CHAPTER 12: OPEN SECRETS
In surviving, he fought
In loving, he fought
In dreams, he fought
For her, he fought.
Now he fights
For lies and brutal truths
For as a man who demons distress
He fights with every breath and strength
The crickets punctuated the dark silence with their chirps. Fireflies made their rounds, swerving in circles, glowing with brilliance. The chill in the air made many campers run for warmth of their beds. The early evening felt like midnight, blackness carpeting the camp, loiters deserting the field. But for few rooms with switched-on light bulbs, reflected through the windows, the camp looked like a deserted park.
JJ strolled, hands in pocket, eyes on the grass blades, mind torn apart. His boot picked up a tuff of mud. The mould fell apart and several ants scrambled to new safety. He paused and watched them – admiring their thoughtless drive. Or was it predetermined actions conjured for cases of emergency? JJ envied their ruthless efficiency: doing what need doing, damning the consequences – or so it seemed. The ants are wise creatures, though they are feeble.
He knew what he had to do. It was obvious, as plain as the smooth volleyball sand patch on the field. JJ had planned for eighteen months straight to ensnare General Hahbu. Just when he had given up hope, resting in the consciousness that the General was gone forever, the fly sauntered back into the spider web; a stroke of divine genius that might not happen ever again. This pumped JJ. All to do was to oversee the operation. Get in. Mobilize the Awon Egbon Crew. Extend the operation to the Weedle Gang. Run the 24/7 operations himself. Infiltrate. Drop the payload. Confirm the kill. Get redemption. JJ had it all mapped out. His plan was foolproof, more so than last time. Yet he stalled.
Because of Leah Abba.
He kicked a protruding grass blade. His fists balled and his jaw set. Second-guessing was the trait of losers. And vanquished. In a fist or weapons brawl, the man who wins is the man who had no thought or care for peripherals. JJ knew better than to hesitate. But did he really? Could his heart be trusted still? It had not asked for permission to beat for someone else. If only there had been a conversation between his heart and brain, maybe, just maybe he would be on his way to send the General to hell. Hell. That had been Faith Time topic. Hell. Heaven. Sin. Forgiveness. Jesus. Prior to this camp, he never bothered with these themes. Bit by bit, the preacher got into his headspace. Now he wondered if indeed there was something after death, if it were indeed true that Jesus died for him. He had heard it, but had never considered it. The discussion rang in his head as if he was still having it.
The campers had filled the small room. As camp was nearing its end, the facilitators had decided on having more joint activities. Now he and Leah were almost together every day. Perfect but for the buffoon Ter. Now Ter sat right opposite them, his face a study in mixing a scowl with butter. JJ returned Ter’s glare, matching it vein for vein. He had no doubt Ter would whack him at the slightest provocation. JJ sat with two people between him and Leah. An unspoken code made them mask their involvement with each other as best as they could. Now, with his legs spread, and his arms behind his head, back inclined against the chair, he got a good look at her. She was a little off-colour. Her hair was in a bunch and she wore a simple shirt over a pair of shredded jeans. He loved her fashion sense. JJ wondered if he had told her that.
The preacher had been late; his excuse was that he expected them to mingle. When they pointed out that mingling was not a focused goal of the camp, he countered that mingling was exactly what Jesus came for. JJ smiled and sent a covert wink to Leah, who hid her blush with a bowed head. No one noticed the flirt except the watchful Ter. JJ offered a small smile as compensation, and Ter bashed it away. The preacher welcomed everyone; they sang some melodious kumbaya-like songs and settled in for the discussion.
“Amazing. Amazing,” began the preacher, “I prophesy that you will all end well in Jesus name.”
“Amen.” The crowd had chorused. JJ sat stoic.
“Yes. It’s a pleasure to be here again, right in the midst of zeal and enthusiasm for the gospel. You are young, vibrant, and strong. But you are susceptible. Anyone know why I say that?”
The campers sat quiet, mesmerized by the preacher’s wide smile. Then Leah said, “We are young. There are evils we are unaware of, which have the power to seduce and hold us down for ever.”
The room was so quiet; a pin drop would have sounded like an explosion. JJ stole a glance at Leah. He noticed her set jaw and balled fists. She was serious. Her eyes seemed to reflect in the light. JJ blinked. Were those tears?
“Exactly.” The preacher continued, oblivious to the effect Leah’s words had on the campers. “St. Pauls says to walk circumspectly, not as fools, redeeming the times, for the evils days are coming. Truth be told, the evil days are already here upon us. Without Christ, every man is purely carnal and is led by the dictates of his flesh. That just means he cannot do holy or godly things. He can’t engage the spiritual in the right and appropriate way. He can commit all sorts of atrocities. Adultery, which is sleeping with anyone, with you are not married. Lying, which is withholding the truth and operating under the influence of the devil. Stealing, which is taking what is not yours without consent and/ or using force. Truth be told, the days we are in almost make those sins pardonable. Now there are those who bomb innocents, the suicide bombers who volunteer to kill themselves for whatever cause they believe in. I have always wondered though. Someone or some people provide the bombs and guns used to perpetrate this callousness. That silent sin of providing the weaponry to cultivate evil is equally as dangerous.”
JJ stiffened as the preacher spoke. His muscles ripped as his fingers tightened behind his head. JJ felt something tug at his heart, a familiar feeling, a weight that stayed. He thought of the orphans he had created, the widows and widowers, the homeless. The resolve to kill the General came with full blast. JJ gritted his teeth. He clamped down on storming out. He needed to clear his slate, kill the General, redemption…
“There is redemption though. But only through Jesus.”
JJ whipped his head up, his gaze locking in on the preachers’ eyes. Was it coincidence or had the man being staring at him while speaking? The preacher kept on talking, unaware of JJ’s state.
“He has paid the price for you to be redeemed back to God. You need not work it out yourself. You can’t. He said your righteousness – which are right works under Him – are like a filthy rag unto Him. So rather, than take matters into your hands, come to Him. Come as you are.”
That was when JJ had walked out.
Now, he swatted an insect moving too close for comfort. He groaned as his palms came away bloody. He hoped it was Ter’s blood. Then changed it to Dr Sulos’. Then, the preacher. JJ screamed into the night. When he was done, his voice ached a little. He had always hated being confused. It robbed him of power. He trudged into the hostel, up into his room and almost walked straight into Emeka.
“Hey man,” JJ began, “I didn’t see you there.”
“You never did try.” Emeka replied
“Sorry?” JJ unlaced his boots and chugged them as far away as possible. He peeled his socks off and dove on his bed, letting out satisfying sounds as he burrowed his face into the pillow.
“I thought we were friends JJ.”
The emotion-laden statement made JJ twist and look up. He didn’t like Emeka’s mien. Emeka wore blue shorts and a white well-worn vest. The vest hung slack around his neck, appearing as if he had borrowed it from an older brother. His hair was dishevelled which was rare for Emeka. He took pride in maintaining a neat hair even in sleep. It was the look in his eyes though, that gave JJ pause. There were tears in them. They had a clear quality, shimmering, staring past JJ, as if they could see into his life. They judged him, wondering why he failed so often, and never lived up to the hype of his image. JJ averted his eyes. First Ter, then the preacher, and now Emeka. What was happening with everyone’s eyes?
“We are.” JJ ventured.
“I am to you.” Emeka said. “But you ain’t to me.”
“What’s this about? Not going with you to lunch in recent times?”
“I know Joey. Camp merged groups and he happened to be in mine. We hit it off instantly.”
“OK? So I don’t have the conversational depth of Joey?”
“Dr Sulo is Joey’s counsellor.”
The statement itself did not alert JJ to its importance; the tone did. It had a finality quality that caused him to slow down his retort. His mind moved in overtime as he wondered why Dr Sulo being Joey’s counsellor was important to him. Dr Sulo had betrayed him anyway, so why should he care.
“I don’t care if Dr Sulo is his mother and he goes to her house…”
It was at that moment JJ knew what Emeka knew. His mind reeled, the import of the moment washing over him. The solitary clock in the room, which doubled as alarm, chimed. Emeka leaned against the wall, bracing himself for a fight. His eyes had changed. Now they dared JJ.
“I’m sorry Emeka.” JJ said. He knew he didn’t have any defense. For once, he chose not to wriggle out of a situation but to take full responsibility and tackle it headlong. He met Emeka’s stare with what he hoped was a sympathetic look. “It wasn’t to be. I didn’t plan it. Everything colluded to happen.”
“Colluded? Everything colluded? Really JJ? Big words. Do I need to pull out my dictionary to deal with you now? Just the way you pulled out your heart to deal with me?”
“This goes beyond an ouch JJ. You stole my girl.”
“Technically she wasn’t yours Emeka. But I shouldn’t say that. Like I said, I’m…”
“JJ. You step on my foot, you say you are sorry. You slam the door on my face, you say you are sorry. You freaking fart while I’m talking to you, you freaking say you are sorry. But JJ. You don’t. You absolutely don’t take the girl, the very same girl I say to you ‘JJ help me get’, the very same girl you, you, you, organize a date for me with. You absolutely, unconditionally, never ever take that same girl and screw her.”
“So first of all, pipe down. Your tone of voice is…wait what? Screw her? What do you mean by that?” By now JJ had risen. He walked up to Emeka, each sizing up the other. JJ’s muscles bulged, a trick he had learnt. He knew why Emeka would think that – but Emeka needed to learn not to listen to hearsays. “Why would I do that?”
“Because you,” Emeka said, poking JJ in the chest with each word, “kept wanting me to bed her. I didn’t. You got the chance. Rather you created the chance. And then you popped the cherry.”
“Emeka. You are one poke, one accusation, almost one breath away from having your nose broken.”
“I respected you JJ. Why would you do this? I hope she was a good lay.”
JJ moved by instinct. He lashed out before Emeka could say another word. Emeka let out a yelp – of pain and surprise, slamming into the wall. JJ pinned Emeka, forearm pressed against his throat, his lips beside Emeka’s ear.
“I was as true to you as Akin to Pawpaw. Get that. What can I say? Life happened. Don’t you dare use that to drag Leah’s name in the mud. I can take crap. But I’ll pulverize you if you talk anyhow about my woman.”
They remained upright, like two inactive machines in an assembly line. JJ’s body pressed against Emekas’, cutting out any possible movements. His breathing was controlled, his head level. JJ suddenly felt sick in his stomach. He realized he liked this position – not the standing toe-to-toe, but the feeling of overwhelming power. It was opium. He could taste Emeka’s fear, could see the tears roll down. The slap had shocked Emeka. He probably always was slapped by his superiors, when he did something wrong. He must have learnt to associate slaps with shame. JJ knew this. That was why he slapped rather than punched him. A punch would have called for retaliation, a proving of manhood. A slap, on the other hand, would bury that manhood.
Jide Jackson felt sick that he enjoyed it so much.
After protracted moments, JJ backed down. Emeka remained, his eyes staring ahead. JJ opened his mouth twice to apologize but stopped himself. He also knew that would be unfair. Humiliating. He sat on the bed and watched Emeka, as an eagle does its prey. Finally, Emeka moved and looked at JJ.
“Long ago,” Emeka began with a steady voice, “you stopped bullies from torturing me. They were just about to dunk a week old thrash – which had human and dog poo – on me. You walked past and called them to do something. They all scrambled like the dogs they were. Then you looked at me and winked. I almost kissed you that day man. I didn’t think whatever you called them for was legit. I had a sense you pulled them out just so they wouldn’t hurt me. You became my hero.”
“It wasn’t about you Emeka. It was just me trying to do good to wash the bad I was always involved in.”
“So one day,” Emeka ploughed on, unperturbed by JJ’s words, “I was with some people and they badmouthed you. Talking thrash. Of how you lack love. That’s why you amass so much power. Of how you have no future. That’s why you were rusticated out of two schools. I was livid JJ.” Emeka sniffed and used the bank of his hand to whip his nose. “I was mad. I told them you were filled with love. They laughed and asked if I was your side gigolo. That maybe the girls didn’t satisfy you no more. They said you could get any girl. And you constantly sly your men and bed their girls. I told them they were wrong. That you cared for people and you won’t hurt them if they don’t deserve it. I told them you had a heart. And a conscience.
They beat me JJ. They beat me so bad my parents came to school the next day, threatened and removed me that same day. That’s why I left. I didn’t have to travel nowhere. It hurt. I had a few broken bones. It hurt so bad. They were pissed I vehemently supported you and they unleashed their hate for you on my body. But you know what JJ, it…it didn’t hurt as much as this. Knowing they were right all along.”
JJ watched as Emeka walked like a drugged zombie out of his room. He stared at the door; half wishing his boisterous friend would bounce out and scream ‘Jokes on you.” He chose not to think of anything. Thinking had proven unprofitable for him thus far. Rather, JJ swapped his jeans for slacks, put on a black top, trainers and walked out of the room. The corridors were dark and everywhere was quiet. He needed just that.
JJ saw her before she saw him. He watched her kick at the grass, look at the moon, as if she would like nothing else than to sit on it. The light settled on her hair, casting a faint glow around her. It also shone through her nightgown, which was see-through. JJ mustered a bleak smiled. She expected no one to be out this time, least him.
“Nice view.” He called out when she was within earshot.
Leah wheeled round like a gunslinger. Her eyes bulged in amazement and she ran and hugged him. Stepping back she looked him in the face, opened her mouth to speak, and then slit her eyes. Leah squealed and wrapped her arms around her body in a tight embrace.
“This late at night and you are still flirty?”
“No use blocking the view,” he said, “it’s already trapped in my mind’s lens.”
“That’s a sin JJ.” Leah said.
“Admiring a beautiful bod?”
“Well, when you say it like that.”
“Listen Leah, I don’t know God but He couldn’t have made you such a hook and then told me not to look. That be what – unfair?”
Leah laughed. “He didn’t say don’t look. He said don’t lust.”
“Don’t think of me riding you? No problemo. I won’t have this alluring image in my mind. What are you doing out here?”
“That’s my line JJ.”
“OK. We answer each other. Ladies first.”
“Ta. Anyway, couldn’t sleep.”
“Really? I wouldn’t have guessed. I thought all beautiful creatures have guardian angel mothers blowing them to sleep.”
JJ peered into Leah’s face, which had fallen, and asked, “What’s wrong Leah?”
“It’s nothing JJ.”
“Don’t it’s nothing me. You are here out late this time, near naked, with a long face, for nothing?”
“Tell me what you are doing here, and I’ll tell you what I’m…”
“Emeka and I had a row over you. He thought me unfair. I thought him unreasonable. We have to cool off separately. He chose indoors, I outdoors. What’s wrong Leah?”
Her face registered shock, then resignation. She faced him, a smile etched on. He smiled back.
“Do you want to hear a secret?” She said. “It’s about why I’m here.”
“Abu. Abu.” The man bellowed from his bedchambers. “This boy will be sleeping during rapture I tell you.” He got out of bed and put a dress robe over his boxer shorts. His wife scrambled out also, securing a silk gown around her midsection.
“Honey do you think…?” his wife asked.
“We can only hope darling. Let’s go down together.”
They walked out of the bedroom, hurtling past the portraits on the wall, the woman saying a quick prayer when she got to the staircase landing – which had a giant portrait of their son. He had disappeared weeks back without any word to them, without any means of communication. They knew he liked his freedom, they never thought he would hurt to get it.
Now though, they hoped. He favoured riding a power bike with an offensive noise. One they would recognize in their sleep, which they had, just now. As they inched towards the door, their anticipation grew. The time did not surprise them. While unconfirmed, they knew it must be between 4 and 5AM. He had always had a knack for operating at odd hours.
“I’m coming.” The man bellowed again. He did not need to though, for they were standing right at the door. Their anxiety mounted like compressed gas in a leaking pipe. The man held the doorknob and his wife slipped her hand into his free one. He also muttered a short prayer. Making a last resolve, he yanked the door open.
The young man that stood in front of them looked different from the one they knew. He wore a plain black shirt over grey slacks and trainers, which was uncharacteristic. The man they knew always wore tees with loud inscriptions over jeans and high-tops. He always looked like a rockstar. A huge army-green duffel bag lay at his feet. But this wasn’t the what was different. It was his face. His egotistic air was gone. His eyes always had unshakable faith in his ability to strut like a peacock. Now though the lights were dim. Drawn across the canvas of his face were criss-cross lines of pain. He had aged from the last time they saw him. His hair was as untidy as cropped hair could be. A shiver shot through his body. Glancing at his bike, they could see he had not bothered with a jacket, or his helmet. He had driven straight down, from wherever he was, pursued by personal demons.
“Welcome home son.” The man said.
But you know what JJ, it…it didn’t hurt as much as this. Knowing they were right all along.
JJ fell into Big Pa’s open arms, his body raking with sobs.