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The Wrong Kind Of Hero


Dave Chukwuji

Ajegunle lies about nine kilometres to the west of Lagos Island. A sweltering slum of clustered houses and crowded rooms. To be born in Ajegunle is to be deprived, hunted, loved and hated. To grow up and live in Ajegunle is to become an animal; to survive is to hunt and be hunted, for Ajegunle is a jungle. But Ajegunle has a heart, a deeply wounded and bleeding heart, probably dying from the hemorrhage. Yet, Ajegunle is a simple place, a lovely place to live and pursue your dreams. And this explains why everyone had ever tasted the innocence of the fruits plucked the bosom of Ajegunle; the jungle city comes back for more…

Johnny parked the car by the side of the road and got out. It was a cold February evening and street was busy with a lot of people about. As Johnny walked from the car, heading for the building in front of which he had parked, people stopped to stare, not at the car, a sleek BMW convertible, but at Johnny. Johnny was handsome, no doubt, but he got the stares not because of his striking good looks but because of the almost mythical story that surround him. A couple of year's back, his entire family had been consumed in a freak fire accident. After the fire, Johnny had disappeared only to surface about ago, rich and successful. From the balcony Jimmy had seen him drive up and park. He left the balcony and met Johnny in front of the building.

"Hi, champ?" Johnny said.
"Great man, just great!" Jimmy replied. "Jasmine stayed back on campus to work on a term paper. I'm afraid, you may have to go the flat at Okoko if you want to see her."

"Come on, champ, can't come and see you again? I have already seen Jasmine; it's you I've come to see."
"That really cool", Jimmy was excited at the prospect of having Johnny all to himself.
"How about we go to Bush Café?"
"I'll say amen to that."

They left Uzor Street for Orodu Street, taking a back street that linked both streets. At the café, Johnny ordered a bottle of stout and pepper soup for himself and a bottle of malt drink and pepper soup for Jimmy. They enjoyed their drinks and talked, the pepper soup was being prepared. A girl in a pair of jeans and a blouse made from African prints placed two plates of steaming pepper soup in front of them. Johnny took his spoon and stirred his soup then fixed his on Jimmy.

"What's this talk about you wanting to be like me?" Johnny asked.

"Oh, that. It was just a conversation I had with Jasmine; there's nothing to it." Jimmy retorted nonchalantly, while paying all his attention to his pepper soup. Johnny gave him a cold, hard and for a moment their eyes met and locked. Jimmy could not understand why an innocent chat he had with Jasmine could have given rise to this.
"What do you know about me?" Johnny asked darkly.

"Come on, Johnny, I've known you all my life. You've been my role model since I was five, and have always wanted to like you. Come on, this conversation should not taking place; we're too…"
The cold look in Johnny's eyes dried up the words in Jimmy's mouth. Jimmy looked at, averted his eyes and returned to his pepper soup.

"Listen, champ, you don't want to be like me. You must stop thinking in this direction. It is important you finish your University education and lead a decent life stop seeing me the way you do; you don't know what I am. Okay?"

"I know you are. And that's enough for me. You're my friend; you've since I was a little boy. You're successful, self-made, assured, confident and don't answer to nobody… that's enough for me." Jimmy's voice was laced with emotion borne out of love for a man who had thought him how to play football from the age of five; love that the ten years between their ages did not diminish nor had the seven in which Johnny had disappeared.

"I won't have you thinking this way, and that's the end of it. It must stop! Drink up, let's go."

When Jimmy got home his father confronted him. "I see you are still going about with Jasmine's boyfriend… beware!" His father told him.

"Beware? What could you possibly mean by that Dad? Everybody in this neighbourhood knows Johnny and includes you. You knew his parents and his entire family before they all perished in that fire incident."

"The parents we knew. We even knew the young man when he was much younger but after the fire we stopped knowing him, and when he showed up with Jasmine a few months ago, rich and riding a flashy, he wasn't the same man we used to know."

"But, Papa…" Jimmy ventured but his father cut him short with a wave of the hand.
"Now, listen to me, young man. I am an old man; I see a lot of things while sitting right here, things you can never see, even if you were to climb the NET building. Stop seeing Johnny or what ever you call him. Besides, you should remain at Okoko; I gave you enough money last weekend, enough to last you long time. Before your admission into LASU, you were hardly ever home, now that you have a good reason to be away you can't stay away from home."

It was a balmy night; a crazy night. If they had known what the morning would bring, they would have carved that night in gold and worn around theirs forever. Johnny had picked them up at the campus, just after their last lecture. It was a weekend and had driven to Deals, restaurant on 23rd Avenue, FESTAC town. They had dinner and a few drinks. There was a new nightclub on Adeniran Ogunsanya, which Johnny wanted to show them; they drove to, by way of Orile Iganmu. To Jimmy, the night was out of this world, and went out to truly enjoy his baptism into the world of nightlife. Jasmine on her part was in high spirit, full of energy and drive. She danced with both of them, alternating between them, never tiring. At 6.45 in the morning they reluctantly tore themselves from the nightclub and breakfasted at Mr Bigg's.

The jungle reclaimed them at 8 am. It was a smooth drive from Marine Beach to the heart of Ajegunle, courtesy of the hundred and fifty million Naira road built by Mobil. At Uzor Street, Johnny parked the BMW in front of the house. They piled out and walked towards the entrance. Jasmine's family has a two-room apartment on the top most floor of the same building Jimmy's parents lived. At the entrance, Johnny and Jasmine stopped for words, while Jimmy, who was dead tired hurried on towards bed; he was determined to hit dreamland directly.
"I'm thinking of moving back to Ajegunle…"
"Damascus", Jasmine cut in, with a knowing smile on her face.

"Yeah, Damascus, that's what we call Ajegunle these days. I'm surprised Jimmy hasn't mentioned it to you."
"That's cool…Damascus…I like the sound of."
"We think it's spiritual."

"Anyway, I want to come back, settle down."
"Do think you that's wise. People normally leave Damascus when their dreams come true", Jasmine said softly.
"My life was a nightmare; I woke up the night we met. Now I want live the rest of my life, what's left of it, near you…and Jimmy." There were tears in Johnny's eyes when she looked into them.
"I love you Johnny," She said.
"I love you too, Jasmine, more than you can ever imagine."

When Jimmy got to the balcony he looked down to see Jasmine's head disappear under the balcony, into building. Out on the street, he saw Johnny walking towards his car; he made to turn away but strange happened. Johnny had come close to his car and just as he his hand in his pocket, reaching for his key, three men spilled from a car parked further down the street. Even before he saw the drawn guns, Jimmy knew them for what they were-plain clothes policemen. And he also knew they were out to get Johnny. As he watched the unfolding scene, transfixed, he saw Johnny, his friend, his role model transform into someone he did not know, a stranger, someone completely alien to the world he was used to. Then, knew everything. It was clear now. Johnny had seen the men, even before they emerged from the car. As they closed in on him, a gun, a .38 automatic jumped into his hand, like a magician conjuring a rabbit from a hat. The policemen open fire on him. Johnny was already moving; one moment he was standing, the next he was in the air, on the ground, rolling. The shots aimed at him went wide. Johnny regained his feet and shot two of the policemen. One took a bullet in the left eye, while the other had his chest perforated by two bullets. They both died before they hit the ground. Johnny swung his gun to cover the third man. Time seemed at fraction of a second to stand still, suspended. The last policeman had not moved all the while. With a deliberateness of a born hunter, he took his time and carefully took aim. He shot Johnny. His first bullet dislocated Johnny's shoulder. The second hit on the thigh; the impact of both bullets lifted from the ground and dropped him on the street he had grown up. The policeman walked up him, read him his rights and cuffed. Jimmy knew it was all over.

The day they tied Johnny to the stake Jimmy came to see him for the last time. Jasmine also came. Since the shoot out and subsequent arrest, she has been devastated, broken, burying herself in press reports on the trial of the man she loves. A man she only knows as Johnny, who the media referred as the phantom, a merciless killer, a hardened armed robber, killed at the slightest provocation; an evil genius, a brilliant robber, who never left a clue, hence the tag, the phantom. But like every criminal, he had made a mistake that led the police him.

It had seemed like a sick joke in the beginning but now he was at the stake and there nothing about that. Jimmy, holding Jasmine to himself, as she sobbed, found it hard to put together. It was hard to believe that Johnny and the phantom were one and the same. He had discussed the phantom phenomenon, when it first made headlines with his friends on campus. And he had start on the bench, in judgement of the phantom; he had judge and jury and condemned the phantom. Surely, there had been a mistake. Johnny had been his friend all his life. When he was nine Johnny had taken Navy ground to watch play in the Principal Cup. Back then, had been a magnificent footballer, the leading goal scorer in his school team. On that at Navy, Johnny had the two goals that help his school lift the trophy. His name had been celebrated in the papers and on the streets of Ajegunle. All had paint his in bright colours and it seemed just a matter of time before wore the national colours, a super eagle. Then, the fire burnt down his dreams, along with his family. With nobody left in the world, Johnny had disappeared, only to reappear months ago when he met Jasmine at a party. There must have been a mistake.

A priest walked to Johnny, prayed for him and asked God to have mercy on his soul. As the priest turned to walk away, Johnny stopped him and spoke briefly to him. The priest listened for a while, then walked to where Jimmy and Jasmine were standing, "He wants to talk with you, son", the priest said to Jimmy. Jimmy looked over the priest's shouldered at Johnny. Their eyes met and locked. Johnny smiled. Sill as handsome as ever, Jimmy thought, as he began to walk towards the stake.

"You still want to be like me, champ?" Johnny asked when Jimmy came to stand before him. Jimmy took a moment to answer; when he did, his voice was firm albeit heavy with emotion.

"Yes. You'll always be my hero." A moment, in which they just stared at each other, passed. "I've read the press reports on you… the phantom, and must say I believe them. Still, I know that the phantom is different from the Johnny I know; yet they are the same. I'll miss you." Another silence filled the empty spaces between them.

"I'll miss you too, that's if I'm allowed that luxury where I am going," Johnny said, his composure at variance with his predicament. "Look, tell Jasmine that I am sorry. For your sake and hers I never was want I am…take of her; the two of are the only treasure this grudging world bequeathed. Go now. Jimmy took a few steps away from his condemned friend, Johnny said to him, "You should know now, champ, that I am the wrong kind of hero for anybody, least of all you." Jimmy walked away, to join Jasmine; she collapsed in his arms, and pulled her close and held her tight. He looked at Johnny and was dazzled by bright on his face- it was his trademark smile, but just now it looked like something on the face of an angel. Jimmy closed his eyes; he wanted the picture of that in his heart forever; he wanted to remember his friend and hero the way he was that moment. He heard the moment of the soldiers as they took firing positions. He steeled himself as the voice of the sergeant cut through the air.


© 1997

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