“…and I yeEEEARGGHHHHHH!”
He starts awake; drenched in sweat. He looks around wildly for a bit before calming down; recognizing his surroundings. His chest heaves; his breathing labored. He calms down and looks at the neon screen of the table clock beside him.
4: 15 am.
Rising from the bed, he walks to the window and looks out to predawn Abuja. The streets are brightly illuminated, shiny with wet slickness after the rain of the night before. It looks really picturesque.
But he sees none of that. Instead, he sees screaming children and burning bodies. He hears their yells and their pain – he flinches in front of the window; away from their desperately reaching fingers.
The room is cold. He automatically reaches for the AC remote; turns off the AC and throws the remote on the bed. And then he sits beside it, shoulders sagging, and covers his face with his hands.
No matter how hard he tries; he cannot get away from the nightmares. And they had suddenly begun to show up during the day too.
He laughs out loud, his shoulders shaking in mirth. Explosive laughter reverberates around the empty room, echoing and coming back to haunt him. His laughter thins out and abruptly turns to a sob. He covers his head with his hands and starts wailing. Tears stream down his face and he wishes he could just forget.
Anna had held him close that first night. The night the nightmares began.
He had woken up screaming and struggling violently. She had grabbed him; and in spite of his kicking legs and flailing arms and had held him tightly till he calmed down. Only then did she let him go – and just to turn on the lights.
“What is it? What happened?” she asked, her voice heavy with concern.
Slowly, haltingly, he began to tell her about the bodies.
He left the house after two days of recurring nightmares.
Anna stood by the door, tears in her eyes. “Please don’t do this baby,” she pleaded with him on her knees that morning as he sat on the bed and told her his decision. “Think about me. Think about the sacrifices I made – what I went through just for us to be together.”
He looked her in the eyes for the first time that morning. He could see pain, hurt, loneliness and fear in their dark depths. He thought about what she said about sacrifices. Yes; she knew a lot about those.
He silently marveled that she would bring that up now – after three years of living with him. There were times he had deliberately made her angry – just to see if she would mention it. But she remained silent, stoically taking all his rough treatment and only allowing herself a small sad smile.
He looked into her eyes that morning – and then looked at her. The strain of the past few days; days of waking up and not being able to sleep anymore were clear to see. She had lost weight; so much so he could feel the sharp ridges of her wrist-bones as her hand lay on his thigh. Her normally light skin was pale and her full lips drooped at the corners. Her chin trembled.
But he knew it was the best thing to do.
As they stood together by the door, he gently placed his GT Bank ATM in her palm. She made to fling it away, but he whispered hoarsely ‘please’.
She nodded gently and he held her suddenly, tightly to him. “I’ll be back soon,” he said, turning away quickly so she would not see the tears. He pulled his backpack on, gently squeezed her hand and walked away.
He heard her begin sobbing as though her heart would burst.
But he did not look back.
After a bath and fresh clothes he looks better. But his looks and his feelings are not in agreement.
He hides his haunted eyes behind a pair of dark Ray Bans and walks out of the hotel into the pre-dawn Jos air. It is cold; so he huddles deeper into the black Nike hoodie he’s wearing. He thinks briefly about the hotel room and if the staff would assume he had checked out.
No, not immediately; he figures. I still have about ten days on my tab and some of my clothes are still there. I might be back.
He adjusts the backpack slightly and shoves his hands deeper into the hoodie’s side pockets as he walks at a brisk pace. He has no idea where he is headed; but he knows he’ll know it once he gets there.
A car speeds past; splashing water at his legs and drenching his jeans and sneakers. The car stops a few meters in front and reverses. It stops beside him as he tries vainly to slap most of the wet away from his trousers.
“I’m sorry,” the pretty female occupant of the car says. “I am in a hurry and really was not paying attention.” He nods absentmindedly and continues walking.
“Hey! Can I just help…” but he interrupts her with a wave and negative shake of his head. A few moments later the car zooms past for the second time.
9: 45 am
He has been walking for almost four hours and as much as he hates to admit it, his legs are aching. He stops for a bit; sitting in a park and watching Jos wake up sluggishly and reluctantly. Acting on a sudden impulse, he waves a cab down and yells ‘AIRPORT!’
He sits in the economy class section of the plane, looks around and thinks; so this is what Jacky means when he says ‘flying poor’. This is not it.
He feels lethargy steal over him and surrenders himself to the soft and gentle pull of the Valium he consumed before getting aboard. He sleeps, and this time…
“The engines of that craft are making funny sounds sir. It just landed from Jos,” the flight dispatcher said.
He looked at his watch. “Okay then. Have it checked and ascertain whatever’s wrong with it – and let me know as soon as possible.”
The dispatcher; who was female nodded but did not move. He looked back at her and asked, “What?”
She cleared her throat. “Well sir, it’s scheduled to fly to Lagos within the next twenty minutes. It’s already almost an hour late,” she finished.
He thought about that. He really thought about it. “How serious are the ‘serious sounds’?”
The woman scratched her head. “Well sir, they’re not really loud and it’s not exactly anything out of the ordinary. We hear sounds like those daily,” she concluded.
“Okay. Have a cursory check and then dispatch for Lagos. Once it lands we’ll have the maintenance crew go over it properly,” he finished.
The woman nodded and hurried out.
Barely hours later, he got the call…
He wakes up in his seat, shrinking away from the shadow that loomed over him. Oh let this pain be brief; he thinks.
“Sorry sir but we’ve arrived Lagos,” the pretty air hostess smiles at him while eying him a bit strangely.
“That was fast,” he answers as he scrambles out of his seat. She moves back to give him space to move and he nods in appreciation, slinging his backpack as he makes his way towards the exit.
“Enjoy your stay sir,” the girl calls after him. He waves in acknowledgement.
As he steps outside the airport, he takes off his Ray Bans and stops a passing okada man, “Okada!”
The bike stops. He walks towards him and says, “Iju.”
The okada man looks up. “Which side for Iju?” he asks.
“Where the plane crashed.”
The okada man sniffs. “Na everybody wan go dat side.” His face softens slightly. “Your pessin die for dia?”
Getting no answer the okada man continues, “I no go fit reach there, mopo dey dat side. But I go drop you for one junction before…”
He interrupts. “That’s fine. Let’s just go,” he concludes.
As he mounts the bike, the okada man says “Ya money na five hundred o.”
He does not answer. He just waves the bike on.
As he approaches the site of the crash, his heart starts thumping crazily. He feels moisture gather in his sneakers, but he’s made up his mind. No turning back now.
He sees a few people milling around, some of them in civilian clothes, some in long white coats and gas masks – some in military uniform.
He turns a corner – and the full import of the tragedy hits him. No; he thinks. No. It cannot be this bad.
It is worse.
As he makes to lift the tape which cordons off the site from the surrounding area, a menacing mobile policeman shouts, “Hol’ it!”
He stops and turns to face the policeman approaching him. The policeman stops and shoves his face close. “Wetin you dey find for hia? You no see rope?”
He winces. The policeman’s breath smells of gin and groundnuts; an unlikely combination that makes him queasy. Without a word he pulls out his ID card and shoves it in the policeman’s face.
The card reads; Tunde Balewa, Airline Quality Control Engineer Dana Air.
There’s no way anyone could have survived this obviously; he thinks in horror. Oh dear Lord. I killed them.
There’s a roaring in his ears. He tells his legs, move; but they do not respond. Suddenly, the entire site is covered by a black cloud and it starts again…
He is seated beside a woman with three of her children. He looks around wondering where he is. And then he recognizes the thrum of twin engines. He sees a pretty air hostess walk down the aisle pushing a tray and he recognizes the uniform she’s wearing – just before he recognizes her.
No; he tries to scream. No!
But nothing comes out. He struggles with his seatbelt as the woman and her kids look at him strangely. The air hostess runs towards him and holds his shoulders, trying to calm him down but he struggles harder.
You don’t understand; he’s screaming. I shouldn’t be here. You’re all dead!
But they cannot hear him. And suddenly, the plane bumps in midair – and starts plummeting fast. He becomes calm; as the other occupants of the plane begin to scream. You deserve to be here more than anyone else; an inner voice tells him and he closes his eyes, accepting the inevitable…
He starts awake; drenched in sweat. He is still standing where he was, but the black cloud is gone.
He slumps to his knees, overwhelmed by guilt.
“I’m sorry,” he sobs. “I’m so sorry…”
Overhead, there’s the sound of thunder. With a sudden rush, the heavens let go.
The mobile policeman who let him in rushes to his side. “Oga, come join we for shade for dat side…”
Still kneeling, he declines. The soldier shakes his head and rushes to the shed to join his comrades. Together they turned to look at the educated fool who has let go of his senses.
He revels in the rain. His shoulders square themselves again – he feels absolved.
He feels cleansed.