The time was 5:50PM already, almost 6:00PM. She had never journeyed in the night before. It was her first time. But she was willing to take the risk.
Thankfully, the bus loaded up in time and the journey started.
At first Valerie sat back and enjoyed the scenario, watching as green landscapes, as well as tall trees that made up the forests, swap by.
The wind whooshing past her ear was loud. But not loud enough to drawn Banky W’s ‘she dey do me strong thing’ emanating from the radio speakers.
Occasionally, her thoughts went back to Elvis burning up. She imagined how Aunty Fome would cry and curse her. Valerie smiled.
That is for my late brother and the suffering you and your stupid husband put us through. She thought.
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As the journey progressed, time progressed and night soon stepped in. The radio was turned off. The once chatty passengers became quiet, and all eyes focused on the road.
Valerie guessed, they were looking out for any sign of danger. Save for the whooshing sound of breeze and the roaring of the car engine, the silence from her fellow passengers worried her.
She had heard and even read, front magazines and newspapers, countless stories of high way robbery.
If there was danger on the road, wouldn’t it be better to find a road side hotel and spend the night there?
She was out of Warri now, safely away from her Aunty and the police. But of course, it didn’t seem like danger was done toying with her.
Thanks to the full moon, the driver sighted them from afar and wasted no time alerting his passengers.
“Dem dey road , dem dey road!” He swiftly screeched the vehicle around and made for a mad run. Panick filled the bus and everyone began bringing out all valuables and tucking them nearly into their pants.
Valerie followed cue. She took out the rest of her money, folded and tucked them in her bra.
The robbers did see the vehicle turn around sharply. They followed in hot pursuit.
Some passengers prayed, some sang worship songs, some cursed, and the rest, Valerie included, remained silent, wondering if this was the end of their lives.
The driver swerved off the road into the bush. The bus ran down a bumpy slope, passengers jerked forth and back. Their screams followed, as they descended.
Valerie thought of her parents. They had died after their car was thrown down a steep hill. Was this also going to be her death too?
Her questions were answered after the bus ran into a tree. The impact threw them off their seats, making most of them hit their heads against the iron railings stationed at the back of each seat.
They were alive. That was what mattered.
“Open the door, quick”, a man called out from the far back, “We need to find where to hide before those robbers reach us”.
At the mention of robbers, panick returned. The driver managed to get down and open the passenger door. Every one rushed out with their belongings.
But just as they made an attempt to find cover, they heard the cocking of a gun. It was from one of the passengers. The one Valerie sat beside.
“I no wan kill anybody”, he said, “just give me the money wen dey your pocket them and bra. I go commot”.
The driver was pissed. They just escaped from a group of robbers only to be attacked by a passenger who turned out to be a thief too?
The driver rushed at him. His plan was to disarm the crook. But the crook with the gun gave no chance for that. He shot. Twice. Sending the driver to the grass, in pains. A third shot ended his life.
The thief aimed his gun again. This time, at Valerie. “Una dey look me? Do wetin I say make una do and nobody go die”.
They obeyed. They gave him everything they had and he ran off. The rest of the passengers decided it was safe to hide deeper in the bush, until daybreak.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t going to be that simple. For at midnight, their camp was attacked by a wild animal that snarled, viciously.
Valerie never got a good look at it, not when she had to run for her life. But she was sure it had a human form.
The camp dispersed in different directions and the animal went after whoever caught its fancy.
Throughout the moony night, heart wrenching screams rented the air, causing goose bumps all over Valerie’s body.
Running off from Aunty Fome’s was beginning to prove dangerous and stupid. However, giving in to regret was not an option. It was better to die in the jungle, than have Elvis’ stinking body on top her again, let alone his organ, penetrating.
At least she would die a free woman. But of course, it was not yet her time to die.
Climbing up a tree and staying put till morning was the best thing she did that night.
And by morning, she got down from the tree.
As luck would have it, her eyes fell on a handbag, obviously belonging to one of the female passengers from the previous evening.
Valerie opened it to find unfinished loaf of bread and one untouched gala.
“Thank God”, she whispered, taking the bread and gala. She held no interest for the other items in the bag. And since she couldn’t find hers, thanks to the commotion of the previous night, she thought it wise to find her way back to the road.
A few steps in a particular direction looked good. But it wasn’t long afterwards, Valerie realized she was lost.
She didn’t stop though. She kept going.
Once, she came across a small river where she drank from and dry cleaned her body.
Continuing on her journey, the next 45 minutes met her at a location that could pass for a banana plantation. Several huge yellow bunches hung from strong stems.
The sight plastered a wide grin on her face. Although she had not expected it, she was grateful. They were within reach.
She plucked as much as she could and ate as much too. She was still satisfying her hunger when her eyes fell on a black cobra, emerging from between the cluttered stems of the banana trees.
The serpent stopped in its track briefly, surprised to see her. Then as if recovering from a shock, it moved, starting to coil.
Valerie took to her heels, leaving behind the extra fingers of banana she had planned to take along.
It was in her flight to safety, she hit her toes hard against a stone.
“Ah!” she cried, limping on one foot, before bending over to favour the injured toes. Blood oozed out, steadily.
It was sometime again before she continued her journey, still limping.
That night, and the night that followed, she climbed up trees. How could she stay on the ground to sleep, when the creature from the day before still roamed the forest?
She heard its roar in the far distance and was glad it only came out at nights. Thanks to the full moon too, she could see her surroundings.
Climbing trees was really not a big deal for her. But climbing with an injured foot, was a problem; one she’d have loved solved, immediately. However, the earlier she found her way out of the wild, the better.
And so she had been on the move for three nights and three days. Totally famished. The real life experience was certainly not as fun-loving as Hollywood made it seem.
Valerie wished, not for the last time, that her parents were alive. She wished Victor was with her. She wished she didn’t have to suffer all she had been forced to go through.
More gentle steps, and Valerie soon found herself in a rocky location. She sat on one raised surface. Weary.
“This is noon of another day. After how many days in this jungle”, she talked out, “God please help me with a place to sleep. And good food to eat. I cannot go on like this”, tears stung her eyes.
When she continued the journey again, her steps faltered. But she was able to cover a considerable distance, stopping occasionally to catch her breath.
At one such occasion, she took time to observe her surroundings. Birds sang from the trees. Soft breeze blew and when Valerie looked to the sky, her spirit dampened some more. Dark clouds had started to gather. It was going to rain. Heavily too.
She picked herself up and again, the journey continued.
It was sunset when she found herself close to the bank of a river. Although, still limping, she rushed to it, went on her knees and drank.
It was after taking her fill, she raised her head up. Hope filled her eyes. Across the river, some 40 or 50 feet away from the bank at the other side, was a mansion.
Valerie jumped for joy – a joy that soon faded after she remembered, she was a poor swimmer. There was no way she’d make it across, swimming.
Aside that, what was the guarantee the residents would shelter and feed her? Would they be nice? Or would they kill her before the following morning?
These worries arose because she had heard stories about mansions located deep in several different forests. These mansions were used for ritual killings. Politicians owned such mansions. And all they were interested in was harvesting more human parts.
Valerie had two options. Find a way to get to the mansion, knowing very well, she’s risking her life. Or spend another night in the wild with an empty stomach, and risk being caught by the scary night creature.
She chose the former.
There’s no harm trying. She thought. The worst that will happen? My dead body will make them very rich. She forced a smile.
Limping, she spent sometime pacing a short distance, trying to find a way around crossing.
She was almost giving up when she sighted a canoe at the far left of the bank.
Valerie had never paddled a canoe before. But of course, she was going to have to try her luck.
She got to the canoe and started to push it towards the river.
“Ahhh… Arrr…”, her frail hands and hungry stomach made her best efforts seem like child’s play.
“Ah!”, she tried again, exposing a set of white, clenched together.
“And what do you think you’re doing, stealing my boat?” a baritone barked. Valerie jumped. Her heart in her mouth. She turned around almost at the same time.
Well trimmed side beards, brown eyes and huge chest stared at her. His brows came together at the top of his head. Save for his athletic built and rippling muscles, the stranger was indeed a sore sight.
Mud covered his bare feet to his knees, his jeans short, bare chest, shoulders, face and hands.
He was practically painted with red mud, preventing her from making out his exact skin color and features. But of course, his stare was cold and resentful.
Gross. She thought. Too dirty.
However, his low-cut was a relief. So were his trimmed beards. His lips were seductively full, causing her to unconsciously back away.
He looked dangerous. And by God, she didn’t escape one abuse, only to fall into another.
His eyes lingered on her, suspiciously.
“Your dress doesn’t look like that of the locals. Who are you?”
“Locals?” she frowned, “there are people living in this Jungle?”
He didn’t respond. But his eyes never stopped assessing her. And then her injured foot.
“You’re injured”, he said, sympathy quickly replacing suspicion.
“Yes. I have been out in the forest for three days”,
“Out in the forest?” he’s eyes widened in horror, “you chose to wander in the forest?”
“I didn’t choose. I was on a bus to Lagos. Robbers were on the express, harassing travellers ahead of us. Our driver tried to escape. But we ended up in the forest. There has been a wild animal roaming the forest every night. I think it attacked and killed the other passengers. Maybe only some. I’m not sure. I have just been lucky to be alive”.
“It will be best then, that you return to wherever you’re coming from. You will be safer that way”.
“No”, she shook her head, stepping backwards, “I can’t go back to where I’m coming from”, she pleaded, “it is too dangerous. I’d love to forge ahead instead. But a fellow passenger, after we escaped into the forest, robbed us. He took our money. And when the night animal came, we ran. I left behind my personal effects. I cannot continue on my journey. Neither can I go back. Please sir, she knelt down, kindly take me in your boat across the river. Perhaps I can beg the owners of that mansion for food and shelter, in exchange for my house keeping services. I can’t spend another night in this forest. I’m famished. I may not survive it. Please”.
The stranger remained silent. Observing her. Obviously, a thousand thoughts must have raced through his mind and Valerie was almost sure he wouldn’t help. Then he spoke.
“I’ll take you across”.
“Oh. Thank you!”, Valerie jumped for joy, on one foot. She was happy. So happy, she felt like giving the stranger a thank you hug.
However, one more look at him, and she threw the urge away. Whoever this Stranger was, he sure looked like the type that got away with whatever evil he committed.
Stay out of his way Valerie. He is dangerous. She thought.
The ride across the river lasted only 15 minutes. As soon as they reached the other side, her companion tied the boat to a tree and ordered her to follow him, heading towards the mansion with bold strides.
“Oh please, you’ve done enough bringing me across the river”, Valerie said, limping after him, “I cannot burden you with helping me talk to the owners. I can talk to them myself”.
The man stopped in his tracks, turning back to look at her. His expression was serious. He shook his head gently, muttered something and continued towards the mansion, leaving Valerie to decide if she wanted to tag along. She did.
The next seven minutes met them at the mansion’s huge black gates. The stranger knocked. Hard. In a manner she was unfamiliar with.
The sound of scurrying feet from within the compound greeted their ears. Sounds of dangling keys followed. A padlock was unlocked. Bolts shifted and within seconds the gate flew open. A man rushed out.
The man, who seemed to be the gate-keeper, was completely bald. Although he looked no more than 40 or 45 years old. His clothing was a simple blue t-shirt on cream-colored shorts and a pair of bathroom slippers.
“I was beginning to get worried”, he said to Valerie’s companion.
“No need for that. As you can see, I’m fine. She is the one that needs help”, he gestured at Valerie.
The gate man noticed her for the first time since he opened the gate. His eyes traveled about her disheveled form, scrutinizing her, before turning them questioningly on the man.
“I’ll explain later”, he said, without remorse, “just take her in, let Mrs. Grace take care of her wounds. Give her a bath, a meal and a room”, he turned around to look at Valerie, “after you’re rested, we will talk”.
With that, he disappeared into the compound. The gate-keeper observed her a while longer before moving to stand in front of her.
“If you take my boss’ generosity for weakness or stupidity, I’ll take pleasure in snapping your neck. Follow me”.
He turned and headed for the open gate. Valerie stood, transfixed. Obviously, the threat got to her and she was beginning to think this was a bad idea.
First, boss? That dirty looking man was the owner of such a magnificent mansion? He left his mansion to go play in the dirt or what? And why did his gate man or bodyguard have to threaten her so?
“Are you coming in or not?” the gate-keeper’s voice snapped her out of her thoughts. Valerie looked around. It was getting dark. Night had come. She was going to have to risk waking up with a snapped neck, than spending another night in the forest without food and water. Besides, there was the wild animal to worry about. It definitely was still roaming free.
Taking a deep breath, and with her heart slamming hard against her chest, Valerie walked into the compound. The gate keeper locked the gate.
To be continued…