By Abraham Ajani
Fear and hate are the only feelings Akam has for his dead father while he watches his bride’s father walk her down the aisle. Fear because his father always appears in his dreams like he always threatened. Hate because of who he was alive.
When Akam was six or so he remembered, he had a terrible nightmare. Waking up, body soaked in sweat and teeth chattering, he ran to his parent’s room. The door was locked, and he remembers how bruised his knuckles were, knocking so violently on the door. His dad, seeing him crying, quickly carried him and brought him to their bed. He was quick to announce he had a nightmare, but his father just hugged him while his mother caressed his back. He was locked in his embrace, and after what felt like an episode of Ben 10, he released him.
Akam knows all the things he wanted to say stuck in his throat when his father told him, “Don’t be scared of the monster, Akam, your mom and I are here for you.”
Akam remembers tapping his mother, who was already asleep. His father drew him closer, “She’s tired. But don’t worry, I’m here for you always. If the monster ever appears again, tell him your dad is going to fight him.”
Akam knows he asked sheepishly, ‘How can you, Dad? He’s very big.”
“I’m also big. And when I appear in your dreams, I’ll be bigger, stronger and I’ll scare him off.”
Akam slept peacefully that night, holding on to his words much more than he was supposed to be holding his bride. His bride is wearing the usual long, fitted white wedding gown and her smile is more than the skies. She squeezes his arm and winks. Today is the day they’ve been waiting for. He forces himself to think of the moment and forget about the monster. The clergyman is coming to the altar, and Akam sizes his suit. He’s wearing a hand-tailored, three-piece, double-breasted suit. His shoes are dazzling new, and his ballpoint pens are aligned on his breast pocket. One might even think he is the groom if his face wasn’t wrinkled. Akam knows he shouldn’t be comparing the clergy’s dress, especially on his wedding day, but the monster always compares him in his sleep.
You’ll never be better than I am. In fact, you’ll become exactly as I am.
He knows who the monster refers to. And he knows every bit of his story. The story that starts when there was downsizing in his workplace. He trekked home since the car went too, and he hadn’t finished the payment. Akam knows he shouted and screamed and hurled his fist in the air while his mother consoled him. He also knows when he stepped in, his father claimed to be praying. And he prayed for a long time.
He always prayed when he woke up, and when he had dressed wearing a plain tie and a transparent file bag in one hand—a look that announced he was job hunting, he muttered a quick prayer. Akam also remembers when he said his graces at the meal table as portions were rationed. Mother always tried to pacify him by giving him her meat, though it was never enough, he still prayed at the end of the meal. He was such a man of prayer that when others had slept off, and Akam still avoided seeing Ben 10 monsters, he heard him praying. The wall was thick between their rooms, yet Akam heard every single word. At times, his prayer woke him before the monsters got to him.
It didn’t take long before Mother also prayed with him. And Akam wasn’t surprised, in fact, he wished for it. Only a family that prays together can stay together, his Sunday school teacher said. And since she joined, he thought he could too. He entered their bedroom right after the grace. That was the first time he touched both of them.
“Let us pray”, the clergy says.
Akam bows his head but doesn’t close his eyes. The clergy taps him and tells him to shut his eyes. Akam obeys and tightly shuts them and hopes he doesn’t pray like the monster. But what happens is worse, he sees the monster. Not in his dreams but within his eye? Is he imagining things? He takes a sneak peek, but only the clergy is in front of him. He closes them again, and the monster is right there. He’s saying something too.
Let me teach you how to pray. In fact, you’ll become exactly as good as I am. I’ll make sure you both stay together forever, just like your mom and me.
It’s his wedding, but he places his best man in charge, he needs to immediately get to the restroom. At the basin, he washes his face continuously, yet he still feels hot. He needs a drink. He hears the monster laugh.
Is he in his head? How did he know he was going for a bottle?
Akam mainly remembers the first time he touched them because of the following day. After the monster got dressed, he left home like nothing had ever happened. Akam recollects entering their room and snuggling closer to his mother. He was ten years old, and this was when he was supposed to stop being mama’s boy, but he couldn’t stop crying into her wrapper. The truth was that that was the day of his initiation into adulthood—more like night because the monster came home past midnight with the first of bottles. He prayed as usual; mother prayed along till he touched her. Akam knows he stepped back, he had been hurt the previous night, and like a good child, he wasn’t ready for another beating. The monster made sure he paid for it with his dreams: his nightmares always began with her screams. On some days he was lucky, but mother was never lucky. Not even once.
He learnt his first trade before his next birthday, and by thirteen he was paying for his school fees and his mother’s medicals bills. The monster came home less frequently, but the damage was done: mother was not only losing her body, she was losing her mind too. He knows the day he came back from his errand runs, and saw her sprawled on the floor beside their wedding album: the monster smiling with his arms wrapped around his bride’s waist. Mother never looked so pretty. She had to be admitted, and he lost the year’s savings again.
When the monster came home, he didn’t care anymore. He demanded his usual ration—when mother started losing her mind and became unfit for work, Akam became the breadwinner and had to foot the monster’s bill—but Akam had nothing. He tried explaining the money went for Mother’s deposit, but he was too late. For a thirteen-year-old boy, he fought hard, blows, kicks, bites and all but it wasn’t enough. The next day, Akam skips checking on his mother and signs up for a gym membership. It’s very profitable because not only does it ease things at home, it helps his several dates before his bride—the girls can’t get enough of his biceps. Puberty hits and his deep voice equally matches the monster. Mother is getting better—working too! And it seems everything is back to the new normal. It seems the monster also notices the mood because he devises new means to frustrate their lives—mother’s though. He brings his affairs home—the curvaceous young ladies, and he makes sure they spend the night while mother sleeps in his room. Akam confronts him the next day, the monster smiles and asks him to pay the prostitute. Mother pays though.
The monster is running out of ideas quickly. He’s smoking, doing drugs and even does mercenary jobs from the house. Akam and his mother are unbothered. They have been saving for their new home too. Just a little more and they will be able to rent a tiny but lovely apartment. When they discuss their plans, mother seems unsure, she still has feelings for the monster.
“Mannn, where have you been? I’ve been looking everywhere for you!” Akam looks up, it’s his best man a.k.a the closest thing to a friend he’s had in years. Bolaji knows his story, from his father’s drinking to the nightmares that still happened on the bachelor night.
“I’m sorry. I…I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I keep seeing him everywhere!”
“I know. But this is your wedding, and you have to return before people think you aren’t stooling.” Akam laughs. Bolaji has always been a liar. “And that’s why I brought this!” Akam looks at what Bolaji has been hiding behind his back the whole time. A bottle of Cognac.
“Now, before you tell me you don’t like drinking, people drink sometimes for good reasons. Like when they can’t handle the pressure.”
“Like he couldn’t? You know that Bolaji! You said it yourself. The power of the bottle!”
“I know I said it, but this is different, you need something to calm your nerves now!”
The monster laughs in Akam’s ear. You need that drink Akam. You know you do. It will help you numb your mind. It will give you courage. It will drown my voice.
Akam knows he is baiting him. Yet he still considers it. Go on, Akam, your bride is waiting for you to put the ring. See her amidst family and friends without her groom, her husband-to-be. Without you.
“But I’ll become exactly as you are.” Akam mumbles.
“It doesn’t matter. Forget about the drink. Let’s go now!” And Bolaji drags him out of the restroom. He enters the hall with smiles and though his bride’s face tenses, a smile tugs at the corner of her lips.
“Since the groom is feeling better, we shall now take the vows and exchange rings” the clergy announces.
Akam reads his vows first. It’s not very poetic. And it doesn’t help that his bride’s is longer and much nuanced. He had planned to go freestyle, but now that he knows he can’t close his eyes and that his father’s voice haunts him, he is grateful for the emergency note he has written. The ring bearer brings the ring, and the clergy goes on about the significance of the rings. Akam’s mind wanders, and he finds himself strolling down the street as a sixteen-year-old. He and mother had just spent two months in their new apartment. The neighbours are friendly, the air is fresher, and they haven’t heard from the monster. He smiles when he sees a cute girl ogling at him—he still doesn’t have the time for that, but it’s nice to know he’s getting noticed for other things than being the son of a monster. He’s holding breakfast: freshly baked bread, eggs and a treat for mother: watermelon. She’d love them. He is climbing the stairs, and he is whistling too, and you’d be a mad man not to notice his joy. All that snaps as soon as he sees a broken hinge. “Mom, are you there?”
“Come in, son. Your mother and I have been waiting for a very long time.”
His voice sends chills up his spine. He couldn’t give them more than two months rest. Surprisingly, Akam calms. That’s what happens when you’ve spent almost four years training. He should have killed him as soon as he could, but that would have made him no different. Now, he can, with the help of the law too. He pushes the door open, and the monster is looking worse than ever—if that’s still possible. There is grey pallor all around his face, and his eyeballs have sunk deeper into their sockets. Akam thinks he looks like one of the Ben 10 monsters but can’t quite recall the name. In one hand, he holds a half-empty bottle and with the other, he grips mother’s arm. Immediately Akam flares, and he is running to pounce on him.
“Wait, I didn’t touch her. I came to talk. I’ve had a change of heart, and I want us to become a family again.”
Akam has started smiling since the move, but the laughter that comes out still shocks him. He looks at his mother’s face, she’s worn out from his grip.
“Leave her alone first.”
“Then you promise to talk. I’m serious about this.”
Akam doesn’t respond. His father continues. “Both of you have been enjoying yourselves. You have nice curtains and a television. Is your bedroom as big as the one in the house?”
“You can as well check it out. Bastard!”
Almost on cue, they both shout, “Language!” The monster continues. “Do you still want us to be one big happy family? Ready to take your pops in?”
His mom says something. “No, mom. No”
His dad takes the remaining liquid in a swig and spits. “You don’t want to take me in?” He raises a bottle over his mother’s head. “After everything I’ve done for you two. I walked miles in search of a job. I applied every single where I could,” His voice is breaking, and Akam is almost scared the monster is tearing up. “My friends turned their back on me. But I always returned to this family. I always did. Just as I am now and you don’t want to take me in?”
The question hangs over the air for almost a minute. He pulls mother’s hair. “Answer me!”
“Now the bride, do you take this man as your lawfully wedded husband in the presence of God and the witnesses here to honour, love, cherish and support in health and sickness till death do you part?”
“Yes. Yes, I do. Yessss!”
Can you see how enthusiastic she is? Are you? You know you are exactly like me, and you know what we do to our wives.
Once again, Akam knows. Monsters grab their wives’ hair and threaten their sons. When their sons’ stammer, they raise their empty glass bottle directly over their wives’ head and threaten their sons not to come closer. Their sons break down, torn between both decision, tears strolling down their cheeks freely. The monsters tell them to man up and choose. Mother shakes her head, and that’s when he hears her last scream. The screams that haunt him so frequently every night. How their sons run away and their promises to catch up.
His best man whispers in his ear. “Akam, whatever is going through you, shake it off and answer. We are tired of waiting.”
His mind plays the film roll while the monster chants. Monster! Monster! Monster! He imagines praying first, then touching and the incessant nightmares drowning in a bottle, the fear of the monster lurking around his bride and the hate when he kills his mother in his presence.
“No. I’m a monster.” And he runs out of the hall as fast as his legs can carry him.