Ojochenemi swayed, feeling nauseous. He had to hold the edge of the well to steady himself. He couldn’t look into that well one more time and even with that the horrific image was already emblazoned on his mind. Josiah’s head twisted to the back, a pool of darkened blood around him, the strap of his school bag around his shoulder like a failed parachute for depths. Chenemi squeezed his eyes shut and stayed that way until he felt a hand grab him by the throat, when his eyes opened Josiah’s Dad was in his face with giant eyes and prominent veins. He had just one question.
“Where is my son?”
Chenemi struggled to break free from Ige’s grip. Ige let him go, panting.
“I want answers. Where is my son?”
What stage of grief was this? Denial. Chenemi stowed the urge to point to the well. He wanted to explain that he was also just as confused, that he didn’t have answers, but he chose instead to be quiet. He reckoned that Ige’s emotions were volatile at that point and anything could trigger him, but with silence, one was hardly ever wrong.
“Don’t just stare at me! Say something!” Ige’s angry response made Chenemi realize that even silence was a trigger, that in that raw state of fresh grief, a gust of breeze could very well be a trigger.
Chenemi looked over his shoulder in time to see the guard running into the school premises. Chenemi gritted his teeth because he knew the man wasn’t just running away, he was going to run with the story and a story like this was highly inflammable. Chenemi didn’t want word getting out about Josiah’s death… it was difficult to think of Josiah as dead. His phone started ringing. The caller was Mrs. Adejumo, the school proprietress.
“My office. Now.”
The line disconnected. Chenemi didn’t know how to leave Ige’s presence. Ige turned around and started wandering, muttering something. Chenemi took that chance to flee his presence. Mrs. Adejumo’s presence was just as uncomfortable. She had heard about the body. She wanted Chenemi to lead her to the crime scene. She was already calling an inspector with the police force. Right before Chenemi’s eyes, a huge messed up case was boiling and he desperately wanted to pinch himself out of this nightmare.
Ama turned off her phone and continued with her meeting with Simi. If she pretended there was nothing wrong, perhaps things would be forced to return to normalcy. In the corner of her mind, there was an agitation about what might have happened to Josiah, but this agitation was restricted to the corner of her mind where she had pushed all thoughts about him. She was stalling, postponing the inevitable.
“Simi, show me that model, the one you said would have worked for Terracotta firm, if they had tweaked the opening of the campaign.”
Simi turned her laptop to Ama. She came around the desk. “I’ve looked at this model and compared it with others, I think it’s absolutely beautiful.”
“But Terracotta barely broke even when they executed it.”
“Well, sometimes even the best campaigns flop and you don’t know why.”
Ama rolled her eyes. “I didn’t hire you to tell me about idiopathic failures.”
Simi smiled. “I have a theory on why this model, brilliant as it is, fell through for Terracotta. The first thing I’ll say is that the company might have been absorbed in the glitter of the idea that they lost sight of the reality of the target audience. This is Nigeria and the most part of our target audience don’t get nuance or understand kitsch, the wisecracks in that advert went over the head of most people. We think it’s brilliant and I’m sure the team at Terra thought same too, else they wouldn’t have gone through with it, but we are not our target audience. Sometimes, what will appeal to the people we need to reach might not appeal to us. It might even be downright cringeworthy for us, but we must always remember that this is not about us. So, I’ll suggest we lean a little more towards demographic analysis and come off our high horse enough to learn from those tacky campaigns that drew eyeballs.”
“It’s only a matter of time before campaigns like this become irrelevant. Because the audience will outgrow fluff. If you say we should take a page from all those campaigns, what would distinguish us? Plus, there are more elites these days than you realize.”
Simi nodded. “I agree. But no matter how many elites we have, in our line of business, what will move is what appeals to the WhatsApp mothers, and it goes without saying that they are the lords of cheesy stuff. But who says cheesy can’t be upgraded?” Simi looked at Ama. “Mrs Alade?”
Ama inhaled sharply. “I’m with you.”
Simi looked at her quizzically and then shrugged.
Ama shook her head, “Fine. I need to attend to something urgently.” She scraped her chair back as she rose in a fit. Her hands were trembling. She went out of the office. After pacing the corridor, she turned on her phone and called Ige. He picked on the fourth ring. Ige always picked either on the first or second ring. If he did not pick the call on time, then he wouldn’t pick the call at all because Ige’s phone was always close to his fingers. Ama knew that he was hesitant to take her call.
“Ama, Ama, Ama can you hear me?”
“Have you seen him?”
“Ama, I don’t understand what’s happening.”
“I’m coming over.” Ama ended the call and returned to the office. She dismissed Simi and left for Prodigies’ Forte.
She walked out of her shop building into the sultry air that doubled her discomfort. She flagged down a bike. It was on a sultry day like this, about a decade before, that Ige asked her out. She had gone to visit her friend, Fisayo and she met Ige there. She felt skeptical about running into Ige at Fisayo’s again, it was starting to become a little too frequent to be coincidental. She visited with Fisayo often, especially since the both of them were the only serious team players in the six-man team their lecturer created to work on their team paper and presentation. It was the third time she was seeing this dude with slits for eyes in Fisayo’s house within the space of a week. Perhaps they were an item, but Fisayo introduced him as her friend. Ama shrugged inside. People usually leave out the with benefits.
Her face must have reflected her thoughts because Ige said, “You must be wondering why you always find me here.”
Ama angled her head, feeling like a meddler. “It really isn’t my business, Igo.”
“That’s bottle, the name is Ige.”
“And actually, it’s all your business.”
Ama frowned in confusion.
“I come here because I hope to see you here.”
Ama found his bluntness surprising but intriguing. She looked at Fisayo. Fisayo looked away, suppressing a smile.
“Ama, let me get you water.” Fisayo said and made for the kitchen.
Ama felt like slapping the back of Fifi’s head for throwing her into Mr. Guts Naija’s den.
“Ama, I want to get to know you better. Let me take you out.”
His confident air didn’t discomfit her. She sat on the bed with aplomb, intentionally keeping him on the edge as he waited for her response. He was good-looking, not the typical buff, dark guy, but he was striking with his thinly muscled build, narrow eyes and lush eyebrows. She would go out with him.
“I’m in a relationship.”
“And if you weren’t?”
“You’re pressing despite the fact that I just told you I’m in a relationship. What kind of guy does that make you?”
He smiled. “I just want to know if this relationship is the only obstacle. Let’s call it curiousity. If you weren’t with this guy, would you go out with me?”
“You don’t think refusing a date with you because I’m in a relationship is reason enough?”
“Do you always deflect questions?”
“Do you always answer questions with questions?”
There was a pause, a moment of catching their breath from this witty tit-tat banter. They held each other’s gaze, a smile dancing around their lips.
“I am always Nigerian.” Ige said eventually.
Ama allowed the smile claim her lips. “You don’t think my relationship would last.” She knew it wouldn’t. As a matter of fact, she already decided she was going to break up with Elijah. After all, she was bored of him. She had just been stalling, waiting for something. She knew that Ige with his guts and wits was the motivation she had been waiting for.
Ige raised his hands. “I haven’t said that.”
“If my relationship ends, let it be on record that you jinxed it.”
“If this happens, would you go out with me?”
Ama’s eyes glittered. “We shall see…”
Breeze swept Ama’s hair into her face as the bike moved against the wind. She didn’t bother to tuck the stray strands behind her ears even though their restless motion in the gust of wind was disturbing. There was a greater disturbance in her heart. A petrifying sense of dread.
“God, keep Josiah. Nothing must happen to him.” The winds carried her words in many directions, letting the words float around her like a discordant, meaningless wish.
“God, keep him. Keep my son, oh God.” She was desperate, she said the words over and again on the journey to Josiah’s school but the sinking feeling persisted, fluttering its wings of unsettling possibilities with every passing second.
What if he was kidnapped? What if he’s been killed? What if he’s being tortured? What if he’ll never be found?
Tears gathered in Ama’s eyes, obstructing what was left of her hair-filled vision. The tears burned hotter as they slipped down her cheeks and her heart weighed heavier. Perhaps thinking about those early years with Ige was her mind’s way of seeking escape. But she chose to fix her thoughts on that. The idyllic years before Josiah and the bliss that came with him.
Her break up with Elijah was unceremonious. She was glad he wasn’t the type to pretend to feel what he didn’t feel. He took the break up with a shrug. She would later learn that he had been dating Tinuke on the side and much to Ama’s chagrin, this information hurt her. She called Ige to take him up on his date offer. They agreed on time and location that worked for the both of them. The said day came, Ama got dressed and went to the lounge. She waited and waited; he didn’t show up. She dialed his line but he wouldn’t take his calls. After waiting for over an hour, Ama realized that he wasn’t going to show up and it hurt her ego to see that Ige stood her up on the first date. She felt even more stupid for ending her relationship with Elijah for his sake. But even Elijah had been cheating. She returned home livid.
She arrived her hostel and to her surprise, Ige was at her door, waiting with a smile and a bouquet of flowers. He didn’t spare her one whiff of breath with his prim hair cut and casual but grabby outfit.
“You kept me waiting.” Ama said once she found her voice.
“I could say same.”
“How long have you been here?”
“An hour tops.”
Ama shook her head. “You are weird. We agreed to do DL lounge, why did you come here? How did you find my place? Why didn’t you take your calls?” She sighed. “This is a red flag. A guy that gives off so many awkward vibes on just the first date shouldn’t be trusted.”
Ige smiled. “They are for you, milady.”
She took the flowers from him and sniffed it. “You cheesy idiot, you put your cologne on it.”
Ige wiggled his brows. “You know the smell of my cologne. This girl is tripping more than I realize.” He opened his arms. “Come here, Ama.”
Ige shifted closer to her. “I know you are, but you are also smitten.”
“You are cocky as hell.” She muttered as they hugged.
“I have faith in my charm. Won’t you let me in?”
She did let him in. They talked and drank late into the night. Together, they made dinner and on a tipsy whim, Ama suggested they dance. Ige protested at first, saying he was a terrible dancer but the will of a drunk man is malleable, especially one drunk with love and wine. They danced, they laughed and it wasn’t until 11:48pm before Ige left her apartment. He wasn’t a religious person yet he made no physical advance even though she could tell he was yearning as much as she was. He seemed to be a decent man. Ama stood at her door staring at the street after Ige, even though his image had since dissolved into the shadows.
Ige visited her apartment every day for the rest of the week. Theirs was a conflagration of passion fueled by rhythm and sync. Ige asked to take Ama out the second time. She said she had always desired to visit the waterfalls at Ezeagwu and she never got around to fulfill that desire. Ige bought the idea.
“But before we visit Ezeagwu,” Ama chipped in, cooking mischief in her heart. “we should do another restaurant date.”
Ige lolled his head back dramatically. “Nothing as cliché as restaurant dates, but if that’s what you want. Fine.”
Ama suppressed a smile. “You had better not stand me up this time.”
Ama nodded, she decided to stand him up on the second date for no other reason than to get even.
He scooped her hair between his fingers. “You are so beautiful.”
She was certain he was going to kiss her. She closed her eyes in anticipation but Ige drew back, leaving her high and dry. She swallowed.
“You hold the reins quite firmly.”
He chuckled. “I’m definitely not waiting till wedding night, but I like the idea of delayed gratification. Speaking of wedding, what’s your take on it?”
Ama shrugged. “I hate how society makes it seem like the apex of a woman’s life and honestly, I find the thought being stuck with one person all my life quite staggering.”
Ige smiled and sat on the ground. “Even if that person is me?”
Ama rolled her eyes. “Why did you ask? What’s your own take on it?”
“I definitely think it’s an overrated social construct.”
Ama chuckled. “The church girl in me begs to differ. Church people would say marriage was instituted by God.”
Ige sneered. “I’m not an atheist or stuff but I think the eagerness to chalk everything up to God is intellectual laziness.”
“So, you’re an agnostic?”
Ige shook his head.
“A skeptic perhaps?”
Ige chuckled. “I don’t like being branded as any ist or tic.”
“What would happen if I decide to raise a family without doing wedding?”
Ama shrugged. “Nothing.”
“I’ve always desired to do my family like that, without the frivolity of a wedding or an ancient marital construct.”
Ama stared at him, vaguely enraptured in what he was saying as her mind busied itself with making up lustful scenes starring the both of them. The day they took the long journey to Ezeagwu, Ama got to play out those scenes in the steamy aftermath of selfies, ecstatic squeals and playing in water. That night, in the small room they lodged, Ama conceived Josiah.
Ama got off the bike and walked through the steel gates of Prodigies’ Forte. The air was still, the way students turned to her and averted their eyes almost immediately made her know even more firmly that something was terribly wrong. Her whole being was wracked with foreboding. Her stomach was growling, her head spinning, her hands shaking. All the violent agitations in her only ceased, and they ceased with a halt of finality, when she was led to the crime scene. She saw police officers, the proprietor, a sweaty, restless Ige and Josiah’s class teacher. They tried to stop her from approaching the well, but she couldn’t be deterred. Some men were already lifting out Josiah’s body with a crane. She stood there, calm and frigid as she watched her son rise out of the well with the hook of the crane around him, his school bag still strapped behind him.
“Who did this?” Ama asked evenly.
No one dared say a word. Ama looked around. Her eyes came to rest on Chenemi. Chenemi was unnerved by her calm before the storm stillness. He averted his eyes.
“Mr Enyo, who did this to my son?”
Chenemi swallowed. Why was everyone pinning this on him?
“The police are starting an investigation.” The proprietress came in.
Ama turned to her and reeled with a throaty laugh. “Am I joke to you?”
“Madam, we promise to get to the root of this.” An officer said.
“Like you promised countless families.” She turned back to Chenemi and the proprietor. “I did not leave my child in police custody. I brought him here to your school…” She jabbed a finger in the proprietress’ face. “and your class.” The finger turned to Chenemi.
Chenemi and the proprietress exchanged a glance. This isn’t looking good.
“Find whoever did this. It’s only fair for me to know who did this to my Josiah.” And to everyone’s surprise, Ama turned her heel and off she went. Ige who had been quiet all along hurried after her.
“Ama,” Ige called when he reached her.
She raised a hand and continued walking. Ige stood there, arms akimbo and for the first time in a long time he felt completely clueless. Life hits and he’d had a fair share of life’s hits… an unfair share even. It was unfair that the one time he slipped up and had sex without protection, it resulted in a baby. But like he did every other blow life dealt, he absorbed it, thought through it and made a decision.
“You’re sure you don’t want to go to the school clinic? You’ve been falling sick a little too often.”
Ige and Ama were taking a walk along the winding corridors of the art faculty, holding hands. Ama sighed.
“I missed my period.”
Ige chuckled. “Perhaps you’re with child… my child.”
Ama stopped. “This isn’t a joke, Ige.”
Ige looked at her. “But you took something, didn’t you? A morning after or something…”
“Are you blaming me now?”
Ige paused. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We will get a test done tomorrow.”
Ama sighed. “I’m quite scared.”
“Don’t be, sweetheart.” Ige drew her close and embraced her. “No matter what happens, I’ll be here with you.” It was easy for him to say then because he was sure she was not pregnant.
The next day, Ama stepped out of the bathroom closet with five pregnancy test strips. She poured them on her bed, where Ige was waiting. Ige stared at the test strips all of which indicated that Ama was pregnant.
“My life is over.” Ama whispered as tears streamed down her cheeks.
Ige cupped her face in his palms. “No, our life just started. We as a team, a family, just started.”
Ama pushed his hands away. “What are you saying?”
Ige inhaled deeply. “We are both in our final year. In the next two months we should be done. We can start a family. I promise to take care of you.”
“Stop this nonsense, Ige. The church won’t join us if I’m pregnant.”
“We don’t need a wedding to start a family, remember.”
Now faced with the practicality of Ige’s unconventional theory, Ama saw that she did not agree.
She moved away. “This doesn’t make any sense.”
But with time and thought, Ama saw that no one would accept her with a child born out of wedlock; especially her parents. She saw that Ige was truly committed to her and he loved her. The more she thought about it and listened to Ige, the more she saw reason with him. She didn’t need anyone’s approval to be happy. She didn’t need a certificate to validate her union with the love of her life neither did they need any priest or court to join them, they already had love, a healthy bond and a child binding them together.
Ige had managed to maneuver his way through the blow of Josiah’s birth but how would he handle his death?