“One more thing,” Simon says as we return to our crib later. I am still feeling a little nauseous from the soup in the morning but it is better now.

Bonga smiles knowingly and I stare curiously at Simon as he strides across the room. Luntu collapses besides me onto the dusty floor, curling herself up as she does. Simon stands in front of the wall holding a piece of chalk. He scribbles something on the wall and I only see when he is done that it’s a skewed version of my name. I smile, a warm feeling tugs at my heart.

“This is part of the welcoming ritual. We didn’t welcome you officially last night,” he explains and comes to stand next to me.

“Part of the welcoming ritual?” I ask in confusion. I don’t know whether to be happy or afraid.

“It’s time for the official welcome,” Bonga chimes in and Fetta chuckles.

“Just a second,” he says, holding his index finger up before running up the stairs. He returns almost immediately with a bucket of water. Before I can figure out what is about to happen the cold water splashes over my body, soaking me to the bone, as they all chant a welcome and cheer for me.

“Blood,” Fetta stretches his hand out in front of him as the others join him placing their hands on top of his. They stare invitingly at me and I join them, my wet hands shaking beneath Bonga’s.

“In three,” he commands and after counting to three they all chant, “Blood!”

“This is our pact,” Fetta informs me as our hands are released. “No matter what happens, we will have each other’s backs. Are you for us?” he asks, his eyes boring holes into mine. I nod then, before I can think it through. I don’t have any other choice.

“Is there a new one left?” he asks Bonga who nods, producing a yellow box from the pocket of his grey trousers. I wonder anxiously what he is about to do next, as he holds out the sharp razor blade to me.

“The last one,” Bonga informs Fetta proudly, discarding the empty box as I nervously hold the cold metal in my hand.

“Cut yourself,” Fetta orders authoritatively as the others stare daringly at me. I look at Luntu, but she is staring at the floor.

“What?” my heart constricts as Fetta’s eyes confirm his seriousness. Closing my eyes, I try to steady my shaky hands and, as gently as l can master, I knick the flesh on my arm.

“Enough,” Fetta stops me as the blood runs down my arm. I am frozen. He shakes my arm. I let go of the blade and it falls to the floor.

“Now!”

I am scared of what he might command me to do next. I follow his eyes to where there is a smudge of red on the dirty walls and instantly I know what to do. I rub my arm across the wall as Fetta nods in approval. And, officially, I am one of their own.

Luntu’s eyes smile at me as she welcomes me next to her, moving to create more space for me as we merge our cardboard together and snuggle closely under our grey blanket that is thick with dust.

Later, as the snores of the group and the fading flames keep me company, I feel a tranquillity I haven’t felt in a while and an acceptance that I searched for back home but never found.

Sometimes I thought my mother wished that Father had left with me, that I was just another burden for her to carry. I would find her crying in her room. I was a constant reminder of all she had lost.

In those months after Father left I watched as the bitter days stole away a part of me that was replaced with a side I didn’t know. I was eager to become someone else, anyone else so that I could feel accepted. I wanted to be approved of and loved, and when Mr Hlomla showed interest in me I was willing to do anything and everything to make him love me longer.

At home I busied myself to try not to sink under the weight of my mother’s sadness. I came home late and left early without as much as a confrontation with Mother. It kicked in then, that she didn’t care any more. She couldn’t. She was different from the woman who had always tried to protect me even when she couldn’t protect herself.

She had cared about me first even when Father used to hit her every other night. Those were the hardest. Those were the nights where the passage was more familiar than my own bedroom; nights when I’d sleep curled up on their doorstep. I would hear them arguing, shouting and screaming at the top of their voices, and then the sound of something breaking would follow, and then Mother’s sobs. She would beg desperately as Father continued to shout and break more things.

I would sit there, crying, begging with her, and when the noise finally died down I would fall asleep in my own pool of tears and Mother would tuck me in.

“It’s okay,” she would say, when I touched her closed and swollen eye with my hands. “Adults fight.”

She would reason and stay with me until I felt safe enough to fall asleep.

When Father left, he left with a part of her. I don’t understand how she could have loved him if he was just a drunkard who hurt her. I know I didn’t.

The cold nights during winter never seemed to end. I dreaded going back home to my mother. I took every extra class I could sign up for, until Mr Hlomla came along and became all the extra lessons I needed.

He became all the distraction I wanted, until he not only broke my fears but also broke me. I let him do what he wanted as long he was pleased with me. I told myself it was a privilege to be loved by someone like him; I didn’t deserve it, not the nice gifts or the compliments that made my heart swell with hope.

I told myself I didn’t deserve the happiness he filled my days with.

***

My thoughts close off as the fire dies down, leaving the room in darkness. I try to pretend that Mr Hlomla was the man I thought he was, but he wasn’t and the words I remember are not the sweet nothings of when I first met him. They are urgent, commanding:

“It will hurt just a little, but it’s the only way to show me that you love me,” he says as his hands brush against my thighs.

“But I do,” I argue, shivering at his touch.

“Then show me,” he says almost desperately.

“I’m not ready,” I tell him.

“That isn’t an option.” Anger flickers through his dark and experienced eyes.

“I’m scared,” I tell him.

“There’s no reason to be.”

He kisses me then.

“I love you,” he assures me as I give in.

He loves me, I tell myself when the pain shoots through my body, causing my limbs to go numb. He does.

I tell myself lies.