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Journey

 

Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike

Art by Yuko Murata

 
 

“He will be all right,” Achilike heard his bus seatmate say.

“Who will be all right?” he asked, sitting up. At first the man did not respond, then he turned and glanced at him. Achilike found his gaze disconcerting.

“I can’t say same about you.” The man avoided eye contact as he spoke. “But your boy will be fine.”

A shudder passed through Achilike’s body and he felt his hands jerk at his sides. How did he know about his bedridden son? Achilike and his wife had fed dozens of paracetamol and anti-malaria tablets down their son’s throat, yet his fever showed no sign of leaving his thin body. He couldn’t afford to take him to the hospital because his client had insisted they meet up this weekend before her trip abroad. They were going to meet for the first time and he hoped to make some money off her. So, he had convinced his wife that they should manage the illness at home in the meantime rather than having the doctor attend to their son.

“Do I know you? Have we met before?” Achilike prodded his bearded seatmate, who neither looked at him nor said anything. He didn’t want to come across as rude, though being ignored felt like an insult, he decided to let him be. He was positive that their paths had crossed before, his seatmate knew him from somewhere. Maybe he’d overheard the phone conversation between Achilike and his wife a few moments ago.

And from the last row of seats came a sudden cry.

“Stop! I want to get off,” the girl in the pink blouse insisted.

“Stop where?” said the first boy, with a Mohawk haircut.

“Your head correct so?” said the second boy, tapping at his head. Achilike saw the tattoo of a cobra on his forearm. “So he should stop you in the goddamn bush, so you can do what?”

A stray thought crept into Achilike’s mind. Fear clamped his stomach, clawing into his intestines, and he felt his breath shorten. He recalled stories told in bars about passengers who tricked drivers on transit, only for armed men to launch out of the blue, pouncing on everyone onboard the moment the bus slowed to a halt. His eyes darted around, scanning faces to see if any other passenger appeared to be out of place. He felt quite reassured when he heard the driver speak.

“Young lady, what were you saying?” said the driver. He watched her inching her way forward along the aisle in the rear-view mirror.

“Driver,” said the bespectacled man, without glancing away from his newspaper, “focus.” He was sitting in front with the tall driver.

The girl bent in the aisle by the door, her hand hovering over its lever. “I will push open the door.”

“Open the goddamn door, and I’ll make sure to push you outside myself,” Tattoo said.

His threat seemed to draw a curtain of brooding silence over everyone, and Achilike, relieved now that they weren’t going to be robbed, wondered why his seatmate just sat there untouched by the drama—as though the bus could flip four times on its head and he wouldn’t move an eyelash.

Then someone intervened—the woman in sequinned jeans. “You want to jump?” she said, looking her up and down. She and the couple in matching print attire occupied the first row of seats behind the driver.

The girl eyed her back. “Sister said I should come down—”

Fellow passengers immediately volleyed questions at her, cutting her short. Achilike noticed her looking like a rat cornered by cats; he came to her aid. He asked her if she knew where she was headed, she hesitated, then gave a shake of her head. He doubted that an eighteen-year-old could get on a bus and not know where she was going. She must have seen the look on his face, for she asked, “Is this bus not going to Lagos?”

“Lagos?” Mohawk spat, twisting his nose as though the word stank.

Tattoo echoed him, dropping his jaw in disbelief.

Every other passenger was baffled, too, except the bearded man. They regarded each other in stunned silence, like they’d found themselves the butt of a joke. Then Mohawk and Tattoo began to chuckle. They chuckled hard, with the veins sticking out in their necks. They called the girl names, attempting to goad her into tears. She just kept mute, and Achilike knew better than to hush them for being mean lest they lay into him, as well.

 
 

“Driver. Focus,” said Bespectacled Man.

The couple told the girl to sit but she insisted on getting down. “Sister is on another bus.”

Achilike asked her, “Where are you and Sister going?”

“Lagos.”

“This bus is going to Abuja. Call Sister.”

The girl fiddled with her phone before dialing a number. She reeled off a flurry of Owerri dialect, a melodious nasal drawl. Something Sister said on the phone must have stung her, for her face crumpled. The driver asked to speak with Sister, reaching out one hand behind him, while the other gripped the wheel. The girl held her phone across the rows of seat to pass on. Before it could get to the driver, Mohawk snatched it off her.

Placing the phone on his ear, he growled, “What are you girls up to…?” The girl puckered her brow, lifting her hands in helplessness. “See, Maami, let me warn—”

“Guy, guy, guy,” the driver attempted to calm him down, “let me speak with her.”

“Driver. Focus.”

"Mohawk asked his friend what he’d expected from girls with faces like yam-bread. Laughing, the woman in sequinned jeans asked if there was ever a thing like yam-bread, to which he replied yes. The couple in matching attire giggled. Husband spoke of girls who sneaked away with their friends to go sleep with Indians in Lagos, Wife added that every Indian man who slept with those girls had stolen their wombs to make charms."

 

The driver took the phone from Mohawk and spoke with Sister. Without taking his eyes off the road, he thrust the phone behind him to someone. The woman in sequinned jeans reached for it and handed it over to the girl.

“I’ll drop you off at Agbor Junction,” the driver said. “Wait there for Sister. Her bus is ten or twenty minutes behind us.”

“Can’t even say a goddamn thank you,” Tattoo hissed, when the girl shuffled back to her seat.

Only Achilike and the bearded man kept silent while the others joked about the situation. Mohawk asked his friend what he’d expected from girls with faces like yam-bread. Laughing, the woman in sequinned jeans asked if there was ever a thing like yam-bread, to which he replied yes. The couple in matching attire giggled. Husband spoke of girls who sneaked away with their friends to go sleep with Indians in Lagos, Wife added that every Indian man who slept with those girls had stolen their wombs to make charms.

Bespectacled Man snapped his fingers, recalling aloud what he’d read in the dailies about the police freeing some schoolgirls from a hotel where they were to be shipped like sardines to Italy. “God’s wrath is coming in a storm,” he ended, with the air of finality typical of a roadside prophet.

A soulful song about heartbreak was on the radio, filling Achilike with a fuzzy longing for his childhood years, when he’d hopped and roamed around the village like a goat—that is, before his friend, while baiting fish, would flail in the river. His friend with whom he had raided farms and poultry, named his son after. Now he shut his eyes to fantasize about what lay ahead of him. He figured that his client might be about twenty years older. She’d described where she lived, an elite neighbourhood populated by men and women who had “sucked the country’s oil-fat nipples dry.” She liked Congolese music, she’d said on WhatsApp, so there would be some “crotch-caressing” jigs between the both.

 
 

Achilike jerked awake in his seat at the sound of a door slamming. He didn’t realise he had dozed off. Gazing around he said, “Where are we?” The woman in sequinned jeans told him, “Agbor Junction.” Craning his neck at the window, Achilike saw the driver at the petrol pump cracking walnuts between his teeth. The uniformed attendant was gauging his meter.

“See her tiny yansh,” Achilike heard someone titter with glee. He raised his head just in time to see the girl step out of the bus, tugging her pink blouse down over her waist. He noted the exposed curves of her bottom and recalled the photo his client had shared with him on WhatsApp.

The bearded man was the last passenger to file out of the bus. So, when he said, “Lucky her, that’s how they go missing,” Achilike spun round to look closely at him. But the bearded man squinted up, appearing to read patterns in the graying sky. At last, he looked straight into Achilike’s eyes—his expression as terse and cryptic as his statement.

“It’s going to rain blood,” he said, brushing him lightly as he went by. Achilike stood there, struck by the handsome face he’d just seen—a long unblemished face, with the smoothness of marble. Though the eyes had revealed neither tenderness nor hardness.

Some twenty minutes later, the driver plied the bus back onto the road. Only the girl had gotten off at Agbor Junction, the other passengers continued to Abuja. Mohawk slapped Tattoo on the shoulder, nodding towards the dashboard. Their eyes lit up, and Tattoo pleaded with the driver to “pump up the volume!” The moment the volume went up, a voice raspy and belligerent came hollering out from the speakers. And the boys whooped with delight, rocking their bodies to the bumpy rhythm. Husband and Wife winked at each other. The woman in sequinned jeans was wiping tears of laughter from her eyes. Bespectacled Man started griping about boys long gone astray. Achilike envied them for their unconcern. The bearded man looked distant, as usual.

After the song had ended, the boys began arguing about who the richest Nigerian artiste was. Their argument veered into the saccharine life their peers led abroad. They talked about cousins who “sucked pink pussies” of old women in Canada to get green cards. Talked about friends who “packaged” girls to Dubai, where Arab princes doled out dollars to sample black pussies.

For the next forty minutes, the boys rattled off the names of foreign cities with fluency, causing Achilike to wonder how they’d come by such information. Almost everyone listened, no one cut them short or told them off, except to make small muffled sounds. The boys were a little younger than Achilike, but the knowledge they showed off made him regret his poor education. The way they extolled in loud, electric voices the exploits of Nigerian hackers and scammers (with names such as TTK, Digital, Cyber, and Wireless) living large in Europe and North America sounded so enticing he wished for a moment he wasn’t a plumber.

“That’s why Owerri is rotten,” said the woman in sequinned jeans, crinkling the corners of her lips. “People like those crooks you worship have destroyed Igbo land. Look at striptease parlours everywhere. Look at the number of hotels, next-door to schools.”

Her sense of disapproval must have tainted the driver’s mood, for he added tartly, “No one should be surprised if these young men sell their mothers to make wealth.”

Tattoo looked hurt. “What’s wrong with taking back the goddamn money pink people have stolen from Africans? Not as if we are into armed robbery or kidnapping.”

Tufiakwa! This is a wicked generation,” Bespectacled Man cried, heaving with raw emotion. “Men and women trading in the pursuits of flesh. God’s wrath is coming!”

“Maami, tell that to politicians who screw the country into the dustbin. Talk from now till Judgement Day, nothing will stop us from yahooing!” The sheer vehemence of Mohawk’s voice trailed ice through the bus, stopping the conversation from going any further.

Achilike felt relieved that everyone was quiet now, for had the vexed chatter gone on a minute longer it might have ballooned and burst into a quarrel. He sipped the tepid Sprite he’d bought earlier at Agbor Junction, polished off the biscuits and plantain chips, and then tossed the empty packets into the wastepaper basket in the aisle.

He had begun to picture himself with his client, when he heard the driver announce, “See rain…” It had not yet started raining, but the clouds had massed, a dense grey.

“Going to be a heavy one,” said the woman in sequinned jeans, observing the shadows gathering outside her window. “The type that flooded my village, destroying my parents’ house and several others. People died.”

“You must have seen the photos of those beautiful homes overrun by flood in Lagos, yes?” Bespectacled Man chuckled, sweeping his eyes around to see if anyone would nod their head. When no one showed interest, he stubbed his finger in his newspaper, whining, “But every newspaper carried the photos in its front page!”

In the silence that followed, Achilike sang along with Asa on the radio. He reminded himself to phone his wife once the bus entered the craggy town of Okene. With the fabulous pay he hoped to get from his client he could make life much easier for everyone. Thinking about getting his son one of those colourful toy cars hawked on the streets, he heard something crackle overhead.

Everyone seemed to flinch in their seats at the bangs that followed next. Outside, slivers of white shimmered all around, leaving the bus aglow for a second. Then the horizon turned dark, as if noon had hastened into night.

 
 

“Lagos will be flooded again,” said Bespectacled Man, waving his folded-up newspaper.

“Couldn’t have come at the rightest time, God’s wrath,” the bearded man chimed in, addressing for the first time someone other than Achilike on the bus. “Must be feeling good with yourself, Mr Focus.”

“Good how? What are you jabbering about?”

“Etiquettes aside, I suggest we share secrets before our ways part for eternity. Who wants to go first?”

Everyone was staring at the bearded man in surprise, for he’d kept much to himself since the trip began several hours ago. But Achilike wasn’t so much surprised as they were. He and his seatmate had merely passed indirect comments, like strangers, but now he found it amusing that an exchange was about to happen.

Narrowing his eyes at the rangy boys, the bearded man said, “You both have runny mouths, do you mind taking the lead?” And they flared up, threatening to “box his face” if he insulted them again.

Thunder rumbled, and something crashed on the other side of the road with a thud. The mournful shriek of trees carried over into the bus, while the wind pounded its fists against the glass and steel. The road was a quivering dark blur, and Achilike suspected that the driver could hardly pick out a single thing, even in the orange glare of headlights.

“Listen up, brethren!” the bearded man said, after a long pause. “The Valley of the Shadow is at hand, so we’d better get this charade over with. Now Mr. Focus, you love reading the dailies. In a few hours, people will be reading about you, that is, if they recognise you.”

Indignation flamed through Bespectacled Man’s features and he sputtered, “What manner of talk is that? Ima onye mbu? Whoever you are, I don’t take kindly to threats!”

“Really?!” The bearded man gave a laugh, a little hollow laugh, a laugh without feeling.

The couple became uneasy, as if the eeriness of his laugh had pinched their skin. But the boys wore stony faces, as one might, if he deemed a person unpleasant.

The bearded man stared from one face to another, his eyes a darker glint. “Does anyone wish to know what this nasty piece of mud is…?”

“Hey, mind your language—!”

“…or what? Remember the girl you got pregnant, the second one that came crying at your feet? The one you got expelled for exam malpractices from the university? You knew that she went to a quack. Nipped in the bud, while she’d just begun to blossom. Look, Mr. Focus, how does one cherish his own daughter knowing he is fond of preying on other people’s?”

Bespectacled Man shuddered, dropping his eyes.

Achilike had caught the shocked expression on his face.

“What’s he talking about?” Mohawk asked his friend, who looked just as stupefied.

“Is he…?” ventured the woman in sequinned jeans.

“An armed robber, me?” the bearded man blurted, letting his eyes roam up her chest to her face. “In all my journeys, no one has ever called me that. Madam Officer, maybe you’d be willing to say a thing or two about police killing robbers, only to cart away their loot.”

Achilike saw the woman in sequinned jeans flinch, like something she’d thought long buried had been dug up. The other passengers directed their gazes at her.

She straightened her back, only managing to say, “Is this…some joke or what?”

“The joke will be on you very soon, Madam Officer. I’m not set to hear how your team butchered the kidnapper whom you’d robbed and set up. For the record, I could go on about what your team did last Christmas Eve, but since my time’s almost up, I don’t intend wasting it on your deeds.”

An ashen look came at once to her face, and her eyes sank in their sockets.

The whole exchange no longer amused Achilike. He felt as though he had been shown someone else’s soiled underwear. No one spoke now, but the bearded man was watching everyone under his lashes. The road had become a swamp, and Achilike thought he could hear the babble of waters under the bus. The driver kept his mind on the road, honking erratically, to alert his fellow motorists in the blinding rain.

“Why are you saying all this? You’re hurting them, can’t you see?” Husband asked the bearded man, who let out a few coos, and then replied cheerfully, “Look, it’s the lovey-dovey! Love comes at a cost, so how does it feel to arrange to have your husband killed just because one is in love with his best friend? You lovebirds flocking together…” he paused, turning to stare into Wife’s face, “should know that the man for whom you killed your husband sleeps with your daughter while you’re at work. Look, if only you knew how young his niece was when he took her flower, you’ll never again squash those lips of yours against his.”

Husband tried to scowl at him but burst out coughing. He coughed for a minute or so, his head bowed. Then, patting his chest, he pulled himself together. Though his voice quavered as he insisted, “It’s a lie. You’re lying. You are a liar!”

 
 

The bearded man yawned. “I can tell you how you’re going to die.” Facing Wife, who looked already stricken, he asked her, “By the way, would you want me to give the dates and time, and what color of shirt this prick was wearing while he fumbled with your daughter’s dress –?”

“Leave her alone, you devil!” Husband said, his face moist, gleaming.

Wife had slipped into a stream of tears. Husband reached out a hand to pull her over to him, but she slapped it away and balled shaky fists to her mouth. Husband glared at the bearded man who simply shrugged.

Achilike considered jumping to the last row, but the way the wind was lashing at the windows and the door, as if trying to fling them open and hurl everyone out in the storm, made him stay back. He moved discreetly to the edge of the seat, convinced that his seatmate was meaning to scandalise everyone aboard.

The driver flicked a glance over his shoulder, asking the bearded man who he was, how he got to know so much about other people.

“I suppose you’d rather not talk about Itu Bridge.”

“And what happened there?” the driver snapped, banging on his horn.

“You are asking me? Brethren, ask him what happened along Uyo-Calabar road,” the bearded man said, without even glancing his way. “What a bloody piece of human wreck, but whose fault was it? The child, whom you left bleeding on the road after running him over? Or his mother who, ragged and naked, has been pacing the town looking for her son’s killer?”

The driver’s shoulders drooped, and he seemed to shrink in his seat.

“Whom do you think you are to scare us?” said Mohawk, his eyes burning. “Just embarrassing and threatening people around.”

“My job is not to threaten. I’m only an escort. I report to someone whose pay check is begotten of blood.” The bearded man shot a glance at Achilike, who clenched his jaw and thought it wise to say nothing. There was something unreadable in his eyes that made Achilike think about a mortuary attendant. “Yes, talking of pay check,” the bearded man went on. “Sweetness is what brought us here in the first place. Sweetness of the thighs, of bread eaten in secret, so long as one’s wife is not in the loop. Sweetness of money taken or stolen in secret, so long as the dead tell no tales. Abuja may not be all sweetness, even sweetness has poison at its core, once you get the hang of it,” and he tapped his forehead, “I’m getting ahead of myself, and lest I forget…who’s next?”

Achilike felt limp. Realising that he was breathless, he gripped the top rail of the seat in front of him. With his left hand, he pried loose two top buttons on his short-sleeved shirt, to let some air down his chest.

“Let’s throw this bastard off the bus!” Tattoo blew up, bristling.

“We can even beat you here, and nothing will happen,” Mohawk fumed, almost lunging at him.

The bearded man flicked something off his collar, looking like one long used to being threatened. Like one who could never be harmed. His eyes showed no expression, and then he gazed around himself, and just laughed, a horrid laugh if ever Achilike had heard one.

“So, tell me, runny mouths,” he said to the boys, “how do you sleep at night with the stench of hairs burning? What about the terrible screams he gave before he was charred whole? You couldn’t repay the loan you owed him. And when he came pounding on your door, threatening to get the police to pick you up, you’d yell out to your neighbours that you were being robbed? And together with the mob you’d raised, you mauled your partner in crime? Run your mouths, you’ll taste the scent of burning flesh before long!”

It was the mortified look in their eyes that got Achilike feeling queasy. His stomach, suddenly full of air, turned, and a strange sour taste gripped him by the throat. He made a retching sound, spat out on the floor, and sprang out of his seat. He tucked himself in the back seat, repulsed by the bearded man, who hadn’t yet finished talking.

“I wished there was a kinder way to put it, but I’m here to escort all but one down the Valley of the Shadow…”

And the bearded man paused mid-speech, for the woman in sequinned jeans, to the horror of every passenger, had whipped out a Beretta from nowhere. She aimed it straight at his temple, her eyes enlarged, fiery. She started screaming, “Shut up! I say, shut up!”

What followed next happened within the flick of an eyelid.

The driver was swearing and stamping on his brakes. Everyone but he and the bearded man had scattered pell-mell, scuffling as they dived straight under their seats and cradled their heads.

“Look, this wasn’t how I’d planned it,” the bearded man was saying. “Wanted for most of you an end, so swift, so painless, but this is perfect nonetheless, besides, my job’s—”

In the looming seconds before the ten-seater bus would slam into the shoulder, somersault from the impact, banging its occupants against one another, slinging one or two out of their seats and through the splintering windscreen, its wheels shearing a body in two and mincing one into the tar, Achilike recognised what his friend’s final thoughts had been while he had stood by watching the foul green waters yank him under.

But now Achilike stared unseeing at the floor, his heart hammering in his ears. All around him pulsed a deep silence, troubled by the roar of the rain and the whiplash of wind at the door.