Blue light from the television set suffuses the dark room, bouncing off reflective surfaces and cutting over edges. Shadows huddle in the dark, impenetrable corners of the room, and every now and then, a gentle breeze skirts through the leaves of the mango tree outside, leaving teardrops from the moon on the walls, furniture, and floors.
Plopped on the leather couch facing the screen, a sleeping dog breaks under the heat of its owner’s palm. The systematic rise and fall of black shiny fur is sight enough to twist Deji’s heartstrings. That Dante, even while asleep, is this receptive to physical touch betrays his abnegation from the dog’s life. Clearly, being constantly busy with work and the demands of his social life do not tailor well with effective dog ownership, and it shows.
It also explains why he is home this Saturday night, watching whatever African Magic drama is on―something about wicked mothers and bloodthirsty gods―while toeing the fragile line between the land of the living and dead. Clubbing would’ve made for a more ideal weekend activity, but he’d traded in chasing highs for chasing dogs and stayed home with his baby, who had fallen fast asleep after their energetic visit to the park.
A yawn escapes him and he stretches against the couch, head lolling beneath the weight of his fatigue. From somewhere above his apartment, the swell of strangled, disembodied voices rises over the sound of his television set. It proves slightly cathartic―the interweaval of male & female moans alternated by silence, and then a renewed upheaval, stronger than the previous―more irreverent and passionate.
His tired mind slips just as the accompanying rhythmic thuds sink in, and he falls into a well-deserved rest.
The next time he wakes up, his phone is ringing. The time on his device reads 10:26 pm and a look of confusion ripples over his face at the unknown number flashing on the screen. Without much preamble, he presses the device to his ear, a groggy “hello” barely making it past his lips before the voice on the other side bleeds through the phone.
And oh, it is enough to cut whatever ties he had with sleep.
“Nna, they’re trying to rob me.”
Deji straightens up immediately. Dante rustles in his sleep. The television is now showing some Saturday night comedy show with middle-aged men wearing badly made wigs. From a distance, he can hear water plinking from a leaky tap, but none of that registers, except the woman’s voice. She sounds petrified and it doesn’t help his imagination that a colleague, a previous date, some friend, some acquaintance―could be at the mercy of criminals outside.
There’s no time to waste, and he’d always been a little impulsive anyway, so he gets up and throws his jacket on.
“Where are you?” He inquires, already walking around the apartment for his wallet and keys.
“i’m at th-the FCMB atm near Chicken Republic…”
It’s all the information he needs. “Okay, okay,” he whispers, relieved by the proximity. He could be there in five minutes. Two minutes tops if he ran for it. The apartment door closes behind him and he jogs down the stairs, speaking to her all the while. “I know that ‘stay calm’ is probably the last thing you want to hear right now, but be calm, I’m coming for you. Will be there soon, okay?”
The woman’s voice breaks as she whispers “Okay,” and the line cuts.
“That was very careless, you know?”
Her words bounce off the walls of the empty hallway, accompanied by the music of clad feet as they walk up the stairs of his — sorry — their apartment building. This coincidence is one that lacks mystery. He had received a phone call earlier that day from a woman asking him to come down and move his car so she could drive out of the complex. And now he had rescued the same woman, all in a day’s job. Deji does not speak. Perspiration drenches the collar of his white tee as he heaves a sigh, keys dangling from his fingers like earrings.
“What if it was a trap?” she continues, “You know how desperate people are getting these days.”
He rolls his eyes in annoyance. She is somewhere between 5’5 and 5’7, but her words are too tall for a person he had just saved from a potential kidnapper/armed robber/ ritualist/ murderer. He feels skittish, and the node in his chest tightens as he takes in the full implications of her words. It could have been a trap. He had not gone out with Dante. Anything could have happened.
“You should be more careful, sir.” Her voice softens. “That’s all I’m trying to say. Inugo? ”
He hums a non-committal response. The elevators are not working today. They didn’t work yesterday and would not work tomorrow. Last Tuesday, he heard Barrister, the big-bellied man in apartment 402, complain about how his arthritis was getting worse from climbing the stairs every day. The caretaker had apologized profusely, in the conciliatory manner of someone who wasn’t planning to do anything about it, and he had felt both amused and sad.
“Anyways, thank you so much,” The woman sighs, snapping him out of his problem-with-Nigeria reverie. “I don’t know what I would have done if you had not come down, to be honest.”
“Why did you not start with that?”
“Thank you,” he repeats, and the look of confusion on her face magnifies.
“But I just said that, didn’t I?”
“No. You scolded me first for saving you. As if I was being a bolo. Then added sorry like an afterthought.”
There is a pause, and then the hallway bubbles with laughter. If Deji was not already irritated and embarrassed by the entire venture, he would have been spellbound by the beauty of the sound. Juvenile, and warm. The laughter of someone to whom laughing came easy.
“Is that why you are angry?” She teases. “Oya, I’m sorry. I should have started with that. Ndo. I’m just surprised that you would come out because a random stranger called you. You know how people are these days,”
Suddenly, it feels like so much is happening at once. The warmth of her eyes as she looks at him. Her full lips breaking into a smile. The cadence of their steps in sync. Deji’s keys find themselves back in the comfort of his joggers, and he fiddles with them in his pockets, seeking the familiar to anchor him through the maze that has become her presence.
“s’ fine.” he mutters, feeling even more embarrassed at his display of childishness. Of course, there was no way she was trying to be rude. Surviving such a dangerous ordeal would make any reasonable person panic and blurt out the first thing that came to their mind.
“I said it’s alright. You’re welcome.”
The woman smiles, and they walk a few more steps before she adds, “But next time, if there is a next time, try to confirm who you’re speaking to first before jumping to help them, okay?”
He nearly laughs. “I should be the one telling you that.”
“Ah ahn, but I already told you that it was a mistake. I pressed your number by mistake now. I wanted to call my brother.”
“Ehen, but next time confirm who it is you’re speaking to first, okay?” The cheap jab does what it needs to do. She rolls her eyes, smiling, and he bites back a grin, feeling like a lottery winner.
They stop in front of a white enamel door with the engraving 506 on it. Deji folds a mental note for later, as he watches her pull out a bunch of keys from her handbag. The lock clicks, signaling aperture, and then she turns to look at him.
“I’m going in now. Thank you so much for today.”
“You’re welcome. Please stay safe.”
“You too,” she smiles.
They stand in silence. From across the distance, they hear a neighbor speaking in tongues. It’s awkward, the prayers of “everything that is standing between me and my progress, die by fire!” and they cannot help but burst into laughter.
“My name is Deji”
“I’m Nmazuruoke.” The name is a mouthful, but it’s beautiful.
“What does it mean?”
“Beauty that is complete.”
Figures, he thinks as he takes in her face again. For a split second, he considers offering his hand for a shake, but his palms feel sweaty in his pocket, so he decides to keep them to himself.
“Well, please stay safe, Nmazuruoke.”
She smiles. “You’ve said that like three times now. Goodnight Deji.”
He waits for the door to close, then releases the breath he had been holding in since he first saw her standing in front of the ATM outlet with alarm bells going off in her eyes. He sees the picture a lot more clearly now. A 2008 Toyota Corolla parked haphazardly. People going about their business, probably thinking the same thing she had thought to express while they were walking up the stairs: “What if it is a trap?”
At the end of the day, their lives were this whirlwind of activity, punctuated by salient prayer points and sighs of relief when the weapons fashioned hit the next door, instead of theirs. And as he thinks of all this, he remembers Nmazuruoke, warrior and worrier. Her fine legs and her straight wig and the way she said “goodnight, Deji” with eyes full of meaning, before the door clicked into place.