World Bank Estate, Umuahia, Abia State
Have you ever drank so much alcohol that before you go to bed, you feared for yourself the next morning? That was how Kennedy Nwosu felt when he drank and laughed at his bachelor’s party the night before. He feared for the severity of the hangover he would have to live through at dawn. And true to physiology, he stirred on his king sized bed with a hangover. It was neither the kind that could be ignored, nor the kind that could be treated with levity. It was the kind that hammered his head so hard that he not only thought it was possible his head would explode, but also feared it. It was the kind that carried with it a sour, nauseous feeling, a low fever. It was the kind that left him wondering what it actually felt like not to have a headache.
Ken rolled on his belly and let his eyelids up slowly. Brilliant sunlight from the window glass reflected off the white sheets and blinded his eyes momentarily. He rolled over, eyes closed and backing the windows, until his bare feet touched the cool floor. He reached for the bottle of aspirin on the table and left the room, headed for the kitchen. The narrow hallway was empty and silent, though Kennedy could hear a news reporter on the TV. Something about a viral epidemic. Ken wondered what poor country was in trouble this time. Trouble never ceased to end in this world. He turned away from the sound and entered the kitchen. He fetched a glass of water from the sink and took two tablets of aspirin. Then, he relaxed his weight on the counter, waiting for the drug to take effect.
His phone rang in his pocket. It was then he realized he was still clothed in the blue jeans and red long sleeves he had worn to his bachelor’s party the day before.
“Oh, Ken. You’re alive!” His mother’s voice was fettered with emotions. Which emotion, his fuzzy mind could not yet discern.
“Of course, I’m alive,” Ken replied. “What’s going on? Why would you think I wasn’t alive?”
A gasp of terror came through the phone. “You haven’t heard?”
Ken became troubled. “Heard what?”
“That means you haven’t done it!”
“Done what? Mum, what is it?” Ken was angry now. What was the matter with his mother? He knew she didn’t like his choice of a bride (he was getting married in two days). Nevertheless, what would she gain from provoking him to anger?
“Oya, quickly my son,” replied his mother, “you must drink and bathe with salt water.”
“What rubbish is that? Why?”
His mother’s response was rushed and projected great fear. “Because. There’s a deadly virus spreading through the south and eastern states. Millions have died, and the government has not said anything. But some say that water and salt can cure a person and even prevent the person from getting infected.”
“Mum, that’s nonsense!” Ken retorted, stifling the urge to laugh out loud. “Isn’t that what happened earlier this year when we battled the Ebola Viral Disease? This is the perpetration of never do wells who want to cause many heartache.”
“Not so my son.” His mother sounded more panicked. “You must believe me. And you must leave Umuahia at once! I heard people have started dying in Abia state.”
“So that’s what this is all about?” Ken said with realization. “You have sunk so low just to stop my wedding to Emma?”
“No Ken!” His mother sounded hurt and frustrated. “Leave Umuahia at once! It is no longer safe anywhere south of Abuja. Return to Abuja at once!”
Ken’s frown deepened. He was about to reply when a sharp scream pierced through the house. It came from the street. His mother had already worked up tension in his body. The little girl’s scream tipped him over. The Samsung Galaxy S5 fell out of his hand as he rushed out of the kitchen, through the hallway, and into the sitting room. He was surprised to find five of his closest friends crowded around the plasma TV on the wall. Hadn’t they heard—
Another high pitch scream.
A car screeched and this was followed by a thunderous explosion that shook the house. Ken fell to the floor instinctively, his heart pounding in his chest. He raised his head and saw that his friends had also gone down. They were now rising to their feet still transfixed on the TV screen.
There were more car screeches and explosions, but these were distant, probably on Ikot Ekpene road. A road he hoped to take to Uyo next tomorrow where his wedding was scheduled to hold. A scream, followed by several others, came to his ears. This time, they persisted. People were either in pain or dying out there. Ken rushed to the door, but Tom blocked his path, grabbing a hold of his shoulders. His big eyes were bigger and rounder and filled with terror. His mouth twitched like he was about to cry.
“Don’t go out, Ken,” he whispered, and then he swallowed hard.
Ken couldn’t understand why his best friend was acting strange. The huge, muscular man wore a fitted blue T-shirt, and a pair of brown chinos trousers. Yet his usual chauvinistic demeanor was gone. Ken began to worry. He had never seen Tom this terrified before. And the fact that not much frightened the big man didn’t help.
Another explosion rocked the house; this time, it was closer. Both Ken and Tom crouched automatically.
“What’s going on out there?” Ken asked his best friend.
“Look,” someone said.
Ken turned to face Gerald. His afro was disheveled and his specs hung, misaligned, on his nose. He pointed at the TV screen. Ken followed his gaze and for the first time that morning, he actually saw the TV. As he watched the scene roll by, incomprehensible dread fell on him. His legs gave out, and he would have collapsed and struck his head on the center table had Tom not caught him and set him on the couch. Joseph and Temitope cleared the way so he could see the TV screen from the couch. The caption read: Terror and Death sweeps across Nigeria. Below it was a number in the color of blood: 47,429,200. It was a death count.
“My God…,” Ken gasped. “Is that number correct?”
Tom nodded grimly. “The reporter mentioned that the number is conservative. The actual death count could be much more than that.”
“But that means almost half our population is … gone?” Ken still couldn’t believe it. It had to be some practical joke by his friends.
“Twenty five percent actually,” Ronald said. He was the only other person seated; he looked like he was about to throw up.
Ken shook his head. “This can’t be real,” he muttered to himself. He shook his head again, and closed his eyes, willing himself to wake. But he remained seated with a pounding heart, a heaving chest, and a head that throbbed earthquakes. He opened his eyes and the horrid scenes played out before him. He had only seen this kind of devastation in science fiction movies and maybe in Iraq or Iran during a war. It was an aerial view, so there were much details Ken could not make out. However, there was no mistaking that those were human bodies strewn about on the streets like ragged dolls. There must have been thousands if not hundreds of thousands of dead bodies everywhere, twisted in impossible ways as if they had suffered a deathly seizure. Most of the bodies were on major roads and streets, in heaps and in layers of two or three. Some were in gutters, verandas, fenced yards. But all were feast for flies and crows. All were rotting and almost unrecognizable. How could human flesh deteriorate so fast? Columns of smoke stroked the clouds. Buildings, cars, and everything combustible burned furiously. The skies were filled with ash and black birds. Not a thing moved except the birds. Whatever city this was, its entire populace had been wiped out by the virus.
Ken tried to talk, but his tongue had dried up. He closed his mouth and his eyes for a moment. Tears formed behind them.
“What happened,” Ken said in a low tone. The explosions and screams continued outside, but Ken dared not go.
“Some sort of disease—” Ronald started.
“Nonsense!” Ken said. “If it were a disease, I’d have received a call from Abuja. Don’t forget I’m…” He stopped when he remembered.
Tom raised an eyebrow knowingly, then turned back to the TV. So did everyone else.
Ken was the assistant director of NEMA, as well as head pharmacist. Once there was a national emergency, his phone number was among the first five numbers that would be dialed. This list included the president’s personal number. But the week he had taken leave for his marriage, he had instructed that all calls be directed to his assistant. He had left his official phone in the office, in fact, he could be in a remote area of Kaduna and Nigeria would burn to the ground, and he wouldn’t know about it. Ken had to get back to Abuja. The wedding was postponed.
There was another big explosion that shook the ground severely.