The man is sandwiched in a crowd by the turn leading into Egbunike street where Tega lives.
“It is magic! My life changed when I discovered it.” The man’s voice is replete with vigour. His outfit bears a semblance to the original FENDI, unlike the labels masterfully sewn at Aba. His shoes catch the evening light.
The man palms a hide, dry to an extreme with skin too taut, and holds it up. Tega thinks the hide twitches, though he is not certain. A sack lies on the tarpaulin spread on the ground. It appears to be filled with more hides. Tega imagines their hues—cream-brown, coffee-brown—each hide an archetype of the human who once wore it, who walked and spoke and ate and drank from it. The circle thickens with more people. Voices are upstaged by another.
“The hide does the impossible! The hide gives wealth! The hide gives promotion! The hide waives misfortunes! If you need anything, make a request from this hide!”
Tega has heard of the hide from the stories often told at his workplace, or elsewhere in the city where suspicion trails every new vehicle barreling through the streets. Success stories are now randomly pegged to the hide’s effect. Most hide sellers remain behind WhatsApp numbers and Facebook pages—faceless, while charged with supplying the world with this elixir against a life of irrelevance.
Away from other sellers of hides, the man has made himself visible and this spikes Tega’s curiosity.
A story once swept through the media, claiming that people were disappearing, and that the hides were victims of these abductions. Politicians and other wealthy personalities repelled the story, called it damaging. Lengthy articles suffused newspapers and blogs claiming that the hides are people who volunteer themselves for the process after they die, that they receive compensations while they are alive.
The man holds up a stack of square-cut cards, gold-plated. “My name is Solo. This is my contact card.” His fingers are like tree stumps. The man offers the cards to everyone.
The card reeks of the man’s perfume. The business name, Solo Ventures, glimmers in a glossy font.
Solo continues to reel off the hide’s great potentials. A woman behind Tega narrates how Solo’s hide delivered a placenta that was stuck in her sister’s vagina during child birth. Another voice lifts from the crowd, another story: this hide got my brother a lucrative job in language translation. He lives in France now. Tega is always wary of such confessions from bystanders during a sale. Testifiers often work with the seller, and get remunerations for every customer their false testimonies could convince.
Tega nursed a need. Not just for wealth or friendships, which he also desired, but for his penis, no longer than the stub of a cigarette.
Woman after woman always sat upon his bed. He remembered saying sorry over and over again, and the pissed-off look in their eyes as he tried to fix the situation by holding his penis and pulling at the shaft.
For long, he sought crannies to crawl into—sad movies that could unmoor his heart, dance clubs distending and contracting with loud music, an inn with the right mixture of cocktails. He tried to immerse himself into cheery groups of friends in the bars he visited, but it always felt inorganic like pebbles scattered underneath a bedding. Nobody ever asked for his phone number.
A dispatch rider calls Tega out from the mall where he works. Heat radiates from the parcel he is given. He feels the heat transfer to his body through his limbs. It is as if a light is passing through him, scanning and exposing the hidden.
During his lunch break, he calls the number on Solo’s card from the car park where the wind will help disperse his words into nothing.
“Hello, my brother. Welcome to Solo’s world!” The man’s energy takes him unawares. He stalls a little, invoking his next words.
“Hello Solo. I received the parcel. Thank you.”
“My man, you made the right choice. I love young people who take their lives into their hands. Now, listen—” His voice takes an unexpected dip, the pleasantness blending into a hectoring tone he must have used with many customers. “Keep it warm. Always. No contact with water. Never.”
“Is it safer to leave in the nylon it came with?”
“No! It will become sweaty. It must never be moist.”
When the call ends, Tega regrets not asking for more clarification, like the words he should use when speaking to the hide, or if there are limits to what the hide can do.
“Solo, sorry to worry you again. I want to know the things the hide can do for me.”
Solo gives a subtle laugh, as if words cannot capture the hide’s power.
“Anything. Ask anything.” Solo’s voice dies in his ear.
He returns to the mall charged like an electric bulb. The awareness that he is now superior to his bosses, and to his six colleagues manning the teller points, and can harness all the fortune littered in the world makes him giddy.
He battles to steer his thoughts away from the hide. It is like fighting off the crawling feel of sleep.
Rain drizzles as he goes home. The KekeNaPep he boards thunders through Ada-George Road and Tega presses his bag to his chest, protecting the hide from spittled wind.
Tega slams his windows shut. He needs no sound from anything existing to disturb his acquaintance with the hide. He stares at it, a little frightened. It resembles a human being except for being shrunken and dry. He can almost see the person it used to be. The arms are crossed and flattened at what used to be the chest. The eyes are carapaced by some skin. The surface is silky-smooth. No hairs. Pores, shriveled closed.
The light in his apartment is dim, a fault from the electricity company, but it is perfect for the hide. It thrives in shadows, the production label says.
He places it at the bottom pocket of his wardrobe. He whistles as he bathes, celebrating his new power.
Tega wakes to observe the hide for most of the night. It is as if an external body jolts him to consciousness, a reminder that the hide must be made comfortable. The hide remains in the same position, almost indifferent, except for the slight heaving of its body like Tega had witnessed at the street display. It is like a sleeping body with a soul moving about, pushing against skin and muscle.
He is torn between leaving the hide in his apartment and taking it to work. After hours of debating with his gut, he goes to work without it. For most of the day, he is plagued by thoughts of burglary and other things that could go wrong with the hide. What if his roof starts leaking? What if one of the windows gives way? What if the house crumbles?
Towards midday, the mall and all of its occupants blur as Tega imagines what the hide could do for him. He can feel it waiting on him like a loyal dog, tail wagging in readiness. Tega gives deep thought to his busy day and decides that he no longer wants customers to flock to his desk. He whispers it, an instruction to the cosmos. He’d read something like that in a book, The Secret. Give orders to the universe. Say what you want. He closes his eyes against the effect—the wave travelling through the corners of the shopping mall, deterring customers from coming to him.
His colleague, Zimchi glares at him from the gaps between the customers teeming at her desk.
“Please go to my colleague. His desk is free,” Zimchi says but they all stay glued to her. Even when Tega repeats Zimchi’s instruction, offering his availability, none of the customers glances in his direction.
“It’s because you are a fine girl,” Tega teases Zimchi while they reconcile the day’s sales.
“What fine girl? I will just request for a transfer to the kitchen if this nonsense repeats.”
“You will break hearts,” Tega says, stifling laughter. “All those customers loved you.”
Zimchi feigns a chuckle.
“I have worked here for two years, and suddenly all the customers discover my beauty and flock to my desk? You are using juju. This thing is not ordinary.”
The speculation that someone uses juju is a joke often tossed about among the mall’s employees when a colleague gets an unexpected raise. But the joke makes Tega feel exposed. He mutes the conversation and clears his desk.
He thinks only of the hide as he walks home. He feels linked to all the great people who walked the earth, untethering themselves from indigent fates. The sky is ripe with dusk when he reaches his apartment.
Tega’s room is charged with the presence of another life when he elbows the door open. The hide lies at the middle of the room and his heart skips, wondering how it got there.
When night falls, Tega hears the dissonant buzz of the life going on around him. A kettle of water boiling and pairs of feet shuffling from room to room. A different sound bubbles up with its different rhythm. All the sex happening in his neighbourhood lifts to his ears. But above all these, it is the breathing of the hide he listens to.
Tega visits his favourite nightclub one month after the hide became his. Timi, the bartender glares at him, not harbouring any regard in his eyes. Tega scans the bar in search of his drinking buddies. They sit at their usual table in black tees, their backs slumped and facing him. The VIP chairs are vacant. Tega steals this chance to establish himself in the eyes of everyone.
“Good evening, Timi,” Tega says, hopping on a bar stool. Timi’s expression does not soften.
“Please pay before service,” Timi says without sparing him a glance. Tega often owes the bar.
“Hey man, how many bottles of beer can go round this room?”
Timi’s eyes widen, then slits with suspicion. He shrugs.
“There are roughly fifty people in this room.”
“Give everyone a bottle of beer.”
Tega understands the question as a dissection of his entire history. On you? Who wore cheap perfumes? On you? Who drank on another’s bill? On you? Who mostly came to the club in the same clothes?
“Yes, Timi. Ask the DJ to make an announcement.”
“Make a complete payment first. Sponsoring this whole room will cost about fifty thousand naira.” Tega spots a couple of bucked teeth in Timi’s dentition. A ray of imperfection shining through. He recognizes that hollowness.
“Is your POS working?”
He feels Timi’s glare on him as he registers his pin with four taps. His account balance since buying the hide has been a sum of four thousand naira. Yet, when he inputs his ATM pin into the POS machine, the club gets a credit alert of eighty thousand naira.
Tega does not whisper this wish to the hide. His mere thoughts activate it. The feeling he gets while the hide parses his instruction to the universe occurs in a mild shiver traveling from his head to his feet.
Timi’s expression flits between respect and apology.
“Look, man—” he begins.
“Hey, no problem.”
When the DJ makes the announcement, the club’s green spotlight finds Tega where he’s seated at the VIP table and everyone claps. Some of the men who once paid for his drinks come to him and shake his hands, or clink their bottles against his.
“I hear you stuck some fortune,” one of his drinking buddies says.
“Well, it’s just an old job that paid.”
“I see. Can I have your card?”
Tega’s thoughts dwindle as he gropes for a perfect lie. He didn’t plan this far. He checks his pockets in a make-believe way and is shocked to find cards with his name on them.
“Oh, lucky you. Here are some left.”
The night contracts with music and inebriety—men and women who appeared sharp-thinking an hour or two ago now a little unstable. A waiter brings him a note, saying the club has something-on-the-house for him. As he looks up from the note, a sorority approaches his table. They touch his shoulders and caress his head. Tega thinks of the imperfection still sitting in his groin.
He makes a random choice and picks one of the women. As they walk to his house from the club, something trickles into him and fills him out. Later that night, an enlarged rigid penis pokes his shorts. Excitement threads through him. It feels as if he might kiss the skies.
Tega asks the hide for rain or for sun when he’s hot or cold or bored. He wills beautiful women towards himself. He causes the traffic to pause for his crossing, and the winds to filter through the town when the sun is high. Everywhere he goes, people he does not know but who claim to be familiar with his philanthropy greet him.
One morning, as he prepares for work, a text message from a three-digit number streaks across his phone: Usage Balance: You have used forty percent of the hide’s effect!
He dials the number and an automated voice says the number does not exist. Solo’s number is switched off. He realizes that he has not checked the hide in a while. He takes out the wrap. It is warm, almost hot. It breathes, and seems to curl up to the warmth of his hand. The width of the hide has reduced. The arms are smaller. Something appears to be chipping at it from the insides. Tega studies the product label. Life span: Ten years maximum. It has been with him for barely five months. He puts it away with shaky hands.
Tega lays out the new plan in his head—to quit making mundane demands of the hide. He works hard at ridding his mind of wishes and commands. It is difficult, almost hurtful. Mild pain that appears to increase every second sears through his bones as he adjusts his thoughts. No more wishing for a kinder sun or for a drizzle or for a rustle of air when the weather is warm.
On his way to work the following day, Tega crosses the road without looking or thinking. For a moment, underneath the screams daggering through the air, he sees a barren field without headlights. The vehicle rolling towards him is a heavy-duty truck he had not seen earlier. He panics, shuts his eyes and calls out to the hide. Seconds later, a grateful throng surround him, their stream of chatter telling the story of the near-crush in detail.
“I can’t believe the truck’s brakes! How was the driver able to pull this through without crushing this man?”
A man touches Tega’s arm, gazes into his eyes almost tenderly.
“You are the luckiest man I ever met. We would have been left with lumps of muscled flesh and brains. But you are here, whole, unhurt.”
He is scared of what could happen if he runs out of the hide’s aid. What if he dies because he asked for less? What if he dies because he asked too much? He experiences a hallucinatory vertigo as he goes over the logics guiding the hide, which the label and Solo did not state.
Tega slides back into the comfort offered by the hide. He resumes making random wishes, and ignores the foreboding revving in his chest. He stops checking the hide, afraid that if he ever touches the wrap, he would find nothing in the heap of clothing.
He buys his dream car, an ash-coloured KIA Rio, and luxuriates in the stares that trail the car each time he rides in it. He makes a large deposit for a house on sale somewhere in the heart of town, and plans to resign from his job.
He wakes up feeling as if someone slept on him. He goes through his morning routine without remembering which he does before the other. When he dips his feet into his shoes, the toebox seems farther away. He wiggles his toes towards it and discovers a new slight gap in the heel counter. He chuckles, a little confused. He tries again. Same results. He pushes a roll of tissue paper into the shoes’ toebox and then fits his feet into them.
“Guy, you are alright?” Zimchi asks Tega while borrowing his POS machine. He nods at her, and thanks a customer standing before him for her patronage, his eyes and mind absorbed by separate things. The gap in his shoes spikes an awareness in him, and he keeps nudging it with his toes, hoping that it closes up. The dial tone on Solo’s end rings unceasing but he does not pick.
His feet become too small for his sandals. He is confused at the hide’s silence when he asks for help. He triples the socks on his feet and buys smaller shoes. When his women follow him home from the club, he does not peel off his shoes in their presence. He leaves the bunch of socks on.
When he studies his feet, his toes look the same. His tarsals wear a slightly lighter skin, like a pus-filled wound that healed too quickly. He imagines the ligaments collapsing into one another, folding up forever. A hollowed feeling throbs through every part of him.
He feels inclined to check the hide, but is held back by the fear of what it must have become.
Tega’s trousers start mopping the ground when he walks. A seamstress near the mall tailors his pants to suit him again. But the gaps grow as if the seamstress does not do any work at all. His colleagues’ stares wax longer. They peek at him at every chance they get, and then they gather behind the display counters to whisper. Old customers gape at him as if they are seeing him for the first time. People and things appear taller and he feels submerged in a weird denseness. He tries not to tip over into a scream.
Solo picks Tega’s call one day in the early morning hours, his voice teeming with unfamiliarity.
“I bought the hide from you after your display at Egbunike street.”
“I don’t remember. We have too many customers.”
“Look, I need to see you. It is urgent.”
“Send me a text message, mister. I have an overwhelming list of customers to—”
Anger kicks into Tega.
“I don’t care who you are attending to! I have an emergency, okay? What kind of business are you running that you ignore calls for so long?”
“What’s the problem?” Solo’s voice frays, all the aloofness ebbed away.
It is difficult for Tega to confess his situation. He can feel his body curling inwards with a punishing languor, but he does not believe that he is shrinking.
“I am losing weight in a very strange way,” he says even though what he wants to say is: The sleeves of my shirts are getting longer than my arms and my own shoes have grown on me and my trouser legs now extend past my feet.
“How is the hide faring?”
The question smacks at Tega like a knock. He hasn’t checked the hide in a while.
“The hide is safe.”
“Look at it now and tell me how it is. I will stay on the line.”
He is afraid. He decides that only its silhouette will be left, though he finds it still lying there when he unties the wrap, brown and dry as on the day he brought it home.
“How is it?”
“It is very small now,” Tega says, hiding his alarm at finding the hide merely as big as a medium sized crab. The breathing, that energetic pulsing it had at first, is now laboured.
“This is what is causing the problem. You overused it. If the hide shrinks fast, it affects the owner too.” Solo reels off more effects, which do not appear anywhere on the hide’s label, which culminate to almost everything Tega has been feeling.
“Your label never mentioned this. How can you make people walk into this trap without letting them know what they are getting themselves into?” Tega’s calm tone is a surprise to his own ears. He wants to coax Solo into a cordial agreement.
“The label will not mention everything now,” Solo chuckles. “You are a sharp man now. You are supposed to know these things now.”
“I am supposed to know that the hide reduces in size, and this reduction affects my size too?” He tastes a new wave of irritation in his mouth.
“Look, my brother, I will send someone to pick you later in the day. When did you make this purchase?”
“Thirteen months ago.”
“Only thirteen? My brother, were you asking the hide provide your lunch and clean your house too?”
“Maybe if your clause said something about overuse—”
“It’s okay, my brother. Later today, ehn?”
Tega calls in sick at work, and packs a small bag. He is not sure of the number of days he would be away.
A car comes for him in the evening. For the rest of the ride, the driver remains on a phone call and does not speak to him. The ride lasts almost two hours. They pull up in front of a high wall. The compound is overgrown. Yurts stand in vertical lines. The air is redolent with smells of greenery. There are other tall buildings nearby that look like factories, their businesses tucked out of sight.
A young man shows Tega to a cabin marked 62 at the glass door. There is a narrow bed and a cupboard. The man sits on the only chair in the room and gestures Tega to the bed.
“Welcome to Solo ventures,” he begins, “We are sorry to hear about your experience. It seems you bought a short-term hide.”
“What do you mean by short-term?”
“It gives the most success, can grant any wish. But has a short life if stressed.”
“It doesn’t explain why I got small too. And your company omitted this very important info. I feel very—”
“You do not have to panic, sir. We will fix you in a couple of days.”
When Tega remembers this conversation in retrospect—how the bespectacled man fixated his stare on him while he spoke, and how he waited for the man to blink, counted to fifty before the man’s eyes closed briefly—he thinks of it as the last hour he lived as a real person. He remembers the man strapping an IV on his arms and inserting a cannula in his elbow. When the drip hits his blood, he feels transloaded into a spaceship punching through the sky, punching past Egbunike street, past the mall and the club, past Ada-George Road, past every history and logic known to him.
People troop in and out of the room at intervals. He smells them, hears a voice that rises with authority, kneeling on other voices. He knows it is Solo, but even the extent of his knowledge has become questionable. He sees the whole gaping wound of the life he has led, all the things he has long cast off as extra weight, and his future: a wide expanse of land gated at the beginning. He tries to speak, but a universe of words remains trapped inside him. The floor spins, and then it does not spin.
“How many hides are in stock?” Tega hears someone ask.
“We have fifty orders. How many of the available hides are short-term?”
“Ten.” A flurry of voices rises to take the question. They mention different numbers.
“We need more short-term hides. That’s how we turn over.”
The universe appears to flip and the voices draw closer to Tega.
“This man in Room 62, is anyone looking for him?”
“Just a Facebook post from a staff of Faithful Shopping Mall, and a couple of last-seen photos.”
“Keep a tab on that.”
“Is he ready?”
The voices float away. Tega makes effort to snatch himself from the yawning abyss between him and the real world, though he uncertain if there is any world at all. He feels confined inside a room that keeps dwindling. He clings to his mass, screaming and pushing against the thing blotting him out.
It may have been one month or one year or a lifetime too long before someone airlifts him and walks some distance before putting him down. He does not know if the sun is out, or if stars are already seeding the sky, or if it is his waking hour when the day induces a pale wash of light on the heavens. He hears a car cough to life, and then feels the wind travel through it. He imagines himself being passed through a procession.
Tega feels a cold hand touch him, and then lift him. He encounters an explosion of light as if the sun is staring directly at him. Voices fill the vacuum. A familiar voice reaches him, just like on that evening of months ago. It carries the same guttural note,
“It is magic! My life changed when I discovered it.”
The music of the voice drifts to a whisper and Tega is whisked into a void.