Fiction Fiction Issue

Night Bus

The treacherous route to Lagos
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"Oh, make una form line!” The security officer’s voice rose and silenced the conversations around him. He waved the barrel of his automatic in a wide arc over the people congregated around the night bus to Lagos.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "Out of the Darkness" (July 11, 2006)
Ada Udechukwu on art, writing, and the politics of her troubled homeland.

Passengers scrambled to form a line. The officer strolled past and prodded the cartons, suitcases, and bags that stood alongside their owners. Satisfied with his inspection, he returned to the head of the line, saluted no one in particular, and mounted the bus steps. He leaned against the door, pinched snuff into his nostrils, and surveyed the passengers below him. From time to time he inhaled deeply, let loose a violent sneeze, hacked up phlegm, spat, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

The conductor began ticketing passengers. Whenever he cleared a traveler for boarding, the officer left his post. He examined hand luggage first. He conducted a body search on male passengers by running his hands along their clothing, feeling pockets, and occasionally ordering their contents displayed. Women were treated to a metal detector waved back and forth over their clothing.

Uloma held her ticket out to the conductor. He motioned toward the open luggage compartments at the side of the bus. She shook her head, tightening her grip on the duffel strap.

Visibly annoyed, the conductor pointed to the bag and said, “Sista, you no fit take am inside.”

Uloma smiled. “Oga, no vex. E go fit for inside. I dey carry dis bag before.”

“Na oga security go decide.” The conductor tilted his head in the direction of the security officer, who now stood at the bottom of the steps, poised to intervene.

Uloma gazed at the conductor. With palms clasped in front of her, she pleaded, “Oga, biko. Tell am breakable dey for bag.”

“You ladies. Na so-so trouble you dey cause me,” the conductor muttered. He jerked a thumb at the officer and asked, “You wan make I talk to am?”

Uloma nodded.

The conductor left to confer with the officer. They spoke for several minutes. Twice the officer pointed to the luggage bins beneath the bus, packed with bags as large as Uloma’s, and to the duffel she carried.

“I don tell am,” the conductor said, in a voice loud enough for all to hear. A moment later he leaned over to the officer and whispered in his ear.

Impatient murmurs rose from the waiting passengers.

Uloma looked behind her. She saw no sign of Monye, even though they’d agreed to meet at the station by three o’clock. She rocked on her heels, an arm cradled under the duffel to relieve her shoulder of its weight. Although everything appeared to be working out as he had said it would, Monye’s lateness unnerved her.

Minutes passed. The duffel strap cut into her shoulder. She raised it and shifted it to the other side. Beneath her clothes and other personal items, several thousand dollars for the secondhand Mercedes that Monye planned to buy from a dealer in Cotonou lay under the duffel’s false bottom. The exchange rate had been good that week—140 naira to the dollar. The naira that Monye had carried to the exchange bureau had been reduced to the compact packets of dollars now hidden in the duffel. He’d explained about the money the night before, when he fixed the bag. Tomorrow morning, while Uloma bought bales of used clothing for resale back at her stall in the Aba market, he’d negotiate for the car. Together they’d drive the car across the border from neighboring Benin and return to Nigeria, where he would sell the car for a good profit.

The officer and the conductor burst into laughter. Uloma looked at them. The officer winked at her, pointed to his chest, and waved with both hands. Uloma waved, and stretched her lips into a forced smile.

Within seconds the officer dismissed the conductor and sauntered over to Uloma. His bowlegged waddle heightened the ridiculous effect of tight trousers tucked into boots in imitation of a commando uniform. He stood before her, his fly only partially zipped, revealing aquamarine nylon underpants. She cursed Monye for putting her in a situation where she needed to ask a favor of this oaf. The day before, Monye’s request that she make sure the duffel stayed with her had seemed simple enough; now the prospect of debasing herself sickened her.

The officer grinned, took hold of Uloma’s arm, and led her around the bus. She needed all of her willpower not to tell him to get his hands off her.

“Fine woman, why you no fit put your bag for under? I tink say you know na extra we dey charge for overweight.” The officer’s sly smile amplified the lie he told.

Uloma wrinkled her nose at the fermenting mixture of beer and kola nuts on his breath. A window opened above them, and she gazed up at the passengers staring down in anticipation of the drama to follow. Beads of sweat trickled from her armpits. She hugged her duffel to her.

“Wetin dey for bag? E be like you wan hide sonting. Oya, drop am, make I see what you carry.” The officer pointed to the space between his feet.

Uloma put the duffel down. The officer knelt and rummaged among her things. He pulled aside layers of folded clothes and dug deep into the bag. When he encountered something that interested him—a toilet bag, a packet of sanitary pads, a makeup kit—he held it up and queried her about it. He ignored the novels and magazines at the bottom of the bag, squeezed something, and pulled it out.

“Wetin dey for here?” The officer held up a black plastic bag.

“Oga, biko.” Uloma extended her hands.

The officer swung the bag and laughed when Uloma groped for it. He tossed the bag into the air, caught it, untied the double knot at its neck, and peered inside. A pungent odor escaped, and the officer grimaced at the bloodstained panties.

Uloma covered her mouth and smiled into her palm, glad that she had heeded Monye’s advice about packing the underwear.

The officer hastily stuffed the bag back into the duffel and stood up. “Sista, n’only because I like you. So, find kola, make I chop.” He motioned to his mouth. His eyes ran the length of Uloma’s body and came to a stop at her breasts.

She handed him a folded bill. He checked its denomination and slipped it into his pocket. Uloma reached for the duffel. The officer’s hand brushed over her breast. He flashed a smile at her, and the dull red of his tongue filled the gap between his front teeth, pulsing like a live animal. She flushed, fighting an urge to strike him.

“Make we go,” the officer said, and turned on his heel.

The two of them rounded the front of the bus. Sighs came from the waiting passengers. A wave of grumbles rolled from the back of the line, and people stepped out to eye Uloma. She bowed her head.

The officer returned to his perch on the steps. He waved Uloma over to the conductor and signaled the man to resume ticketing. Loud protests filled the air. Several people called out, “Ye-ye woman,” “Ashawo,” “E be say like you don give am de ting.” Uloma blushed at the abuse, her face hot.

The conductor ignored her when she held out her ticket. One after another he cleared passengers for boarding. Soon a plump middle-aged woman in an expensive brocade wrappa stepped forward. A stiff headtie sat on her head, its towering crown secured with a large knot whose two loose ends spread out like wings behind her. The conductor grinned and greeted the woman effusively. Oblivious of the waiting passengers, the two of them enquired about the health of family members and conversed about mutual acquaintances.

Uloma glanced behind her. Monye still hadn’t arrived. She couldn’t understand his delay. This trip had been his idea. Weeks before, when he had suggested she accompany him, she had protested about making another journey so soon after her regular monthly trip to buy stock for her used-clothing business—she hadn’t yet sold three-quarters of the goods she’d bought on her previous trip. But Monye had persuaded her that it was a good opportunity to beat the Christmas rush. He’d also assured her that after his deal with the car, the traditional marriage ceremony she longed for was next on his agenda.

The conductor turned to Uloma. “Sista, you don settle am?” he asked with a smirk on his face.

She nodded.

“Oya, now, bring my own.”

Uloma held out her ticket. The conductor sighed and shook his head. He rubbed one palm over the other.

Uloma placed a twenty-naira note under her ticket and handed it back.

On her way into the bus she squeezed past the officer. He pinched her arm. But when she looked back, he made a show of adjusting his cap. She paused beside the driver’s seat and surveyed the bus. Behind her the officer accosted a passenger.

“My broda, wey you dey go?” the officer asked.

“That lady you pass now-now, nko,” a man retorted.

Uloma looked over her shoulder.

The officer glanced at her and snickered. “I don check am behind.”

Both men laughed.

Uloma turned away. She walked down the aisle, stopped halfway at a pair of vacant seats, and took the one by the window. Perched on the seat beside her, the duffel looked normal, no different from the way it had looked before Monye created the false bottom. She located the seam, pulled at a loose thread, and pressed it down again, appalled that she had doubted Monye. She understood why so many dollars were needed: the car dealerships in Benin insisted on being paid in foreign currency. Monye had told her what he’d done with the bag—how much cash he’d hidden, and exactly how he’d packed it. For once he’d trusted her with the details of his business, explaining the technicalities of registering and licensing, and also the process of “settling” people in the motor-licensing office. When she asked why he couldn’t carry the money on him, as she carried hers, he said that if anyone knew he had all those dollars, he’d be forced to pay double the bribes he anticipated.

Yet something continued to bother her about his insistence that she hold the money for him. Inexplicably, her thoughts wandered to old gossip from her university days. On campus, Monye had stood out, with his good looks, sports car, and expensive lifestyle. Rumors—none of them good—abounded about the source of his seemingly endless supply of cash. But the rumors did not hurt his reputation with women. He’d asked her out once, and she’d accepted, surprised that he’d notice someone like her.

Uloma stowed the duffel under the seat in front of her and glanced at her watch; in another hour the bus would leave the station. She debated whether to move to the aisle seat. The window offered a view of the roadside, but if she were next to the aisle, she’d be able to see anything coming toward the bus. She made a hasty sign of the cross to protect herself from any trouble. Unzipping the duffel, she retrieved a bag containing a jar of groundnuts and a packet of biscuits, and she placed it on the seat beside her. She zipped up the duffel and placed it back on the floor, between her feet.

Although this was the sixth time she had traveled on the night bus to Lagos, the journey still frightened her. Recently, after a spate of hijackings and robberies, all the major transporters had started moving in convoys, with an armed guard on each bus. She knew that when they got to Onitsha, their final stop in the east, they’d be joined by five more buses, and from then on until they reached Lagos, buses would be behind and in front of them. That meant that there would be at least six armed guards. But this did not alleviate her fears.

The long journey, commencing in the late afternoon and continuing into the early hours of the following day, always made her uneasy. But she had no alternative if she wanted to get her goods and return home without having to close her market stall for more than a day. A quick turnaround meant more money at the end of the month. Monye’s willingness to lend her interest-free seed money for the business had helped, but she had to pay back some of the principal every month. In addition to this she gave money to her parents in the village—her siblings still in secondary school had tuition fees to be paid. And she had expenses of her own.

Out in the parking lot three other buses stood in front of the station. They would be journeying to popular destinations in the north: Abuja, Kaduna, and Kano. All the buses, including the one she sat in, were multicolored. Plastered against diagonals of fluorescent blue and pink on their flanks, bold yellow letters proclaimed LANDJET TRANSPORTERS, INC. Along the top of each bus the prowess of Landjet was advertised with the words CONCORDE OF THE NIGER. Lower down, near the tires, a biblical passage secured protection from the Almighty: THE LORD IS MY STRENGT & SHIELD, PSALM 28:7. Uloma smiled at the misspelled word and wondered if the phrase actually came from the Book of Psalms.

A short distance from the parked buses people milled around the narrow veranda that fronted Landjet’s offices. Latecomers battled for the few remaining tickets at the counter, and a disorderly line stretched from the door.

Uloma patted her belly and felt for the small apron underneath her outer wrappa. Three hundred thousand naira, half the cost of three bales of secondhand clothing, was stitched into its pockets. Earlier in the afternoon, before coming to the bus station, she had divided a further 290,000 into three envelopes and hidden them in her handbag. The cups of her bra were padded with another 10,000.

She looked around the bus. Only a few people were inside. Some of the seats across from her held bags, left by passengers to colonize places for themselves. Most people boarded the bus, secured their seats, and got off to walk around the station’s premises in search of snacks and drinks, returning only when the final departure call came.

Out in the Landjet compound a mobile market spread itself among the crowd. Food vendors darted in different directions, hastening to attend to customers. Uloma raised the window beside her. A boy selling bread caught her eye and shoved a loaf high into the air. “Aunty, touch am,” he called out. “Na today own, fresh.” She shook her head. A flock of hawkers scuttled over. They clamored for her attention, showing her their wares. A woman held out her tray of boiled eggs and shouted, “Egg, ten-ten naira, aunty!” A young girl pushed herself in front of the woman, raising two plastic bags of water into the air. “Pure-water, pure-water,” she sang in a falsetto.

Uloma slipped the strap of her handbag from her shoulder and brought out her wallet. Her late lunch of pounded yam and vegetable soup felt like a stone in her stomach. The snacks she’d brought with her were enough nourishment until the bus stopped for breakfast, at Ore. All she needed was a cold drink and some bottled water to keep with her for the journey. She waved at a woman carrying a bucket of soft drinks and drinking water on her head. When the woman set down her load, Uloma pointed to a bottle of Fanta and a large Eva water bottle swimming around in the melting ice. She paid for her beverages, took hold of the bottles, and shook her head at the woman’s offer to wipe them with a dirty rag.

Passengers streamed into the bus in twos and threes. To discourage anyone from approaching her, Uloma kept her arm draped over the bag of snacks on the seat beside her. She looked behind her and tallied the vacant seats on the bus. Other than the one next to her, only two seats remained empty. But once the bus left the station, the conductor would bring out “attachments”—crude padded stools that fit in the aisle—so he and the driver could earn extra money for themselves by picking up passengers along the way.

Uloma peered into her handbag and checked again for the manila envelopes that contained her cash. A bead of sweat rolled into the valley between her breasts, and she rubbed the front of her blouse. Its stiff lace fabric rustled. Her breasts itched from the damp naira notes in her bra. She untied her outer wrappa and fanned herself with it, twirling the ends while she blew down the neckline of her blouse. The ankle-length fabric of the wrappa still tied around her waist trapped the heat, and her moist thighs slipped against each other. She dressed this way—the lace blouse and double abada wrappas—only to fit in with the other madams who rode the bus. This was not the life she had imagined for herself when she graduated from the university with her French degree. Still, her French came in handy when she bargained with Beninese traders in Cotonou. They thought she was a native.

Uloma checked her watch again: fifteen minutes to go. Perhaps Monye was going to miss the bus. If so, she’d get off and go home. She had not wanted to make the journey in the first place. Carrying all this money made her nervous. And Monye’s scheme that they travel as strangers seemed unnecessarily complicated, even though she understood his fear about the money. But if it was so expertly hidden, as he said, why did they have to pretend not to know each other? She’d tried to press him for answers, but he’d brushed aside her concerns. And she’d given in—as he knew she would—when he told her that this deal with the car would provide him with the money he needed so they could get engaged and he could talk to her parents about wedding plans.

Her parents bothered her about Monye all the time. Whenever she visited them, they welcomed her with criticism: “All your education gone to waste—you are now a common trader kept by a man,” her mother would say. “When is he going to bring his people to see us?” her father would ask. Yet every month they accepted the money she gave them without questioning where it came from.

Monye helped her out with the monthly stipend she gave her parents. If it weren’t for him, she’d probably be a prostitute by now. Many of the girls she knew openly flaunted their sugar daddies, the older married men who kept them clothed and housed in return for services. At least Monye loved her and provided her with an independent income.

A year before, she’d been unemployed and living off her small savings, shuttling between the homes of friends and worrying about how to support her parents and five younger siblings. It was a terrible time. Monye came to her aid when all seemed hopeless. They’d met up again in a party given by a mutual friend. All night, Monye danced only with her; when he held her close, his body told her what he wanted. Barely a month after their reunion, he asked her to move in with him. He vowed his love and promised to marry her when he had enough money to support a family.

And now, with only minutes to spare, Monye boarded the bus and looked down the aisle. He spotted Uloma, walked up to her, and pointed to the seat beside her. “Excuse me—is this taken?”

Uloma indicated the bag resting there and shrugged her shoulders. She gestured in the direction of a vacant window seat farther down the aisle.

Monye smiled. “Madam, please, I would prefer sitting by the aisle.”

Uloma sighed and moved her bag of snacks. She exaggerated her annoyance, hoping that the other passengers wouldn’t suspect she and Monye knew each other.

A few minutes later the driver climbed into his seat and revved the engine. A volley of gunshots punctuated the air. The security officer boarded the bus and strode down the aisle. He stumbled on a red-and-blue GHANA MUST GO bag and poked it with the barrel of his gun. “Madam, move dis ting,” he ordered its owner. The woman spread her feet and squeezed the bag between them.

Uloma tugged at Monye’s arm. She bent down, fiddled with the duffel, and whispered, “What took you so long?”

Monye looked over the seat in front of him and said, “Okwudili called.”

Uloma couldn’t match the name with a face. Monye had many friends, but they came to the house late in the evenings, and she never saw them. She prepared the fried meat and pepper soup he requested for their entertainment, but he did the serving. He insisted that she stay in the bedroom whenever his friends visited. While she waited for them to leave, bits of their conversation filtered through to her. Arguments often broke out. Sometimes she picked up a word or two from an angry raised voice, but most of the time she dozed, the sound of garbled voices lulling her into a fitful sleep until Monye came to bed.

“What did he want?” Uloma asked.

Monye pressed a finger to his lips and jerked his thumb toward the aisle.

The security officer stood beside their row. Uloma bent her head and looked at him out of the corner of her eye.

The officer tapped Monye on the shoulder. “You know dis woman?”

Monye shook his head.

“De way you dey lean to am, e be say like you wan know am.”

Monye grinned. “Ah-ah, officer, no be like dat. De bag wey im keep for under, I just dey move am small make my leg fit.”

“Anyway my man, make you no touch am. Na me wey get dis lady.” The officer blinked at Uloma, pursed his lips, and laughed. Monye joined in.

Still chuckling, the officer walked off and continued his inspection of the bus. On his way back he stopped beside Uloma and Monye, slung his automatic over his shoulder, and spread his arms wide. The odor of his body wafted over them. Uloma looked at the dark sweat rings spreading from under his sleeves and held her breath.

“My people, Aba–Onitsha direct!” the officer declared.

“What of Lagos?” a voice from the back of the bus queried.

“Wetin, my friend? I never finish.” The officer cleared his throat and announced, “Aba–Onitsha–Lagos direct!”

Laughter filled the bus.

The driver revved the engine and tooted the horn. The bus jerked forward, and the officer steadied himself against Monye’s seat. Somehow he managed to push his face next to Uloma’s. His lips brushed against her forehead.

“Don’t touch me!” Uloma flung her hand in his face.

The officer backed away and looked at her with mock alarm. “Madam, de madam. No be me wey do am.” He held both palms up, straightened himself, and called out, “Draiva, softly oh! Dis bus don make me do romance.” The officer chuckled and looked around.

A few passengers applauded.

Tears welled up in Uloma’s eyes, and she dabbed them with a tissue. All these people cared about was being entertained. It didn’t matter at whose expense. Monye’s elbow jabbed her waist, and she wiped her eyes. She couldn’t understand why he allowed her to be humiliated, and why he even joined in making fun of her.

The horn sounded again, a grinding of gears set the wheels going, and the Landjet lumbered out of the station. Monye sat back in his seat and flipped through a magazine. Uloma felt a stroke on her thigh. Monye’s fingers circled and lifted the hem of her wrappa. She wanted him to comfort her, not this. She squeezed her eyes shut against the tears she felt returning.

“Ulo, don’t cry now,” Monye whispered, and stroked her thigh again.

On the highway, wind rushed through the windows. The bus hummed with conversations. Several passengers dozed. But Uloma was unable to sleep. She leaned against the window and watched the blue of the sky deepen into indigo.

Halfway to Onitsha a voice rang out from the back of the bus: “Brothers, sisters, let us pray.” An itinerant peddler stood in the aisle. He wore a knee-length patchwork jacket of black, red, and white triangles over a pair of baggy white pants. Holding up a worn Bible, he executed the sign of the cross and said, “In the name of Jesus, Jehovah, and all the saints, Professor Bede Nsofor is my name.” When no one responded, the professor strode down the aisle, turned halfway, glared at the people before him, and said, “Repent, brothers and sisters, for the devil is among us tonight.”

Conversation in the bus stalled. Passengers craned their necks and looked at one another, exchanging glances. The unacknowledged tension that had been suppressed in the daylight darted from face to face. Uloma looked out uneasily at the darkening horizon. In an hour, after they passed Asaba, the worst part of the journey would begin. Vague forms flashed by her window while the bus careered over the road, slowing only at bad stretches, when it was forced to carefully navigate the pothole-riddled terrain.

Professor Bede jumped forward and launched into a lengthy prayer. A chorus of voices rose in protest and urged him to hasten to his mission. He responded by waving a tube of toothpaste in the air. Walking back up the aisle, he called out, “Special from India, with full protection from de condition of bad breath, odawise known as halitosis. N’only hundred naira for one.” He did a brisk business, then retired to his seat.

"Onitsha-Onitsha,” the conductor announced.

The Landjet stopped behind another bus that was parked by the roadside. Within minutes two more buses arrived and pulled up on the opposite side of the road. Beyond them a motor park—devoid of vehicles—bustled with the trade of a night market. Flames flickered atop the wicks of oil lamps and illuminated the faces of patrons seated at tables in makeshift restaurants. Along the outer perimeter of the low wall encircling the park, women sat behind large pans balanced over glowing coals, tending to balls of akara bobbing in hot oil. The aroma of the frying bean cakes permeated the bus as windows opened and passengers called down to make purchases. Here and there, between the akara sellers, children were visible, hovering over grills to tend roast corn and ube. Uloma’s mouth watered. Roast ube, with its soft, buttery green flesh, was one of her favorite foods.

Fifteen minutes later engines revved and the convoy moved off. It crossed the Niger Bridge in a slow procession. In Asaba a twisted line of backed-up traffic blocked the road. The head-on collision of two vehicles obstructed one lane. A lorry lay on its side, baskets of tomatoes scattered around it, and the wooden frame of its carriage perched precariously over a small car.

The Landjet driver maneuvered around the accident site, half the bus’s wheels on the road and half on the shoulder. The bus tilted, wheels grinding in the sandy soil. It circumvented broken glass on the bloodstained tarmac, and a hush fell over the passengers. Two bodies covered with wrappas lay in the road. An upturned palm stuck out from one, a twisted foot from the other.

Away from the obstruction the driver accelerated. Uloma stared into the night sky. She gazed at her reflection, took her rosary from her handbag, and fingered its beads. She draped her second wrappa around her shoulders and settled back in her seat.

The snores of sleeping passengers and an occasional whispered conversation rippled in the dark cabin as the bus sped through a desolate landscape on its way to Benin City. Uloma feared this part of the journey most. From now until the Umunede rest stop, only bush and the silhouettes of roadside buildings would be visible.

Monye slipped his hand under her inner wrappa. He lifted the armrest between them and placed Uloma’s hand on his crotch. She leaned her head on his shoulder, and her fingers worked as he demanded. The heat of Monye’s arousal excited her, and she felt herself swelling. But after she satisfied him, Monye turned away and fell asleep.

Uloma woke to the sound of gunshots. She reached for Monye, but he shrugged her off. Explosions rent the air. The driver stepped on the brake, and the Landjet swayed from side to side. When the bus swerved off the road and stopped, panicked cries of “Wetin happen?” and “A beg oh!” came from all over.

“Make all of una remain in your seats,” the officer demanded. He opened the window beside him and fired shots into the bush.

Incoherent prayers rolled through the bus. Sobs broke from several women; they wailed and called on God to protect them. No one knew for sure what had happened, but they all suspected armed robbers.

Someone banged on the front of the bus. The driver cowered in his seat.

“Stop or I shoot,” the officer said, and aimed his gun at the door.

“No shoot. Na Sergeant Okoye from first bus,” a voice replied.

On hearing this the driver opened the door, and the security detail from the convoy’s lead bus entered.

The aisle lights came on.

Blinking at the faces before him, the man said, “Armed robber dey for operation. First bus tire don blow. Driver say make I bring two strong men, make dem help remove barrier for road.” The staccato beat of his voice reverberated through the bus.

A breathy silence fell over the Landjet. No male passengers stirred from their seats. The security officer stepped up to the rows nearest him and hustled two men down the steps.

Uloma crossed herself, thankful that Monye had not been chosen. She looked out the window. From all sides the bush closed in on them. Night noises were magnified, echoing strangely. A branch cracked; another answered. Leaves swished in the wind, chattering to one another.

Goosebumps rose on Uloma’s arms, and she shivered.

When several minutes had passed without any sign of the men who’d left the bus, the security officer and the driver disembarked. The beams of their flashlights flitted across the road and disappeared.

Monye grabbed the duffel strap and pulled the bag from under Uloma’s feet. He pushed her things aside and pried the bottom of the bag loose. A pistol lay among the packets of money. Uloma’s eyes widened. Monye put a finger to his lips and slipped the gun into his pocket.

Gunshots broke out around the bus. Monye stood, and Uloma clawed at him. He shoved her back into her seat and rushed toward the front of the bus. As he left, shots rang out.

“Monye, oh,” Uloma wailed in a hoarse whisper.

Fists banged on the front door. An armed man entered the bus; within seconds another joined him. Both wore masks, leaving only their eyes and mouths visible. They waved their weapons in the air and called out, “All rise.” They went down the aisle, moving swiftly, stopping at each row to demand cash and valuables. Uloma watched her fellow passengers mutely remove watches and jewelry.

One of the robbers stood before Uloma. Urine trickled down her leg. He held his hand out. She loosened her watch and slid the rings off her fingers. She gave up her handbag. The robber pointed to the duffel. She reached for it. The muzzle of his gun rested at her temple; the raised veins on his hand and trigger finger pulsed beside her face. She rose in a panic, lost her balance, and fell back against the seat.

In the row across from her the other robber turned. Uloma’s eyes locked with his. “Monye,” she whispered in disbelief at what she saw—the scar over the man’s left eyebrow.

The man ignored her, but his companion pulled him back. “Okoro, you know dis woman?”

The robber Okoro shook his head.

Looking from Okoro back to Uloma, the robber beside her said, “E be say like she reconize you.”

Okoro turned away. “No be me wey im call, na Monye. You fit hear the woman.”

“I fit, botu we no fit take chance,” the other robber replied. He turned to Uloma. “Oya, madam, out!”

“Please, sir,” Uloma stammered. She stared at the man’s face, mesmerized by his red eyes. Her feet refused to carry her, and the robber pulled her into the aisle.

Okoro spoke: “Jaja, stop now, make we continue operation. Time for enjoyment still dey.”

Jaja spat and said, “You talk true.” He drew Uloma to him, ground against her, and announced, “Jaja go poke tonite.” He released her, cupped a palm over his crotch, and hitched his trousers up.

Okoro grinned, slapped Jaja on the back, and whispered something. The two of them continued their work down the bus.

Uloma sat down. Doubts filled her. That man—he sounded nothing like Monye. There was no way he could be Monye. She had heard the shots when they killed him. A sob rose in her throat.

On their way back to the front of the bus the robbers pulled Uloma from her seat and shoved her ahead of them. All down the aisle her fellow passengers averted their eyes. She descended the steps and stumbled to the ground, pushed by the robber Jaja.

Moonlight illuminated the road. The bodies of the driver and the security officer lay to one side. Uloma rose to her feet and gravitated toward a third, facedown in the dirt. Jaja grabbed her and pushed her across the road. Okoro followed.

The night’s silence amplified bursts of gunfire from the operations going on behind them. With each shot and cry Uloma’s chest felt close to bursting. They trekked on; the tarmac stretched far beyond them. Some distance past the last bus in the convoy, swaths of overgrown elephant grass leaned over the road. Uloma waited fearfully for the order to stop. It never came.

At a small clearing laughter broke out. Uloma started. A man emerged from behind a tree and stuffed his penis back into his trousers. The robber Jaja cackled and circled Uloma’s waist with his arm. He pulled her to him and humped against her.

“Space dey there?” Jaja asked.

“Eh, but Moses dey for am now,” the man in the clearing replied. He noticed Uloma’s gaze on his open zipper and pushed his hips at her.

Uloma struggled in Jaja’s arms, and the men laughed.

A muffled moan came from the bushes. It was followed by a shot.

“E don tire,” the man standing before them said, by way of explanation.

Uloma’s bowels churned. Please, God, she prayed to herself, let them kill me. She jerked her elbows into Jaja’s ribs, twisted out of his grasp, and turned to run. Okoro grabbed her.

Jaja came up to Uloma and slapped her face. He spat, wiped his mouth, and said, “I go show you today.”

Hustling her to a tree beyond the clearing, he pushed Uloma to the ground and stripped her. He inspected the money in her apron and bra. When he wrenched off her panties, Uloma tried to cover herself, and Jaja giggled uncontrollably. He shoved himself into her and collapsed. He rose and pumped into her again. At the end, when he squeezed her breasts and pinched her nipples, she groaned.

As he stood up, Jaja kicked her and said, “Okoro, finish am, I go return small time.”

Okoro bent over Uloma, peered into her face, and whispered, “Ulo.”

Uloma flinched. Only Monye called her that. She gazed into the eyes that met hers, confused now. “Monye,” she murmured.

The man hesitated. A branch snapped. Figures converged. They egged Okoro on, telling him to hurry so they could take their turns.

Ada Udechukwu is the author of Woman, Me, a collection of poems and drawings. Her artwork has been exhibited in Nigeria and the United States.
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