The nights in Lomukura are like sin – hot as lust sometimes and cold as murder when one least expects it. On this night, invisible flames lick at my body as a choir of mosquitoes sings around my head. I wake up and cover my face with both hands when pain sears my eyeballs. It’s so bright; why is it so bright? It can’t be morning yet, and I am certain I turned off the lights. Sound booms through the air, and I tumble to the floor. The door to my motel room slams open, and a figure silhouetted against the bright light streaming in yells, “Grab your camcorder, Guma! We’re going to record history.”
The high-pitched voice of my partner, Akech, registers over the pounding of my heart. She strides into the room, reaches down, and yanks me to my feet. I tug denim trousers on and she shoves a bag into my arms. I stumble with the unexpected weight of my equipment and run after her, sliding into the passenger seat of an old Jeep and turning on my camcorder to aim into the sky at a thick trail of white dust. Akech chatters without pause next to me, driving like a mad woman and ordering me to miss nothing.
“A meteorite!” she exclaims, “This one is going to land in Kotido, I think. OMG, Guma, we’re going to be the first there! We’re going to get the news first!”
A meteorite? I clutch the camcorder to my chest when the car bounces hard; we’ve got to a rough stretch of road, and Akech isn’t slowing down. My brow furrows; I try to dig up the meagre information about meteorites buried in the recesses of my mind.
The word streaks through my mind and I blink against the now fading light. The light! Of course! We’re chasing the meteorite’s trail. Boyish exhilaration hums in my blood and I duck my head to look at the sky, grinning. Akech catches my grin when she turns to glance at me and returns it.
“The NTV crew is going to be so annoyed we got there first!” she gloats, and I laugh. “Don’t jinx it, Akech.”
She scoffs and makes a sharp turn that has me holding on to the dashboard. Up ahead, the first signs of human life start to appear; small huts scattered along the sides of the road give way to the more modern buildings and the signs welcoming us to Kotido town. The town centre is more awake than is expected at this time – lights blaze in the windows and men stand in small groups everywhere, some holding weapons.
“They think they’re being attacked by rebels or something. Ignorance,” Akech mutters. She slams the brakes, and we’re both thrown forward. She leans out of the window and curses at the woman who huddles in front of the car, clutching a crying infant to her chest. A second explosion blasts through the air, sending the woman and other people running, and bringing a broad smile to Akech’s face as she restarts the car.
“This is going to be legendary.”
Dust particles float into my eyes and I blink them away as we approach the place where the meteorite fall is centred. With the light from the fireball gone and the sky filled with dust, it’s dark, and the lights from our jeep and another vehicle provide the only real illumination. A smattering of people is present, and even they linger at the edges of the scene, wary of the lone army truck parked at the scene. The army is here, but the press isn’t. We’re the first here and the triumph wafting from Akech is almost tangible. I follow her out of the Jeep, lugging the camcorder on my shoulder and smirking – she’s wearing nothing but the thin white sheet, but she’s holding on to the microphone and walking towards a large silhouetted object with intent in every step she takes. A soldier materializes in her path and holds out his hand.
“Madam, you can’t be here –”
“I’m with DTV,” she cuts him off, holding up a press tag. The soldier sneers. “This is a restricted area. You cannot record anything.”
Akech sighs and turns to me. “Guma, do you have anything on you?”
For a moment, I stare at her in slack-jawed confusion. “Anything?”
She widens her eyes and holds up her hand, rubbing her thumb and index finger together before repeating, “Anything.”
“Oh,” I say and reach into my back pocket. “Yeah.”
I purse my lips at the twenty thousand-shilling note I extract and hand it to Akech. She turns back to the soldier and murmurs, “Afande, you look like you’ve been working very hard. Here is a little something to buy you a sensible breakfast in the morning.”
The soldier takes the note with a laugh and lets us pass.
“Fuck!” Akech cusses as we get closer to the silhouette, “I hate that shit. We have to bribe our way through everything these days; it’s so annoying!”
She turns to me and asks, “Doesn’t it piss you off?”
It used to. I shrug and shift the camcorder to my other shoulder. “It’s part of the system. Nothing we can do about it.”
She laughs. “Shit, Guma, you’re so laissez-faire about this stuff. How are you even –”
Her voice breaks and she disappears from my view with a short sharp cry. My heart jumps into my throat and I drop to my haunches, aiming the camcorder at the ground.
“I’m fine,” Akech calls from the bottom of a crater about one and a half meters deep, coughing. In its centre, vapour emanates from a large black mass that gleams faintly in the light and rises to about a meter above the ground.
“Come on, Guma. Get me out of here so we can start recording,” Akech half-snarls, and I notice she’s holding her hand up. I set down the camcorder and haul her out of the crater but my gaze is trained on the crack running in a vertical line down the centre of the meteorite. There’s something intangible coming from that crack and calling to me – something I can’t see – and I take a step forward.
“This is going to be epic!” Akech exclaims, her voice quivering and jerking me out of the trance-like state I had descended into. She’s wiping dust off herself, and there is a manic grin on her face. I pick up the camcorder with a smile and stand, setting the device on my shoulder.
“Ready?” I ask. Akech nods and raises the microphone to her face, and we start recording.
“It’s 3.40 am in Kotido district, and I am standing in front of what might be the largest meteorite that has ever landed in Uganda…”
By the time the sun rises, the place is swarming with news crews and soldiers. Akech is beside herself with glee because we got a close-up recording of the meteorites; at about four am, more soldiers showed up and sealed off most of the area, leaving the latecomers to view the scene from its fringes.
“We’re going to make it to CNN and BBC,” Akech says as we make our way back to the Jeep. I chuckle and climb into the vehicle. On the ride back to the motel, she demands that I work my “cameraman” magic to make her look like a goddess in that sheet. I’m so caught up in the exhilaration that comes from snagging a good story that the smell of smoke doesn’t register until Akech pulls up into the motel’s parking lot and flies out of her seat with a muttered, “What the fuck?”
People are milling all around the place, carrying basins and buckets. My eyes go from them to the block of rooms that makes up the motel. One of the eleven rooms is gone – burned down to nothing but charred pieces. I don’t realize that I have made my way towards it until I feel the soft touch of Akech’s hand on my arm.
“Guma,” she says in a small voice, “It was the room right next to yours. Damn, you were lucky.”
Some poor person didn’t have my luck. I can make out the shape of a human’s remains and the sickly white gleam of bones.
“There was someone in there,” I say, my voice hoarse. The smell of burnt flesh assaults my senses; I can taste it on my tongue, and I want to vomit. Akech shrugs and wraps her arms around her body. “Poor guy.”
She looks up at me, and there is sympathy in her voice when she says, “We have to report this story.”
A week passes. Akech was right; this story gives her the big break she’s been working years for. For a week, her face is on every news outlet, and the video of her standing before the meteorite wrapped in a white sheet has hit millions of views on YouTube. At the end of that week, something else has happened somewhere else and the excitement about the meteorite has abated. We do the last of our follow-up reports and head back to Kampala. The fire at the motel is a blip on the news, dismissed by meteorologists as an unrelated event. I couldn’t get it out of my mind then and now, as I sit inside the large room that doubles as my living room and bedroom, I can’t get it out of my mind.
“Man, it’s Saturday night!” my friend, Lawrence, exclaims from his position on my couch, “We should go to club and pull some birds.”
I drink deeply from a beer bottle and tilt my head back. “If you want to go to club, go. I’m not in the mood.”
Lawrence makes a huffing sound and sprawls across the couch, picking up the remote. He flips through a few channels, stops at one, and calls out, “Hey, man, check. They’ve found out who the guy who died in that fire was.”
My gaze snaps up to the flat screen television mounted on the gray wall; a man I recognize from one of those television award shows stands before the motel in Lomukura, gesturing at the blackened brick remains of the burnt room.
“Edriisa Mulondo was a hardworking teacher who had travelled to Karamoja to visit relatives. Little did he know that on that fateful night, his life would end in a fire whose cause remains a mystery.”
A picture of Edriisa fills the screen, and beer rises in my throat. He was tall – not just by Ugandan standards – and lean in that manner that people who have to hustle in life are. His hair was short, and most of his face was obscured by a bushy beard that sat beneath a squat nose.
“Ey, Assan,” Lawrence chuckles, “I don’t know if it’s too soon, but isn’t it funny how that guy looks like you? Like, man, they could’ve just used a pic of you and no one would tell the difference.”
My hand rises to touch the bushy beard that sits beneath my squat nose and I stare at the television. Yes, he looked like me. It could have been me. It should have been me. The thought comes from nowhere, and I know it’s true.
“Lawrence,” I say through a throat tight with terror, “You still want to hit the club?”
I know, even before Lawrence’s car makes the turn towards my place the next morning, something has happened. Smoke rises from the neighbouring fenced compound, and women wail at the gate. The wailing escalates when two men roll a gurney with a covered body out of the gate.
“Fuck,” Lawrence whispers next to me, “Someone got roasted.”
He’s either oblivious to the panic in my eyes and the tension in my fisted hands, or choosing to ignore it. He peeks out of his window and calls out to the gate keeper.
“Ssebo, what happened there?”
“A young man got burned to death in his house,” the gate keeper responds in a nasal voice, “It happened at around four in the morning. One of the neighbours was awake; she says she saw a bright light, there was a small boom, and she smelt smoke.”
A bright light. I shake my head as Lawrence drives into the compound. It can’t be. Everything could be the result of two nasty coincidences. It’s impossible that a fireball could be going around killing people. I collapse into a chair once we’re inside and hunch over, holding my head in my hands.
“Guma,” Lawrence says, “I know what you’re thinking. It’s not your fault.”
I laugh. “If it’s not, this is some fucked up shit.”
He throws up his hands. “Man, you were at the club the entire night. Unless you’re on some Superman plot, there’s no way you could’ve zoomed back here, blown up that guy, and then zoomed back to club.”
“You’re trying to calm me down.”
“No, I’m trying to tell you the truth.”
I lift my head, stare at him for a moment, and pull my phone from my pocket and swipe across the screen.
“The truth,” I mutter, “You think you know the truth?”
My thumb moves across the screen. “Then tell me why the guy who just moved into the neighbourhood…”
My thumb freezes when I find what I’m looking for, and I have to clear my throat before I can continue speaking. “The guy I know they just rolled out of that gate…”
I shove the phone in Lawrence’s face and my voice goes up an octave. “Is a fucking carbon copy of me!”
His eyes open wide when he sees what I see and he raises his hand to rub his nape.
“Fuck, man,” he says, swiping his hand over his mouth, “Fuck.”
“Yeah,” I mutter. He sits down in the chair opposite mine and, hunching forward, asks, “What are you going to do?”
I say nothing.
The fire is on the news that night. The local news outlets are linking this fire to the one that occurred a week ago in Karamoja. The details are too similar. That, coupled with the emotional interview with Edriisa’s family that airs as a special feature on one of the channels, shoots the story to headline status. Why do the two victims look so similar? Why is the timing of the fires similar? Why can’t the fire brigade explain the cause of either of the fires? Could this be Uganda’s first high profile serial killer case? My decision is made for me when a policeman’s face appears on the screen and he says, “We already have a lead on this case. Rest assured that this killer will be caught soon.”
I have to leave. I don’t tell anyone when I leave. It’s pointless. Perhaps, I will leave them some sort of farewell message when I get to where I’m going. The drive from Kampala to the family farm in Masaka isn’t a short one. The small farmhouse is a lone feature in the middle of acres of farmland, and I’m surprised it’s in good shape. Inside, a thin layer of dust coats the white sheet covering the furniture. An old CRT television stands in its nook on a DVD player and, when I switch on the light, the bulb flickers, and yellow light fills the room. I carry my travel bag into the single bedroom and strip the bed of its dust-covered beddings before collapsing on it with a sigh. What shall I do with the last seven days of my life?
The seventh night comes, after seven idyllic days. As I lie in my bed, my heart beats a war cry against my sternum. My teeth chatter and I shiver. I sense things I paid little attention to before; the brick showing in the places in the wall where the paint and plaster have fallen away; the sound of crickets just outside my window; the smell of ripening maize wafting into the house from the farm; the roughness of the thin blanket I brought with me… I glance at the digital clock on the bedside drawer and swallow. 3.45 am. I shut my eyes. The flames will not find me watching.
The light flashes across my eyelids after a wait that felt eternal. The heat approaches by slow torturous degrees, and I pray – I who haven’t prayed in years. The last thing I expect is for a woman’s voice to call my name. I sit up and open my eyes. My eyes adjust to the brightness in the room, and my breath stills. I wonder if this is how all the men before me died, their breath taken away by the beauty they saw.
She is a body of multicoloured flames, pulsing with life, licking across the room to entice me. In her face, fire forms features like intricate glass – delicate and beautiful.
“Assan,” she smiles, “I’ve been looking for you.”
When her arms wrap around me, I close my eyes and let the fire burn into me. It should hurt but instead, it enfolds and caresses, like I belong in its hold.
I open my eyes and stare into glimmering eyes of lilac flames.
“Look at yourself,” she whispers, and I look down at my arm. My eyes widen and I draw in a sharp breath. Water flows in the shape of my arm where flesh should be and steam rises from our entwined bodies.
“Can you see it now?” she asks, “Fire and water were never meant to destroy one another.”
I feel my essence become one with hers and float into the air to seep through the tiny holes in the roof. And as we float above the clouds, beyond the clouds, and into dimensions unknown to humans, I finally remember the name of my fireball.