“Hi yourself, Eze.”
“Ah, Ibu, how far?”
“I’m okay, Amaka.”
There were smiles all round.
And then Joseph greeted, “Nkeiru, how are you doing?”
“Fine,” she replied frostily; her face was as wooden as a closed door.
“How was your night?”
“And your weekend?”
The smile Joseph was wearing was now struggling to stay up. “And your sister, how is sh –”
“My sister is fine, thanks for asking,” Nkeiru said so flatly that I winced. All of us were watching the exchange with careful expressions.
Joseph looked helplessly at Ibuka and I. I shrugged. Ibuka suddenly seemed very interested in the book he held open in his hand. Joseph turned back to the girls, trying not to look daunted, and had just opened his mouth to say something else to Nkeiru, when she swept to her feet.
“Anuli, Amy,” she began after a quick glance at her watch, “it will soon be break time. Let’s just go now to Madam Suki’s canteen and buy our snacks now.”
Her tone brooked no dissension from her friends, and the girls obligingly got to their feet and followed her out of the classroom.
“What just happened?” Joseph asked no one in particular in the wake of their departure.
“I think Nkeiru just gave you attitude,” Ibuka said in mock horror.
“Tah! No girl gives me attitude. Them born am well?”
“Yea, but this girl gave you major attitude,” I said, chuckling.
“But why? What did I do?”
“Do you even have to ask?” Ibuka said. “It’s nearly two weeks now since Nkeiru poured her heart out to you. She told you she loves you –”
“Like. She said she likes me –”
“Ehen? Potayto, potahto.”
“Which one is that one again?”
“Don’t try to change the subject, Joseph Amuluche,” Ibuka warned with a finger up. “She also kissed you. After all that, what else do you think is left?”
“For you to go down on one knee…” I suggested, my lips twitching.
“And look into her eyes…” Ibuka added, as though we had rehearsed it.
“And open your mouth…”
“And tell her ‘Oh baby, I love you…’” I singsonged with all the soulfulness I could muster for the famous marc Anthony ballad.
“All of una papa dia!” Joseph hissed, and Ibuka and I broke out into peals of laughter.
The sound of our mirth sounded concomitantly with the jangle of the school bell signifying break time. My other classmates got to their feet, and there was a leisurely thronging for the exit.
Recently, we’d started having class periods that saw JSS3 students receiving scant classes. Most of the teachers had covered their syllabuses for the school session, and most of those who still came to give us lectures had revisions to do in preparation of the Junior WAEC exams that were inching closer with each passing day. And so, JSS3 students passed the school time these days by either lazing about in the classrooms or poring through books. Ibuka was oftentimes amongst the students in the latter category.
“But don’t you like her?” I asked as we walked toward the section of the school premises that harboured the school’s eateries. Stalls, canteens and umbrella stands under which sat salespersons minding glass cases of snacks stood side by side each other, jockeying for space and the attention of the students and some staff during every break time. As we approached, I could see a swarm of uniform-clad bodies already milling about the food market.
“I like her,” Joseph said.
“As in like her-like her?”
“What now come and happen that you don’t want to chyke her?” Ibuka queried.
“Because the Joseph I know does not slack in matters like this,” I added.
“I don’t know…”
“Or is it that she’s not fine –”
“Hey, Nkeiru is a very fine girl,” he cut in sharply, “and it’s not like that.”
Ibuka and I exchanged a look.
Just then, we heard the lowing of cattle, and looked in the direction of a herd that was being led down the main road by two, dark-skinned, wiry Northerners clad in threadbare tunics that billowed slightly in the stiff early afternoon breeze. One tapped the staff he held on the ground as he walked, while the other had his positioned across his shoulders, with his arms crossed over and hanging from either end at the elbows.
The school environment was dotted with vast pockets of lush vegetation, and with the permission of the principal, cattlemen often brought their herds to the school every now and then to graze on the greenery that stretched beyond the main school area.
Presently, the two herdsmen had shepherded their cattle past the school gates, and they were headed, no doubt, for the environs of the Tincan Island, where the greens were abundant.
Just then, one of the cows, a black-coloured animal whose body was dappled with white, began to cause a stir amongst the herd. Its lowing slowly escalated in volume, and it began rearing its horned head about. Some of the other cattle that were beside it quickly waddled away from its side, their own moos agitated. The herdsmen began to jabber in rapid fire Hausa, before one of them darted to the side of the distressed animal, lifted his stick and thwacked it against the cow’s rump.
Upon impact, I winced.
Ibuka shook his head and muttered, “Stupid…”
And the cow let out an outraged yowl, before it broke away from the herd and started galloping down the road, its hooves pounding a furious beat on the ground.
Not a lot of students loitering around had noticed the commotion. Those who had made startled noises and began a frantic rush away from the imminent path of the animal. Some others, those who weren’t aware yet, stood around and went on minding their businesses.
I caught sight of one such person. A girl. Ear plugs connected to a Discman in her hand were stuffed inside her ears, and she was standing, moving her body in a slow gyration to the music she was listening to.
And she was in the path – several meters away as yet – of the distressed cow.
“See that stupid girl!” Joseph gasped. “What is she doing?”
“She can’t hear o, she can’t hear!” Ibuka swept a panicked look around. “Who will warn her? Who will save –” He choked to a stop when he saw me darting away from them. And both my friends chorused in a shout: “EZE! WHAT ARE YOU DOING!”
Someone has to warn her! Someone has to save her! The mantra resounded in my head with repeated insistence, bolstering my courage as I raced toward the girl, whose eyes were shut and who wa snow moving her hips in slow undulations to the music.
She sensed my presence when I came to a stop before her, and her eyes snapped open. I had a quick impression of the eyes, which were the most unusual colour of blue-green. Beautiful eyes. Very striking. A face that was round and small, and features that were piquant and prettily put-together. I recognized her. Three pieces of information instantly dropped like pebbles in my mind. Her name. Her class. Her House. Emmanuella Okoye. JSS3F. Hope House.
“Nuella!” I rasped her name, the short form everyone called her.
“Eze!” Her brow creased as she unplugged her ears. “What the –”
“Look behind you!” I yelled, pointing.
She turned her head around, gave a start and screamed.
The cow had spotted us now, the only objects who weren’t moving away from before it, and it was galloping forward, its dewlaps were flapping wildly about, and the tips of its snout were peeled back over its teeth as it bellowed some more.
I snatched Emmanuella’s left hand, and started moving out of the way. She was still screaming, and the Discman slipped from her right hand and clattered to the ground as she lifted it to grasp the upper arm of my right hand. Her fingers dug into my skin as she latched on. I grimaced in pain. We shuffled forward a few steps, tripped and fell in a heap on the ground, sandy and gritty with small rocks, away from the macadam of the main road.
The cow had gotten close enough to us, and drew to a stop with the kind of force that made its hooves scratch against the tar, kicking up dust and loose flint. It swiveled its head around to face us, with its dewlaps quivering under the head. Its eyes were mad and dark, like polished onyxes. Its nostrils were flared as it expelled angry breaths. And the way its snout was peeled back over its teeth gave it a snarling expression.
And then it gave a menacing grunt and leaped forward, its head bent, its small horns thrusting toward us. We rolled away from the trajectory of the attack, me to the left and Emmanuella to the right. She got to her feet first, and fled. The cow had just me now, and swerved its head again, the horns scything through the air at me, narrowly missing slashing my body. With my heart pounding, I scrambled to my feet, and sprinted away. The cow gave a manic bellow, and pounded after me.
“Run! Run!” someone began shouting.
With the adrenaline pumping through my veins, I ran. I ran and I ran. I was headed for the hostel area. My heartbeat was roaring in my ears now, and my breathing had turned raspy from the exertion of my flight.
“RUN! RUN! RUN!” The chant was carried on by other students, and soon the shouts were resonating all around me, interspersed with exuberant cheers, and threatening to drown the sound of the hooves thudding on the ground behind me. I could hear the harsh breathing and the menacing grunts. Any moment, I expected those horns to finally catch my behind, those tips goring my back and ending my life. The image of my broken, bloodied body zipped through my mind, and I gave a choked cry as I sped on.
“Junior boy! Run come this side! Run fast!” There were SS3 boys crowded around the gateway of Unity House Senior Hostel. They hollered and gestured for me to run in their direction. It was the closest source of refuge, and so I did, barreling headlong for the safety that beckoned.
Another crazed bellow from my pursuer rent the air.
“RUN! RUN! RUN!”
My heart was threatening to burst through my rib cage now, and a red film was threatening the edges of my eyesight, as I pulled on every reserve of my strength to keep me on my feet and ahead of the mad cow.
Almost there! Almost there!
I was a few feet away now.
“RUN! RUN! RUN!”
The cowl bellowed again.
Hooves pounded hotly in pursuit.
The senior boys had moved into the hostel, holding the gate nearly closed, leaving open a space that was narrow enough to let me through. I dashed through that opening, and they shoved the gate shut, seconds before the cow’s horns slammed against the metal. The gate vibrated crazily from the impact, threatening to jolt the boys away from holding it shut, but they managed to hold fast. The cow yowled again from the other side and rammed its horns at the gate again.
“This animal dey craze o…!”
“Make those aboki them come carry am nau…!”
“Hol’ the gate o! Hollam well-well…!”
“If im enter hia, all of us don die be that…!”
The senior boys were all shouting at once as they struggled to hold the gate shut against the cow’s assault from the other side.
I stood apart from them, my chest heaving and my insides hurting from the strain of my run. The thought of how close I’d come to getting killed crashed down on me, and a wave of nausea suddenly swelled upward. I pressed my fingers to my mouth and moaned. My other hand clutched my stomach. My nausea pressed into my throat, cold sweat broke out over my skin, and black spots danced before my eyes. The last thing I heard before I pitched sideways into darkness was the panicked shouts of the SS3s: “Hol’ that gate! Hollam well-well!”
“Gawd – Eze! You be bad guy o!” Joseph crowed admirably as we walked to our classroom block the next morning.
“That is eh!” Ibuka interjected. “Do you know what they are calling you now?”
“And to think it’s Nuella Okoye you saved,” Joseph gushed. “Mehn! You sabi say she be Senior Gift sister, abi?”
I knew that. Gift Okoye was the female Social Prefect, and her status placed her younger sister slightly above the rules, made her slightly more popular than most other JSS3 girls.
“If not that they are graduating soon,” Joseph continued, “oh boy, na school mother things for life for you o.”
The three of us laughed. Just then, we looked ahead of us and stopped.
“Uh-oh,” Ibuka said. “Speak of the devil.”
“Shattap dia!” Joseph countered. “She’s an angel. You no see say the girl fine?”
“On Nkeiru, you idiot.”
I chuckled as I faced Emmanuella, watching her approach. Those unusual blue-green eyes of hers smiled at me as she came to a stop before us. Then she said in a voice that was soft and husky, “Thank you very much for yesterday, Eze Egwim.”
“Call me Eze, just Eze,” I said, suddenly feeling abashed.
“Well, Just Eze” – her small mouth curved upward into a small smile that seemed almost flirtatious – “thank you for saving my life. You’re like my prince.”
I felt my face go hot, and my response was a stutter. “Uh – well…it’s just…” Oh my god, Ezenwaka! My mind railed. Think! What would Joseph do?
“Do you have a girlfriend?” she asked.
I blinked, taken aback by the non sequitur. An image of Anulika flashed through my mind’s eye. “Uh, no…”
“I don’t have a boyfriend,” she said, now smiling so winningly that she charmed a smile out of me.
“Like I said” – she stepped closer to me – “thank you. You’ve made me realize how short life can be.” And she pulled me into an embrace, her arms going around my midsection to clasp my back.
My nostrils were instantly assailed with the smells of hair oils and lavender scents. I took a deep inhalation, and closed my eyes briefly, leaning into the hug. Then I opened my eyes, looked past Emmanuella’s shoulder –
And into Anulika’s eyes. Eyes that had a remote expression in them, looking back from a face that had been schooled to reveal nothing. The stare lasted a moment before she turned away and walked on, a stiff figure flanked by her friends.
“Nkeiru, wait please…!” Joseph hollered.
The three girls stopped moving.
Joseph turned to Emmanuella as she pulled back from me. He was grinning as he said to her, “Thank you too, for what you said. Life is too short. I suddenly realize there’s something I must do that I should have done a long while ago.” Then he winked at me and sauntered off to meet Nkeiru and her friends.
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