Fred drove like a maniac. In as much as they were trying to get to the airport on time, Chioma had not supposed, for one moment, that her husband would violate traffic rules, fling out an empty can of Diet Coke after drinking the content, and then hurl abusive words at a pudgy-nosed man who had narrowly rammed their car at the side. She wondered — taking another greedy bite from the ham burger she had hurriedly bought at Mr Biggs because she had been hungry — if this strange behaviour had something to do with what her mother-in-law had told him in her abscence.
Of course, who else could it be? That interloper! It was because she was childless, Chioma knew, with a ringing certitude, five years of being denied the joyous feeling of motherhood. Five years. The fertility doctors had said she was absolutely fine, capable of bearing children. Fred, too, had no problem at all, in fact, he was potent and couldn’t be more virile — ah, she liked the sound of “virile”. However her mother-in-law was of the unwavering opinion that something was wrong with her, damaged perhaps, telling her clique of friends that karma was punishing her son’s wife because of her promiscuous past. Chioma sighed. She suppressed a belch and watched the man sitting at the front with Fred. His name was Ambrose, from the car rental service, and his agitation confirmed her fears about Fred driving recklessly.
They were approaching the T junction at Maryland and two LASTMA officials stood alertly; one facing north while the other eyed the cars rounding the curve to Leventis. Chioma called out to Fred and told him to obey the traffic lights this time, her voice sharper than she had intended. She caught a glimpse of the lights turning red and hoped that Fred had seen it too, and would decelerate. But he didn’t. He drove on, tires screeching, past the LASTMA officials and their slanted wooden post, past a bank that had a police truck stationed right in front of it. A lump formed immediately in Chioma’s throat. Quickly, she shifted to the middle of the seat and placed one leg sideways, propelling herself between the space of the front seats. She had barely began to poke Fred on his arm with her phone when Ambrose, in coaxing pidgin English, told him to pull over. Fred didn’t respond, maintaining his gaze on the road, but his jaw quivered. Or had she imagined it?
She moved away and peered through the rear window; she gasped at what she saw. Two armed police men were chasing them, riding on separate motorcycles that weaved once in an elegant loop like it were choreographed. Chioma ducked and gritted her teeth, trying to control her hands from shaking involuntarily. She now understood why Fred had insisted on driving them to the airport even when Ambrose had offerred to do so. He was angry about something, evidently enough, and the only way he thought he could dissipate that anger was to cling tenaciously to a preoccupation — which, unfortunately in this case, was driving —thereby creating a private force field that would shut out interventions.
One of the police men caught up with them, doggedly sticking to their car as he cryptically sent a signal to his partner. With her heart beating faster, Chioma nearly wanted to leap out of the window. Again she called out to Fred, oblivious of the tears that stung her eyes. To her intense surprise, he answered, but he didn’t look back. His voice was silly-soft, so inaudible that she had to lean forward to hear him. He said he was only doing this because he didn’t want them to miss their flight. Chioma slouched against the headrest, a strand of her weave-on slipping across her face, conflicted about what she felt for him now: rage or empathy. Soon she heard a loud bang at the window; the sudden impact throwing her to the car floor.
When she glanced up, she saw that the glass at the window had bulged inward, at the centre, resembling a bloated scotch egg, the surface roughly webbed with cracks. The police man who had done it swapped his rifle to the other hand and commanded Fred to stop the car. And then he added, much to his gratification, that he was going to shoot him. There was a finality to his tone. Chioma screamed. Ambrose squirmed as he unhooked his seat belt. Fred slowed down and parked adjacent to an array of empty stalls and left his hands limply on the steering wheel, in defeat. The police men, too, did the same. They got off their motorcycles and briskly walked to the car. They hardly waited for Fred to get out before one of them yanked him by the collar, gripping his neck, raining heavy blows on him.
Everything happened very quickly; so was the firing of the rifle. The sound of the shot rang painfully in her ears that Chioma thought she had gone deaf. She stumbled out of the car about the same time the police men took off, momentarily dazzled by the glare of the sun. She went back round to where Fred lay on the dusty road and knelt beside him. He seemed lifeless, his face impossibly tilted upward, until she saw his chest heave slightly. She swallowed hard and fought against the grief that tried to overpower her. Fred had been shot in the abdomen, and his blood, a crimson blotch at first, seeped inexorably from the bullet-torn hole of his blue shirt — soaking it.
A wave of nausea hit her as the ham burger she had eaten churned in her stomach. Ambrose was no where to be found. She willed herself to be co-ordinated, delicately placing both hands over his wound to stop the bleeding. Fred coughed weakly and a bloodied sputum appeared, plastering his lips — an unsightly red gash. Then his eyelids fluttered eerily and for one brief, indescribable moment, Chioma wanted to take his place. Of all things, she noticed that their wedding rings were in close contact, smeared with blood, linked to form a wobbly figure of 8. The peculiarity of this shocked her beyond words, allowing the tears she had been holding back to flow freely. People began to swarm all around her: men, women, school children. All wanting to assist her, but she knew Fred was gone. Their mumurings disoriented her, causing her to lapse into an abyss.
Floating through the half world between sleep and wakefulness, Chioma opened her eyes wide, really wide, to hear herself screaming. The ceiling fan whooshed and the sound, mingling with her voice, gave it an odd timbre. With her hands sprawled on the bed, she clutched the thin folds of the sheets and raised her head a fraction. Down there — around her pelvis —was a damp spread visible on the duvet: a stinging wetness. Fidgeting, she peeled away the duvet from her body and rolled onto her stomach, cushioning her head against the dented pillow. Fred! Suddenly her mind went blank, opaque, devoid of any possibility of remembrance. Fred, she noticed, wasn’t anywhere in the room.
Turning to the other side, her elbows propped for support, she wished the fan didn’t spin too fiercely, didn’t rustle the newspaper on the bedside table, didn’t oppressively distract her thoughts from what she should focus on. Only seconds later did she become electrically aware that something had happened to her in the night. A dream. A string of events. But she couldn’t recall anything tangible. She stared at the bathroom door when she heard the flush of the toilet. Fred came out and dashed to her side. He looked alarmed. He gave her a one-arm embrace and gently asked why she had screamed. Instead of answering, she stole a glance at the urine-soiled duvet slewed to the floor.
Shame, shame, shame. Urinating on the bed like a little girl shamed her that she refused to look at him. She slumped back on the bed, resisting the urge not to cry. From the corner of her eye, Fred skipped over to the side and tapped on the keyboard of his Macbook on the dressing table. When he returned, he went on all fours and covered her lips with his, tugging on her lower lip, pulling, wanting, greedy.
Despite her current despair, she kissed him back. And then it happened. Timi Dakolo’s “Love Song” playing softly in the background, Fred wearing a white towel; his breath tinged with chocolate as their lips melded, jolted her mind to a heightened state of perception — Déjà vu. Chioma flinched, and without method, she swung her legs off the bed, amazed at her own agility. The floor seemed to drag under her feet, the ceiling sloping menacingly, the walls crumbling to a mash of suffocating debris. Chioma choked. Her dream was coming back to her slowly, in astonishing clarity. She turned wildly and realized that Fred had left the bed and was standing close to her, his face scrunched up, full of questions.
He was alive, Chioma thought triumphantly, stopping short from saying it aloud. Her gaze impatiently swept his light skin over and over again in search of bullet wounds or traces of blood. But there was none, except for the scar above his navel, a souvenir from a fractured childhood. She wanted to jump on him in excitement, squeeze her body against his and cinch her legs around his waist. But another thought stifled her budding joy with such grasp that her mind reeled. Impulsively, she brushed past him and scrambled back to the bed, tossing one pillow aside to reveal two red-enveloped invitations that had her name written in clumsy black ink. Chioma shook her head in disbeliving horror — not because she didn’t know that she would find them there — but because they represented an ominous pathway to destruction, Fred’s destruction.
She stiffly held the invitations now, on the verge of tearing them, when Fred snatched them away. He stared at her incredulously and demanded to know why she was behaving this way. Chioma ignored him, making a feeble attempt to retrieve the invitations by launching herself from the bed, hands flailing. Had Fred not caught her, she would have fallen face flat on the floor, sprain her ankle probably. His beard prickled her shoulder as she struggled to dislodge herself from him. But Fred was stronger, brawny. He clasped her wrists together, expertly, pulling her to him so that her buttocks jammed his groin. His towel came undone then, and when he carried her to the bed and anchored her head on the crook of his arm, singing along with Timi Dakolo, rocking her back and forth like a baby, Chioma choicelessly relented. She found herself melting as though her bones had been liquefied, looking up at the brown pools of bubbling mud Fred had for eyes. Soon the words he sang sounded light, feathery, even hypnotic, that she succumbed to the waiting darkness.
Bernard Ogedengbe is a writer, book publicist and the Editor-in-Chief of Literati Naija: an online literary magazine. He is also the associate producer of Live Beats, Nigeria’s longest running music programme on TV. He is currently working on his first book, a novel titled “Quantum Level” He tweets from @Bernard_Oged.