The first time Ahanna felt it, he thought he’d cut himself shaving. He’d been preparing to go to work that Thursday morning, and he’d been running late. The previous day, and subsequent night, had been a long one. Project meetings, client meetings, and then management meetings. After work, it had been dinner with the team and CEO, celebrating the completion of their previous project while planning the next one. He’d come home at about half past twelve beyond tired; he’d been wrung out. Even though he’d overslept by one hour, he still felt as if he’d been immersed in cement overnight. He’d cursed when he’d seen the time. His Boss wouldn’t mind; his greatest problem was the traffic that was surely starting to build. In his part of Port Harcourt, leave your house by six, and be prepared to spend three hours or more on the road.
Why isn’t it weekend yet?
Trudging to the bathroom, Ahanna relieved himself, and started to shave. There wasn’t really anything to shave, but it was a morning ritual for him.
“Ouch!” Ahanna flinched and stared at the shaving razor. He touched his chin where he’d felt it, and when he looked at his hand, he expected to see blood.
He touched it again, rubbed it. Nothing. Not even the slightest evidence of prickly hair or something. Momentarily puzzled, he shrugged and continued shaving.
Ten minutes later, he started dressing up, having showered and shaved. He picked the least rumpled shirt he had; his suit would hide the wrinkles. Ijeoma, his fiancée, was not around to help him iron his clothes; she’d had to go back to school last week. Probably contributed to why he’d been feeling a bit grumpy for some days. He really had to start the marriage proceedings; he didn’t really see anyone else he could spend his time, and his life, with.
By the time he’d finished dressing up, Ahanna had forgotten all about the shaving incident. His day was pretty much uneventful, and although he got to his office late, his Boss didn’t give him grief. Just a normal, working day. Unless he counted that curious case of the itches…
Friday morning. Ahanna opened his eyes into the darkness. He reached out to the other side of the bed unconsciously, and encountered the cold, relatively undisturbed sheets. He sighed. What was wrong with him? Why the sudden want for her? Sighing, he got up, and he didn’t he didn’t look at the bed.
If he’d done so, he would have seen the holes…
“…Yes, I know, I know.” Ahanna laughed, earpiece in his ear as he drove back to the office from lunch. The road was a bit lonely; his Boss had decided to move to a new office just off the Igwurita-Rumuokoro expressway.
“Silly boy,” Ijeoma said on the other end. Her sultry voice sent shivers down his spine, as it always did.
“How was your exam today?” He asked.
“It was great. I’m pretty sure I did well.”
“That’s great.” He honked twice at a driver in front of him who was driving slowly. “Sorry, but wo-ARGH!”
Ahanna’s palm flew to his mouth to and he sucked as he steered his car one-handed, as fast as he could, to the side of the road.
“AHANNA! AHANNA!” Ijeoma’s voice sounded scared. “WHAT’S WRONG?”
In reply, Ahanna screamed again, and he felt something pierce his tongue.
“AHANNAAAAA!” Some concerned mumbling; that was what Ahanna kept hearing. All that was white noise over the bright, white-hot pain that flared in his palms, tongue, and now his back. He pulled the car over to the side of the road and managed to shut off the engine, but only just. The pain pierced him in a dozen places, hundreds. Tears rolled down his eyes as he clenched them shut and gritted his teeth. His muscles stretched taut, and his feet beat a staccato rhythm on the floor. Ijeoma’s voice, like a bee in his ears, his head, something about coming over immediately, if he was alright, something like that. He tore the earpiece out of his ears and flung it savagely away from him. He tried to reach his back, his thighs, his feet, tried to massage them, scratch them, anything to ease the pinpricks of pain that threatened to drive him insane. And then, he managed to open his eyes and look.
Somehow, the incredulity of what he was seeing made the pain seem distant. This…this was impossible, not in any plane of existence.
Thorns. Sharp, of varying lengths, and vividly green. Somehow they pulsed with an unnatural life. He stared at his palm, and the thorns stood out in stark contrast to their fairness. Blood trickled out in thin rivulets, and then stopped; he felt an unnatural sucking feeling from within. Then the thorns started withdrawing, slowly and painfully, back into his skin. He ground his teeth against the pain, stifling the scream of horror that threatened to tear itself out of his throat; his chest hurt from how fast his heart was beating. When everything disappeared, he continued staring at his palm, and then the back of his other hand, uncomprehending. He turned them over slowly, checking. Nothing. It was as if nothing had been there; he wouldn’t have believed it, if not for the blood stains, holes and the echoes of the pain. His body still throbbed painfully. He let out his breathe slowly, and then with faltering hands, he picked his phone. Ijeoma had cut the call, but he didn’t notice; he searched for the secretary’s number and dialled it. When she picked it, he told her to tell the Boss he wouldn’t be in for the rest of the day.
“Are you alright?” the Secretary asked. “You don’t sound so good.”
“I…” What was he going to tell her? That he’d become like a rose, but without the petals or the fragrance? “I feel a little sick. I need to get home.”
“Okay,” she replied. “I’m sorry. I’ll tell him.”
“Thank you.” He cut the call, put his phone in his pocket, and then with faltering hands he turned on his car, turned around, and drove as slowly as he could back home.
7 p.m. Ijeoma let herself into the flat. It was dark. She turned on the light, and the locked the door behind her. She wanted to call out, but then she saw the bloody clothes on the sofa, and her heart leapt to her throat. She saw the bloody tracks, and her knees grew weak as she let her bag fall numbly from her shoulder.
“Oh God no,” she breathed, tears welling up in her eyes. Not Ahanna, not her sweetheart. She followed the footprints, dreading every step she took, her heartbeat hard and loud. Her breathe combined with her heartbeat, drowning every other sound. She followed the footprints to the kitchen, and she stopped short when she saw the messy, bloody counter. She saw what looked like a thorn that had been sheared clean off, stained with blood, but she didn’t touch it. Her eyes were drawn to the knife that lay on the counter-top.
Is this what he was stabbed with? a distant part of her mind asked. The attacker had done this, and then come here to wash off the blood. He could be dead now. Or dying. The attacker could still be in here, waiting, watching. She needed to get help. She needed to call the police. Her phone. Her handbag. Sit-
Something creaked behind her.
They ruled it accidental. Element of surprise. Bad timing. No previous evidence of abuse from the numerous testimonies. Countless blood tests had confirmed that it the blood on the clothes had been Ahanna’s, and so had the old blood on the knife, and on the floor; the bloody footprints. There had been bad words between both families, but in the end, the Judge’s decision had been final.
A gruff, cracked voice spoke behind her, breaking in its tonelessness. “Wha-what are you doing here?”
Ijeoma turned, looked, and screamed.
She saw a man-shaped cactus. A monster. Thorns, hundreds, millions, sticking out of his body, obliterating his features. They pulsed and throbbed with life. They framed the eyes, nose and lips of the creature. The creature raised one hand, palm out, and the creature cried out “NO WAIT!”
But she was already moving, turning, her hand picking up the knife, arm swinging, grip strong, perfect, blade sharp, hungry. Something pricked her skin, grazed it, but she couldn’t stop, not even when the monster called out her name “IJEOMA!” and the voice registered in her brain despite its gruffness and brokenness. And then recognition hit her, and she screamed a second time, but the blade was already traveling through thorns and through flesh, parting it, parting cartilage, arteries.
“NO!” she screamed, as arterial blood sprayed, thick and warm. The world expanded, and then contracted to that moment, that place. Nothing else mattered. There was no one else in the world. Just the two of them. The world was mad, and love was dead. The earth heaved, and Ijeoma’s world was swallowed into the depths of regret.
The thorns retreated as Ahanna crumpled to the floor, naked and bloody. The knife fell from numb fingers, and Ijeoma put her other hand to her mouth, shaking her head, not wanting to believe what she was seeing, refusing to accept the reality that lay dying on the floor two feet away from her.
Ahanna gurgled as he tried to call her name. His hand came up weakly, beseeching, and Ijeoma let out a choked cry as she rushed to kneel at his side. She cradled his head, mumbling incoherently, her heart screaming she was sorry, that she didn’t mean it, didn’t know it had been him, what had happened, questions, a million questions…but her mouth refused to co-operate. Her heart was being torn into shreds, her love staining her hands, her clothes…her life. The smell of blood, hot and thick in the kitchen.
As she felt that last breath leave him, as he became nothing but deadweight in her hands, Ijeoma screamed till the world went black.
“Time for your medication,” the doctor said, as he looked at the poor, broken girl who sat before him in the straitjacket, eyes blank and unseeing, bound in a straitjacket. She didn’t flinch as the needle pierced her skin; she just stared blankly at the wall. He really hoped to make some breakthrough with her. Three months…such a promising, young girl.
Not a way to go…no.
Ijeoma sat on the floor, hugging her knees to her chest and staring at the white wall in front of her, rocking back and forth, no longer in control of her mind. All she kept seeing, all she kept hearing, were those final images, those final sounds. A recurring loop. The warmth, his warmth.
And then she felt it. A tiny pin-prick. She stopped rocking abruptly. Waited…..
Her lower lip.
She pulled it out and stared down her nose as the thorn pushed itself painfully out of her skin, with nothing but a trickle of blood to mark its appearance.