“Jump. Walk to the edge and jump.”
He was with a tour group at the rooftop of the Empire State building. It was a whopping 381m from tip to ground; 81m higher than the Eiffel Tower. He ignored the voice and pretended to listen to the tour guide.
Fortunately, none of the other tourists were telepathic, so nobody could hear the silky smooth yet self-destructive urgings in the depths of his subconscious. He paid no heed to it, but nonetheless, he steered clear of the guard rails and outer edges of the roof.
A few minutes later, the group entered a lift and descended the lofty building.
He was safe…for now.
Lagos, 7 years later
Dozie weaved his way through the bustling melee of travellers, visitors and airport personnel. His luggage made it easier because it had 360⁰ directional wheels and pre-collision detection.
His plane had just touched down from Port Harcourt and he made straight for the exit. Dozie walked past other travellers waiting anxiously at the baggage carousel and smiled to himself. He relished travelling light. It was the only way he could take his bag into the main cabin.
God knows how much he hated watching bags loll lazily on the carousel while he and other travellers, like expectant parents at a school gate, strained to recognise theirs. It was even worse if he had a bag that looked like ten others. Whenever he travelled with family, such things were Ugochi’s forte.
As he entered a taxi, he wondered how Ugee (pronounced You-jii) was faring. Sometimes, their two boys could be a handful, and his occasional trips to the Garden City didn’t make it any easier.
“Parkview Estate, Ikoyi,” He told the driver as they left the airport.
Ugee had never done it before, but there was always a first time for everything. In her five years of marriage- even long before- baking was never really her thing. She could whip up a chicken casserole or cook delicious rich Egusi soup (Dozie’s favourite) without breaking a sweat. But here she was, struggling with a red velvet cake recipe.
“Use one bottle of McCormick red food colour,” said the YouTube cook. “Be careful, you’ll also want to gauge the quantity of cake, so don’t overflood it,” the internet chef warned.
Ugee poured the colouring into the doughy mixture, her eyes never leaving the computer screen. Her concentration was suddenly broken by two loud toddlers. The younger one ran behind her legs, trying to hide from his brother, forcing Ugee to drop the whole bottle of colouring into the bowl.
“Oh no!” She groaned. Can’t you both stay calm for one minute? I beg you, just one MINUTE!” She yelled.
The rambunctious kids couldn’t be bothered. She might have as well been speaking to herself. Chuma, the first son, ran back into the living room, giggling loudly. He was immediately followed by an also-giggling Ebuka, the younger one, oblivious to the ‘accident’ he had caused.
Ugee took out the dough-covered McCormick bottle and set it on the sink for rinsing. The bowl of dough was a now a deep pool of scarlet colouring. She stared at it, wondering what to do next. Apparently, the online chef didn’t have a playbook for how to bake with boisterous children around.
The doorbell rang. She knew it was Dozie, and she hadn’t got anywhere with the cooking. She would have to warm last night’s leftovers.
“Daddy!” the boys ran to the door, excited.
“Hey, champs!” He said, lifting both children in his arms.
He pecked Ugee on the lips.
“How was the conference?” She asked.
“You know, same ol’. But I’m glad to be home.” He replied
It was with a fleeting feeling of dread that he rang the doorbell. He could hear his boys running to the door and his heart skipped a beat. Remember what she said, he told himself. He took a deep breath and broke into a smile when door opened.
His two sons were the first to greet him, his wife followed behind.
“How was your trip?” She asked.
“It was great, but nothing beats being back home,” he replied and kissed her. Somehow, he wished he could be more truthful with Ugee.
Something nice was cooking in the kitchen. He put his sons down and took his bag upstairs to the bedroom. He sat on the bed and looked at the family portrait on the dresser. Everybody looked happy, even he. He shook his head and began to take off his shoes.
The boys were causing a ruckus downstairs. He could hear them. Sometimes, he wondered how Ugee coped with them. They could drive anybody mad. Shoes off, he lay back on the bed and sighed. The events of his trip replayed in his mind for the umpteenth time. He was supposed to tell Ugee, but, how could he? He knew she was understanding, but this was complicated. It had toppled several strong marriages before, why would his’ be different?
At that moment, Chuma and Ebuka burst into the room, shouting at the top of their voices.
Chuma mounted the wheeled-luggage and rode it along the bedroom floor, drawing faint lines in the tiled flooring, while Ebuka hopped on the bed and tugged at his hair. That was the last straw. He decided he needed a drive to cool off.
She saw him descend the stairs. He has showered already? The soup hadn’t even thawed completely.
“I’m going to get new light bulbs. The one in the bathroom is out,” he told her.
“Okay, don’t be long. Lunch will be ready in 20.”
He was about stepping out when she called him.
“Can you take the boys with you? They’ve been cooped indoors all day. Plus, I need to get them out of my hair for a bit.” She pleaded.
“Umm…sure.” He answered.
Ugee couldn’t help detecting a tinge of reluctance. In the past few months, Dozie had been somewhat distant. Tuned off- like his true emotions were hiding behind a shallow façade of false expressions and insincere responses. It was probably work and nothing more.
When they left, she put the soup on the burner and resumed her red velvet cake. Instead of cream cheese, she opted for Heritage frosting on the layers. That should add a delicious twist, she thought to herself. The cake was going to turn out nice after all, she smiled.
Dozie drove towards Lekki. He wasn’t sure exactly where he was going, but he just wanted to leave the house. He found it ironic that Ugee should saddle him with the kids when they were the reason he was ‘escaping’ the house in the first place.
He spied them in the back seat through the rear-view mirror. They were calm now, but it didn’t stop him from being uneasy.
Dozie’s problem, as he reasoned, was truly complicated. About seven years ago he had suffered a mental breakdown. He wasn’t sure of the cause, but doctors treated him for stress and anxiety. It seemed to disappear not too long after he met Ugee because he was happy. She had brought succour to his life.
However, he suspected his mental troubles hadn’t completely vanished, but merely lay shackled beneath layers of his subconscious, like a three-tiered red velvet cake with a bitter twang.
Unfortunately, he was right. The birth of his two sons triggered the same stress and anxiety he suffered before. Only few months ago, it unleashed the voice, and once again, he could hear it. Soft, persuasive and dangerous; the urging tone of his inner demons.
At first, he tried to ignore its beckoning. But as pressure increased, he began to give in to the voice’s self-destructive desires.
A few months ago, he was boiling water for tea and it urged him to place his hand over the burner. Put it in there, heat yourself a bit. Burn, just burn. It urged. Later, when Ugee asked him about his bandaged palm, he brushed it off as a minor accident.
Not too long after that, he was chopping carrots for salad when it emerged from the recesses of his mind. Dark and sinister, but insistent. Stab yourself in the eye, it suggested. Stab deep! For five seconds, he held the pointed tip of the blade in front of his right eye, as if in a hypnacogic battle with his mind. But Chuma walked into the kitchen, and he quickly snapped out of the trance.
That was when he decided to seek professional help. Somebody recommended a physician in Port Harcourt. It was important for the doctor to be far away. He couldn’t bear the stigma if his friends, or God forbid his wife, knew he was seeing a psychiatric professional. Ugee believed his occasional trips to Port Harcourt were business-led.
During his last trip, Ms Aboyade, his physician, had told him to come clean about his mental health history to his wife. But he didn’t know how to. How would he even start the conversation, he wondered?
The food was ready and set on the table. It was over 30 minutes since Dozie left the house with the children. He hadn’t returned. Ugee wondered what could be keeping them.
Having been stuck in one place for too long, the boys in the back seat began to get antsy. (They were strapped in child safety seats).
“Daddy put Minions!” said Chuma, motioning to DVD screen.
Dozie shook his head. This wasn’t some leisure drive. Besides, Minions was not on this car’s cartoon collection.
“Not here Chuma, when we get home.”
“But I want Minions NOW!” The boy yelled, belying his small size with a high-pitched tone.
“You can’t see it here. You’ll have to wait till we get home,” Dozie repeated firmly.
“Ohhhhhhh!” Chuma screamed and broke into a tantrum in the back seat.
Ebuka, who had been quiet until now, also began to cry. Whenever his older brother cried, he did the same. It was as if they shared some kind of unseen crying bond together.
God! Dozie thought. He had no idea his children were this spoiled. No thanks to Ugee, he assumed. The car was now too loud for comfort and it was starting to agitate him. Nothing good happened whenever he was agitated.
Then he felt it. He always knew when it was about to surface.
First, goose bumps would break out on his arms and back, followed by a sinking, enveloping feeling. The voice was emerging, and at a very bad time.
“Keep quiet!” He shouted at his kids. But it only made them bawl louder.
End it now, right here. Drive off the ledge, his subconscious whispered soothingly.
They were currently on Lekki-Ikoyi link bridge. It was persuasive. He tried to fight it, but the urge was too strong. Instead, he felt his foot push harder on the pedal. He had increased speed.
Yes, faster. It encouraged. Drive into the Lagoon. Now!
Dozie shut his eyes to ward off the voice, but it was in his head- loud and clear.
The voice increased urgency. It’s easy, just drive into that guard rail. Do it!!
Dozie looked back at his boys, as if in finality, and drove towards the guard rail at top speed.
Ms Aboyade’s Story
It was now well over an hour since her husband and sons had left the house. Ugee called Dozie’s phone several times but couldn’t get a response. She was beginning to worry.
What could have happened? Why wouldn’t Dozie answer his phone?
The house phone rang.
That must be them, Ugee thought, hurrying to answer it.
“Hello, Dozie?” She was anxious.
“Hello, um…Mrs Ekezie?” It was a woman on the other end.
“Yes, this is she. Who’s this, please?” Ugee replied, disappointed and impatient.
“I am Ms Aboyade, your husband’s therapist…has he arrived home yet?”
“I don’t understand. Dozie doesn’t have a therapist.”
“I’m sorry madam, but I have been treating your husband for the past four months.”
Ugee’s hands trembled. What?
“I believe Mr Ekezie has become a danger to himself and those around him. During our last meeting [this weekend], he revealed typical self-harm behaviour. The session ended quite abruptly, so I thought it would be important to check up on him. Is he home now?”
Ugee wanted to brush it off as some prank call, but she knew this woman wasn’t lying. Dozie had been off lately. But she didn’t think it was serious.
“Hello? Mrs Ekezie, is your husband back from his trip?” The therapist inquired again.
“Yes, but he went out with the kids—”
Ugee quickly dropped the phone and grabbed her car keys from the living room console. She nearly knocked down a flower pot as she reversed out of the driveway and sped out, in search of Dozie and her children.
The pieces finally began to fall in place. It was clear now. The emotional unavailability, his quick irritability and frequent absence. The signs were all there, but she had refused to acknowledge them.
In a society, where mental health disorder was a taboo, it was easy to dismiss it as the last point of consideration- if at all. But Dozie seemed perfectly normal, how could he be affected? She wondered.
Sure, the past year had been tough, with work pressure and all, but was it that bad? The problem was that Dozie rarely opened to her. She almost always had to pry every information out of him- especially his personal problems. Ugee said a short prayer and hoped her boys were okay.
She had been driving for ten minutes now. She didn’t have a clue where she was going, but she was on Lekki-Ikoyi Link bridge. As she drove on, she saw Dozie’s Maroon-coloured Ford on the other side of the bridge, close to the edge the rail. The driver’s door was open.
Ugee quickly parked her car and ran across the road, stopping only to scale the divider. The first thing she checked was the back-seat. Thankfully, her boys were safe. They were surprisingly calm. She looked around and saw Dozie sitting on the kerb, curiously studying his hands.
“I stopped just on time,” he told her. “I stopped.” He repeated, his eyes tearing up.
Ugee sat on the kerb beside him. “Ms. Aboyade called me.”
Dozie looked at her.
“So you know?” He asked, a tear dropped to the ground, wetting the sandy pavement.
She nodded, “Yes”.
He began to sob. “I don’t understand it, Ugee. Why me?”
She hugged him and he cried into her chest.
“It’s okay dear, you are not alone anymore.” She reassured. “You are not alone.”
The sun was beginning to dip in the horizon as cars zoomed by. A few fitness enthusiasts jogged past them without so much as a glance. Certain sights were no longer unusual in Lagos- not even a man sitting by the roadside and crying in a woman’s arms.