Among the Metal Beasts | Susan Atiomo | Fiction

Clap, clap, clap.

Akande’s mother sighed, the worry lines in her forehead deepening as she watched the cars outside her windshield. The heat was stifling. She, like many others, had turned off the engine to preserve what was left of the fuel in the car. Six hours and they were still only halfway home. She had only left the house out of desperation today. Weary because of the recurring protests and the newly imposed 24-hour curfew by the state government, she had not left the house for a few days except to get essentials. But when Akande had fallen sick suddenly, her only concern had been getting him to the nearest hospital. The blocked roads had made that difficult.

Clap, clap, clap.

A car ahead honked as another moved too close to it. Both vehicles looked brand new. Their engines purred in unison, their hides oiled and slick, shining in the light of the sun. Windows rolled down as insults were thrown. A trailer close to them chucked out smoke from its exhaust, adding to the heat and haze surrounding them. She sighed again, catching sight of the time and date flashing on the dashboard clock. October 20th, 5:30 pm. Her eyes had begun to close in exhaustion. An ache developed in her right leg, letting her know she had been sitting in a bad position for too long. She readjusted herself and briefly wondered if it was possible to find somewhere to buy dinner for tonight. She doubted it. She wasn’t even sure what was open today.

It had taken her three attempts to find an open hospital, which had been crowded. She frowned, remembering suddenly how she had used her last cash to bribe the nurses to attend to her son, knowing that they wouldn’t have been helped otherwise.

Clap, laugh, clap, laugh.

She looked at Akande as he laughed at nothing in particular. She couldn’t identify a rhythm in his clapping. He must be clapping along to a song in his head. A small smile lifted her lips. His teacher had recently confided in her that Akande had spoken to a classmate. One sentence, but a small victory. He hardly ever spoke to anyone. Even to her.

Clap, clap, clap.

An okada with a passenger zoomed past her car, weaving between the vehicles like prey running from a predator. Honks followed it. Ahead, a car suddenly swerved, blocking the motorcycle so it tilted, both passenger and driver falling off and hitting the vehicle closest to it. The man in the car rolled down his window, “See this mumu okada man! You want to scratch my car, ehn? You want to scratch my car?”

The clapping stopped.

The cars ahead started moving. Honks sounded in the air again signalling the okada man to get his motorcycle out of the way. She put on her engine, shaking her head at the scene. A few meters were covered before they came to a stop again. She switched off the car engine and took a quick look at her son who was staring silently out of the window. A hawker came by carrying a painting of the president and she watched as his eyes silently followed it. She wondered if asking him about his day would provoke a response. Maybe he would respond to her like he did to his classmate at school. As she opened her mouth, her phone rang. She winced as she realised that she had left her ringer on and she watched, almost in slow motion, as her son’s face scrunched up, his eyebrows coming together and the skin around his eyes wrinkling.

Scream, scream, scream.

Akande’s cries filled the small space of the car as he screamed, covering his ears, his eyes tightly shut. She hurriedly reached for the phone and turned the ringer off, then reached for her son to soothe him but he pushed away from her. She felt her phone vibrate and reached for the phone, seeing it was her older sister. She quickly picked it up, excited as she remembered the favour that she had asked her sister to do that morning. She very much hoped her sister had done it.

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Scream, scream, scream.

“Hello? Tope?” she said loudly into the phone, trying to be heard over Akande.
“Hello? Monife? Ah! Is that Akande? Why is he crying?” her sister sounded far away, and she knew it was due to the weak phone signal she had.
“I left my ringer on, and you know how sensitive he is to loud sounds.”

Scream, scream, scream.

“Ah, pele my dear. I have dropped your food at your house o!”
“Thank you Tope! You have no idea how you have helped me.”
“It is okay, my dear. Just try and calm your son down, okay? This, his screaming can make him lose his voice. Did everything go well at the hospital?”
She was about to respond when she heard the voice of her brother in-law.
“Is that your sister’s son screaming? Again? That boy is not a small boy o! This au-kini that she keeps claiming he has; all he needs is a good beating and his head will be correct! This her oyibo talk that she does when she cannot control her child.”

Scream, scream, scream.

She felt her hand tighten on her phone as she heard Tope angrily shushing her husband, telling him that Monife was still on the phone. Her nostrils flared, eyes blurring as she told her sister goodbye and cut the phone abruptly. She inhaled deeply and clutched her braid extensions as she tried to calm down. In, out. In, out, she told herself. The anger curled and hissed inside her. She would complain to Akande’s father about what happened when they got home. He always knew how to calm her down and what to do whenever people made ignorant comments like this.
She rubbed her tired eyes, struggling not to throw curses at her brother-in-law before she reached in the backseat for Akande’s favourite book hoping it would calm him. She stroked his short, kinky hair, tangling her fingers into his tight curls as she handed him the book, his cries quieting. Her heart warmed as she watched him, a fierce protectiveness flaring in her. She kissed the side of his head, breathing in his scent and faced forward again, watching as someone argued heatedly with the driver of a huge, mammoth-like jeep who was blocking a lane.

Honk, honk, honk.

She had not realised that the traffic had started moving again. She switched on her engine, following the car in front of her. She could see they were near the toll gate but as it was blocked, she and all the other drivers were taking another route hoping to move around it. Monife could see the crowd of protesters from where she was. They stood, crouched, and sat before the toll gate. Above them on the big electronic billboard attached to the toll gate, a bank advertised its services. Curious, she continued to look. At the flags being waved. At the signs held proudly. At the fierceness in the people’s faces as they fought for what they believed in. She could see the sweat shining on their bodies from the late afternoon heat, their skin ranging from ochre to umber to onyx.

Monife turned to look at her son, watching him read his book when she noticed a humongous trailer inching closer to her. She looked around urgently for a way to avoid being next to it. The heavy load it was transporting did not look properly secured. A car screeched close to her, a warning that she was getting too close. She slowed down as she let the trailer move ahead of her.

Honk, honk, honk.

Another vehicle was trying to avoid traffic and was climbing the pavement, tilting heavily to the side as it tried to get ahead of the other cars. She blasted her horn as the vehicle moved narrowly by her, scratching the side of her car. She rolled down her window, screaming profanities at the driver of the car who, still tilted sideways on the pavement, rolled down his window to argue with her. After what seemed like a minute, she rolled up her window and ignored the man who was still screaming at her. She closed her eyes for a second, trying to calm herself. Suddenly, the air was filled with the sound of gunshots.

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Honk, honk, honk, honk, honk, honnnnnnnnnnkkkkkkkk.

Chaos ensued. Monife screamed in fright, shouting ‘Ye!’ and opened her eyes, confused, and disorientated. Screams filled the air. The drivers of the vehicles around her blared their horns desperately. Everyone had heard the gunshots and wanted to get away as soon as possible. Some people fled from their cars and started to run, forming a stampede as they fled the scene. Others buried themselves in their seats at the bottom of their vehicles, away from their windows. She could hear the gunshots coming from the direction of the toll gate. She grabbed her son and pulled him down too, shaking violently. Bile threatened to escape her mouth, but she forced it down. She stayed crouched down, holding tightly to Akande, too scared to look around to see what was happening.

Honk, scream, honk, scream.

A tug on her shirt sleeve turned her attention towards her son who was peering over the dashboard of the car, then to his finger as he pointed towards the road ahead.

Honk, scream, honk, scream.

She hurriedly grabbed at the wheel of her still running car, and swerved to avoid a car rolling rapidly backwards, the driver having lost control of it. She felt as her front bumper bashed into another car, the momentum causing Monife to smash her forehead on the steering wheel.

Honk, scream, honk, scream.

Head woozy, she tried to gain control of her senses and call for Akande when she felt another impact on the rear of her vehicle.

Honk, scream, honk, scream.

The blood had started to drip freely from a gash on her forehead when the car finally stopped moving from the impact of the hits it had gotten. She started crying, salty tears that rolled rapidly down her cheeks. She could not hear the gunshots anymore, but cries and screams continued to fill the air around her, resounding in the aftermath of what had just happened.

Honk, honk, honk.
Honk, honk, honk.
Honk, honk, honk.

“Akande? Akande? Where are you? Heh! Akande o!” Monife screamed, blood dripping into her mouth as she desperately tried to steady her sight and her head to check if her son was alright and if he had been hurt in the impact.

Honk, honk, honk.
Honk, honk, honk.
Honk, honk, honk.

People were at her window, she could hear them shouting. She grimaced, trying to move away from the window but unable to, blood and tears blinding her. She recognised one word that they were saying. ‘Help’. They had come to help her and Akande. Her gratitude and surprise mixed together, manifesting in the form of more tears. She felt some force on the driver’s car door; someone was attempting to yank it open to get them out of the car.

Honk, honk, honk.

Monife had started to shake, her skin ice cold. Her heart raced, her blood dripped, and her tears flowed, head swimming as she panicked, unable to hear her son. She tried to turn her body, move it, but it seemed that it had detached itself from her. She was numb.

Honk, honk, honk.

“Madam, Madam? Help o! The Madam is hurt!”

Honk, honk, honk.

Hands removed her seat belt, trying to help her out of the car. Her senses were weakening. Figures blurred around her creating a looming mass that seemed ready to swallow her. Shaking, she tried to stay vigilant, listening for her son, listening for any indication that he was okay. She felt the icy grip of fear on her heart until she heard it, quiet amid the commotion.

 

Clap, clap, clap.

 

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