Andrew C. Dakalira‘s stories have appeared on , Brittle Paper and The Kalahari Review. His novella, “VIII,” appeared in the second volume of AfroSF, an anthology of five science fiction novellas. He lives in Lilongwe, Malawi.
The word is enough to pry your unwilling eyes open, as if forcefully waking you from a bad dream. The little gears in the softness of your medulla immediately get to work. You are not home. Your peripheral vision confirms that.
The lush green makes you tilt your head. The tall, thick trunks covered with rainbow-coloured flowers are as overwhelming as the smooth grass that reminds you of a football pitch. You drink this in, temporarily forgetting the first thing you saw; the giant brown suit in front of you. It seems not to have forgotten you, however, because it turns around, and the head protruding from its collar speaks.
“Easy there, fella. Just take deep breaths and relax. You’ll be okay.”
You start wondering just what the hell the chocolate-faced colossus is talking about, and then you realize that your left knee is kissing polished white marble. The stones stretch in front of you, and against the rich grass, it is like the halfway line of a football pitch.
You struggle to your feet, the giant lending a hand.
“Where the hell am I?”
The giant opens his mouth, but he vanishes. Or, maybe you do, because you are now in familiar surroundings: your office, your comfortable chair.
“I will see what I can do,” you hear yourself say to the skinny gentleman in the opposite chair. His large brown eyes look out of place on his iron-shaped face. You want to point that out, but your mouth says something dissimilar. “But this time, I want my cut a week after the cheque is deposited. While you’re at it, at least try to supply a few things. Make the whole deal look legitimate.”
The other man is smiling and already disappearing when you hear the words again.
You are back on the marble, but this time your feet have not failed you. Your head is swimming, however, and your tongue feels heavy. Then your knees give way and you involuntarily throw up.
“Are you alright, mister?”
You whip around, startled by the immature voice. Behind you is a freckle-faced Caucasian boy. He looks nine or ten, your own son’s age. His little curious eyes bore into yours, unblinking.
“Don’t fret, pup. Always happens to first-timers, does that.” You hear someone speak, then a fiery-red beard peaks from the giant’s front. “Ye ar’ight?”
“Yes, I’m fine” is the reply, but deep down you know that is a lie. There are little black spots still swimming in front of you, but you amazingly manage to lift your frame. “What is going on? What am I doing here?”
The giant and Red Beard exchange glances. “Ye been ‘avin’ them too, then? Them goddam memories?”
For the first time since all this started, laughter bubbles to your lips. But you control yourself and ignore Red Beard’s accent. “Yes. What are they?”
This time the giant speaks, to your immense relief. “Well, so have we. Nasty stuff. At least, for some of us.” He looks at his hands rather nervously.
“Exactly what is this place?”
“Beats the hell out of me, chief,” the giant replies. “But-”
The incessant blaring of car horns outside, combined with the caterwauling of toddlers who usually ask you for sweets. The rust-tinged iron sheets. The whitewashed walls, decorated by a few muddy handprints. It is all too familiar. You know where you are, and in whose bed your half-naked bulk is lying. The girl standing beside the bed, shirking herself out of her short, yellow hand-printed dress is recognizable even before she turns around to face you.
“I cannot stay very long,” you say. “My wife is coming back tonight.”
What you really want to tell her is about the nightmare you’re in, how frightened you are. But she unfastens her bra, and swings her long, brown, stretch-marked legs onto the bed, and you stop thinking, the stiffening beneath your midriff getting more difficult to control, and she is-
You’re in a praying position now, and this time the dizziness is not so bad. It is the face of the boy you stare into, surprisingly, and the spittle from his laughing mouth draws an unexpected wave of disgust.
“Mister, you have a boner.”
Confusion is replaced by comprehension as you look at the front of your trousers. You quickly turn around to face the broad back of the giant, but Red Beard is pointing and smiling. “Aye, laddie, that he has! Keep your knobkerrie under control, boyo! There are toddlers about!”
You try to ignore the barrels of laughter around you. The giant, who has been particularly quiet, turns around.
“To answer that question of yours, my man, nobody knows where this is, or how we got here. The only thing we are all sure of is that we are moving forward.”
“Moving forward towards what?”
“A black door,” says the giant. “At least, that’s what the guys in front tell us. A door surrounded by a bunch of floodlights. People keep disappearing around that place.”
You want more answers, which the giant is unable to provide. In between the involuntary blackouts, conversation switches between frivolity and banality, with Red Beard an enthusiastic contributor. He seems to forget about the presence of the little boy, his narrations filled with countless expletives. The giant is still surprisingly hushed, an occasional booming laugh obstructing the look of a man wishing to forget his past, least of all discuss it.
“What’s happening over there? Have we stopped moving?” A woman’s voice asks from what seems to be miles behind you.
“Yeah, what’s the holdup? Why are we hanging around here?” Another voice speaks up, his accent seemingly adding vowels where there shouldn’t be.
“Shut yer traps!” Red beard shouts in reply.
You notice the lights changing as you progress. The incandescent brightness slowly changes hue as you move along, the kaleidoscopic brush it attains reminding you of the Northern Lights you had sometimes seen on television, never in person. So mesmerizing are they that after your next blackout, it takes a while to notice the sudden quietness. There is no funny accent. No foul language. Red Beard is gone.
The giant is the only one in front of you now, and he does nothing but stare straight at the little black door that seems to have appeared from nowhere. There is no wall supporting it, with the bright lights stretching beyond it. The dread-filled pouch that is your heart suddenly picks up pace.
“I guess this is it, my man,” the giant interrupts your hypnotism session. I doubt we’ll see each other again after this next spasm.”
“The man with the red beard. Did he-?”
“Well, I did not see him leave,” the giant says. “But with what we’ve experienced here, it is not impossible to assume he has disappeared through that door, is it?”
“No, I suppose not,” you say. “I do hope we meet again on the other side of that door, wherever it leads. Perhaps we will finally have answers.”
“Yes, maybe we will,” replies the giant his tone awash with scepticism. “The name is Chiyamiko, by the way.”
“You’re a good man, Chiyamiko,” you say, as you move to take his outstretched hand. But before he learns what your own name is, the other man suddenly withdraws his hand and gives you a gloomy stare. “I am not a good man. I haven’t been for a long time.” He then faces towards the door again and you know the conversation is over.
This time when you come to, you are lying flat on your face. By now, the cold, flawless stone is all too recognizable, as is the perfectly even lush green expanse and the rainbow flowers. The giant is gone, but you already knew that would happen, and you really do not care. They- whoever had brought you here –had saved the worst memory for last.
The sound of metal crushing and tearing into flesh and bone was as real as it had been that night. The slight bump you had felt as rubber and a tonne of machinery had rolled over one of the unfortunate mortals that had lain on the bitumen in front of the car, debilitated while you made your getaway. But they had not left it there.
The last thing before the end of this episode had been the face. The face that had broken alcohol’s hold on you that fateful night. The face into whose eyes you had stared and acknowledged their fright. The horrified face that had smashed into your windshield before disintegrating, spraying you with blood, flesh and tiny shards of glass. Now, on that marble stone, with strangers behind you and only the black door in front, flooded by blinding light, you know you are broken. You can take no more.
It is a damn-near impossibility to rise to your feet once more, but you cope. Then, almost as if sensing what will follow, you begin screaming, even as the command is bellowed by the unseen speaker.
No memories. The brain is numb. You open your mouth to scream, but what comes out is a mixture of slime and solids which do not remind you of anything you ate. It is only then that your eyes notice what you, and the slimy stuff your guts have spilled, are lying on.
The floor is painted gold. At least, you think it is, because no one in their right mind would put real gold on floors. Scanning the room reveals it to be wide, like a banquet hall, and it is mostly empty. The walls, also in gold, are marked by several carvings, mostly depicting violence. The room also has a few statues; a man blowing a horn, an old man waving a staff, even a suspended sculpture of a man riding a fiery chariot.
At the far end of the room, a man sitting on what looks like a sofa beckons. As you move closer, his clothes capture your curiosity. The animal skins, only a shade lighter than the cocoa-bean tone of his own skin, remind you of a Ngoni chief’s attire. In contrast, the person standing to the right of him is wearing a black three-piece suit. His lanky frame seems rather stiff, but his caramel face breaks into a sad smile as you draw near.
“Chiliro,” the man in the animal skins calls your name. “So pleased you could join us.”
“Who are you? Where am I?”
Ngoni Chief does not seem surprised by the question. “All in good time,” he says. “How do you like your stay so far?”
The baneful brew of rage, sorrow and befuddlement within you pushes a few steps forward. “What the hell is going on? Who the fuck are you people? You can’t just keep us here and torture us like this!”
Ngoni Chief raises his hand, taking away your movement and speech abilities all at once. “Swearing is the norm where you come from, but I certainly do not tolerate it here. Please calm yourself.”
He seems to cherish the silence. “What you call torture is simply a reminder of the things you have been doing most of your life. Only bad things were shown to you, I will admit, but there is a purpose in doing so. In due course, it will explain your fate.”
The lack of understanding on your face is clear, and Ngoni Chief notices. “You are here as part of an experiment. A pretesting exercise, if you may. We decided that there are too many people on Earth to judge at once. So we decided to take a few of you that are already dead and judge you beforehand. Now, if you will stop with the foolishness and stay calm, I will let you speak again. But yes, you are dead.”
Nothing comes out of your mouth even after the man in the animal skins frees you. The bizarreness of his last statements renders you speechless. You do not remember dying. What it felt like, where you were. Not to mention the fact that this man before you, in animal skins and with his lanky henchman, had just said he was going to judge you. Does that mean he was-?
“I know what you’re thinking,” Ngoni Chief interrupts you. “I hope all this now makes some sense. Now, based on your memories as shown before you walked in here, I am very sure you know the place where I must now send you. I won’t lie; it is not pleasant.”
“Wait,” you manage to say.
“Wait for what? Or were you thinking that I would have a big television screen in here, and we could review your sins together? I have been watching you your entire life, Chiliro. Why would I want to watch the filthy actions of such an unrepentant man again?” He looks at his henchman and chuckles. “Can you believe this guy?”
The man in the suit looks like he is about to cry. His gentle face is quivering, almost as if he is sorry about your fate because he knows you personally. Ngoni Chief shows no such emotion. “Don’t worry. You will soon be relieved of your memories. That is the only fun part of eternal punishment. You won’t even remember your newly-found friend the paedophile.”
“Ah, yes, he did not tell you. Chiyamiko, your gentle giant, raped and killed four children. He was sentenced to life in prison. That’s where he died. Doesn’t remember anything now, though. You see, that is what we do here. You will find yourself in the hottest fire, and you will suffer the greatest amount of pain your body can ever endure. You will cry and you will solicit your brain for all eternity to find the cause of such suffering, but you will never remember why.”
You want to say something; the back of your throat refuses. You can only watch while the man in the animal skins directs you to the huge twin cedar doors to his left. The walk is slow, deliberately unwilling, that of a condemned man. A glimpse of the man in the suit only serves to dampen your spirits.
It feels strange, walking into a room and suddenly engulfed in flames. You feel nothing at first; a quick look around leaves you in shock at just how two doors could lead to a room large enough to be an entire country. The cold grips your body, as out of the multitudes, you see a large man, almost charcoal black, screaming for his life. He seems familiar, but you cannot place where you met him. Then the smell of burning flesh finally rekindles your senses, and the red-hot, blinding pain finally reaches you and you realize you are screaming with the rest of them. There are no memories, only pain, and one eternity-enduring question on your mind:
How did I get here?