If he’d known there were only 4 minutes left, would he have turned right? Google maps told him the quickest route was through the sanitised neighbourhood, but he needed to think. And the snobby houses always seemed to sneer at him. There was something about the park that made him feel human, not just a reflection of those around him. The cool breeze comforted him and the dying swing set seemed to understand his turmoil. As he dragged his disintegrating shoes across the wild naturalness, the swings began to sway. As if saying goodbye.
She had 4 minutes to be there. Time. It was always about time. She buzzed open the windows and slammed down the accelerator. She couldn’t remember a time when her life wasn’t a mess of looming deadlines and expectations. And when her smiles were real and words unrehearsed. The price of success was not cheap. “That’s enough self-pity for today,” she muttered drily. She had investors to impress. 4 minutes. To hell with the speed limits. She had to do this.
If his brain knew it had 3 minutes to stay in his head, would it remind him of his woes? He made a sad figure, trudging through the skeleton playground, the oversized jacket billowing around his lean frame. He had to curl his toes to secure the flapping shoes. They weren’t his. He’d made sure to tip the gardener. Just part of the pretence he had spent his entire life living. He wished he could just be himself.
No…he wished he knew himself. Was he the boy with patched pants and a butter-bread sandwich? Or the young lad in trousers and a tie, eating with 3 types of forks? One of the ‘messed-up youngsters’ who snuck out with spray paint to colour the skate park? Perhaps he could give up the butter-bread boy, he thought bitterly. He hated butter. No reason to hide his melon cubes or whole wheat crackers and bean salad. No need to go to school an hour early so no one would see his mother’s car.
No need to hide in the last cubicle to change his Clarks to scuffed Toughies, to mess up his neatly combed hair, to switch his Totem bag for the old, faded one he found in the attic. Not that it helped. His accent and refined speech were like a sign on his forehead squealing, ‘Mock me!’ He tried learning their slang. That was a fail. He tried playing it tough, giving them some sass. Who knew, maybe the bruises meant they accepted him. He tried being nice. Honestly! After that, he gave up. He’d always be the joke, the one who didn’t belong. The nobody.
Three minutes until she could forget all about this deal. She glanced at the GPS. ‘Eight minutes until destination.’ It was a challenge. Growing up with nothing, everything was a challenge. No money? There’s no way you’ll get into University. She got a scholarship. Study away from home without us to support you? You’ll come running back to us in a week. She got two jobs and two hours of sleep. Find a man who wants you? She married him 6 months later. That was her problem. The need to prove herself. He left her a year later. With something she didn’t plan. Someone she didn’t want. A child she didn’t know how to love.
In 2 minutes, the faded brown jacket would not be so brown. He tucked his chilled hands into the rough pockets, finding a collection of cigarette butts. ‘Thabo did like his lung damage, ’he thought, exasperatedly shoving them into the pants pockets. Littering sickened him. Then he smiled. This was the last time he’d wear clothes that weren’t his. The last time he’d have to pretend. A new school. A new chance. They seemed to like him, accept him. He was already invited to a party; a book character dress up. It had seemed fitting to go as Oliver Twist, his last moment of hardship, before he’d seize the new opportunity for a rebirth. His mother would freak if she knew he was walking around in a new neighbourhood. If she even noticed he wasn’t in his room.
Six kilometres in two minutes? It was just as well that the road was empty this time of night. As the lights flashed passed, she thought of her baby. He was hardly a baby now. She knew that no good mother should be shocked at her child’s growth. She knew she should see him more. Family was not something she knew much about. Her own parents had showed her no affection and had no expectations of her. That’s what hurt her the most. The way they underestimated her.
She knew she didn’t make that mistake with her boy. She would read him the business section of the newspaper when most children would read Postman Pat. She didn’t waste his time with childish activities, but took him overseas for her business conventions. She sent him to one of the poorer schools so that he wouldn’t live a sheltered life. Although the new business contract meant they had had to move. Another thing she taught him: coping with change. She’d done all she could.
In his last minute, he thought of his future. Of the letter he had received from the Wolkstein Art Academy, inviting him to their prize-giving. He imagined telling his mother about his dream. Showing her his sketchpad, the canvasses in the attic and his graffiti at the skate park. He imagined being accepted, being allowed to become himself. He looked to the sky, watching the encouraging balls of gas, a rare smile stretching across his face. The headlights bounced off his teeth. His smile stopped. The car could not. For a second he was suspended, at peace. Then he came crashing down. He felt the pain. But it was disappointment that filled his mind. He almost had had a chance. But the world was against him. As the stars above him started to blur, he fumbled for his phone. The word echoed in his mind. ’Ma.’
She zeroed in on the conference centre. She was going to make it. Her BMW groaned with the effort. A triumphant smile spread across her face. Then there was a bump, a form against her windscreen, silence. A sickeningly audible crack. Silence. The silence told her all she needed to know. She remembered a flash of brown. It was a dog. It had to be a dog. She forced herself to look in the review mirror. There were four long limbs. All in unnatural angles. But four long limbs in a ragged brown coat. She knew she may go into shock, so she had to act now. She got out of the car, walked towards the conference centre making a few calls. Someone to sort out the car, another the body… Part of her knew this was wrong, but the rest of her understood. She worked hard to get where she was. She had a son to take care of. No homeless man would take that away from her. She took a few deep breaths. She had to compose herself. She had investors to impress.
In his last seconds, he heard the automated voice. ’The number you have dialled is unavailable.’