Fetta downs the pills on his locker. Simon plays with his red scarf as we wait for Fetta to explain everything to us. For a few moments it seems like he won’t say anything. His hair has grown a little longer than it was before he came into hospital. He looks cleaner from being able to wash. The last time I touched water was at the orphanage when Aunt Rita told us we could. I haven’t been washed by anything else besides the rain since then.
“Malibongwe is my real name,” Fetta tells us after a long silence. “I got the name Fetta in Juvi.”
This is a revelation. Simon doesn’t seem as shocked as we are. He must have known all this time.
“I spent most of my life in Juvenile,” he explains. He seems uncomfortable talking about this, but we all listen attentively, eager to get to know about this part of his life.
He tells us about growing up in Soweto. I’d always assumed that Fetta grew up here in Hillbrow. He seems to be known and respected by a lot of people. But he tells us that his parents moved to Hillbrow when he was thirteen and I guess that explains how he knows so many people.
“It was the fast life. A dangerous life.”
Fetta has a sibling too. It seems it’s only Luntu and I who’ve never had siblings.
“I don’t remember when I’ve ever been important to my parents.” He winces in pain when he tries to sit up.
Fetta’s dad was a drug lord, a well-known and feared drug dealer who based his business mostly in Yeoville. I haven’t been to Yeoville. Fetta always warns us away from it. It is a dangerous place, he tells us. His father was a big supplier and he would do anything to get his money.
Fetta says his mother was a drug addict. There was never a day she wasn’t high on heroin. He’d find her most days lying inside an empty tub with the needle injected into her arm. She rarely recognised them.
Fetta’s brother Sibusiso got mixed up with the wrong crowd too. He would have done anything to be praised by his father.
“I tried so hard not to be anything like him,” Fetta says. “I was the one who took care of Sibusiso even though he was older.”
Fetta was forced to quit school in Grade 5 and help in the business. He slaved away in his workshop, packaging and weighing drugs – something he didn’t want to be a part of.
“I don’t remember what kind of a person my mother was,” Fetta says. “It’s like she was never there.” His fingers trace the plastic peg that keeps the needle for the drip in place.
To him, life was all about surviving. There wasn’t time for things like emotions. He never allowed himself to feel as much as he should have. His home was an empty place with an even emptier woman who seemed to have been defeated even before she gave life a shot.
Fetta tells us how his mother smoked when she woke up and then injected herself back to sleep. It became a routine for her. She didn’t have the strength to care for Fetta, and his father was too busy trying to maintain his power to care about what was going on back at home.
“I sometimes missed going to school because it would distract me from my home life,” Fetta admits. I know what he felt like not wanting to be at home.
“That’s when I met Steve.”
He was fourteen at the time. Steve was no older and because he was rebellious he didn’t want to go to school. Fetta had someone to waste days with when he wasn’t working in the workshop or babysitting his mother.
Steve would show him around and they would spend the day with older guys who taught them how to smoke. Fetta got involved with the wrong crowd, doing anything and everything he needed to be part of Steve’s gang. Smoking seemed to take the edge off, Fetta says. When he smoked he forgot about his problems. He smoked every day just to forget about everything. He smoked cigarettes and weed then. He hadn’t stumbled across Nyaope, luckily.
“One day the cops came,” Fetta’s eyes glisten with tears. “They found my mom lying in the bathtub. She’d drowned. She was tired of living, even before she begun.”
I wonder if my mother would give up on me just like that.
“Sibusiso never came back home again. My dad fled the country because as the police were snooping around and I was sent to Juvi for dealing. I was caught with drugs on me.”
Fetta tells us he was sixteen when he went to Juvi. He was too young to be arrested and tried like his father should have been. He didn’t get time to grieve for his mother. Like everyone else, he expected the pain to just go away. He wasn’t immune to it, but he acted as though he was. He still does.
“I still haven’t allowed myself to believe that she’s gone. I hadn’t even gotten to know her when she died.” And then he cries and it’s disconcerting because he’s never cried before. We don’t know what to say.
Like all of us, Fetta has never had any other family except for his parents. When their lives fell apart, he had no one else to stand by him, to protect him or take him in.
“Juvi was home.” He tells us about the harsh life there and why to this day he’s scared when someone gets too close. He’s always felt suffocated.
“I can feel the walls closing in on me.”
“Why did you and Steve stop being friends?” Bonga asks when he becomes quiet for a while. I know that it must have been hard for Fetta to lose a friend. It’s never easy to lose someone close to you.
“My dad killed Steve’s father,” Fetta tells us.
I can hear the shame in his voice. He is ashamed of the man his father chose to be. A man who didn’t care about anyone but himself. A man who valued money and power over family. Fetta’s father didn’t even try to get Fetta proper lawyers who would at least help get him out of the mess he’d created. He ran to save his own skin. He hasn’t come back since.
“I still feel like a prisoner. I’m still not free of those thoughts and all the people he tortured and killed in front of me.”
I can’t imagine having to live with that. Steve hated Fetta after his father was killed. Everyone knew that Steve’s dad owed Fetta’s dad a lot of money. They knew he killed him. Fetta had no one else to count on. No one visited him in Juvi. He never heard from Sibusiso again.
“I sometimes wonder if Sbu is alive,” he tries to smile. “Maybe he is doing much better without us.”
“Visiting hours are over,” the nurse comes in to tell us. Fetta offers us a small smile. The pills are making him drowsy. He looks more tired.
“We’ll visit you tomorrow,” Luntu promises.
Fetta’s eyes follow us to the door. I wish we could stay with him until he feels better. He has always been there for us. He needs us, I see it in his faltering gaze.
Luntu holds the door for us to leave. We glance at Fetta. He looks more defeated than I’ve ever seen him.
“I’m not like him,” Fetta says desperately when we turn to leave. “I’m not like my father.”
The sun is setting as we walk home. Street vendors have called it a day but not the men who are patrolling the streets. Bonga once told me that private security companies have now taken over to try to reduce the crime levels in the city. The police are said to not be doing enough about the escalating crime. I have witnessed as much. No one wanted to do anything when Fetta was stabbed. I hope things will be different from now on. I hope criminals like Steve will no longer be free to harass us.
The evening is a rainbow of colours. Dark blue stretches into a bloody orange that turns to violet when I squint my eyes.
Simon leads the way. None of us has said anything since we left the hospital. We haven’t even gathered our thoughts since Fetta’s confession.
Fetta is my new hero. I find him brave for having survived everything his parents put him through. Juvi sounded like a scary place. No wonder Fetta is claustrophobic. My heart swells for him when I picture him in an orange jumpsuit behind bars that would have never offered him hope. I’ve never believed him stronger than I do today. I wonder if Fetta’s father is still alive. I wonder if Fetta hopes he will come back changed and be ready to love him as much as I hope my father does.
I take Bonga’s cold hand that reaches out for mine and squeeze it. His hands are rough against mine as we walk back to our building.
“You want me to help?” I ask Simon who empties the sack of wood onto the floor. I help break the wood into smaller twigs and make a pile of paper.
“Matches?” asks Simon. Bonga shakes his head.
“It’s Fetta who smokes.”
Luntu stands up, rubbing her dirty hands on her jeans. “I’ll ask upstairs.”
She takes a stick and a piece of paper before running up the stairs.
Simon paces up and down as we all wait for Luntu. She comes back with a burning stick and puts it in the pile of wood.
Simon sits on his heels as he stretches his hands over the growing flames. Luntu does the same as she sits cross-legged. I do too and draw my wobbly legs closer to my stomach. Tonight our stories are shared silently.