The barbing and hairdressing salons, which usually stayed open until past midnight, were closed. Most of the drinking parlours were shut, though the cracks underneath their doors still showed strips of light, suggesting that they had not run out of cold beers. Bugaty Club where the lights flickered like small flashes of lightening and music bubbled endlessly was dark and dead. The fruit vendors’ tables were empty and unmanned. Utonne took one of the small pathways carved out by human feet, providing shortcuts to tenement compounds on Fegge street. She wrinkled her nostrils as a strange air, heavy with something she was not sure of, rushed into them. Before too long, she reached a small crowd standing in the way. She could make out the faces of the bar men and the lean-muscled bouncer at Bugaty Club, who often stood in the open street. Some other persons lolled about, their mouths full of sighs.
“Someone just died,” a woman said to her, “A little boy at house number 19.” The woman poked a forefinger at the direction of the house. It was beside house number 3 where Utonne lived.
Utonne did not know this child, and it was dreadful to think of a death so near, so recent in time. She sidestepped leaky taps and littered buckets as she pressed her way to the house of the child. She watched some of the barbers and the salon proprietresses heave in one voice. The women that sold fruits along the street surrounded the boy’s mother, patting her back as she thrashed her legs about.
“Priye, is this how your journey ended? Priye, how do you want me to keep going? Priye! Priye! Priye!” the mother lamented.
Utonne’s heart slipped into sadness. She wished she had known the dead child. She knew most of the children usually streaming out like bees from that compound. They called her Nurse. She must have known the boy, must have ruffled his hair when he paused some sand-pouring game to greet her.
The child was interred the following afternoon. The parents took him home in a cardboard wrap and buried him according to their custom.
Utonne thought of the boy as she unlocked the rail gate of Emeks Medicine Store, and as she unhooked the glass doors. She thought of him as she dusted the floor and set the medicines on display. As she’d heard in the stories, he had been ill for a short time. Utonne wondered if the boy’s mother had come to her for any remedy. It struck her on seeing the bereaved mother that they had met recently. Yet she could not say for sure because she received many customers each day. She tried to unhinge her heart from the death and focus on the business day. She attended to sick children and wrote prescriptions. She ran a temperature check and prescribed further lab tests to be run. She put on a specious front for the patients. Yet she felt inexplicably looped into the hapless boy’s short sojourn on earth.
Utonne closed from work at 9 in the evening and strolled home. All she did was cross the busy Ozuoba road, where her store was, and walk into her street. She reveled in the energy of Fegge street, renewed after the child’s passing. The fruit vendors were out. Yellow flames from their kerosene tins danced in the wind, transforming the darkness around the wares into pitch-black. Children rollicked in the dark, chasing one another and laughing.
Her heart was gridded by fear as she walked past the unlit houses that shielded the dead boy’s house from view. She heard light feet fall into steps with her when she neared the tree grove by her close. The feet began running. She quickened her pace, determined to reach Number 3. The runner’s feet cranked against the ground, persistent. Utonne broke into a run. She ran faster and faster until she threw herself against her compound gate. The feet stopped.
She lived in the self-contained apartment on the ground floor of a storey building. The building had about eight apartments in all, some of the rooms had no tenants. She hastily unlocked the iron rail on her balcony and rushed in. The musty air that emanated from her room hit her face. She felt the room dilate with relief as she slid open the window slightly, afraid that otherworldly things might slip in through the balcony. The evening was warm and voices from the neighbouring houses floated to her like little screaming noises of a fading day. She switched on her rechargeable lamp but it throbbed with little life, glowing and squinting at intervals.
In the bathroom, her heart thumped aloud, and she noticed that she was trembling. The water from the shower was too warm to calm her racing heart. Had she imagined the sound of the feet, she wondered. Was she too stressed from the sales at the medicine store? She turned her face to the shower until she felt submerged by the steady stream running out of the showerhead. She remembered where the feet started following her. Her eyes flew open when she palmed something that did not feel like the soap she was reaching for. It was the face towel she’d dumped in the sink. The feet had not been loud. She almost was not sure she’d heard them except that she did. She turned off the shower.
She had a missed call from Toby. He worked in a section of the Rumuokuta warehouse where she got medical supplies for her store. Sometimes, he delivered inventory to her. His bulky figure reeked of entitlement. He was cocksure they’d look good together and whatever else he always blabbed about. She lay on her bed and stared at the immobile ceiling fan, and at the shelf that contained few books on medicine. She could only go a few pages before a feeling of anxiety stirred deep in her gut. The bogus terminologies reminded her of how deeply tangled she was in inexperience, and all the loopholes she had to shovel full. She was young, thirty, yet her head stood foreclosed to possibilities of returning to school. She was still enraptured with the fascinations of childhood: to become wealthy and unencumbered by the limitations of her poor background. Her ambitions required certifications and licenses that she could not afford. The quack jobs were the ladders she had to trundle to reach them. She lay on her bed until the noise of the city was lost to her.
As Utonne pulled open the compound gate the next morning, a voice called out to her.
“Nurse.” She turned and it was NG, a lady who lived alone on the first floor. A splash of dried saliva tainted her chin. Her breasts juggled underneath her nightgown, the nipples taut against the cotton.
“Ha! NG, nobody ever sees you these days.”
“Am I not always here? But you are the busy one. From the store to your room and out again.”
Utonne opened the small gate and walked through. She had some vendors coming to the medicine store to restock supplies. She did not want to keep them waiting. Yet she felt there was something else NG wanted to say.
“You heard about the dead boy in the next compound,” NG said, her eyes widened as if she assumed that Utonne must have heard.
“It is a sad thing. I am not sure that I know him.”
“Oh, you do! He had a large scar on his chest. Always with his mother. He was her only child, you know. I cannot imagine their pain.”
Utonne tried to remember a scarred child, but she spent most hours of the day at the store, and did not know the neighbours’ children in detail. She wanted to shrug off NG’s company and be on her way, yet she dallied down the path with her, the frigid morning breeze ramming into them.
“He was a water child.” NG’s tone was confiding.
“What does that mean?”
“You know, like a little merman.”
“Like half human half fish?” NG laughed.
“Don’t say it like that. He is a normal child but he came from water. I heard he was also buried in water.”
“That’s weird. Where are they from?”
“It’s a small island not so far from Port Harcourt. I can’t remember the name.”
“I heard the boy died foaming at the mouth. He had taken some malaria tablets.”
Utonne’s heart stopped. A fear she nursed had been named. Hers was the only medicine store on Ozuoba road. If a child was sick on Fegge Street, her store was the next call. She did not remember what she said to save herself from NG’s chattiness. As she walked to the store, the earth underneath her feet kept knocking in. She noticed no one, not the children swooping past her, not the people puttering about, throwing jokes to one another from afar.
At noon, Ozuoba road buzzed with business activities. The vulcanizer across her store patched car tyres, and the grain seller threw her chest out to tug her grinding mill into life. Those were usual to Utonne but not the little boy strolled by the medicine store.
She was seated on the visitor’s bench at the store’s balcony when the boy walked past. He was not walking on the pathway that ran in front of the queued-up stores. He walked on the tarred road, leaning too close to oncoming cars. He was barefoot, and had no shirt on. Utonne stood and tailed him. His trousers were striped, black lines running on light grey background. Utonne did not grasp why the boy’s appearance had struck her. Children walked by the store always, mostly alone. She decided that she found the boy’s confident gait amusing. She had not seen his face. She imagined it: full eyebrows, clear eyes framed by long eye lashes, popping with a mischievous glint.
New customers came into the store―a soupçon of dried fish and citrus smells sprinkled the air. They clawed at the counter with their fingers blued with their life’s stories: housewife, car mechanic, generator repairer, graphic designer. Their voices rose with their demands, each one nudging the other aside. As she attended to them, she saw the child over their heads. He walked past and turned quickly as if he hit a wall. Then he began to move back and forth in front of her store, going forward, going backward. Faster! Faster! She blinked and tore her eyes away.
Utonne feared to go home late at night. She opted to close a little earlier. She began to pull the shutters at 8.30pm, telling some of the inquisitive customers that she did not feel too well. Fegge street was the same when she walked into it. The streetlights were alive and the road appeared less ominous. Light poured out of houses through the windows. When she walked past the fruit vendors, she saw a figure walking down the lane that led to her close. Thank goodness! She hurried after the stranger, hoping to be in his company until she neared her gate. She imagined it was an adult male, or an adult female. Perhaps, a teenager? Was it a child? Her hormones were obviously overreacting. She was close to the figure. Five feet away. Three feet away. Her companion suddenly morphed into a tree limb at the edge of the grove. Her heart leapt into her mouth and she began to run. She heard laughter bursting forth from what sounded like a drove of children. Again, she launched herself against her gate.
Utonne was down with a nagging headache, and at intervals, something chilly tingled across her spine. The medicine store must stay open, therefore she had to go to work however ill she felt. Emeks, the owner, was a surly middle-aged man. He would replace Utonne in a snap at any misconduct.
Two years ago when she came to live in this city, her soul was inked with the euphoria of how successful she would become. She had lived in a nondescript small town in the West and in another lively village up South, somewhere between Delta and Benin. She attended to childbirths with midwives in rural maternities, learned the dosages for injections and how far in the needle went. She was both undone and renewed by the experiences that each year she buttoned the blue and white robes around her with more self-importance. As a child, her heart burst with the aspirations of becoming a medical practitioner. One day, few months after she turned twenty, she left home in search of her dreams. She enrolled into trainings at private clinics and maternities. Every year found her coasting farther away from home, feeding her skills to towns and cities.
Ugo, a lady she had worked with in a clinic informed her about the opening, Sales Representative with a medical background needed. A female preferred. 3 years’ experience required. Ugo was zestful about the job opportunity, and Utonne wondered if a turnaround had finally come. All the jobs she had done paid poorly, barely enough to pay her house rents. Scarcely enough to wire anything home to help patch the rip between her parents and her. She had heard of Port Harcourt―a city with an alarming pyramid of men and women who doubled as humans and mammy-creatures, with floodwaters that brimmed with fresh fish. She had heard of the night women and also the lithe women who drove expensive cars and lived on their own property.
“It is a new medicine store. The pay is good and you will do your side hustle,” Ugo said. The store belonged to Ugo’s relative who was a pharmacist, popularly called Emeks. Ugo could not take the position. She was getting married and moving to Bayelsa with her partner.
While Utonne was taking stock of the remaining medicines that morning, her eyes fell on the green cardboard packet of the six-dose tablets at the topmost counter. She dialed Ugo’s number.
“Hello, Ugo, do you know Malacrush?”
“Don’t stock it, please. Malacrush by Sabar Medicare abi? Just run away from it.”
“They say it works for both malaria and typhoid.”
“It has adverse effects on the liver. Children under twelve years are not even allowed to taste it.”
“They didn’t indicate that on the packet,” Utonne said turning the packet in her hands.
“That’s the problem. It is sold so cheaply. All the suppliers are jumping on it, but it might be killing people. Did you stock it?”
The directness of the question took Utonne by surprise, almost made her stutter. “No, I did not,” she said as if convincing herself.
The inventory managers at the Rumuokuta warehouse had persuaded her to take half a carton at least. It sold out quickly especially in low cost neighbourhoods like hers. What are the side effects? She remembered asking. Just a little rise in temperature, they’d replied. Nothing unusual.
Her sales job at the store paid twenty-five thousand naira monthly. The income generated from giving injections and running tests were hers. Stocking Malacrush was also a side hustle, and did not go into the shop’s inventory record. She had purchased a half-carton which contained twenty packets. She tried not to think of the nineteen customers who must have taken the pill, who might have breathed hard or had their insides inflamed, who might have felt dizzy and passed out briefly, who might have frothed at the mouth and stilled. She tried not to think of the dead child on her street.
Towards evening, Utonne remembered Toby lived at St, John’s, about two taxi stops from the medicine store. She dialed him for the first time since they met. She was in no mood for the barrage of cheesy words his coarse voice stuffed her ear with. She cut him short.
“See ehn, I need a favour.”
“Just ask, babe.”
“I need you to walk me home this evening. There’s a reason I’m asking.”
“You are my babe. Anything for you.”
Utonne restrained herself from reminding him she was not his babe, and that at his best he resembled a worn out shoe.
Toby arrived later than Utonne’s closing hour. He filled the entire place with his armpit odour. He wiped his brow repeatedly. The underarm of his shirt was splotched with sweat. He wore a constant smile, and laughed at utterances that did not appear funny to Utonne. He was too motivated, too thirsty to please her. Utonne felt a pinch of pity for him. They marched into the street under a blanket of stars randomly tossed across the sky. Utonne’s gaze kept skipping to all sides.
“You were missing me. Weren’t you?” Toby asked.
“I said I think you miss me. That’s why you asked me to follow you home.” Utonne chuckled.
“A child died on my street two days ago. I don’t like to walk by here alone at night.”
“The child lived near your house?”
“Shh! We are close to their house.”
“Is my big baby scared?”
“I am not your baby and please shush it now!”
They were at the corner by the grove where she had heard the running feet and the singing voices. Toby began to laugh and clap his hands at the manner her glances kept darting behind them.
“You don’t have sense,” she whispered and then laughed. When they reached her gate, he held her right hand and caressed it.
“I am the man for you. You will see.” He disappeared down the path before she could find her voice.
Toby accompanied her home every night until it became quite natural. It had been over three weeks. She no longer heard the feet or the voices, but sometimes, just as they turned into her close, she felt that they were followed. There were times she glimpsed the little bare-chested boy when she sat at the bench on the store’s porch, or stood behind the store’s counter. The boy looked ten or slightly older. She never mentioned him to anyone. She wondered where the boy always appeared from without his footwear, why he perambulated with no shirts.
She ran into the dead boy’s mother a few times on her way to work―a thick-set woman whose cheap perfume often seeped through her clothes. Her small unsmiling face resembled a fat avocado. Utonne did not know what to say to her, or if commiserating with her on the death of her child would force her to crawl back into herself. She wished she could ask to see the picture of her child, to see if her son resembled the bare-chested boy she now saw often, but there were things you need not request from a mother who had greeted the condolences with vacant stares.
Utonne took a Rumuokuta taxi to the warehouse when she ran out of cough remedies. It was the same place she’d bought Malacrush. A small crowd was gathered around some part of the warehouse where the once sprawling structure was now a pile of rubble. There had been an explosion from an unknown cause. A team of sympathisers flittered over the wreckage, seeking out people to save. Utonne felt like an invisible fist gave her chest a metallic punch. She called Toby’s phone. It was switched off. She wondered if he was affected. She was in a state of gloom on her taxi ride back to the store when she saw the bare-chested boy moving at the taxi’s pace. He had something in his hand. Something green. Like a cardboard packet.
When she returned to the store, she disposed three other medical products she suspected were counterfeit. For most of the tests she’d run privately she referred patients to certified labs. She felt the need to rinse herself free of squalid gains.
Toby called her that evening. Her heart bubbled with relief. He said he was away for a delivery when the explosion happened. Nobody died, but some of the workers were injured, he said. He would be occupied at the warehouse for some days.
Utonne had not realized how much she was warmed by Toby’s presence, and by his constant laughter that scraped the insides of her chest. The silence of that night made her ache with fear. Many pharmaceutical warehouses had crumbled in one week. People were beginning to make speculations.
“Someone is waging a big war on these warehouses.” Ugo rattled off excitedly on the phone. “Did you hear about the strange deluge at the one owned by Malacrush in Eleme?”
“My sister, water came from nowhere and swallowed up the whole place. Some of the employees even confessed to seeing strange things.”
Utonne felt dizzy.
“What did they say they saw?”
“I am not sure. It was on the radio news. One of them was interviewed. He said something was always bolting round the factory.”
Utonne tried to unhitch herself from the possible meaning of her conversation with Ugo as she walked past the chatty fruit vendor women, and past the houses sitting in the dark. Something swooshed over her head and ruffled her hair. An airy breath assailed her ears. It seemed to fan the back of her neck. It became a flap probably powered by the prodigious strength of some dark winged beast. Flap. Flap. Flap. The swooshing was determined now. She did not run. She walked on rather slowly, surrendering herself until she wasn’t even there anymore.
Apart from the times Utonne was startled awake on airless nights with her windows clattering, nothing out of the ordinary happened in the next few days. She began to see less of the vivid images or hear less of the voices rising from the crannies deep inside her. Her inner peace appeared unpunctured. The need to reconcile with the world around her spiraled through her body. She started buying oranges from the fruit vendors. She took note of the thatch of shrubs by the corner where she’d heard things, and the fireflies that glittered on the bitter leaf plants which lined the compound wall next to hers.
Someone knocked on her door. It was a few minutes past ten in the night. She wondered if it was NG. She was the only tenant who called on her for certain needs. A gust of wind greeted her when she opened the door. Empty sachets of water chased across the ground. She called out NG’s name. Then, who is there? Silence. She closed the door and went to lie down. The knock came again, first as a mild thump, then it grew louder. The room walls appeared to walk towards one another, compressing the space around her. A strange weight bore down on her, and she struggled against it. Utonne stretched herself towards her phone but a brutal hand had captured her lungs and was squeezing it free of air. Her room was a pathway, filled with vagrants. The same bare-chested boy led the procession. His trousers, now dripping with water, flapped around his legs like wet flags. She saw his scarred chest now. He was foaming at the mouth and staggering towards her. His outstretched right hand offered her a green cardboard packet. When she refused to take it, he launched her into a vacuum from where she called out to the empty wind. Nobody heard.