Half the room was dark and on the other side of the bed, Emeka faced the little window that viewed Funkayo Street. The blades of morning light intermingled with the dust and noise from car drivers yelling against each other, tires wobbling in potholes, clashing horns, mothers shouting at their children to be careful on the road, vendors calling about the dailies, bread sellers beckoning on customers, and shop owners opening their wares; all sounded with no cadence. He didn’t feel like rising, all his bones were aching him, and the silent breeze and boredom made him feel sick. His phone showed sixteen missed calls. He dropped it back on the bed and looked at the peeling ceiling with cobwebs. His phone rang and he threw it down again; another runaway friend, he said to himself.
He had returned yesterday from school after having fun with his friends for a week. It was late August and the feeling of being in their finals by November and months away from being a graduate had made them go mad with joy. They all had plans on how to continue the pleasure, but when he arrived home late yesterday night, he was welcomed with the news that his brother had passed away. For all that happened last night, he couldn’t forget his mother whispering that Collins had been poisoned and that one of his friends had betrayed him.
After much thought he washed his face and brushed his teeth, and went to meet each of his brother’s friends to ask what happened. Most of them said, “He was a good friend and I would not think of hurting him. He was more than a brother,” while others replied, “He was a scarred guy trying to find enemies that were his friends.”
When he got home that first day, he walked straight into Collins’s room and was surprised to meet it empty; slanted yellow rays from outside had caused it to be bright and fair. His sister Esther followed him. He walked to the blue wall opposite the wooden wardrobe and studied the black stains that resembled a man’s palm. It was a symbol of those years when Collins struggled in the valley of pessimism, when faith was far from him.
“Collins always carried a gun with him,” Esther said, standing in the open door with a wrapper tied around her chest. “He was a threat to us, and Mother chased him out again when he didn’t care to change.” Ester and Collins always had a collision at home, because Esther invariably sided with their parents on any issue, and Collins felt that she did it to hurt him. Esther was one year older than Collins and he frantically insulted her, more especially in public; sometimes he beat her and no one did anything to him.
“Why did they kill him?” Emeka asked
“Because he was becoming more influential than they, and they hated him for it.”
He was speechless.
“Hatred, envy, and selfishness.”
“But tying a gun to one’s waist doesn’t sound much like a threat,” Emeka said.
“You know nothing, boy.”
“I’m not a boy.” He raised his voice, going close to her.
She gazed down at the floor. “You know I didn’t mean that. I loved you both.”
“He was decaying and we couldn’t get him out of it.” His voice now had a tender sorrow in it. “I don’t understand what he felt, but he wasn’t supposed to end this way.”
“Did you know he dropped out of school?”
She tied the wrapper tightly above her breast and nightgown dress.
“He loved you more than anyone else.” Emeka resumed. “In fact, he loved women more than anything else.”
“We aren’t the ones who ruin men, men destroy themselves with their own hands.”
“I never said women killed him.”
“It was drugs, Emeka, it took all the ambition and money.”
“Did he tell you his secrets?”
“No. Even if even he had, they would be useless to me.”
“I will go in and rest a little.”
“Emeka!” She gazed into his eyes. “Don’t look at me as though I’m happy he’s dead.” He nodded and went to his room.
Visitors flooded the house that evening to say their condolences, but they looked as though they had just come to seek whether the bereaved had cried enough; whether the plague of death that was in the family was caused by their mother or whoever? Emeka felt disgusted when his mother accepted some of their monies, but there was nothing she could do about that, poverty was of concern. In the middle of the night, she told her children that she had seen her son and he talked to her, but they gave her sleeping pills. Emeka was restless through the night. The next day was the wake keep at the compound and while the preparation was ongoing, his mother collapsed in the kitchen while crying, and after many attempts she regained herself. Esther had to quit work earlier because she needed to stand by their mother, and even though they feared poverty, they still clung to life with faith.
That evening was cool and the thick cloud carpeted the orange sun. Emeka, Esther, and their mother wore black dresses and walked down from the second floor of the three-story building. Many people had arrived early, and the compound was full. A murmur arose when the people saw them. Emeka sighted none of his friends and it pained him. He reminded himself that only true friends come in the days of sorrow.
The opening prayer was led by Uncle Emmanuel, and after that, the oily-faced priest in a purple gown stood behind the wooden lectern and spoke with a saw-edged tone. “We come not to celebrate but mourn the life of a dropout, fraudster, schemer, liar, an addict, fornicator, and a societal demon. Youths of this nation must reject this kind of life. This is a man whose evil killed him before death came.” He raised his hands and continued in high-pitched voice: “Twenty-six worthless years...twenty-six pathetic years.” Esther began to cry. Emeka was angry. He bowed his head and closed his eyes and remembered the cool morning, two years ago, before breakfast, when Collins walked up to his father in the sitting room and sat on a sofa.
“Dad, what is peace of mind?” Collins asked, drawing close to him.
“It’s something that genuinely exists from the heart. It makes one experience the gift of happiness and comfortable life so that we can think properly and attain new heights.”
“Does a poor man have peace of mind?”
“Son, the world which we live in is a struggle and it will ever be, but some struggles are dangerous. Just like yours, and may I warn you that material things don’t always make life amazing.” He scratched his grey beard. “Life itself is a great burden, whether there is money or not.”
“Dad,” Collins said, touching his thighs, “I enjoy the money I earn through this business, and whether some white man calls it internet fraud or anything else, as long as God still provides for me I am happy.”
“Don’t call God into this. He never sent you to steal.”
“Somehow he allowed me.”
“Hear yourself boy, hear what you wish.” His father pointed at him. “l keep advising you about the right path in life, but you don’t make any good use of it, and if you don’t caution yourself, you may end up in jail.”
There was an uncomfortable stillness.
“Dad, I want to live a life I deserve, without pain and sorrow.”
“You don’t deserve to be a thief. This is rotten, how many people would have caused themselves harm or committed suicide because of you.”
“I don’t care.”
“So why do you do it?”
“Because I need to survive. There’s no job outside, and if there is one, how much would be my salary in a year. This world is a mess. The man who pays another steals from another man’s labor to gain profit and nobody calls him a thief.”
“You talk as though you are God.”
“But does He understand what we see every day?”
“If he did, he would have given me a better life than the one that I live presently. He would have answered my request when I cried for money.”
“You are too intelligent for this.”
Collins stood up as though to leave but then turned back. “I dropped out of school because life was miserable there; everybody has to write an exam as though that defines life.” He walked out of the house and didn’t eat breakfast.
After that, Emeka knew, Collins lived as though tomorrow was too far. He pursued any girl he saw in the street, smoked every weed that got to his hand, stole from both rich and poor, killed other gang members, and his father chased him out of the house after making more money than anyone could have imagined, but he squandered it all.
Two months after the heated argument, Collins and Emeka’s father died after being hit and run by a vehicle while returning from the supermarket. It wasn’t only that he died, he died annoyed that everything was stolen from him. A man who had three kids, but for forty-eight years he couldn’t provide fully for them. He tried selling tires and motor parts at Ladipo market, then lost all the capital within two years; he believed he had to work it out when he opened a shop at Bolaji Avenue, but within eight months of not selling anything he later sold the remaining at cost price, while some expired. He got a lecturing job at a college in Akoka, but when he retired he wasn’t paid his pension, coupled with the fact that they owed him two years’ salary. He died in debt.
Emeka’s mother kept a store at a small street opposite Bolaji Avenue, beside the decayed houses, close to the junkie joint. While Esther had a job, she worked nearly fifteen hours a day, and yet every month she got a pay cut.
The priest was singing a song when Emeka raised his head. He gazed at Collins’s photograph placed on a table covered with a white cloth, surrounded by five candles. Collins resembled his father. He had dyed hair, a broad nose, brown eyes, silver earrings, and a black beard. Emeka bowed his head to pray. He thought about whether his brother would meet God; his mother began to weep and he felt a flow of sorrow. What was he going to do? What if the compass that guided him was false? His sister held his left hand and he felt the paralysis of fear; maybe his brother was right when he said there was no need for faith or belief in things that weren’t going to work. He was tired of thinking about religion. God, money, and luxury were what controlled the world, and his father lacked all.
Esther fell to the ground, rolling on the dust and weeping hysterically and he couldn’t do anything, her crying was proof that she loved Collins. He just watched as though she wasn’t his sister. Why had Collins left them this way? The priest had stopped and Emeka felt as though the world was coming to an end. The priest took off his glass and cleaned his watery eyes with a white handkerchief. Emeka looked at Esther while the women raised her to her seat.
“I had faith he would one day turn out good. But my baby didn’t change,” his mother kept repeating. And for the first time in his life, Emeka felt a listless heaviness on his shoulder. Their ideas about life had failed, no hope on the toiling narrow road of life.
When the priest called Emeka to the lectern, he stepped like one whose imagination couldn’t hold his belief. He hadn’t prepared anything, but he had one thing in mind about his brother’s life and a host of other things which he felt ashamed.
“Faith fixed like stars,” he said, looking back at his mother and sister.
He tried not to make eye contact with anyone in the crowd. His limbs were shaking and his heartbeat rose. “My father once told me that the worst set of people to depart from this world are those who God gave them their bread early and allowed them to die. That they were chased like rams to the slaughterhouse. Chased because they made the world worse than they met it. Today I see my brother as one of such. He always asked me, who would we exploit in the grave? If we do not become rich and famous today, when again is that going to come to us? I remember those years when my brother cried and locked himself in his room, and my father would be at his door begging him to open up to him, yet he refused. Today, for his refusal, we have to bury him.”
Esther and his mother had stopped crying and the crowd had become calm. Emeka gazed at his brother’s picture on the table, and he continued. “Faith was what kept my father, faith in the bright and welcoming future, and I am bold to cleave unto it today. This family has everything, so do not look at us and feel remorse, because we haven’t been deserted. Sometimes a man must die for others to live, for others to get past the backlog of decay he piled while on earth. Thank you.”
When Emeka sat down he felt autonomous, like a part split from the host. When he turned to his sister, he could see that she felt the same.
Faith fixed like stars.
Victor Uzochukwu Victor Okechukwu is a writer based in Enugu, Nigeria. He’s reading mass communication at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. His work has been published at Rigorous magazine and Fragmented Voices. He loves writing about his country life and other shrewd things that happen in the society. Also, he loves reading blockbuster novels and believes to be a novelist in the nearest future. He can be followed @uzochukwu1 on Twitter and @okechukwu6590 on Instagram.