Fiction

The Last Hiding Place: A Short Story by Sumaila Isah Umaisha

AS Amelia drowsily adjusted her head on the pillow, she unconsciously reached out for her husband. But her hand landed on an empty space. And the cold message, sensed through hazy consciousness, jolted her out of her troubled sleep. Gradually, she opened her eyes, and put on the bedside lamp. Her husband was indeed not on the bed. She peered at the wall clock, feeling the temperature of the part he had lain. It was 3 a.m. and the sheet was cold—He had been out of the bed for hours; maybe as soon as she had fallen asleep. Had he gone to the living room again? she wondered.

That had been the nightly routine since their wedding three days ago. She would wake up in the night to find an empty bed. And when she went to the living room she would find him there, sitting idly at the table. When she asked what the matter was, on the first and second nights, he simply smiled and led her back to the bed; and made love to her as passionately as she had never experienced. And on the third night, his response to her question was a long discourse, of whose contents she was yet to understand. The only thing she could understand was the flaming heat of passion that followed the discourse, leaving her in a blissful exhaustion.

She rolled over and stared at the ceiling, as the thought of her husband’s strange behaviour gnawed at her heart. What was the reason behind his sleeplessness? Had she offended him in any way? Or was he really mad as claimed by the media and even her sister and friends?

“The professor is a mad man,” her sister had said. “Don’t let his fame deceive you into marrying him.”

One of her friends even offered her what she considered a perfect alternative to an outright marriage.

“If you love him as much as you think you do,” said the friend, “all you need to do is to go out with him. In two or three months you would have had enough of him to quench that so-called love. You don’t have to risk marrying him. The risk is not worth taking, for you are not compatible. He is over fifty and you are only thirty-something.”

But Amelia had a strong conviction that the love she felt for Professor Ameh Deen was real and nothing short of marriage could quench her lingering thirst for him. She knew it was a genuine love, one that comes from the soul, because she had never felt that way for any man. As a renowned actress, she had come across all shades of men, but none had blended so well with the shade of her heart.

Before their first personal meeting, she had known him only through his numerous literary works. She had read him a lot and even featured in a home video based on his award winning novel, INsanity—the venture that was partly responsible for her success as an actress. Some art critics even believed it was the video that shot her to the limelight. But all the while she never had the opportunity of meeting him till that fateful day; fifteen years after the production of the video.

It was a coincidental meeting. The professor’s car had developed a fault as he was about to negotiate unto the narrow road leading to his isolated residence. And as he was trying to locate the fault, she, driving by, saw him and stopped. Initially she didn’t know it was he; she had only stopped on an impulse borne out of the desire to help a fellow motorist. She was overwhelmed when on getting closer she discovered it was the professor—her favourite author.

After some minutes of combined unsuccessful attempt at rectifying the mechanical problem, she offered to drive back to the city and get him a mechanic. He reluctantly accepted the offer and in no time a mechanic was made available. While the mechanic worked on the car, the two had a heart to heart discussion. And by the time the mechanic was through, they had become old friends. As they parted he asked her to visit him any day she was free.

That brief meeting filled her with an inexplicable sense of hope—she felt a kind of distant music waiting to serve her tunes. And when she eventually visited him a week later, the nostalgic feeling metamorphosed into a burning desire for him and everything about him; his simplicity and the serene atmosphere of the residence, the woods, the running streams and the occasional sight of wild animals. Being with him and listening to his soft rumbling voice filled her soul with so much peace, tranquility and the hope of eternal bliss.

So, when he made the marriage proposal in one of her subsequent visits, she didn’t even bother to put up the usual feminine pretence. She gave the answer to him straight on a golden platter. And just in four months the marriage was solemnised.

The aspects that bothered some of her friends most was the speed with which the arrangements were made and the low-keyed manner in which the marriage was conducted.

“Amelia, be sure of what you are doing,” one of them had cautioned her on the eve of the wedding. “Marriage is a life-long engagement, and you must be careful. Don’t you think you should study this man first?”

“There is nothing to study,” she had retorted. “I’ve known him all my life. That is how I feel. And there’s no going back; the decision is final.”

Now, as she lay on the empty bed, staring at the ceiling, she wondered if her decision was, after all, a wise one.”

She would go and meet him in the living room, she decided, and got off the bed. Yes, she would go and meet him. But this time around she would demand for a definite answer for his unbecoming behaviour. And she must get a definite answer or else…

She adjusted her nightgown, put on her slippers and shuffled towards the living room sulkily. She eased the door open and looked in. The room was empty except for the pieces of furniture. Not believing her eyes, she stepped in and stared around. He was nowhere to be seen. Cold, sneaking suspicion crept up her spine. Where had he gone to? Where on earth? Silence and the increasing beat of her heart were the only answer to the question.

The creepy suspicion suddenly tightened around her heart in a vicious squeeze. And, in a fit of panic, she rushed out of the room. She popped into the library. He was not there. She rushed to the toilet, the lounge, the kitchen and the other rooms, but each yawned at her with an air of nonchalance. She walked back to the living room.

She found it the way she had left it; empty, but for the furniture which now seemed to be staring at her with pity. After a long pause, she decided to take a look outside to see if he had gone to switch over power from one generator to another as he often did. She walked over to the door and turned the handle. It was locked. What! She tried it again. It was securely locked. She felt trapped. Her heartbeat shot up to a breaking point.

“What is happening?” she muttered and parted the door curtains. Peering through the glass door all she could see was solid darkness doted by blinking fireflies. Everywhere was quiet; ominously calm, except for the silent humming of the generator, the air-conditioner and the eerie cries of nocturnal creatures like crickets and owls, which competed with the hammering sound of her heart. Her fear rose with every heartbeat. Fear of the night and the deadly possibilities it harboured. Fear of what might happen to her in this lonely place that was miles away from human habitation. Her fear was rising fast. And suddenly she turned and rushed for the relative safety of the bedroom.

But just as she was crossing the living room, she heard from behind what appeared to her like a violent knock on the door. And before she knew it, she had slumped on the floor.

She came to later to the persistent echo of her name. Opening her eyes, she realised it was her husband calling her, trying to revive her.

“Amelia!” her husband repeated, as she opened her eyes. “Amelia!”.

“Yes,” she answered weakly. And as she gradually realised the situation, her fear came back in a rush. She recoiled from her husband’s touch as he made to raise her to a sitting position.

“Leave me alone!” she protested.

“I’m sorry…!”

“I say leave me alone!” She staggered to her feet. “Take me home! Take me back home!”

“But this is your home…” He moved towards her. “This is our home…”

“No!” she backed away. “This cannot be my home! This is nightmare! Take me back home right away!”

“Amelia, I’m sorry. Please, do let me explain!” He went down on his knees. “Amelia, I don’t mean to hurt you. Believe me! I love you, I love you so much that I’d rather die than to let anything or anyone hurt you. Believe me…!”

Amelia’s heart was too tender to resist this kind of appeal from a man she loved; the man she loved so much that she could sacrifice her life for. So, in spite of her fear, she went over to him.

“Get up!” she said with a voice full of emotion, taking his hand. “Get up, my dear!” Her tears began to flow as he got up and surrendered to her embrace like a little child.

“Forgive me, Amelia!” He could no longer hold back his tears. “Forgive me! Maybe I should have told you the truth!”

“What truth?” She looked up sharply, searching his eyes for an immediate answer. “What truth, my dear?”

Suddenly realizing it was unmanly to get emotional to the point of tears, Professor Ameh Deen quickly wiped his tears and her own and then gently squeezed out of her embrace.

“I will tell you the truth,” he said and took her hand and led her back to the bedroom.

“Amelia, do you remember what I told you last night?” he asked as they both sat on the bed.

“It was a long discourse,” she said in a weak voice. “I can’t remember everything.”

“But can you remember my last statement?”

“You talked about man being so used to pretentious living that whenever he tries to behave himself he misbehaves; and the few who try to live in accordance with their innate tendencies never live…”

“That’s right!” he said, impressed by her ability to recall the statement almost word for word. “Maybe that was the time I should have told you the truth. Or maybe I should have even told you the truth before the marriage, so that if you felt you couldn’t cope…”

“If it is your personal secret,” she said quickly, afraid that he might divulge a secret that might lead to their separation, “don’t bother to tell me… I’m sorry for creating the scene… I can live with you in spite of any secret. After all, everyone harbours one secret or the other…”

“But I’ve now realised you can’t live with me without knowing the secret; it will affect you. In fact, it is affecting you already.”

“So, what’s the secret?” she asked, expecting the worse.

“I am a nocturnal creature,” he announced. “I don’t sleep at night.”

“You are suffering from insomnia then?”

“No, a kind of peculiarity… a perversion. I walk in the night. I roam the wilderness.”

“Hunting?”

“Well, not exactly… All my writings are made up of the answers I get from the silence of the night, the serenity of the moon and the giggling of the running streams.”

“That’s how you get your inspiration?”

“Something like that.”

“Then why didn’t you tell me from the start?” she said, wondering if this was actually what the drama was all about. “What is there to hide?”

“I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want to subject you to that type of abnormal living.”

“Abnormal living? But you are a writer, and every writer has his own peculiarities. Writing is a psychological thing and I believe whatever psychological means a writer can employ to achieve literary excellence is okay, provided it is morally okay, provided it does not infringe on the right of others.”

“And that is the problem. I feel my own peculiarity would infringe on the right of my wife. Which is why I have remained single, till I met you and found you irresistible. When I succumbed to the desire to marry you my resolve was to retire from writing and live a normal life with you for the rest of my life. I thought you were my last hiding place; a soul mate in which to rest my heart, to hide myself away from the harsh realities of life. But unfortunately as soon as the marriage was solemnised I became overwhelmed with the urge to write on the theme of love and happiness in the light of the new reality.”

“You should have just told me…”

“I thought I could steal just a few nights since the motivation is real and powerful. Just a few nights…”

“And you think you could have kept on like that without me eventually knowing about the night out?”

“That’s another secret. I drug you…”

“Drug me?” she stared at him in horror.

“Yes, even this night I have drugged you through your food. I wonder why it is not having effect on you. It is suppose to keep you asleep all night.”

This sounded callous even to himself. But surprisingly, rather than flaring up at him, Amelia simply smiled and said: “How long do you think you could sustain that. And, don’t you think you would have ended up damaging my brain in your bid to hide your secret in order not to inconvenience me?”

“It would have lasted for only a week. The motivation is so strong that I could make the first draft of the novel in just a week. And thereafter there would be no need for night walks; I would only work on the draft. And it would be my last book…”

Looking at the Professor as he spoke, Amelia wished her sister and all those who thought he was mad were around. In spite of all the media hype, the renowned author was only a man after all. The superman is also a man. She drew close to him.

“Don’t give up writing because of me. I’m not worth it. No one is worth it! Go on being yourself; I will adjust to you. I could even walk with you in the darkest night and in the wildest wilderness, if you so wish.”

He reached out and drew her closer.

“You are truly a loving heart!” he whispered.

“That is what you too are!”

“You are so beautiful.” He stared at her big, milky eyes, tightening his embrace on her. “So wonderful… You said everyone has a secret; what’s yours?”

“I’m a drug addict.”

“A drug addict?”

“That’s why your sleeping tablets failed to induce me.” She smiled at the surprised look on his face. “But I will stop if you want me to.”

THE END.

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