A Birthday to Remember
It’s the eve of your birthday. You’d spent the afternoon with Joy at an eatery three blocks from your apartment. You’d just returned home and was undressing when you hear the doorbell ring. “Who’s that?” You ask. You listen for a reply but the silence that follows freezes your limbs, suspending the sleek gown mid-air, as a wave of cold chills ripple down your spine.
An uncanny sense of surprise hovers in the room while you muster enough courage to finish changing your dress. Early birthday surprises, you’re thinking when another ring of the bell interrupts your thoughts. “Who … is at the door?” You ask again, this time more patiently.
“Just a minute,” You add, setting aside the nightie you intended to change into and opting for a T-shirt and skirt. The weirdness of the silence that lingers makes you contemplate answering the door or not. Joy had offered to escort you home but you’d told her it wasn’t necessary. You say a quick prayer and come out of your room, approaching the door of the parlour with confidence.
About 5 paces to the steel door that opens to the street, three knocks rap on the door, stopping you in your tracks. “Jesus! Be a fence.” You mutter. Tip-toeing the remaining few steps to the door, You spy through the eyehole and the sight confounds you the more: a pencil-drawn smiley face on a plain white sheet of paper with a haggardly written ‘l…0 … , L’—the kind that makes you wonder if the writer ever passed by a school.
Feeling a little relaxed, you open the door carefully to meet a knee-tall rectangular box, wrapped with shinning papers lying at your door. Looking up and around, you find no familiar face in sight. Everyone seems to be minding their business except for a lad that’s cycling past who stops when he sees you staring at him. You look away from him, taking notice of the white paper hanging from a tiny thread tied to the porch.
“Who put this here?” You ask, half-amused, half-annoyed. The boy raises his hands and shakes his head with a doubtful I-have-no-idea look on his face. You bend to lift the box but become more surprised to discover that it’s lighter than you expected. This is strange, you think. Smiley face. Big box. Almost weightless big box. Wrapped, almost weightless big box!
Your mind races back to the most prankish of my friends who’s capable such—Gloria. Memories flood your mind like an opened tap. You remember the way she’d soaked your bed with water at a church camp meeting the previous year only to scare you into thinking that you’re still bed-wetting at your age.
After the room devotion on the morning of the first full day of that camp meeting, you’d lifted the mattress to stand it by the wall when you noticed the wet floor. Before you could cover it back, Bisola had seen it too and was watching you. You’d shaken your head in denial but it’s hard to prove since you’d slept on it alone.
Others had begun to stare too. ‘Confess! We won’t expose you,’ they seemed to be saying with their eyes. You’d felt your dress, but it’s as dry as theirs.
“You know you can tell us anything.” Funmi says.
You’d been short of words. What sort of mess’s this? You’d thought. You had turned to tell Gloria to at least explain to the sisters that there was no way you could have done it, but she’d already slipped off to the bathroom.
“We understand.” Ruth had said, others nodding in agreement, yet their faces diametrically opposing that conclusion.
Eventually, Gloria had walked in in the middle of the whole show. She’d explained to them that she’d kept a sachet of water to wet you with, but it had spilled while she stirred in her sleep. She’d brought a full bucket and drenched you with it, screaming, “Happy birthday!”
Could it be her sending an empty box as a birthday gift?
You pick up the almost weightless box and take it inside. What kind of mischief could lie within an empty box? What now? You stand there thinking of what to do. Should you call Gloria up? You should call her up.
“Uhm, did … did you, uhm… did you send me any box?”
“Is it a box of chocolates?”
“I doubt it has anything inside.”
“I didn’t send you any box, but if it has chocolates call me back.”
Gloria and chocolates! You mutter.
You disconnect the call and tear the wrapper open. You see a brown box, perforated on the sides. You smell something that is strangely familiar. You carefully open the box, “Whoop!” you scream. You almost faint at the sight of two big blue eyes of a black cat staring at you. What. Is. This?! You can’t remember ever giving felines a thought; a cat is probably the last thing you would expect for a birthday present.
You pick your smart phone to call Gloria back but before you could unlock the device, two unfamiliar faces walk through the door. You remember seeing them outside but passed them off as passers-by. “Co-operate with us and we won’t hurt you.” They say mildly, yet firmly, seizing your device.
You fly your hands in defenceless surrender. “What do you want? Take it, please, take it. Anything. Everything. Take it, but, please don’t hurt me. Anything you want… please—” You beg, stepping back from the box.
“We want you but we won’t hurt you. Just fake a smile and come with us.” One of them says, lifting his coat for you to see the revolver strapped to his belt.
You want to scream but you find yourself covering your mouth with your own hands; having no other choice, you obey. You’re visibly shaking as you follow one, while the other comes behind you. You hear your heart beating like a keyboard metronome on allegro.
You’re led into a Toyota Highlander with tinted windows and whisked away immediately the last door closed. With two men in the front and another two on each side of you, you already know better than to scream or attempt anything fishy.
The man on your right side brings out a black scarf and orders you to blindfold yourself. “Do it well, or I’ll do it myself,” he threatens. You do as they ask, now depending only on your ears to watch the rest of the evening unfold.
You start begging. They ask if you’d keep quiet or have them tape your mouth. You choose the later, and resort to prayer. You pray silently for divine protection. You wish you could text Gloria to ask for her prayers but you remember your phone has been seized.
You remember the cat. Poor thing! Poor little thing! You’re surprised at how, though you don’t want it, yet you care about it. But, who could have sent you a cat as a birthday present? You wonder? Gloria had said she didn’t send any box. Who else could have? Mary? Or, could it be Victor? Or, Lanre? Whoever it was, what does it matter now? Maybe cats are not only superstitiously diabolical, maybe they’re actually demonic. You cringe at the thought of hosting a demon in your house.
By the time the car screeched to a stop, you’d lost all sense of time. You can’t tell how long or how far they’d driven to reach that place, but you could sense the seamless transition from the sunless evening to a dark night from the chirping of the crickets that synchronized with your heartbeat.
Doors open and you’re led into a house. Indistinct conversations here and there drip to your ears but you can’t make sense of any of them. A metal gate roll open, quaking the ground under your feet, and you’re made to sit in a chair. You hear the door roll back and lock after them as they leave the room, or house. Did they forget to tie your hands or they did it on purpose? You untie the blindfold and open your eyes into a completely dark room. You wish—again—that you could at least text a prayer point to Gloria and tell her to pray for your deliverance. You’ve heard about people who experience miraculous deliverance from abductors, so you decide to pray.
“Psalm 23. The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want… Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort—”
At the mention of comfort, you doze off. You wake. You pray. You run the cycle a number of times until you start to feel the heat of the morning sun on your forehead. First, you squint, then you open your eyes to see the sun rays wafting through a small window at about 10 feet from the ground. You stand up and attempt to open the gate. Locked. You sink back into the chair and continue your prayers, trusting God for a miracle.
Your stomach growls in protest as hunger begins to bite. “This kind does not go out but by prayer and fasting,” you remind yourself. You begin another session of prayers, bombarding heaven with your cries. While praying, you fall asleep and dream about that black cat eating a piece of your birthday cake. You wake up terrified. You doze off again and see the cat softly running its paws through you hair. You feel loved. You wake up blushing.
Footsteps begin to approach. The knob on the gate moves. You wait. Nothing. You stand to your feet. The gate rolls ajar and the same men you’d seen the previous day walk in. Without saying a word, they gesture towards the blindfold on the floor and you pick it up, blindfolding yourself with it.
You’re led back to the car as another drive begins. You wonder where you’re headed this time. You wonder who they’re. Kidnappers? Rapists? Ritual killers? Hired killers? You shake off the last thought. You can’t think of anyone who would want you dead enough to hire people to do it. You’re liked by everyone, you think, and even those who may not like you for whatever reason have never had the courage to tell you to your face.
“Jesus loves you.” You say.
“Tell Him we love Him too.” One of them replies.
Sarcasm? You want to say another word but decide otherwise when you perceive your own breadth. You continue to pray in your heart. They drive for forever, the men remaining as quiet as they were during the first trip. Maybe quieter.
“You may remove the blindfold if you promise not to ask any questions.”
“I promise.” Quickly, you remove it, dying to know where you are. You identify a mall two streets from your house. You want to ask a question, then you remember your promise. It’s better to be dumbfounded than blindfolded, you think.
The car stops in front of your house. You expect them to drop you off and speed away. But, no. Instead, they accompany you to the door and press the bell.
“Hold on!” Someone answers from inside.
You look puzzled but you keep quiet. The worst is past, you say to yourself.
The door opens and you see Gloria welcoming you with a gorgeous smile.
“Thank you Gaius,” she says to one of the men. “And you too, Frank,” she pats the other on his back.
“You know them?” You ask.
“Just come inside.” She replies, leading you to the decorated parlour. You see other friend there: Jane, Vic., Samuel, Femi, Comfort, Niyi, Bola, Funke, Charles… On sighting you, Funmi sprays a can of confetti on you. “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” They all chorus.
You struggle a ‘Thank you’ with a forced smile as you drag Gloria into your room while your uninvited guests continue their wining and dining. You stagger back at the sight of the cat lying on your bed.
“What is going on here?” You demand. “Tell me, Gloria! I said what is going on here?”
She feigns ignorance. “Your birthday party, I guess. What does it look like to you?”
“That’s not what I’m talking about and you know it… Who’re those men?”
“Gaius is my cousin, and Frank is his colleague at work. They’re in The Force.”
“So, you had me arrested? For what?” You are losing your patience.
“I’m sorry, baby girl. Is that what they told you?” She draws you into her embrace, “They told you they were arresting you? Oh dear! I didn’t send them that. I just asked them to help me take you to a safe place while I prepare this place for today’s surprise.”
“Arrghh! Gloria!” You close your eyes and shake your head in disbelief. You collapse on the bed and jump off almost immediately when you remember the cat was lying there.
Gloria laughs at you. “How did your fasting and prayer go by the way?”
“Which?” You ask?
“Last week when you came visiting, I asked you how you plan to spend your birthday, and you said, ‘In fasting and prayer.’”
“Is that why you’ve had me starved since yesterday?”
“I wouldn’t call it starving if you were fasting really.” She said, wearing a smug smile. “Plus, I needed to make sure you didn’t yield to any temptation not to do as you said.”
“You never cease to amaze me!” You hiss, not knowing how best to react.
“Thank you for the compliment.” She replies, bringing her hand to pat your face.
You push her hand away. “It’s not a compliment!” You yell at her. “And, what about the cat?”
“You mean, Molly? He’s mine. I just adopted him. I told Gaius to drop him here when taking you away.”
You remember your dreams so you want the cat, but then, you don’t want it again. “Where did they take me?”
“They’re force men, my dear. They could have taken you anywhere.”
“Oh my! I can’t believe I slept in a cell on my birthday.”
“Really? Tell me about it.” She says playfully.
“Get away from me.” You push her away, laughing at yourself.
She joins in the laughter. “Freshen up and join us outside to cut the cake, will you?”
“I will, but you know I could sue you for abducting me.”
“Go ahead, baby girl. I’m not sure you’ll get a lawyer that can stand me in court, but feel free to search.”
“I know what I’ll do.” You think aloud. “There’s no need suing you. Since this is becoming an annual thing, I’ll just unfriend you before my next birthday.”
Giggling, she says, “Thanks for the heads-up, dear. That gives me about 11 months to plan my next prank.”