Lungs still burning, Grace ran with a crowd of students across the soccer field towards the makeshift exit in the school fence, but the soldiers, guessing their escape plan, rolled in their Casspirs towards it, rifles ready. Fear became the fire in her throat, the burning of her insides, the liquid running down between her legs.
All running together, but each alone, the students’ race against the soldiers seemed futile to Grace even as she ran with the herd. There was nowhere to hide, just the soccer field with no chalked lines and browning patches. Throats on fire, they ran the length of the field, not daring to look up or back or around. Johnny had disappeared. With skin and eyes burning, tears and snot streaming down her face, Grace shot forward with the crowd.
Another dull pop echoed across the field. Another teargas canister launched at them, thudding on the earth. Faster they ran, trying to outrun the convoy rolling towards the stream of kids congealing at the hole in the fence. Turn around or continue forward? Everyone else kept moving forward, so Grace stayed within the safety of numbers.
At the hole, the group bottlenecked. Dancing to the invisible flames of teargas, some fell, while others trampled over prostrate bodies in their haste to get through the gap that allowed passage to only one person at a time. Grace felt herself being pushed up against the fence. She managed to break free. As the stream of children halted, she took a gap and decided to leap through the fence. She was about to step through the hole when her knees collapsed and her body hit the ground. The noise of the approaching armoured trucks deafened her. She felt harsh rubber soles treading into her back. Then unseen hands lifted her quickly, securely, and shoved her through the fence. She turned back for a second, expecting to see him, but there was no recognisable face, just an endless blur of children crowded at the gap.
“Move!” they chided, and Grace started running again. Students scattered in all directions as a volley of shots rang out. Grace saw a house ahead of her and she ran for it. She clambered over the low front wall and lay down behind it, hoping she was hidden. More shots rent the air. These were sharper than those that had released the teargas. She crawled around the garden keeping to the wall, then scaled an intersecting fence, dropping into the neighbouring yard. Through a window, a woman her mother’s age screamed, “Get out! Don’t come running through my yard! Do you see me looking for trouble?”
Grace slipped through a side gate and for the first time since the protest began, her limbs relaxed a little. A full block away from the soldiers, separated by a double row of houses, she slowed to catch her breath. Unless they jumped out of the vehicles to start chasing on foot, she was safe. She slowed down, turned and saw a plume of smoke rising from the school grounds. The last part of her journey home was a blur. Her legs were the consistency of rubber by the time she reached the yellow house on Saturn Street and unlocked the front door and the metal security gate. Inside, as she sank to the floor, a terrible thought screeched into consciousness. What if they’d followed her, could see her through the lace curtains?
She crawled against the faded white couch and stayed there, for how long she didn’t know. Waiting. Waiting. Examining the cracks in the unpolished wooden floor. Holding them with her eyes as though her life depended on it. Guarding the tiny specks of white sand, blown underneath the door by the terrible howling wind. How neatly the grains lined up against the edge of the threadbare, fraying carpet. Taking in the dirty-orange rug, speckled with brown; watching where the grains of sand had settled and nested, like tiny eggs, into its fibres. Watching one ant, then another making its way across the living room. Feeling nothing.
This was the kind of magic Grace had learned in this house. How fixing your eyes on one thing, just one little thing – say a crack in the wall – could make everything else disappear: your parents, their shouting, the wind, the snap of fist upon flesh. The sound of Casspirs circling, the fevered cries outside, her limbs, her own body – none of these existed after Grace tuned them out. She became a mind, a pure mind, floating on the thing she’d chosen to fix on. She could project her entire being on that crack in the wall, that speck of white sand. It held her. It got her through whatever was raging on the outside.
Mary was late from work that evening. By the time her key turned in the lock Grace had got off the floor, but she was sitting hunched up on the couch in the darkening living room.
“Grace! Oh thank God!”
Mary’s eyes were wild as she rushed over to her daughter and pulled her to her.
“Why haven’t you switched on the lights? All I saw as I was coming up the road was darkness!”
She let go of Grace and rushed around the room again, flicking on every switch as if to ward off evil, then sat back down next to her daughter, embracing her.
“What happened today?”
“Why won’t you tell me?”
Mary reached into her bag, not waiting for an answer, and produced from it a box of cigarettes. She lit up and inhaled. Sitting up straight, it looked as if she was bracing herself for something.
“Grace,” she said, blowing smoke at the ceiling, not looking at her, “Johnny is gone. Her voice was soft and low. It was the same benevolent voice she used to deny Grace something she could not have.
Grace retreated deeper into silence, although her eyes searched for her mother’s.
“They think the cops shot him at the school,” said Mary. “They think he was helping the others to get out. No one has seen him since this afternoon. The police came out and ran into the school grounds. Did you see him? Do you know anything, Grace?”
Words were spilling out of Mary – incomprehensible, senseless words that Grace wanted to stop.
“I just came past their house. Rowena is in a state…!”
Grace fought the urge to hit her mother in the mouth in order to stop the stream of words.
“…Tim has driven everywhere, all the hospitals and police stations…”
After a waterfall of words, Mary fell quiet, staring into the distance and dragging on her cigarette, lost in her own world again. Grace wanted to scream, but the fog of cigarette smoke and silence choked her, strangling any sound. Instead, she looked at her fingernails, inspecting the arch of the white tips against the pink nail beds and the frayed bits of cuticle sticking out of her left ring finger.
Her mother sighed, smoothed down her hair and got up to go to the kitchen. Grace heard the lid of the kettle, a sharp stream of water and a click of a switch. She went back to examining her nails.
Mary emerged with two cups of tea. “Drink!” she ordered.
Ever the obedient daughter, Grace did as she was told until she’d drained every drop of the strong, sweet tea.
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