THE HARROWING OF SUBURBIA: By Verem Nwoji, Winner Of The Random Photo Journal Prize for Creative Writing 2024

It was a hot afternoon in April, much like this one, the sky was a perfect deep blue without a single cloud. Laying under the shade of the tallest tree in sight and looking up at its leaves and how they swayed so far out of reach, Ekene and his brother, Nehemiah decided to do the most unthinkably reckless thing they’d ever conceived to do in all their almost twenty-eight years combined. 

Nehemiah was the local heartthrob, fifteen days shy of turning fifteen, he was taller than most of the grown men and had a smile that could only be described as magnetic. Their mother was the talkative Igbo woman who seemed to be friends with everyone’s mother and the choirmaster. She was convinced that if she got Nehemiah to join the choir, the membership would at the very least double. Ekene knew all this because she’d told him so. 

“We need more girls with sharp sopranos, but none of them want to join because they think choir is only for old women, but if your brother joins us now, you’ll see how they will rush to join,” she said while grinding pepper on the stone.

“But Nehi can’t sing,” Ekene murmured.

“I know, he will learn to play drums, it’s not hard,”

But Nehi only cared about one thing in this world; basketball. During all their trips to Terminus Market, when Ekene would get button-down shirts and white socks and their little sister Cha-Cha would get black cover-shoes and overalls, all Nehi ever wanted was a Miami Heat jersey. 

“Choose something you can wear to church,” their mother scolded, picking out a navy blue shirt instead.

“This one is fine,” she declared and Nehi frowned all the way home.

“There are no basketball courts in the Angwa, how will you become a basketballer?” Ekene had asked him as they lay in bed that night.

“When there’s a will, there’s a way,”

That was nine months ago and almost like Nehi was some sort of New Testament prophet, the School of Agriculture that was just ten minutes away from their house soon found themselves with a new director who was a firm believer in ‘youth development through sporting activities;’ those were his exact words on the day he cut the ribbon and declared the new basketball court open to not just students but the entire community. 

On land that was once green pasture for wandering cattle now stood a gigantic slab of concrete and two poles with baskets welded onto them and a tall barbed wire finish around the perimeter. Dreams were coming true, and for the first time in his life, Nehi felt genuinely closer to becoming a pro baller. Despite its scenic landscape, the basketball court was not fated to be a utopia as a new challenge would arise, this time in the form of Brother Matthew. 

Brother Matthew was in his third year at the School of Agriculture, he was entitled and self-righteous. Everyone at church was so deceived by his almost boyish charm and his ability to quote scripture by heart that they couldn’t see him for what he truly was. It wasn’t long before he and his cohorts had usurped the entire court. 

Suddenly, there were so many rules when it came to who could and who could not use the court. 

“Young man you need basketball shoes,” he said with folded arms and brows pulled down to the bridge of his nose. 

Nehi had never needed shoes except for the sandals he wore to school and church, he’d always played football barefoot like all the other boys. Every evening, ten to fifteen boys would turn the stony field into a battleground and they had the calluses on their feet to show for it.

“This is basketball,” Kelvin, Brother Matthew’s short, barrel-chested and wicked-looking minion scowled, “you can’t play without the proper apparatus.”

Apparatus was such a strange word to Ekene, he believed Kelvin had made it up just so he could sound sophisticated. He’d later hear it on the lips of his P.E. teacher the next Friday, but it was only until he’d checked the dictionary at school that he accepted it to be a real word – a stupid one nonetheless.

Everyone knew the abandoned Shangco factory, their mother had said it was once a sock and footwear company managed by a nice German man who loved to ride a bicycle. It was shut down a month or so before Ekene was born and had long since been overrun by weeds and fallen into gated disrepair. 

Ezekiel Bot’s father was the leader of the neighbourhood vigilante division of the police, during the Jos Crisis of 2010, he’d mobilised over sixty men, all members of the community and confronted the attackers. No one died or was hurt badly that night except for Sarah Ilyia’s father who’d lost an eye. 

Since then, Ezekiel’s father became something of a local champion and the praise got to his head. 

“If he had his way, he would be judge, jury and executor in the angwa,” their mother had once said of him with an unimpressed frown on her face. It was almost like no one could convince him that he wasn’t a real police officer or a military commander. He walked around with the swagger of a man with great power when really he was a nobody. The vigilante had long since been disbanded but the glory days being over would be one fact that Ezekiel’s father would never accept. Every night at 9:30 he started his surveillance and he wouldn’t stop until the sun came up even in the bitter cold of January’s harmattan when the temperature fell as low as six degrees. 

While it made him a subject of ridicule most of the time, it also made him the first person to ask about anything, from the whereabouts of a missing goat to whether or not it seemed like something strange was going on at the abandoned Shangco factory at night.

And I know you’re already contemplating the all too predictable plot point where two thrill-seeking teenagers venture into an abandoned factory at night just because they can, honestly, I wish that was the case because at least then they’d be a little more deserving of what comes next.

Ezekiel had first heard it from his father, he then told his friend Dachung, who then told Sarah, who told Rhoda, who told just about everyone in JSS2B that there was suspicion that someone was back working in the factory. By the time the rumour had made its way to Ekene’s ears, it had been salted and peppered into a farce where the old German man who loved to ride bicycles had returned and begun producing footwear once again and bereft of any sense of mystique or danger.

But Ekene was a good boy who always loved to play it safe, he would not have contemplated going into the factory if not for what happened on the morning of a fateful Good Friday. 

Nehi and Ekene had been putting together every ten and twenty naira note their mother occasionally gave them to buy a snack at school, of course, she was unaware of the fact that, ten naira wasn’t enough to buy a sachet of pure water…or maybe she was aware but she felt like pretending like she didn’t know made her feel less guilty.

With savings of five hundred and fifty naira, the brothers bought a disgusting old pair of football boots from a classmate of Nehi’s and hand-stitched them back together. They showed up to the court beaming with pride. 

“Are you boys imbeciles?” Brother Matthew thundered before bursting into a holy laugh.

“You said we needed shoes,” Nehi stared so confused.

“Yes, basketball shoes, those are for football. Look at the spikes on it, do you want to damage our court?”

“But-” Nehi protested.

“Get out of here! Stupid boys,”

“We just want to…” Ekene tried next,

“My friend! Get out of here!” They knew better than to push their luck and left dejectedly.

Their mother was a firm believer in waiting on the Lord until six p.m. on a Good Friday, the reward at the end was usually a huge pot of rice and a spicy tomato stew with lots of fried chicken. 

She sent the boys out with a paint bucket filled with sweet tomatoes, peppers, onions and a little bit of ginger and garlic. They would grind the mixture for the stew at Mummy Joy’s house. The afternoon was hot and the boys felt half-deadened by the heat, only Ekene had been clever enough to sneak a sip of water when their mother wasn’t looking.

On their way back they took shade under the tallest tree in sight, with the old Shangco factory not so far out of view. They were silent for a while, just looking up at the leaves and how they swayed so far out of sight. 

“I’m never going to be a basketballer,” Nehi declared brokenly.

Ekene looked over his shoulder and for the first time in his life, he saw his brother cry. Their mother had always prided Nehi for being a real man, since he was a little boy, he never cried, not even if he was scolded, not even if he was spanked, not even when their father died.

Unlike his brother, Ekene was a crybaby, the ending of Titanic had him bawling so badly that their mother had to send him to bed early. Seeing his big brother cry made him want to cry too but that wasn’t a time for tears and Nehi certainly would not have appreciated them. What he would appreciate was a solution.

“Don’t tell anyone, but I heard that Shangco is back open,”

“What does that have to do with anything?” Nehi asked, wiping his tears away.

“Shangco makes shoes and socks, remember?”

“How do you know this?”

“Ezekiel told me that his father sees people driving vans into the factory at night, I think the old German man is back.” Ekene’s eyes grew mischievous.

“Then why won’t he open in the morning or in the afternoon?”

“Tax evasion,”


Ekene had learned the word in Business Studies class and had concocted the theory that the factory wasn’t operating in the daytime as a way of avoiding tax payments.

“Just think about how many shoes are inside that place, different colours, different sizes,”

“One for me, one for you,” Nehi was getting sold on the idea.

“I’m sure they won’t notice if one or two are missing.”

On Saturday morning, a lecture on The Efficacy Of Jesus’s Sacrifice On The Cross seemingly materialised out of nowhere. And just how convenient was it that all teenagers and young adults from the church were expected to attend regardless of whatever chores their mothers had planned out for them? And of course, Nehi and Ekene simply could not dream of not attending. 

Their mother fell for it and let them go and all the while she thought her boys were in church taking down notes, they were standing by the barbed wire fence of Shangco.

They traced the fence for about five minutes until they found a place where the earth had been washed by erosion, leaving behind a hollow under the fence.

“You’ll fit inside this place, go first then when you cross to the other side, hold the fence up so I can cross too.”

Ekene did as his brother had asked and soon, both boys were over to the other side.

“We did it!” Ekene exclaimed.

Shhh! We don’t know if there’s a security man,” Nehi said, soto voce as they treaded cautiously towards the main warehouse.

“If they’re keeping the sneakers anywhere, it’s right here,” Nehi added.

They made it to the large wooden entrance, it was fortified by at least four padlocks and a seemingly infinite ring of chains. 

“It’s locked, we have to find another way in,” Ekene started to look around, “let’s check the other side,”

They walked to the left side of the brick warehouse, up above, they noticed a small window left slightly ajar. 

“How do we make it up there?”

“I’m thinking,” Nehi took a few steps backwards to get a better view, there was a fire escape that came fairly close to the edge, but not close enough. Someone would have to jump.

“This is crazy,”

“Let’s go back!”

“What if you fall?”

Nehi had his mind set and no amount of begging from Ekene could change it. Soon they were at the edge of the steel stairs. He planned to hold Ekene’s hand as far out as possible for support while he grabbed the ledge then pulled himself up and in through the window.

“Be brave,” he said before he took Ekene by the hand, “oya, reach for the ledge,”

“I’m scared,”

“Do you want the shoes or not? Reach!”

Ekene reached out and grabbed the ledge, Nehi moved his second hand down to Ekene’s buttocks for support.

“Now, let go of my hand and hold on with both hands, I won’t let you go.” Ekene nodded and slowly let go, now suspended by both hands. Nehi’s other hand came down to Ekene’s hips and with all the strength he had, he pushed his brother up until he fell into the window.

“I’m in,” Ekene panted exhaustedly.

Now it was Nehi’s turn, with no one to hold him for support he would have to jump. He took a few steps backwards then ran up, vaulting off the railing, well aware of the fact that if he failed to catch the ledge, he’d be plunging to certain death.

He caught it, with both hands, Ekene grabbed his shoulders and pulled him in.

“Thank you, Jesus, thank you, Jesus,” Ekene was almost in tears so they sat for a few minutes until both of their hearts had stopped pounding as hard. 

Down the flight of stairs to the lower deck of the warehouse was only pitch darkness and dust. When their eyes finally adjusted to the darkness, they suddenly could see all the many wooden boxes and crates. Their hearts started to pound again, this time, out of excitement, their hearts would pound even harder after they opened the first crate.

“Are those?” Ekene was too afraid to even say the word.

“Guns, we need to leave this place now,”

“Hey! What are you doing here?!” right on cue a lanky man with a metal rod in his hand popped seemingly out of nowhere.

“Run!” Nehi grabbed Ekene’s hand and they fled up the stairs, the panic replaced any sense of danger for Nehi, he jumped out the warehouse window and onto the fire exit with no trouble, he stretched his hand out for Ekene.

“Jump, I’ll catch you,” he said but Ekene was frozen by fear.

“Jump!” It was too late, the lanky man grabbed him before he could jump.

“Run Nehi, run!” he shrieked as he was pulled back into the warehouse.

And so Nehi ran, how was he going to explain this to his mother, to anyone?

Verem Nwoji was born in Jos Nigeria, He has been writing for several years and is the author of the self-published poetry collection, “Outside.” He was also a finalist for Ebony Life and Sony Pictures Television’s Alo Writer’s Initiative for his work in television writing. Among his many triumphs, the comic book; “The Adventures of Water Girl and Titania” which was both a critical and commercial success with his entire third-grade class is one he holds dearly. He has long since retired from the comic business; when he isn’t writing or fantasizing about starting the coolest indie-rock band ever, he’s probably in school studying to become a lawyer.