Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki is a disabled, African speculative fiction writer and editor from Nigeria who studied Law in the University of Lagos and the Nigerian Law School, Lagos campus. He won the 2019 Nommo award for best short story by an African, the 2020 Horror Writers Association Diversity Grant, a 2020 Otherwise award and a 2021 British Fantasy award. He has been a finalist for the Nebula, Locus, BSFA, Sturgeon, This Is Horror and Nommo awards. His works have appeared, or forthcoming, in Omenana Magazine, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, Strange Horizons, Tordotcom, NBC, Asimov’s and more.
This story is dedicated to Voke Omawunmi Stephen, Emeka Walter Dinjos, and all those struggling with cancer and other similar ailments. Especially to beautiful young Nigerians who had to, and are still, labouring under the yoke of disability and various health maladies in a broken system with poor or no healthcare. A system that’s failed thoroughly and forced people into a death match in the hopeless arena of life, leaving them to struggle viciously and alone, for the very air in their lungs. And, lastly, this piece is dedicated to all those living where there is no freedom. For without inner freedom, there can be no life.
“Where there is no inner freedom, there is no life.”
My sweat ran in rivulets, caught between my skin and the Lycra body suit. It pooled between my shoulder blades, and down my spine and chest, as I regarded my enemy with detached exhaustion. Though my vision was hazy, my focus was sharp. My intention: to do murder, even if a murder sanctioned and abetted by the same system that was slowly killing us all.
The man in front of me paced, fatigue showing plainly in his bearing. My body was depleted of the energy needed to carry it, and my breathing came in short, gulping gasps as I inhaled the bittersweet air. Bitter because it reeked of my own possible—no, likely—death, and sweet because of its purpose: winning a life for another, one far more deserving of it than I. I breathed in that sweetness as if it was a promise, a sustenance of a selfish love which, to me, was everything.
I knew my opponent was not my enemy, although he might be the instrument of my death, or I the instrument of his. The one I truly needed to defeat, our collective enemy, was unflagging: the society that broke us and engineered our existence as an inexorable journey toward death. Quick or slow, the system forced us into a profound lifelessness just so we could breathe one more day, then then yet another.
I was at the arena for the second time, of my own accord, but in a trap by the society to which I had been born.
My opponent shuffled forward, all the humor bleached out of the desperate grin he wore plastered on his frozen features. A snarl spread across my own face and I rushed at him, to take life if I could, that I may cherish and gift it to another.
A small part of me whimpered and briefly wondered at the monster I had become.
A few months earlier
The chattering in the hall faded as the speaker mounted the podium. Four thousand of us fell silent as he removed his O2 mask and began our induction into the Academy of Laws. The Head of the Department (HoD) of Property Law proceeded to tell us why we were here.
I shook my head ruefully. In the Nigeria of 2030, people still insisted on telling others their purpose, as if they thought we did not know or could not decide for ourselves. Cursed was the one with their own will and individuality, and woe unto them if they aspired to more than the O2 credits needed to keep them breathing.
What was our daily reality? You had to pay to breathe. Since the global warming crisis had affected phytoplankton and hampered the production of breathable air, our lives were our own to maintain at the requisite cost.
Plodding along, the HoD explained to us that we were amongst the chosen few privileged to earn the Bachelor of Laws degree. Having studied for five years to obtain a Bachelor of Laws (LL.B) degree, and having passed a very difficult entrance exam to be admitted to the Academy of Laws, one wondered where the “privilege” came from. Here we had to survive a rigorous, nearly militaristic, regimen of study and indoctrination and only then would we be allowed to take the almighty Bar exam.
I couldn’t help thinking that if I had wanted to show off superhuman stamina, I would have joined the army. Then I reminded myself that I wasn’t here by choice. It was the Bar that would usher me into my position in the corrupt system where I could earn the kind of O2 allowances that would quash my CO2s. It would be a herculean journey, not helped by these pompous men making it seem like a grand privilege.
The HoD’s talk prompted several students, naïve in my opinion, to ask about our rights. He informed them, almost scathingly, that they had no rights.
I inwardly shrugged. I would sort it out the way I sorted everything. Succeeding was all that was required. It didn’t matter how.
The HoD introduced a second lecturer, a professor of the Commercial Law department. Without removing his mask—which he didn’t need here where O2 generators regulated the air—he outlined the curriculum. A program that should ordinarily take three years was crammed into eight intensive months, giving room for periodic admission of new students. The more students were admitted, the greater the fortune of O2 units the school made. He concluded with a reiteration of our privilege as law students. I shook my head and, slipping on my O2 mask, left the hall.
Outside, I saw that Ovoke had taken a break from the rhetoric too. She smirked when she saw me and came over to give me a hug. She felt the way she looked: delicate, as if she would crumble if I squeezed her too tightly. What was it about her fragile look that all the boys found irresistible? I held her at arm’s length to inspect her, as if trying to find her appeal.
She smiled at the confused look on my face, raising an eyebrow.
I never missed an opportunity to tease her and I couldn’t resist it now. “I would say I missed you, but I don’t want to lie.”
She laughed. “And yet you hold me like you care.”
I struggled with a response, and she filled in for me. “Is it because I’m dying?”
“Of course.” I agreed hoping my off-handedness would hide the double bluff. “Why else would I care?”
She smiled again and I soaked in her presence as we leaned against the parapet in companionable silence.
“Do you want to feel it?” she asked blandly after a moment.
“My tumour; the death inside me. I can feel it, you know.”
I looked away, over the railing. When we had first met during registration for the program, she’d told me she suffered from ovarian cancer. She’d told no one else, not one of her close friends from our university days when I had been just a course mate she hardly noticed. She hadn’t told her new friends here, either. Just me, who didn’t fawn over her like everyone else. Me, who teased her like a brother, and never let her take anything too seriously.
The way I was around her was also her preference. Not like everyone else, who were always in puppy-mode around her, even when she wasn’t ill. They didn’t see what I saw: a strong, intelligent, frighteningly competent woman with teeth and claws and a mind all her own. When I saw her fight, I called her fearsome, horrifying, a raging animal in a world too delicate to cage her. When others saw her fight, they called her “brave.”
It was easy then, to see why she told just me.
“I told only you,” she had said, “for the same reason I left home for this rigorous, unhealthy program. I don’t want to be treated like I’m a sick, broken thing. I want to live before I die.” And then she’d added, “If not caring is your normal, then that’s what I want.”
But I had always cared, even when it felt hopeless to do so, even when I didn’t want to.
I realized I’d not answered her about touching her tumour. I didn’t want to respond. Teasing her about death made it less real, but really talking about it was too hard. I had to keep pretending that I didn’t care.
“Hey, mumu,” I teased her, rather than humour her macabre mood on this, a day to acknowledge the new challenges ahead of us at the Academy of Laws. “We had better go in, before the patrollers come looking for us.”
She chuckled. “Okay, big head.”
We slipped off our oxygen filtering masks as we returned to the hall. We only needed them in the harsh, oppressive and barely breathable air of the outside.
The lecturer, while deep in a section on campus rules, had found his good humour. I preferred him without it.
“You are not allowed to eat when classes are on. Not even to chew gum. Unless you are pregnant and carrying a kid, then you can chew like a goat. Hahahaha.”
He continued on, outlining all the lack of privileges we had at our privilege school, with the interspersing of jokes, often classist. I grimaced, but some students chuckled. You knew the ones that who would succeed early by ass-kissing.
Next up was a Dr. Umez of property law. A man in his early 40s, he rasped on about his religious, conservative principles and rules that I am sure weren’t sanctioned by the institution, as strict as it already was. His last edict was that phones wouldn’t be allowed when his lectures were on, and any found would be confiscated, permanently.
“Well, that’s not extreme,” I quipped, sarcastically. “He’s trying to go into phone retailing?”
Ovoke leaned closer and whispered conspiratorially, “He trades them back for favors.”
I looked at her blankly, not getting her point, so she continued, “He’s famous with the ladies.”
My eyebrows climbed in realization, then furrowed in confusion again. “But why? For a phone?”
“He promises an easier time for them here, and better chances of passing.”
I scoffed. “I have actually looked into bribing people to pass and to game the system. “Phone Seizer” here can’t guarantee anyone will pass. The scripts are marked by external examiners and people in HQ, Abuja. That’s where it all happens.”
“Well, the average student doesn’t know that. Between deceiving the gullible and promising to make their lives hell, Umez has quite a tutoring program.”
“How do you even know all this?” I asked.
“I’m a woman. It’s our business, our survival to know about people like this.”
I was quiet for a bit. Ovoke touched my angry face.
“If he ever bothers you,” I told her softly, “I’ll kill him.”
“Awww,” she said. “You’re every girl’s dream, a psycho best friend who would kill for her. However, start with my cancer.”
“I’m afraid that’s beyond the reach of my goons,” I said apologetically.
“Are you useful for anything?” she asked with a playful push. We both laughed under our breath.
Mrs. Oduwole was at the podium now. The Head of Hostels began by stating that the generators would be on until midnight for reading and for the making of breathable air. After midnight, we would revert to our O2 cylinders which we must keep by our bedsides throughout the night.
The tuition was expensive but was only meant to cover the central hall’s oxygen generation when lectures were on. O2 masks filtered the bad air temporarily, for the brief periods when moving between places. O2 cylinders were for longer periods when there were no O2 generators.
We weren’t allowed to be in the hostels during the day when lectures were on, for any reasons. She didn’t care if you were a girl on your flow, no matter how heavy. And this was apparently the only example she felt obligated to give.
Another lecturer talked about modest and decent dressing and one unfortunate girl was singled out as an example of what not to do.
The female lecturer, gesturing at the girl’s long and painted nails, said, “Such is not allowed here. They are an unnecessary distraction to both ladies and gentlemen. The ladies might feel pressured to compete and focus on their looks, and the men might want to…well, we all know what men want from women.”
There was a low chuckle from the students, and not for the first time I wondered at the unhealthy focus of this school to use sexist mores try to keep everyone in their place.
“Well, we know some women also want the same from women,” she continued, and the chuckle rang louder. She leaned forward now and whispered, even though she knew the microphone would carry the whisper. “So with your nails, how do you wash your…”
The laughter rang long and unrestrained now. The girl being queried wilted in shame and the woman moved on, having achieved her objective.
“Well, that’s professional,” I whispered sarcastically to Ovoke.
But she wasn’t fazed by any of this. Of course, she had more immediate worries on her mind.
I had to wonder why our society still looks down on women so much. Was gasping your lungs out in between toiling to purchase filters and breathable air in an atmosphere ruined by global warming not enough? Or was the audacity of being here, daring to compete with men in the most lucrative and influential profession in the Republic simply too bold?
At the end of the induction, students remained seated while the lecturers left. There were electronic fingerprint scanners embedded at our desks and, in order to be counted as having attended, we would have to use the scanners to sign in and out. If there wasn’t eighty-five percent attendance over the entire program, you couldn’t take the Bar exams. That also ensured that students were holding each other accountable and turn up to class, to make sure they all could take the Bar.
Once the teachers were gone, the students rushed out through their exits.
Exit A was left for the Bar 1 students, the elite gang in their expensive-as-hell O2 regulator masks. They had all schooled in China and America for their LL.B. Foreign schools were attended by only the extremely wealthy and took less time—three years instead of the five in domestic schools. These elite students were generally regarded as “better” and were treated accordingly. They didn’t mingle with the students from Nigerian universities. It didn’t help that the Chinese government, in partnership with the CAT—Chinese American Tobacco—had donated a stash of high-quality masks for them and took care of O2 regulation in most of our institutions, in exchange for certain economic and political concessions.
The British American Tobacco (BAT) was consumed by the Chinese American Tobacco (CAT) after the Chinese had bought all the interests, infrastructure, and institutions that had been left over in Nigeria after the Weather Crises. They effectively split the country down the middle to share with American investors in an uneasy alliance. Both former tobacco companies quickly caught on and began to produce air filtration systems, air regulators, masks, and other paraphernalia needed by all for survival.
Before the Crisis, they had sold death in the form of cigarettes when life was in abundance to those who didn’t care about life. But after the thinning of the air and the severe changes that had made the weather near uninhabitable, the industrial conglomerate had switched. Now the merchants of death sold life and oxygen because death was now in abundance, and life was the commodity in demand. You had to pay to breathe. O2 credit was life. And your deficits, your debits, were in CO2. They sold to the highest bidders: the government who purchased and subsidized it for their workers, and for the rich. So there was short supply for the rest.
I made a move to follow as the peacocks trooped through their exit, but Ovoke’s hand tugged my arm.
“Not that way, trouble-lover.”
I smiled and we went out through one of the other doors, heading for the hostels. I looked at Ovoke. She had taken the induction far less seriously than me, rolling her eyes through all the nonsense. She was well attuned to my moods and temperament.
“Want to take a walk?” she asked.
“Yes,” I replied. “I need a break, since there are not more induction classes today.”
She clasped my hand as we strolled out.
A security guard was patrolling outside and I passed him an O220 card, to forestall his inquiries. He pocketed it smartly and moved on. I bribed the security men at the gate too and we left campus to walk illegally into the sunset of a quiet afternoon, away from the toxic Law Academy.
Weeks in, we had adjusted to the toxic institution; to the assignments and group work that ran on into late nights and had to be presented in class the next day; to the frantic, extra reading after classes to avoid being embarrassed in the randomly administered, rapid fire quizzes; to the shaming and disgrace that followed failure to get an answer right; to hoarding our oxygen cylinders in the hostels for when the power generators switched off in the night.
We had a plethora of assignments and projects that kept us buried to our eyebrows, even on weekends. But assignments were rarely my concern on weekdays, much less weekends. And on this weekend, Ovoke was gone.
She had taken a trip home to Ikeja where her family lived, for chemo sessions scheduled into the middle of next week.
I missed her. Taking care of her at school was the one thing that kept me anchored and from snapping at the horrid attitude of everyone here. Buying her food, drawing her water, and keeping her company with jokes and sallies, both of which made her happy.
Without her here, there was no life to be experienced. I felt acutely every pull of the thin and corrupted air. The mechanically purified and generated atmosphere wasn’t much better. We hadn’t had good air in a decade.
It’s no surprise that Ovoke was my breath of fresh air, my reason for being able to withstand this place—for not exploding at all the verbal abuse and stupidity from lecturers, students and other staff. I needed to stay here to stay with her.
And it was this realization that sent me on my own little detour. I needed to visit the mainland. Not that the air there was any better. It was much worse, in fact. The people there were poor. The island that held the school campus was the part of Lagos kept for the elite, with regulated air, as seen to by Governor MC Oluwole.
You see, the rich deserved to breathe.
Still, the mainland was home. Usually, I would take my Temperature Regulating Suit. I needed the TRS when going to the mainland so as not to suffer heat stress from the ever-rising temperatures, another effect of the warming crises of a decade ago.
But I had given Ovoke my suit, so I stood sweating, waiting for transport until the government-regulated Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) vehicles arrived. It would take me to the outskirts of the mainland, and was fitted with its own temperature regulation systems. Inside, I leaned back and let the cold-yet-polluted air fan my anxieties away.
I was fine until I got into the Danfo bus, the first of many on this transfer line that would convey me the last distance to my home. They were usually faulty and broke down a lot, exposing the occupants to serious dangers of heat stress.
I paid the Danfo driver O217. His bus, at least, had a marginally working air filtration system, so we could have breathable air. I baked in the heat, but I could tell that the other passengers were not as affected. They were hardy, sturdy folks who looked like they were used to this. People who lived on the mainland, but worked on the island, made the trip daily to the high-rise and office complexes they toiled in, so they were used to the extremes. The island housed most of the companies and corporations that thrived in this troubled world, along with Chinese American Tobacco, the company that owned the breath in our lungs.
I stopped at Oyingbo and took a bus going toward the University of Lagos, my alma mater. I wasn’t going to my old school, though. I stopped at the university gate and took another bus to Bariga, the student community that housed most of the 100,000 student population, teachers, and other mostly-junior staff that ran the institution. You only got accommodation inside the school if you were senior staff.
The hostels were for foreign students who paid top O2 credits. I was heading downtown, to the most dangerous parts of Bariga, the parts I knew were occupied by the Eiye and Buccaneer cultists.
I paid the keke driver O24. My mask was already on. I took the Ikoro, the side streets that led to the house of the friends and fellow cultists I came to see, members of the vanilla Buccaneer cult I had belonged to during my years as a University of Lagos student.
It was not as dangerous as it sounded. The Buccaneer was a cult made up of better off kids who wanted to be dissidents. We paid the Eiye guys to handle the few infractions we got into. The Eiye was a more impoverished fraternity with their members nicknamed bird, or “winch,” for the rough and dirty crowd it attracted. They were always eager to do any jobs for the right pay, which was any pay.
I passed a few people carrying old, crude oxygen cylinders. These ones could hardly afford filtration masks sold by CAT, as it was now known. People on the mainland here, aside those in high-profile jobs, made do with old oxygen cylinders they had to refill. The agencies that should have handled filtration and regulation systems here were moribund from having the initially insufficient funding further looted by officials who went on to buy high-rise apartments on the Island.
The passing folks glared at me, taking in my fine and obviously expensive air filtration mask. To them I was a “butty,” a rich kid who had lost his way—and I knew some would try to rob me, then severely wound me if I tried to resist. I looked back to see them already preparing to come at me. I flashed one of them the Buccaneer hand sign. He hesitated. I flashed the Eiye hand sign too, thus identifying myself as “brother to pikin of last two years, egede number one.” The guy at the head of the company nodded in respect and waved me on as “master.”
My destination was a house of one of my old Buccaneer friends yet to graduate. It was crowded with a number of students and indigenes of the Bariga community who hung out with them. Loud music blared from speakers somewhere in the two-bedroom apartment. It was old and decrepit, like most of the houses here.
The generator, running outside for electricity, powered an old air regulator which coughed out good air, marginally improving what we had. Ironically, it was ruining the good air outside, to provide for us inside. Talk about robbing Peter to pay Paul. Not to even mention the noise.
But, anything to breathe better. I could smell igbo which had become dirt-cheap when everyone moved on to drugs and synthetic substances for highs to compensate for an otherwise shitty life. Well, almost everyone. It didn’t make sense to me to smoke and damage your lungs and the most precious commodity you had: air that was in such short supply. But then, no one ever accused cultists of wisdom.
I go to my friend’s room where the smell of weed was coming from. They were smoking and playing cards while another group were gambling with dice. Some had passed out on a rackety bed in the corner.
My friend Jaiyesimi nodded at me. He had to finish his game before we could speak.
I greeted the occupants of the room in confralangua, to show I belonged. I had taken off my air filtration mask when I got into the house, seeing as they had a regulator. But the smell of weed soon overpowered me and it was either choke or put on my mask, none of which was a good option here and made me look weak. So I signaled to my friend that I would be outside when he was done. I choked down a small cough as I stepped out. I could see them chuckle and one of them say slyly, Ju man.
Outside, I slipped my mask back on and inhaled deeply. Air was life. For this, I was content to be a “Ju man,” a slur for people who didn’t belong to cults in the university. Or those who, like me, belonged merely as honorary members for protection, social and other nonviolent reasons, paying dues and not engaging in any of the requisite violent activities that gained one respect and prestige as a cultist. I had joined to be left alone. There was no middle ground in a community like this: you were either the oppressed or the oppressor.
I opted to join the latter, even as an honorary member.
Jaiyesimi soon joined me. Chuckling at something someone inside had said, he took a pull of his blunt. Looking at my disapproving glance, he put it out and despisited it in a pocket.
We both stood in silence for a while, then he asked, “How the academy be na?”
“It’s fine. By that I mean everyone there isn’t.”
“As it should be,” he chuckled. “You know, we hear gist from folks there. It sounds like the university all over again.”
“Basically,” I agreed. “Just more studying, more nonsense. Less time though.”
“Mmm,” he nodded knowingly. “More of the bad things, less of the good.”
“Yea,” I agreed. “The academics are really the worst. But I will sort myself out. You know I know how.”
We were quiet again, and then he said, “I heard about this guy in your academy, Dr. Umez. Has he been bothering you?”
“How do you mean?”
“You know how I mean,” he said, leaning closer. “I heard he pressures folks for sex. Has he…”
“Wait,” I stopped him, confused. “Why would you think this would be a problem for me? He pressures g…oh! You think I’m gay, and Dr. Umez is into boys?”
“Dr. Umez does boys?” I asked. “But he’s so married, with kids, and religious, and being queer is a…”
“…Crime with a fourteen-year jail term here, and a death sentence in the North?” He rolled his eyes. “That’s for the little people. Not an academy lecturer.”
“But he’s married, to a woman!”
“That never stopped anybody either. He’s either bi or he does girls as a feint. In any case, he does both, so I’ve heard.”
I thought back to what I have learnt about the lecturer. “Isn’t he is religious and deacon at church?”
“Definitely a smokescreen.”
“First of all, it’s a wonder how you know so much about what’s going on in the academy from here. Yes, I know gist filters down. But you know so much about the sexual lives of people there. Me, him. I am curious.”
“Well, I like to check up on mine and know what’s going on in the community.”
“Since when was the academy part of the community?” I asked. At his raised eyebrow, I paused. “Wait, are you gay?”
I think he knew I didn’t care about a person’s sexual orientation. Straight or gay, bi or otherwise, as long as the relationship was healthy, who was I to judge?
He sidled closer. “Well, I could show you,” he said softly, winking. “Show, not tell. Right?”
I laughed, knowing he was being playful, but also wondering if he was partly serious. It was so hard to tell in a society that didn’t talk about such things openly, for fear of condemnation. “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” I rejoinder. “This is flattering, but I prefer a partner who is cerebral.”
“Are you mad?” He laughed too. “Last I checked your grades weren’t all that, so how will you be wanting a cerebral partner? And didn’t you graduate with a third class?”
“I said cerebral, not academic. Also, You managed to not graduate at all.”
“True,” he conceded.
“Also, I’m not…”
“Right.” He said.
We were both quiet after this, till I punctured the silence.
“So, Dr. Umez harasses and rapes both boys and girls huh.”
“Yup,” he said without looking at me.
“Dude sounds like he needs killing.”
Jaiyesimi now looked at me. “Can you kill someone?
“I’m not sure. We’re going to find out, I guess.”
He looked at me askance. Silent.
I hesitated. “You get my text na, didn’t you? O2 Arena.”
His eyebrows raised in genuine surprise. “You were serious?”
“Yes na,” I confirmed, irritated by the notion I wouldn’t joke about something like that.
“Wetin you need money for so bad?” But he barely paused to breathe before answering his own question. “Ah…Law Academy.”
It wasn’t hard for him to figure out. I was a decent student when I tried. But I rarely did. School was a necessary evil for me. Something I did but had no choice.
I preferred art and writing which I couldn’t get parental approval to pursue. The only thing they endorsed or cared to entertain was a career that allowed one to get a job in the government administration as a civil servant and be entitled to O2 credits and an allocation of oxygen.
What use was a life where all you did was merely exist? So I cheated when I could, and bribed my way through when I couldn’t cheat or wing it. My dad had died in my third year in the university and his monetary support had had dried up.
Now I required five times the amount of money I had needed in the past to pay my way through the university. And I would need it all at once. So O2 Arena it was.
Jaiyesimi met my eyes sternly, and I realized he also, on some level, only thought of me as a Ju Man—faking it until I make it. Never completely all in. “You sure?”
“Well, na, your life, sha.” He shrugged. “Make I call Papilo to carry us go.”
We made our way to the underground square, led by one of the Eiye boys and my friend Jaiyesimi, to the place they called O2 Arena. It was a fighting pit, a solid plexi-glass cage, its transparent walls harder than steel. Two combatants in skin-tight black bodysuits were inside, cameras focused from every angle.
This was what had replaced selling your kidneys and internet fraud. The only get-rich-quick scheme, regulated secretly by government and top CAT officials, illegally and discreetly. The cage fights were streamed and sponsored by equally rich and highly placed folks who had an appetite for this kind of entertainment.
Thugs and all sorts of desperate people who were ready to risk it all for a huge payoff came here. Cult members came to settle squabbles. Instead of wasting a death, they came here to fight it out and at least know that one of them stood the chance to make what equaled near three decades of standard wages. Fifty-thousand O2 credits, a lifetime supply of air. You fought and died to keep breathing. And this was how I planned to make money enough to sort my exams.
Jaiyesimi looked at me strangely, trying to figure me out my sudden need to make such a huge gamble with my life. I ignored him.
They announced the fighters who got into the arena, glass doors sealed behind them. Pure, breathable air was provided inside so combatants could breathe well, could draw lungsful of the air they fought, and maybe died for. The irony was not lost on the online spectators.
The fighters in the arena squared and faced off. The mic man and moderator atop the cage commentated, move-by-move, on the entire match, which turned out to be dirty, long, and ugly. I watched as the two men pummeled each other till they were almost too exhausted to stand. I didn’t know them, or why they had come here to murder or be murdered, but I understood them. They were both me. I was both them. Cultist, thug, desperate son, brother, or father—this was as fair a fight for oxygen as any of us would ever have.
One of them slipped, perhaps on the sweat on the floor. The other set to stomping the fallen, on and on. When his target stopped moving, he took him into a choke hold. The other struggled, but not for long. When he finally lay still, the victor stood up, screaming to the rafters.
Then he fell to his knees in exhaustion.
Canned cheering and applause answered him; there were no spectators live here—just the technical staff working the equipment, and thugs and cultists screening fighters, or helping victors to process their payment.
The Eiye boy with Jaiyesimi looked at us both. “You don see am, abi?”
I nodded. Yes, I do see it. They brought trusted, wannabe participants here for a viewing, to see the action before they committed to their fate.
Jaiyesimi looked at me with disbelief. “Why you wan do this kind thing? For school? You fit read na. You fit pass on your own. And if you fail, e no matter.”
I shook my head. He didn’t understand. I couldn’t risk it. It was not that I could not do it on my own, as he said. But the stakes. If I didn’t, my mom and family at home, who needed the status of having a graduate from the academy of letters, would miss the income I could contribute to keeping them breathing. Not to mention the stigma of my failing. I would rather die.
The thug who brought us to the arena rapped Jaiyesimi on the shoulder. “He no get the mind.” Meaning that I didn’t have the guts to do this.
They were right, as I realized in the bus the next day. It’s all well and good to think you can do it
I had only just gotten to the school and barely taken my air filtration mask off when I got the call. On my way back to the mainland, my breath was loud in my ears. The filter did what it was meant to, and the air that reached me was clean, but it couldn’t stop my labored breathing. My heart was thumping so hard.
My friend, Ovoke, was dying.
Ovoke’s brother, Efeturi, had been the one to call; she was asking to see me.
I greeted him at the University of Lagos Teaching Hospital (LUTH) then rushed to where she lay on a stretcher outside the building. She’d always been so full of life but now she looked smaller, diminished.
How she had shrunk in such a short while, I couldn’t understand. I held her bony hand in mine, rubbing it on my cheek, desperate to feel something of her as I’d known her before. Her fingers were warm, and I felt a faint throbbing as she breathed laboriously from a cylinder by the side of the bed. Over the edges of the mask, her panicked eyelids fluttered and I couldn’t tell if she knew I was there.
Her dad sat fanning her and, while I held her and told her it would be all right, I met his stricken eyes.
She was outside, he said, because a year of cancer treatment, of chemo, had exhausted their money. They couldn’t afford a ward. A bed would come at the daily cost of O2200. Getting her into the ICU and hooked up on proper machines would be even more.
So here we were. The chemotherapy treatment had been meant to kill her cancer but was killing her instead. Now, those precious, delicate lungs had stopped coping.
“So what now?” I asked.
He couldn’t meet my eyes. “If we could raise the money for the ICU and a proper bed, she would be allowed time to heal her lungs. Then the cancer treatment could proceed. If not…”
I stepped out to talk to Efeturi, leaving her parents and other brother with her.
When we came back, Ovoke was near hysterical from breathlessness and desperately thirsty. With the breathing mask briefly removed, we dribbled water into her mouth, letting her lay back. Everyone could see that it was taking all her energy just to suck what little air given her by the mask we replaced after every paltry drink.
Too tired to talk, she communicated only with her eyes, and I gave her my best reassuring smile as I squeezed that fragile, tiny, bony hand.
“You’ll be all right. Your dad says that you’re considering surgery now.”
I sighed, trying not to let my surprise and heartache at that news show in my eyes.
Back in school, before her chemo, we’d had a discussion about her treatment method. Chemo had burnt her out and she had lost her voice, her hair, her weight, energy and vitality. And now she had also lost her air, the most precious commodity she, and any of us, had.
But back then there had been an alternative: surgery. I had suggested she have the ovaries removed, removing the cancer with them. But she had refused, because that would also mean losing her chance at future children.
“And what kind of life would that be?” she had asked. She was convinced that she’d be left a broken woman—a woman who wasn’t a woman.
I had tried to tell her that her ability to give birth was not what made her a woman or gave her value. But even as I said it, I knew how false it would ring in her ears, as it might in mine, if I had been subjected to the other side of our patriarchal society.
She thought she would be nothing in a patriarchal society that valued men for their ability to provide, and women for reproduction. I had never told her that even in such a society, she was everything to me. How could I, when she needed me to tease her, to treat her the same as I always had? When she demanded nothing could change, and I had to pretend I still cared for nothing.
“A freak,” she’d insisted, “wanted by no one.”
And so she had given up her air for future, unborn children. She’d risked it all. And only now could she see that her ovaries were not her, not worth her life. She was ready to let them go, if it wasn’t too late.
Her labored breathing kept me fully focused on our painful reality. I held her hands as air flowed raggedly through her damaged lungs, while she cried in between gasps, calling for her mom, and then pushing the distraught woman away when she came.
Ovoke’s dad, gone for a good while during the afternoon, eventually came back. He had gotten the funds, probably by selling something, if they still had anything to sell. Whatever it had been, I could tell from his hushed conversation with his wife, and the stricken and defeated look on her face, that it wasn’t good.
But it must have been enough. They would move her to the ICU. Her lungs would get the chance to stabilize while we looked for the funds to remove the offending cancer.
The surgery was a fortune, one beyond any resource the family could tap. Without it she would die. In that moment I knew what I had to do.
I told her she would be all right. I held her hand, stroking it again lightly over my cheek. I told her I had to go get something and would be back. She gestured weakly that I should come closer. I leaned over her, until I could feel each labored, precious breath against my skin.
“I love you,” she whispered in my ear.
I screwed my eyes tightly closed until the flood of tears no longer threatened. Then I smiled as bravely as I could and kissed her on the forehead. I left without telling her I loved her. There would be time later, when the fire was back in her eyes and light gleaming from her smile. I would tell her I loved her then, because she would know then that my love was not pity, or hopelessness, or humor.
I would tell her. But now, I had to focus on what I had to do.
Life for Life. #SaveVoke
The hastag had spread throughout the interwebs, leading up to the fight, prompting an increased online viewership for the arena, their corrupt owners resharing the tweet, watching their bank account balance rise with glee.
Jaiyesimi was incredulous, disbelieving; his Eiye friend, our guide in this terrible place, was surprised but impressed.
And my opponent looked eager. His eyes glittered; all he saw in my place was a bag of O2 units. What I saw was life. A chance at life for the friend I loved, and I was willing to pay the ultimate price: to kill or to die.
My love and desire didn’t automatically hand me the fight. I had done a little karate, up to green belt, so I took the stance and threw a flurry of punches. He took the blows, grabbing my hands and then delivering a head butt that broke my nose and drew first blood, sending me sprawling to the floor.
There was no skill to it, no sparring strategy or technique, only experience and power.
He let me get up, perhaps disappointed by how little excitement such a victory would bring our audience. A mistake, as our next encounter had me rubbing the blood in his eyes and knocking him almost senseless.
Now we had both done damage.
I tried to take advantage of his confusion at his newfound blindness, but then it was me in a choke hold that would have ended things then and there if I hadn’t discovered a last-minute taste for human flesh. I sank my teeth into his arm and he let me go with a brutal scream. A reverb-heavy roar from the remote spectators filled the air around us, and the announcer’s words bounced off the plexi-glass walls, feverish with renewed excitement.
This would not be an orderly fight; it was a meaningless grapple for survival, for air—and drowning men didn’t struggle prettily.
But I wasn’t a fighter like these street thugs were, like he was. They had the crucial advantage of killing before and were ready to kill again. I had paid for protection. I had always taken the easy way out. Cheated, lied, stole. I’d never cared about anything except survival. And here I was, willing to die for something.
I had no experience with the instinct to kill, and yet clearly this man had lived that way his entire life.
He pummeled me thoroughly, always darting back after each blow; wary of the bite of my teeth and determined to finish me without getting into close quarters combat.
It was my reason for being here that kept me from giving up, from dying. I saw then, his confusion at not having an easy kill, confusion that turned this thug’s eyes into desperate rage. He caught me again in a clumsy choke hold. He was tired himself, but he was also eager to finish the job, to earn his fortune, to earn air—my air, my life, and Ovoke’s right to life as well.
Outside the cage, I could see the Eiye cultist nod at me. I was brave, but I was done. My friend Jaiyesimi turned away. He wasn’t ready to see me go.
Covered as I was in blood and sweat and tears, it was easy to slip out of my opponent’s grasp. Clearly, he expected me to run then, to retreat in a futile attempt escape with my life. Instead, I went for him. His stunned response at my small rebellion was only a small advantage. With me a spent and beaten animal, there was little I could do once I had him in my grasp.
But even a wounded wolf is a dangerous thing. I still had my teeth and his neck was bare inches away, so I went for his throat, biting through his skin into salty, coppery flesh.
He choked and slammed his fists into me repeatedly but I held on tight, for life, for air. His blood filled my mouth and though I wanted to retch, I tightened my jaw with grim determination and felt skin and tendon cords between my teeth, and lifeblood pump against my tongue.
With one final thump, he lifted me off the ground. Ovoke, I thought. I tried...
He slammed me back down.
The lights went out.
I woke days later, surprised to be alive.
Jaiyesimi had stayed by my side and recounted to me what had happened. My opponent had bled to death after he knocked me out…and I had won. The fortune in O2 units was already sitting in my account.
I was in some kind of recovery unit kept for the victors, but there was no time to celebrate my survival. I stumbled out of the bed, found my clothes, and rushed back to student hospital.
I was met with numb looks and reddened eyes. Ovoke’s brother’s faces were filled with restrained pain. Her mother sat weeping, and her dad’s defeat was evident in his hunched posture. He straightened when he saw me, letting go of his wife’s hand and coming to hold me, to gently break the news.
In my absence, Ovoke had passed. Her oxygen-starved organs had finally given in. The substandard breathing apparatus that was all her family could afford couldn’t sustain her through the three cardiac arrests she’d suffered in the night.
She was gone; her delicate, wild spirit, flown, borne away by the wayward winds we dealt so recklessly with. Winds which had paid us in disgruntled O2 coin, exacted in fulfilment of poetic justice, its pound of flesh.
I had fought and killed so she could breathe. Had taken a life so savagely, so pointlessly—all for her. I had the fortune in O2 units and now had access to the purest of air. But there were no longer lungs for me to put it in.
I crumbled to the floor and wept.
I walked into one of the admin offices at the Academy of Laws. The man I handed my form to was old, graying, and a bit stooped—old enough to have retired. Probably one of those who falsified their age so they could work longer.
Why anyone wanted more time in this place, I couldn’t fathom. His shrewd eyes regarded my narrowed ones. His kindly smile answered the question I hadn’t voiced: survival. That was why he stayed. Of course, he worked to keep breathing, for air, for a continued meagre flow of O2 units for him and for his loved ones.
Survival was overrated. I knew that now. You would live long enough to see your loved ones die.
“Son,” his voice stopped me when I went to leave. “Why fill this? Why defer?” he asked, waving the paper at me.
Of course, I thought. The nosy old man wants to make sure I am utilizing my life well, not wasting my “potential.”
I could try to explain the futility of it all, the fact that they were trapped here living a life that wasn’t worth the O2 units it took to buy the oxygen to sustain it, but he wouldn’t understand. It would shock him, my directness and honesty, my lack of respect, and brazenness.
“This isn’t the place for me anymore,” I told him.
His brows furrowed. “Why?” he asked.
It wouldn’t be worth the O2 units it would take to explain. I had a fortune in oxygen, true, but still, every breath was precious. Instead, I raised my hand toward him, my voice raspy, Darth Vadar–like, as if I had smoked a lifetime’s worth of cigarettes.
“This world needs a wake-up call that might only be found in an arena of our own making.”
I stepped out. The commotion was just starting.
I could hear the siren of the Reddington ambulance driving in as I stepped outside the school and into the world. After Dr. Umez didn’t show up for his lecture, and they found his door locked, his calls not being answered, they would have broken in to find him slumped and unmoving, his oxygen air filtration system in the office mysteriously disabled.
I drew in a loud, raspy breath through my own portable air system. Air that I had earned—air that was now a means to an end.
Most of us had been hiding behind these masks, telling ourselves it was because they let us breathe. It was time for the world to see the true face of things. I placed the call to Efeturi, my second in command, and, in the same raspy quality, breathed out my orders to my men.
“This world, our O2 arena, is now open.”
Copyright © 2021 by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki.