She swung her arms as fast as she could and moved her legs to a silent beat. The sun was dipping in the horizon but she had to walk one more block before she went home. She ignored the bemused stares most bystanders gave her and focused on a tree about a hundred feet away. She was almost there when she heard a voice behind her say, “impressive”.
Annoyed, she turned around to meet crinkled grey eyes staring into hers; she ignored them and bent over panting for breathe. She could see his legs: large feet in shiny black canvas, sparkling white socks with black lines, faded denim shorts. She wondered what he wanted but decided not to ask. She had been hoping for a training partner, praying even. He sounded pleasant enough, she guessed he had a degree at least. His clothes were clean and he smelled of a woody aftershave. Who knows? Maybe this was answered prayer.
She missed Ekaette her last training partner. She had been good company and committed to their daily routine. She had been sure they would be together for the next year at least.That was before Ekaette got promoted and transferred to Tokyo.
“I am Mike,” he said, offering her a tanned muscled hand.
She shook it and straightened. “Kara,” she replied, resuming her brisk pace.
They walked in silence for some time. Above them, the skies began to darken, the sun disappeared and large dark clouds hurtled across the plains.
“It looks like it is going to rain,” Mike said. “I think we should start back.”
They had barely turned around when the heavens burst open. They had to run the last couple meters to take shelter under a bus stop.
They weren’t alone: a homeless woman had her things propped up in one corner and eyed them angrily as they stomped into the shed, a teenage boy was dozing, huddled in a corner with a tray of bananas and groundnuts, a group of students were in the center arguing and laughing in the care free manner of young adults .
They found space to stand and she tried to catch her breath. The rain worsened with jagged lightening flashing through the sky followed by thunder that threatened to make the sky fall.
She clasped her hands on her ears to shield herself from the worst of it and soon found that she was shivering.
“Here, have my jacket, you look cold.”
“Thank you,” she said slipping the oversized denim jacket over her shoulders. It was warm and smelt of peppermint.
“So, how long have you been walking?” He asked, studying his nails.
Kara hesitated. She wasn’t sure what answer to give him: the detailed one covering all her starts and stops or the neat simple one. “A month,” she said after a while.
“Nice. I have walked on and off for the past year. I started when I stopped smoking. It helped me keep my weight down and stay focused.I hope I can walk for at least six months straight this time. I hate that, to keep starting and stopping.”
“Me too,” Kara heard herself say.
Soon they were talking like old friends. He was visiting Eket from Lagos. The telecoms company he worked for had laid him off. He needed time to plan his set of moves so when his sister invited him down he took the next plane over.
His sister worked in ExxonMobil. She was widowed five years ago and hadn’t remarried. She was glad to have him around now that all her kids had left for school.
Kara told him about her job as a administrator in the civil service and her one year old cat named Phillip. She didn’t tell him about her struggles with bulimia or the boxes of worthless weight pills and potions in her room. She didn’t tell him about her five year old daughter Sara or her ex- husband Chinedu.
When the rain stopped, he walked her home.
“Same time tomorrow, then?” he asked with a smile.
“Sure,” Kara replied shrugging off his black jacket.
They walked together all week. Kara found that with Mike she didn’t need to say much. She could just nod and listen as he told her about his former colleagues or his future plans. She got used it: the companionship, the stories, the sound of matching footsteps following her own.
One evening Mike didn’t show up. Kara thought he might be ill or out of town. She had never asked for his number and she had never offered hers. That evening she only went half as far as she usually did; the walk wasn’t the same alone.
After three days without any sign of Mike she got genuinely worried. “He has gone the way he came,” she thought sadly, making her way home after another solo walk. Maybe she should look for him, check on him, she thought. But where would she start? She knew he stayed nearby but she didn’t know the address. She wished she had asked him more questions, about his sister’s name or his house address.
The next day, she started off but she couldn’t take her mind off Mike. What if he was sick or worse…? She took a turn off her regular route toward the general direction she had seen him walk when he wasn’t seeing her to her door. The neighbourhood was noisier and the road bumpier. Tricycles and cars jostled along the narrow road. Pedestrians and hawkers thronged the fringes. She was beginning to feel foolish about the whole venture when she saw a small crowd gathered round a white house.
A police van was parked in front of it and three policemen where hauling a handcuffed figure into an open van she walked up to the van and saw Mike; or what was left of him.
His clothes were dirty and torn. His face was swollen and one eye was the size of an egg.
“Officer, what has he done? Why are you beating an innocent man like this?” Kara demanded.
“Madam, I suggest you stay out of this. This man is wanted in connection with the kidnap and murder of three women in Lagos.” A wiry police man in plain clothes replied as the van zoomed off.
Kara was stunned. She opened her mouth and closed it again. She tried to breathe but her chest felt like a burst balloon.
Over the next few days she would gather that his name was Cosmos not Mike. She would read with sick fascination of his alledged victims and their tragic fate. She would find that he had no sister in Eket, never worked in telecoms and smoked a pack a day.
She went to the police station to see him; part of her still couldn’t believe any of it. There had to be a mistake, the whole thing had to be mistake. She took him food and water, a T-shirt, a newspaper and a Bible.
The police station was located at the border of the town. She drove there in her white Toyota; anxiety bubbled in her belly like boiling oil. She filled all the papers and handed over the items she had brought for inspection. She couldn’t help noticing the blood smears on the walls were mosquitoes had once been or the sweat-soaked stench the place gave off. She was offered a chair but she declined and stood instead. After a while, a portly police officer beckoned to her and she followed him into a small office.
The office was a study in paradox. Several files lay on a polished table and even more files lay on the floor. Cheap blue curtains adorned the windows. An expensive air-conditioned unit hummed on the wall. Shiny new chairs contrasted with dull blue painted walls. The police man sat and asked her to do same. She sat and thanked him.
Cosmos had been transferred to Lagos. The orders had come a few days ago and he was sent via black Maria yesterday.
Kara rose and thanked him once again. She walked out of the station and down the road in the sunshine. A few blocks away she remembered her Toyota and walked back to get it.
She drove home and tried to banish thoughts of Mike Cosmos from her mind but every time it rained her mind went back to that evening at the bus stop and to the black denim jacket that smelled of peppermint.