Ashes…A walk in the shadows of death

“It’s hard but you move one…’
  -Unknown

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Abby is sweating. She is almost out of breath. She is now gasping for air. She turns in her bed. She is falling through an abyss. She struggles to wake up from the dream but some force is holding her back. This feeling of helplessness is making her heart race. She closes her eyes in the dream and braces herself for impact.

                                          * * *
Abby is trying to open her eyes. She is sore all over. ‘Oh Lord, I hope you can hear me,’ she mutters under her breath. She tries to call out to her mother but she finds it hard to move her lips.

After a little while she manages to open her eyes just slightly. She tries to make out where she is. The small room she currently is in is unfamiliar to her.

The smell of smoke mixed with burnt flesh lingers. It is rife and she can’t bring herself to smell anything else. What has happened to me? Is it that bad? She can’t bring herself to concentrate on recalling the recent events of that afternoon. There is a lot going on through her mind. Did they make it out alive?

‘You will be okay little girl,’ a voice whispers close to her ears. They are now touching her all over. This banging headache is preventing her from opening her eyes to see where the voice is coming from.

‘She will have to be moved to a real hospital. Her situation is too dire for us to deal with,’ comes another voice from a distance.

Fear grips Abby. That second voice sends chills down her spine. She tries to sit up. The pain that courses through her entire body is unbearable. She gives up. A real hospital? What is happening to me?

That was sixteen years ago.

                                              * * *
It was the New Year. Not just any New Year. It was the turn of the century. A new millennium they called it. Abby’s childish mind didn’t grasp the fuss over this new era. All she cared about was the festivities of the season that were almost coming to a close. New hopes. New beginnings. New dreams. The adults went on and on.

The first week of the year had just come to a close. Soon she would be back to school. She would finally get to meet her friends. They would share their experiences during the holiday. Even better they would finally get back to playing their favorite break time games.

                                                *
‘Abby follow your aunt back home,’ Christine said.

She hesitated. It was on a Saturday afternoon. She was playing on the steps outside the salon. Abby was in no mood to go back home. Her mother was not yet back from running an errand. She preferred waiting for her to get back. Besides, she felt uncomfortable in the presence of her aunt.

‘Let’s get going,’ Mary her aunt called out to her from across the street.

She paused for a moment. Shrugging her shoulders she got up and ran after the aunt and her cousin Martha who was in tow. Their neighborhood in Dandora was unusually deserted. (People still in denial about the end of the festive season. Bosses must be getting tired of excuses being given for delays returning to work).

They got home. The aunt went straight to the bedroom. Her cousin ran to some other part of the house. Abby was eager to catch up with the programs going on on the TV. She went to fidget with the socket trying to make the connection. If only you could take back some moments in your life.

Is hell really a place? Is it full of an eternal burning fire? Do the lost souls those condemned from heaven go to burn there? There was this flash of light followed by an explosion so loud Abby thought she had gone deaf. The whole house was engulfed in flames.

The initial blast had knocked her to the ground. There was fire in all the directions she looked. She tried to get up and run outside but this force was holding her back. She struggled but to no avail. The heat was becoming unbearable. Talk of hell on earth.

As she lies there on the floor all her energy spent trying to escape her clothes light up in flames. In a panic she passes out.

That was sixteen years ago.

                                              * * *
‘Tomorrow you are finally being discharged. You get to come home finally,’ Abby’s mother told her with a smile plastered all over her face.

‘Really, but I…,’ Abby responded stopping midway getting lost in her thoughts.

Is there anything to go back to? I already have a new family here? Will it be hard starting from scratch? Conflicting thoughts for such a young mind.

Six months had elapsed since she had been rushed to the Accident and Emergency wing of the Kenyatta National Hospital. She had been in that burning house for close to two hours. After getting some first aid from a dispensary in their area she was brought to the hospital. She was more than lucky to be alive. Miracles really do happen.

If you stay at a place too long you are bound to get attached. She had come to grow fond of the hospital. The smells and dull colors of the place had become her new normal.

For three months she was bedridden. She had sustained burns all over her body. Being in a burning house that long you are not even left with a strand of hair on your body. They were agonizing months. Her mother was always there taking care of her.

After the three months she still had a tough time using her feet and she had to use a wheelchair to move around. That proved to be a problem as they had to share it with John, another fire victim of about her age. They always wanted to use it at the same time and it always turned out to a fight between them. At first there was no love lost. Later they became friends. Talk of diplomacy.

When she finally got around to use her feet she did best what a five year old would do. Be mischievous. She explored the place. She got to know the doctors and nurses. She would see the nurse on duty and know that that would be a bad day.

She had friends in almost every ward. Not the maternity ward, the kids ward, even the HIV ward. She even made a discovery. The emergency buttons all over the hospital didn’t work. Heck, she even got on the canteen’s credit list. Talk of being a regular.

It was hard leaving. Unbelievable even. A part of her had gotten so used to the hospital she wanted to remain there. Even among rubble sometimes gold has been found. She had found a silver lining in a dark cloud. It was time to go back to face the world.

The nurse on duty that day helped her pack. On that walk from the hospital she was torn. Not sure whether to be happy that she was going home or sad for leaving behind what she had come to regard as sort of a family. Bitter mixed with sweet.

Walking through that door to their new home was daunting. She was reluctant. All her olfactory functions were directed towards checking if there was a gas leak. It was a situation of once bitten.

Everything in the house was new. Her aunt and cousin had managed to escape and survived the fire. There was nothing else that had been saved from that fire. They were literally starting their lives from scratch. Every belonging of theirs had been razed to the ground reduced to ashes. There was fanfare at the new house. What are the celebrating? Is it the opening of the new house? Or is it the fact that it happens to be my birthday month? In any case what is the fuss about? Abby wondered through it all.

She had lost her most prized possession.

That was fifteen years and six months ago.

                                             * * *
She had heard a lot about him. She never knew him personally but deep down she felt as if they had been friends all her life.

Abby only had one picture left of her father. She cherished it. It was a black and white one. It was taken way back in the ’90s. In it he had this short afro and those tight trousers the men wore that suddenly expanded out at the ankles. The man had class during his time.

She always smiled whenever she took out that picture and stared at it.

‘Dad,’ she said.

Would he have liked me calling him that? Do I say it right? How does it sound when I say it? How would he have responded every time I called him that? Would I have been his favorite? Would he consider me his princess?

Sadly, there was no one to answer her questions. He had passed away when she was only three months old. Later she was told he  went through suffered a bout of sickness and succumbed. All she was left with were her dreams and that picture. Her most prized possession.

That was seventeen years ago.

                                              * * *
Abby jolts awake from the nightmare. She is drenched in sweat. Her heart is pounding. She grips her sheets. She heaves trying her best to slow her heart. The giddy feeling is still there.

She does not move. She stares into the dark at the ceiling. Ever since that afternoon the nightmares started. They were less frequent now than before. She hated them.

The memories came flooding back. Her eyes filled. She let the tears fall freely till she could feel them reach her ears. They were not tears of joy. She was glad to have lived another day to tell the story. However, she was sad and angry to have lost her most prized possession that fateful day.

Her heart knotted in pain just thinking about it. The only picture she had of her father was lost that day. Burnt to ashes. Now all she had were the dreams and even those were getting hazy with time.

Would he be proud of the woman I have turned out to be? Would I be his delight? Would he approve of the choices I have made in my life? Would he be proud of my achievements so far? The list of unanswered questions only keeps getting longer.

‘Should I also have been turned to ashes that day?’ Abby cries out to anyone listening to her at that ungodly hour.

This is the present.

Teiya Oloilole

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