The night is cold. The chirping of insects is so loud and it pierces my ear. I lie on my bed, the mattress torn in different places and compressed flat like bread pressed with iron. I am uneasy. I hear an owl hoot in the distance. Mama and Papa are asleep in the next room. Isio, my brother is sleeping on the mat on the floor. He wets the bed and so I don’t let him sleep on the bed with me. Mama does not know I make him sleep on the mat. I keep staring into the ceiling. Something is wrong. I sense it. Then, it happened. I hear the loud bang on the front door. I hear the door open forcefully. Isio wakes up and I place my palm over his mouth so that he would not scream. I do not know who the people are. I pull Isio and we hide under the bed. I still hear the owl hooting. I feel a hot wet liquid on my legs. Isio had wet himself and the floor and my legs. The people went into Mama and Papa’s room. We hear the gunshots. A few minutes later, we hear the door shut and a vehicle drive away.
I let go of Isio and run to Mama and Papa’s room. I see blood everywhere. Papa’s head has a hole in it. Mama’s chest has a hole in it. The owl continues to hoot. My parents are dead. Isio is shaking. I hold him to myself. My own knickers had gone wet. I carry Isio and we run into the cold night full of chirping insects and hooting owls.
Isio has fallen asleep. He is on my shoulders. I am very afraid. I remember the sight of the holes in Mama and Papa and the blood all over. I do not know where we will go. Papa always said the police was nobody’s friend and so I do not want to go to the police. I do not know who would have wanted my parents dead. I have walked a long distance and my feet hurt. I cannot stop walking. I am praying we find help somewhere. I am on the road. It is probably 4:00am. I stop walking. I sit on the floor. I stir Isio. I am crying now. I do not know what we are going to do. I am orphaned at twelve. I do not even know who the men that killed my parents were. I am afraid. Lorries start passing the road. I wake Isio up. He does not understand anything that is happening. I wave down one of the lorries carrying chickens. I beg the driver for a lift to wherever he is going. He is reluctant. He is probably wondering where two small boys would be going at this time of the day.
‘Are you not too little to be alone?’ He asks. ‘Who’s the boy?’
‘My brother, sir.’
‘And your parents?’
I am silent.
‘Boy, are you running away from home?’
‘No, sir! We are orphans. We have nowhere to go.’
The man is now silent. He looks me in the eye as though he was seeking confirmation of truth.
‘How old are you?’ He asks.
‘I am twelve years old. Isio is three.’
‘What’s your name?’
‘Okay. Come in.’
We get into the passenger seat. He helps me hold Isio while I climb into the vehicle.
‘I am going to Okpare.’ He tells me.
‘Do you know where that is?’
I shake my head.
‘Well, I don’t live there but I can find someone who you can live with and maybe work for her.’
‘And my brother?’
‘We’d see to that.’
I soon fall asleep and I dream. I see masked men shoot Papa and Mama. I wake up startled. We had arrived in Okpare.
The man takes us to the poultry where he is delivering the chickens, and afterwards, he drives to a beer parlour. It is owned by a certain Madam China. I wonder why she is called so. Maybe she travels to China a lot. Isio is awake. The man and Madam China are talking. Isio and I have been served food. We are eating rice and stew with fried pieces of fish. Isio asks me of Mama. I tell him, ‘shush’. He is too young to know what death is. He is too young to be exposed to how Mama and Papa died. We eat our food and clean the plate with our tongues. It is almost as clean as a washed plate except for the oily feeling on it. I wonder what the man and Madam China are discussing. They are back now. Madam China keeps looking at me.
‘How are you, Uvo?’
The man must have told her my name.
‘I am fine, ma.’
‘How’s your brother?’
‘He’s fine, ma.’ Isio is still licking his plate. Madam China wears a disgusting expression as she looks at him and quickly changes it to a smile.
I can sense that she does not like children. I pray she takes good care of us.
‘I can’t take care of you and your brother. I can’t take care of you both. I will send your brother to one of my friends. She has no children. She will take care of him properly while you work for me.’
I worry about leaving Isio alone with an unknown woman. He is too young. But I want him to be safe and not suffer hardship. Madam China speaks of the woman as a very good person. I want to meet her first to see who I am sending Isio off to. Madam China tells me not to worry. She says her friend will come for Isio in two days.
‘Thank you, ma,’ I tell her.
She smiles. I feel shaken. Her smile is scary. I do not know if she would treat me well or if her friend would treat Isio well.
We stay at her place. She gives us good clothes and food and a nice room with a nice bed. The mattress is not torn open like the one I had back home. She should be a good woman, I think to myself. I sleep off holding Isio but then I have the dream again. I see the masked men. I see them shoot Mama and Papa. I wake up sweating. Profusely. The room is dark. I put on the lights. Isio rolls on the bed. I wonder what it would be like having him away from me. I pray we would keep in touch and be able to communicate. I would miss him. He keeps on rolling on the bed uneasily. Maybe he is having a dream. I hope it is not as scary as mine. I kneel down to pray but the words are not coming out. I do not even believe that God listens anymore. If he did, Mama and Papa would still be alive and Isio and I would still have a home. I am still kneeling down when Madam China comes in.
‘You are an early one, aren’t you?’ She says.
‘It’s five and you are awake. That is good. You will be a very agile sales boy.’
‘Yes, ma. I will work well for you.’ I say to her.
She smiles. Again, that same scary smile.
‘Take your bath. I will get you and your brother something nice to eat for breakfast.’
‘Thank you, ma.’
She is kind, I tell myself.
Madam China caters for us well. I have not resumed work in the restaurant. Tomorrow, Madam China’s friend is coming to take Isio with her. I kneel to pray that she is a good woman. Maybe God will listen to me. Maybe she likes children after all.
We have woken up. I am afraid. I do not know what to do. I wonder if letting Isio go is the right thing to do. My mind tells me it is. Madam China’s friend has arrived. She is a beautiful woman and not as robust as Madam China. Madam China calls her Rosa. Mama’s name is Rose. It is almost the same name. Isio is crying as the woman tells him that he is going with her. He does not want to leave me. I tell him it is for the better and we will meet again. I do not believe what I am saying but I am saying it. I pray Madam Rosa takes care of Isio like a mother would. She says she is taking him to Onitsha. Onitsha is far away. I do not know when Madam China would let me go visiting. Madam Rosa and Isio are leaving already. I hug Isio tight and let him go. I watch him enter the tortoise car that Madam Rosa came in and watch the car drive off. There are tears in my eyes. Madam China tells me not to cry.
‘You are a big boy,’ she says. ‘Rosa will take care of Isio. Do not worry.’
‘Yes, ma.’ But I worry all the same. The car is now out of sight. My three-year-old brother is now far away from me. I pray but not to God. I pray to Mama to pray to God to help us. Mama always told us of saints who intercede for us in heaven. I think she should be in heaven and should be able to intercede for Isio, and for me.
Madam China tells me I am starting work today. I do not know if I am ready to start work. Yet, I put on the knickers and the shirt she gives me. I do not serve guests; the ladies and young girls do that. I wash the dishes and go to the market to buy stuff. Madam China treats me well all the same. She feeds me properly. I wonder if Madam Rosa was doing the same for my brother, Isio.
Now, I have been working for Madam China for two weeks. It is on this night that she comes to my room and wakes me up. I think she wants to ask me why I forgot to lock the front door. But she does not talk of the front door. She takes off her nightwear and I see her large breasts fitted in her black brassiere. She is wearing an underskirt, the type Mama used to wear. I am getting scared.
‘Anty, what is it?’ I ask her.
‘Uvo, I like you.’
I still do not understand what she is saying. She is now on the bed. She tells me to be quiet and she touches me. I am crying. My soldier is standing and she is on it. She finishes and goes away. She does not tell me sorry even though the tears came running down and I am sobbing. I am afraid of her. I can only pray Madam Rosa is not doing the same to Isio. He is only a baby.
It happens again and again and again. Three times now, Madam China has touched me. I am starting to like it. I even look at the girls in the restaurant and feel like doing it with them. But Madam China must not catch me and so I do not have the courage to do it. I write my first letter to Isio. I know he cannot read it so well yet but I tell Madam Rosa to read it to him and to write back to me. It is two weeks now since I wrote to him but no reply. Maybe it did not get to him or Maybe Madam Rosa forgot to write back. I miss Isio. I miss him very much. Just like his name he has been a star shining in my dark times and I have been his sun. I still wonder why Papa and Mama named us so. I, the sun, and Isio, the star. They loved us but now they are gone.
I do not always like it when Madam China touches me but I have no choice. She does not let me make any complaints. I just lie down and she does it. I am now a man. That is what she tells me. I tell her I want to see Isio but she tells me her friend is too far away and was no longer in Onitsha. She says something about Madam Rosa and Isio moving to Lagos. I wonder if Madam Rosa’s husband likes to travel. I miss Isio. I just want to see him.
I met someone who knows me today. He tells me everyone has been looking for me and Isio. He used to be a neighbour. He said the police found out who killed Papa and Mama. He said it was a certain man who owed Papa money. I wish I knew the man. That way I can wipe out his whole family. My neighbour asks about Isio.
‘Isio is in Lagos,” I tell him. “He has a mother there.’
I say no more although I know he wants to hear more.
It is on one such night that Madam China comes to my room again. I am no longer happy with what she is doing even though I like it sometimes. I tell her no. She tries to force me and I run away. I run away into the night. It is just like when I ran away with Isio but this time, I run alone. I run so far. I do not even know where I am going and I run into the oncoming car.
I wake up on a bed but not a hospital bed. I do not ask where I am. I just stare. There are three hefty men around me. They look worried.
‘He’s awake.’ One says to the other two.
‘Boy, how are you? What’s your name?’
‘Uvo.’ I hold my head.
‘Are you okay?’ He asks me.
‘Yes, sir. I am fine.’
He says something to the other and he rushes off. In no time, he brings me food and I eat. It is eba and egusi. I still wonder who these men are.
‘I am Tiger’, the first one says.
‘Vuga’, the other says.
‘Rambo’, the last tells me.
I wonder why they would have such names.
‘We are sorry we hit you. Don’t worry, you are safe with us.’
It sounded ironic to me. These men had scary looks, how could I possibly be safe with them? I am still eating my food when they bring in a box. It was filled with guns. I shake. Shiver. Cold runs down my spine. Gunmen, just like the ones who killed Mama and Papa. I do not want to stay with them. I really do not want to but I am tired of running. My legs have grown weary. My eyes are tired of all the tears. I cannot find Isio. I cannot find home. I have no choice but to stay here for now.
I think they notice the fear in my eyes and they tell me not to worry. They say I will not get hurt. They tell me they will treat me like family. I cannot remember the last time I heard that word. I will stay with them but I do not want to do what they are doing. I cannot rob. It is a sin. It is wrong. Vuga tells me they are not bad people. He tells me society is bad and there is no food anywhere and this is the only way they can survive. I do not blame them. It is true. Society is bad.
They have operations almost every night. I wonder if they have to run away in speeding cars like they did in the movies. Every other night they come home with bags of money and other valuables. I get scared for them. I do not want them to get caught. I know I would be taken along with them once they get caught. Tiger tells me not to worry. He says they are careful. I tell him how much I miss Isio and he says we would find Isio but I know it would be hard. I cannot go back to Madam China and I do not know where Madam Rosa is. I wonder if Isio is happy. I wonder if he is still that same shining star. I wish I knew. I wish I could feel it. But, I can feel nothing. All I feel is fear. Fear, like the fear that comes with the hoot of an owl. I no longer pray. I want to but I feel God will not answer. I am too weak to pray. But I know I want to pray.
It is twilight. The knock comes on the door. It is the police. They say they have the house surrounded. I am afraid. I am very afraid. Vuga paces up and down looking for a plan. We all jump out through the back window into the nearby bush. I am running fast, the sirens are blowing. I hide in the bush. I do not know where Vuga, Tiger and Rambo are. I hear gunshots in the distance. I am in tears. It is dusk. The sun has set. I am all alone. I used to be a sun shining with a happy family but now my life is all gone. Gone with the sun. My name no longer feels like my name. There is no sun in my life. There is no joy. It is only sadness. I pray someone finds me. I pray I meet Isio again. I do not want to die. I do not want to suffer. Can somebody hear me?
I do not hear the sounds of the sirens and the gunshots anymore. I lie down. I am weak. I am afraid. I close my eyes away from the world but I cannot sleep. Sleep is far but I close my eyes and I think of Isio.