Femi brushed the sweat off his temple as he crumbled to the pavement tired and exhausted. The morning chore in spite of five extra hands had left him drained, once again attesting to his aging body. Once he’d run through chores for double men in even lesser time. Those were days he’d look back on and wish he’d done better with.
Femi was not so aged in years, but at sixty, he sure felt the weight of the world on his shoulder.
Settling into the cold hard pavement, he dug out a sachet of water from his pocket, and from the other, a now compressed unsliced whole bread he’d secretly acquired from the kitchen help. Like always, his good rapport with the prison staff earned him privy of a few benefits.
Greedily, he gobbled the hardened bread with a much fluffier interior and downed with water. He leaned into the wall afterward, with mighty relieve, uncaring about the sun and its wicked scorch against his uplifted face. The thought of his kids stole in again, in its usual way wiping out whatever thread of solitude he previously enjoyed. Although the medical officer had advised that he stopped worrying lest he developed a high blood pressure, but it was almost impossible not to. Sleep which was to be the principal escape out of reality was as encumbered as reality with dreams about Pelumi and Tobi. Ebube his closest pal had proffered a solution, which he’d confessed to having worked for him through years, mind deceit. Femi having tried but failed at pretense had finally given up the adoption of ‘mind trick’ or whatever it was. His only thread to sanity now will be the word of his kid’s well-being.
Femi turned to the approaching sounds and watched a familiar chiseled faced guard walk up to him. The man after confirmation of Femi’s identity passed the message of the deputy controller’s summon. Femi scurried to his feet at that; more an act of showing off, than respect to the prison’s second in command’s call.
Femi started towards the most important building in prison, where jail decisions were taken, and court verdicts were relayed, with the guard behind him barely making a sound. On reaching the deputy controller’s office, he halted as the guard in quick flight overtook him, and gave two sharp raps on the door. And then opened the door at the voiced command from the other end, allowing Femi in.
Glum-faced, Femi plopped into a seat as indicated by the rotund man behind the desk. Here, there was no need for pretense. One never hid one’s sadness from a friend. And that was what the deputy controller general had become in the past years.
The door clicked shut behind the dismissed officer. And without words, Femi shook hands with the man with whom he’d forged a decade old relationship with. Most trembled in Hafeez’s presence. He was strict, diplomatic and not to mention his overly active play on the grounds. In his ten administrative years, Hafeez had built an astounding reputation for his tight rigid principles. And even he despite their friendship had known just when not to cross the line.
The friendship between both men had happened unprecedentedly. It had crept on both individuals that neither could place that turning point where they had clicked and cemented that undeniable bond.
For Femi, Jail life in Hafeez’s administration was smooth, compared to the late predecessor’s. The man had been a demon of some sort-Femi’s very own nemesis. His death during Femi’s eight-year had happened out of the blue. To some, it was perceived as poisoning, to some other ill health, and yet to another a combination of both. Femi had never cared to verify the authenticity of which. It never mattered. What did was his freedom from a man whose constant criticism had rung a reminder to his sully past and crimes, and had made jail life a living hell. Pointedly, he’d never glory in the man’s death. But in truth, one would have left for the other eventually. And at the rate of things back then, Femi stood a higher chance. He remembered vividly the tight rope he’d saved under his pillow, in wait for the perfect timing. But nature was surprisingly kind and had brought Hafeez.
Hafeez was different. He was less a man of words, but more of action. And that reflected in all his actions. Like his present keen stare at Femi through round-rimmed glasses as he reached for an apple from the filled tray, and pushed to Femi across the desk. And on Femi’s refusal, the man’s eyes narrowed in slits in a close study of his unusually quiet friend.
He knew the cause, for Femi had always been an open book. But he had some solution for the man, one which would bring to reality Femi’s wish.
“I have news.” Hafeez began on a bite of the apple before he changed his mind.
Femi’s query was cut by the phone’s unexpected ring, its jarred noise filling the once quiet room. Hafeez answered, mouthing an apology. The call was short and cryptic, answered with only yes’ and no’s. Hafeez lowered the receiver a moment later and trawled through the pages of some document until finally stopped on one.
In idleness, Femi scanned the neatly arranged desk, and let his gaze flick through the meticulously stacked files. The farthest was topped as usual with a constitution, prison guides as always, and the nearest, a Quran, Bible and a Buddha book. Hafeez was a liberal religionist. The man was constantly in search of the existence of a source beyond the imaginable. Femi on the other was less a religionist although exposed to the first two, one in his earliest life, the other with Olaide.
Femi stopped at the now familiar family portrait at the corner. Though he’d never met the family in person, it felt like he knew them all already. And to an extent, he did-each face, each smile, each name, and a few personal details. There were the recently married eldest daughter and the son who just recently moved out of home, leaving the wife and the teenage daughter. The picture to Femi was reminiscent of good times with his family. Times where there was neither guilt nor anger or regrets. Such memories usually ended in a bitter twist, at the hit of reality.
“Yes! About what we discussed.”
Femi looked up at his friend in an unexpected jolt, and confusion.
Hafeez pressed “About seeing your kids are you still up for it?”
Femi gaped, bereft of words at Hafeez’s words. It seemed almost impossible to grasp that his friend had given a thought to his mindless, blab. Yet, the look in Hafeez’s eyes was enough proof.
“I… I did not know you considered it?” He stuttered.
“Of course I did. Wait-” It was Hafeez’s turn for a surprise “You didn’t mean it?!”
“No, I did,” Femi interjected quickly, fearful of risking Hafeez’s change of mind. “I just didn’t know you would concede.”
Quietly, Hafeez studied the man, contemplating for the umpteenth time if the obviously unprepared man was worth the risk. He heaved a sigh “I think I can help you. But I need to know if you can really go through with this Femi?”
Hafeez was understanding of Femi’s nervousness as hen nodded, but his reluctance was disappointing. That was not the reaction he expected.
“This has to stay between us. My job, and probably my life are both on the line.”
Those words were true, and in fact, an understatement, and Femi knew. He would never hold it against Hafeez if the man encountered a sudden change of mind. This was putting way too much on the line than he could demand, Femi thought as he watched the man shuffle within drawers soon returning with a small plastic bag of pills tossed at Femi from across the table. He questioningly lifted to his friend with a raised brow.
“It’s sleeping pills and it’s harmless.” If you are interested, Dr. Femi said you can take that. And then you leave the rest to me.”
With unsure hands, Femi lifted the transparent pack for inspection of the round plain white tablet that could easily pass for a vitamin C or some other random drug. He knew what that meant. He’d suggested a temporary break out of prison, except without the how. And he was curious as to Hafeez’s definition of ‘leaving the rest to him’. Not like he didn’t trust the man. But the least he deserved was full detail to a matter as crucial and involving as this. “And so what happens after I take it.”
“It knocks you out completely. Two is fine, its actually a bit of an overdose.”
Hafeez in the silence sensed a need to ascertain the drug’s safety. “As I said, Dr. Femi assured it’s totally unharmful. It would only knock you out for a few hours till I declare an emergency, and then you would be rushed to the hospital and when you awake, you would see your kids. Femi has agreed to play along. He has prepared the medical diagnosis. ”
Femi nodded convinced. He’d never doubted his friend’s truthfulness, and besides Hafeez would never harm him, not when there was too much at stake if this went wrong,
“You would be out for about eighteen hours. Just take it by twelve tomorrow morning.”
Femi’s heart clenched like a fist closing around a lifeline. “That soon?!” He glared surprised and queasy.
“That’s the only possible time. The controller general would be going on a two day trip out of Lagos tomorrow evening. I can only declare an emergency in his absence. So that’s your only chance.”
It was true, and Femi knew that. The only way a stunt of such magnitude could be pulled was in the absence of those probing, hawk-like stare of the general. Femi shivered from its mere thoughts.
“So are you prepared to see your kids?”
Femi nodded with a nervous gnaw on his bottom lip. He was more than anticipating it, but the gigantic risk could not be escaped.
“Good! So, get your acts together, and be prepared for a night of deep sleep by Thursday.”
Tongue tied, Femi nodded. Hafeez sensing his tension, and the creep of uncertainty questioned again. “Femi, you have to let me know if you are really up for it, and let’s save the stress if you aren’t. I understand if you cannot.
Silence passed. This was the moment he could either opt out of this madness with a laugh which someday he might regret or face it with courage, his thoughtful eyes stayed on the reward; seeing the daughter he’d last seen eighteen years ago. Nerve kicked at the thought of his daughter. And at that moment, he earnestly knew he would go any length to see her again. It didn’t matter if his life was at risk.
“Yes, I am. I promise” He answered with a fierce new determination perceivable even to Hafeez.
“Good.” Hafeez finished as both stared on with a stiff smile, communicating at a level beyond words, until finally, Femi arose, tucking the pill away in his breast pocket. Hafeez nodded in approval.
“Thank you, Hafeez.” It was only here; within these four walls that Femi was at liberty to call the man by his first name.
Hafeez lips curled into a parody of a smile as he watched Femi walk off, summoning him again mid-way out “Femi?”
Femi turned swiftly with his hand on the brass knob.
“Please don’t make me regret this.”
“I won’t!” He promised as he finally exited.
Only when out in the empty hallway, did Femi let out a breath as he crashed against the wall shaken, allowing the last few minutes playback in his head. In spite of his initiation of the plan, he was scared, he admitted, but thankful and indebted to Hafeez and the Doctor.
At the sudden sounds of footsteps, he straightened and started down the hall, halfway meeting the stony-faced officer who only just reappeared. For a moment their gazes locked as they passed each other. And from a sixth sense, Femi read in the man’s eyes, some desperation and a deep hunger that might have oblivious if not for his giftedness in judging character. He needed no warning against the young officer. Already, he knew he must tread carefully, for the last thing he needed was to be trailed by some suspicious glare.