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The Secret Life of the Unclaimed

It starts with something as simple as a toothache. I’m home on vacation before final session at Ecclesia Boys, so Momsie is the one I run to. She’s seated in bed with her glasses on, her hair untamed, the gray streaks standing clear. She has her back on the headboard and her feet buried in documents.

“My teeth, they’re painful,” I tell her. “I’m dreaming every night that people are chasing me.”

She flicks her eyes at me then back to her documents, so I return to my room and curl up like a fetus to absorb the pain. An hour later, she calls me back and says she’s scheduled an appointment with Dr. Akpan, whose practice is fifteen minutes away from our estate on the outskirts of town.

I go alone, as always. Momsie says at my age, she was already supporting her parents. You think sixteen is too young, ba? To avoid another lecture, I jejely take the long trek down Boskel road, to the pockmarked Aba expressway and down to the vine-ridden colossus that is the Goodbye from Port-Harcourt toll gate.

Dr. Akpan’s practice is two rented shops with a sign that says TeethWise. One room is his consulting office where he, a small bald dentist in suspenders, sits me down and asks questions about my teeth. Where is the pain? When did it start?

I tell him it’s in all my molars, and it started about two weeks ago. He makes chicken scratches on a pad and takes me to the examination room.

He places me in the chair, adjusts it so my blood starts backtracking into my brain, and proceeds to clamp my mouth open. All the while, he talks. My God, he talks.

Your father sat in this chair, you know? I filled six of his teeth, extracted two.

Can you just look at my teeth, sir?

It was the sugar from the beer, you know? Bad for your liver too, I told him.

God. I’m going to die now.

He laughed. Asked me to fix the teeth and let him worry about his liver. Too bad he didn’t worry enough. If only he’d—

Then he turns on the light and freezes. The probe in his other hand clatters to the floor.

The light hums, fills the silence. Maybe that’s why it seems like ages, the time it takes for him to retrieve the probe. Weirder even, he’s stopped talking. He doesn’t continue fumbling with my mouth either. He simply places the probe on a side table and walks out of the room on what I think are noodle legs.

A minute later, he returns, slower than before. He has a young lady in tow, an intern from the looks of it. She has her palms linked on her chest and there’s a look on her face. The kind you have when someone says, Come, I want to show you a snake.

They return to my side and Dr. Akpan smiles, one that doesn’t extend to his eyes. The intern tiptoes and peeps into my mouth.

“Jesus!” she says, then zips out of the room. Dr. Akpan flings the probe and follows, calling her name.

It’s at this point my suspicions that Dr. Akpan is not right in the head are confirmed. I wriggle out of the chair, unclamp my mouth, and spit in the bowl. There’s streaks of blood caked in the phlegm, but no matter. I’m done with this rubbish.

I almost leave the room before I remember.

I retrieve a dental mirror and move to the only double window, where there’s proper light. I swing aside the blinds, open my mouth, and tilt the mirror to gain a full view.

This time, it is me who screams.

• • • •

I keep my lips clamped tight together on the way home. The lady in the kiosk at the estate gate, she snarls at me for ignoring her greeting, but it only propels my legs faster. I pass a neighbor. Another neighbor.

Aniekan, how’re you? Mummy nko?

Leave me alone! My gums throb to the rhythm of my slippers slapping the dust.

Home is a rented two-bedroom flat squeezed as an afterthought between two towering duplexes in Jumbo Estate, off Kilometer 7. I’ve never been so glad to see it. I don’t expect Momsie to be home. She returns at three to open Shakara—her fashion design and tailoring outfit, run out of the garage—after her clerical duties at the State Ministry of Environment. This is enough time to wrap my head around the things in my mouth.

When I burst into the compound, her two helpers are already in, rolling up the garage door: short, buxom Alice and lean, hairy Nsika. They exchange inquiring looks, but before they can ask questions, I slam the entrance door closed.

Once alone in the familiar darkness of my room, I breathe. Then I cry.

• • • •

After a tumultuous night of pain-induced dreams, I’m up and dressed before nine the next morning. Shorts, polo, sneakers. It’s a Saturday and I’m on vacation, but Momsie still notices as I pass her, lying on the couch and watching EbonyTV.

She raises her eyebrows.

“We’re going to Filmhouse with Kufre’s mom,” I say without opening my mouth. The words come out in a buzz.

She frowns. “What’s wrong with your mouth?”

“Nothing.” Buzz.

She waves it off. “I hope you’re watching something decent?”

“The Wedding Ringer.”

She knows it’s a lie, but she’s too lazy to argue.

Well, I am going to Filmhouse. And Kufre, the only kid in Jumbo I didn’t fight with on my numerous forced play dates, is going to be there. His mother isn’t, though, but I’m safe because I know Momsie will never call to check.

I board an okada, and five minutes of zipping along Aba Expressway lands me at the mall. Make I buy ticket for you? Kufre texts as I get in, No, I type furiously. I wan’ show you something first.

We meet under the Better Together  Coke sign on the ground floor. Kufre is a short, stocky boy with hairy and slightly bowed legs beneath his shorts. Wisps of hair connive between his ear and jaw. An everlasting grin is plastered on his face. Both give him the semblance of a snide older gentleman.

We shake hands and click fingers. He shoves two tickets for Fifty Shades of Grey under my nose.

“I chose for you,” he says in his nasal voice. “Better hunch your shoulders at the door and behave like eighteen.”

“Wait,” I say, sluggish. “I need to show you something.”

We head for the Men’s room. All the while, I’m in conversation with myself, wondering if I should tell him. Kufre is the closest thing I have to anyone—anything—I can trust. He could even have a solution; miracles are possible.

I pull him into the Men’s and shove him into a cubicle, bolting it behind me.

“You’re my friend, right?”

Kufre frowns. “Why you dey talk like that? Something do your mouth?”

“Answer me. I can trust you with anything, right?”

“I be your guy na,” Kufre says. “Wassup?”

“Listen, you can’t tell anybody, okay?” I put up my finger. “Nobody.”

“Which kain yarn be this? Wetin happen, Aniekan?”

“Promise first,” I say. “Promise.”

“Film go soon start.” He stamps his feet. “Talk fast.”

I breathe, then open my mouth. In the mirror behind Kufre, I see it afresh.

Molars, no longer flat and peakless, stick out of my gums with new serrated edges, like mountain ranges. The premolars follow suit, sharper, bulging under the gum with renewed sizes, next to incisors and canines that are slowly morphing into daggers. A tumor growing and destroying from the inside.

Kufre yelps and jerks back. I snap my mouth shut.

“Kufre listen, listen . . .” I’m saying, “I don’t know what it is.”

But he’s hysterical, shaking his head, refusing the memory.

“Kufre—”

He turns to the door and tugs the handle.

“No, no, wait, listen.” I’m holding him back, holding down the bolt.

Kufre starts to holler and bang on the door. Two pairs of feet appear under the door, and someone tries the handle from outside. When it doesn’t budge, they rap hard.

“Wetin dey happen there?” someone asks.

I look to Kufre, my eyes begging him. You promised.

Kufre takes one good look at me, then says, “Na witch, na witch!”

He throws his weight on the bolt and slides it so hard it pulls off, into his hand. The men yank the door open. Kufre steps out, puts some distance between us, then turns right round and swings the bolt at my face.

I feel my left cheekbone explode and particles grind in my mouth as I crumble. I taste blood, and my lips sting.

“See his teeth, see it,” Kufre’s saying, hysterical.

The men turn to me, a dark cloud descending over their faces, their eyes brimming with menace. They’re both towering men, and they lean their sharp-edged faces in close.

“Open your mouth,” one orders.

I clamp a palm over my bleeding lips.

“Open am,” the second one says, prodding my foot with his toe. “Open it.”

I shake my head, slowly.

“Come here,” the first one says and reaches for me.

I roll away from his outstretched arm, staining the floor red with my palm, and squeeze past the tiny space between him and the cubicle door. The second one grabs my shirt, but there’s too much in my lunge that he’s pulled across Kufre and the first man. All three tumble over each other while I jump out of the Men’s and scamper down the corridor.

For a moment, I slow down, expecting them not to follow. Then the two burst through the door and come right in tow.

“Witch, witch, witch!” they’re saying, echoing along the corridor. A head pops in at the other end, the exit to the mall main.

“Catch am!” one of them screams just as I approach. The man at the end steps in at the last minute to cover the opening. I barge into him and we sprawl into the mall main, to the alarm of bystanders. I roll on my back, and I’m staring into a thousand eyes. A thousand pathways to bewilderment, to denial, to malice.

“See his teeth,” someone says. “Blood!”

A leg kicks me. Witch.

Another follows, and another. Witch. Witch.

Then blows of all kinds rain down on me—my head, my elbows, my buttocks. Round and pointed shoes swing, hit, bite. I catch a glimpse of a child’s shoe.

Witch, witch, witch.

Then I am crawling, my joints aching, my flesh stinging. Hands, strong and decisive, pull me back, hold me down, and the blows rain afresh.

Witch, witch, witch.

I’m blind, choking, looking to the light of the exit for respite, to return to belonging, to hope.

Witch, witch, witch.

Then after what is eternity, I suddenly emerge from the crowd, dangling, broken, but sane enough to stand and, with the dregs of strength in my bones, turn my back on the world that will not claim me.

And run.

• • • •

Two weeks later, I’m back at Ecclesia Boys.

I’m glad to be away from Jumbo, to be away from too many reminders. I haven’t seen Kufre since that day (God help him if I do; these teeth are going to become useful). Better for him that he attends Federal Government Boys on the opposite end of town.

Still, I know this can’t last. I might’ve left the mall with only bruises and scrapes that would’ve raised Momsie’s eyebrows if they weren’t so buried in papers, but now that I’m back at school, I can’t remember the last time I opened my mouth. I laugh with my lips pressed together. Every question gets a hmm? Every query, a hmm. Every threat, a hmm! If I had any friends, I would’ve been found out long ago, but for once, I’m grateful I don’t.

I could manage through the rest of the session if it was my teeth alone, you know? But now I wear thick, black woven gloves everywhere—to bed, to prep, to class.

Because my nails won’t stop growing.

My fists are constantly balled deep into the lines of my palm. I no longer touch people because God forbid I rip someone’s skin off by holding them the wrong way. I carry a nail clipper everywhere, clip my nails at the day’s end. That was okay for when it was just prep and meals, in preparation for the final SSCE exams. Now the exams have begun, and I’m searched before each paper. My clipper is confiscated each time by one teacher or the other.

“You’re back again with this thing,” says Mr. Ibanga, the Physics teacher, today. He pulls out the little clipper-cum-file from my pocket, mid-search at the door to the 1000-capacity hall where the graduating exams are held. “You want to stab somebody, abi?”

“With a nail clipper?” I say, my lips buzzing.

Ibanga’s response is the whap! of a flexible wooden cane on my back.

“Shut up and go inside,” he barks. “Lemme see you with this thing tomorrow, you’re dead.”

I rub my back with gloved hands and go to check for my seat number on the list taped to the wall. It’s number 666. I’m not sure what to make of that.

The paper starts. It’s Biology, and should be relatively easy, given I’ve been poring over every textbook I can find, looking for a solution to my problems. But I struggle to focus, grinding my overlapping teeth against each other, hoping to somehow file them to bluntness. To nothingness.

I haven’t told anyone else since Kufre. Lucky for me, Dr. Akpan hasn’t opened his big mouth yet, either. I would know, because Momsie would’ve been on me like red stew on white rice—

“Why’re you wearing that?”

It’s Mrs. Ette-Nyong, the Maths teacher. She wears heavy bug-lenses, and ties three native print wrappers over a t-shirt. Does Ecclesia Boys specifically hire people with a terrible fashion sense?

“I’m cold, ma.”

As soon as I say these words, I know I’ve made a mistake. That’s the excuse I’ve used over the last two weeks, when the harmattan air was icy dry and the wind was made of sharp spikes. But today, the sun is leaning so close to earth that its fingers pat our shoulders when we walk outside. Today is not cold by any means, and Mrs. Ette-Nyong knows it.

“Remove them.”

I haven’t cut my new claws in the last week, too busy searching for solutions. The longest of them, my index fingers, have curled proper. All have turned a dark, dirty brown, as if I’m a burrowing chicken. I’m dead if I take of these gloves.

“I’m sorry, ma,” I say.

“Sorry for what? I said take those things off right now.”

As if I haven’t seen enough grief, Mr. Ibanga comes over. Such a busybody.

“What’s that?” he asks.

“Aniekan won’t take off those gloves.”

Ibanga glares at me. He’s a short man with hair coming out of his nose. I try not to stare at it.

“Is that part of the school uniform?” he asks.

“No, sir.”

“Then take them off,” he says.

“But I’m cold, sir.”

“Aniekan! This is the second time today you’re disobeying school rules. You want to stop this exam?”

“No, sir.”

“You want to go to the principal?”

“No, sir.”

“Then gimme those gloves.”

I stare at his outstretched palm and say nothing.

“Aniekan?”

“I’m sorry sir, I can’t—”

He moves too quickly. I’m too late, even after I realize his plan.

In a blink, Ibanga yanks at the gloves.

My index finger digs in by reflex, and the woven material gives way. Ibanga hangs on and receives the larger part of the fabric. And there I am, left standing in the middle of seven hundred students, pieces of black wool dangling off the tips of my ostrich-size claws.

“Blood of Jeeesus!” Ette-Nyong screams, then crumples into a faint.

Then, Ibanga says, “Hold him!”

Seven hundred hands reach out for me at once. Seven hundred pathways to bewilderment, to denial, to malice.

“Catch am,” they’re saying, their words overlapping hisses. “Witch! Catch am!”

I’ve learned enough to know I must move quickly.

I wriggle out of the first arms that grab me and dive under a desk. I move—left, right, between rows—just enough to get out of each new grab. Hands recoil when I pass them by.

Don’t touch me, animal—

The door is there, wide, freedom. I sprint out, down the concrete steps, into the blazing heat. If they’re following, I don’t know, don’t care. I kick off my school loafers, hop, take off my socks. Pull them over my hands.

The school gate comes into view ahead. I speed past school security before they have time to react. Outside the gate is a motor garage, blessed with a beehive of rusty blue-and-white commercial buses, street hawkers, and hiding places. After running circles around plantain chips sellers and parked okadas for a minute, the security men who’d followed me to the park give up. I slip into one of the buses with the conductor singing a string of bus-stops and squeeze myself between a mechanic and an old woman carrying a chicken on her lap.

After an eternity of a thundering heart, dripping sweat, and questioning looks from strangers, the bus gets filled with passengers and moves. I realize I’ve been holding my breath.

I don’t let it out. Not yet.

• • • •

Five hours later, I’m sitting in the dark, in a corner of our sitting room at Jumbo, my knees to my chest and my arms around my legs. My cheeks are wet, but I don’t remember crying. The only things I feel are those moving in my body: contorting, changing, transforming, parts of me I will not look at, that I will not accept.

I focus on breathing, on controlling my body. If I sit still, maybe? If I don’t move, neither will they, right?

The gears keep on rearranging.

All I want is for Momsie to return from the Ministry, and I hope the school hasn’t already poisoned her mind against me? Madam, we need you to know: Aniekan is not Aniekan anymore. Be careful when approaching.

There are footsteps outside. I wait to see if it could be Alice or Nsika. But then the door opens, and light streams in, before it’s shut and darkness returns. Momsie is feeling for the switch when I rise.

The light comes on.

“Jesus!” Her handbag thuds on the floor. Her hands fly to her mouth.

I no longer wear socks over my hands or a shirt over my torso. The hairs on my chest, arms, and legs have tripled in density. The hair on my head is wild, bedraggled, and stretched enough to plait into cornrows. The shorter end of it creeps into my face, covers my cheeks. My jaw feels too long and heavy. Under the hair on my arms, my skin is scaly like armor, like if I rubbed it the wrong way, it would peel and bleed.

The two of us stare at each other.

“They just grew there,” I say. My cheeks are wet again.

She gapes past me with dead eyes.

“Mummy,” I say, “help me.”

She starts to cry. She comes over, so slowly, lifts my hands, caresses the hard core of my claws, encloses them in her small hands, cries into them.

“I’m sorry,” I say, “I’m sorry.”

She holds me for a while. I think I feel the gears breathe, become tranquil.

“It’s okay,” she says, more to herself than me. “It’s okay. It’s okay.”

She lets go of my hands and backs away, as slowly as she’d approached. She picks up her bag and opens the door with her back to it. Before she shuts it, she reaches a hand in to turn the lights off.

The lock clicks from the outside.

• • • •

The next time there are steps outside, it’s a multitude. The door unlocks and flings wide open before I can react, and men pour into the room.

Someone must’ve told them about all the good points of escape, because they enter in a formation that allows them to immediately block all exits. I squint and slowly begin to recognize them. Pastor Richard—tall, yellow, skinny—at the front door. Brother Jerome with the stick—a thick rubber pipe. Brother Hilary with a similar pipe, at the door to the kitchen exit. Brother Marvinus to my left, Brother Akin to the right, both holding small steel chains used for leashing mongrels.

Outside the door, Momsie, her face in her palms, sobbing. Nsika, Alice. Neighbors.

“Mummy?”

“Catch am, catch am!” someone says, and they all move at once.

Like that, there are hands on me again. Pulling, dragging, unrelenting, deaf to my screams. They pull me out of the darkness and into the light. Past Momsie who will not look at me nor acknowledge my cries. Past the neighbors, out to the courtyard, where they dump me on the ground.

Someone pins my arm to the concrete with his knee and wraps the chains along my wrist. Someone else sprinkles something wet and salty on my face.

“In the name of the Most High Lord,” Pastor Richard yells, “let loose His servant!”

They chorus Amen.

I kick out at the person trying to bind me—Brother Marvinus. My knee catches him in the face.

Someone whacks my thigh with a pipe. “The Lord shall prevail!” He whacks me again. “The Lord shall prevail!”

Another pipe joins in whacking me into submission—on my thighs, my legs, my biceps. I cover my head in my hands and press my knees to my chest. The crowd about me begins to pray loud, fervent, sibilant prayers.

“The Kingdom of God does not beg,” Pastor Richard bellows. “It taketh by force!”

“Mummy!” I’m wailing. “Muhmee!

My mother does not claim me.

They hit and hit until there’s no physical sensation, no hurt, until I am only half-aware of the pain. I’m rolling over and over, aligning new parts of my body to take in the fresh blows. Each new hit reminds me that every surface has been touched.

I let out a long, hard growl I do not recognize as my voice.

“Jesus!” someone says. “It’s manifesting!”

The crowd jumps and half of it scatters. Those that remain circle around me, a murder of crows, eyes peeled and foreheads gleaming. The concrete on which I’m sprawled digs into my elbows, urges me on.

Go now, run!

I want to, I swear. But my legs are sick of running, my lips sick of pleading. My body, tired, is no longer mine.

So I scream again. Long, hard.

The scream rouses something in me, a dormant ferocity snapped awake, a fountain of indefinable rage suddenly flowing. I open my mouth and drain my lungs of all power. Each scream gives me fire, unleashes the fountain.

My body is awake, and it is no longer mine.

They must recognize the bestial fury in my eyes, because the rest of the crowd peels away. Only my mother and the men who brought me out are left.

Pastor Richard dinks salty holy water on my head. Without thinking, I shoot out a hand and grab him by the neck, pull him down. He gurgles, but I can’t hear it, will not recognize it. My claws cut deep into his skinny neck, drawing bright red blood.

“Aniekan,” Momsie is saying, “stop!”

The rest of my assailants are stilled by shock. Then they backtrack, scuttle, fall over themselves, then finally turn and fade into the sweltering afternoon.

I squeeze harder, watch the veins appear on his neck, on his forehead.

“Pluhz,” he gags. “Pluhz.”

I hurl him a good couple of yards, my anger pulsing hard. He lands and rolls on the concrete, raising dust. He’s skinned in several places, drawing blood and staining the concrete. He doesn’t move when he stops rolling.

My mother is the only one left. She shuffles toward me, her elbows pressed together at her navel, her hands folded under her chin.

“Aniekan?”

I rise, gingerly, each movement recognizing new tissue, new muscles. I flex them, accept them, claim them. When I get to my feet, a hand so tiny, so human, rests on my bicep.

“Aniekan,” Momsie says, “please.”

“No,” I say, my voice gravelly, unrecognizable. “No.”

I turn my back on her and walk. Out of our compound, past the kiosk at Jumbo’s gate, down Boskel, down Kilometer 7, past the toll gate, and out of a world that will not claim me.

Suyi Davies Okungbowa

Suyi Davies Okungbowa is the Nigerian speculative fiction author of the godpunk novel, David Mogo, Godhunter (Abaddon, 2019). His internationally published fiction and nonfiction have appeared at Tor.com, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, Fireside, Apex, Podcastle, The Dark, and other periodicals and anthologies. He lives between Lagos, Nigeria and Tucson, Arizona, where he teaches writing to undergrads and is completing his MFA in Creative Writing. He tweets at @IAmSuyiDavies and is @suyidavies everywhere else. Learn more at suyidavies.com.