At the Crossroads

The next morning I find that my spine has stiffened somewhat in the night. Onye is depending on me. She’ll be waiting at the fork for me to bring her to the safety of our walls. I’m still terrified, but I can’t let her down. I promised.

So I slip out the front gate. Isioma and Bundo are on watch, but I tell them I’ve been researching old water pumps and I think I’ve found one a couple kayems away and wanted to check it out. Bundo tells me to be careful, but Isioma only nods. I can feel her eyes on me.

The morning is warm, growing hotter every moment. The sun is a melting disc in the sky, pouring out its brutal light. Perhaps it’s from being outside the walls, but the heat and air feel like they’re bearing down on me with a physical weight. It’s hard to catch my breath. I try to look everywhere at once but I keep stumbling, so instead I focus on where I’m walking and try to listen for any warning. For the birdcalls to still, for a rustling in the grass. For the scrabble and the chitter.

I reach the road fork and peer at the sky, squinting. I’m early. It’s not quite midday. The road is a crumbling gray ribbon stretching off to my left and right in cracked humps. There’s a screen of brush just across the road from me and a couple desultory trees on my side. I slump into the shade and stare down the road in the direction of Gembu. Onye should be nearly here. Should be in sight.

A gleam of metal across the road at the edge of the brush. I shade my eyes and see what looks like the side of a shining cage nosing through the brush. I leave the apologetic shelter of the spindly trees and as I near it, I see it must be the cart Onye rigged to bring along her laptop and suncell. I pull it out of the brush and on to the road. I’ve seen pictures of these on the web—it’s an old shopping trolley. The suncell’s attached to a frame that rests on an articulating joint, allowing the panel to be angled to the sun. There’s a dusty gray block of a casting router plugged into one outlet, and a scarred black laptop of indeterminate corporate origin at the other.

I can feel the thud of my heart against the inside of my ribs, and my pulse rushes in my ears. Where is Onye? I peer into the brush, parting the branches, and scan the flat cracked earth beyond. Nothing. I turn and see the laptop is on and there’s a document open on the screen. It’s got my name at the top. I stumble forward and brace myself on the trolley’s hot plastic handle, and tip the screen forward to shade it.

Friend Binyelum,

I have finally arrived. I have longed to meet you for so many days and now it is almost time. I am sorry for not being here right now. I wanted you to read this letter first. I have not been honest with you about everything. I am Onye Na-Acho Ihe Omuma, the truth seeker, and you are also a truth seeker. So I will tell you the truth. We are sisters but we are different. We are as different as can be. This difference is not greater than who we are, than our friendship. I will not hurt you. I do not mean to scare you. I AM YOUR FRIEND.

Sound comes, a grating rustle of shifting sand and chunks of concrete. I turn my head. Across the road, between me and the village, the earth humps up and out and births a small scorpion. It shivers and the earth and grit and dust spume into a small cloud around it. I open my mouth in a scream but no sound comes out. The scorpion stills, then chitters softly.

Something lights up in my brain, in my chest, and I run. I break past the brush, which crumbles at my passage but doesn’t slow me. I hit the dry plain beyond, legs and arms pumping. But I have no chance against this monster, this beast who killed my friend.

I make it only a few steps before the scorpion scuttles by in a rush, its legs churning in the dust. It wheels in front of me and I turn, trying to stay ahead of it. It’s hopeless. The scorpion herds me, always a few steps ahead, chivvying me around in a half-circle. Its pincers are spread away from its carapace and its tail is up and waving back and forth, the stinger pointing backward.

My breath is fire and my vision is whiting out. I stumble to a halt and find myself back at the shopping trolley, facing the laptop. The words blur in front of me. The scorpion is on the other side of the cart. I’d never heard of them toying with their prey like this before.

Poor Onye. I wonder briefly where here body is, or if the monster has already eaten her. I want to scream, toweep. Soon, at least, I will see her.

The scorpion rears up and grips the opposite side of the cart with its pincers. It rears and the tail comes up over its back, ready to strike. I force myself to stand upright, although I close my eyes. I will take death with some measure of dignity. The world is theirs after all. Who am I, the least member of the last remnant, to fight against the end?

There’s a tap. I clench my eyes closed, waiting for the sting. There’s another tap, then again. It’s somehow insistent. I open my eyes. The stinger’s come down, but not to strike. It taps the screen of the laptop, the point of the barb on the final sentence: I AM YOUR FRIEND.

For the first time I look at the scorpion’s face, truly see it. It seems typical. Huge eyes, sharp nose, wide mouth, small plates. But the eyes seem to be staring at me. The mouth isn’t open in the snarl I saw in the other scorpion, when the it charged the wall. This scorpion’s mouth is closed tightly over the razor teeth, the lips turned slightly in a slight frown. The stinger taps the screen again. I AM YOUR FRIEND.

Then the tail shifts and the stinger moves to the keyboard. It touches letters one at a time, forming the words “I am sorry I scared you, Binyelum.”

Onye?” I gasp the name like a prayer as the hammer blow of understanding cracks my thick skull at last. A scorpion has no neck, but this one raises the barb of her sting and bobs it up and down once. It’s a nod. Her lips rise, although she does not bare her teeth.

The stinger droops over the keyboard again and the words slowly form with each tap. “I am pleased to meet you.” Then she slowly, slowly brings the cruel point of her stinger up and holds it out. It takes a moment to realize what she wants. I grip it carefully at the base, away from the point. We shake.

I am happy to meet you too,” I say. I almost keep the tremble out of my voice.

The smile—for it is a smile, truly—widens, showing just a hint of teeth, but then she closes her lips firmly, hiding the blades.

We push the cart under the hesitant copse of trees on the other side of the crossroads. I lean against the handle and she scuttles around next to me so she can face the screen more easily.

I’m standing in the presence of my theory’s proof, and it’s both more terrible to be right and wonderful to be not completely right than I can imagine. The death of hope and perhaps the birth of it.

The inheritor of the earth chitters softly and the smile keeps pulling at the corners of my friend’s mouth. I smile back, as best I can.

We have a lot to talk about.


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