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Silent Passenger

by Nike Campbell






I don’t feel the warmth of home. Not even with “Welcome to Nigeria” blaring as I descend the escalator at Murtala Muhammed International Airport. The air conditioning hits me as I walk through the sliding doors to Customs and Immigration. I sail through a line of uniformed officers. Not one demand for a bribe. That’s different.

Over at the carousel, I place my luggage in a cart with no fuss. Twenty years ago, crowds surged in like avalanches. Heckling travelers demanded to exchange money. Peddlers pimped out the use of their mobile phones for a fee. Not now.

Outside, police pace back and forth. One turns to me.

“You better get home now. Curfew begins at 10 this evening.”

Just then, the phone buzzes in my jeans pocket. My hand trembles as I reach for it. Uncle is on the other end.

“Small Madam, welcome home! Give me a few minutes to park. I will come and get you at arrivals.”

His voice is just as I recall, deep and gruff.

“No, Uncle. I’ll find my way.”

“But you’re not familiar with the new renovation. The airport has changed.”

“It’s not a bother,” I say.

“Okay. I’ll be there in a sec.”


Right before my short walk to the garage, I text Stella, my bestie from secondary school. We tell each other everything. I let her know I’ve arrived safely.

Suddenly, the blue Mercedes slithers up in the parking garage. Uncle’s face emerges, wrinkled and shrunken. He wears bushy, grey brows and gaps in his teeth. What’s left of his hair is close shaven, but he looks almost the same. He has aged, but only evident in the sagging skin under his chin and the sloping shoulders of his French suit. He jumps out of the car, like a man half his age.

“Princess Ally—a.k.a. Small Madam! Is this you?” Uncle grabs the cart and empties my luggage into the trunk of the car.

I take a deep breath and open the door to the front passenger seat.

“Sit in the back,” he says.

“I can sit in front, you know,” I reply, forcing a smile. “I am no longer a child.” I duck into the passenger’s seat. My foot hits an object wrapped in a plastic bag.

“You see? Why didn’t you listen to me? Go and sit in the back, young lady.”

Embarrassed, I obey. Once I settle in, Uncle adjusts the rear-view mirror. For a few seconds, his glassy eyes lock with mine. I look away.

The headlights of an approaching car fix on us for what seems like an eternity. Uncle freezes. The car then disappears around the corner and up to the next garage level. Only then does Uncle drop his hand and relax his shoulders.

A familiar voice from the radio fills the car. “And in the news tonight, the police are still in search of the elusive—”

Uncle switches the station. Soft jazz fills the car instead. I take deep, slow breaths and exhale, but my quivering hands betray me. I steady them between my thighs, focusing instead on the overhead cement pillars. The walls close in.

I press the automatic window and free my arm as the car speeds from the garage and onto the traffic-free highway.

Uncle steals another look at me through the mirror. He chuckles.

“I can’t believe you still do that.”

Twenty years ago, as a teenager, I stuck my hand out the car window and waved at strangers. Uncle would pick me up from school and drive me around town. He was our family driver and fancied himself as a father figure. I guess, in some ways, he tried to be.


***


The house welcomes me back like an old friend. Save for the lingering smell of paint, nothing has changed. Uncle’s guest house sits at the edge of the property. I glance at it before turning towards the back door leading into the kitchen.

“Mama is asleep,” says the house help. Mercy is from Mom’s hometown, Ikot Ekpene. She looks all of 15 years old, her hair threaded into Bantu balls. Mercy scurries around the kitchen like a tiny squirrel, industrious and calculated. “She try o, but the medicine she tek make ‘im sleep.”

Mom’s bathroom accident is the reason I am back. When Aunt Aggie called a month ago, I recalled the day of the first car accident involving Uncle and Mom. The two survived. But this time, Mom fell and broke her leg, climbing out of the bathtub. Aunty Aggie expressed her annoyance about the incident.


“It is high time your mother stops living alone and doing everything by herself. She needs a house help.”

“Aunty, who will take care of the expenses but me, her only child? I can’t afford that.”

“It’s already a done deal,” Aunt Aggie said. “Besides, Uncle has already resumed work as her driver and a house help is arranged with an agency.”

I could hardly breathe. “Which uncle?” I asked.

“The family driver from your childhood,” she scoffed. “The same from before you went to study in America.”

“Why him? Couldn’t you have found someone else?”

“Are we not talking of the same uncle?” Aunty Aggie asked. “He is like family, and he needs us now. He has fallen on hard times and only needs shelter and food. His second wife passed just like the first. He has no children or other family to support him in his old age.”

Aunty Aggie didn’t need to say more. I purchased my ticket for home the same day.


Mercy, eager to show off her culinary skills, ushers me into the dining room where the food waits. She made my favorite, pounded yam and Ẹgusi soup. I enter the dark room where a floor lamp stands in the farthest corner.

“Can you switch on a lamp or two?” I ask.

When no light appears, I turn around. Behind Mercy, Uncle lurks in the shadows.

I gasp, tripping over a cord partially hidden under the rug.

Mercy turns to look behind her. “Ha! Uncle! Why you stand there like that?”

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.” Uncle steps under the fluorescent light in the hallway. His eyes dance with amusement.

“I-I’m…sorry,” I say to them both, heading upstairs. “I think—I am too tired to eat.”


***


The next morning, my mother doesn’t recognize me at her bedside. Aunty Aggie warned me this will happen as it did with their mother. Still, I have not braced myself for the blank look in Mom’s eyes when I call her. The fall in the bathtub must have compounded her condition.

Mom sits up, the cotton nightgown loose around her gaunt neck. I am taken aback by the cropped snow-white hair. She finally stopped dyeing it into that unnatural soot color. The low cut, the only semblance of our similarity. Mom is tall and slim, while I am vertically challenged. Where she is outspoken, I am reserved.

I grab her hand on top of the blanket, and the veil lifts from her eyes. She hugs me.

“Have you eaten?”

“Not yet. I wanted to see you first.”

Mom’s eyes travel to my hair. “When did you cut your hair?” she gasps. “If not for your earrings—thank goodness—you could be mistaken for a man!”

“I know, it’s very short,” I say. “Mom, why did you let Uncle back here after so long?”

Mom stares at me and bursts out laughing. I don’t laugh at all. My phone rings in my pocket. It is Stella.

“Hey girl. I’m sending an Uber to bring you to meet me at the first location, but for the other places, it will only be you and Rapha.” She hesitates for a moment, “One more thing...”

The phone shakes in my hand.

“…there has been another disappearance.”


***


Stella and I meet under the bridge where the makeshift bus stop no longer exists. It is now a garden with an array of flowerbeds, popping with colors.

“Wow!” I comment.

“Beautiful, right?”

It was. The new governor announced during his campaign that he would embark on a beautification and tourism revitalization of the State. Since his appointment, illegal bus stops and garbage hills have been demolished and transformed into gardens and parks.


Rapha waits a few feet away. He looks nothing like he does on Channel TV News. Dressed in a crisp, close-fitted shirt and tailored pants, he would be more suited for the runway.

He and Stella greet one another with a hug.

“And here is my best friend, Alero. Alero, this is Rapha, the district police officer.”

Rapha shakes my hand. His hands feel soft.

“The published author of the psychological thriller,” he smiles. “It is a pleasure to finally meet you. We appreciate you being here.”

I slip my hand from his as my palm moistens with sweat.

“Thank you.”

“You must have heard of the other missing woman from the mainland. She was in her early twenties, just like the others. She was on her way back from evening mass.”

Rapha pulls out his phone. “Can you take a look at the picture?”

A face appears on the screen. Jet-black, curly hair pulled back into a bun, and those unforgettable light brown eyes.

“Is this the first woman you remember?” he asks.

“How can I forget?”

“Do you remember what year you saw her?”

“1988. It was my birthday.”

“Scroll through the rest of the pictures. Let me know if you recognize the others. There are eleven more.”


For twenty years, I saw those faces and relived the places in my dreams. Each area has changed, except the last, whose street remains untarred with potholes. Rapha drives his SUV there at a snail’s speed. I assume he owns it by the way he mutters each time the bottom scrapes the ground.

The streets still feel communal. Women sit under stalls, selling wares of foodstuffs and plastic trinkets. Children run around, shouting and playing. The men tamper under the hoods of cars balanced on cement bricks while others hang around, shooting the breeze. Not unlike that day twenty years before when Uncle picked me up from school.


I remember that the place was far from home, the farthest Uncle and I had ever travelled.

“Why did we come this way?” I asked him.

Uncle ignored me, peering through the window.

Outside, a woman called to us, persuading us to stop to buy smoked fish, corn, Indomie noodles, and egg. I stuck my head out of the window, waving at a toddler in pink leggings. The child ran alongside the car as it crawled. The woman’s alarmed voice pierced my ears. She ran to scoop up the child and rained abuses on us.

Uncle stopped the car and got out. The woman lowered her head and glared.

“I apologize. Can I do anything? Are you okay?” he asked.

“Just go,” she said dismissively.

“Let me drive you,” he offered.

“Not necessary,” said the woman. She pointed to the moss-covered bungalow a few feet away. It was barely visible as the day transitioned into night.

Uncle pushed a few naira notes to her.

“For you and the little one,” he said. “What is your name?”

The woman grabbed the notes and pursed her lips.

“You can call me Uncle. What’s yours?”


The woman’s name was Arinola. I remember her kohl-lined eyes and the blue silk scarf that covered her head. It was long, even after she tied it at the nape. The tail fell to her back, and each time she cocked her head to listen closely to Uncle, the tail made a swishing sound.


***


Rapha drives me back to the house in the evening, and Uncle stands in front of the gate. He squints at Rapha who comes to open my car door.

Rapha glances towards Uncle and whispers to me, “I’ll be waiting.”

I nod nonchalantly, as if my head was not whirling from the different locations we had been today. After Rapha drives away, Uncle’s eyes dig into my back with suspicion. He follows me into the house.

Aunty Aggie visits with mom in the living room. The two sit on the sofa, talking quietly. I sit in the armchair opposite them. As I greet Mom and her sister, Uncle shuffles between the room and hallway. A few minutes later, he appears with two-foot stools.

“Ah, Uncle-uncle,” Aunty says. “Thanks for putting new legs on these for my sister.”

Uncle places one under mom’s bandaged foot and the other next to Aunty Aggie’s sandaled feet.

“That’s what family does,” he winks. “We take care of one another.”

His eyes rest on me as he pulls out a chair at the dining table and sits down. We all remain quiet, watching the silent TV and its closed captions.

Mom turns to me. “How was your day?”

“Good,” I say.

It is easy to lie. Mom remembers Stella. The tale about lunch and shopping is not far-fetched. I dig into the shopping bag Stella gave me.

“I bought these for you, Aunty.”

Aunty pulls four separate designs of adirę, each six yards in length.

“Look at the fine artwork!” Aunty gushes as she turns to Mom. “Look what your daughter got me, o!”

A face appears on the TV screen. A journalist speaks to a reverend outside of a church. The man’s eyes are blood red. I reach for the remote-control on the center table and increase the volume. His voice fills the living room. He begs for information about his missing parishioner.

“She is a devout member of our church,” the father says. “She just completed eight years as a fashion design apprentice. Her graduation is in two days.”

Mom shakes her head at the television. “What is going on in our world today?”

Aunty Aggie looks up from her designs. “Sister, I don’t know! What do you say to that, Uncle?”

Uncle drums his fingers on the table, then answers with his eyes fixed on me. “The world has always been this way.”

The sisters look at him as if he holds all the answers. Uncle likes to think he does.

Summoning every ounce of strength left, I spring to my feet.

“I am going upstairs,” I tell the women, “Uncle…”

Uncle stops tapping.

“Will you please drive me tomorrow morning?” I ask, clearing my throat. “I have an important errand I can only entrust to you.”

Uncle’s lips part, braced to speak, but then they close again. He nods instead, a strange fire smoldering in his eyes.


***


At 7 the next morning, Uncle waits by the car. I arrive later showered and dressed. He grins and opens the back door for me to sit behind him. When he gets in the car, he again peeks at me in the rear-view mirror.

“Ready?” he asks, grabbing the gear. I soon hear rustling paper. I look down at the center console. My novel, Silent Passenger, is opened to a page, having a patch of yellow-black cloth draping through it like a bookmark.

Uncle turns around. “I’ve been reading your novel. Actually, I should say, re-reading it for the fifth time.”

I press my phone between my thighs as he drives out of the compound. Mercy waves goodbye from the front door.

“That’s my first.” I smile nervously.

“I know,” Uncle nods once, then honks at the security guard as we near the Estate gate.

“And it’s inspired by true events.”

I bite my upper lip to stem the panic flaring up like flames in my chest.

“Yes. Aren’t you going to ask where I want to go?”

Uncle looks ahead.

“Tell me about Orela, the main character,” he says. “Funny how that’s your name reversed. Why did she stay away for so long? Wasn’t she afraid the man would hurt her family?”

I swallow the fear and assert my voice. “She knows he actually loves her family too much.”

The car accelerates on the highway. I can’t tell where we are in the rush hour traffic. Uncle’s eyes and mine clash in the mirror. His narrow, as though he found his next prey.

He slows the car down and we exit the highway. The tick-tick sound of the light signal in the car comes to an abrupt stop. We are now on a side street that is vaguely familiar. I can’t disguise my shallow breaths any more than I can unsee the place before me.

I grab the back of his headrest, leaning forward.

“No,” I whisper.

Uncle sneers.

The car has stopped in front of a moss-covered bungalow. The compound is empty. I thank God under my breath, only to swear in the next.

A woman emerges from the familiar house with a baby tied to her back and a broom in hand. She bends and sweeps. He watches her through the slits of his eyes. The swish of the broom reminds me of the sound of Arinola’s long scarf, right before she succumbed to Uncle’s plea. She left her child with her neighbor that day twenty years ago. She then entered Uncle’s car.


Uncle turns to me as I marvel at the woman. “I’ve been following your career. I waited for part 2 of your series. But you disappointed me by starting a whole different one, a fictitious one at that.”

“I needed a break from reality,” I told him, narrowing my gaze.

“You needed your muse. Now you can finish it,” his grin grows more mischievous. “Answer the questions your readers have been asking for years about Orela.”

“What questions?”

“Did she come back to avenge the deaths of the victims? Did she turn the killer in? What became of her?”

My ragged breath blows against his neck as I lunge towards him. “We are in broad daylight. You, of all people, know better.”

“Relax,” he says.

I become that 16-year-old- girl. I see the woman, with the child now in her lap. She also sees me in the back seat.

It is the same woman Rapha and I visited yesterday. The woman with the kohl-lined eyes and turban-wrapped head. Yesterday, Rapha asked if she knew Arinola, the missing woman from 20 years ago. The woman stood to her feet, waking the sleeping child in her arms. She demanded to know who we were. Rapha pulled out his badge, introducing himself and his investigation of the deaths of twelve women between 1988 and 1993.

“We think it’s linked to the new killings that started a month ago,” Rapha told her.

The woman hugged her baby close to her chest, and in between sobs, asked if we had found her mother’s body.


As we drive away from Arinola’s daughter, she and I lock eyes. I place a finger over my lips, hoping Uncle does not see the exchange. I lower myself in the backseat, plunge in earphones, and shield my eyes with sunglasses to avoid the rear-view mirror.

***

Uncle and I don’t speak on the long ride home. All the while, the memories surface. Uncle was never the typical driver. He was a university graduate with good diction. He dressed in French suits and polished leather shoes. The women in our neighborhood swooned over him. He was like the one-eyed man in the land of the blind.

It started with Ruka, the lady with the jet-black hair pulled into a bun and light brown eyes. She waited at the make-shift bus stop under the bridge. I remember she was so small and looked like she needed saving. As the other commuters rushed Uncle’s car, begging for a ride in his kabu-kabu, Ruka eagerly pressed against the window on my side.

I pleaded for Uncle to pick her up. There was a strange light in his eyes when he let her in. She was shy when he asked her name, as they usually were. She tilted her head towards him when speaking, as would the others after her, and like them all, she paid me no attention.

Uncle interrupts my thoughts. “We’re home.”

I pull off my earphones. His icy eyes return to the rear-view mirror. I look ahead and realize we are at the house gate. Mercy opens it wearing a familiar yellow wrapper with black swirls. That pattern? I look down at the center console. The fabric!

I desperately grab the back of his headrest, lunging forward again.

“No. No, not her too.”

Uncle plasters a smile on his face but says nothing.

“I saw you, Uncle,” I whisper, as though it will keep the truth confined. “I saw you put Arinola in the trunk of the car. Her scarf, it was trailing the ground. I recognized it.”

Uncle reverses the car, despite Mercy’s shouts to stop. He swerves around and drives out the main gate, out to the highway. I fall back in the seat, my phone pressed between my thighs.

“I know. I saw you,” Uncle suddenly blurts. “I saw your reflection in the car window.”

“I ran away.”

The car approaches an exit. Uncle veers off the highway. “We were a family until you decided to leave the nest,” he says.

“What family, Uncle? You’re not even my blood. Mom insisted I call you that out of respect for your age, but....”

He eyes me through the mirror.

“Your mother, you, and I are family. Did I not take care of you like a father after your father’s passing?”

“Did you kill the others, too?”

Uncle swerves off the road, then uphill towards the garbage dumpsite. There’s a signboard with large markings as a beautification site with a construction start date. Blinded by the sunset and my sunglasses, I cannot decipher the small letters.

Uncle brings the car to a stop. He turns around with one hand still on the wheel. “The women wanted more from me. They wanted me to leave my family and be with them. I could not have that.”

“I was leaving for university anyway, so what did it matter?”

Uncle shrugs. “Everything matters.”

“The accident.” I whisper, stunned. “The car accident before my travels? You caused that, so I would stay?”

Uncle taps the steering wheel, looking smug.

“But you and Mom came out without a scratch, but I still left.”

“You’re back now, aren’t you?”

My chest tightens as it dawns on me. “Are you referring to mom’s new accident? Her broken leg?” I ask. “You were responsible for that? Knowing she wouldn’t remember?”

Uncle lowers his eyes. For a split second, I see a vulnerable boy seeking to belong. Then his glare returns in the mirror.

“I always try to be a good husband. I tried to be a good husband to my second wife, and I was—for a while.” Uncle looks ahead into the hills of debris.

“You killed her too?”

“Nothing was keeping me there anymore.” At this, he turns and smiles. “I’ve been following your career and waited for years for part 2 of your series. You need your muse. Now you can finish it.”

“Uncle—”

“Now, you can answer the questions your readers have been asking for years about Orela. Did she come back to avenge the deaths of the victims? Did she turn the killer in? What became of her?”

A crazed look emerges from Uncle’s eyes as he throws his head back, howling with laughter.

I grab the door handle and pull at the lock. Uncle continues laughing as I tug to break free. A sudden screech of tires quiets him. Squad cars circle us. Uncle’s eyes flash with rage.

“You are under arrest!” Rapha’s voice blares through the PA system. “Open the door and release the lady now!”

Uncle’s face contorts, “You led them to us?”

I pull my phone from between my thighs and show him the screen.

“The police have been listening since we got in the car.”

Sirens wail louder. Uncle smiles as though he is proud of me. Then he opens the door. “This is where it ends, then.”

He steps out of the car.

I climb over into the driver’s seat. “Where are the bodies?” I demand, “Where?”

Uncle turns around with his arms wide.

“Why do you think I brought you here?” he asks. “You are the writer. Finish the story.”

Uncle rushes towards the vehicles despite the warnings from the bullhorn.

I close my eyes and brace myself.


 

Nigerian-American author Nike Campbell won second-place for the African Diaspora Award with her short psychological thriller, Silent Passenger. Campbell is a true citizen of the African diaspora. She was born in Lviv, Ukraine, grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, and currently lives in Florida with her family. Campbell wrote the novels, Thread of Gold Beads and Saro. She was a finalist of the 2018 Red Hen Press Fiction Award for her historical fiction manuscript while several of her short stories from the collection, Bury Me Come Sunday Afternoon was adapted for an award-winning film.

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