Do you ever get the overwhelming urge to do something stupid or utterly unnecessary, like say wash your hands with antibacterial gel for the tenth time in a row or scratch and pinch at your skin where there is no itch; the urge so strong you’re certain you might lose your mind if you don’t indulge, if you don’t give in?
Well, I feel like that all the time, and sometimes it’s the little things: spending hours furling and unfurling my serviette till it’s a perfect triangle while my food goes cold, cleaning pencil smudges in my sketchpad until I would have ripped up entire sheets with the incessant scrubbing of eraser against paper, having thirty pairs of boxer-shorts so I can change them at least four times during the day; the little things my family views with slight irritation, and for which people make fun of me at school, calling me “OCD”. OCD: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder –I checked it up –a mental disorder watered down by pop-culture, in the manner that pop-culture makes a joke of even the most severe things, to become an all-encompassing tease for even the mildest idiosyncrasies. This is good for me. Being called “OCD” isn’t such a terrible thing. But then, sometimes, there are the not-so-little things: the voices, the flashes of form in the dark.
The not-so-little things have nothing to do with OCD. I know this, but I can’t tell anyone; can’t afford to tell anyone, not even my brother, Bolu, that I hear voices, disembodied voices, talk to me, loud and clear, as real to me as his hand holding mine when the clouds of haze obscure my thoughts and my tongue feels like a wad of tissue in my mouth, discernable as his look of consternation layered by uncurious puzzlement each time I become different, each time I become me.
Sometimes I think perhaps I can tell my mother; she’s been more tolerant than my father of my “eccentricities”, but I know I can’t, because her tolerance, I know, doesn’t mean that she’s better ready than my father to attempt to understand me, but that she cloaks me in an illusion that soothes her soul, and my coming out and giving life to her fears would not only shatter her self-serving perception of me but also her love. In that way she might come to regret my existence more than my father does. Bolu is the only one who is sympathetic without wordlessly asking that I requite his favour, without asking me to play a role, and if I can’t tell him I can’t tell anyone else, but the voices are getting louder, the forms become sharper, shaded in.
Now I see faces in street corners and my peripheral vision, sometimes in the pitch-black of my bedroom pre-twilight; faces of broken children and crooked adults, sometimes singing, rhyming, lisping; sometimes congenial and merry, smiling through diffident gray faces that are drained of colour as of life, indeterminate of race, transparent, and sometimes, effervescent. Other times they are angry, twisted masks of horror, and they yell at me, scream at me, berate me, ask me to do things, demand that I listen. Then it’s not the little inexplicable urges, it’s not so much about my will or testing it: my ability to restrain myself, it’s about something beyond me, a power I feel possessing me, something I can’t control. Increasingly these days I feel like I don’t matter, like there would come a time when I don’t have a will anymore, when I would become no more than a vessel, a conduit for this all-consuming power, an intermediary caught in the warp between two worlds: of the living and the dead. And the voices are getting stronger, the forms are getting more powerful; I feel the little-ones touch me sometimes, their fingers cold to the touch, icy-cold.
My bedroom windows are shut like they always are, the glasses screened with old newspapers, the curtains shut like they always are, so I don’t suppose anyone in my family feels it, but I do. A change is coming. Something is out there, and it’s coming for me.
The voices. These forms. Do you see them? Do you hear them? Your name, whatever it is, called, soft like a whisper, but still distant-sounding as though emanating from afar off, (perhaps) another world.(?)
They tell me things, these voices. Like when I’m halfway across a pedestrian bridge and they bid me stop. Look down, they say. Look down, look down, look down, look down, look down, look down!!!!!!!
I do. I see the cars, the danfos, molues, lorries, hundreds of them oncoming, running at breakneck speed across the expressway, disappearing beneath me, their rumble and coughs of exhaust fumes rising to mingle with the noises of Lagos like the smoke from Cain’s offering, the energies of a faceless city, of faceless people, ghosts.
And then they say: JUMP!
I linger for a moment, one moment pregnant with possibilities, and then I push myself backwards off the railing, bumping into someone, apologising without seeing them, running, running, all the way home.
I shut myself in, look at my reflection in the bathroom mirror but see the forms in the dark corners, acutely aware of a razor in the cabinet, almost hearing it slide across my wrist as if it’s composed of paper and nothing more, not skin tissue and blood vessels. I cry, a lot, and then I apologise. I should have listened; I know I should have listened!
They hear me. All becomes quiet. The smoky little accusatory faces vanish from sight, and I realise how alone I am.
Bolu and I are walking home from the market. Mum and Dad are away in the village. Somebody died. Somebody always dies. We are walking on the curb and he’s talking, of football; he loves to talk about football. I don’t care, but I listen, and then I hear it: hoot-hoot! It’s a trailer, smoking pipe on one side like a chimney; the horns go again: hoot-hoot! A warning: make way, a behemoth is on its way.
And then they come, unbidden. I don’t think about it. I listen, and I push Bolu onto the road.
It all happens so fast. The trailer doesn’t brake, doesn’t stop; it plunders and moves on, and in its wake are mangled blocks of meat, and a human head cleaned clear off the neck and tossed all the way onto the other side of the road: Bolu. He didn’t know what hit him, didn’t scream. There was no time.
People shout, scream, yell, run to the unrecognisable mass in the middle of the road, the several pieces of it, and I feel myself melt away. I run, run, run, and run, all the way home.
Something’s changed, something’s different; home is not home. There’s a new presence, and it’s oppressive; a new presence left by a deduction from normalcy, in the ways I’ve come to taste it in the air, in the ways it’s been altered, or perhaps, shattered, by a new absence.
In my bedroom. I hide under the bed, and there’s noise all around me, thump, thump, thump, clank! Thump, clank, thump, thump, clank! There’s something out there and it’s come for me, finally.
They are all around me in the shadows: the voices, the ghosts they belong to. I shut my eyes and close my hands over my ears. You killed your brother! You killed! Your brother! Brother! Thump, clank, thump, thump, clank!
I feel their breaths on my face, feel their icy-cold fingers on me, but I don’t open my eyes, even though I know there are other things this time, crawling all over me. Spiders? Ants? Cockroaches? Snakes?
I don’t want to know. I press my eyes tighter shut. They crawl all over me all the same, cover my face and hands, run down my shirt, up my legs and into my shorts. I cry and I writhe, but I don’t open my eyes.
The space under my bed is small and cramped and I knock my forehead repeatedly against the wooden frame as I writhe, struggling against whatever they are that are wrapping themselves around me en masse. I know my forehead is torn open, bleeding, and I know I can’t let the crawling things get in there; I can’t let them lay eggs. I scratch, I scratch, and scratch all over. I feel welts, bruises, torn skin, but I scratch. Get the crawling things off! Get them all off!
I don’t know how long this goes on, but all of a sudden it stops and they are all gone: the crawling things, the voices, the dark forms. I listen. Perhaps, it’s a trick, but no, they are really gone.
Slowly, I open my eyes. Darkness. And even more tentatively, I crawl out from under the bed. It’s dark outside. I can tell. The bathroom lights assault me when I turn them on, dazzling me, and it’s a while before I see my reflection: the bloodied, swollen pulp of my face, the torn, scratched, blood-streaked flesh of my neck and arms. I don’t think about it too much. I think about the unidentified slabs of meat in the middle of the road. I start to think of the razor, but then the doorbell rings and I start to cry. It’s come for me. I have to listen.
Bzzzz! Bzzzzzz! Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz!
Crying, I leave my bedroom and walk slowly down the stairs, towards THE THING behind the door that I know has come for me. It’s here, it’s now, and I have no will. I am a vessel.
I yank open the door, ready to scream, but I can’t believe my eyes. He’s here! Bolu! Brother! Was it a dream? Did I imagine it?
I want to hug him and tell him I had the most terrible nightmare and I’ve missed him, I am nothing without him, and how he gives my life meaning, but something about his eyes stop me short. They are glassy. Like a dead fish’s.
‘Bolu, is it really you?’ Is this THE THING playing dress-up, come to torment me in my brother’s skin?
‘Brother…’ Bolu says and I feel the first flood of tears, tears of joy. It’s his voice all right, he’s alive; but just as I watch, Bolu plants both his hands on either side of his jaw and smoothly lifts his head off his shoulders, the head watching me with its dead eyes as it’s lowered and held reverently at waist-level, such that it is still looking up at me, a mangled mess of meat and torn blood vessels in its wake.
‘Brother’ Bolu’s dismembered head asks, ‘can I have some glue?’
For the first time in my life, I scream.