The sun has come up and I am sitting by the window that is still foggy with the dampness of the early morning rain. I am a terrible sight this morning, still dressed in my nightgown and my hair flying in all directions. The temperature of the air conditioner is set as low as possible. I am hoping the chill from it will seep into my bones and chase away the uneasy feeling crawling within me. I hide here in my room as often as time and chance will allow me. Beyond the door to my room, down the corridor lies the source of my agony…
It was early October and my mum, Mrs. Inyang, was in good spirits as she prepared breakfast for my dad, my brother, Koko and I. The sweet smelling aroma of a well prepared meal sent us, the kids, jumping around the house in excitement as we awaited the great feast. Dad hurriedly got dressed for work and urged Koko to quit jumping on the couch and hurry with packing his books for school. A few minutes later, mum called out at the top of her voice saying ‘Food is ready, oh!’. Scrambling down the stairs, I found Koko already seated and dad making his way to the dining table. The look of the yam and egg stew was as good as the smell promised it would be, it was heavenly. Once we were seated and the grace was said, we dove into our meal. We were all carried away with the bliss of eating until mum cleared her throat and giving my dad a wink, she said ‘ Ima and Koko, I have some great news for you’. With looks of expectations written all over our faces, we craned our ears. I began to envision a surprise gift, a nicely wrapped new wristwatch or maybe a we were finally going to take that trip to the zoo she had always promised us. One look at Koko’s face told me he was lost in his own fantasy land. Just when I thought she had changed her mind about telling us this good news, she said ‘ You are both going to have a new brother’. It was not the kind of news we had been expecting but it was good news all the same. I rushed round the table to give her a hug and she held me close for a long time. Koko not knowing if it was manly enough to give people hugs simply stayed where he was, grinning.
Once we were through with breakfast, my dad and mum set out for work. He usually drops her off on his way to work. Every day, I walked Koko to and from school which was a walking distance from our home. Koko was a primary four student of Everday Montessori Primary School which resumed at eight o’clock each morning and closed at one o’clock in the afternoon. He was the captain of his class and so had to be early and punctual. He was not a very good athlete but what he lacked in height and build, he made up for in brains. He was an exceptional student who excelled in all his subject. I was awaiting the results from my just concluded Junior WAEC examination and got to stay home alone on school days. Sometimes, I visited Aunty Bunmi who ran a hair salon two houses away. Since Koko and I were the only children of our parents, we spent a lot of time together, playing and fighting. I loved my family a lot and another brother did not seem like a bad idea. Honestly, it actually seemed like a great idea to have someone else to fuss over. I could not wait to tell Aunty Bunmi this latest bit of information.
Once I returned home from my brother’s school, I cleaned the dishes. Leaving the house unlocked, I ran to the hair salon and began narrating my news to aunty. I guess this is why I am sometimes called ‘radio’. I was so engrossed with telling my story and eventually watching some movies on her small black television that I lost track of time. I was half way was through my third movie when it suddenly occurred to me to check the time. It was three o’clock. Koko ought to have returned from school. My parents would return from work in about an hour and I had not yet prepared lunch. I rushed home hoping to find Koko. I checked his room and saw no sign of his school bag and shoes. My heart skipped a beat. I ran out of the house knocking on my neighbours’ doors, asking the same questions, hoping to find an answer. No one had any useful information to offer. I began to weep. Naked fear had found its way into my veins. Just when I thought things could not get any worse. The butter cream colour of my father’s Peugeot 504 car came into view, pulling its way leisurely towards our house. I knew I was done for. With nowhere to run, I prayed for the ground to swallow me. I was scared.
Dad parked the car in front of the house. As mum stepped out of the car, she took one look at my teary face and knew something was amiss. She hurried to my side and asked why I looked so worried. Not knowing what her reaction would be, I took a step back and with a shaky voice said ‘I cannot find Koko’. She looked at me like I had gone mad. My father, trying hard not to panic, asked me to explain what I meant. I began to weep profusely as I recounted the incident to him. Once I was done telling my story, mum in her fury landed a hot slap on my face. She demanded that I produce her son. I was lost. Dad decided to take control of the situation and ushered us into the car. We drove to Koko’s school. There were a few people in sight. No one had seen my brother since the close of school. my mother started screaming at me. My dad ran out of the school gate hoping to squeeze some answers from passers-by, trying to organize a search party. I shamelessly sat on the floor of the school compound.
A few minutes after the school premises was thoroughly searched, the security man pulled my dad aside and told him that he just heard over the news that a vandalised pipeline not far from the school had caught fire. Bodies had been badly burnt and many feared dead. Without thinking, we rushed to the site. The horrible smell of burning and decaying bodies assaulted our nostrils. Some volunteers tried to quench the fire to no avail. The fire fighting team of the government had just arrived. They were pulling people’s bodies out of the danger zone. Agony was written on everyone’s face. The people who had been trying to scoop fuel from the leakage had been hit the hardest. All that was left of many of them were charred pieces of bones. Some of the onlookers had survived but with grave injuries. Their cry for help was heart wrenching. It was among this group of people that we searched. It was among this group of people that we found Koko and two of his classmates. My brother’s chest, arms and legs were burnt beyond recognition. He face was wrinkled with pain. He could barely speak.
We rushed Koko and his friends to the hospital. The doctor who attended to Koko said that he would live but with serious health complications for the rest of his life. The fire had destroyed most of my brothers speech organs and surgery would have to be performed to fully restore the use of fingers. Upon hearing this, my mum broke into tears. My dad held her close. I stood alone, devastated. We later learnt from his classmate, Chuka, who sustained injuries to his back, that at the close of school, they had decided to make the trip home themselves after waiting endlessly without being picked by their guardians. On the way home, they saw a throng of people with buckets and gallons hurrying down a path. With childlike curiosity, they sought to find out what the frenzy was about. When they arrived the scene of the activity, they found hoards of people scooping fuel into containers. They stood watching for a while and just as they decided to leave, they were hit with a wave of fire. All he remembers after that moment was feeling excruciating pain.
….Koko has since returned from the hospital. The scars from that incident are boldly drawn on his body. He has not yet regained the use of his fingers. The nurse who visits him daily says proper use of his hands may take a while. He barely smiles anymore. Sometimes, I hear him cry when I pass by his room at night. My parents do not speak to me anymore. Every time I see them looking at Koko, I feel their resentment towards me build. I do not like being the cause of so much pain. I wish I had not gotten carried away with watching television that day. I wish I had picked him up from school on time. I wonder what I can do to make this right. How will I continue to live with the consequences of my actions staring me in the face?
Photo Credit: www.algarvebuzz.com