Ayomide lets out a bored sigh as he flips through another page of the Science Enquirer magazine. He scans the words over and over again, and none of them seem to stick to his tired mind. It's a slow early morning, which is not unusual, but a change of pace from the last few days. In fact, the lack of regular customers should have made Ayo feel a bit of relief, that maybe he could keep his eyes closed for a few minutes and nothing bad would happen. But Ayo didn't really feel much relief.
He didn't feel much of anything lately. It was as if his heart had been scooped back and big puffs of cotton wool were shoved into the chasm of his empty chest. He did not feel the sadness of his rushed departure from his old life, nor the increasing frustration that plans to build his new one kept falling apart. This would be a welcome change if not for the fact that he lost the ability to feel joy in the little things in his life. His Star Trek books didn't make him excited when he read them, talking with his friends online felt like a waste of time. Even eating became a meaningless chore. He bought some guinea fowl from the food truck on his day off, Wednesday, and ate it with some garri and boli. This was a luxury meal to him and made the terrible days at the store feel less terrible. But the garri felt like wet sand in his mouth, the boli a dry mush and the guinea fowl a chewy mess. He didn't have much of an appetite either at that point and trashed the contents halfway through.
It wasn't the first time he'd experienced that feeling, but he hasn't figured out what had caused it this time, or why the feeling had lasted 2 weeks. Especially since the last time was before he left home. Whenever the feeling arose, it was mostly due to the sight of his own appearance. But that couldn't be right, because he got rid of all the mirrors after the weeping widow incident. Her wails for her lost love, combined with her horrid visage in the mirrors, kept driving away what little customers he had left. Helping her sort her business and find eternal peace would have been a much more permanent solution but would require time and money that Ayo neither had nor wanted to spend. He figured he could blame the moans on pipe construction or something. So far, that seems to suffice when customers asked.
Maybe the emptiness inside of him was from this job. He's been the only full- time night staff at the small roadside store in this desolate, cursed neighborhood. [The location of this story has been made “REDACTED” to protect the reader's sanity and ensure their physical safety]. Or maybe he got a curse from the last time he fought a demon. He checks under his uniform sleeve at his left shoulder. The protection seal is still there, so the prospect of that was highly doubtful.
The door swings open when the busted clock on the register reads 4:35 AM, and right on cue, Mr Joseph Balogun strolls in whistling his signature tune. He's one of the only regular customers that the store ever sees at night. He's a very...queer old man. His dressing was always something puzzling, either a color clash, a style clash or a combination of the two. He has deep scars snaking around his arms and neck, and when asked, Mr Balogun went quiet for a solid minute and then walked away from the store in a hurry. Ayo actually had no idea if Mr Balogun lived nearby or far away. That question was met with “Its a bit of both” and a very unsettling laugh.
Mr Balogun goes behind an aisle, and Ayo can only imagine what he's up to this time. On a regular Saturday, his items could range from a single pencil, which Ayo has seen him take a bite out of, to every single bag of peanuts in the store. The peanuts, he explained, were for a secret project to disturb a council meeting. Ayo had just nodded as he scanned the bags of peanuts, arms tired from 70 repeated scans, praying to be released from this mortal coil. Within 10 minutes, Mr Balogun was back again, hands behind his back.
"Good evening, Ayo" He says with an excited smile. His eyes have the usual twinkle of mischief and
Ayo looks up briefly at him, then grunts a reply as he goes back to his "reading".
Mr Balogun leaned forward onto the counter, his face coming close to Ayo's. Ayo shifted back
"What do you want old man?" Ayo growled. He wasn't in the mood for Mr Balogun's weird shit tonight.
"That's no way to talk to your elders!" Mr Balogun snaps without any hint of anger in his voice. He sets a bag down on top of Ayo's magazine.
"Oya, let me pay for these."
"With real money this time."
"Sure, sure." Mr Balogun had a habit of paying for items that weren't money. He's paid with paper clips, string and needles, deer teeth and what Ayo had hoped was a fake human skull with intricate carvings. Ayo kept the skull in his room because he thought it was an interesting keepsake, and it sort of made his small room feel less empty, but every now and then he could hear what sounded like menacing whispers from the stool it sat on. He tries to ignore it. Tries to.
Ayo opens the golden bag Mr Balogun always uses for his shopping and pulls out the items. 2 onions, a yam tuber, a handful of small tomatoes and peppers, and all of the ice cream from the freezer aisle. Ayo has no clue how this small bag is always able to carry so much, but after a year of working here, he's stopped questioning the strange circumstances he finds himself in daily. He just accepts that the laws of logic and basic science are broken in the confines of these four walls.
Mr Balogun, thankfully, pays for the items with actual cash and whistles a tune as he leaves the store.
Upon further inspection, Ayo realizes that Mr Balogun paid with rupees. From the 1800s. Ayo does the math to convert the old cash into current money. It is absolutely worthless.
The owners were going to be pissed about this. Not the money, they never seemed to care that they were losing money, but because this was the third time this month Mr Balogun had finished the inventory of an item. Ayo has to restock the ice cream, something he wasn’t sure the store even had. He didn’t see it the last time he was locked in the freezer with an Ikaki spirit. Then again he was trying to avoid its shell in its dance of death at the time, so he may have not been paying close attention.
He enters the old storage room and walks into the deep freezer. A child is sitting on the floor, cross-legged. He has never seen this child in his entire life. She stared up at him with a dead look in her eye and an off-putting smile on her lips. She reminded him of the stories of Abiki children his grandmother told him about.
“You're gonna die soon."
He ignores the creepy girl with the familiar voice and lifts the ice cream box from its hiding spot. When he turns to the door the girl is standing in front of it.
“Could you please move?” He’s unfazed by this apparition’s tricks. He’s dealt with worse in his career.
The girl stares up at him. Now that he looks closer, she really was familiar. Then the girl says something that rocks his core.
She calls him by his name. His old name. No one has called him that since he left home 3 years ago, no demon, no person, no ghost, no nothing. He drops the box of ice creams in shock and it makes a mess as it does. He doesn't notice, still reeling from what he heard.
"H-how....how did you...why do..."
"It's sad really, thinking you could do what you did and hide." Then she laughs, hard and wicked, with a voice that shouldn't belong to a little girl.
He's still frozen in place, mind still reeling.
"You're gonna die soon. You deserve it for what you've done. To your mother, your father, your sisters" the apparition walked up to him "To me."
And then Ayo finally realized who she was and relaxed. He picks up what is salvageable from the ice cream mush and moves forward.
"Welp, guess the meds aren't working." He mumbles as he pushes back the manifestation of his anxieties from the front of the door. His doctor told him that his hallucinations were very... special. With no family history of any schizoid personality disorders, and only seeming to register medium anxiety on the mental health scale, Ayo should have had at worst a panic attack every other week. Instead his mind blots out random, and sometimes useful, memories and manifests his anxious thoughts in the form of people he used to know. A majority of the time it was his father, seeing as he was the source of most of Ayo’s anxieties. Once in a while his teachers in secondary school took the place, reminding him of his shortcomings as a teenager. This time it showed up as someone close to him who didn’t forgive him for leaving home. It was a version of his younger self he used to see when he looked in the mirror, wearing clothes his sisters made him wear as a game. He hated that view of himself. It made him feel like less of a man.
The hallucination seems to have left him alone after he left the storage room. Good. He wasn’t ready to deal with that part of his life ever again. He looks at the plastics for the ice cream. The expiry date was listed as 1995. Ayo shrugs and places them in the freezer. Hey, it was fresher than the batch that Mr Balogun bought out.
The doors open again, and this time Ayo couldn't be bothered to look up from his magazine this time. He doesn’t care what it is, even if it kills him. Secretly, he thinks about death a lot. How freeing it would be to not have to deal with the menuscha of his horrible life. He wouldn't have to work in a store that tried to kill him for wages that barely fed him. He wouldn't watch to see all his friends doing amazing things across the planet while he turned to rot. He wouldn't have to live with the burden that he squandered his life on decisions that were taboo to his upbringing. He could finally rest.
His train of thought is interrupted by the sound of items dropping in front of him. A pack of popcorn, a can of beer and a phone charger were plopped in his view. A woman with curly braids and dark skin stands in front of him. His co-worker, Jumoke Rashidi, stands before him, a bit too early for her shift.
“Hey, ‘Adiye’” She smirks as Ayo groans. Ayo hated that nickname, especially now that he’s learnt enough Yoruba to know what that really means.
“Aren’t you a bit too early to show your nasty face here?” He sticks his tongue out with a smile.
“Shut up and scan these for me.”
Maybe the one good thing about his new life was Jumoke. She is a warm ray of snark, hubris and bad jokes in a cold dark existence. She sometimes hangs out with Ayo and bears witness to the oddities of the store and even protects him. Every now and again they would go to the back of the store, share a blunt and talk about their dreams of leaving [REDACTED] for good. They’d do it together as soon as they make enough money and get a plan of action. She is the younger sister that Ayo wished replaced his own terrible ones. Something was off about her, however. She hasn’t come in for the last week. It’s odd that she’s even in today. She shouldn’t be here at all, but Ayo can’t remember why.
“Won’t you pay? I’ll tell the owners.” Ayo threatens. Jumoke shovels the popcorn in her mouth.
“Already talked to them. They know my situation. ‘Sides, it’s not like you don’t take shots of the store’s whiskey in the bathroom.”
“You have no proof.” He waves his finger at her as she spits the popcorn into the trash.
“Did you check the expiry date on this, it tastes like paper.”
“Wait, what situation?”
“You seriously don’t remember? Last weekend?”
Ayo doesn’t have a clue what she’s referring to. Then realization hits him like a concrete block.
“Wait, aren't you dead?!” Ayo stared at her as she cracked her neck. The memory of watching her die a week ago replays in Ayo’s mind like a broken record. Even if she were reanimated, there was no way she wouldn’t have scars or stitches or broken bones. Whoever, or whatever, that brought her back was very, very good at it.
“Ayo I didn’t realize your brain was that bad.” Jumoke knew that Ayo’s memory failed him a lot, case in point
“Oh, fuck off. I just thought you skipped work again.” He watches her as she downs the cheap brand beer in one go.
“It was your fucking fault I died!” She jabs her finger in his chest. She was only partially right.
“What happened after you died?”
She shrugs “It was like sleeping and waking up. Except I woke up a week later in a gutter, I lost my fucking wallet, the bank closed my account, and my family thinks I’m a damn ghost. So now I have no home and no money.” She offered
“Do you know who brought you back to life?”
“Like I said, oponu, I just woke up. I don’t know who did it or why.” She tosses the empty can over the counter and whoops when it thunks into the metal dustbin. Ayo gives her a thumbs up.
“So are you alive now?”
She looks up to the ceiling in thought for a moment.
“I have no idea. My lungs are full of fluid, my heart is missing-”
“Like you had one before.” Ayo mumbles with a smirk.
She smacks him on the shoulder with the back of her hand. Her hand then pops off her wrist, spraying blood on the counter as it does.
“Oh God, not again.” Ayo and Jumoke watch as the hand props itself on its fingers and slowly move towards her. She grabs it and pops it back into place while Ayo wipes the counter with a rag. Maybe not as good as I thought.
“So I think you count as ‘undead’”
“My flesh isn’t rotting and I don’t have a craving for anything bloody.”
“Jumoke, those are American zombies and everyone knows those aren’t real.” Ayo rolls his eyes. Stupid western horror, colonizing concepts from other cultures.
“Whatever, you geek.”
“What’s your plan now that you’re...y’know?” He gestures loosely at her.
“I think I might stay here for a while.” She picks up a small Ghana-Must-Go bag and hauls it over her shoulder.
“If you think I’d let you stay with me in that cramped excuse for a room-”
“As if anyone would want to be roommates with you.” She gags in mock disgust. “I don’t need to sleep anymore, but I’ll need a place to live till I move. And the streets are not comfortable.”
She moves into the storage room and makes a lot of noise. Ayo walks over to see what havoc she created in there. The two shelves of snack boxes have a raffia mat and a pillow between them.
“This is my room now.” She smiles, patting the pillow
"Wait, what do you mean by 'move'?"
"I'm gonna leave [REDACTED]. Everyone thinks I'm dead so I have nothing holding me back. I can finally go to Lagos and try to make a name for myself.”
“Oh.” His smile drops. “When are you leaving?”
“Next week on the 14th.”
“I guess that’s fine. Oh, if you see a dancing tortoise about my height waltzing around, please don’t take it’s dance challenge or look it in the eye. It’s just looking for a victim.”
Ayo slams the door and walks back to the counter. You can’t perform a death dance on something that’s already dead right? Ayo sure hopes so, for Jumoke’s sake. Jumoke seems capable of handling things by herself anyways.