06:10 A.M. EST


The word echoed through his dreams. Sometimes in English, sometimes Russian. Though it was difficult to differentiate between them. He was diving from the harbor wall yet again, and for the first time. The slap of cool seawater a blessed relief from Djibouti’s night-time heat; a shield against the bullets spiraling after him, their fury spent against the effortless resistance of the ocean.

It was hard to swim with a broken arm. At least, he was pretty sure it was broken. It hurt. He couldn’t move it. He kicked hard with his feet, bare and bloody, pushing deeper into the water, praying to the Almighty that he was headed in the right direction. That his SOS had gotten through.

He was more worried about his eyes than his arm. The right was OK – at least he thought it was – but the left was closed shut and burning, the sting of it far worse than saltwater against a bleeding eyelid.

Morosov had used battery acid.

His body was arching upward now, seeking the surface. He came up in the pitch black, maybe twenty-five meters from the jetty. A couple of torches were flailing wildly in the darkness, their beams too weak to pick him out, even if they somehow managed to find him. He rolled onto his back, breathing in the hot, tropical air, and kicked out like a frog, careful not to break the surface with his legs. This far out, his bedraggled body would be invisible to flashlights, but the frothy splash of water would not. He kicked on doggedly, heading to a scuffed, concrete jetty and the lee of a small cargo ship. There was a name for the way he was swimming, he thought, even if the style had never made it to the Olympics. He just couldn’t remember. And his left eye was killing him.

The flashlights had disappeared. Polukhin and Morosov would be considering their options. They could run to the jetty far quicker than he could swim, but they’d need to think to do it.

Please, God, let them go the other way.

He reached his destination, the stern of the cargo ship towering above him; the name Excelsior stenciled across it in pale, rust-pocked letters. He found a set of steps onto the dock, but he was too exhausted, too injured, to pull himself up. His head dipped below the water. Came up once.


But not a third time. He was going to drown within a meter of safety. It was OK, he realized. He was tired of it all, anyway.

Please, God, don’t let it hurt too much.

As if God had ever answered his prayers.

And then, as if to spite him, a miracle. Someone grabbing him by the shoulders, hauling him safely above the waterline.

‘We’ve got you, mate. Don’t worry. You made it.’ The accent was crisp and well rounded. Tea parties, and manor houses, and red-coated palace guards.

He remembered the name of the swimming stroke he’d been using.

Backstroke. English backstroke. He couldn’t help it. He started to laugh. And once he started, he couldn’t stop.

‘You’re listening to Morning Edition on WESA 90.5 FM Pittsburgh, National Public Radio. Today: city sanitation workers are out on strike for the first time in…’

Greg Abimbola’s right eye cracked open. There was sweat on his forehead and his heart was thumping against his ribcage. He forced himself to take slow, easy breaths, staring into the distance until his brain attuned itself to reality.

It was still dark. Winter wouldn’t start spending its tightfisted allowance of daylight for at least a couple of hours yet, and the inside of the apartment’s dormer window was coated with ice.

A cold one, then.

He swung his legs out from under the duvet and sat on the edge of the bed, bare feet sinking into the carpet. After a moment or two, he padded into the living room, a loud yawn drowning out NPR’s cheerful recitation of municipal discord. The living room was spotless, hard surfaces gleaming with polish, soft ones vacuumed to a showroom finish. Freshly painted walls hosted carefully curated fine-art prints and several rows of books: Even though most of the furnishings remained the same, his landlord, more accustomed to Pitt students than neatniks, would have had difficulty recognizing it. The thought brought a smile to Greg’s lips.

This place, he reminded himself, was a real shithole.

Except the word he used wasn’t ‘shithole’. It was ‘trushchoby’.

‘English, you idiot.’ The words sank without force into the apartment’s sloping wall/ceiling. The apartment was at the top of the building, an undergrad-infested rowhouse in the middle of Bloomfield, so either word worked. There was nothing on the other side except battered slate, and maybe some sleet. He could hear its gritty pitter-patter against the windowpane.


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Excerpt from A QUIET TEACHER published by Severn House Publishers. Copyright © 2022 by Adam Oyebanji.