In the Land in Between

Land 3Adimabua — now I am two — froze.

The man and woman, cowering on the ground in the fire’s light, were his father and mother. He knew they couldn’t be, his parents were dead, he was forced to watch their execution, so he aimed the rifle at these ghosts, hoping to kill any discernable expression of compassion on his face. The brief pause was enough. He became self-conscious under the intense eyes of his comrades. He tried to concentrate, to get the shot right, but he started to shake.

“Quit acting like a pussy in front of Allah. You’re wasting time. And fuel,” the commander said.

A truck idled on the other side of the large fire in the middle of the village, next to a

crowd of prisoners. Adimabua exhaled as he took his soft brown eyes off the man and woman and looked over at the truck. He wasn’t the safest driver. His comrades chastised him for being reckless, for taking sharp turns too quickly and waiting for the last second to stop, which sent passengers into the windshield like lost birds against a window. Still, he was the fastest driver and he performed his role with pride. Although only 13, he was bigger than the other teenagers in his band of soldiers. He had a large, square head from which he’d flash a wide smile, and his long, lean limbs reached the pedals, steering wheel and shifter with ease.

His navigator Ejimmadu — I am with human being — stood at his side. They both wore military fatigues. Ejimmadu was the same age as Adimabua, but his oversized fatigues made him look younger. Shy with a thin face and long nose, he resembled a cautious turtle. Together the boys carried soldiers, captives and weapons through Nigeria’s dense woodlands and across its dry, flat savanna. When not on a mission, they snuck off on joyrides. The truck had a long antenna on the roof, and on clear nights it picked up signals from a radio station in the capital Abuja that played old American hip-hop. On dirt roads kissing the Sahara’s doorstep, with thoughts of holy war far from their minds, the boys cruised with windows down, bobbing their heads to the beats of Slick Rick and De La Soul as the truck bounced over small hills. Sometimes they talked about driving south until the road ended, to throw rocks into the ocean. Neither had seen the sea. They never spoke of these things unless alone, but even then they were filled with fear that Allah would betray their thoughts and they’d be hunted down.

On this cloudy night they picked up the newly enlisted. Older boys and younger men were pulled from their homes and forced into the back of the truck. They drove from one burning village to the next. From afar, the villages were glowing orbs like stars that fell to Earth to die, a little closer, tall walls of fire surrounded by dark silhouettes dancing with the pandemonium of a festival, closer, stacks of bodies and the fog of their stench, and the mutilated ones running and screaming, soon to join them. In between, the headlights shined on a black curtain.

On this night Adimabua and Ejimmadu had to lighten the load. Those who survived the raids condemned by the merciless dimensions of an old Toyota. Though transporters, the boys were expected to kill. Everyone was required to kill heathens, and everyone was a heathen unless told otherwise. Still, killing, even in the name of Allah, was an acquired taste.

“Do you need a lesson boy? Ha, ha,” the commander said. He was a muscular man with a thick beard and the mad excitement of a hyena.

“No, I can do it,” Adimabua said, as he groped the gun with wet palms.

The air was hot and still. For a moment, everyone seemed as if in a state of suspended animation, except for the pores releasing droplets of sweat down their bodies. The orange light reflected off their dark skin. Adimabua still could not erase the ghostly faces of his parents. Was it the heat, or their spirits haunting him? He wiped his forehead with the back of a hand.

“Please, allow me to show how it’s done. Ha, ha,” the commander crackled. He walked over to the crowd of prisoners. The faces of those at the front were visible, tears falling and mouths quivering. The shadowed heads behind, probably the same. The commander stared at Adimabua as he turned his AK-47 on them and fired. Some dropped to the ground. Some screamed. Some tried to run but were beaten back by soldiers.

“So, who are you? A soldier of Allah or just a soon to be silly dead boy? Ha, ha,” said the commander. He pointed the gun at Adimabua. “You too, Ejimmadu, take the other.”

Ejimmadu looked down at the man and woman on the ground, moaning as they held each other. He raised his eyebrows and clenched his jaw, overcome with trepidation. Maybe he saw his parents too, or he struggled with the deeper, internal fight. The road left little time for teachings, and the commanders were concerned about Adimabua and Ejimmadu. You won’t be close enough to Allah to ward off the enemy’s bullets while yours hit their marks every time, they said. Only the unfaithful cry. Weakness is Satan. Compassion, sin. Adimabua and Ejimmadu tried to please their commanders, to please their god, but their spirit was at times stubborn. For that, they were punished.

The boys lifted their guns. One aimed at the man. One aimed at the woman.

“Say a prayer,” the commander said.

They stumbled over scripture. Then Adimabua pulled the trigger as he closed his eyes. He listened to the man’s back hit the ground, followed by the woman’s screams. Now they were one.

It was Ejimmadu’s turn.

“Run!” a man yelled as he broke through the trees. “The enemy comes.”

A rumble in the distance announced an approaching army. They all scattered, disappearing into the trees, some with wailing captives.

“Go! Save the truck. Ha, ha,” the commander said.

The boys knew they were bait for the helicopters. But, they would not have to kill tonight. Other villagers would not see the boys. They got to escape, and so did they. The boys hurried to the truck. Adimabua peered over the roof and gave a quick wave good bye. Then he and Ejimmadu got in and raced out of the village in silence. With Adimabua’s knowledge of the land and his heavy right foot on the gas, they were gone before the helicopters arrived.

Far away, the night was clear and the landscape visible under the moon’s glow. On one side, the road was flanked in the distance by thick trees and sandy rock on the other side. The stars were bright above. Adimabua killed the headlights and eased the truck to a crawl. Ejimmadu lay back in his seat, staring out the window at the wide sky. Adimabua took his eyes from the road and glanced, through a film of tears, at the gleaming universe staring back. After a while Adimabua switched on the radio and a pulsating beat filled the truck’s cabin. The music drummed loudly over the engine as the boys looked ahead and kept driving.

JACOB SCHROEDER is a marketing executive and writer living in metro Detroit. His writing has appeared in FLASH: The International Short-Short Story magazine, 101 Words,  Ponder Magazine, and the Detroit News. You can find most of his work at www.jsschroeder.wordpress.com and follow him on Twitter @j_s_schroeder.