I slid down so fast from the wall that I landed flat on my chest. The fall was painful, like a blow. I couldn’t stand up at once. So I lay still on the ground, allowing the pain run its course.
I was in the compound. My plan was still on track. I felt glad that everything seemed to be working just fine. The next step was to tiptoe to the shed. Unlocking it wouldn’t be much of a problem; I had my penknife on me. I crawled to the back of the shed to see if there was a window: it was boarded up with planks. It would take me two hours or so to take out the planks with my penknife and a stone. I didn’t have that much time. I slipped back to the door, hoping the girl had not been spirited away on foot while I was waiting for nightfall.
‘I’ve come to get you out,’ I whispered through the keyhole. ‘Just be quiet. You hear?’
I didn’t hear any response. She must be asleep. As I repeated those words, I heard some shuffling. I laid my head against the door. I nearly jumped when someone rapped on it.
‘Get us out of here,’ cried a girl.
That must be her. But she had mentioned us. ‘Is there any other person with you?’ I asked, hoping she would say no.
‘Yes,’ she replied.
Yes? I froze up a second. How was I going to save two persons?
‘We are five in here.’
My legs would have given way if I hadn’t managed to control myself just in time. This was far more than what I’d expected. I didn’t have any problems with saving one person, but five?! That was way past my limit. ‘Why didn’t you all scream?’ I asked.
‘We’ve been screaming,’ said the girl. ‘Nobody hears it. This place is more of a no-man’s-land. Even so, any scream and the giant gatekeeper will slap you so hard your teeth will rattle.’
How was I going to free five children? I should have stayed back, minded my own business.
‘I want to see my mummy,’ a boy sobbed.
‘Shut up,’ I said. I didn’t want him to wake up the gatekeeper lest we all get caught.
I began to shake the door knob. But it was firm. I put my penknife in the keyhole, in the way I had seen a spy do in a movie. In the same way I’d done a couple of times when I went to the food store. I didn’t hear the usual click as I twisted it around the keyhole. I pushed the door. The lock still did not give. I twisted the penknife some more; it was totally stuck.
I gripped it with both hands, wedging my feet against the door. I pulled and pulled. I began panting. The door had failed to open. If the square clip could unlock the door to the food store, then the penknife would do just fine. But this was not the case. It was proving much harder than I thought. Tired out, I bent down to catch my breath.
‘Open the door.’
‘Don’t leave us.’
The children were beside themselves now. Someone banged at the door from inside.
‘I’m trying...’ I gritted my teeth, frustrated. ‘Give me a little more time.’
‘You think you have the whole night?’ said the girl.
I wanted to reply. But the words got caught in my throat as I saw the glow of a lantern, the long shape of the gatekeeper in a window of the main building. I tried to pull my penknife out of the keyhole. I couldn’t. So I left it there, stuck.
‘Get away from the door,’ I whispered. I dived to the ground just when the gatekeeper held up the lantern. My heart shrank as I stretched out. I hoped he wouldn’t see me once he swept the light around. I wished I had hidden behind the drum standing some feet from the shed. The gatekeeper stood still at the window, as if too sleepy to even care. The room was dark again. He must have crawled back to bed. I reached for my penknife once more. ‘You almost got me in trouble,’ I said. ‘I can’t help anyone, if you all don’t shut up.’
‘How long will it take?’ the girl asked. She sounded rude; I said nothing. If I should try to speak back to her, I might end up not helping anyone.
I went on picking the lock. After several attempts, the penknife came loose. I yelped in excitement. This time I pushed the penknife into the keyhole, more carefully than ever. I was turning it this way and that, when I heard a small click. Still, I went on turning it until I heard another click.
My breaths came out in quick puffs as I waited for the lock to give. Finally, the door squeaked open. The children crowded around, pushing me away. I staggered, but I didn’t fall. I felt somehow giddy and fancied myself floating on the cool night breeze.
‘Come back here,’ I called as a pig started to squeal.
I almost seized up when a ray of light came on again. The gatekeeper had appeared in the window once more. The boys were already at the gate. Grabbing the girl by the wrist, I pulled her towards the drum. I turned as I heard some noises. ‘Why are they moving like that?’ I asked, wondering why the boys were hopping around the gate.
‘Their legs are tied,’ the girl said.
I quickly ran to the boys as they began to shake the gate.
‘Stop, stop it,’ I said in a rush. ‘Let me get that off your feet.’ I squatted and cut the cloths at their ankles. ‘There.’ I pointed to the gap under the gate. ‘Down there, lie flat, squeeze your body through it,’ I commanded as if I were their leader.
The girl screamed. My eardrums tingled.
The gatekeeper was stamping over to her, his lantern swung back and forth. He looked like a giant, though lean. Terror gripped me. Blood pumped hard in my head. Then he swayed around in an abrupt yet drunken way and went after the boys. I ran back to the girl to cut her loose too, before the giant could turn.
‘Let’s roll the drum!’ I said.
‘Why?’ asked the girl.
‘You talk too much! We roll it to the wall-’, I broke off as I heard someone scream.
The gatekeeper had grabbed a boy by the leg. But the other boys had made it through the gap. I panicked. But, with the timely help of the girl, I rested the empty drum against the wall. She shot me a startled look when I told her to get on it. ‘I can’t climb,’ she cried. ‘I don’t climb.’
‘Go on top, now!’ I shouted, leaning my back against the drum.
She held me by the shoulders and, gingerly, lifted herself onto the drum. ‘What do I do now?’ She appeared shaky.
‘Hey monkey, where you think say you dey go?’ asked a roaring voice. ‘Come down, yeye girl!’
I started as the gatekeeper came at me. He was dragging the boy after him along the ground. Then the girl leapt so high I feared she would slam her jaw into the wall. But her hands caught the edge neatly. She screamed out, even before she could pull herself onto the wall. I turned to see what had made her scream. And the gatekeeper sent me flying backwards with a heavy blow to the shoulder. I landed on my back.
The pain was so severe that it knocked me out for a minute. When I opened my eyes, the sky glared down at me. I tried to sit up, but was shaken by a roar.
‘Who be you? Wetin you dey fin’ for here?’
I couldn’t place the voice. I could only make out a shadow over me. It gave off a strong sweetish odour as it asked me more questions than my mind could hold. I blinked, thinking I had begun to see double.
‘Who send you?’ asked the roaring voice.
I shut my eyes as a lantern came close enough to burn my face. Then I figured out who the shadow was. The gatekeeper had caught me. I reached out a hand to feel for my penknife so I could scare him off with it. But my heart broke. It was nowhere close by. I had saved all the other children, yet I did not save myself.
The Runaway Hero written by Uche Peter Umez was published by Jalaa Writers' Collective, April 2011