NEVER AFTER (Prose) by Chika Alice
I was running.
The heavy pounding of my sandaled feet against the cobbled pavement seemed to be the only sound assailing my senses as I darted toward the one direction I desperately hoped safety would be waiting. It was night – too dark, it seemed. The entire neighbourhood that had been, barely an hour ago, illuminated by bright lights was plunged into an eerie blackness, offering a temporary refuge. The tears came unhindered as I ran; tears of panic and regret; hot in my eyes, cold as the late-night breeze slapped against my contorted face.
If I could live through this night. If only I could.
They couldn't be far behind. I thought as I willed my heavy feet to move as fast as they could frantically; they had seen me before I fled.
You know, Irene, you really should try to lose some weight. It won't hurt, you know. You're only twenty-six.
Yeah, and Ambila's happier and looks amazing since she lost hers. Mame, are you ever going to quit taunting and comparing me with Ambi?
Oh, for God's sake, girl, you know I'm not… oh, okay, walk away while your mother's talking to you. Keep walking – lose some while you're at it!
My ears were pricked up for the sound of a gunshot. I heard none. I'd glimpsed the menacing glint of steel only moments before as the burly brown-haired man at the uncompleted building lowered a silenced Glock to his side. I hadn't been sure what had happened until Akan – I'm sure that was him – fell limply to his side from his knees, a gaping hole in his forehead. The troubling image of his shocked open-mouthed gaze locked onto mine as his body hit the ground would stay burned into my mind. I knew as I hastily put some reasonable distance between myself and the crime scene.
I was sure about one thing: when the body of the famous barbershop owner was found by the police, there would be no witness! My life was already in a mess as it was.
I finally stole a glance behind me as I sped onward. No one was in sight. Not yet, I mentally corrected. I had to live. I wouldn't go like this. I knew I was the only innocent one who'd seen what had happened back there. They had to become.
Did you have to invite Tobias to Mame's funeral?
Keep your voice down, Ambi. And yes, I had to. I wanted to. What's your deal with that?
What's my deal? You brought that good-for-nothing back to our house after Mame told him never to come back. You won't stop defying her even when she's dead! See, this isn't just your house now o, it's mine too, so he better stay away. I don't get it, Irene, why do you keep falling for these… these… these breed of men? Tobias loves nobody. I'll be damned if he loves himself.
Why don't I find out for myself, mmm?
You will – after he's done with you.
I sped toward Vivian's Court. The famous restaurant and lodge were not very far up ahead. Its neon lights would be looming with bright and stylishly illuminated letters; soft music would be wafting through the doors. Even this late, a good number of customers would still be seen regularly, dining. Diji managed the place. I'd only met him a month ago, and we'd hit it off already. I could get in.
Just then, a shot rang out. I screamed as the front glass window of a 'closed' shop exploded as I ran past it.
Too close, I thought. The shot had been fired from my far right, not behind. The shooter was advancing from a different route from the one I'd taken. It dawned on me as just then, I caught a glimpse of a man – another man – racing toward me, hot on my heels. He was short and stockily built, a red bandana tied around his neck. Everything else he wore was black and blended in with the night. No wonder I hadn't seen him, I thought regretfully. God, even his running footsteps, were silent.
Another shot rang out, missing me again. The short guy was shooting to scare and freeze, not kill. The new realization that I was wanted alive – and then only God knew what would follow –dredged up a new sort of terror that had me screaming with all the strength I could muster as I ran.
'Hey o, help! Somebody help!'
Somewhere nearby, hurried feet scampered across the darkened road like startled mice caught by surprise, away from me and my approaching pursuer; the neighbourhood was intent on getting its night rest, gunshots or not. I was utterly alone.
My lungs screamed for respite; arms and legs ached as my body, like a long-abandoned machine put to use after a very long time, propelled itself onward with energy I knew I'd never have otherwise been able to summon.
There, Mame. I finally got around to it. I hope you're happy.
A few meters ahead, the neon lights came into view — Vivian's Court.
The middle-aged security guard had just slid the barred gate closed – perhaps even locked it – and was ambling his way toward the small security house by the entrance.
He whirled around, startled by the sound of my pounding footsteps. Not slowing down, I slammed my body against the massive gate, clutching the thick iron bars.
'Oga please open the gate. Open the gate. MrDiji knows me. Open the gate', I screamed frantically at the man who looked ready to bolt.
The sound of my pursuer's footsteps drew closer, sending me into a wild frenzy.
'Open the gate nau! Why're you just standing there?' My body, as though working with a separate mind of its own, was making quick frantic jumps, my grip on the bars rattling the gate. 'Someone is coming after me. He has a gun. Oga, open the gate, let me come in. you can call Diji!'
Mr.security, as though controlled by another force other than himself, turned around and sped across the lodge grounds toward the main building, his body bent forward from the waist as though he were nearing the finish line in a hundred-meter dash. He wove around the closed restaurant and disappeared.
I turned. The short guy had stopped running and was walking toward me with steady, confident strides, his gun swinging back and forth as he walked, as though he wanted to make sure I and anyone else around got a good look at it. I glanced wildly around me for any sign of movement nearby, and then back at him. His cold hard gaze vanquished any hope I'd held on to in the last few minutes. Give it up; he seemed to be saying with his eyes as he walked up to me, gun raised to shoulder level, pointing upward. He reeked of stale perfume and sweat, the odour permeating my senses as I forced down the strong urge to gag.
'For a fat girl, you sure can run,' he sneered as he sized me up. Gripping my upper arm, he jerked me roughly forward, turned and pushed me ahead to walk back the direction we had come running. I knew better than to struggle with him; if it had been up to him, I'd be dead long before now, I was sure.
'Where're you taking me?' my scared mumble was barely audible.
'Just move,' he growled under his breath. 'You've wasted too much of my time already. Keep going'.
His hard grip tightened even more as he forced my aching body to keep up with his hurried pace. The emotional intensity of my nerves urged me to attempt to stall him, to do something; free myself. But I didn't know what tactic to employ at this point. He had his menacing weapon clenched tightly to his side, eyes darting left and right to make sure no would-be saviour was lurking around. After what I'd witnessed back there, I'd no doubt this one would 'silence' any threat in his way.
At that instant, an approaching figure emerged from the darkness a block away, walking steadily toward us. My heart jumped, almost threatening to burst out of my chest as he came closer. It was the brown-haired man – Glock tucked into the side of his jeans.
Tobias? Tobias, where are you? I've been calling you all day. Whose number is this?
Listen, babe, I need a favour. See, I'll need that money you agreed to loan me sooner than I thought.
When do you need it?
Very early tomorrow morning. Five-thirty.
Woah, I can't get it before then, Tobias. And don't ask me to get to an ATM this late.
Look, babe, I didn't plan this. It's urgent.
Closest ATM hasn't worked in days. I told you already.
Yeah, I know. Try using the one at Garrison, close to your church.
But that's far!
You'll be back in no time. No queues. I'll be at your place before six. Just open up when you hear me knock. Look, help me with this. I wouldn't ask if it wasn't urgent.
Oh, all right.
Thanks, babe. Still, only you.
He was staring intently at me now as we approached each other on the deserted road. I could read nothing in his calm expression, but then, Tobias was still the most unemotional man I'd ever been with. What did I expect now? He came to a slow halt as Short guy pulled me to a stop in front of him.
'You lack a sense of good timing, don't you? You just had to… show up', he raised his arms slightly, his hands fanning out on either side in mock frustration.
'Tobias… I', I began almost tearfully.
'Look, man, we're running out of time,' Short guy pushed me onward, forcing Tobias to turn and walk abreast of us. So now I was trapped between two hefty, gun-wielding men. How had my life gotten to this? I should have been getting ready for bed, peeling off my' other troubles', at least for the night, not being dragged along a deserted road on a night like a criminal by these men, one of whom I was supposed to be seeing.
'I didn't know you liked fat girls, Tobe,' Short guy queried with another sneer.
'Oh, she isn't fat. Just chubby'.
They sniggered derisively.
'Where're you taking me, Tobias?' I forced my voice to be steady.
'Why, to the ATM. Where else?' he replied coldly. 'I need the money even more now.'
'And then what? Do you plan on killing me? Is that what you're going to do?'
'Walk, Irene. And shut up'.
Shorty sneered again. 'Irene? Thought this one's Toke'.
I shot a glance at him, and then at Tobias.
'You have seen Toke before?' Tobias queried with an irritated sideways glance.
'Nah. You talk of her a lot, so I assumed'.
'She's not Toke. And keep your voice down. Or stop talking'. He was impatient now.
We hurried on until we rounded a corner on the left, and there, a few meters away, the row of four ATMs beckoned, bright lights illuminating the whole place. An overwhelming sense of despair washed over me as Tobias quietly gestured for Shorty and me to halt and stand outside the glow of light.
'Card.' He motioned for me to produce it.
I glanced at Shorty before digging the card out of my jeans pocket. Tobias snatched it out of my sweaty hand before I had the chance to hand it over. Shorty's grip on my arm tightened.
There would be no mercy from these two. It dawned slowly on me. And as the realization struck me, I hated Tobias with far higher intensity than that with which I'd loved him. There he stood, about to withdraw my hard-earned savings, and – judging by the cold, unfeeling glare in his hard-set face – probably planning on putting a bullet hole through me like he did the barbershop owner.
I should have listened to you, Ambi.
'If I give it to you, you'll kill me.'
'What do you think we'll do if you don't give it?' Shorty interjected. 'Give him the bleeding pin.'
'Tobias, don't do this.' I was near hysteria. 'I was only trying to help you. It's not my fault that I bumped into you at the time I did. Just let me go, and we can all go our separate ways. I won't tell anyone what happened'.
'Fine. Just tell me the pin. I need the money either way'.
'Please, Tobias. We can…'
The cold hard barrel of Shorty's gun pressed hard into my temple. 'Give him the pin now. You're wasting our time. I'm not going to say that again'.
'No?' His angry stare slid from me to Tobias. 'You hear this bitch?'
With a bare hint of a smile on his face, Tobias turned toward the row of machines. He stepped confidently into the glow of light and onto the tiled platform. Shorty and I stared at his turned back in confusion.
He couldn't have guessed my pin!
We stood still. We're watching as the next few seconds flew by.
I stared in disbelief as the machine ejected a handful of notes into Tobias's waiting hand. He'd taken a wild guess with my birthday and month.
Well, of course, he would.
Tobias lingered in front of the machine. When he began to punch in the keys again, I realized he was about to withdraw as much cash as he could. A few minutes later, his large hand was gripping a large bundle of money. I felt the tears well up; not so much for the theft of my money, but for the series of events and decisions I'd made that led to this turn of events.
Well, I found out, sis. And now he's done with me.
Pocketing his little fortune, Tobias turned away from the row of machines and strode toward us.
'We need to get lost, Tobe,' Shorty said.
'Yeah, we're done here.'
'What should we do with her? We can't let her go, man'.
'We won't,' he ruled as his gaze settled on mine.
'Tobias, don't do this,' I begged. He was pulling his Glock out from the waistband of his jeans.
'Sorry, babe. It's just your bad timing. Do better in your next life'.
His stare was almost apologetic.
Shorty released his grip on my arm and stepped away, still glancing around to make sure we were alone. Tobias lifted the silenced gun to my face from where he stood.
I hope you'll be happy to see me, ma'am.
And before the searing pain tore into my head; before I felt the cold hard ground against my body; before the thick wave of darkness wrapped itself around me, I caught a glimpse of the smile that could only be hers.
About The Author
Chika Alice studied English Language at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife.
Your typical indoor girl with her face buried in the pages of a book, she is an ardent believer of creative literature as a tool in expressing our unmentionable self.
She is determined to excel as a renowned writer, guitarist, and chef.
Never After is her first published short story.