Ntombi peered through the window of the inter-city bus, but could see nothing – just dark shadows rushing by. The bus was a little island of warmth and life in the cold, dark night. Ntombi had never travelled so far on her own before, and never to Joburg. And here she was, winner of the Teen Voice Competition in Cape Town, going to the finals. It was unbelievable. It was what she had wanted for months and months.

She looked at Olwethu’s card for the hundredth time. Not at the roses and hearts on the outside, but at his untidy, loopy writing inside: To my one and only. I’ll miss you. Good luck. All my love, Olwethu.

She couldn’t believe that she had a boyfriend, especially someone as loving as Olwethu. So kind, so funny and friendly – not like Asanda’s boyfriend who seemed to think people would admire him only if he had lots of girls after him. No, Olwethu was a one-woman man, and she was that woman. She smiled to herself as she remembered his last tender kiss. Being without him was going to be hard.

He had been so excited for her. That day of the assembly was still one of the best memories of her life. Sitting there with all her friends, waiting to hear who had won. The principal had gone on and on with his boring introduction: “We are privileged to have a winner in our school. We hope that the winner will fly the flag of Harmony High and will …” Blah blah blah. Everyone had just been waiting for the important announcement. And then at last he had given the name: “The winner is Ntombi …” Without waiting to hear the surname Ntombi Phongo had stood up, smiling and excited. But then the principal, who had seen her, rushed to the surname, “Gasa!” Ntombi felt a wave of disbelief and happiness as her friends shrieked with excitement next to her. She had gone on stage to shake the principal’s hand, and everyone had been congratulating her.

Well, almost everyone. Only poor Ntombi Phongo had been silent, her eyes full of hate. Ntombi couldn’t blame her. Many people had thought Ntombi Phongo would win with her fancy opera voice. But no, it had been Ntombi’s pure soprano that had won the day. And she had sailed through the day in a dreamy bubble of happiness that not even Ntombi Phongo’s cold eyes could pierce.

Later Olwethu had picked her up and tried to throw her into the air, and they had both collapsed in giggles. But the best part had been arriving home and throwing the door open. “Mama! Zinzi! I won!” Her mother had shrieked and cried. And Zinzi – well, now that Ntombi thought about it, Zinzi hadn’t been as excited as she could have been. And she had been very upset when Ntombi got a new dress, and she didn’t. Only now on the bus did Ntombi realise how quiet Zinzi had been over the past few days. She must have been jealous of all the attention Ntombi was getting. Shame, thought Ntombi, I will have to find her a really nice present when I’m in Jozi.

She was shaken out of her thoughts as the woman next to her began unpacking a huge packet of fried chicken. Ntombi’s stomach churned. She had a lunch tin of vetkoek and mince for supper, but the excitement and nerves had taken away her appetite. Now the woman chewed and licked noisily. She saw Ntombi look over at her.

“Do you want some, sisi?”

Ntombi shook her head, and looked back into the darkness again. It was just miles and miles of nothing out there. She shivered, suddenly feeling alone. Whenever she felt like this, another terrible memory would force its way into her thoughts – not of sweet Olwethu, but of Mzi, a very different sort of boy in her life. A boy who had nearly raped her. A boy who was a thief. A boy who had been caught by the police, because of Ntombi and Olwethu. A boy out on parole, and very angry.

She was leaving Olwethu, her mother, her sister. What if Mzi came after them? How could she leave them?

“Don’t be silly, chommie,” her friends had said. “Mzi can’t put a foot wrong without his parole officer knowing.” During the day that was easy to believe. But sometimes at night fear crept into her bones, and stayed there till the comforting morning light.

She closed her eyes and tried to fall asleep. She would need all the energy she could get for Jozi. The bus got into the station at 10 a.m. There would be someone waiting to pick her up and take her to the hostel where they were going to train for the finals. She suddenly wished that one of her friends was with her. She would have to be brave all on her own. And what if the others were all better than she was?

It was impossible to sleep with the noise on the bus. The woman next to her had finished her chicken, and after much finger-licking was now munching her way through a big packet of chips. Behind her two women were complaining about their husbands, trying to outdo each other with their stories. When her cell rang she struggled to find the phone in her bag, and missed the call. But the person trying to reach her wasn’t going to give up and it rang again a few minutes later. It must be Olwethu seeing how far she had got, she thought. Who else would phone her at this hour? Olwethu’s reassuring voice was just what she needed to hear right now. He would calm her fears about the other contestants. He would tell her to believe in herself. But it wasn’t Olwethu. The number was withheld. Maybe one of the organisers of the competition? But why phone so late?

“Hello,” she said. There was silence, just the rumbling of the bus beneath her.

“Hello!” she shouted above the noise. And then she heard his voice. A voice she would recognise anywhere.

“Ntombi?” It was Mzi. “Ntombi, are you there?” His voice was rough, harsh. She couldn’t open her mouth, couldn’t make a sound.

“I heard you won, Ntombi.” His voice was low, quiet. But somehow that made it more frightening. “I wanted to congratulate you. Jozi is far from home. Be careful! Take nothing for granted. Your luck might run out.” And with that the phone went dead.