Bertha jerked upright from a dreamless sleep. Sweat coated her skin in a thin layer, causing her pajamas to stick to her skin. She immediately had a deep sense of foreboding, something somewhere wasn’t right. Her hand shot to her phone on the bedstand, music would certainly help to wash the feeling away, the tip of her finger hit the phone and it clattered onto the marble tiling of her room.
She sighed and started muttering the silent prayer all iPhone owners mutter when their phones drop from any height more than two inches. Slowly, she flipped the phone, a sigh of relief escaped her lips, only a small scratch on one of the edges of the phone and not the screen. Without even thinking about it, her fingers swiped and tapped until her ‘Florence and the Machine’ playlist started. If Florence couldn’t help with this sense of dread, nothing would.
Her day was empty, a visit to Yetunde’s house was the only thing scheduled. 2pm. She would have to bump up that visit to sometime in the morning, she couldn’t shake off her dread and Yetunde was such a cheerful person, it was said(and honestly believed) that she could have Lucifer fantasizing about flowers and love songs within five minutes of meeting her. She made the call quickly.
She had been waiting for a bus for 30 minutes and was quite frankly pissed. No bus, NONE had stopped at her busstop. She had started considering return home when one pulled up, one of those big danfos that looked like they were carrying another bus on their heads. No other option, she entered.
The bus was 15 minutes into its journey from Yaba to Maryland and it had been quiet throughout so the voice surprised her. For the first time in the journey, she looked at the person seated beside her and immediately regretted not doing so sooner. He was stunning. Just sitting beside him, she could tell he was much taller than she was, she just noticed that the arm that hers was pressed against was muscled and he had facial features of Greek gods. A negro Hercules. She liked.
The rest of the trip was inevitably wonderful. They hit it off and it didn’t take long for his nonchalant confidence beat down her defenses and had her giggling. They both got down at Maryland and he paid for her.
“No. No, why would you do that?” She asked, playfully.
“Why wouldn’t I?” He asked, matching her playfulness. “Hey, listen, I have an errand to run around here. What say you we meet at the Mall in exactly two hours?”
“Sure. Why not?” She replied, already thinking of how she would tell Yetunde. He had already gone across the road and was walking on the other side before she realised she hadn’t given him her name or her number.
Two hours did not come quickly enough and for all her charm, Yetunde couldn’t excite her as much as the prospect of meeting her mysterious stranger again. A little past the two hour timeline, Bertha found herself walking through the front doors with a smile on her face, she hadn’t still figured out how she would find him until she saw him. He was standing there, a few yards away from the door, just smiling. Standing and smiling. It was the stuff of teenage fantasies complete with the throngs of people that milled past like they did not notice him.
“Hey, you. You didn’t give me your number or your name” He said, smile not breaking even once.
“And I don’t plan to.” She coyly replied.”Let’s see how long it takes you before you beg for them. How long have you been standing here? “
“30 minutes, give or take. Had to be here early, in case you came before the two hours were up”
She nodded. This was extraordinary. Her foreboding reared its head for a brief moment before she squashed it. She was determined nothing would ruin this.
They had spent two hours together and it had been perfect. He had been the perfect synergy of gentlemanly appropriateness and playful lewdness. He had made her laugh so hard that people had looked at her as if she were mad. Her caution had flown with the wind.
Soon though, he led her into a restaurant. They got their food and sat down to eat and continue their many random discussions. Then in the middle of a sentence he stopped and then his face went dark for a moment. Before she could ask what was wrong, a smile swept across his face like nothing had happened.
“Let me ask you something weird” he said.
“Have you ever wondered how those people that they say ‘madness is pursuing them from their village’ feel?”
She chuckled. ” That IS a weird question. No I haven’t. I don’t think anyone has. Why are you asking?”
Her foreboding rose. She quashed it.
“True. The best questions often go unasked. As for why I’m asking, I want to give you a show, I think I can give you a pretty good approximation” He said with some flourish, mischief tilted his lips at the edges.
She quashed it.
“Okay…how would you do that?” She asked, finding herself genuinely curious for some reason. She couldn’t not trust this man.
“I will ask a question.”
She quashed it before it even had the chance to rise.
“Again, ask away”
She closed her eyes and smiled. He wasn’t perfect, he had a tendency to ask strange questions, not enough reason to be worried. Not one bit.
Her eyes opened. He was gone. Suddenly, she noticed for the first time that everyone else in the restaurant was standing, watching her.
Then he was there, back where he had been before. “Before I ask you, I want you to doubt everything you can see.” Then he wasn’t. He didn’t vanish, he just wasn’t. Like he was never there in the first place, like he’d never even existed.
Then he was there.
Her foreboding came in waves. Tsunami after tsunami of unnoticed facts around her. Had the people in the restaurant always been standing around her like they did now, giving her a wide enough berth with their faces etched with excitement and worry like she were a rabid animal in the zoo?
“I want you to question your own sanity” he said, softly, almost inaudibly. Each word dripping with sardonic humor, taunting her.
“What are you doing to me?!” She screamed at him. She could now hear the murmurs going through the crowd, pity written on words she couldn’t hear but she could understand. They were looking at a mad woman.
Then he wasn’t. He was toying with her. She would not allow herself to be toyed with.
She waited for him to become again. To spring into existence again like he’d never gone and when he did, she seized her chance to grab at him before he could unexist. Her fingers went through his chest.
She started to cry.
Then he asked his question.
“And now you are in sufficient distress…” He paused as if for effect and cocked his head to one side “My question is: how real am I?”
She cried because she couldn’t answer.