He had just come back. He turned on the light. There were sweat beads all over his face. The red band the squad tied on when going on such missions was still on his head.
‘Ifunanya’m, you are still awake?’ He asked as he found me lying on the couch. I sat up.
‘Welcome. I could not sleep.’ I said.
He took off the red band.
‘I wanted you to get back first.’
‘Ogechi, I’ve told you stop waiting up and worrying about me every time I have to work late.’
I moved towards him. He moved backwards.
‘I need to bathe first. We handled some criminals.’
I stood still. I was already accustomed to the job Amaechi did but I could never get used to it. I knew what he meant whenever he said handled. He never used the word killed with me. He did not want me to see him as a killer. And, I didn’t see him as one most times. Just, sometimes.
‘I’d heat your water.’
‘Ifunanya’m‘ He called.
‘I’m alright.’ He said. Like some sort of assurance.
‘I know.’ I forced a smile. ‘Let me heat the water, o‘
He always spent long minutes in the bathroom after he got back from that kind of work. I waited in the room, with my wrapper tied on, around my chest. He came in. He approached me, still on his towel.
‘Ifunanya’m, take my mind off the events of today.’
He never spoke of the events. He always told me to get his mind off them. I kissed him and my wrapper came off with his hand movement exposing my bare chest. Suddenly, he withdrew.
‘Obi’m, what is it?’
He was having those flashes again.
‘I’m sorry.’ He said.
He got up from the bed and got dressed in his pyjamas. I put my wrapper over me.
‘Ogechi, I’ll just go to bed. I am really sorry.’
I did not say anything. I lay back staring at the ceiling until sleep took over me.
Amaechi had been having flashes and dreams to past events. He never told me about them but I knew they had to do with his job as the town’s vigilante chairman. I wished he would take up another job, preferably leave the town and start afresh somewhere else. Amaechi was a hero to the townspeople but I just wanted him to be my fiance, the man I was going to marry and I did not want him to continue living such a dangerous life. My father was against my relationship with Amaechi. He said harsh things about Amaechi. He said he was a man who lived by violence and jungle justice. But all my father said were contrary to what people felt about Amaechi. He was the hero to them. He saved lives from the hands of terror. He handled hardened criminals. He kept the town at peace. He and his squad. I was not content with the job but I loved the man who wore a red band around his head and carried a cutlass during work. I loved Amaechi. I believed he loved me too. Amaechi rarely expressed his feelings for me. But, he told me things. Private, secret things. And every time he told me those things, it reaffirmed his trust for me and I knew he loved me.
The townspeople called him Onye mmeri. They said he was a champion. A saviour. They said if Amaechi and his squad were not working for the town, the bad men would get away. I knew Amaechi was saving the town but he was losing himself. He was never peaceful except with me and even then, the flashes came every time disturbing his peace. Our peace. I wanted him to be okay. I did not want his hands to continue being stained. I knew Amaechi didn’t want to continue but he believed it was duty and responsibility to uphold the law where it was dying.
When I met Amaechi, I did not know he was the famous Onye mmeri. I had never seen Onye mmeri’s face before. He had come to drink at my mother’s pepper soup and Isi ewu joint where I helped out. I stared at him from the corner of the room where I sat watching customers. He ate the soup hurriedly. He had always been a disturbed eater. He rushes up his food like a man being chased. I sat there admiring his physique. He looked handsome and well-built. He beckoned on me. Anxious, I went to him.
‘I need another bottle of beer.’ He said.
‘Oh, I’ll tell one of the girls to bring one right now.’ I said.
‘Bring it yourself.’
‘Bring it yourself.’
I came back with another bottle of Star beer and a beer mug.
‘You know you are pretty.’ He told me. I made effort to hide the smile but it betrayed me any way.
‘What’s your name?’ He asked.
I stood there. I did not know if I was supposed to say the traditional thank you.
‘I don’t need another beer.’
‘I don’t need another beer.’ He repeated.
‘Okay, sir.’ I was still standing there.
‘You can go now, Ogechi.’ He reiterated what he had been trying to say.
‘Oh. I’m sorry, sir. Err… Okay. If you need anything just call me.’
It was the most embarrassing moment in my life. I slowly walked into the kitchen to avoid staring at him after what had just happened. By the time I came out, he had paid his bill to one of the service girls and had left.
‘Nkechi’, I called out to the service girl.
‘Sistah’, she answered.
‘That man that just left, the one I took beer to, did he pay?’
She turned to leave.
She turned again.
‘Sistah, what is it?’
I asked her to lean in.
‘Do you know him?’
‘Yes now. He’s Onye mmeri. The vigilante head.’
‘Errr… Nothing. Get back to work.’
The next day, we heard news that the vigilante had caught three armed robbers and they killed all three. I imagined Onye mmeri cutting through one of the men. I shook it off my imagination. It was one that sent cubes of ice down my spine. Later on, we heard that the robbers were not butchered but were burnt publicly in front of the Town Hall.
‘This boy and his squad are really helping this town by dealing with all these criminals.’ Father said. ‘I just wish they did it in a better and more Godly way.’ He added.
‘I don’t blame them,’ Mother said. ‘The rate of crime in this town is alarming.’
‘Yes, my dear,’ Father said. ‘But this style of justice, I don’t like. They get their hands stained.’
‘He even comes to buy pepper soup at the joint. You know him right, Oge?’ Mother asked.
‘Eh? No o. I don’t know him.’
‘Okay o. You would have seen him, you don’t just know him.’
They went on with their discussion. I sat there with no contribution. My brother had gone in to bring water for Father. I wondered if Onye mmeri was really doing the right thing. I had heard stories of how the young man hated crime and how he tried to curb it since the police were lazy at their job in areas like where we lived. Maybe Onye mmeri was a good man after all. I agreed with Mother. I did not blame him for choosing such a lifestyle.
The next day he came to Mother’s joint again. He never comes with his squad, I wonder. I have heard the stories about him that he loved to be of his own company except when on duty. One of Mother’s guests had gone to attend to him. She came to me.
‘Onye mmeri wants to see you,’ she informed me.
Did it mean everyone knew this Onye mmeri except me?
‘Okay. I’m coming.’
I wondered what he needed me for.
‘I did not ask for your name the other day.’ He said to me as I greeted him.
‘It’s Ogechi sir.’ He had asked the other day.
‘You know me, right?’
‘No, oh. I don’t, sir.’
‘With the way you were staring at me the other day, are you sure you don’t know me?’
That feeling of embarrassment returned. The same one I had felt the other day. I swallowed my saliva.
‘I just know you are Onye mmeri.’
‘So, you do know me.’
‘Why did you lie?’
Fear gripped me.
‘I meant I did not know you but I know you are Onye mmeri because that’s what my mother’s service girl called you.’ I said, tense.
‘Relax, girl. I don’t bite.’
‘Okay sir. What can I get you?’
‘If I needed something I would have asked the other girl.’
‘So, what then sir?’
‘I think I like you.’
‘Amaechi. My name is Amaechi.’
‘Don’t call me sir anymore. I just told you my name.’
‘Okay, Amaechi. I would like to go back inside. My mother will soon come and she won’t like to see me talking to the customers.’
‘No problem. You can go back in.’
He left a few minutes later. The service girl who attended to him came back with a note for me.
‘Sistah, Onye mmeri said I should give you.’
‘Please, don’t tell my mother, o‘
It was his phone number. I quickly put the paper in my bra and went into the kitchen. I was afraid of what to do next. Was he going to come to the house if I did not call him? What was I going to say? I knew I did not want to get involved with a man whose profession my father despised. And again, a part of me kept telling me to call him. I did call him and that was how it all started.
For the first week, he kept coming to buy pepper soup. I was afraid to be seen talking to him. I did not want Mother to beat me up when she found out. Or worse, tell Father about it.
Amaechi was educated after all. An HND holder in Business Administration. I had always had the stereotypical view that men in his line of work were uneducated or did not finish school.
‘Why then did you take up such a job?’ I asked him. ‘You could have worked at a bank or something.’ I said.
‘Are you done with school?’ He asked me.
‘Secondary school. I’ve not been able to get into the university. JAMB is very hard.’ I told him. ‘That’s why I help out in the joint.’
‘You see, Oge!’
‘How poor this country is. People suffer from admissions. They finally get into school and then they don’t find jobs after all. Crime is everywhere. Robbery, stealing, killing and yet nobody does anything. People like us have to take up that duty for our society.’
‘That’s why you do it?’
‘Would you like to stop one day?’
‘Yes,’ he said. I heaved a sigh of relief.
‘When the police decide to do their job and the society decides to get better, I will stop.’
The feeling of relief was gone. Amaechi was never going to stop being a vigilante. And even though I knew he was not going to stop, I drew closer to him. I only worried about what Father and Mother would say and how I was going to tell them that I was in love with the town’s vigilante head, Onye mmeri.
‘Tell your parents about us.’ He said.
‘Tell your parents about us.’
I could not tell my parents. I nodded all the same.
Amaechi and I kept seeing each other. I was always sneaking about the place to visit him and spend time with him. When he asked me if I had told my parents about us, I told him yes. But, I knew Amaechi could tell what a lame liar I was. He did not say anything when I told him so. He knew. He knew I was afraid of telling Father that his yet-to-be-university-undergraduate daughter had taken a liking for a man whose job he despised. Father commended the vigilante work but he always added the phrase, ‘They should do it in a Godlier and not jungle justice way.’
No, I could not tell Father.
Then Father knew. And I do not know how he knew. He never told me. I just heard my name one afternoon from his bedroom.
‘Ogechi!’ He thundered.
And when I went into the bedroom. Mother was there. Father told me he knew. Not with words alone but with his koboko too. He rained abuses on me. He called me names. He said I was a disgrace. I cried. Father said he was going to send me away to my auntie’s place. I did not call Amaechi for days and I did not meet with him. I did not have the chance to even if I wanted to.
‘I love him, Father.’ I told Father as I served his food.
‘What do you love about a man with such lifestyle?’
‘He’s not a criminal, Father. He’s helping the society.’ I defended.
‘Would you give up your family for that man?’ Father asked. Father had sat down to his lunch.
I was quiet.
‘I thought so too.’ He said, dipping a lump of fufu into the bowl of afang soup.
‘I won’t leave him, Father.’
The lump of fufu dropped into the soup.
‘Then leave my house.’ Father said.
‘You heard me. Call the man who hasn’t paid your bride price. Call that Onye mmeri or whatever he is. Go live with him.’
‘Father, I’m sorry. I did not mean it that way.’
Mother could not change his mind. Amaechi came pleading and he said he would come and pay my bride price and Father said he would never receive money from him. I moved to Amaechi’s home. Without my father’s blessings.
I stared at Amaechi as he lay on the bed. I knew he was not asleep. I could not hear him snore. Amaechi always snored. He lay there without a snore until a few minutes later when I started hearing it. He had fallen asleep. I prayed he slept without nightmares. I finally closed my eyes and let sleep in.
I sat up on the bed.
‘You are awake?’ I asked.
‘It’s 7.00am already.’ Amaechi said.
‘Really?’ I said, cleaning my eyes with the back of my palm. ‘I overslept then.’
‘You always oversleep. I’ve told you to stop waiting up for me, inu go?’
‘I’ve heard. What are we doing today?’ I asked.
‘I should get to the Town Hall, then I will be back.’
‘Let me quickly make yam and eggs for us.’
I hurriedly peeled the yams and placed them into the pot to boil. Amaechi loved his yams soft. I had to put a lot of water. He helped me chop the peppers and onions to fry his egg. He hated fresh tomatoes. I watched him as he ate his food hurriedly as usual, like he was being chased by a herd of buffaloes. He left for his meeting afterwards. I had not spoken to father in a long time. Amaechi wanted to get married to me but we both knew Father would never permit it. We had even visited Okoronta, father’s younger brother to seek his help but Okoronta’s advocation was to no avail. It was either I continued to live with Amaechi as an unmarried woman, which was considered a shameful thing, or I moved back to my father’s house and quit the on-going relationship. My best option was the former. I was in love with Amaechi and I was not going to leave him. If Father was not going to agree, I had no other choice. That same evening, the vigilante caught another set of criminals. These ones were not burnt or butchered but were severely beaten and then given community service.
Then a few months later, the raids started. First, there were serial rapes. Then, there were multiple robberies. Our town was at its hottest point. Amaechi was not himself for days. He would not talk to me and he would spend nights making strategies on how to catch the culprits. I knew how much pressure he had on his shoulders. The whole community looked up to Onye Mmeri and now, he had failed them. There were perpetrators of crime moving freely and the people were helpless. The vigilante squad were helpless. They could do nothing and I could see it in his big brown eyes that he worried every passing minute.
‘You’d find them, my love. Stop worrying.’ I told him.
He looked me in the eyes.
‘They’ve stopped believing in me, Ifunanya’m.‘ He said.
I saw Amaechi for the first time, lacking confidence, lacking strength. He loved the town so much that he’d put them before himself. Amaechi was a hero. My hero, the people’s hero and I never wanted to stop believing in him.
‘They have not, Onye Mmeri.’ I told him. ‘These people look up to you. You have done a lot for them and believe it or not, they would not stop having faith in you now. You are their saviour, their hero. You are Onye Mmeri. Don’t fail yourself and you won’t fail them. I promise you that.’
I kissed his forehead and left him to his thoughts. I did not know how to help Amaechi. I just prayed he found a solution to the crisis and became himself again. The nightmares still disturbed his sleep. Then it happened. I became pregnant. I noticed a week after I had bought my JAMB form. Amaechi had promised to foot the bills through the years. I wanted to get into the polytechnic. It was not so far from the town. I did not know how to tell Amaechi that I was pregnant with his child in the heat of his dilemma. I got sick for weeks, until I finally had to tell him.
‘Amaechi, I have something to tell you.’
‘Ifunanya’m, what is it? Is it the fever? Is it disturbing you again?’
‘No, not the fever. I have some other news.’
He swallowed his saliva. I could see the movement in his gullet and the tension with his Adam’s apple.
‘I didn’t mean for this to happen. I know we were…’
‘Shhhh.’ He put one hand on my lips and placed the other on my abdomen. ‘He’s our child. We will take care of him. One day your father will forgive us and understand how much we loved each other.’
‘Amaechi, I love you.’ I said, with tears in my eyes. I was scared of what would happen. I was not ready to be a mother and I still had school and a lot ahead but somehow, I felt that with Amaechi everything was going to be alright. Maybe he was right. Maybe Father was going to forgive us and understand and finally give us his blessings.
‘I love you too. We will raise him together and protect him from all the harshness of this world.
‘And if it’s a girl?’ I shrugged.
‘We’d protect her even more.’
I was all smiles. I knew Amaechi wanted peace back in the community and I watched him struggle every day thinking of how well he could solve the rampant crime. Amaechi was not going to let his child come into a world full of such crime and danger. I knew my baby was going to be born into peace. I trusted Onye Mmeri. But what I feared was how much Onye Mmeri did not trust himself and I no longer knew how to make him believe in himself.
The next day news came that another girl had been raped and she was found dead on her father’s farm after she had gone missing the night before. It was Okoro’s daughter, Nneoma. Okoro was friends with Father and I knew Nneoma. We attended the same secondary school, although we were not friends. She was a nice girl and it was a pity she was killed under such horrific circumstances. The town was getting more and more dangerous every day.
‘Amaechi, let’s go somewhere else. Let’s have our baby in a more peaceful environment.’ I said to him one evening while I cleared the dishes he used in eating ofe nsala and eba.
He raised his eyes from the plates to me, taking the toothpick out of his mouth.
‘We’ll leave, Ifunanya’m.‘ He said.
‘Just let me find these culprits. I promise I will find them before our son would be born.’
That was not what I wanted but I was happy he was going to give in to my request and let us leave. It was going to be a new life. Amaechi was finally going to let go of his way of life. He was going to get his hands bloodied no longer in the name of justice. We were going to be normal and maybe, Father was going to accept him then.
‘Are you sure?’
I was assured. I knew for more reasons than one, Amaechi was going to strive to find the culprits. The rapes, the robberies, the multiple series of crimes were going to come to an end. The vigilante unit was going to put an end to it and once again, Onye mmeri was going to believe in himself. For the next one week, there was no news of raids, then the week after they returned. I had visited Mother’s parlour and I told her about the baby and how I had asked Amaechi to leave with me. News came that same day that I visited Mother that Onye mmeri and his men had killed some criminals.
When I got back home I prepared a meal of Abacha for Amaechi. I was reading a copy of past questions when he came back home all sweaty and excited.
‘We did it!’
‘We’ll finally leave right?’
‘Yes. We will. I just need to leave the squad in better hands and then we will leave.’
The next day, Amaechi went out for a meeting with the vigilante squad. It was 6.00pm when he left. At 10.00pm, Amaechi was not back. At 11.00pm, he still wasn’t back. His number was unavailable. At 11.30pm, I called Okeoma, one of the men in the squad and he told me Amaechi never came for the meeting and he had not been picking his calls. I was getting worried. It was unlike Amaechi to do that. Then the cramps came. It felt like hell. I held my tummy shouting for help until Mama Nkechi, our next door neighbour ran in. She went back to call her husband and he took me to the hospital on his Okada.
The baby was fine. I was placed on bed rest and I called Mother to come stay with me. She had heard the news but she had not told me. I kept dialling Amaechi’s number until Okeoma came the next day to tell me that Amaechi had been found dead someplace, somewhere around the way to the Town Hall. He was cut with a machete like bush meat. The vigilante red band was on his head when he was found. Okeoma brought it back for me. It was covered in blood. He was killed like a criminal by unknown men, maybe accomplices or family members of the criminals that were burnt to death the day before or previously.
Amaechi and I were going to leave the town. We were going to start our family. I was going to write JAMB and go to school. We were going to seek father’s blessings. I felt my baby churning my womb. I felt the tears, hot and cold running down my cheeks, running down my heart. I had lost everything. I do not know if it was because we never got father’s blessings or if Onye mmeri’s lifestyle was an example of living by the sword to die by the sword but all Amaechi ever wanted was to make a peaceful place for us all.
The men who killed Amaechi were caught two months later and they were killed, butchered like animals and their pieces carted away in wheelbarrows. I have my son now. I am now in my auntie’s house in another town. She is Mother’s younger sister. Father never let me into his home again. I miss him. I miss my brother who I rarely get to see. I no longer know what I want with my life. I stare into my son’s eyes, eyes just like his father’s and I call him ‘Onye Mmeri’ because he is my champion and he will always remind me of his father.