It was all over. Mzi hadn’t called Ntombi in twenty-four hours – he had just disappeared. He was in with Zakes – in too deep – and he was in trouble. Ntombi was sure of it. When she had got home from Olwethu’s she had tried to call him but all she had got was: “The person you want to speak to is not available. Please try again later.”

It felt like a slap in the face. Her instincts were to try again, to keep on calling until he picked up the phone, but she stopped herself. She switched off the phone that was driving her crazy with no new messages from him. But after the news from Olwethu she needed to know the truth. Where was he? Unavailable on some illegal mission with Zakes? Right this minute was Zakes  holding a gun to some innocent person’s head and demanding that they get out the car? Perhaps Zakes had asked Mzi to drive the BMW in to the panel shop, or else… And if Mzi had refused?

She could go to his house and check if he was okay, but she didn’t even know where he lived. She suddenly realised with a shock that she didn’t know much about Mzi at all – besides the things her friends had said. She didn’t know what stuff he liked doing, what his favourite music was, what his dreams were. And what did he know of her? How could he say he adored her, when he didn’t even know her? Was it just how she looked? Did he care what she was like inside?

She thought of Priscilla’s words at the disco: “Be careful… Why would Mzi go out with a girl like you? … He does everything for a reason…”

And when she had tried to tell him about the singing competition and how she had been asked to write lyrics, she wasn’t sure he had even heard her. He had been so distracted. But what did her father say? “Never judge a book by the cover.” She couldn’t judge him before she knew the truth, and she needed to hear it from him. Perhaps the way he wanted more when they were down at the river was normal. After all she had never even really kissed a boy before.

As if to echo her mood it had started to rain outside. This was really going to be a blue Sunday. She watched as a group of girls she recognised from school walked past on their way to church. If she had been feeling better she would have joined them, but how could she pretend to be happy when all she wanted to do was crawl under the blankets and go back to sleep?

Her mother and sister were all dressed up in their church clothes and Zakes was joining them. That was the worst, thought Ntombi. What a liar he was. He would go to church, pretend to care, and then go out and hijack some innocent person. In fact, speaking of the devil, Zakes had just driven up and was opening the car doors for her mother and sister to get in. It made Ntombi sick.

She watched as they drove off. Just then Olwethu came around the corner, and it looked like he was headed for her house. Ntombi quickly went to brush her hair and clean her teeth. She didn’t want him to see her like this – a mess over a boy she knew he didn’t trust. She was ready for him when he knocked on the door. “Not at church?” he laughed.

“Speak for yourself,” she joked back. It was good to laugh. It felt like forever that she had been caught in anxiety and confusion.

“Do you think Zakes thinks he can pray for forgiveness and everything will be fine – as easy as pressing a button and you’ve got a ticket to forgiveness whenever you need it? I don’t know how he can sit there in church and sing hymns, when he’s planning to go out and rob someone the very next day. I’ve tried to get my mother to see sense but she just refuses…”

“I guess we all need someone to love,” Olwethu said, and suddenly he was serious. “She must be lonely with your dad gone. You can’t blame her for wanting some company…”

“But Zakes? You think she’d have more sense.”

“She did seem to pick the rotten apple in the basket,” Olwethu smiled again. “Rotten in the core, with a sweet exterior. Wait till she bites into the bad part. She’ll spit him out really quickly.”

“Do you think so?”

“It’s just a matter of time. I just hope she doesn’t get hurt in the meantime. But talking of hurt…” He turned to Ntombi and rested his fingers on her arm.

“I’m fine,” she said. She really didn’t want to talk about Mzi. She still wasn’t sure how she felt. Olwethu hesitated; it was like he wanted to ask her something but couldn’t think of the right words.

“Ntombi…” he started.

“What is it?” Ntombi suddenly felt scared.

“I have to go away for a few days. You know what I told you about Zakes and the cars? Well, the police came around again, asking more questions.”

“Yes?” Ntombi didn’t like where this was going.

“Well, my uncle made a decision yesterday. He went to the police and told them what had happened. It was a dangerous thing to do, because if Zakes found out… but he couldn’t live with it anymore. Now the police are planning to catch Zakes and his gang red-handed. They are just waiting to catch them when they bring the next cars in to be spray-painted. One of the policemen is at my uncle’s garage right now, dressed as a mechanic…”

“Oh God,” said Ntombi.

“That’s why I have to go away. I don’t want to, but my uncle insisted. It’s for my safety and the safety of my family. If Zakes and his gang find out that I know something, or if they find out about the police, they will come for revenge. Do you understand? Zakes might not seem all that bad, but when someone crosses him and his amajita, you don’t want to be there.”

“I’m really sorry,” said Ntombi. She didn’t know what else to say. Somehow, because of her mother, she felt responsible.

“It’s not your fault. Your mother doesn’t know anything about this. But it’s really important that we just act normal, like nothing’s happened, for a little while longer. You can’t tell your mother anything – not till Zakes is safely behind bars.”

“I understand,” said Ntombi. “Is there anything I can do?”

“Yes, there is,” said Olwethu. “I want to be able to check on you and your family to make sure you are okay. And I want you to have my number. I want you to promise me that you will phone, if anything happens.”

Ntombi went to fetch her cellphone, switched it on and added Olwethu’s number to her contact list then SMSed him hers. Suddenly, a message popped up on her screen. She tried to hide the expression on her face from Olwethu – the message was from Mzi.

When Olwethu had gone, Ntombi stood at the door and read the message quickly.

Hy gal..srry hvnt spoken 4 so long- lent my sista my fone wen she went 2 hospital- cnt w8 2 c u – lot I nid 2 tl u…

Ntombi felt relieved. So that was why he hadn’t SMS’d her. He’d leant his phone to his sick sister. But he wanted to see her again, and he wanted to talk. That was good, everything would be explained. There had been a reason why he hadn’t called. A good one.

Before she had a chance to reply to Mzi’s message, a silver BMW cruised down the road towards her. Surely it was too early for church to be out already? The car pulled up, and Ntombi expected to see Zakes get out smiling, now that he had tried to buy his forgiveness. She could just imagine him in church trying to make a deal with God: “If you forgive me God, I promise to only hijack one more car… seriously…”

But it wasn’t Zakes who got out of the car. It was Mzi, and he was holding a huge bunch of roses.