They started up the stairs, four of them, being the first group to finish the impromptu biology practical. Emeka had been greatly pleased when, in the biology laboratory, Mrs. Bassey had placed him in the same group as Kelechi Nzeh, the best biology student. Mrs. Bassey had described the practical as ‘the forerunner’; the main test she would still conduct, later that day.
“I wonder why the girls we love don’t seem to love us in return,” Efe said as they climbed the stairs. He hoped it would strike up a conversation.
“Its a lie, abeg!” Gbolahun quickly disagreed.
“Gbolahun, please, this is not the right time for your silly jokes. I’m serious.”
Gbolahun continued, making it seem like Efe’s plea had been directed to a different person. “I don’t know about the others, but for me, the girls I admire, they admire me too; and most times they make the first move.” Emeka and Kelechi laughed, Efe too. Gbolahun did not. “Hey, Efe, that wristwatch you bought for Amaka, I mean the one you spent all your savings to buy, did you collect it from her after she dumped you?”
This time they all laughed.
“But, I think Efe is correct,” Emeka said. “Its even worse when the girl is cool with your friend.”
“Better person, you sabi something, not like this black, fat fag.” Efe said. Kelechi, who had remained quiet, was the only one who laughed.
“Your father!” Gbolahun said.
The word ‘fag’ made Emeka to remember the events that followed after his father switched off the television set the previous evening. The piece of paper, he muttered to himself. Emeka was sure that he had not left the paper on top of the dining table at home, where he had stayed to read. He was also sure that Efe had given Gbolahun a ‘fitting’ reply, but he had not heard even a word that Efe had said. Emeka unknowingly had quickened his steps.
“Hey Emeka, are you already scared of our fag friend?” Efe said.
Emeka did not respond as he continued his walk to the classroom, and straight to his seat. His school bag hung on his chair, empty. It was his usual practice to empty the contents of his bag inside his locker. Emeka opened the locker and searched the pages of his biology textbook. Or, did I place it inside my notebook; Emeka thought.
He wondered why he had not collected his notebook from Kelechi immediately he remembered the paper. He closed his locker, and stood from his seat, waiting for Kelechi to walk into the classroom.
“My note, please.” he said immediately Kelechi walked in.
“Did you see any piece of paper inside my note?” Emeka asked after he had searched the note.
“No. What paper?” Kelechi asked.
“A—” Emeka did not know how best to describe it. “Never mind.” he said. How could he possibly have said, ‘the paper where I drew Evans and labeled him—GAY.
Emeka heaved. He made a silent prayer as Efe and Gbolahun walked in—dear Lord, no one should see that paper.
“Good afternoon, ma. You are welcome to our class.” the class greeted.
“Good afternoon,” Mrs. Bassey responded. “I hope you are ready to take the test?” The response Mrs. Bassey got varied, but the majority had said ‘No’.
When Evans opened his locker, he noticed a piece of paper on top of his books. The paper was blank, but it was obvious that the other side was not. Evans turned the paper, making it rest on its blank side. And, right before him was an illustration, and his name written beneath it. The illustration had another word written by its side—GAY.
“Mummy, welcome.” Ruth greeted. Even before she opened the door, Ruth already knew it was her mother who had knocked. For a moment, Ruth clung to Nneoma, pressing her body against her mother’s. As Nneoma tried to close the door, Ruth helped her carry the nylon bag she held.
“Drop it in the kitchen,” Nneoma instructed, “you will find a small nylon inside, the one with the fresh fish. Remove the fish from the nylon and place its pieces inside any of those bowls on the sink.”
“This NEPA people, evenings like this when there ought to be light, they will just seize it,” Nneoma said in lament. “And my phone’s battery is flat.”
“There was light when I came back from school. They took the light not too long ago.”
“Are you the only one in the house?” Nneoma asked. She had raised her voice a bit as Ruth was now in the kitchen.
Ruth also raised hers as she responded, “No. Evans is in his room.”
“What about Jerry?” Nneoma asked. She recalled how she had tried severally to call Jerry, before her phone went flat.
“I don’t know. I’ve not seen him since I returned.”
“Maka gịnị kwanu—for what reason?” Nneoma said softly, then she raised her voice again. “Has Jerry not returned from the vigil?”
“I don’t know.”
Nneoma dropped her bag on the three-seater sofa. She held her small purse as she walked to the boys’ room. As Nneoma entered the room, she saw Evans on the bed.
“Mummy, welcome.” Evans greeted. His voice sounded weak, and her worry heightened. For a moment Nneoma’s concern moved from Jerry to Evans.
“What is wrong with you?” Nneoma asked, walking closer to the bed.
“Have you eaten?”
“Yes.” Evans responded, though he had only served himself a small portion from the rice Ruth had cooked.
Nneoma heaved. “Where is Jerry?”
“I don’t know. Jerry was not at home when I got back from school.” Evans answered. Nneoma held herself from asking him a second time if he was fine. “I don’t think Jerry has returned home from—” he purposely left the remaining words unsaid. He did not want to be a part of Jerry’s lie again.
“I tried calling him in the morning, but no response. And my phone has been off most of the day.” Nneoma pulled the zip of her purse, then she brought out her phone. She switched the phone on, but it went off almost immediately.
“Jerry won’t be able to answer your call,”
“His phone is on the table, he left it there last night.” Remembering that his mother had asked him about his brother’s phone the previous night, Evans quickly added, “I only discovered it this morning.”
“Ke ụdị nsogbu dị ihe nka!–what kind of problem is this.” Nneoma exclaimed. “Where could he have gone to?” she asked, deliberately ruling out the possibility that something bad had happened to her son. “Do you know the name of the friend who invited him for the vigil?”
“Where is Jerry’s phone, let me have the boy’s number.” Nneoma remembered that her phone’s battery was flat, and she hissed.
“I’ve already called him, with Jerry’s phone.”
“And what did he say?”
Evans was silent, as he recalled the phone conversation he had with Charles:
Evans had heard Charles’ voice even before he realised that the call had connected. “Guy, wetin happen na? Your number dey off since.”
“Sorry, this is Jerry’s brother.”
“Evans?” Evans had been surprised that Charles knew his name.
“Yes, its Evans.” he said. “Jerry has not returned home from the party,” Before he had mentioned ‘party’, Evans had turned towards the door to ensure that Ruth had not been standing there. “My mum would soon return home from her shop, she would be mad if she does not meet Jerry at home.” Evans had said.
The piece of paper he had discovered in his locker was enough trouble to deal with. A long conversation with his mother was not something he was looking forward to.
“Hello . . . ” Evans had said as some seconds had rolled by without any response from Charles.
“I don’t know about Jerry’s whereabouts. Jerry did not show up for the party.”
The sound of Jerry’s mobile phone, indicating an incoming call, made Evans to turn on the bed. Ordinarily, he would have ignored the call. But the situation at hand required a contrary action.
Evans sighed. He was sure the clock had a long way to go before it reached five thirty.
As Evans rose from the bed, he felt light-headed, a sure sign that he had not slept for long. Still he was grateful that nature had overpowered his thoughts, offering him sleep for a while. The piece of paper he had discovered in his locker had dominated his thoughts.
The phone had stopped ringing before he got to the table where it lay.
Evans turned the switch on, making the electric bulb come alive; his thoughts also came alive. Who could have placed that note in my locker, he mused. Am I really gay?
Jerry’s phone brightened again, and Eminem’s ‘When I’m Gone’ filled the room. The screen revealed the caller—Charles.
“Is Jerry back?”
The line went silent for a while, but it was obvious the call had not ended. Evans held the phone, waiting for Charles’ response. The voice he heard next had a distinct tone.
“Hello. Evans. Jerry’s things, are they all in place?”
“Hello . . . who are you?”
“It’s Lanre, a friend of ours.” a voice said. Evans easily gave the voice a name—Charles. “Its a conference call, Lanre just joined.” Charles said. “He wants to know if anything is missing in the house, like—Jerry’s clothes, shoes, your mum’s property, anything.”
“I’ve not noticed anything.”
“Check.” To Evans, Lanre seemed to have an air of authority. Evans liked the fine timbre of Lanre’s voice.
“I guess you have to call back.”
“Just go ahead and check. Don’t worry, the call is free.” Charles said.
Evans walked to the wardrobe, and he pulled its door. He considered the clothes, most of them Jerry owned.
“His clothes seem to be in place.”
“Him no go notice easily, even if one or two dey miss,” Charles said, obviously to his friend. “Guy, make we let the boy go sleep. In the morning we go reach their side.”
“Evans, sorry for disturbing your sleep. Lanre and I will come to your house in the morning.”
“Ok. Thanks.” Evans for a moment tried to paint a mental picture of Lanre, a physique that would be just right for the voice he had heard. Tall, dark, slightly muscular, with a face that offered a smile only once in a while; he imagined.
Evans walked back to the table to drop the phone. As he approached the table, Evans noticed something. Instead of two, only one of Jerry’s bag was on the floor, under the table. The smaller bag was not there. He lifted the bag from under the table, then, he pulled its zip. The bag, Evans was sure, contained more items than it used to. And atop was a novel. Evans brought out the novel and flipped through its pages. Most of the pages had been marked with ink too. Unlike the other novel, this one was marked with yellow ink. Evans stopped at a page, and he started with a paragraph marked with yellow ink:
She had stated her price quite quickly, and he had reached for his wallet without any bargain. He had approached her knowing she was naive, though she had priced herself too high. Marcus did not mind. He liked them that way. As he slid a finger between her wet opening, he knew he was in for a treat.
Evans closed the book and placed it back in the bag. Though he was sure he would return to it later.
Nneoma turned on the bed. A stretch and a yawn, and she was grateful, though surprised, that she had slept for a while. As she sat up, she picked the scarf that lay on her pillow. Nneoma placed it on her head, without tying it, before she began to pray.
Nneoma yawned before she let the scarf rest on the pillow again. Then she eased her frame from the bed. Her prayer had taken a much longer time than usual, and she had mainly prayed for Jerry’s safety. Nneoma sang softly, so as not to wake Ruth, as she walked towards the door. A thought found its way to her mind as she walked past the wardrobe. Still she continued her walk. She held the door knob, undecided. Her hand remained on it as she struggled with her thoughts. Nneoma let go, and started a walk towards the wardrobe. As she got near it, Nneoma tried to keep her thoughts in check; she tried same with her fears too.
Nneoma pulled the door that secured the wardrobe. Then she brought out a black bag. She provided the correct combination, three digits, one-six-four, and the bag opened. Immediately Nneoma knew that someone had recently tampered with its content. It was not much of a surprise when she discovered that the money she had kept in the bag was missing, three hundred thousand naira.
She felt queasy, and a bit on edge. Her stomach also felt full, added to it, an uncomfortable sensation. Still she gently let her frame off the bed. She knew she had to, before her mother would walk into her room, with a cane and a sermon. A virtuous woman has no business with her bed, once it is five o’clock in the morning; her mother had told her severally.
She soon began a slow walk to the door, heading to the bathroom, eager to spit out the saliva that had gathered in her mouth.
She got to the door and turned its half-broken knob, immediately greeted by the strong scent of a locally made disinfectant. The scent stretched her discomfort to its peak, and a sudden rumble in her stomach followed suit. Her steps quickened as the need to use the bathroom had peaked too. Her right arm pressed tightly on her stomach forming a semi-circle around it as she raced to the bathroom. She bent over the bathtub just in time.
“My God! What is the meaning of this?!” she heard, though, her mother’s voice did not startle her. She had recognised her mother’s presence at the door, long before she heard the exclamations. She figured that her mother must have heard the sound of her feet while she ran on the slippery, tile floor. She had also considered the possibility that the sound she made while she retched may have been loud, and disturbing enough, to drag her mother to the scene.
The front door was opened after the first knock. He walked in, and the door was closed again. The one who had opened the door walked ahead of him, leading him past the living room. He considered the features of the one who walked ahead of him: dark, well-over six foot, and muscular.
The hunk stopped in front of a closed door, knocked on it and stepped aside.
“You can go in.” the voice, deep and rich, matched the frame.
He turned the knob. Then he walked into a room, spacious and decently furnished. A man sat on an armchair.
“You are welcome, young man. Jerry, right?”
“Do have a seat.”
“I don’t waste time when it comes to business. Do you have the money with you?”
“Good. Normally I don’t accept such meagre sum. But I like you. I will help you.”