The morning progressed into the day. Otis sat behind his desk with the window in front of him. His laptop computer was open before him and he was reading the past page of manuscript he’d been working on before fleeing the States. Done with the reading he flexed his fingers then got to work typing. The work was slow and cumbersome. The images were there behind his eyes. It was hard bringing them before him to put on the page. Time after time he wrote a sentence then pressed on the backspace key deleting much of it. He was sweating underneath his shirt. His lips grew dry. He stopped after he had filled one page and looked at his watch but was aghast to see time had barely moved. It felt like he had been at work half the day already.
Otis dropped down his hands and slouched in his chair in defeat. That was what he felt right now. It was what he had felt when he arrived at JFK Int. the night before his flight was to leave. His rent had been up a week before and he had spent the past days living with several writing buddies while counting the days. Each day was a labor to him. Otis sometimes thought he would run out his mind trying to think through his predicament. All he had done or tried to turn the tide and nothing seemed to work. By the time it became three days left before his departure he had given up and resigned to fate. For whatever was bound to come his way he would accept knowing he had tried and nothing in his power was enough. That was the problem that nothing was ever enough.
Otis pushed back his chair and got up. He scratched at itch in the back of his head. Electricity had returned an hour ago. His bed seemed inviting but sleep was the least on his mind. The heat blowing in through his window told him that. There still was the itching dryness in his mouth.
He left his room and went downstairs to the kitchen. He got an empty glass and filled it with water and drank it. He stood beside the kitchen sink staring out the window at the Boys Quarter building. He could make out Samuel cutting firewood on an old tree stump. Otis drank one more glass of water then rinsed the glass and left it upside down to dry on the sink. He left the kitchen.
Otis came up the stairs but stopped when he saw his Dad’s door open. He was walking toward it when he heard a clanking sound and turned his head at the far corner and saw his Dad in his wheelchair positioned beside his door. Otis covered the distance to meet him.
“Morning, Dad,” he said.
His father grunted in reply then pointed a gnarled finger at his door. Otis took the handles of his Dad’s wheelchair and led him into his room. His Dad wore a dirt-stained undershirt with a blanket draped over his thigh and legs. Otis led his Dad toward his desk so he could sit in his chair. They waited in silence while heat blew into the room through the windows.
“So,” Elder Moses said. Every word that issued from his lips was a struggle. “You back home.”
“Yes, Dad. I’m back home.”
“You go back again?”
Otis shook his head. “I don’t know. Right now, I don’t know.”
“What you . . . what you going to do?”
“I don’t know. Finish my book, and maybe see about finding a job. That’s all I can think of.”
His words sounded trite and desolate. He felt overwhelmed with his earlier tiredness. His bed called out to him each time his eyes went to it. Suddenly he didn’t want to be in the presence of his Dad anymore; he didn’t want to rehash the past. He wanted to forget the past and pretend it doesn’t exist. Otis had the urge building inside him to get up and roll his Dad back to his room so he could hit the bed and continue to soak in his misery. There seemed to be much welcoming fun in doing that.
“I missed you,” Elder Moses said.
Otis looked at his father. He couldn’t comprehend if his Dad meant what he just said or not. His father had never been the sort who opened up emotionally. He seldom displayed it either. Plenty of times Otis had struggled to reckon what his mother say in him and why she never left him. It was no surprise his Dad was impossible to live with. For years Otis’s one pressing thought was one leaving his homestead and never returning to the miserable sight his father made it become each year. That thought went into overdrive after his mother died. Thinking maybe his father would soften after that happened. He did soften all right. He was practically a broken man realizing the one thing that kept him going, the one person who stuck beside him all the years, the one person he showed much despise was now gone from his world.
“I missed you too, Dad,” Otis said.
“I miss your brother, too.”
“Where is Joshua? What happened to him?”
His Dad’s eyes seemed to moisten when he said that. His jaw muscles shook as he struggled with his next batch of words. “Your brother dead,” he said.
“What do you mean? Is he dead? Whatever happened to him?”
Elder Moses shook his head. Tears welled in his eyes. “Your brother dead. Gone.”
Those words reverberated in Otis’s head as he remained in his chair and watched his father break into tears. The scene felt awkward for both of them and especially for him. He came to his Dad’s arms and hugged him.
“It’s okay, Dad,” he said as his father blubbered in his embrace. “Everything is going to be just fine. I’m here now. I’ll take care of you.”
He wheeled his Dad back to his room. Samuel appeared to help give Elder Moses his bath. He carried with him a bucket of hot water and sponge. Otis sat in his Dad’s bedroom and watched Samuel lift his Dad out of his wheelchair into his bathroom. He sat his Dad on a makeshift chair in the large tub that took up much of the bathroom’s space.
Elder Moses sat docile and watched his house servant mix several aromatic chemicals in his bucket of water before soaking the sponge and gently washing every inch of his body. Neither exchanged a word. He turned his head and saw Otis sitting on a rocking chair beside his bed watching them.
Otis grew uncomfortable watching them and got up and left them to stand outside. He waited for Samuel to return his Dad on his bed and then leave the room.
“How is he doing?” he asked.
Samuel shrugged. “Managing. That’s all.”
“What happened to Joshua?”
“Joshua left,” Samuel said. “Went to join the Black Path.”
Otis frowned. “Black Path?”
“Militants. Worse than Boko Haram. They fight each other sometimes. Everyday they’re on the news. One bombing here and another killing there. This country is not safe anymore.”
“Why? I mean, why did Joshua go to join them?”
Another shrug. “We don’t know. One day he came with some of them. Police was looking for them. Your Dad was worried. Your Dad told him never to return. Since then we haven’t seen him.”
“How long ago was this?”
“Been months now. I can’t remember.”
“Dad doesn’t talk about him?”
Samuel shook his head. “He doesn’t want to. Not anymore. He says Joshua is dead to him.”
Otis watched Samuel walk away carrying the now empty bucket in his hand. He returned to his room.
He returned to his desk and appraised his work on his computer. The electricity solved his debacle for him by going off. Otis didn’t know if to be grateful or sad. He shut down his computer and went to lie on his bed. He shut his eyes and tried to sleep. Images of his time in America floated in his eyes. The images were between a month and three months old and they cursed at him for giving up too soon. For not going the extra mile of fighting to remain in the States. All the effort he applied was for naught. Otis rolled to his side squeezing his eyes shut. He tried pushing the images off his mind but they kept stroking his despair. Finally he gave up and opened his eyes panting. The heat in the room was becoming almost unbearable. He ran his palm over his face and it came off with sweat. His shirt too was sticky with sweat. Otis came off the bed and went to wash his face in the bathroom. He returned to his room and changed his shirt. He checked his watch and noted the time. He grabbed his wallet and slipped his feet into his sandals and left the room.
Outside he went looking for Samuel. He found him inside his room in the Boys Quarter sipping a bowl of Garri with water and bread.
“Do you know where Sybil works?” Otis asked him.
* * *
Sybil sat alone with herself under the shade of a tree situated close to the college gate with one feet crossed over the other and looking prim like a Victorian nurse. Otis had no idea what a Victorian nurse looked like but the idea felt good in his mind when he spotted her after the guard manning the college gate listened to him and let him inside. Several students flocked past her and startled her reading. Sybil looked up and that was when she saw him. Otis caught the look of surprise in her face and felt happy seeing it as he approached.
“What . . . how did you find me?” she asked when he stopped in front of her.
“You look surprised. Samuel told me.”
“You came all the way to Minna to find me?”
He shrugged. “Electricity went off, and I had nothing else to do. No one to talk to.” He came and sat beside her. “Anyway, I didn’t come just for you. I went job-hunting.”
“Really? And where did you go besides trailing me here?”
“To tell the truth, this was my starting point. You think I can become a teacher here?”
Wind slapped at their faces and ruffled Sybil’s hair and the manuscript pages on her lap. She pushed her hair off her face. “You think you can handle fifteen to twenty year olds?”
“I can give it a try. If you can do it, why can’t I?”
“What would you want to teach?”
“I don’t know. Anything of science, I guess. I can’t handle math.”
“I don’t know if the school’s hiring right now. I’ll have to find out later. I’m enjoying your book.”
“You like it?”
She nodded. “It’s fun. It’s got some things I don’t get, but overall, it’s fun. You should get it published.”
“I would if I can find someone to look at it for me. I told you it was hard finding a literary agent.”
“Just in America? What about other countries?”
“I wrote to several in the UK. but haven’t heard from them so far. I’m still waiting.”
She touched his shoulder. “Don’t give you so easy. You’re better than that.”
“I know. I try every day. I just never meant to be back, or even to come back for this. I always thought things would be different.”
“Things are different,” she said. “Just not the way you wanted.”
“Yeah, I noticed that. Samuel told me about Joshua. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I was going to, but I didn’t want to get you further sad than you were yesterday. It’s been tough on all of us, especially your Dad.”
“You ever seen or heard from him since?”
“Who, Josh? No. But I’ve heard plenty of crazy stuff.”
He looked at her. “Like what? Tell me?”
She shook her head. “Not now. First, I need some food in me. Come on, I know a restaurant not far from here.”
“Only as long as I’m buying,” Otis helped her to her feet as she returned his manuscript into her handbag.
“I thought you’re broke,” she said.
“I am broke, but now destitute. I’ve still got some coins left in my account. Lead the way and I’ll follow.”
They walked out of the school premises and across the street. Sybil led him towards the market square less than a mile from the school. City traffic flowed past them and so too other pedestrians. They waited for the traffic to slow down before crossing over towards the south-east section of the market. Sybil led him to a two-floor shopping building. The ground floor housed a restaurant. They arrived early to secure themselves a balcony table. There were northerners in the restaurant, all wearing kaftan outfit. A young waitress approached their table and took their order before rushing back to fetch their meal.
“Seriously, why do you want to teach?” Sybil asked him.
“It seems like something worthwhile to do. Also, anything to get me out of the house.”
“But you just got back. You should chill for a while. Write something else.”
“I’m tired of writing, Sybil. I can’t think of anything worth writing about anymore. I need something to take my mind off things.”
“How about spending time with your Dad?”
He gave her a wry look. “Is that supposed to be amusing?”
“He’s not the man you once thought of, Otis. It’s time you let that go. He’s old and he’s helpless.”
“You say that now, but you don’t know him. Not like I do.”
“You’re never going to be a happy person if you keep carrying this weight on your shoulders. You know that, don’t you?”
Otis wasn’t looking at her. His eyes went toward two men inside the restaurant having some altercation with one of the waitresses regarding their bill. One of them dropped his bag, explaining he was coming to get money from his car. Otis watched him breeze out the doorway looking upset.
“Are you listening to me?”
Otis returned his eyes to Sybil. “Uh . . . sorry, I was wool-gathering there. Yeah, I head what you said. I’ll work on it.”
The waitress arrived with a tray loaded with their meal. She dropped each plate on their table.
“Hope you enjoy your meal,” she said to them.
A brilliant flash of light went up inside the restaurant followed by an earth-shattering explosion went off. The explosion tore through the brick wall vaporizing everything contained inside the restaurant and in its path. Glass shattered and screaming voices went up. The force of the explosion pushed Otis and everything beside it off the balcony to tumble on the ground ten feet from them. The waitress was blown off her feet. She had time to release a loud cry before landing halfway on top of him dead. Bricks rained everywhere. The market became abuzz with fright and danger. Panic and screams went for miles. A black smoke furled over the rubble that was the former restaurant. Sirens went off adding further bedlam to the panicking folks.
Otis felt himself immersed in a ball of pain. His tongue tasted something wet and copperish in his mouth. Blood ran down the side of his face. His eyes came open and he inhaled dark smoke and rubble. Sybil lay on her side across from him. Her eyes were open and still and staring past him into nothing. Otis tried to move but couldn’t. His arm lay in front of him bleeding. He heard panicking screams and random shouting all around him. Sybil still remained on her side unmoving.
“Sy . . . Syb . . .”
His voice sounded hoarse. Her eyes remained staring into nothingness. Otis shut his eyes and in the depths of his mind hoped to join her wherever she was now.