by Adaora Okoye
To Mr Sochima’s disappointment, Anita did not cry when he dropped her off at her aunt’s house; instead, she ran to her aunt like a pup that just found its evening meal. The last time he had to travel, she threw a tantrum fit for a diva. He searched her face.
“Are you sure you are going to be okay?”
Anita’s nod was too assured for his liking. He asked again.
“She said she is fine Victor,” his sister, Nneoma said, her mien struggling to stay serious.
Nneoma made an attempt to lift Anita up. She conceded, lowering her back to the grass. She panted in mock exhaustion, “You this girl. Do you grow fatter every day?”
Anita giggled at her aunt. Mr Sochima watched them for a while, one pair of eyes winking secrets to the other. He slapped an ambitious ant off his trousers. That was what he had always hated about Nneoma’s front lawn. He and Ifeyinwa once attended a get-together held there in celebration of her husband’s promotion and the ants had made a picnic of his buttocks. The fact that rain had recently destroyed several anthills had not helped either.
A glint caught his eye. The auburn gleam of the setting sun was reflected on the glass of his Rolex watch.
“Fine. Since you won’t miss Daddy, I am leaving.”
He stuck out his tongue at Anita. She sniggered.
He waited for Nneoma to commence the inspection he had become accustomed to since Ifeyinwa death. Each time she brought him food in the red cooler and even once or twice during sermons at church, she scrutinized him with that look of hers; as though she was searching to find what was amiss. When her eyes had gone from his short afro to his leather shoes, it was his cue to leave. He hugged Anita, using his free hand to pat down stray strands of hair from her corn rows.
He offered his greetings to Nneoma’s children and husband. As he turned to leave, she mumbled “Ije oma,” wishing him to ‘Go well’ in the way that was customary.
He had always liked public transportation even after he had had cars. He had never been able to decipher its allure but the communal buses called him. The probability of engine failure and even driver failure had never been able to deter him. Rowdy Kachia Transportation Park charlatans/touts, prolonged trips and the like were, to him, part of the package deal. There was something about embarking on a journey with at least a score of anonymous companions…
He headed eastward to the column-like luxurious buses popularly known for undertaking ‘night journeys’. The buses were as tall as bungalows.
After buying a ticket, he bought a couple of loaves of bread and Gala sausage rolls and put them in his carry on. His alarm clock of a stomach somersaulted reminding him that he had not eaten.
The fingers had just succeeded in ripping open the packet of a sausage roll when a compendium of noises drew his attention to the Mama Put shack where oily food was served up. A girl, whose look did not exceed twenty, had a firm grip on a customer’s shirt.
“Oga you must to pay me my moni.” she repeated even as people tried to loosen her grip on the man’s clothing.
The girl was short but bulky; she had the sinewy arms of a wrestler while her opponent was lanky and portly. The latter’s eyes were as wide as the ceramic plates Mr Sochima had at home. From time to time, the man would look around at the onlookers, imploring them to join him in questioning the girl’s sanity.
The girl’s ferocity was identical to Ifesinachi’s back in their days at Federal Polytechnic, Oko. She was the head of a rally that almost got her suspended; a rally ignited by prolonged water scarcity. She chanted “We no go gree o!” at the top of her lungs, like she was ready to kill every single one of the administrators with her bare hands. It was the first time he met her: passionate and petite Ifesinachi. She remained that way many years after they were married, her belly only rising during pregnancy. When the doctor said she passed away while birthing their first child, Anita, he had imagined her on the bloodied mattress; her face contorted in her last fight with the Grim Reaper for the final say.
A loud clap sound dragged him from his reverie. The girl now held her cheek with her right hand, the left one still gripped on the man’s shirt. Mr Sochima quickly offered to pay for the man’s food. The girl took the money all the while pouring invectives on the man; an unlikely customer in the future.
The time finally came for the bus to leave. According to his phone, it was about eight o’clock that night. He climbed into the ‘luxurious’ bus and took his seat on the left side. It was cramped and by the time most passengers had boarded; he could’ve been a sardine. The ‘attachments’ who took up the centre aisle didn’t help either. They were those who couldn’t (or didn’t want to) pay the full price for the bus ticket.
A woman brought all four of her children and paid for two seats only. Soon, the attachments had to make space for one of them to sleep in the centre aisle. The air smelted of onions and chickens stored at the back.
The bus started and Mr Sochima lurched on his seat. The fatigue he had been ignoring finally caught up with him. He drifted off to sleep.
Breeze from the little window caressed the hairs in his nostrils and he sneezed. His eyes fluttered open. By now the other passengers were asleep leaving the bus as still as a mortuary.
He dug into his carry on. His hands found the ring made to fit Christie’s middle finger and the packets of Gummy Bears he bought for the twin boys. She would be waiting for him at Lokoja Transportation Park the following morning.
Christie was the one who made life more bearable.
He was already falling back asleep when a jolt from the bus threw him upwards.
Several torch lights flashed in the windows.
The sliding door opened and the bus driver climbed in.
“Abeg make una calm down. We go give dem wetin dem dey find make dem no shoot us,” he said in a matter-of-fact way.
His pidgin was calm as though he was inviting the passengers to dinner; not to cooperate with thieves so they could live.
The passengers were half groggy, half stunned. A minute passed before one person got up then the next. Soon, the passengers were filing out.
The air was chilly and most of them were whispering. Seven silhouettes of robbers pounced on them. One of them was particularly hyperactive. He cocked his gun.
“Oya all of una lie down. If any of una try any nonsense I go send that pesin to im ancestors!”
They all lay down quickly, some on the tarred expressway, others on the dusty sidewalk. Mr Sochima looked around. Courtesy of the torch lights, he saw the surrounding forest on both sides of the road. No cars drove by. It had to be past midnight.
The robbers were going round, searching people in the most undignified ways. They took bags, purses, phones. A couple of them climbed into the bus.
Suddenly, the woman with four children started wailing and rolling around on the rough asphalt.
“My money! My money!”
The robbers gathered around her. They kicked at her. Some of the passengers summoned courage and yelled at them to stop.
Mr Sochima makes a run for it. His carry on in hand, he swerves around pointy branches, jumps over obstructing branches and twigs. He has no idea where he is going yet his legs stay in motion; sprinting deeper into the thicket. His right foot makes impact with something hard and he stumbles. Trying to gain back momentum, he grabs at the empty air for a branch and falls.
It is pitch-black; the moonlight barely reaching where he lies. He cannot see anything except a pair of eyes staring at him. They are tinted with a sickly yellow. He stays very still.
The creature moves, breaking twigs and rustling leaves. Then all is quiet again. His heart beats ten times faster.
He closes his eyes.
This may be the end.
The silence lengthens. He reaches down his leg and encounters viscous fluid on his left knee. He applies pressure and winces. A volatile mixture of trepidation and pain from his injuries create a numbing effect.
His mind travels. Its first stop is Anita… his only child; her cornrows… her fierce eyes so similar to her mother’s. Would she weep if she never saw him again? How will she learn how a man should treat her if he is not there?
There is Christie, the woman he met in the third year of his marriage to Ifeyinwa. It must have been her beauty that got him; the way she sashayed into the banking hall that Tuesday. He loved Ifeyinwa and still does. But Christie is like alcohol, wonderful in the beginning but leaves a massive hangover. Like alcohol, she keeps him coming back. He had not meant for her to get pregnant. Ifeyinwa had just taken in with their first child after years of a childless matrimony. He hid Christie. He bought her a flat at Lokoja; a nice one for her and his twin boys to stay.
Maybe Ifeyinwa is somewhere watching after having orchestrated this retribution. Maybe she slinks in the shadows relishing his anguish and hopelessness.
His mind churns in circles: repetitive…unending. Dawn sneaks up on him. A siren of a far-flung rooster dilutes the miasma in his mind.
He can see the creature now. Its eyes, set high on its head, still glow, however dulled in the twilight. The stare does not waver. The body extends from one end of the spacious grotto to the other. The tubular body has the same circumference as Mr Sochima’s head.
The staring contest goes on…even as fatigue creeps in with hunger. Harsh sunlight soon shines through the only hollow in the cave’s integrity.
He hears voices. At first they are barely audible then they get louder. The creature stirs; as though stretching. He shivers and grabs a rock on the floor. The voices are right above him now.
The creature looks towards the cave’s entrance. It slithers towards him.