“Ace!” Fetta says as he slams the card down on top of Bonga’s two of diamonds. Fetta has the most cards. I can see the card Simon has in his hand. He flashes the card to everyone before playing it.
“But that’s cheating,” Bonga refutes, removing Simon’s card from the brown piece of cardboard they use as a table.
“It’s a rule,” Simon explains. “An ace can block out any two you use to shoot me,” he adds confidently, placing his card back on top of Simon’s.
“Since when?” Bonga removes the card again. I have never heard about the rule either and I used to play cards with Nozi. We would play Crazy 8 during breaks. I knew all the rules. I won a lot.
“Since now,” Simon stubbornly says, placing his card back where he had played it before, refusing to let Bonga win.
“Okay, enough,” Fetta says, raising his hands to stop their argument. “Let’s just quit this stupid game – we don’t have enough cards to play a decent game anyways.” He throws his cards down.
“Hey, guys!” I wave at them and for the first time they notice that Luntu and I are back.
“Where have you been?” Fetta asks.
“Around,” Luntu chirps in before I can think of something to say. I send her a small smile to thank her.
Luntu decided to accompany me for a check-up today, as advised by Dr Ndlovu when I decided to keep the baby. Everything is fine with the baby, or so the nurses say. But I am not sure everything is fine with me.
I try not to think about my mother, but she is invading my dreams along with the other people in my life. I see her on her bed crying for having lost me and my father. I hear my father laughing, I see Mr Hlomla leering at me and Mandla reaching out to try to catch hold of me and I wake up sweating with my heart racing. And then I try to calm myself down for the baby.
“We have a lot to do today,” Fetta says shaking me back to reality.
Ten minutes later we are all up on the street starting out daily hustle.
Fetta and Simon are together and Bonga walks with us as we make our way to the car wash.
“Don’t you ever go with them?” I ask Bonga who quietly tags along with me and Luntu. He seems to be deep in thought.
“No, not really,” he says, shrugging.
“But you never come with us either,” I interrogate him further.
“Fetta and Simon kind of do some shady things to get money or food,” he says when I raise my eyebrows at him. “I like to at least make an honest living.”
“If you call this a living,” Luntu says, her eyes rolling at Bonga before she becomes quiet again.
“So you’re the good guy?” I smile at Bonga, who nods in approval.
“Yeah, whatever,” he says.
We continue the rest of the way in silence. Bonga leaves us at the car wash and walks off to who knows where.
Green Reeds Car Wash is behind a pile of rubbish in lower Claim Street. Sometimes we are chased away by older guys who have been washing there for longer than we have. On lucky days we are able to occupy the spot.
“Get to work,” Luntu orders, filling both our buckets with water.
“You think we’ll ever get out of here?” I ask her when she flings the dirty piece of cloth at me.
“In body bags, maybe,” she says rubbing the side of the car we are cleaning.
“Why are you so pessimistic?” I ask.
“Why are you so obnoxious?” she deadpans.
“I’m not a loser. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life stuck in the streets,” I tell her as I dip the towel back into the cold water. Today is not like other days. It’s the beginning of winter and the temperatures are really low and it doesn’t help that we will probably spend the rest of the day using cold water.
I wipe my hands on my sweater and tie my hair back into a knot, so that it doesn’t stick to my face because of the wind.
“You’re such a coward!” Luntu says as she empties her bucket. We are finished with the car. She is angry. I have probably never seen her this angry. Her arms fold around her chest as she stares intently at me. I want to shout back and tell her she is mean, but maybe she’s right, maybe I am a coward. “You think the world revolves around you? What is your problem?”
“Excuse us for not understanding how it feels to grow up in a big home, to go to school, to have everything and throw it away.”
“It isn’t like that!” I defend myself. Tears well up in the corners of my eyes. “My father is a drunkard and I have no idea where he is at this very moment. He’s an alcoholic who turned his back on us.” I’m breathless.
“I’m sorry that your daddy drinks – I mean, I wouldn’t know how that feels because you know what? I don’t have a daddy or a mommy!”
“I may as well not have a mother!” I shout back at her as a circle starts to form around us. “Because she is too obsessed with her work that she doesn’t care!”
“You are pathetic. We have all been dealt our own fair share of problems, so shut up and deal with it!” Luntu spins around and storms off.
“Where’s Luntu?” Bonga asks when I walk into the basement alone. I hadn’t expected him to be back either. The others have still not returned. He hides the paper he has been drawing on behind him.
“Why are you back here?” I dodge his question with my own.
“Taking a break,” he shrugs and then I notice the squeezed bottle in his hands. It’s glue.
“Try this,” he offers.
“It helps,” he says, inhaling the contents of the bottle before he offers it to me again.
“I thought you were the good guy.”
He laughs. “Even good guys need a break sometimes.”
“Okay,” I give in and take the bottle of glue from him. With every inhalation and every squeeze, I feel myself floating away from my problems. I feel them detach themselves from me, leaving me feeling lighter than a feather.
I spend hours in a daze until Simon and Fetta come back and start making a fire. Luntu hasn’t returned yet.
This is my favourite part of the day when we are all curled up close, keeping warm. The magic of this fire is what we look forward to – it’s when we share our funny stories and then debate events as if we can somehow go back and change them. The fire is lit and I am starting to worry about Luntu when she finally bounds down the stairs.
“Hey,” Luntu says as she drags the rug from our corner and plops down beside me. “Here,” she invites me to join her on the rug next to the fire.
“I’m really sorry about the things I said back there,” Luntu says stretching her hands out towards the fire. “I didn’t mean any of that.”
“It was the truth,” I tell her, wishing it wasn’t.
“I just want you to know that you are a really good friend and I guess I’m just jealous of your life – how it was. I don’t know why you ran away from it.”
I let her hug me.
I remember when Nozi and I used to fight. We mostly changed seats in class or parted during lunch but we always resolved it before school ended.
“I’m just having a bad day,” Luntu assures me, squeezing my hand.
“Aren’t we always?” A smile creeps onto my face then, assuring my friend that it’s okay. She smiles too, one of the few times she has since I came to know her. I would like to see her smile a lot one day because she is beautiful when she does.
“We’re idiots,” she laughs then, and just like the sparks of flames the bad blood between us dies down.