he ABC Transport bus headed to Enugu had just reached Lokoja when it slowed and suddenly came to a full stop. Isioma had been asleep at the back of the bus, resting her head against the shuddering window. When the bus stopped, she was jolted out of her slumber.
She checked her watch: 9:30 am. She had boarded the bus at 6:30 that morning in Abuja, where she’d been staying with her mother, Josephine, from whom she’d long been estranged. Isioma was staying with Josephine because she had attempted suicide at the NYSC camp in Gombe. She’d swallowed thirty paracetamol pills that turned out to be diluted fakes. Isioma had slept for nearly twenty-four hours until her roommate, Edidiong, insisted she be taken to a hospital.
Now Isioma heard the unmistakable click of gunshots. They were swift, crackling through the air. She sat up, and her first instinct was not to cower but to lean towards the noise. She knew this sound because she had once lived next to the army barracks in Enugu. As a child, she had heard, for months on end, the sound of the soldiers practicing, shooting holes into tin cans and cardboard cutouts. Now the sound came to her like a familiar smell.
Three men climbed on board and the bus shuddered under their weight. The men continued shooting, emptying cartridges into the ceiling as they marched from one end of the commercial bus to the other. Her fellow passengers cowered, but Isioma couldn’t tear her eyes from the ceiling where bullet holes now let in rays of morning sunlight.
“Oya, get up,” came a man’s voice. Isioma saw this man, camouflaged shirt, a toothpick sticking out of his dark lips. He marched down the aisle, his gun aimed at the ceiling. In the middle of the bus, he stopped and pulled a woman by her braids, yanking her from her seat. When she struggled, he shook her. Then he shoved her out of the bus. Isioma wondered if this was an elaborate robbery or a kidnapping. In Nigeria, it could have been either one.
The bus smelled like a hundred sweating bodies, and it was the first thing that struck Isioma as she lowered her head and intertwined her fingers behind her neck. A few of the other passengers had begun to beg.
The armed men shouted obscenities.
“Na my time you dey fucking waste,” Isioma heard one man shout. Then another gruff voice, “Fuck your Jesus,” in response to a woman’s pleading.
The men marched up and down the bus. They were laughing like hyenas, and something about the whole scene, the terrified passengers, the bellowing men, was comical to Isioma, so much so that she stifled a snort into her knee. Her head was so low that her jaw met her thigh, her eyes open and staring at her now dusty shoes. It was impossible to keep anything clean in the Harmattan season, not with the dust that settled everywhere—on tree branches, on car hoods, on her eyelashes. And in the rainy season, the mud and rainwater also soaked through her sneakers, dirtying her socks so that she had to soak them for days in hot water and Omo to get the stains out.
She had her head down for many minutes, counting the small square designs on the bus’s floor. Above her head, the men continued to shout. One by one, they picked passengers off the bus. “You, get up.” “No, please, I have six children.” “Did I ask you? Get up!”
When a hand yanked at her hair and dragged her from the bus, Isioma went willingly. Outside, the sun was blinding. The road had been blocked with tree branches and the branches were ablaze. The heat of the fire struck her like a force. She imagined running into it.
“Move or we move you,” one of the armed men said as he struck a young passenger across the face with the barrel of his gun. This gun-wielding man, like his fellow gun-wielding men, was wearing camouflage, boots laced up to his knees. His eyes were bloodshot though he looked young, somebody’s baby brother out in the world trying to be a man. He had a hardness that Isioma couldn’t take seriously, and though he was wielding an AK-47, Isioma wanted to reach out and touch his face.
He caught her looking at him and his eyes narrowed.
“You,” he said pointing his gun at her. “Oya, march.”
“Where?” she said. “Into the bush?”
He looked puzzled.
“Where else?” he said. “March!”
She turned to the forest of tall grass and low trees. The sky over her head was cloudless but gray; the smell of burning fires mixed with Harmattan dust made her nose itch.
“This way?” she said, looking back at the young man.
“If you don’t march I’m going to scatter your brains on this red soil,” the man said.
“Right,” Isioma said, and she began to march.
She entered the forest gingerly, stepping between fallen tree branches. The grass came up to her shoulders. Behind her, she could hear the other passengers, a woman crying, a man begging. The men with the guns continued their verbal assault. “Shut your stinking mouth. Move or I’ll shoot.”
They continued into the forest for half an hour. Isioma was now sure that she had been kidnapped; robbers wouldn’t have gone through the trouble of marching them into the forest. Yet Isioma wondered why the armed men hadn’t taken them somewhere more remote. That was how they usually happened; kidnappers dragged their victims out of cars and homes and carried them off to hinterland villages with few passable roads. These kidnappers didn’t appear to be amateurs. All of them, with the exception of the youngest, had the hardened look of men who could kill. Yet, here they were, only thirty minutes away from a major road. Isioma was counting the minutes under her breath. She was unfamiliar with the landscape of Lokoja, this transportation hub near the middle of Nigeria. It was a place she had passed through many times but could not quite say she had ever been to. It was like being asked if you’d ever been to London and answering yes, but only to the airport. Not that she had ever been to London.
They came to a stop.
“Oya,” one of the men said, hitting Isioma across the legs with his dangling gun. “Sit.”
There were seven of them now in the forest, four passengers and three armed men. The passengers were two young men, a middle-aged woman, and Isioma. The two young men had stopped begging but the middle-aged woman was still crying. Tears had pooled in the creases of her face and her nose was running. Isioma found the woman’s whimpering irritating.
“Sit!” said a man who appeared to be the leader of the armed group. He was a large man, sweat on his forehead and eyes that darted sideways when he spoke. He was wearing a tight black T-shirt, camouflage trousers, stiff boots.
Isioma sat down as she had been told. The ground was littered with twigs. They brushed against her bare legs and stuck to her skirt. When one of the young passengers, the one wearing an Arsenal football jersey, refused to sit, the large man shook him violently.
“I said sit!” he said. “You no dey hear word?”
The young man sat.
“I’m just a student,” he said. “My father doesn’t have any money. In fact, I haven’t paid my school fees this term.”
“Liar,” the second kidnapper said. He was slender, feminine, his face covered in pimples. He was wearing slippers and cargo shorts, a dark singlet. “A poor student with iPhone, abi,” he said. The other two men laughed.
She had thought about dying every day for six months before she attempted it. Isioma had thought obsessively about how she would do it, whether she would fling herself from some tall height or throw herself into crocodile-infested waters. At last, she had decided on the pills. They seemed easiest, clinical, most certain to work. It wasn’t that she was averse to feeling pain, but she had decided at the last minute that it was best to be efficient. Finding a tall building or crocodile-infested waters would have meant journeying out of the city, and Isioma had thought it all too cumbersome for something she wanted to be done with.
She had woken early the morning of her suicide attempt and waited for her roommate, Edidiong, to get up. Edidiong had a beautiful singing voice, one she had honed at church. She had even once dragged Isioma to one of the few Catholic churches in the northeastern city of Gombe, where Isioma had been posted to spend her service year. When Isioma had told her friends in Enugu about her assignment to Gombe, they all cursed the Nigerian government, accusing it of wanting to destroy its best and brightest. And when they found out that she would, in fact, be teaching in a school that Boko Haram had once destroyed, her friends urged her to petition the decision. But Isioma had already become so accustomed to the idea of dying that she didn’t care. Instead she went home and Googled pictures of Boko Haram bomb sites.
Now Isioma thought of taking a selfie and sending it to Edidiong. Forest Babe, she would have captioned it. Edidiong would have said, Where are you?? and Isioma would have responded, I’ve been kidnapped. I’m in the forest. I hope I die.
She fished in her pocket for her cellphone. It was the only thing she had on her; her purse was still on the bus.
“What are you doing?” the large man said.
“I was just getting my phone out,” Isioma said.
The youngest of the men, the one who had pulled Isioma from the bus, guffawed.
“It’s not an iPhone,” Isioma said. “Samsung.”
The large man gave her a bewildered look.
“Are you mental?” he said. He stepped to her and snatched the phone from her hands. Isioma leaned against the tree stump behind her and closed her eyes. So much for that.
The armed men confiscated all their cellphones. The large man gave them a stern warning.
“You try to run and you die instantly.”
Isioma raised her hand.
“Yes?” the man said.
“What should we call you?”
There was a pause in which Isioma couldn’t determine whether the man had heard her.
“Call him Chief,” the youngest man said. In the dim light of the forest, his eyes glowed. He was cutting an orange with a small knife. “Call him Chief or Daddy.”
The sequence of events the morning of her suicide attempt had happened like this. Isioma had complained of a stomachache and told Edidiong to notify the Corps leader when she got to the school. When Edidiong left, Isioma sat up on her bed. She took out her cellphone and thought about writing a suicide note. But there was nothing she really wanted to say. She didn’t know to whom to address it either, her mother or her father. If she was going to write a note, she wanted it to be a letter addressed to someone. And when she couldn’t decide who would be more impacted by her death, the father who was himself also dead or the mother she hadn’t seen in nearly five years, she turned off her cellphone. She fished in her backpack for the pills she had bought at the nearby chemist shop.
After she had swallowed the thirty pills, Isioma stood at the window and listened to the sounds of traffic. Gombe was a dry desert city. Before arriving there five months before, she had never been past Abuja. Northern Nigeria was supposed to be this nebulous no-man’s land. But Isioma found the city and its surrounding environs peaceful, beautiful, full. She liked listening to the early morning calls to prayer, liked that she could have long conversations with the vendors about the weather and the landscape and the best places to get your hair braided or your eyebrows threaded. She was almost sad to be leaving the city behind.
Soon, her stomach began to churn. Isioma tried to lie down on her bed but she couldn’t find it. The room was spinning. Her eyes were rolling in her head. She vomited and blacked out.
When she came to in the hospital, twenty-four hours later, her mother was seated at the edge of her bed.
“Forty-five school children kidnapped in Borno,” Josephine said to her daughter.
Isioma tried to sit up, but her vision blurred. She gripped the side of the bed, shut her eyes.
She heard her mother stand up and come to the side of the bed. When she opened her eyes, her mother was peering at her with a worried look. Isioma could smell her mother’s perfume, a lavender scent that had always been her mother’s signature smell. Isioma remembered that she would follow this smell around her aunt’s house in Enugu, and with each passing day the smell would be less potent, and when it was gone completely, Isioma would know that her mother had left her behind once again.
She had known from a very young age that her parents had never wanted to have her. Her mother and father were young lovers, and when Josephine became pregnant her father had fled. Nineteen and studying medicine at the university, Josephine took a leave of absence to have her baby. But as soon as her daughter was born, Josephine left Isioma with Isioma’s aunt and returned to the university to finish her degree. By the time Josephine graduated at twenty-four, she had decided she couldn’t be a full-time mother to Isioma.
In the hospital ward, Josephine sighed at her daughter.
“I’m not a bad person,” she said. “Will you forgive me?”
That first night, they slept on the forest floor, huddled together for warmth. The middle-aged woman, whose name was Irene, sobbed through the night. Only one man kept watch, the youngest one, who told his captives to call him Big Boy.
By morning, Isioma’s back was sore. Her mouth tasted like ash. Big Boy was still eating oranges and there was a mountain of orange peels around his feet. He was staring directly at Isioma as she sat up. Isioma met his gaze.
“Big Boy,” she called.
“Where did the others go? Why did they leave a little thing like you in charge?”
Big Boy laughed. Isioma hadn’t expected him to.
“You’re a funny one,” he said. “But I’m the best shot of all us. I can take any of you down if you tried to run.” He raised his gun and aimed it at Isioma’s head.
“Congratulations,” she said. “But you didn’t answer my question.”
“Where did they go? They went home.”
“Like home to their families?” Isioma said.
“Yes,” he said. “You think they’ll just sit in the bush for days? Haba, of course not. Chief himself has a newborn baby. Commando’s mother might die any day now.”
“Is that why they brought us here? So they can go back and forth?”
It made sense to Isioma, seemed efficient, continue to tend to life’s problems while you have people tied up in the bush.
“Wetin concern you?” Big Boy said standing up. He stretched and yawned. Irene made a small noise. The two young men, Kingsley and Osita, sat with their heads buried in their palms.
“Big Boy,” Isioma said.
“How much is the ransom?”
At the mention of a ransom, Kingsley began to wail. His Arsenal jersey was now covered in dirt.
“Please,” he said. “My father drives a bus. We have no money for ransom.”
Big Boy laughed a menacing laugh. He wiped tears from his eyes.
“They either find a way to pay or you die.”
For the three days Isioma spent in the hospital post–suicide attempt, her mother would read her the news from her cellphone.
“Bomb blast in Maiduguri, oil workers kidnapped in Port Harcourt, fuel scarcity in Lagos.” Isioma would listen to Josephine with her back turned.
The day she was discharged, Josephine came bearing new clothes, a pair of jeans and a T-shirt that said “It Gets Better” in faded letters. She watched Isioma put them on.
“Mommy’s here,” Josephine said as they walked out of the hospital and into the sunlight. “Mommy’s here now and she’ll take care of you.”
The words made Isioma want to shout.
They drove from Gombe to Abuja in nine hours, stopping in Bauchi and Jos where Josephine bought her daughter bananas and roasted peanuts.
When they arrived in Abuja, it was dusk. Josephine pulled into the house in Asokoro. It was the first time Isioma had ever seen her mother’s home. For eighteen years, Josephine had visited Isioma at her aunt’s in Enugu every six months. Inside the house, Isioma sat in the living room like a guest, looking at the pictures of her mother’s other children on the walls, her two half-brothers, Ahmed and Musa.
She awoke the next morning to find that Josephine had left breakfast at her bedside. She was in her half-brother Ahmed’s bedroom. Josephine had married a northerner who had died and left her a small fortune. Her half-brothers were studying in California. Isioma had found their public profiles on Facebook a year ago and spent hours scrolling through their pictures, trying to see what it meant to have known Josephine as more than a specter, a vanishing shadow.
On Ahmed’s walls were posters of Tupac, Al Pacino in the movie Scarface. His closet was full of clothes, and Isioma had thumbed through his shirts and trousers, bringing his caftans and agbadas to her nose until she felt she had mastered his scent.
She rose from the bed and ate the pap and akara Josephine had made, waiting for Josephine to tell her what to do next. Isioma still had seven months left in her service year. She could return to Gombe and continue teaching shell-shocked seven-year-olds about the stars. Or she could abscond like so many people did. Josephine surely knew some high-ranking civil servant who could falsify the paperwork for her, say that she had completed her tenure even when she hadn’t.
As she polished off the last akara, Josephine knocked gently on the door and stepped in. She was wearing a bright red kimono Isioma’s other half-brother, Musa, had bought her in Japan. Josephine’s face was radiant, and it was then that Isioma realized just how beautiful her mother was. Her face was perfectly symmetrical, with dark skin, almond eyes, full lips. Seeing her now, barefaced in her kimono, made Isioma think of the mornings when she would sit in her aunt’s living room, waiting for her mother to wake. She would sometimes slip into the room where Josephine slept, stand over her, tracing her face with wide eyes. Isioma had become so familiar with her mother’s face that when she began to draw at thirteen, she could draw her mother from memory.
Josephine sat at the edge of her bed.
“Sleep well?” she said.
“Just the two of us,” her mother said cheerily, as though they spent each weekend like this, breakfast in bed while they gisted. “The two of us girls,” Josephine said. “What do you want to do today?”
“I want help,” Isioma said. “I want to see a psychiatrist,”
Isioma stayed in the forest for four days before the first ransom was paid. Osita, whose uncle lived in Oman, had gathered the five million naira required for his release. He was blindfolded and led out of the bush.
“See,” Chief said when Big Boy returned an hour later. “We are men of our word.”
That night, Isioma began to count the stars.
“Look,” she said to Irene who was staring off into space, her headscarf askew. “We think the light of the stars as instant. But the light we see is actually thirty thousand years old.”
“How do you know that?” Chief said, gazing up at the sky.
“I studied it at university.”
“Wetin you study?”
“Big brain!” Big Boy said.
“Wetin be astrophysics?” Chief said.
“The study of space.”
“You want to go to space?” Big Boy said.
“Yes,” Isioma said.
“Like astronaut?” Big Boy said.
“From this here Nigeria?” he said.
“Nigeria wants to send an astronaut to space by 2030.”
The two men looked at each other. They laughed.
“When we no get electricity we fit put person for space?” Chief said.
Isioma was annoyed by their lack of belief.
When she told her aunt that she wanted to be an astronaut, her aunt had looked at her as though she had said she wanted to be a witch.
“Wait till your mother hears this,” her aunt had said. Her aunt, Nnenna, said this often, as though Josephine had just gone to the market for tomatoes and would soon be back. Nnenna was a lecturer at ESUT and made clothes for wealthy Enugu society women on her days off. Isioma’s earliest memories were of her aunt at the sewing machine, her feet tapping, tapping, tapping. Her aunt was what people derisively called a barren woman, and Nnenna had raised Isioma and loved her like her own child. Yet the weight of her two jobs meant she was hardly available, and when Nnenna was busiest, during Christmas and New Year’s and Easter, she would hand Isioma off to a distant cousin who regarded the girl scientist with suspicion and malice.
Once when she was sixteen, Isioma had sought out her father. She had learned from the distant cousin that he was a surgeon at UNTH. She arrived at the hospital with the birth certificate on which he was listed as her father. Isioma held it carefully in her sweaty hands because it was proof of her existence. But her father refused to see her that day, saying he had no such daughter. Days later, she would find out that he had been killed in a car accident on his way to his hometown in Nsukka.
When the psychiatrist she saw after the fact had asked her why she had done it, why she had swallowed all those pills, Isioma had simply replied that she was bored. It was the only way she could describe the hollowness. It wasn’t despair. It was something that had perhaps started as despair but had now calcified into something entirely different.
“Why are you joking about trying to take your own life?” the psychiatrist had asked her. The question made Isioma angry because she had never been more serious in her life.
She had woken one day her penultimate year at the university and found that the thought of going to lectures left her cold. As she stared at the ceiling, Isioma contemplated dropping out of school. This alarmed her because she loved school. She loved her classes, the theoretical ones as well as the practicums, the physics labs conducted with rotting equipment in ill-ventilated rooms. She loved the models she built, the measuring and calculating and weighing. She liked her classmates too; they were motivated and brilliant, capable of working around antiquated textbooks with supplemental research from the internet. During study hall, the lights of their cellphones gleamed in their eyes as they marked up new textbook chapters, updating them with information they found in peer-reviewed journals and online textbooks. Isioma had felt a camaraderie with this rag-tag team of budding physicists. But that morning, she didn’t want any part in it. She had simply turned over and gone back to sleep.
Big Boy sat at his perch sharpening several knives. With one knife, he sliced open a coconut and ate merrily. When he grew bored, he took aim and shot down several birds. They fell to the ground. Big Boy walked a few feet in the direction of each falling bird, and each time, Isioma considered making a run for it. He would aim his gun and send her down like those birds. But each time, she sat and watched and did nothing.
That night, there were shooting stars. Three of them knifed through the dark sky. Big Boy asked her to explain.
“Shooting stars actually have nothing to do with stars,” Isioma said. She sounded like she did in the classroom, and Big Boy sat up. Chief, who was cleaning his gun, stopped and turned his head to the side.
“What are they then?” he said.
“Meteoroids entering Earth’s atmosphere and burning up. The trail of light we see is called a meteor. Once that meteoroid hits the Earth then it’s called a meteorite.”
“How far from here to the moon?” Chief asked, gazing up.
“And the Americans went all the way up there? Na wah o.”
A week after Isioma arrived in Abuja, Josephine drove her to the psychiatrist. It was a Tuesday morning. They arrived at nine and waited in the crowded waiting room. There were only a handful of psychiatrists for thousands of people, and getting appointments was as difficult as winning the lottery. But Josephine knew this psychiatrist, had worked with him at the national hospital in the Central Business District.
“Here we are,” Josephine said.
Then she paused. She looked at Isioma with sad eyes.
“You have no idea how scared I was when Nnenna called me,” Josephine said. “Telling me you had been rushed to the hospital unresponsive. I didn’t even brush my teeth that morning. Just jumped into my car and started coming to you.”
Josephine looked like she would cry.
“Promise me you will try to get better,” Josephine said.
Isioma looked at her hands.
“Promise me,” Josephine said. “Say it.”
Isioma said nothing.
“Say it,” Josephine begged.
“I promise,” Isioma said.
“Good,” Josephine said. Josephine blew her nose into a tissue and wiped tears from her eyes.
In the waiting room, there was a man mumbling under his breath, a woman who could have been his daughter looking around embarrassed. The man’s eyes darted around the room. His eyes settled on Isioma and there was fire in them, his dark pupils rimmed by a rage that Isioma understood.
She would see the psychiatrist every Tuesday. After the first day, she drove herself in her mother’s sedan. The psychiatrist, Dr. Tim as he liked to be called, asked her every Tuesday morning why she had done it, unsatisfied with her answers.
“I can’t help you if you aren’t honest with me,” he said.
“I don’t know what you want me to say,” Isioma said on their second meeting. “I came here because I thought you could give me something, some type of drug to make me feel better.”
“I want you to tell me the truth,” Dr. Tim said, ignoring her. He was a thin man with bushy eyebrows and a haughty stare. Isioma wondered how much he knew her mother, what he thought of Josephine. Had he known that Josephine had a child in Enugu? More importantly, how could he help Isioma? Isioma wanted to know if Dr. Tim knew a hollowness so vast that it swept up everything in its path. She wondered if he ever woke in the night with dull voices whispering mayhem into his ears.
Dr. Tim asked her on their third meeting whether it was her grudge against her mother that made her attempt to take her own life.
“Were you so angry that you wanted to punish her?”
Isioma knew now that Josephine had told Dr. Tim all about her. In the office, Isioma stared at the potted plant behind Dr. Tim’s head. Then she looked him squarely in the eye.
“I’m not angry,” Isioma said. “I was never angry.”
“Anger can take many forms,” Dr. Tim said to her. “Sometimes what we feel as sadness is actually anger in disguise.”
“Will you give me something to help me sleep?” Isioma said.
“I could give you a sleep aid,” Dr. Tim said. “But unfortunately, the antidepressants you requested, the ones you’ve clearly researched on the internet, are in low supply across the country. You’ll have to do other things.”
“Like talk to your mother, try to see things from her perspective.”
A week in the forest and there were only two of them left, Kingsley and Isioma. Irene’s family had managed to negotiate the ransom down to three million naira. She had been escorted out of the forest the afternoon before.
Chief had taken out Kingsley’s sim card and was now using his iPhone as his own. Isioma’s Samsung now belonged to Big Boy.
“You say your parents are doctors,” Chief said. “But they don’t want to pay ransom. They no like you?”
“My father is dead,” Isioma said. “My mother is a psychiatrist.”
“Ah ah,” Big Boy said. “Your mother no like you? Big brain like you?”
Isioma didn’t know how to explain that it wasn’t that, at least that wasn’t how she saw it. She saw her mother simply as a person who had made a definitive choice eighteen years ago to compartmentalize her life between her past and her future. On the subject of whether she was a good or bad person, Isioma also didn’t think it was a fair question or the right question. Her father had left her too, and perhaps this was even more significant.
But in Gombe, Isioma had thought briefly of driving to Abuja, finding her mother’s home, and killing herself by blowing herself up right in her mother’s front yard. She imagined that she would go like a supernova, hot and pressurized. A pressurized dot. And maybe that way, all her energy would have finally burned bright.
She didn’t return to Dr. Tim for three weeks. When she finally did, it was less because of him and more that she liked the routine, liked that it gave her something to do. Edidiong had called her and asked her once again why she had done it.
“I found you there,” Edidiong said in distress. “Sleeping so peacefully. But then you slept and slept and slept, and when I checked your pulse, I couldn’t find one. Why did you think death was the only way?”
Isioma was tired of this question.
“I was so fucking bored, you know,” she said. Edidiong hissed.
Isioma realized her mother had been spying on her when Isioma returned home from the market where she had gone to buy eucalyptus soap. Dr. Tim had told her to indulge in sensory pleasures, to try and see if she could regain a lust for life. She had bought ice cream and soap and a scented candle with the money her mother had given her that morning.
In the kitchen, Josephine was cooking egusi soup. Isioma gave her a noncommittal wave as she headed up to Ahmed’s bedroom. She took a shower with the eucalyptus soap, which filled the bathroom with its powerful smell and made her think for a brief moment that perhaps she could try to live.
Her mother had set the lunch table and was waiting for her when Isioma returned downstairs. Josephine looked up from her cellphone. She gave Isioma a smile that didn’t reach her eyes.
“Why didn’t you tell me you weren’t sleeping?” Josephine said in a distant voice. Isioma stopped. She knew Dr. Tim was feeding her mother information and vice versa, but the nonchalance with which her mother had revealed this breach of confidentiality made the blood rush to Isioma’s head, like she was hanging upside down.
“Did Dr. Tim tell you that?” Isioma said.
“I’ve been trying,” Josephine said. “And yet you still see me as the enemy.”
“He’s been telling you everything I’ve been saying,” Isioma said.
Josephine sighed. She closed her eyes.
“He says you are one of the most difficult patients he’s ever had,” Josephine said.
Isioma didn’t know what came over her. Perhaps it was her mother reaching for her, as though to pull her into an embrace. Perhaps it was her mother bursting into tears when Isioma slapped her hand away. But Isioma picked up a vase of hibiscus flowers and flung it across the room. She didn’t wait to watch it shatter against the wall. She went upstairs to Ahmed’s bedroom and tore his shirts from their hangers. She smashed the mirror. In the morning, she boarded the ABC Transport bus headed to Enugu, to Nnenna.
Two weeks in the forest and Isioma was now the only remaining abductee.
“You must be a problem child,” Big Boy said. He was tired of being in the bush, tired of shitting in holes he dug with a shovel.
When Chief returned the next morning, he sat on the stool Big Boy had vacated and cleared his throat.
“Why don’t you go home, Big Brain?” he said.
Isioma was leaning against the tree stump.
“Surely there’s someone out there missing you.” Chief looked at Isioma with a pity that annoyed her. She chased an army of ants away from her bare thighs, the stench on her unwashed body filling her nose.
“I think I’ll stay a little longer,” Isioma said. Then she closed her eyes and fell asleep. ■