It was Joy who first spotted it. The one thousand naira note was barely visible against the grey concrete of the sidewalk. She stopped, spreading out her arms to halt the boys walking on either side of her. The stone the boys had been kicking between them clattered to a stop a few feet away.
‘Joy, what are you doing?’ Bobo growled.
The note caught Nedu’s eye and he said to Bobo, ‘Look look look, one thousand naira…’
Bobo gave a slow whistle, his eyes growing wide. One thousand, lying there on the sidewalk like magic. A three-way split would mean three hundred naira and some change for each of them. That was enough to buy him a rich lunch at school the next day. He could finally try that new ice lolly everyone had been showing off with. Priye had bought one today during lunch break and refused to share with him.
For Joy, three hundred naira could save her from a thorough flogging. All day at school she’d imagined her mother trying to balance the books at her Central Market stall. The numbers wouldn’t add up because yesterday Joy had miscalculated, giving a certain customer much more than she should have in change, realising her mistake minutes after the evil customer had disappeared into the maze of stalls and teeming bodies that was the market. Maami would know immediately who was to blame. Joy had never been good with numbers, and her mother had never been patient with fools.
Nedu added three hundred to the one thousand two fifty naira he had saved for the Van Persie jersey hanging in Okoro’s store. It still seemed like a long way to the three thousand he needed for the jersey, but every additional naira was better than nothing.
‘So why are you two just standing and looking at it?’ Bobo said. ‘Pick it up.’
‘You pick it up,’ Nedu said. ‘You want us to turn into yams, abi?’
‘Yams?’ Bobo sneered. ‘Are you an idiot?’
‘It’s true o,’ Joy said. ‘My mother said ritual killers and kidnappers put juju money on the side of the road sometimes to trap greedy people. Then when you pick it you will turn into a yam or a goat, then they will come and carry you and use you to make blood money and juju.’
The children looked at each other, and then all around them to see if there were any shady-looking characters lurking about. You could tell such people by the way they looked: cigarette smoking, dark clothed men who seemed out of place in daylight. The children knew this; they had seen enough Nollywood movies. But they saw nothing now to raise their suspicions. The only other person in sight, a woman with a basket of something on her head, was on the other side of the road walking in the opposite direction. The sidewalk was as empty as it was most days. Diplomat’s Road, an express way, was not given to much pedestrian traffic, and the children preferred it for the walk from school because it was shorter than taking the side roads. Although it was alarming the speed at which the vehicles zipped past them.
‘There is nobody here,’ Bobo said. ‘It’s not ritual money.’
‘Hmm, you don’t know that,’ Nedu said. ‘Maybe the people that put it there are hiding somewhere and watching. Or even, maybe the thing has an alarm that will be ringing in the person’s house or on their phone when somebody picks the money.’
Bobo opened his mouth wide and laughed. Joy chuckled; a juju fitted with an alarm sounded ridiculous to her as well.
‘Okay, one of you should pick it,’ Nedu said, ‘since you’re laughing.’
Bobo and Joy stopped laughing.
‘You fear too much, Nedu, that’s your problem,’ Bobo said. ‘You don’t know you’re a man abi? Even Joy has mind more than you.’
‘You, Bobo, are you not a man?’ Nedu said. ‘You pick up the money if you’re not afraid.’
‘I am not afraid of anything, you hear,’ Bobo said, his rather unmanly pout belying his words.
‘Ehen, continue lying to yourself,’ Nedu said, laughing. He stopped suddenly when he noticed the money start to flutter down the sidewalk. ‘Hey, breeze will blow it away o. Somebody should quickly step on it!’
‘You step on it!’ Bobo said.
Joy picked up the boys’ discarded stone and tossed it onto the naira note, weighing it down. She noticed Bobo and Nedu flinch just like she did, as though they expected the stone to come to some harm. When nothing happened after a few seconds they relaxed.
‘You see,’ Bobo said, ‘the stone did not turn into a yam.’
‘Maybe the juju knows when it’s a human being that touches it,’ Joy said. It sounded unlikely, even to her. But life was full of strange happenings. Her mother told her stories all the time, like the one about her distant cousin who had unknowingly married the ghost of a man from Onitsha and even had children with him.
The three stood contemplating as the silence lengthened.
‘Time is going o; Maami will be waiting for me in the market now…’ Joy said. ‘What are we going to do?’
The children blinked at each other but stayed still.
Joy sighed. ‘Okay, who is the most senior out of all of us?’
Joy and Nedu turned to look at Bobo, who took a small step back.
‘What, why are you looking at me?’ he said. ‘All of us are eleven years old.’
‘Ehn, but you are January,’ Joy said.
Bobo thrust a finger at Nedu. ‘He is also January!’
‘You are January 10, I am 29,’ Nedu said with a smirk.
Bobo opened his mouth and shut it again. He gulped and folded his arms across his chest. ‘I’m not touching it,’ he said.
Nedu laughed, but stopped suddenly when he noticed a man approaching them. He nudged the others and they formed a shield around the money. They had enough problems already and did not want to have to fight off an adult for their money. And even though the man was dressed in nice enough pants and a long sleeved shirt like he worked in an office, he could still be hungry or broke or both. Why else would he be walking on Diplomat’s Road instead of driving in his car? The man gave the children a curious look as he passed them, but he did not slow his pace. When he had gone a safe distance the children let out their breath.
‘Let’s be quick so we can leave here before another person comes,’ Bobo said.
‘You’re the one we’re waiting for now,’ Nedu said. ‘Pick the money.’
Joy’s impatience grew as she watched the boys argue, Nedu urging Bobo to lead by example since he was the oldest, and Bobo pointing out that as the oldest he had the power to delegate, and so he was transferring the task to Nedu. Joy sighed, and then she clapped a few times to get their attention.
‘You people are just standing here making noise like market women,’ Joy said.
Nedu sniggered. ‘You mean like your mother?’
Bobo joined in the laughter, clutching his sides.
Joy ignored the sting from Nedu’s words. The important thing was to get this money so she could head to her mother’s stall.
‘Let’s do it like this,’ she said. ‘At the count of three, all of us will touch the money at the same time.’
‘Then we will become three yams?’ Bobo said, following his pretend-joke with laughter that sounded hollow even to him.
‘Ahn ahn, Bobo,’ Nedu said, feigning surprise, ‘I thought you were not afraid of anything.’
‘I’m not afraid,’ said Bobo. ‘I’m just working the maths.’
‘Let me just tell two of you now,’ Joy snapped. ‘Any person that does not touch the money will not spend from it.’ She glared at each of the boys in turn, only looking away when they nodded their agreement.
‘Oya oya,’ Joy said. ‘Everybody should bend down and I will count to three.’
‘I want to count to three; why are you the one counting?’ Bobo said.
‘Was it not my idea?’ Joy said.
‘And so what?’ Bobo shot back.
‘It’s okay,’ Nedu said, ‘I will count.’
Joy and Bobo eyed each other but said nothing further; Nedu took this as consent. All three squatted around the one thousand naira note, not unaware of the strange picture they must be cutting to the people driving by.
They stayed absolutely still for the next few seconds, wondering if they would retain some level of consciousness if they did turn into yam tubers. Would they feel their limbs and heads shrink until they were all torso? Yam torso. Would the people driving in their cars notice and stop, and take them in their yam form to the police? Would they ever see their parents and each other again? Three hundred naira and some change was not enough to buy a life.
But really, what were the chances that someone had taken the time to set a trap like this, and on Diplomat’s Road where there were never many people on foot. The note had probably flown out of some rich man’s car.
Nedu glanced from Bobo to Joy and they nodded. They were ready.
Nedu took a deep breath and counted, ‘One, two… three!’
The children touched the note with a finger, eyes closed and faces pinched with apprehension. After a few seconds with their fingers on the money, they opened their eyes, first into slits and then wider, and blinked at each other. Their heads, faces and limbs were still intact; vehicles were still speeding by on Diplomat’s Road.
The laughter started in their bellies and grew until it exploded through their mouths. They gave in, letting the laughter and relief turn their bones molten as they collapsed into a trembling heap on the sidewalk. How ridiculous, they thought. Had they really been afraid of turning into tubers of yams?
When they had recovered and wiped their eyes, Joy stood and picked up the money, letting the stone that had served as a paperweight fall away. The boys straightened up, got on their feet. Joy eased one strap of her backpack off her shoulder and unzipped a section of her bag so she could keep the note inside it.
‘What are you doing?’ Bobo asked.
‘I will keep the money in my bag, until we can make change,’ Joy said.
‘You want to run away with it abi?’ Bobo said.
Joy thought it unnecessary to point out that there was nowhere for her to ‘run’ to – the boys knew her house, her mother’s stall; they went to the same school, their parents all went to the same church. Bobo was just stupid.
For Bobo, the sight of the one thousand naira note going into Joy’s bag held a finality that was almost as scary as that moment when they touched it. Something told him that if he let Joy put the money in her bag he would never see it again. He was as sure of this as he was of his own existence.
Nedu watched Joy and Bobo in silence. He knew what was coming and decided he would let them carry on for a while. Then he would step in as peacemaker before things got too heated, to suggest that as the least contentious of the three, he should have the note for safekeeping. This strategy always worked with these two. Plus, he was by far the smartest of the three. He should hold on to the money. Maybe even keep it.
Bobo lunged for Joy’s backpack and held on tight.
‘What is wrong with you? Leave my bag!’ Joy shrieked, swinging her body, and the backpack with it, from side to side.
‘Let me hold the money! I want to hold the money!’ Bobo panted, struggling not to lose his hold on the bag.
‘See, Bobo, if you tear my bag ehn,’ Joy warned, ‘you won’t like me at all today.’
‘What are you going to do?’ Bobo taunted. ‘Tiny girl like you, you think you can fight me? I will give you one dirty slap and you will faint here.’
‘You want to slap me?’ Joy said, still trying to shake Bobo off, her breath coming in gasps. ‘Because of money that I used my own eyes to see, you want to slap me. You shouldn’t even take out of this money sef, both of you. It was me who saw it.’
Nedu thought it was time to step in.
‘Okay, okay,’ he said, in his most soothing voice. ‘To end this matter without fighting, just let me hold the money.’
Bobo and Joy whirled to glare at him. ‘Shut up!’ they yelled.
Nedu was stunned into momentary obedience. He did not like that the one thing Joy and Bobo agreed on was that he be quiet.
‘Why must you be the one to hold the money?’ Joy said to Bobo. ‘When we reach my mother’s shop I will find change and break the money. Or are you planning to run away with it?’
‘I’m not running,’ Bobo said, ‘but as the oldest I should hold the money.’
Joy started to laugh, and Nedu saw his chance to pick a side. He laughed louder and slapped his thighs, saying what Joy was thinking before she did.
‘Bobo, it’s now that you know you are the oldest abi?’ Nedu said. ‘When it was time to touch the money you didn’t know you were the oldest.’
Joy gave Nedu a small smile.
‘Nedu, who told you to talk?’ Bobo said.
‘Let him talk!’ Joy said. ‘He is saying the truth.’
‘I don’t even care,’ Bobo said, tugging at Joy’s backpack. ‘You people are talking rubbish. Just give me the money.’
‘Don’t give him!’ Nedu said to Joy.
‘I’m not giving him anything,’ Joy promised.
She swung her backpack with such force that Bobo lost his grip and stumbled. When he righted himself he sprang at Joy. Nedu shouted a warning but Joy could already see Bobo coming. As he grabbed her shirtfront she caught hold of his school uniform by the tie. Locked on to each other this way, Joy and Bobo began a bizarre dance, punching and scratching and kicking, their feet edging closer to the rim of the sidewalk.
Just when Nedu decided it was time to break up the fight, Bobo’s foot slipped over the edge of the sidewalk and he started to fall. He held on to Joy and she went down with him, out onto the road and into the path of a coming truck.
Joy and Bobo were oblivious to the danger bearing down on them on four wheels. It was up to Nedu to save them.
Mere seconds after he stepped into the road without thinking, Nedu realised he would never get to wear that Van Persie jersey. He had enough time to hear the truck honk, see his friends see the truck, and know that it would not stop soon enough.
Uche Okonkwo (@) works as managing editor at Kachifo Limited, one of Nigeria’s foremost independent publishers. Her short stories have been published or are forthcoming in The Manchester Anthology 2012/2013, Per Contra, The Ember Journal, Ellipsis and Ploughshares.
This story was published in collaboration with Writivism. Writivism is a Kampala-based initiative that supports and promotes African Literature, they are also the organisers of East Africa’s leading literary festival. You can follow their work on Twitter: @.
Related country: Nigeria