Grandmama gives you a wide-mouth smile. It is one of her fake ones. Nonso says she uses that smile just to shut you up. So you smile back while you wonder why some of her teeth are missing and why the rest are brown. “The Thing doesn’t like skinny boys,” she says. “Not ones who haven’t had breakfast.”
“Are you sure?” you ask. Nonso always says that Grandmama is fond of lies.
“Would I ever lie to you? If it were to eat anyone in this house, it would be either me or your brother. We have more meat on our bones,” she replies.
The saliva in your throat refuses to go down. Nonso’s words echo in your ears. You don’t answer Grandmama. Instead, you go through the kitchen with your white bucket and enter the tiny living room and proceed to the even tinier bathroom, tilting your white bucket into the black basin, which sits in the corner behind the wooden plank door.
You take your bucket back to the well for Nonso to refill for you; you will not be climbing up the rings again. But Nonso is not waiting at the well. There is water all over the paved floor with a yellow bucket on its side. You look around. But Nonso is nowhere to be found. You pick up his bucket and walk back inside to tell Grandmama that Nonso is gone.
“Gone where?” she asks.
“I don’t know.”
Grandmama asks you to check outside for Nonso. You go to the flat right next to Grandmama’s and knock at the door. The woman who lives there, with skin like honey and straight hair, sometimes sends you or Nonso on errands. She answers. You wonder if the woman knows what the other people in the compound say about her. That she is an ashawo, a prostitute. They say this is the reason her room is always so clean, the reason she uses hot irons to straighten her hair and the reason why she doesn’t allow the sun to darken her skin.
The woman tells you that she has not seen Nonso and you go to the other two flats. They all say the same thing, “No. Nonso is not here. We have not seen him.”
It is the sentence you repeat to Grandmama when you return to her. It is the sentence you say in your head when you go to the stream to check if Nonso had gone on a smoking escapade with his tobacco-loving friends. He did that sometimes. You knew. Because you watched him. It was the reason he called you “rat”, it was the secret you didn’t share with Grandmama.
That night, nobody whispers stories of young boys eaten alive to you. Nobody runs their fingers lightly across your back to scare you. You keep thinking about the growl. How you didn’t tell Nonso what you heard. But this time your fear of the Thing is gone. In its place is a different type of fear; one that chokes you up from the inside and brings water running to your eyes. It is a fear that you may never see Nonso again.
You and Grandmama sleep alone for two weeks. Then your Papa comes. He tells you to wait outside with the small sack that Grandmama gives you. Inside, Papa and Grandmama are having a talk. You do not hear what they are saying but you know what it is about. Papa will ask Grandmama what the men in uniform have said; and Grandmama will say, “They have found nothing. They say he probably ran away.”
You were there when those men came in wearing black berets. They had asked you questions like: “Did your brother tell you where he was going?” and “Do you know anywhere he might be?” Your answer was the same, “No.” They were the same men who laughed when you told them what you heard on that last morning, when you told them to send men with big guns down the well.
You remember their laughter. You remember Grandmama asking you to leave the policemen alone. And you remember the fear you felt when you realized big guns would not harm the Thing.