It happened when I was fifteen-years old. I had been watching a football match on the television with my uncle, Baba Hassan when a young boy suddenly appeared from nowhere and began to hit him. I could not see the young boy’s face but I could see Baba Hassan’s. It felt as though he was right in front of me. His eyes enlarged with fear. Baba Hassan cried and cried for help but I could not help him. I was frozen. I could not even scream out for help, my lungs failed me. I was confused. How could such a young boy gather the strength to hit Baba Hassan with his fists? Watching my favourite Uncle being thrashed was painful.
After what seemed like an eternity, the boy vanished into thin air.
I regained control over my body as soon as he had disappeared. I ran to Baba Hassan to console him but he crawled away from me to the edge of the living room, hugging the wall and trying to climb onto its smooth beige surface. Unsure of what to do, I stood there staring at him. I do not know what type of juju the young boy used on me, but my body felt heavy. My knuckles were left with a throbbing pain.
Baba came back home first. Mama had gone to visit her friend and had taken my two younger brothers with her. My brothers and I were not close. They were never allowed to stay alone in a room with me. I think it began when I was eight. I do not remember why. When I asked Mama, she smiled and told me not to worry. I was withdrawn from school, and my education became the sole responsibility of Mama.
Baba ran towards Baba Hassan as soon as he came and met the scene.
‘I told you! I warned you to take him to the hospital when he started acting strange, but you refused,’ Baba Hassan said as he struggled to stop himself from crying.
‘No!’ Baba said. ‘What will people say? That I gave birth to a mad child? Haba Hassan, I cannot allow that!’ Who were they referring to as mad? Me?
Why was Baba Hassan scared of me? Why was he blaming me? Did he not see that I was frozen? I did not attack him. I think the young boy used juju to place the blame on me. I kept asking him why he was lying. That was the last time he set foot in our house.
I will never forget the look of pure disgust on Baba’s face. He avoided me from then on. Well, as much as he could. Mama was the only one that did not disregard me, although her eyes had flickers of fear from time to time. It broke my heart. Maybe it would have been better if she ignored me too.
I was locked up in the house for ten years, left to the loneliness of my bedroom. My privilege was limited to a few minutes of fresh air in the balcony upstairs. Whenever I was alone on the balcony, whispers blew into my ears, urging me to jump. But then the young boy, the cause of all this, would rejoice, and I did not want that. I noticed that we rarely had visitors. On numerous occasions, I would hear Mama lying on the phone that she had travelled or had gone to the market. The boy would pop in once in a while. As I grew older, so did he. I named him ‘the stranger.’ Seeing as I was usually alone, there was nobody around for him to hurt. He never did anything to me. I wanted him to hurt me too so that my family would see that I was innocent.
Barely a month ago, I was lying down on my bed when I heard the cheerful voice of a woman from the living room saying, ‘Assalamu Alaikum.’ I did not bother answering because I was not allowed to do so. I figured that Mama would hear the guest and that would be the end. But, the voice kept repeating the greeting. When I heard, ‘Is nobody around? How come the gateman did not inform me at the gate?’ I answered, ‘Wa Alaikum Assalam.’
I got up and walked to the door. The doorknob turned and the door opened. If the door was unlocked, Mama must be around I thought. She was probably praying or taking a bath. No wonder the gateman allowed the visitor in. I was worried and confused. Was I to greet the visitor or ignore her? But I had already answered. She would be expecting somebody.
I walked out of my bedroom with a stiff stomach. I kept looking back, desperately hoping that a voice would shout at me to go back to my room. I felt guilty. I kept walking along the corridor until I reached the living room. It looked different today. The beige leather chairs looked new, even the dull maroon drapes looked classy. Or maybe it was because of the woman that was standing near the door. Her eyes were small. She had puffy eye bags that made her look like she had been awake for a long time. Her cheeks reminded me of puff puff. I wondered if they would be as soft as well. She was the most beautiful woman that I had ever set my eyes on. Then again, maybe it was the effect of being isolated from the world for so long. Her mouth was spread into a smile that said she was shocked and excited at the same time.
‘Yaya Imran?’ she asked.
Who was she? And why was she referring to me as Yaya?
‘You do not recognise me? It is me, Salma. Aunty Hafsat’s daughter.’
I had forgotten about her, but it all came back to me. Her mother was Mama’s cousin. I hardly ever thought of my extended family. Once upon a time, our house was always filled with them. Baba was the wealthiest among his siblings. We always had an aunt, uncle, cousin or a random relative from the village staying with us. Salma had been a pest when we were kids, following me around, asking me to marry her. I remembered that she was three years younger than I was, hence the added respect of calling me Yaya.
‘I was told that you were studying in the UK. When did you come back? You just left us and refused to come back even for holidays. Would you have recognised me on the streets?’
She certainly was still a talkative, asking me questions and ignoring my obvious discomfort. I motioned for her to have a seat before I sat down too.
‘You have finished your Ph.D right? I heard that you wanted to stay there afterwards to get a job. Any luck? You look awful, lafiya? Is everything okay?’
‘Ah, yes,’ I lied. ‘I have found a job, and I was reading that is why I look tired.’ Why lie? I should have screamed for help and informed her about the unjust life that I had been subjected to. Maybe, she could have helped and what happened could have been avoided.
‘Alhamdulillah. I am happy for you,’ she said.
I became comfortable around Salma. It was the first time in years that I was having a normal conversation. It felt nice. She was telling me stories about what each and every family member was up to. Apparently, quite a number of our female cousins were married. Salma herself was engaged. We were having a wonderful conversation about her wedding plans when he showed up.
He grabbed a vase from the centre table and smashed it on Salma’s head. As she screamed in pain, he used a piece of the broken vase and stabbed her chest. I could not do anything as he had frozen me again. I tried to shout but I could not. Yet again, I could not see his face. But Salma had the same terrifying look as Baba Hassan. What cruelty was this? Why could I see the fear in her eyes but not the face of her attacker? Was this his plan? Was it to make sure that I would never forget? I still had nightmares regarding Baba Hassan. I always woke up breathing heavily and feverish with a pain in my chest, recalling the defeated look in his eyes. As Salma continued to shout, her blood, dark red, smelling of rusted metal, splattered all over my t-shirt. How was that possible when I was not close to her?
When he was done, he vanished again. My head was dizzy, but I could make out Mama’s figure, falling to the floor and shouting, ‘Innalillahi wa inna ilaihir rajiun. Imran, what is wrong with you? Why? Why?’
Within seconds, the gateman, Musa, ran inside the house. Trailing behind Musa were about six men. I could not recognise any of them, but I assumed they were our neighbours.
‘Run outside,’ I kept yelling at them. ‘Maybe you can find him.’ I attempted to give a description of the stranger, all I could manage to say was that he was about the same height as I was, and our skin tone was similar too. I explained what he was wearing to them. But, they just stood there, staring at me with fear and disgust in their eyes.
They did not believe me.
Three hefty men took hold of me and I was bundled to the kitchen store. They locked me inside with a key. After what seemed like a million years, the door opened to reveal three policemen, each carrying guns. I was placed inside a police van and driven away from my home. I became an experiment for the doctors. They concluded that I should be kept in the ‘special room’ in the prison. At least I was still in Abuja, near my family. Not that it mattered. Nobody visited me. I was dead to them.
The creaky sound of the main door opening brought me back to the present. I stood up from the wafer-thin mattress to see who it was. I placed my hands on the rusty silver metallic rods, pressing my face against them. I was happy when I saw that it was Inspector Lawal, my only friend in the prison. In the world actually. Was it Thursday? He only visited me on Thursdays, bringing peanuts for me.
As I was about to greet him, he quickly placed his pencil thin left index finger on his plump lips to warn me to keep silent. I suspected that nobody was aware that he brought me peanuts every Thursday. I did not stretch out my arms, he walked to my cell, dropped the black nylon bag filled with peanuts in between the rods and turned back to leave.
‘Wait. Have you heard from my family? When will they visit me?’
He turned back to look at me, his eyes were watery. I hated the pity in his eyes.
‘Wallahi Inspector Lawal, it was not me. I did not kill Salma. She is my cousin. Can I kill my own cousin?’
‘Do not worry, Imran, God will surely help you soon.’
I wanted to ask what he meant by ‘help.’ Did he believe that I was innocent? Or did he mean that God would heal me from the illness that I had been falsely accused of?
‘What is happening outside? Anything interesting?’ I asked.
Inspector Lawal drew closer to my cell and opened it. He instructed me to sit on my mattress and I obeyed. He sat on the floor, opposite me and asked me to tell him my version of what happened again.
I felt touched that he trusted me enough to enter my cell. I had nobody else around. I was kept in a different part of the prison. Six other cells were inside the long corridor, but only mine was occupied. They called me a monster. Was I a monster though? I knew was innocent. But nobody believed me. They called me mad. They said it was not safe for me to be kept with ’normal people.’ When the pudgy doctor that smelt of wet clothes came to visit me twice every week, he always had two bulky police officers with big guns in their hands.
The real culprit was out on the streets, happy and carefree.
When I finished my story again, Inspector Lawal was silent. I understood. What else was there to say?
‘But, if they think that I am mad, why place me in prison? Why not a hospital?’
‘Ehh, you see, your father requested this. He said that…’
‘So people will not know…’ I completed the sentence for him. I knew the reason. I only needed confirmation.
‘Salma’s family? Are they involved?’
‘I am not the right person to ask that, Imran. I do not know. But, Imran, you were holding a piece of the vase that killed Salma. How come?’
Was I? I could not remember.
‘I…I think I picked it up after he had vanished.’
‘And the blood all over your body?’ he asked. I did not have an answer so I kept quiet.
‘I see,’ Inspector Lawal said.
It was obvious that he did not believe me. Regardless, I was grateful for his kindness. He stood up to leave and I stood up as well to thank him. All of a sudden, the stranger appeared. I wanted to scream, to tell Inspector Lawal to run, but the stranger’s hands were already on Inspector Lawal’s neck. I could not move. I did not want him to succeed this time around. Inspector Lawal had been wonderful to me. He was my friend. But, I could not do anything except stand and look. Yet again, I was frozen.
The worst part was his tear-filled eyes. This was worse than both Baba Hassan’s and Salma’s. Inspector Lawal’s eyes screamed, ‘How could you do this to me?’ This time around, I felt like I was repeatedly being stabbed in the chest. He kept saying, ‘I have kids Imran, please, please…kaji tsoron Allah, fear God Imran!’ As he uttered those words I immediately began to think of his children, his youngest was my namesake. I had even seen a picture of his family, four sons, all resembling his strikingly beautiful Kanuri wife.
I wanted to tell him that I was sorry. Sorry that I could not help him. I really was…
There was no point of shouting to alert anybody after Inspector Lawal’s body fell to the ground and the stranger vanished. I could move again. For a second, a brief one, it looked like my hands had been on Inspector Lawal’s body. My hands felt tired. I began to doubt myself. Could they be right? Was I a monster? No, I was innocent. And, since nobody would believe me, I would have to find out the truth on my own. I removed Inspector Lawal’s uniform and I wore them. It was clear that I was the only one that could get to the bottom of the mystery. I walked away from Inspector Lawal’s body, my cell, and opened the main door. With Inspector Lawal’s uniform, finding a way out of the prison will be easy.