Winner: Perfect Little Angels

by Vincent Anioke

Vincent Anioke is a software engineer at Google. Born and raised in Nigeria, he now lives in Canada. His short stories have appeared in Carve Magazine, Pithead Chapel, Split Lip Magazine, and Bending Genres, among others. He was shortlisted for the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize and is currently working on his debut anthology. Find him on Twitter at @AniokeVincent.

I’ve chosen “Perfect Little Angels” by Vincent Anioke as the winner because of its visceral depictions of longing, lust, love, desire, faith, intimacy, and betrayal. It is a moving portrayal of a contemporary queer relationship within a cultural context that criminalizes and relegates it to the realm of shadows, secrecy, and the punishing choices we make out of shame. Anioke invites us into a world alive with hope, rot, and consequences. As a reader, I could smell the scenes; I could feel my feet dangling at the edge of the protagonist’s deep longing for more—more meaning, more hope, more possibility. A sharp and immersive story, Perfect Little Angels is bound to leave readers feeling everything.

—francesca ekwuyasi


June 30—Wednesday

We meet for the first time in the realm of 1s and 0s.

A warm Lagos rain pelts the bedroom windows and leaks through the ceiling into a bucket near my brother Ndubisi’s bed. The sound keeps him turning until he settles into an open-mouthed snore. I pull out my phone, its brightness at the lowest setting, and log into the app disguised as a calculator.

The square grid has a few dozen picturesque profile pictures—mountaintops, Black movie stars, sun-bathed fields of wheat. Your exposed chest stands out as unfamiliar. At first, I suspect treachery, your image pulled from the web like all the others … like mine, the grinning Cheshire Cat. But it bears no glamour or fantasy. Stretch marks spread like fingers across your sternum. Your neck, where the photo begins, is dotted with acne.

I glance at Ndubisi’s bed and think of my cardinal rule: “only look, never engage.” The words sound hollow from repetition.

My thumb clicks on your chest.

I type.

“Hi.”

A second passes. 

Another. 

You reply.

“Hey.”

We talk about the rain. I hate the way it muddies the streets, turns potholes on work’s path into sand-coloured pools. You like how crickets chirp against its patter in a sort of orchestra. We talk about the upcoming election (neither of us plans to vote), the newest Nollywood movie you saw alone at Genesis Cinema two weeks ago. Surprisingly decent, you say.

We do not talk about family. How many brothers, how many sisters. If our fathers are around or distant, dead or alive. We skirt any mention of where we live. We especially do not talk about why men like us are on an app like this in the middle of the night. But for hours, we do talk. When morning light starts to break the sky, the horse hooves of rain dulling to tiptoes, I am taken by surprise at time’s passing.

Your next message makes me slowly sit up: “Is it possible for you and me to meet?”

For the first time on this app, a you and me.

Shivers graze my neck. I stare at the ceiling, thinking of the two men caught in a hotel room last year. They were marched out onto the streets, beaten with tree branches, pelted with stones. Ndubisi and I sat in our sweltering living room. We watched the droop of their faces on the television as police officers carted them into a van. Ndubisi reached into his throat for the biggest glob of spit he could form and flung it at a wall.

“Abomination,” he said, not referring to the mob still trying to reach into the police van with their fists and twigs. Nor to the eyes covered behind thick films of red, the bare stomachs tattooed with dripping welts.

I am thinking of the two men, and all the other men before them, flashes of faces in newspapers or obituaries or nowhere at all, when you send a second message: “Still there?”

You follow it with a picture of your face in a pose: one eye winking, tongue sticking out, dazzling smile.

I do not send one back.

My fingers seem to move of their own accord: “On Friday evenings, Salamander Hill is desolate.” 


July 2—Friday

When the half-sun sinks, I shutter my tailor shop and walk seven streets over to the library-in-progress. It is mostly a hole in the ground flanked by fences, yellow tape and bulldozers. Despite the day’s waning light, all motion seems magnified. A bird surveys the street from atop a broken light. Teenagers on the construction ground’s edge lean against cranes, passing cigarettes around. You, broader and taller than I expected, stand at the intersection and watch me approach.

Against every instinct, I do not turn around and flee. I nod slightly and walk past you, watching in my periphery as you follow. We cut through the market and past the backyard of a small church concluding evening mass. Passersby dwindle as we approach a gravelly dirt road; it stretches for a kilometre into Salamander Hill. Then it is just us. Our dulled footsteps. 

You and me.

The hill’s humid base is surrounded by a circle of dense detritus: muddied sneakers, wilted nylon bags, crumpled soda cans, discarded skins of fruit. A home for all that our town rejects. You stand next to me. I don’t look at your face, but I know that your body is tensing up at the stench. I fold the cuffs of my trousers. You mirror me. We wade through the slime. 

But for the black smoke oozing out of their exhaust pipes, they almost look playful. Like children’s toys.

The yellowed-grass hill slopes gently upward. At the top, we fill our lungs with a sticky wind. Beneath us is the duplex-studded sprawl of our town. The treetops burn orange. Trawlers bob atop the grey surface of Aye River. On our left, bumper-to-bumper cars honk on portside roads. But for the black smoke oozing out of their exhaust pipes, they almost look playful. Like children’s toys.

I want to tell you about all the Friday nights I’ve spent up here alone. How I inhaled. Took in the week’s stress, the tailor shop’s monotony, Ndubisi’s beer-scented rants, the dwindling customers, my flashes of fury, until they sat in my lungs like stone. How I exhaled them onto the breeze shifting across town.

Instead, I turn toward the ring of summit boulders that shields us from the world below. We sit in its centre and wipe the muck off our ankles. Our legs almost touch.

I look up at your face, but you stare straight ahead. Your beard is ruffled, untamed. Your jeans are covered in dust. Your lips are dark-stained. If I leaned in close enough, pressed mine on yours, would I taste cigarettes? Red wine? 

I comb through our long chat, seeking something to jumpstart a conversation. Your favourite novel is none because you hate reading. You were obsessed with a local artist called Princess Ife in your secondary school days. And you don’t feel like a real Nigerian because you can’t handle alligator pepper. These tidbits of trivia find their way to my tongue only to disappear.

You’re a beautiful man. And I am not. My stomach is skeletal. Pimples line my cheeks. Perhaps that’s all our silence is—your disappointment in my form, my recognition of it.

Suddenly, you turn toward the sky where so many stars bloom.

“This is nice,” you say. 

I am surprised by your voice, its softness.

“It is,” I reply. 

So we stare at the clouds. We watch them cradle the moon.


July 9Friday

You’ve been offline since our first meeting.

Every second since has seemed as stretched and taut as rubber. I make my way to the construction zone, wondering if my hope is illogical. I recall the months Ndubisi bought nearly a hundred lottery tickets. He spent nights by the television squeezing an empty bottle, the seventh or eighth of the hour, as winning numbers were rattled out, none ever his. 

The hole in the ground is wider now. There are no twilight birds or teens. But at the intersection, there you are in a tank top and shorts, not fidgeting, looking my way. You don’t grimace at the stench of Salamander Hill either as we make our way to the top.

I start for the ring of boulders, but you grab my shoulder and point toward the town. Strobe lights from an ambulance dance on a bridge. The hoods of two cars are tangled in a metal kiss.

“There’s been an accident,” you say, and already, it is more than you have ever uttered to me.

“I see that. There’s ten a day now, it feels like.”

“Do you do this often?” you ask. “Bring men up here.”

“No. You’re the first I’ve met from … the app. First I’ve brought up here.”

You chuckle without smiling. 

“It’s true,” I say. A swish of anger flares in the word.

“Why me then?” You sound almost accusing. “Why now?”

“I don’t know.”

“Ever fucked a man?”

“No. Never done anything with anyone. Well, a girl kissed me once back in secondary school. And I’ve watched porn … that kind … a few times.”

“And you’re really 22.”

“Yes. Are you really 23?”

Your lips curl in amusement. “Haven’t been 23 for three years now. But I’m told I look it. How did you find this place?”

“Oh, my older brother did. Ndubisi. Long ago. Ma and Pa moved us here from Apapa and started a sewing business. Our superstitious neighbour got this idea in Ndubisi’s head that a small reptile in our home would mean good luck for their work.”

Your smile reaches your eyes. “So your brother came here to find one?”

“Many nights, yeah. Dragged me with him too. It was before all the trash, so there were usually others around. We found rodents and centipedes and one time a dead hawk. But no reptiles. Not until after months of searching.”

Something in my voice makes you shift closer. “Are you okay?”

I laughed too because I liked the sound of it, how his happiness promised mine.

I want to tell you that there is a ghost in memory, mostly conquered but for the occasional haunt: a small and beardless Ndubisi dashing across Salamander Hill, easy to laughter from his own stupid jokes, even on the days we returned home empty-handed. I laughed too because I liked the sound of it, how his happiness promised mine. I lead you a quarter of the way down the hill. Here, I say, is where we found a slumbering leaf-toed gecko.

“It was the most excited I ever saw Ndubisi. He danced all the way home. Ma was less pleased, though. She asked him to get rid of it, but Ndubisi swore God had sent us Meso.”

“He named it Meso?”

“Short for Nmesomachi, yeah. He almost got in trouble at school because he kept picking insects out of the Primary Six garden to feed his little pet. Sang to it every night, told it all kinds of stories about his day, massaged its little neck with his thumb.”

You chuckle. “Meso lived like a king.”

“Sure did. After Ndubisi found Meso, he didn’t really have a reason to come back to Salamander Hill. I didn’t either, until the last couple of years when it turned into a dump. I realized I could shake off a rough day here by myself.”

“Well, you and the shit and the flies.”

“There’s none of that up here. Just a good view and some quiet. I know we can hear the cars and the danfos, but they’re down there. It’s like there’s thick glass between us.”

You don’t reply. It’s as if you’re listening for it the way I do, beyond the whoop of distant sirens, beyond the sound of breath leaving our nostrils.

“How about you?” I ask.

You frown. “How about me what?”

“You been with any guys?”

“Yeah. Plenty. I’ve fucked guys. Guys have fucked me.”

“Oh.”

“Most of it was back in Abia. Before that, though, I had a girlfriend. Loved her. We were together for six years. Had plans to get married someday.”

“Why didn’t you?”

The question causes your eyes to lose focus. You stare at me without seeing me. After a moment, you head up the hill and toward the ring of boulders. I join you there, sitting far enough this time that our legs can’t touch. My stomach is strange, turning, twisting.

“Do your parents know?” you ask. “Your brother?”

“My parents died eight years ago. Not long after we found Meso, funny enough. Lorry driver fell asleep one night and cleared their car off the road. And no, Ndubisi does not know.”

“I’m sorry,” you say.

“It’s fine. Happened a long time ago.”

“Doesn’t matter. That must have been hard.”

I shrug. “Sure, but not because of grief. Ma and Pa were hustlers, the never-home type. Ndubisi looked after me far more than they ever did. Everything he cooked tasted like charcoal, but he always made sure I ate and got enough sun and did my assignments. After they died, he changed. I had to grow up fast. Dropped out of secondary school to take over their business. Been looking after us ever since.”

“Jesus.” An overdramatic sadness contorts your face. “All by yourself?”

“Who else would do it?”

“Right. Well, my parents are around, thankfully. And I’ve got a younger sister. Esther. None of them know. They never will. But something possessed me to tell Vanessa. I’d have died for that woman, probably still would today, but it didn’t make me right for her, not in the way she deserved. I knew from the start, too; that’s the fucked up part. There’s a whole silent conversation that goes on the first time you kiss someone, you know?”

I want to tell you that being this afraid tastes like kobo coins, that we should go our separate ways and never speak again, that I will delete the app tonight and return to real life.

I want to tell you I don’t; you know I don’t. But you’re sliding over slowly, leaning forward to close the oblong patch of pebbled dirt between us. I want to stop you. I want to tell you that my heart is beating so fast I’m certain I will die, that my stomach still feels all kinds of twisted. I want to tell you that being this afraid tastes like kobo coins, that we should go our separate ways and never speak again, that I will delete the app tonight and return to real life. But your cold hands cusp my face, and your tongue parts my lips. The taste of you is cracked and salty and laced with kola nuts, and I chart the skin of your mouth, and your hand presses against my back, and your eyes are closed, so I close mine too, and in the darkness, a thousand stars explode.


July 16—Friday

This time, when your tongue moves lower than my neck, I don’t push your head away. You unbuckle my belt, and I learn how another’s touch can cause my back to fold in shivers. Afterward, you direct me downward, and I focus only on the dark, and how it is all skin, nothing but skin, I focus on your words—go deeper, not so much teeth, breathe, faster, slower, yes, yes, just like that—until your words aren’t words at all, but moans blending into a single sound.

Until you’re shivering too.


July 23—Friday

We sit on the edge of Salamander Hill. The night is a black paper-thin wall slashed beneath shadowy buildings and an uneven sea of lights. Orange spots cluster near a large petrol station and a quietly thumping club. On either side of this dense shimmer, red vehicle lights cut through pockets of darkness. Your focus is on the centre of our view, where green sodium arcs from a park bazaar reflect on the water. The neighbourhood of your previous life was all brown plains and wiry trees. Now that you’ve learned to look closely, I think you appreciate this view the way I do, for all the multitudes that it holds.

You scan below with an outstretched finger.

“Where’s your shop?” you ask. 

I guide your finger to one of the dark patches. “Right there. Tiny street. Ndubisi once mentioned moving us somewhere closer to the main markets, near the action, but you know how he is.”

“All talk.”

“All talk and drink and sleep and TV. He’s always watching old sports games like Pa used to on Sundays. Stuck. Sometimes, I wonder if dropping out of school is the biggest mistake I’ve ever made. Friends I grew up with keep packing their bags and disappearing from here. They’re actually starting their lives.”

“School honestly doesn’t always help,” you reply. “Only reason I got a job at Shell after undergrad was because of Dad’s connections. And he’s the only reason I’m bothering with my masters now. After I’m done with Ikeja Tech, I don’t know what comes next.” You look around. “Couldn’t even tell you where it is from here.”

I smile. “Guess.”

“Ugh. I don’t know. It’s next to a small church with a zinc roof—Holy Ghost something.”

“There are 30 churches like that.”

You place a palm over your eyes and zigzag your outstretched index finger, stopping at a shadowy water tank towering over an orphanage. “That it?”

“Not even close.”

You drop your hand on my knee. “Fuck.”

“Why didn’t you do your masters in Abia?”

“Oh, I just needed to be far away from Vanessa for a while.”

“Because she hates you?”

You shake your head as if such a thing were impossible. “Vanessa’s made of pure love. When I told her the truth, she didn’t speak to me for weeks. She came around eventually, though. Forgave me even, after days of talking and asking questions. But our families went to the same church. They shopped at the same markets. She didn’t complain or anything, but I could tell it was hard on her. Seeing me. Remembering what we’d lost. So I left. I know I can’t stay away forever. I’ll have to see her again someday. And Dad. Mom. All my nosy aunties asking when I’ll come to my senses and marry her.”

“Vanessa took it okay. Maybe … maybe your parents will too.”

Your laugh is bitter. “Papa’s a nobody here, but back home, he’s practically a celebrity in all our churches. He’d rather die than have a single soul think his son is a faggot. One time, years back, he caught Esther masturbating. He burned her hands with a hot iron and locked her in our basement all weekend. He’ll choose God over us any day.”

“That’s our dear Nigeria.”

The moment we weren’t God’s perfect little angels, he became the devil.

Your grip on my fingers tightens. “It always fucked with me how Dad could say he loved us more than anything. How he could make us feel it too. But what he really loved was his idea of who we needed to be, some biblical fantasy. The moment we weren’t God’s perfect little angels, he became the devil. I never got it.”

A memory rises from the ether: a squeal and a blood spatter. “It’s not so strange,” I reply, staring at the intersection of our knuckles. “The day after Ma and Pa’s funeral, Ndubisi took his dear Meso outside. He picked up a rock and crushed it. Chucked the corpse in the trash. His face was blank the whole time. It was scary seeing him like that, but I understood what he was thinking. Meso’s job was to protect Ma and Pa. Meso failed.”

“Ever worry he’d do anything like that to you? If he knew. Could you tell him one day?”

In my mind’s eye, a jet of spit strikes a studded wall and hangs there. Long ago, a bad day was Reverend Sister Kate, my primary school headmistress, flogging my entire class for noisemaking. It was falling down the branch of a cashew tree near the lagoons and scraping my knees bloody. On those days, Ndubisi shelved his playful barbed words. He ruffled my hair with his palms and walked us to the market for sachets of frozen yogurt. He died with Ma and Pa. The mud-streaked man I pull out of the gutter every month is a stranger.

“I won’t tell him. And he’s blood, so I can’t ever leave him.” I pause. “There are days I wish he was dead.”

You drop my hand. “Do you mean that?”

I look you right in the eyes so that you know I do. “Alcohol poisoning probably, the way bottles pile up around our bedroom. Or a heart attack. If I tell him, I’m sure he’d do worse to me than he did Meso, like I betrayed a promise I never made. But he’s the traitor.”

I don’t tell you that I sometimes spit in Ndubisi’s food, that I sometimes imagine his death at my own hands, palms clasped around a dinner knife’s hilt. My trembling shoulders say enough. You pull me toward your chest. We are beyond the ring of boulders, conjoined pixels exposed to the dark world below.  

I bury my nostrils in the smell of you and let the tears fall.


July 29—Thursday

I love you in the morning when I scrub my skin with a soapy sponge. I trace circles on the nipples that you will taste tomorrow. 

I hate you in the afternoon when my phone stays silent, its screen frozen on the text message I sent you yesterday. The app has been uninstalled from my phone for a month now, and I wish you texted like you did that first night.

My measuring tape runs halfway up a green cloth patterned with masquerade faces. I fold the fabric and sew along the sides, keeping my fingers left of the needle just like I pretend Ma taught me. I cut myself when my phone buzzes and barely notice the dime-drops of blood strike the ground. It is only a text from Ndubisi. He saw a purple dragonfly on the window.

Mrs. Nneka stops by in the evening to pick up her twin daughters’ slippers. Her husband waits outside by their car. He opens the passenger door for her and kisses her square on the lips in front of all the passersby. I know what his touch stirs inside her chest.

At home, I make a stew out of tomato paste and maggi cubes and sliced potatoes. On the first bite, Ndubisi says that it tastes like heaven. He says he loves me. When the power goes out, the old soccer game on the television fades to black. He screams and flings his bowl against the wall. 

When he falls asleep, I take my phone out. You still have not replied. I memorize your number again. I loop through the sparse photos on your Facebook account. You’re five years younger and on a horse with Esther. A dirty green lake eats up the background. You’re ten years younger, perched on the shoulders of your father. His smile is warm. He comments on every picture: “My handsome boy.”

My phone buzzes. 

This time, it’s you.

“Busy day! Can’t wait to see you tomorrow.”

I sigh.

Ndubisi rises from bed, muttering. He stumbles in the dark to the door and pushes instead of pulls. He lowers his pants and urinates all over the wall, then returns to his dreams. I get a rag from the bathroom, mop up the liquid, and head outside to the apartment building’s stony backyard. The moon is a sickle. I wash the rag in a metal bucket and hang it on a clothesline. A plane flies overhead.

Its dulled roar stirs a vision: Ndubisi wakes up to an empty apartment. Before he turns his phone charger’s wire into a noose and swings from the bedroom ceiling fan, he checks the living room, then the bedroom, then the bathroom, then he calls my phone. But it is switched off. We are bound to Canada, you and me. Remember when you said you could never leave? Your eyes are glued to the window. My palm is on your lap. From all the way up here, the clouds look bigger than the mountains.


July 30—Friday

In the centre of our shield, we rebuckle our belts. I graze the stubble of your newly shaved jaw. I don’t tell you I miss your beard’s thickness, how it swallowed the cuticles of my fingers. 

“It’s our monthervesary,” you say, and I hate that you follow it up with a laugh.

“I want you to fuck me,” I reply.

“What?”

“We kiss and suck every time. I think I’m ready for the main course.”

“Not here.”

“Where then?”

“Where’s this coming from?”

“Do you not want to?”

You stare at me. “Since you brought it up, you want to hear a secret?”

“Sure.”

“My salary from the university library—I decided to start saving a bit of it each payday. Enough for a hotel room soon. Salamander Hill is cute, but I think our real first time deserves something a little more proper.”

I sit up. My smile is impossible to hide. “I’ll start saving too.” 

“You don’t have to. It’s my treat.”

“No, I will. And we’ll have to be really careful. Can’t check in together, you know? But yes, yes, let’s do it.”

You kiss the bridge of my nose. “It might take a few weeks, but it’ll happen. We’ll have a good time, you and me. We always do.”

You and me.

On your lips, a song.

I lean in to kiss you, but you quickly pull away. Behind us, there is the sound of rustling stones, a patter of feet drawing nearer. You pull an index finger against your mouth, whisper shh. I hold all my spit in my throat. 

A shadow passes, briefly visible through a slit between two boulders. It is a stray dog. It continues past us and down the other side of the hill until its steps are hushed. 

“Fuck,” you say, wiping sweat off your forehead. “Where the hell did it come from?”

I learn to breathe again. 


August 6—Friday

The rain hammers all around us, matting our clothes against skin. 

“I have something to show you,” I say. From my pocket, I withdraw a pair of earphones plugged into an MP3 player. I give you the right ear and take the left.

“What is this?” you ask.

“I got curious about your teenage crush. Princess Ife.”

“Okay, she wasn’t exactly a crush.”

“Her old music’s way too hard to find, by the way, and it doesn’t look like she’s made any new stuff. But this Nairaland forum led me to a super sketchy website with a billion ads and two STDs. It had the download link for her first album.”

Your lips curl into an O shape. “You’re lying.”

“Took all night to download it, but it’s legit, I think. Wouldn’t let myself hear past the first 30 seconds of track one. I imagine you’ve heard it all before.”

“Are you joking? Heard it, memorized it, doodled it on all my school notebooks. It’s been years since my last listen, though.”

“Good. Are you ready?”

You nod fervently and kiss my forehead.

The first track, Egwu Nwa, is bombastic but muddled. Drums soar above a woman’s sultry crooning. Eyes closed, you squeeze my kneecap and move your head to the beat. During the song’s outro, you explain that she’s singing from the perspective of a newborn child excited about life’s undiscovered prospects.

The remaining tracks have the same bubbly low-res sound. Although I find little to appreciate in her voice or the instrumentals, I am enraptured by your response, how her voice rattles the past out of you.

“I used to imagine this song playing at my wedding,” you say, after the last track disappears beneath the softening storm. I am wrapped between your legs, my back to your stomach.

“Your wedding with Vanessa?”

“Oh no. This was before her. My bride was a groom. Big muscled man named Seyi.”

“Ah, a Yoruba fuckboy?”

“Seyi was an angel, thank you very much. Literally. He had these feathery white wings coming out of his back. We flew to space every night and napped on different stars.”

I snuggle deeper against you. My pressed weight must hurt a little, but you don’t protest.

“Never imagined a wedding for myself,” I say. “Expensive. Too many eyes. Plus, it’d have to be in a church.”

“You know there are other kinds of weddings, right?”

“Not that I’ve seen. It’s always a church. You know I still go every Sunday? It’s not like I believe. A lot of my customers knew Ma and Pa from church, and they’re the kind of judgy folks to take their business elsewhere if I stopped showing up. So I’m there in my Sunday best every morning. I swear mass is getting longer for no reason.”

“I hear you. And there’s a new offering every week.”

“Right? Donate to the motherless babies. Donate to the baby-less mothers. It’d help if the priest was hot, but yeesh, let’s just say that Princess Ife won’t be making a tune about their faces anytime soon.”

Laughter makes your chest rumble. “I go too,” you say. “Habit mostly. But I think I still believe. Not in the church and its hell gospel, but in something bigger than us. A powerful thing that loves me the way I am, makes life worth living.”

A thought surfaces, the kind I know to keep to myself. This time, I let it out.

“You don’t need some made-up entity to love you the way you are. I love you the way you are.”

You scoff. “Shut up before my dark ass starts blushing.”

“Listen. I’m serious. Feels like I’ve been waiting to die these past few years. That’s it. Just live to die and become nothing forever. Maybe that’s why I never bothered to talk to anyone online before you. It couldn’t go anywhere in a place like this; it couldn’t mean anything. But I was wrong.”

“Oh wow,” you say. Your voice falters slightly on the wow. “Yeah. Well, I appreciate that. I guess I’m used to other guys just wanting to fuck from the get-go. With us, you took the lead to chat about stuff that actually mattered.”

“Exactly! It sounds corny, but I cherish our conversations with all my heart.”

“They’re nice for sure. Like a few days ago, this guy was online. His roommate was out, some weed party in Ikoyi, so he had me come over, we fucked, it was over in five minutes. Don’t get me wrong; it was fun. Hot sex with hot guys always is. But I didn’t even get his name. It got me to appreciate how different our vibe is. I think the past few weeks will make our first time at the hotel feel amazing.”

You continue talking. There’s a strip of cheap hotels near your barbershop, and you think we might be able to book a junior deluxe room in one of them by September. I lose track of what follows. The rain has stopped falling now, and a light breeze billows in its aftermath. On my skin, it is an icicle’s stab, burrowing past flesh, past vein and blood, sinking deeper.

“I thought you deleted the app,” I say, cutting you off mid-sentence.

Your brows crinkle in a frown. “Oh no, I didn’t. I mean, I’m not online all the time, but if I’m done with class or work and get a random craving, it’s there, right?”

“Right.” 

I stand, wipe the water off my face.

“Are you okay?” you ask.

“Yes.”

“You sure?”

“Absolutely.”

“I know we don’t really talk about other men. Just figured our business is our business.”

“Of course. I get that.”

“Especially because I’m probably heading home after school next year. At least for a little bit while I figure out what comes after.”

“Yep, yep.” I almost glance at my wrist for a watch I don’t have. “It’s getting a bit late, no?”

“Oh damn, it is. Time flew by with Princess Ife. Thank you again for that. The nostalgia hit hard tonight.” You kiss me. It seems so unsanitary now, the exchange of saliva and bacteria, the bruise of your lips, the wet stench of you. “Same time next week?”

I manage a nod.

You say you’ll text me soon.

I stop at the base of the hill, its many smells ripened by rainwater, the penance briefly paid for something better, a beautiful view, a warm touch.

As always, you descend Salamander Hill first. But I don’t follow five minutes later. Gravity pulls me right back down, and hours pass before I’m moving. I stop at the base of the hill, its many smells ripened by rainwater, the penance briefly paid for something better, a beautiful view, a warm touch. 

Questions rise. How many? How often? For how long? Right after our moments together, or many days later? They gather until I’m on my knees again, until I’m one with the buzzing flies.


August 7—Saturday

It is an hour after midnight, and the bucket near Ndubisi’s bed is almost full. It catches stray droplets from the bygone rain, their plops like sirens in the silence.

We meet in the realm of 1s and 0s.

Your exposed chest stands out as familiar.

I type.

“Hi.”

A second passes. 

Another. 

You reply.

“Hey. New to the area?”

“Wanna fuck?”

“I have roommates,” you reply. “Can you host?”

“Yes. Got any pics?”

You send eight. Each one, faceless but undeniably you, plunges my stomach further down until I’m struggling for air. There are front and back body shots, a zoomed-in picture of your fist around your penis, a bent-over picture of your ass bared open with your hands. From this angle, you couldn’t have taken it by yourself. One photo shows your condom-wrapped penis halfway inside another’s ass.

“Got any?” you ask.

I send you the nude pictures I pulled from the internet only minutes ago. Across the room, Ndubisi stirs and mumbles in his sleep.

“Hot as fuck,” you reply. “Where are you?” 

“Surulere. Face pic?”

“I don’t send that.”

Liar.

“Goodnight.”

Seconds become minutes. I worry that you will not respond anymore, but there it is, a darkened selfie of you in bed. You are shirtless. There is just enough light to make out your fresh stubble, your winking eye, your stuck-out tongue. My vision blurs behind a liquid wall. The ache is unbearable.

“Where in Surulere?” you ask.

Every motion afterward seems disjointed, as if I am outside my body watching it self-operate. I take screenshots and navigate to the aliased Facebook account I created 30 minutes ago. I click on your father’s profile and introduce myself as an old secondary school classmate from Abia, concerned about evidence of his son’s wayward behavior. I send him all the pictures. 

On the app, you send a second message: “Still there?”


August 8—Sunday

I know what kind of day it is from the early morning’s smell of eggs and sardines. A lumpy garbage bag sits in a bedroom corner, its many sides protruding from the ends of empty bottles. Ndubisi has a plate of sandwiches ready for me in the kitchen. 

He asks if I slept well.

He asks if he can accompany me to church.

He squeezes a 50-naira note into the first offering’s collection bowl.

On the walk back to the apartment, he breathes in the sunny air and wipes forehead sweat on his wrinkled but clean-smelling long sleeve.

“Inspiring sermon,” he says.

“Very,” I reply.

When we arrive, I help him dump the garbage bags in the overflowing bin behind our building. Later that afternoon, power returns, and he asks if I want to watch a rerun of an old Super Eagles game. My phone buzzes with a text from you.

“Go ahead, bro,” I tell Ndubisi. “I’ll join you soon.”

“Heading to the cyber cafe this evening,” he replies. “Going to have them format my CV so I can send out some job applications this week.”

“You’ve got this, bro.” 

He smiles like he’s just won the lottery and pulls me into a brief sideways hug. From beneath the kitchen sink, I pull out a fresh bag and leave it in the same corner of our bedroom. In a few weeks, it will bloat enough to rip in several tiny places.

I close the door behind me and push my back against it and inhale. There is not enough oxygen to restore calm. “Yes,” I text you. “Now is good.”

You call immediately. Crackling engines and a hundred conversations mingle in the distance, forcing you to raise your voice. I hold my breath, uncertain of what you’re about to say.

“Hey!” There is a smile in your voice. “How are you?”

“I’m okay. Ndubisi and I just got back from church. Everything okay? Where are you?”

“I’m at a bus stop. It’s so crowded here. I keep checking my pockets every ten seconds to make sure my wallet hasn’t disappeared.  Hold on. Yep, still got it.”

I wonder if my chuckle sounds just the tiniest bit different to you. “Are you going somewhere?”

“Dad called. He’s fallen sick. Very sick, it sounds like. Never heard him so shaken before. He needs to see me for a few days.”

For the last 36 hours, I’ve struggled to ignore my body’s silent war: chills pricking my arms, abdominal cramps, fragments of us on Salamander Hill circling my mind’s edge, struggling to break in. For a few seconds longer, I keep them at bay.

“Oh no,” I say. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“It means we won’t be able to meet this Friday.”

“That’s fine! I appreciate the heads-up.”

“Yeah.” You pause for long enough that I rely on the background roar of gala-meat hawkers and bus conductors to know you’re still there. “I realized something this weekend.”

“What’s that?”

“Dad is a strong man. Extremely proud. When I heard how afraid he sounded on the phone, it scared me too. The first thing I wanted to do was see you. I feel so calm when you hug me. Just hearing your voice is comforting. I’m sad we won’t meet on Friday.”

Strained images, circling faster and faster. “Me too. You know I’m always here for you.”

“I know. And I know our last conversation was a bit weird. That’s a hundred percent on me. Stuff you said reminded me of Vanessa. All the feelings I struggled to feel for her, I kept trying to pretend they didn’t exist for you. Truth is, all I ever wanted was a nice distraction. It scares me that you’ve become so much more than that.” Your voice drops. “But I’d be a fool not to say this. I think you’re a beautiful man. I love when you play with my beard. I could listen to you talk for hours and kiss you for days. As soon as I get back, I’m booking that hotel room for you and me.” 

My shaking phone is pressed against my ear hard enough to leave a mark. I almost say the words.

Don’t go home.

Never go home again.

But you would ask why as if I knew why I’d done it, and my silence would resound against Ndubisi’s chants reverberating from the living room. Years-old games animate him like this. First comes his pitchy ode to the players: “Who sabi fight Super Eagles; who fit pass Okocha!” Then the celebratory thumps of his fists against walls, enough to whiten our frayed carpet with a layer of plaster. Our carpet is the age of memory. It pools at the edges with ceiling water when a storm descends, with the drip of Ndubisi’s clothes after another post-bar rescue from rancid gutters. It seems cosmic now, the sound of his voice, me and him entwined ever since drink or lust turned Pa toward Ma’s legs. 

“I’m so sorry,” I want to tell you. Instead, I say, “Have a safe trip, Kelechi.”

There is a beep when the call ends, the remnant of you and me. A final mocking melody.



Vincent Anioke is a software engineer at Google. Born and raised in Nigeria, he now lives in Canada. His short stories have appeared in Carve Magazine, Pithead Chapel, Split Lip Magazine, and Bending Genres, among others. He was shortlisted for the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize and is currently working on his debut anthology. Find him on Twitter at @AniokeVincent.

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