He had his hands in his pockets. Seated by him on a bench by their door was Mrs. Essien. In a tranquil manner, she pleaded with her children to treat him like he was just like them. He wasn’t.
Edet was 11 when his father disappeared, leaving Stella to fend for herself and her child. Ekanem’s wish was for her to be a housewife, rather than anything else she wanted. She was meant to cook, clean, and raise their child. On weekdays, he worked at the community secretariat as a clerk. Most of the time, he would come back from work a disgruntled man, trudging into their living room with a grimace. Sometimes, she would summon the courage to ask him questions about his work days. Her enquiries were usually met with silence; sometimes chagrin. His attitude after work was something she had gotten used to over the years. Ekanem’s ambitious nature was evident to many. A chronic gambler, he would spend countless hours day-dreaming about hopping on a gravy train. To him, it wasn’t just about possessing wealth, it was equally about getting it the easy way. He was obsessed with the thrill of getting money with little or no work. That was his idea of efficiency. On weekends, he would spend his mornings at the aptly named Life Na Gamble pool parlour. There, he would shoot pool, and stake on football games. Too often, he would be on the receiving end of fortune’s whip. He was a vocal person who was never ashamed to express himself, but he always came unstuck when the topic of children came up during conversations. He would suddenly make up excuses just to leave social gatherings. His son was diagnosed with Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome at the age of 10. Himself and Stella had always known something was wrong with their child’s health; they just didn’t know what it was. They were told by the doctor who they travelled west to see in Ibadan that Edet was unlikely to clock two decades. It was the first time they heard about progeria. In the depths of her tearful solitude that night, Stella cursed fate. She believed the unfortunate revelation aggravated her husband’s hostile disposition toward her and Edet. Ekanem never hugged his son. He never held his hand in public spaces. One day, he left with everything he owned, except a corkscrew that always lay idle on the kitchen shelf.
Edara became particularly close to Edet. They shared the same room, and their darkest secrets in equal measure. Initially, Edara’s welcoming hand was born of sympathy. Her mother, popularly known as Mrs. Essien, brought Edet to live with them when he was 12. She told Edara and Ubong that Edet’s father had left, and his mother was away temporarily. That was not entirely the truth. Stella had gone mad. One evening, she stripped herself naked and ran into the streets. Prior to her insanity, she suffered several panic attacks which she thought to be spiritual ‘arrows’ from Ekanem’s clan. She was convinced they never liked her. The day she finally caved in, Edet was fast asleep. She was in her kitchen about to hammer the door hinge back into place when her eyes suddenly started to twitch. She dashed out the door, while frantically trying to disrobe herself as quickly as possible. Breasts swinging around and about, she laughed erratically. Neighbours observed from behind curtains. There was nothing particularly sensational about Stella’s insanity. To them, she was just another person impaled by life’s prongs. In Akamkpa, the economic and political climate shrunk sentiments. The only preoccupation for many was survival. Stella faded into the peach-coloured sunset, as the dusty evening wind blew and swirled.
By the time he was 18, Edet had spent six years at Mrs. Essien’s. She had two children; Ubong and Edara. Ubong was the anatomical opposite of Edet. He had broad shoulders and pronounced calf muscles. He would consciously wear shorts just to show them off. He was a starboy. With comb firmly tucked in back pocket, he would thrill teenage girls with his relatively superior vocabulary and his one-sided smile. Edara, on the other hand, was a bookworm. Mrs. Essien implemented a reading culture in her house as early as she could. She held books in the highest regards. A secondary school Business Studies teacher, she littered her house with different types of print, from novels to newspapers. Efforts at securing a school in Calabar for Edet had proved futile. Mrs. Essien would take his medical report with her everytime she went from school to school, trying to convince them to take him on board. He had hollow cheeks, a downward-curving beak-like nose, a large head, and was always conscious of his frail fingers. When he was alone, Edet would read and paint. He especially enjoyed the newspapers. He would sort old newspapers that belonged to the deceased Mr. Essien by year, then stash them in his wardrobe. Other times, himself and Edara would do impressions of their favourite actors, or play cards. He would tell her about his imaginary romance with John Eze-Clark, the TV child star. Every night, thoughts of his mother would flood his consciousness before he went to bed. Suspicions grew in his mind about Mrs. Essien’s claim that his mother was in Lagos working at a soap factory. Edet was aware he was running out of time. Priceless seconds ticked away.
“This can’t be possible.” Edara had struggled to control her disappointment after Edet told her about his sexual predilection. For the next couple of days following the revelation, their conversations became brief and awkward. She would not look him in the eye when talking to him. Eventually, Edara addressed the elephant in the room a few nights later. “I understand this is something you can’t control,” she whispered to a sleepy Edet who she had awoken. She sat on the side of his bed with an expression on her face denoting a confused mix of sympathy and remorse. “Have you ever heard God’s voice?” She hesitated for a second before responding, “Yes, I believe I have.” Staring at the open window over Edara’s vacant bed on the other side of the room, Edet seemed ominously relaxed. “Why doesn’t God talk to me?” he asked her. “Could it be because he feels guilty about all the pain he has caused me?” He didn’t bother to wait for her response before he shut his eyes. She slowly stood up and walked towards her bed with a grimace and a heavy heart. Her mother was treasurer at their church. The Essien family history had strong ties with Protestantism. Edara’s paternal grandfather was a faith healer whose ministry thrived in Uyo before he passed on a few years prior to her birth. Her cousin, Ekpo, was a gospel singer who toured northern Nigeria. Ekpo’s primary objective was to reach out to those in predominantly Muslim regions. His body was found floating in a river near Makurdi the night after a show. Nationwide media unanimously painted him as a martyr of a just cause. Edara had always regarded homosexuality to be an abhorrent sin against God’s will. All of a sudden, Edet’s revelation had forced her into compromising, and – in the process – shaking the very foundation of her faith.
Mrs. Essien visited Effiong’s cyber café frequently. She had been sending as many e-mails as she could to a progeria organization based in the U.S. Every time she opened her mail, the sight of another insignificant message in her inbox broke her heart. Sometimes, Effiong would check on her behalf. Edet’s condition was deteriorating with each day that passed. Mrs. Essien feared the end was nigh for the boy she had seen mature before her eyes. When the decision to take him in was made by her, she endured backlash from her family members who thought the boy to be a casaulty of his own forefather’s transgressions. His condition was so rare, it was impossible for most people around Mrs. Essien to comprehend her decision to keep Edet under her roof with her own children. The first time she met Edet was at his mother’s tailor shop. Moved by Stella’s sensational story of resilience and endurance despite unfavourable odds, Mrs. Essien became interested in more than just her services. She would bring gifts for Edet everytime she came around. When she heard about Stella taking to the streets, she was distraught. Her attention immediately turned to a helpless Edet who she sought to comfort in his time of distress. The day she took Edet home with her, she had the tricky task of introducing the strange boy to her children. He had his hands in his pockets, while she was seated by him on a bench by their door. In a tranquil manner, she pleaded with her children to treat him like he was just like them. He wasn’t.
Mrs. Essien dashed past a startled Ubong. She was so excited, she could barely slip her feet into her sandals. Waiting by the door was Effiong with a smile that could light up an entire city for days. They took off for his cyber café in next to no time. All she wanted at that moment was to confirm for herself what she had spent so much time praying for: help. There it was. The progeria foundation had responded to her incessant plea. They were eager to send representatives to meet Edet and talk about the future. The family celebrated deep into the night with food and drink. Edet’s somewhat subdued merriment caught Mrs. Essien’s attention. After the night’s buzz, Mrs. Essien visited his room. She twisted the door knob, and slowly pushed the creaky old door open. Suddenly, his slender voice peered through the darkness. “I’m still going to die.” Slowly making her way towards his bed, she instantly responded as if she had simulated all possible scenarios of the conversation in her mind beforehand. “Everybody will die someday, my baby,” she softly spoke. “I’m gay.” The statement sent instant chills across her body. She took several seconds to soak it in before exploding into the loudest whisper. “Shut up your mouth! Shut up!” She quickly walked out of the room, trying to shake off the temptation of hitting him. She had never been the type to spare the rod, but she never hit Edet. She paced the passageway praying vigorously. Minutes later, praying morphed into sobbing. She never came back to his room that night. The next morning, she seemed like a person whose memory of the previous night had been erased. She never brought up the topic at any point on that day or any other.
With each stone he tossed, he felt a slight pain in his shoulder. He was used to it. On some evenings, that was all Edet did: casually throw stones. In his eyes, beyond the veranda lay a frontier unexplored. He was not allowed to leave the house by himself. “It’s for your own good,” Mrs. Essien would tell him. She was probably right. The neighbours tried to be nice, but kept their distance when exchanging pleasantries with him; some of them never convinced he was HIV negative. Poised to throw another stone into the puddle a few feet away, he hesitated. He suddenly made up his mind to take a walk alone. Defying instructions, he took a step and another. Then another. After ten minutes of putting up with glaring stares, he found an empty football field right on the brink of night time. A gust of wind graced him. Staring from one end of the field, memories of years past sprung up in his mind. Amidst rumination, he recalled he never got to tell his mother about the night he overheard his father talking to a strange man under Edidem’s cassava shed about goat blood and money rituals. He recalled he never got to tell his father about the night Mr. Kolawole’s courtesy visit to his mother turned into a one hour romp in the bedroom. He was tired of being tired. He began to sprint toward the other end as fast as he could. A sharp pain in his knee heralded his collapse to the wet turf halfway across. Warm tears streaked down his wrinkled face. His forlorn figure in the darkness against a backdrop of cornrows.
They had one week left before the foreigners’ imminent arrival. Edet’s interest in Tony, a neighbour, seemed to grow with each day. He would discreetly watch him through the kitchen window everytime he walked by. Sometimes, he would imagine having him to himself. He had always tried to dispel thoughts of them together, but never quite could. Disgusted with himself, he would try different distractions that only seemed to temporarily suppress and stifle. Mrs. Essien panicked after Edet told her about his big secret. She couldn’t afford to let anyone else know. Dealing with the revelation was too much of a task to handle. It led her to create an illusion perfectly identical to the real world; an illusion absent, only, of a queer boy under her roof. On the Sunday before the meeting, the family had supper together. There was no dining table, so they usually ate in the living room while watching the news on Sundays; an unspoken tradition. As usual, Ubong mimicked popular newscaster Wolfgang Bassey’s accent. After the night’s fun and banter, everyone of them retired to their beds, with the exception of Edara who waited for her favourite telenovela to commence. Mrs. Essien walked in on Edet tucking himself under his blanket. She flicked on the light switch on the wall, immediately sighting a stack of his paintings on the table. With a proud grin on her face, she flipped through each paper one after the other. One particular painting caught her attention. Yellow balls over star-spangled night sky. “I like this one,” she confessed. “Can you tell me what it’s about?” “I’m not sure myself, but I’m glad you like it,” he slowly responded, his voice barely audible. She sat on the side of his bed and held his hands. He was tired and in need of sleep. “Listen, I love you no matter what,” she whispered to him with a wink. He understood. “I love you too, eka,” he replied. Her eyes instantly watered up. She let go of his hands, slowly stood up, and made her way for the door. She took one last look at him, then flicked the switch.
That night, Edet slept for the last time, or – perhaps – for the first