CELESTIAL REWARD (A short story)


In his mind he referred to himself derogatively as Dead Man Rolling. Even then he felt like he was giving himself more than due credit; no one with ‘dysfunctional family organs’—balls and testicles— deserved to be called a man. He often mused whether he was even up to snuff to be considered an equal amongst humans.  Half human was a snug fit, as every body part of his from the waist down was just as useful as a dried up pen. He was convinced that he was slowly but surely de-evolving and by his imaginary calculations, he was no longer a homo sapien. He deserved to be well below the evolutionary ladder, someplace just below pond-scum will make him comfortable. But until then, he would call himself Dead Man Rolling.

Rolling his wheelchair round the corner, he came face to face with a phalanx of journalists. He tried to turn around and make a clean escape but it was a second too late. He was one of them once, and knew there was no way they would let him make his journey to the Fort Jesus Amphitheatre in peace. In a split second they were swirling all over the wheelchair and the bright flash lights from their cameras nearly made him blind.

To journalists and the entire country, Dead Man Rolling was the exact antithesis of what he thought about himself. In the past year, columnists have had a field day singing his praises and politicians have always placated the masses by invoking his anecdote. A film had already been released about his story and even babies, both boys and girls, had been named after him. No, Dead Man Rolling wasn’t their moniker. Parents who felt patriotic enough to celebrate the country’s victory against terrorism had decided to call their newborns Koko Mwami, to reflect the aspirations of the eponymous young man presently trying to flee from the suffocating battery of reporters.

“This should be the part where God dives in and delivers His beloved son from the hands of evil,” he mused sardonically in his mind. To his surprise, the scribes quickly dispersed and actually ran away from him. If only his vocal cords were still active, he could have broken into a hearty laughter.

Unbeknown to Koko, the journalists weren’t actually fleeing from him. Word had gone round that Mombasa Governor, Mr. Chanzu, had just arrived at the venue accompanied by a special guest. Every reporter and their camera crew wanted to secure a prime spot from where they could take photos of the duo before the area around the red carpet got crowded. Although Koko was still a big deal, all the journalists could do was to take photos and videos of him, since his muteness meant he couldn’t grant an interview.

Governor Chanzu’s security detail ensured the pesky media people kept their distance and did not squash the VIP as they had done minutes earlier with Koko.  Meanwhile, Edna, Koko’s personal nurse, came back from the VIP reception where she had gone to check in her patient, and profusely mumbled an apology for staying for leaving him unattended for too long. But then after checking the levels of urine in the urostomy pouch, she had to leave for their car and get a clean urine drainage bag. Hers wasn’t the best job in the world, but the pay was worth it. That man on the wheelchair was no pauper.

Koko then rolled his chair through the entrance marked VIP where a couple of uniformed staff offered to lend him a hand but he ignored then. Edna would be furious at him for wandering all over the place without a chaperon, but he didn’t care. He wheeled himself towards the memorial plaque that contained on it the 147 names of students and Mwambao University staff who had lost their lives a year ago, today.

Listed alphabetically, each of the names emblazoned on the polished plaque had a wooden pocket besides it. Relatives and friends were to place roses in the pocket besides the deceased’s name. It wasn’t hard to spot Zeina’s name, for it was the last one on the list and already had a dozen or so roses besides it.

He had been crying daily for the past 365 days, but seeing that name once more made his tear ducts break their banks once more. Tears, flowing from his heart which caved in to fill the vacuum, streamed down his cheeks like River Tana.

“You will be re-united with her in heaven,” Edna told him frequently. But Koko did not profess in the hereafter. You only live once, he believed. The thought that he would never see her again bore on his shoulders like a bag full of sand.

Though Edna often reminded him how lucky he was to be alive, he knew he was a dead man walking, err, rolling without Zeina in his life. The colors appeared dull, food had long lost its taste and things that used to matter didn’t matter anymore. Without her Koko will never be happy; he will never be alive.

His reverie was cut short by a commotion that accompanied the Governor and itinerary as they made their way to the memorial plaque. Suddenly, the offending cameras were clicking all over again, striking the plaque from behind like mini strokes of lightning. Before he could turn, Koko felt a hand tagging at his wheelchair as the journalists fell over each other to capture the moment. It was Governor Chanzu posing for pictures with Koko Mwami, the hero of the day.

There wasn’t a spoon long enough that would make Koko share a meal with the despicable political buffoon. He (Koko) had sworn that he would recognize him as the Governor, let alone pose for pictures with him. Mr. Chanzu was like a serpent that oozed hemlock with natural instinct, and right now as the man stood beside his wheelchair Koko could almost literally feel the poison oozing inside him. He could not protest however, he had no means to. His consent had not been asked for and neither was it required.

After about a minute of enduring aggravating reporters and the Governor whispering hypocritical assurances in his ears with his filthy mouth, Edna rushed into the scene and skedaddled him away, mumbling her usual profuse apologies.

Half an hour later they were all sitting at Fort Jesus Social Hall for the event to commemorate the dastardly event that wiped out 147 lives a year ago. If Odi kept his promise, this will also be the day he executes what he called his revenge.

Being a VIP, he had a seat reserved for him at the front row but he had instead directed Edna to position him within the masses at the back pews. He would rather share a den with deadly scorpions than sit anywhere near Governor Chanzu.

It was an inter-faith mass, with the congregation being made to pray to as many gods as possible so that nobody would feel left out. Koko was perhaps the only individual who was omitted, because he pledged allegiance to none of the deities being thanked for the gift of life during that day. According to him, the only thing more laughable than the fact that people would ask an imaginary being to avert a disaster was that people would get together to give thanks to an imaginary being after the disaster had already occurred.

“And now, shall we bow our heads and pray,” said the priest in a ridiculous purple flowing robe.

“Let’s fake pray,” a voice whispered behind Koko’s ear. There was no denying whom the voice belonged to. It was the same voice that had haunted Koko for the better part of the previous year. Odi had returned to carry out his vengeance.

***

“What took you so long to get here? You said you were at the gate thirty minutes ago!” I lamented.

Mo gave a deep sigh as he sank onto the opposite bed, which also sighed heavily as though to protest the pressure that his robust body asserted on it. “It’s those security guys again. It’s even worse now because the number of security checkpoints has been upped and we Muslims are more or less stripped naked at every entry point.”

“You mean we still have security? I thought they were greeters!” Retorted Odi.

“Odi!” I protested. “That’s not funny at all!” Though hilarious at times, Odi usually quipped on sensitive issues and joked about sacrosanct matters in the most ribald manner. Take Mo’s daily predicament at checkpoints for instance. It seemed like during training sessions, it is ingrained in all security guards that terrorists could only be of Somali or Swahili origin. Thus, the guards were extremely suspicious of any individual who displayed physical attributes associated with these tribes that are predominantly Muslim.

Mombasa County had in the past few years been rocked with sporadic terror attacks. As such many institutions and businesses had intensified their security measures, including the Pwani University wherein I learnt the ropes of journalism.

I recall visiting the library with Mo one time. The security guard had let me in without much ado but when Mo’s turn came, all the contents of his bag had to be emptied onto a tray just because he wore a kanzu. This blatant segregation got me seething with anger and I stood up to the security guard demanding he subjects the same measure of search to me and every other student in the queue. That week in Mombasa Times, I ran a tendentious outpouring in my weekly column protesting the county’s security operations in which Somalis, Swahilis and Muslims in general appeared to be victimized.

“Sorry about that Mo,” I empathized. “We need to get started on our meeting though, we don’t have much time.”

Mo responded by opening his bag from which he pulled out a package and threw it to Odi, who took out three magnificent looking kanzus. “Those are yours bro. Welcome to Islam, the religion of peace and enlightenment.”

To say I was flummoxed was an understatement. I couldn’t help but admire Mo’s tenacity. He had been fervently trying to ensure Odi, who was as sacrilegious as they come, ‘sees the light’. His efforts had finally paid off.

Odi’s life story unfolded like an excerpt from a paperback novel. He was born to a well-healed politically connected family that had the pedigree, the power, the money—the entire kit and caboodle. At the age of 10 however, things fell apart as his parents were murdered in cold blood. He relocated to Mathare slums where he was adopted by his only living relative, a fecund aunt who had already given birth to six other children.

Odi somehow managed to juggle between school and work, and had been fired from over 10 jobs by the age of 15. Having toiled in the vineyards of pain and struggle all his life; it was a miracle he had made it through high school to university. His life was just as tough as his calloused hands and he reminded one of the proverbial cats with nine lives. He set goals and did whatever it took to achieve them, sometimes using means that are neither legal nor logical. A gangly bully who drunk like a fish and smoked liked a chimney, Odi was the most liberal man I had ever met. It would be interesting to watch the dyed-in-the-wool heretic conform to the path of religion.

When I introduced Odi to Mo, the two blended like Noah and pine-wood. Their closeness ranked me at times as they’d sideline me in making mutual plans and decisions. But the one about Odi becoming a Muslim discombobulated me to say the least.

“Now to your football club Ukombozi FC,” I started. “I am afraid that the children home needed more money this season so until June, I don’t think I can continue funding your team.”

“Don’t worry Koko,” Mo replied. “Ukombozi FC won’t need any of your money from today henceforth. Odi and I had a meeting with my uncle Chanzu and he has pledged to fully sponsor the team through his insurance firm. Chanzu Insurance is starting a new terrorism insurance cover and they want to use the team to promote the policy.”

This new piece of information hit me harder than Odi’s conversion. A year ago, Mo had approached me with a revolutionary idea that would transform tots tootling at Mombasa Refugee Camp into soccer stars. That’s how Ukombozi FC, which apart from being a football club also imparted life skills to the youths at the refugee camp, was formed. With proceeds from Mombasa Times, I helped bring Mo’s idea into life. Consequently, Mo consulted me on every major decision concerning the club. Today, however, it seemed like he would no longer need my services.

Arguably the richest man in Gharre County, Mr. Chanzu was the centre of gravity of its politics and commerce. He also happened to be the county’s number one news maker. Newspapers, including Mombasa Times, carried his mug at the drop of a hat.  He was not only the news—he sold them. He was loathed and loved in equal measure.

It was an open secret from my column that there was no love lost between me and the mogul. He was embroiled in more controversies than my fingers and toes could count to, mostly involving smuggling of goods via Gharre Port. It didn’t matter how much money he was pouring into Mo’s football club, he and I could never eat from the same pot. And I made sure that Mo and Odi understood that succinctly.

“In that case, I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree. Topic closed.” Mo concluded in a tone that did not invite any further discussion. I decided it was wiser to keep my mouth shut than insult Mr. Chanzu in the presence of his nephew. After all, Mo and Odi were breaking for their holidays and I wouldn’t see them again for a year or so.

“Koko, I need you to do me a favor,” Mo whispered after an exaggerated moment of silence.

“What now?”

“As you know Zeina, my younger sister, will be joining university next week. Since I won’t be around, I’d like you to help her settle in.” And that is how I came to meet the love of my life, Zeina Chanzu.

***

Even though the only parts of her body that I could see were her eyes, I immediately concluded that behind that veil stood a very beautiful woman. Countless poets have compared pretty eyes to the stars, but Zeina’s held in them the entire galaxy. The moment I laid my eyes on her eyes, I knew that I would forever desire to see beneath her beautiful.

“Here, let me carry the bags for you,” I offered as she stepped out of the walk-through metal scanner. “Sorry about the exaggerated security checks.”

“Thanks. You Christians are lucky, you never have to be subjected to such humiliation,” She said from underneath her burka.

“I’m not a Christian, but I get your point.”

“You aren’t a Christian?” She remarked. “I’m curious to know what religion you subscribe to then.”

“I am a man of all religions.”

“Is that the fancy term for atheists nowadays?”

“I am not an atheist either my dear Zeina. I sure do believe that God exists, but I don’t subscribe to any religion. They call us agnostics.”

“I see. So you’re the kind of people who associate religion with a kind of intellectual disengagement?” I knew I would love this girl. Not only was she beautiful but her neurons also deserved a standing ovation.

“Not really,” I continued. “I don’t consider myself extremely intelligent, so I wouldn’t say so. Before you ask, I just want you to know that just because some of us aren’t religious doesn’t mean we’ve kissed moral scruples goodbye.”

“Oh, come on! I’ve been reading your columns religiously and you’re one of the most intelligent writers I know. So, why do you choose to be sacrilegious?”

“I am not sacrilegious in any way, since I respect everyone’s religious views. It’s just that I find it rather skewed to refrain from doing bad not because of goodwill and empathy to fellow men, but because of I want to escape from the fiery fires of hell. On the other hand, it doesn’t feel right to have your arm twisted in order to do good just because you anticipate a celestial reward for the vicissitudes of life.”

“But don’t you think you need to connect with some sort of a spiritual superpower?” She asked.

“Even if I were to do as you suggest, there are so many supernatural deities that it is impossible to tell which one of them is legit. I guess on my deathbed I will embrace fifty religions just in case one of them turns out to be the one,” I said on a lighter note. “Even within one religion, their scriptures are interpreted in myriad ways that what might be right for one person may seem completely evil to another person of the same religion, and they will both quote from the same religious book!”

“I guess that’s why Christianity has been used in the past to justify practices such as slavery and oppression of women, and both the oppressors and their liberators would advance their agenda by the Bible,” Zeina observed.

“And I also suppose that’s why acts of terror are rampant in the country, though they say Islam is the religion of peace.” I regretted that statement as soon as it left my mouth. Though I didn’t mean for it to come out sardonically, I realized it might have deeply hurt Zeina and I had to apologize immediately. “Sorry, that was insensitive,” I mumbled

“It’s totally okay Koko. You rarely hear of Anglicans shooting school children indiscriminately anyway.”

“Why is it so? Why do terrorists kill in the name of Allah?” I asked as we took a seat at the waiting bay of the admissions block. “I’d like for you to peel this banana of Jihad and expose its bare flesh.”

“Those that shed innocent blood in the name Allah are not his true followers. Radicalized Muslims misinterpret several Koran verses to their own vested interests, and care little for religion.”

“But I read somewhere that the Koran promises a huge celestial reward for whoever lays down his life for Allah and threatens those who do not partake in Jihad with eternal damnation. Surely, if the only way to escape everlasting fire is to murder those opposed to your religion, wouldn’t you do the same too to save your soul?”

“Those are misconstrued verses Koko, and as a journalist I think you should know better than to believe everything you read. Jihad is supposed to be a spiritual war, not a physical one. Allah abhors such subterfuge. And let no one lie to you. Evil only begets evil, even in the afterlife. I hear my name and I’m afraid I’ll have to go now, see you around Koko.”

Sapiosexual is a term used to describe someone who finds intelligence the most attractive feature in the opposite sex. I have always been a sapiosexual, and that explains why I found myself deeply infatuated with Zeina’s brain that was sharper than a razor.

In three months’ time, Zeina and I had become the inseparable couple that turned heads around campus. This came at a steep prize though. Due to religious differences, there was a tacit agreement between us that our affair will always remain that—an affair. And owing to her strict adherence to religious customs, sex was absolutely off the table—or any other furniture for that matter. But the ephemeral pleasures of sex were something I would live forever without if only I could get to spend that forever with Zeina.

We were still wallowing in the miasma of our newfound love when the police came calling. Apparently, Mo had disappeared from the refugee camp into thin air, and the police believed he had travelled to Somalia to join a terror group. They paid us a visit every fortnight or so, and we insisted that the allegations leveled against my best friend were nothing but grade A baloney. Then one day a police superintendent said to Zeina, “Tell that bastard brother of yours that he has been warned. Next time my officers lay their eyes on him we will shoot him squarely in the forehead and then question him later.”

It hurt watching Zeina hurt. That night, shedding bucketfuls of tears for her brother was all she could do. There was little I could do to comfort her so I took her to her room and held her sobbing self until she resigned to sleep. Convincing myself that I didn’t have to believe in a proper god in order to pray, I went down on my knees and said a prayer for Mo. I was determined not to let insomnia win it tonight’s war, so I forced myself to sleep next to Zeina whom I believed was the love of my life.

At 4am, we were jolted from sleep by a commotion whose cause we couldn’t immediately identify.

“Oh, hun! You stayed in my room and watched over me, how sweet of you!” She said as her trademark smile flashed across her sleepy face. I gave her a kiss on her forehead and assured her that I will never desert her, even if heaven and hell were to give up on her. That was to be the last conversation we would ever have.

As I hugged her, the door flew off its hinges in deafening sound and splintered on the wall a few inches from where we sat. My hands, wrapped across her back in an eternal embrace, became warm as fluid gushed over them. She had been shot on the back. She had unknowingly acted as my human shield. She had literally taken a bullet for me.

In the split second that it took me to register the happenings and duck beneath the bed, three more bullets had been fired into my room all of which hit her on her head and neck. Two masked men carrying with them gigantic firearms walked in. They approached the bed and ruffled the mutilated body on top of it for a moment. It was then that one of them let out a loud yelp. “Zeinaaaaaa!”

Even as I struggled to hold my breath from under the bed, I couldn’t help but feel woozy as the gun-carrying man wailed and crumpled on his knees with despair. His mate did not offer much support to him either as he said, “We all agreed that we won’t let our interpersonal attachments get in the way of the mission. Why are you crying like a baby just because we’ve killed a fellow Muslim? She was only wasting time at university instead of becoming a Jihadist bride and helping in this holy war. Serves her right!”

Their voices were unmistakable. Mo and Odi were the men wielding guns in Zeina’s room.

Mo was too full of grief to utter a word, so Odi continued, “Look at it this way buddy. We’re obviously not getting out of this campus alive. By the end of today, you will be in heaven uniting with God in a life of everlasting bliss. You’re a hero Mo!” It was obvious that Odi had never met Zeina before. To him, Mo was just being a sissy by crying in the battlefield.

Meanwhile, my girlfriend’s blood seeped its way through her mattress and drenched me in rivulets. As Mo sat on the floor unable to utter a comprehensible word, Odi made it out of the door and shouting, “Cry all you want but I’m not going to cry with you. I have work to do.” Then as he walked out of the room oblivious that his mate had just murdered his own sister, I locked eyes with the bereaved.

For thirty long seconds, I stared at the helpless face of a friend I thought I knew. Then he picked up his artillery and for a moment I thought he was about to consign me to God’s waiting room. I closed my eyes and asked whichever deity that cared to listen to take my soul and keep it safe for Zeina. Five seconds after he had pulled the trigger though, I was still alive.

I opened my eyes only to see that Mo had blown his own head to smithereens. Blood from his body now mixed with his sister’s on the floor. I must have fainted at this point because when I came to, I found myself on a hospital bed staring at the ceiling.

“147 students dead since the attack occurred last week,” said a patient that lay on the bed next to me. “There were seven terrorists, and the government believes it eliminated all of them.”

I tried to turn my head and face the speaker, but for some reason I couldn’t move a muscle. He must have noticed my struggle for he said, “Don’t even bother; two thirds of your body is now paralyzed. You won’t even be able to speak for the next couple of months, you’ll probably need therapy.”

I tried mumbling something but discovered I couldn’t move my jaw. Pain and Zeina were all that ran through my body at the moment. The phantasmagoria unfolding with the return of consciousness was dastardly to say the least. And the voice of the patient speaking on the next bed was unmistakable—Odi.

I tried hard to move or make a noise that would attract the nurses’ attention to no avail. I was about as useful as a dried up pen now, and before long I resigned to Odi’s soliloquy. “Mo is probably watching us from heaven right now. The papers are calling him a monster. Me? Nobody even knows I was involved. The only heaven I’ll be sent to is when I retire at 24 to enjoy money I took from Mr. Chanzu, that pig!

“You are the biggest fool I’ve come across Koko. You were funding Ukombozi FC? Ukombozi FC had little to do with football and everything to do with terror. Mo used it as a front to radicalize youth and recruit women as Jihadist brides.

“All these terrorist activities in Gharre County have nothing to do with religious actualization. It’s all about money. Bloody money! Why do you think I accepted to join Mo in Islam? That bastard that you love to hate, Mr. Chanzu, had promised to pay us 100,000 weekly if we joined the holy war. Who can resist such dough? Certainly not the Odi you know who grew up in Mathare Slums and had to eke his way up in life.”

As he rumbled on, I couldn’t help but think to myself what Ksh 100,000 would fetch in ancient exchange rates. Thirty pieces of silver?

“But you have to give it up to Mr. Chanzu, he’s a foxy businessman and politician. The guy would bomb the county by night and sell insurance policies by day. He wants to seize control of the Gharre Port, and he could only do so if he were to become the Governor. So he created a terror atmosphere to make residents fault the current administration for insecurity then vote him in during next year’s elections.

“He bribed Imams to misquote Koran verses to the youth and radicalize them into bombing every nook and cranny that he desired. Poor Mo was told he would be rewarded with 72 virgins in heaven if only he were to pour blood in the name of Allah. Turns out he killed and died just so his uncle could become the Governor!”

“Sorry about Zeina,” said Odi, now standing directly over me so I could see his face and body clad in hospital clothes. “I am going to avenge her death, and each of the 147 students’. One year from now, during the anniversary. Mark the date Koko; it’s going to be interesting.”

Read: THE HEADMASTER AND HIS SUNFLOWER (A short story)

Sharing is Caring...

Lukorito Jones

Lukorito Jones is a columnist and correspondent with Kenya's leading newspaper, Daily Nation. He also dabbles in fiction works at times, hoping to be the next Stephen King. Sometimes he takes time out from writing to perfect his deer-dancing and goat-screaming skills.

Please leave a comment and you will live happily ever after!