The distinct antiseptic smell of the waiting room reminds me of the last time I was at the clinic in George. It was for the same thing, just a different reason. My hand brushes instinctively over my stomach. I feel the stares of the women in the queue. People in clinic queues are always curious; it’s like they are looking for someone in a worse situation than theirs so they can feel better about their own.

It was May when I started to worry. I had skipped two periods and I was feeling nauseous. I went to the clinic in George. It took what seemed like forever to pee on the small white stick and I already knew the result before the sister told me. After she confirmed that I was pregnant she laid out all the options, but left out the one option l yearned for the most, which was a reset button. I wondered how I was going to break the news to my mother who was no doubt going to kill me. Besides being scared, I hated being a disappointment to her. I went through the options in my head, none of them good. A girl named Puleng in Grade 8 had gone through the same ordeal. Rumours spread like wildfire in the school. The bitchy girls in my class said she was a whore and deserved what happened to her. She left the school with a cloud of shame over her.

I walked out the clinic determined to find Puleng and tell her how sorry I was for how she was treated. But halfway home I knew I wouldn’t do it. What if the girls at school found out that I was pregnant? I didn’t know I could trust her, although I was desperate to find out how she had got an abortion and what it was like.

By the time I walked into the house, I had made a new resolution: I wouldn’t tell a soul. I knew what our pastor at church would say if he caught a whiff of this situation.

I lay on my bed and stared at the ceiling. I had dreams. I needed to finish school and be all that I wanted to be and could be. My life wouldn’t end in George, pregnant at sixteen, I promised myself this.

***

It’s been about three hours now waiting here in the hospital queue and I need to make a decision.

“Next,” the nurse calls out, pointing to the following patient who is at the front of the line. The old woman takes her sweet time to stand up. “Move,” the nurse motions to the young lady next to me to fill the old woman’s seat.

I haven’t told the others about my secret and I feel guilty. After I threw up at the soup kitchen, I have noticed the way Luntu looks at me, and I think she guesses. But the boys don’t have a clue. We’re a team Fetta tells us every day, and I may not have much – okay, I don’t have anything – but I have them. I want to make things better for all of us and I have continued to look for work. There isn’t a door I haven’t knocked at but every door has been shut right in my face. Every job needs experience, a further level of education, a curriculum vitae: none of which I have. And none of them care about how desperate I am to make even just a little income. The passing of time is also the thief of hope.

Each day I get dirtier and my clothes look older. Sometimes we go to wash in public toilets, but it is difficult for us to keep our clothes clean, especially in the cold weather where nothing dries.

“Just stick to what we do here,” Fetta always tells me when he catches me looking down and dejected. But there isn’t much money to be made in washing cars. Sometimes the drivers just speed by when we are done washing their cars without as much as a thank-you. Sometimes we make enough to have a proper meal, but that’s only when we are lucky.

“Yenzokuhle Sokhulu,” the nurse calls.

“Here,” I raise my hand.

“This way,” she points to one of the consultation rooms. I take a deep breath.

“I have no choice,” I whisper to myself as I walk into the cold consultation room. A trolley with a set of needles is the first thing I see at the far end of the room.

“Sit on the bed,” the nurse instructs. “The doctor will be with you shortly.”

I can feel her disapproval at my grubby clothes and dirty face. I wish she knew that even if she said it out loud, how disgusting I look, it wouldn’t hurt, not as much as what I have lost: my father, my boyfriend, my friend, my mother and I am about to lose my baby in just a space of hours.

“I’m Dr Ndlovu,” the doctor gives me a practised smile as he walks in and sits down behind his desk.

“Yenzokuhle,” I nod as he adjusts his glasses.

“Right. How can I help you?”

I tell him that I am pregnant but am not sure how far along. He tells me that he will need to do a blood test and that I will need an ultrasound. I’m in luck – he takes pity on me when I say I can’t come back and goes with me to another section of the hospital where they do the scans.

As he smooths the cold gel over my stomach I concentrate on the screen.

He asks me when I was last at the clinic. He wants to know if I know my options and I tell him I have decided to have an abortion.

“What makes you want to have an abortion?”

“I can’t take care of a child,” I say simply, looking at my swollen stomach.

“Okay,” he says, focusing his eyes on the screen. He tells me that we need to check exactly how far along the pregnancy is. I can’t tell. Living on the streets, I have lost track of time. He tells me that I will be able to do the abortion if I am in the first ten weeks with minimal risk of complications. The twelfth week is how far they can stretch it.

“Have you perhaps considered adoption?” I lift my eyes to meet his. I don’t answer. I hadn’t considered it before. I am not sure how I feel about having a baby somewhere out there who never meets me. Desperation and fear take over my thoughts and I am certain that I will take this option if it’s the last thing I can do to start on a clean slate.

Dr Ndlovu moves the scanner across the gel on my stomach. I can’t help but look at the screen. I see the tiny hands and feet. I see the heart. I am scared to death.

“Done.” The doctor gets up. I stare for a long time at the blank screen.

The cold gel is wiped off of my stomach and it’s over. Back in his room, the doctor looks at me seriously.

“I’m sorry, Yenzokuhle. It seems we might have run out of time. If you were in danger because of the pregnancy then maybe we could—”

“I can’t keep it. I don’t know how,” I interject. My eyes search his for sympathy. I want him to give me his assurance that everything will be okay. I want him to tell me that I will wake up in a home that is filled with love and a good atmosphere to raise my child in, but the professional smile set on his lips reminds me again that he is only doing his job.

“What do I do?” My voice shakes as I ask him this, wanting to at least share the responsibility of the decision with someone else.

“You will have to make another choice, I’m afraid. Do you want to think about it and then come back in and talk to the counsellor here?

The doctor takes my blood and says they will call me and tell me the results, but the scan has confirmed that I am over 20 weeks.

Then suddenly the door bursts open and there is Luntu. I slide off the bed. She bends down, and I can hear that she has been running.

“Are you okay?” the doctor asks. She nods, assuring us that she only needs to catch her breath.

“You can’t,” she speaks after a while, her hands stretching out to touch my arm. “I can’t let you.”

“Who are you?”

“I’m her friend,” Luntu says. I cannot help the warmth that squeezes my heart when she says those words.

“I will give you a moment alone,” Dr Ndlovu tells us.

The room doesn’t feel as cold with Luntu in it. She hugs herself as her eyes scan the trolley and desk and the walls.

“You can’t be a weakling any longer,” she says. “I know it’s not easy, but you can’t give up on your child!”

“Why do you care?” My voice is almost a whisper, but I know she has heard me when she clears her throat and stares down at the blue-tiled floor.

A while passes before either of us can say anything to each other. Luntu runs a trembling hand through her long hair before her hands drop to her sides. I watch her as she drags down the sleeves of her jersey so that they cover her hands.

“That first day … you said you didn’t care,” I remind her when it doesn’t seem like she will say anything more.

“I didn’t know you,” she says. “I trust you now …” She looks away from me, out of the window, and when she turns to face me again it’s like she’s made a decision.

“You know I was two months old when my mother dropped me off at the orphanage. Obviously, I can’t remember anything about her. The only thing I know is what the sister at the orphanage told me. My mom was young, you know …” she smiles wistfully. “She dropped me off like a package, Yenzokuhle. She might as well have carried me in a plastic bag. She rejected me. You can’t reject this baby …”

I reach out to touch her shoulder.

“I had just turned eighteen when the sisters at the orphanage told me they had to let me go, to make room for someone younger,” she continues. “I am 20 now. No one wanted to accept me, or give me a chance. So I ended up with them.” I know she is referring to the pack. “They are my home now.”

“I’m scared,” I tell her. “The doctor says it’s too late for an abortion. Now I just have two alternatives – keep the baby, or put it up for adoption.” Even as I say this I have already decided what my options are, and keeping the baby isn’t one of them, but I don’t tell Luntu. I know her mind is all mixed up about this baby. She can’t separate it from her own experience of her mother abandoning her.

I touch my stomach.

“We’ll find a way,” she says softly.

“We?”

“That’s what friends are for.”

She gives me a smile and I smile too.