Mmiri Village Forest, Uyo
A hand troubled his body.
“Ken,” a voice whispered, “it’s time to go.”
Ken grumbled and turned away, hoping that whoever it was would have the courtesy to go away.
They didn’t go. “Ken!”
Ken bolted to his feet. The curtains were still drawn, but the room was dark. Tom stood beside him, his features concealed by the dark. At the door, Mary stood holding a lantern. Beside her, Mr. Ajayi had the door slightly ajar; he was peering outward. He had changed into a pair of jeans and a black jacket. Tom picked something from the arm chair and handed it to him. Ken took it, held it to his face and saw it was a pile of old clothes. He glanced at Tom, irritated.
Tom shrugged. “It’s all she has.” Though, he himself wore a fitted polo shirt, a white long sleeve shirt which he left unbuttoned, and a pair of jeans. Ken quickly stripped and put on the change of clothes. He had expected them to smell of old people, but they were fresh. Ken zipped the baggy jeans and put the belt through the belt hoops as fast as he could. The sweater’s long sleeves barely touched his wrist, but at least it would keep his body safe from the murderously cold weather. Harmatan in the south south was a bitch!
Mr. Ajayi closed the door and came to them. “They har hasleep. We’re going to quietly sneak by.”
“What?” Ken whispered back. “Those things can smell you from a mile away.”
“We have no hother hoption. Do you want to look for Emma hor not? Look, we’ve studied these creatures for two nights now. They honly sleep between four hand six hin the morning. You’ll never catch them as vulnerable hat any hother time.”
Ken nodded, pressure building in his chest.
“Now,” Mr. Ajayi continued, obviously in charge of the operation. “We go hin a single file. The moment we pass the black creatures, we break hinto a jog hand then we make hay run for hit. Hopefully, hour escape will go hunnoticed.”
If there was something Ken had come to understand, it was that no plan ever went perfectly well. There were always kinks. Unforeseen circumstances. In this case, they could be ripped to shreds by these black, doggish creatures.
“His that clear?”
Tom and Ken nodded.
“I wish I could go with you,” Mary said, “but I am old. I’ll only slow you down. Good luck and I hope you find her.”
“Thank you ma,” Ken said, thankful that she hadn’t said the stark, obvious truth; Emma was probably, already dead. A truth he had been so blinded by love, he couldn’t see. Ajayi made a sign to Mary and she snuffed out the light, plunging the room into an absolute dark.
Ken heard a soft creaking sound, saw the soft glimmers of the moon, and felt the icy wind. He shivered despite his heavy clothing and shuffled out of the house. They approached the gate in a single file; Ajayi first, who held his gun; Ken second, then Tom last. The wind blew, a tad bit boisterous, causing a constant tune of rustle to come forth from the trees. Scattered outside the compound, the black creatures—what must have once been innocent dogs—lay on the ground, their ferocious, bright yellow eyes missing from the hairy mass. If Ken hadn’t known better, he would have thought they were mere heaps of ash, dotting the landscape. Aside from the whistle of the wind, the rustle of the leaves, there was a frightening throaty growl that emanated from the sleeping creatures.
Ken tightened the cloth around his body not from the deathly wind, but from the chill of dread that started at the base of his neck and wind down his spine. At the gate, there was a particularly huge black creature—the one that had been pacing last evening.
Fearlessly and without hesitation, yet with the cold, compassion-less barrel of his gun aimed squarely at the creature before the gate, Ajayi gently unlocked the gate and slid out the compound. Ken followed through next, side stepping the beast. He almost gagged at the putrid odor that wafted up his nose from the creature. Tom took a few second to follow because he had to lock the gate behind.
They tiptoed to the forest where they had hoped the creatures would cease to be. They were wrong. They continued silently and slowly through the forest. Tom crept closer to him and whispered into his ear, “why do you think so many of these creatures are surrounding the house?”
That was one question Ken had asked himself since he had seen the phenomenon yesterday. What was so interesting about them? Surely there were bodies everywhere for them to feed on. Ken turned to give a response, when Mr. Ajayi whispered his name. He turned to see what Mr. Ajayi was calling his attention to. He was too late. His leg plowed into the side of a huge pile of black—the one that Mr. Ajayi had avoided; the one that Mr. Ajayi had called his attention to.
Ken recoiled, terrified. Tom held him from falling. To their collective dread, bright yellow eyes appeared on the body. The creature reared at first, startled at their unannounced presence. Then it bared its teeth and prepared to pounce, growling aloud. Ken froze. A powerful blast split the air. The creature crumpled to the ground like a spineless worm. Ajayi still held the gun forward; at its business end, white smoke wriggled up. All around them, the black creatures stirred.
“Run!” Ajayi bellowed.
They all barreled, leaping over piles of black when necessary. It didn’t take long for the creatures to realize what had happened. Soon, they had the whole herd in hot pursuit. Ken’s lungs were aflame. His cheeks felt puffed, and his heart banged against his chest, threatening to explode if he didn’t slow down. But he couldn’t; as they crisscrossed the forestry terrain, any misstep meant a painful death.
The trio burst into a main road and followed it into town. They slowed as they navigated the carnage. Ken glanced over his shoulder. The creatures bounded out of the trees and raced after them. Day had dawned, the sun was already rising in the far east. They got to Itam in minutes.
“We’ll meet hat the girl’s house hin two hours,” Ajayi yelled from the front. He broke left down another road that seemed to be littered with more dead bodies and wrecked cars. Ken and Tom broke right, jumping over rotting bodies, wading through flocks and flocks of flies, along Itam Road which was supposed to take them to the residential areas. In a little time, they were dodging behind houses, slowly making their way to Eket Street. There, a white house stood, housing Emma’s body, living or dead.
The creatures pursuing them had thinned, so had the piles of dead bodies. Ken decided he couldn’t take any more of it. The sun was high up in the sky when Tom and Ken stood before Emma parent’s house, and they were drenched in their perspiration. It was a white bungalow with a wide compound and a fence that allowed viewing from halfway up. There was no sign of life. The door were shut. The windows were closed. Three cars were parked parallel beside the manicured lawn. The distant howls of their pursuers were getting closer. Tom tugged at his cloth, shooting fretful glances up and down the silent street. “Let’s go inside before they find us again.”
Ken took one last look down the street before entering the compound. There was the usual dead, rotting bodies strewn around in the road and gutter; there were car wrecks all along the street’s length. They ceased burning a long time ago. The front door was unlocked. Once they opened it, they were hit by a revolting smell of decayed flesh. Ken’s heart jumped in his chest. He swung the door open and dashed into the parlor. He needed to know if she was still alive. A squat glass table stood in the center of the room and around it lay Mr. and Mrs. Bassey, dead as dung. Flies hummed around the dead bodies.
Ken held his mouth, yet a shriek of terror escaped his lips. He looked away and ran out of the siting room shouting Emma’s name. They found two more dead bodies. One was rotting in the bathroom. The other lay on Emma’s bed; it had rotted beyond recognition. Ken fell on the edge of the bed. And in despair, he wailed. He grabbed the putrid flesh in the white sheets of the bed and wept over it. Tom stood in the doorway, in his periphery, and kept calm. “I’m sorry, Ken,” Tom said. “She didn’t stand a chance against this. None of us did.”
Soon, the tears stopped flowing from his eyes. His will and resolve to go on was decimated. And the howls and growls of the black creatures were at the door.
“We need to leave now,” Tom said.
“Go,” Ken said, clutching the putrid body as though his life depended on it. “I’m not leaving her again.”
“Don’t be silly!” Tom roared and dragged him from the bed. The body rolled out of his hand and hit the floor with a bump. It’s stink remained on him, though. Tom dragged Ken into the narrow hallway even as he weakly thrashed and stretched for the immobile body on the polished floor. They exited through the backdoor, scaled the fence, and made a run for it. It didn’t take long; the creatures were howling after them. As they turned a sharp corner, Ken glanced over his shoulder. Their pursuers had been joined by horned creatures that resembled goats.
They stopped on Oron Road to rest, death all around them. “Ajayi will never be able to find us,” Ken said between hurried breaths. Down the street, a pack of black creatures caught sight of them, howled to telegraph their position to others, and bounded.
“Quick. In there.” Tom pointed at a large Shoprite store ahead. They raced into the compound. Through the large display window, Ken saw a cavernous space with neatly lined racks and shelves of various colorful products. They entered through a side door that was open and shut it. They waited, hearts pounding, counting the seconds as it trickled by, but nothing happened.
Ken stole a look through the display window. Bright yellow eyes looked straight at him. He tore his head back and closed his eyes, trying to calm his racing heart. “They’re in the main road. Siting.”
Tom’s eyes were widened. “Why do they keep doing that? Why don’t they just attack?” He had a tone of exasperation in his voice.
Ken shrugged. “I’d be damned if I knew.”
Both Ken and Tom swirled around.
“Ken is that you?”
Ken shot to his feet and stared struck dumb at the figure that emerged from the shadows of the tall shelves and approached them. “Emma…” Ken whispered, tears filling his eyes. She was as curvaceous as he remembered. She wore a pair of jeans that revealed her bulbous waist. And though she wore a baggy blouse that seemed to cling to her, they could never have diminished her ample bust. However, her crowning beauty—what had endeared her to him—was her divine face, her naturally long hair, and her dazzling smile.
In a moment, she was in his arms, sobbing and trembling. The feel of her warm body on his was electric. “You came for me,” she cried to his shoulders. “Despite all that is happening, you came for me.” It sounded like a question.
Ken stroked her hair slowly. “It’s alright baby. It’s fine.”
Emma broke their embrace and hugged Tom too.
“I thought you were dead,” Ken said to Emma when they faced each other again. “We went to your house. There was a dead body in your bed—”
“Debby,” Emma said with tears. “She brought the virus into our house. It killed my sister and my parents.” Then she broke into tears and clung to Ken. Ken consoled her. “She came to our house in the night,” Emma said. “She said she had a fever and needed help. My dad, being a doctor, took her into my room and tried to treat her. But she died in three hours. That was when we found out on the news that it was an epidemic. Dad did all he could to disinfect us, but sis became symptomatic, then mum, then dad.” She cried again.
“It’s okay,” Ken whispered.
“They died one after the other,” she continued. “And there was nothing I could do. I watched my family die in one day. Do you know what that’s like?”
For lack of what to say, he said the first thing that came to his mind, “I love you, Emma.”
Emma stood on her own, sniffed, and nodded. “At first, I decided to lock myself up and wait for help to arrive. But then I ran out of food and came here. Actually, I was chased here by hideous creatures.”
“Why didn’t I die like them?” she asked.
“We discovered that some people are immune to the virus,” Ken replied, picking each word. “You are immune to the virus. That’s why you survived.”
The unmistakable rat-a-tat of a machine gun and the rev of an engine filtered into the mall. Howls and cries dotted the man-made noise and for a moment, it was all they heard—a battle raged.
“Tom,” Ken called, “quickly get some supplies. We’re leaving.” Tom nodded and dashed down an aisle.
“Who’s that?” asked Emma, holding his right hand.
“A friend of ours.” Ken smiled.
The sound of machine gun died down. “Kennedy! Thomas! We honly have hay few minutes to spare!” The man’s yell came muffled.
Ken led his girl out the mall into the sunlight.
Mr. Ajayi stood on the running board of an army green pickup truck. He waved for them to come quickly. He held in his other hand a big gun. Emma followed behind Ken.
“Hello, Miss hemma,” Mr. Ajayi said with a cunning smile. Obviously, his accent didn’t exclude names. “Hi ham glad you har halive.”
Emma smiled back and entered the vehicle without a word. Ken was about to go back for Tom when the man hurried out of the mall and dashed across the granite parking lot, hefting two large sacks. He dumped them in the trunk and entered the vehicle. Ajayi locked the doors and gunned the vehicle down the street.
By the time they got to the area they had exited the forest from earlier, the sun was already lost beyond the horizon. Ken had had to comfort Emma for all the time they spent meandering through the city in a bid to lose the black creatures because of all the death that lay around. They parked the car and trudged into the dark forest. Mr. Ajayi hefted a green bag supposedly jammed with weapons (he had gone to a military barracks) and led. Tom followed from behind. All the while, Emma cried as he led her through the forest.
They reached the house without incidence. Soon, they were within the comfort of a home. It might not have been the largest of homes, or the finest of houses. It might have been a Stone Age construction of rotten plywood. But it was home.
No one had the strength to talk when they were all settled in. Madam Mary served a cold dinner which they ate in silence. Mary whispered to him that he and his fiancée could stay in the back room while she and the boys would manage whatever comfort the parlor provided. Ken obliged and led Emma into the tiny room.
They cuddled in the bed for a while, each one savoring the other’s presence. Sleep came later; it was long and deep this time.