger brother to water the potted dieffenbachia that stood beside the hallway bookshelf.

       For the rest of Saturday he kept to his room. By nightfall the quarrel he was expecting, the questions he’d prepared answers for, had still not come.


       The next day, Sunday, he woke up late, to a silent house. Everyone had left for church. He went downstairs to find something to eat. The kitchen was a mess—they had left in a hurry. The floor around the dustbin was strewn with yam peels and onion skins and Maggi wrappers. A used pot sat on the cooker, and the serving ladle rested in a pool of amber-coloured oil on the countertop, beside the uncapped, sweating bottle of cranberry juice. The sink was stacked with plates.

       He’d opened the sink tap and squirted dishwashing liquid into the collected water, when he realised there were only five plates. He screwed the tap closed and dried his hands on the seat of his pyjamas, then dashed from the kitchen, up the stairs, to the door of the girls’ bedroom.

       At the first knock, she answered. He entered to find her sitting cross-legged on the bed, playing a game on her phone. She was still in her nightdress, the yellow, Daffy Duck-patterned one. The hemline rode up her thighs, revealing the slopes of her knees..

       Hey, he said, as he shut the door, leaned against it.

       Morning, she said, not looking up. Her fingers skittered across the keypad, scoring points.

       Can I sit?

       She shrugged in reply, so he walked to the bed, sank down beside her, and asked: Why didn’t you go to church with them? She did not answer. Her breath quickened.

       Are you not talking to me? he said, and reached his hand forward to grip her ankle.

       Her fingers stopped moving; the phone drooped in her hands; the game played the same cartoon melody, over and over.

       Looking at her averted face, he remembered how, when she was little, every time he went to her parents’ house he used to place her in his lap, and while she swung her legs about and sucked the sweets he’d brought her, he chatted over her head as he stroked her knees. He felt a stab of nostalgia for those happy, guiltless days. He wanted to show her that she was still his favourite, that the years hadn’t eroded his affection, that the previous night hadn’t changed anything, so he lifted her leg, pulled it towards him, placed her ankle in his lap, and caressed her knee. His hand whispered over her skin.

       You’re beautiful, you know that?

       At his words, she looked up, and a cloud-shadow of expressions flitted across her face; then she rested her head against his shoulder. He eased her sideways, onto the bed, pinned her down with his chest, worked his knee between her legs. When she gasped, he kissed her.


       You’re sure you love me?

       She lay on her belly beside him, with her chin propped on his chest. Her right leg was cocked at the knee, the foot waving in the air.

       Yes, he said. His hand played round-and-round-the-garden with the line of her panties, and when his fingers took two steps and tickled the cleft of her buttocks, she squirmed and clamped her thighs.

       Why do you love me? she said, staring at his beard stubble, at his lips, into his eyes.

       Because, he said, with a jerk of his shoulders. I’ve loved you for a long time, since you were nine.

       Serious? I didn’t know. Her eyes shone. Her breath scalded his face.

       So what do you love about me? she asked, after a pause.

       Everything, he said, nuzzling her cheek. His nose left a dab of sweat on her skin. His hand, in slow circles, rubbed the back of her thighs.


       Like, you know . . .

       My ass?

       Come on, don’t say that.

       Then tell me, what do you like?

       OK, he said, and dug his elbow into the bed, braced his jaw against his fisted hand, stared at her—since you’re forcing me. I like your eyes. I like the way they light up when you’re happy. I like your legs. I like the way you walk, especially when you’re hurrying, the way you throw your feet, like a child who’s about to fall. I like your nose, and your mouth, and your breath. I like the way your breath smells. Like ice cream.

       Wow, she said in a hushed, wondering voice; and then she adjusted her legs. His hand slid between her thighs.


       But what? he asked, and kissed her earlobe.

       But won’t it cause trouble, that we’re, you know, cousins?

       Yes. It will.

       So what will we do?

       We have to keep it a secret, at least for now. People won’t understand my feelings for you. They’ll say you’re too young, that . . . that we’re related. We can’t let anyone know.


       That’s my girl, he said with a broad, toothy smile—then dipped his head with a playful zzz-ing sound in the back of his throat.

       At the sound of his father’s car pulling into the driveway their lips broke apart. He scrambled to his feet and adjusted the crotch of his pyjama bottoms. I’ll see you later, real soon, he said over his shoulder, walking with short, awkward, frantic steps towards the door.


       After lunch was over and he’d withdrawn to his bedroom, the summons that he had ceased to expect was announced. His brother delivered the message with a serious expression on his happy child’s face, and then he added:

       Mama is very angry with you.

       He entered the sitting room to find his mother and father waiting for him. He drew up beside their seats, and thrust his hands into his trouser pockets, to hide their trembling.

       Your mother is very angry with you—and so am I, his father said. Then he waved to the opposite chair: Take the weight off your feet.

       With a quick glance at his mother, he sat down, and fixed his gaze on his father.

       His father said, Your mother and I have been discussing your cousin’s behaviour, and to tell you the truth, we’re tired of it. But your conduct is also giving us cause for concern. Why won’t you listen when we tell you not to call her that—he turned to his wife—what is she, darling, a singer?—and turned back to his son—that Colombian singer’s name? Not allowing time for a reply, he continued: The only good thing to come out of that country is Garcia Marquez. By the way, have you read his latest, Memories of My Melancholy . . . Women? You should, you know, it’s a good book, if somewhat—

       Papa, stick to the topic, his mother interposed.

       Sorry, dear. He frowned at his son. We already have enough trouble from that young lady, so we don’t need any more from you. So don’t call her by that name again, OK?

       But Papa, it’s just a nickname!

       His father exchanged looks with his wife, licked his lips, and lowered his voice. Erm, it’s a bit more serious than that.


       His mother took charge of the silence. Look here, she said, in a voice that shook with anger, since you’re now too big to abide by the rules we set in this house, maybe it’s time you moved out. You have a job and you have savings, you can afford to pay rent. Go and be lord and master in your own house.

       At his mother’s words, he knew it was over, the fight was lost. To hell with the stupid name, he thought. He would do what he had to do to remain where he had to be.

       He arranged his face into a mask of pleading. But, Mama, you know I’m saving up for my Master’s, he said in a subdued voice. I can’t afford to take out of my savings to pay for an apartment. You know.

       Now we’re getting somewhere, his mother said, leaning forward in her chair. So open your ears and listen. As long as you’re my son and you live under my roof, you must obey me. She smacked her palm against the armrest to emphasise her next words. From today, you have to stop calling her by that name.

       He met her gaze; then dropped his eyes. I hear you, Mama, he said.


       That night, after dinner, he sent her a text message to meet him in the grove of plantain trees behind the house. She sent back an instant, one-letter reply. K.

       He waited beside the tallest plantain tree, which was heavy with fruit. There was a strong breeze, and the big, fan-like leaves waved and rustled above his head and cast swooping shadows on the rough ground.

       He’d begun to worry—then she appeared. She lit her path with the screen light of her mobile phone, and when he whispered her name, she increased her pace, scrunching dead leaves underfoot.

       Shakira, Shakira! she said with a chiding tone as she drew up to him. She stuck her phone in the waistband of her denim miniskirt, and then stood before him with her arms akimbo and her weight resting on one hip.

       He reached out to hold her waist, then drew her forward. She resisted his pull, twisting from side to side and beating his shoulders lightly with her fists. His mouth bumped her nose, her cheek, her chin, before locking onto her lips. She moaned in protest; then opened her teeth and slumped against him.

       When they broke apart, he said, That’s what I called you about. I can’t call you Shakira anymore.

       Her shoulders stiffened. Why?

       Mama spoke to me this afternoon. She warned me that if I call you Shakira again, I’ll have to pack out. So I told her I wouldn’t.

       She snorted with anger. OK, leave me alone, she said in a stinging voice, and dropped her hands to pry open his grip.

       Don’t be like that. Wait, wait—what do you want me to do? Her fingers dug painfully into his skin, so he released her waist, and caught her wrist. If I disobey Mama, I’ll have to leave. Then what will happen to us?

       She turned her face aside and said in a flat voice: I don’t know—and I don’t care.

       Stop acting like a spoiled child, this is serious, he said. He placed his palm against her cheek and turned her face towards him with gentle pressure. Her eyes glittered with resentment. When he stroked the curve of her jaw, murmuring candyfloss words, a teardrop broke from her lashes and rolled down, wetting his hand.

       Leave me alone, I want to go, she said.


       I said leave me alone!

       The shrillness of her cry startled him into letting go. She turned to leave, but he ran to her front and spread out his arms, blocking her path.

       Stop it, Shakira. OK, I give in. I’ll call you the name.

       She halted, raised her hand to flick away her tears, and beamed at him. He was wary of the flux of her moods, so he left his arms outspread, in case she tried to bolt. When she walked up and rested her forehead against his chest, he embraced her with force.

       This is what we’ll do . . .

       He would call her Shakira, but only when they were alone; he would search for an apartment, so they could be alone together. She interrupted his words to say that she would run away if he left, that she would follow him to his new house if he wanted. After she spoke, his arms dropped from her shoulders, he stepped back, and came up against a tree. Then he asked her in an unsteady voice if she meant what she’d said.

       I do.

       He spun round and punched the tree in joy. He turned, lifted her into the air and whirled her around, then wedged her against the tree, and kissed her; then fell to his knees, pressed his head against the front of her skirt, and kissed her. When his face pushed under her skirt, her giggles caught in her throat. She stiffened, and begged him to stop, her hands pushing, pulling his head. He lurched to his feet and smeared her lips with the smell of herself, then drew back his head to ask her, his voice guttural, if he should. She said, no please, no please, but made no effort to break away, as his weight trapped her against the tree, his hands squeezed and prodded, and his lips covered her face with a snail trail of saliva. Yes please, he said in whispery simoom voice, and tugged her hand downwards. At the touch of his flesh she opened her mouth in a soundless cry and fell against him; then burst into tears, her shoulders shaking.

       He released her hand, took a step backwards, and zippered his trousers. He watched in silence as she drew herself up, tried to walk away, stumbled and threw out her hand to steady herself, then turned round and hid her face against the tree. When her sobs abated to the occasional sniffle, he said, I’m sorry, I lost control, don’t cry, nothing happened. He approached her, put his hand on her shoulder, then arranged her clothes. He stooped to pick her phone from where it had fallen. He handed her the phone, then placed his hands on her hips, pressed his mouth against her hair, and said: Tell me the truth, are you a virgin?

       She nodded. Her hair scrubbed his face.


       She didn’t appear for breakfast or dinner, she didn’t take his phone calls or reply his text messages, for the three days that followed. The first day, Monday, at the dinner table, when his mother sent his brother to call her, she sent back word that she was ill. Tuesday was his brother’s birthday, his eleventh, and after the candles were blown out and the wishes made, he sent the birthday boy to her room with a wedge of cake, a cold Coke and a stapled note. He awoke on Wednesday morning to find the note slipped under his door, unopened. Wednesday evening, when he arrived from the office, he met his father in the upstairs hallway and asked him in a by-the-way tone if he had seen her.

       Yes, funny you asked, his father replied, staring at him with a creased brow, she just ran past me with a bowl of cornflakes!

       Can you imagine, she’s angry at me because I refused to call her Shakira, he said, and then mustered all his willpower to sustain the grin with which he met his father’s guffaws.

       On Thursday, he rose early, got ready, and left. But when the gate clanged shut behind him, he reversed the car and parked by the fence of the house, to wait for her to emerge on her way to school. A quarter of an hour went by before she appeared, accompanied by his sisters. He called out to her but she refused to answer, and hurried away with the twins staring after her in amazement. He could dare nothing but stand and watch her go, his distress concealed behind a fractured smile.

       I refused to call her Shakira, that’s why she’s angry with me, he told the twins, then throttled the car until it wailed with power and jumped forward with a spray of dust and stones.

       That night, at dinner, after his father commented on her absence, his sisters, their tones shrill with reproach, shared the story of her impoliteness towards their brother. His mother’s glance of approval turned the rice bolus in his mouth to ash. He let his fork fall into the food on his plate, and wiping his drooping lips with the back of his hand as he rose from the table, he mumbled, I had a long day at the office, I’m sorry, I need to rest. He walked away with slow, heavy steps, and climbed the stairs one at a time, his footfalls ringing through the house. When he reached the upstairs landing, he dashed soft-footed to the door of the girls’ bedroom, but found it locked.


       On the night of Friday the 16th—a humid, starless night—he headed towards the house like a farm animal to the slaughter, his heartbeats frenetic from a conviction he couldn’t shake off. He’d sent her a stream of text messages throughout the day, begging forgiveness, confessing regret, asking her to meet him. By the close of work he had received no reply, so he called her number, but her phone was switched off.

       He was scuffing the soles of his loafers on the front doormat when he heard her voice. It came from the sitting room. He stopped and listened; crept forward and listened—his mother was now talking, her words indistinct.

       He tiptoed to the sitting room doorway to hear better, and then peered in. She sat alone with his mother, the two figures side by side, his crime and punishment. Her face looked wan, subdued by distress; but it could have been the lighting, which was dull. She was staring at her feet, which never used to be still, but were now pressed together, toe to heel. Her hands were clasped between her knees, and she sat hunched over on the chair’s edge.

       —called you down is because I won’t stand for any of this childishness anymore, his mother was saying in a low-pitched voice. Her head was cocked to one side. She fixed her niece in her stare. It’s no longer about the name. It’s about respect for your elders, about taking responsibility for your decisions. If you won’t change your mind I’ll have to send you back to your mother, because to tell you the truth, I’ve had enough.

       Before she spoke, he knew her reply.

       I’ll go. Her voice rasped in her throat. She coughed, and then added: Tomorrow.


       Again, that night, she did not come down for dinner, and the conversation at the table was about her departure. His mother ate little; she buffeted the air with sighs; she spoke in monosyllables. When his father looked up from the book he was reading and said that maybe her going away was not a bad thing, his mother hissed and shot furious looks with haphazard aim. Then she spoke in a slow, shaking voice about her dead twin brother, about his stubbornness, which his daughter had inherited.

       I’ll miss Shakira, said his brother, sweeping a glum, defiant look round the table.

       I’ll miss her too, his mother said, and smiled at her youngest child, her eyes glistening.

       He finished his meal, bid goodnight, and retreated to his bedroom. It was past midnight before the upstairs hallway light went off. He swung his legs off the bed, waited in the dark for the sound of shutting doors to cease, then counted to five hundred before he stood up and slipped from the room, leaving the door ajar. He crossed to the staircase and sank to a crouch on the second step. He was hidden from anybody who emerged from the bedrooms, but if he leaned forward he could see the end of the hallway, where the bathroom was. He settled to wait.

       Five times during his vigil the bathroom was used, but every time it was someone else. A cock had crowed, a car had sped past on the road, blaring fuji music, before she emerged. He waited for her to finish, he stood in front of the door until she flushed, then he turned the handle.

       She whipped up her head and opened her mouth to complain, but when she saw him, she pressed a hand over her mouth and backed away. He pulled the door closed and turned the key. Placing his palms together, he held them in front of him, beseeching her. Please, I beg you, just hear what I have to say, he said, speaking low and fast as he advanced on her.

       No, she said, shaking her head side to side, don’t.

       She was backed up against the wall beside the toilet bowl. She held onto the cistern for support, but when the lid rattled from her trembling, she removed her hand. He drew up in front of her. His bare feet, as he rocked on his heels, made sucking noises on the wet floor tiles. He raised his arms to embrace her, but she flinched away, then turned her side to him, folded her arms across her chest, pressed her face against the wall, and squeezed her eyes shut.

       He whispered into the ear that was turned to him, coaxing her with words that he had whetted over days. His hand rubbed her shaking shoulder, and then travelled down her arm, over her belly, across her hip. Beneath his fingers, her muscles quivered. His words fluttered strands of her hair and sent ripples through her cheek. Heat rose from her skin with a bruised scent. His hand moved again, growing bolder. He stroked her face. He smoothed her hair. He patted her belly and traced the outlines of Daffy Duck on her chest. When his fingers slipped under her nightdress, she whimpered, opened her eyes, and dropped her arms.

       Come, my love, he said to her, and led her by the hand out of the bathroom, across the hallway, into the night.


Contributor Notes

In the early stages of writing my second story collection Love Is Power, Or Something Like That, Shakira’s story came to me more or less complete. A girl in adolescent throes, a man whose morals are open to question, an unsuspecting community, in this case the most important one, the family, a tragedy faded into the past but still feeding the human hunger for love, affection, understanding—and somewhere above it all, the writer, the vessel if you will, searching for meaning in the story of these characters. The Little Girl with Budding Breasts and a Bubblegum Laugh is the result of that search.

A. Igoni Barrett was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria in 1979. He won the 2005 BBC World Service short story competition and is the recipient of a Chinua Achebe Center fellowship, a Norman Mailer Center fellowship, and a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center residency. His fiction has been published in AGNI, Guernica, Kwani? and Black Renaissance Noire. His first book, the story collection From Caves of Rotten Teeth, was published in 2005. His second story collection, Love Is Power, Or Something Like That, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2013.