Zinzi was lying on her bed staring at the ceiling. The house was quiet without Ntombi. And her mother was making her do all the chores that Ntombi usually did, as well as her own. She was fed up. How come Ntombi was having all the fun in Joburg, while she was stuck at home with nothing exciting happening at all? Why was life so unfair?

She heard her mother unlock the door. She was home early and Zinzi hadn’t finished the chores. She jumped up, grabbing the broom that was lying against the bed. “Hi, Mama,” she called, knocking the broom about loudly so her mother could hear that she was cleaning. But there was no answer.

When she went through to the living room she found her mother lying on the couch. She seemed to be in pain.

“What’s the matter, Mama?”

“I think I’ve sprained my ankle,” she said. “It was silly. I was in a rush to catch the taxi so I could make it home early. I ran and tripped. Ow, it’s so painful.”

It was scary to see her usually busy mother lying helpless on the couch, like a bird with a broken wing. For a moment Zinzi wished Ntombi was here. She was afraid. Her mom was the only family she had right now and much as she rebelled against her, she loved and depended on her.

It was as if her mother had read her mind. “I wish Ntombi was here,” she said, wincing. “She would know what to do. She did that first-aid course. I need a bandage to try to strap it.”

Even though Zinzi had also wished her older sister was there, she felt hurt and angry at her mother’s words. Why was it always Ntombi this, Ntombi that? Wasn’t she good enough? She hadn’t even given Zinzi a chance to help her.

“I can help you, Ma,” she said. And for the next 20 minutes she found a bandage, tried to help her mother strap it, made her mother tea, and fetched her a Panado. Phew. She cuddled up to her mother on the couch.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do about work,” her mother said worriedly. “I’ve got no more leave due to me. I can’t take time off. But I know my boss will think I’m useless if I limp around the school kitchen. I’ll struggle to get the meals out on time.”

“I could help you. I could take time off school and come and help in the kitchen.”

Her mom shook her head. “What are you thinking, Zinzi? Your education is more important than my silly ankle. No, I’ll go to work tomorrow. But I won’t be able to do the extra hours I was hoping to, to get overtime.”

Zinzi thought about her father – where was he when they needed him? “Tata will have money. He owes us, Ma. Where is he?”

The girls had asked their mother countless times before what had happened to their dad. Where had he gone when he had walked out into the night after that terrible argument with their mom? She had always shut them up with, “I don’t know,” or, “I don’t want to think about it.” But now, seeing her mom struggling to cope, Zinzi couldn’t help asking it again. And this time, the answer was different.

“It’s funny, my girl, that you ask me that.” Her mom shifted on the couch to make room for Zinzi to sit down.

“Why, Mama?” Zinzi felt a shiver of excitement. Her mom was going to tell her something important. Something about their dad. And secretly she felt pleased that Ntombi wasn’t here to share the news.

“Because somebody left a letter for me today at work. It was there in the manager’s office when I finished. She said a gentleman had dropped it off.”

“Who, Mama, tell me who?”

“You’ll never guess,” her mother teased.

“Tell me, Mama!”

Her mother’s face looked serious again. “Your father.”

Zinzi knew it. She jumped off the couch like she had been shot.

“What? What did he say? Where has he been? Let me see it.”

“Hold on, Zinzi. Calm down.”

Zinzi looked at the expression on her mother’s face. “You haven’t read the letter yet, have you?”

“Don’t shout at me, young girl,” said her mother. “I haven’t had time. I told you I had to run for the taxi, and then this happened.” She pointed to her leg. “Pass me my bag.”

Zinzi handed her mom the bag and watched as she pulled out a big white envelope. She tried to peer over her mom’s shoulder. “No, Zinzi,” her mother said crossly. “Let me read this in peace. Go and do your homework in the bedroom.”

Zinzi hovered. She so badly wanted to know what the letter said. If she watched her mom’s face she would at least be able to tell if it was good or bad news.

“What are you waiting for? I said go to the bedroom. Leave me. I need some quiet to read this.”

“Can I use your cellphone, Mama?” Zinzi tried her luck. There was one person she wanted to tell about the letter and she couldn’t wait to send her an SMS. She would say just enough to make her sister mad with curiosity and frustrated that she was so far away from home. But she knew her mom wouldn’t let her take the phone.

“OK. But no calls. I don’t have airtime.” Zinzi was so excited she couldn’t believe her luck. Her plan was working. In the bedroom Zinzi send a message to Ntombi.

Hei cc u wnt blv wat hpned hre @ hme

She smiled to herself.

Then she turned off the phone and took it back to her mother, handing it to her with a sweet smile. “I don’t want to run your battery down, Mama.” But her mother wasn’t listening. She didn’t hear a word Zinzi said. She was clutching the letter, her hand shaking.

“What’s wrong?” Zinzi couldn’t read the emotion on her mother’s face. Was it shock? Anger? Was the news bad or good?

“Zinzi, please, just leave me. Go and get some sweets. Here’s some money.” She fished out a R5 coin from her purse. “I don’t need you disturbing me now.”

Normally Zinzi would be delighted to get money for sweeties. But now she didn’t want sweeties. The only thing she wanted was to find out what was in that letter. And her mother was getting rid of her! She stormed out, slamming the door behind her.

She couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t fair. Just when her mom had started to share her news about the letter from their father, and Zinzi had felt so pleased and excited that for once her mom was telling her something important. And now she had shut her out of the house. She didn’t matter to her mom or anybody. Miss Zinzi nobody, little sister to the famous Ntombi.

By the time she had walked to the spaza shop and bought her favourite chocolate toffees, things began to feel a bit better. She still knew something that Ntombi didn’t – so there, she thought. What would Ntombi feel when she read the SMS and didn’t know what had happened? And Zinzi wasn’t going to tell her yet. She would make her suffer. She leaned against the shop wall and sucked the sweet until it had nearly dissolved in her mouth. Slowly she started for home again, kicking stones as she walked. She was so caught up in wondering how she could sneak the letter away from her mother that she didn’t look where she was going. She heard Olwethu’s voice as she walked straight into him.

“Hey, look where you’re going,” he said, and then saw that it was Zinzi and smiled. “Careful, Zinzi. You could have walked into a car.”

“But I didn’t, did I?” Zinzi answered cheekily.

“Hey, the last I heard from your sister she was in Beaufort West. I only got the message now because my phone died.”

Zinzi shook her head. “She’s much too busy to think about me,” said Zinzi sulkily.

“I’m sure she’ll call soon. She probably can’t phone easily. Come, I’ll buy you something nice to get a smile back on your face.” He pinched her cheek. “Life’s not so bad. She’ll come back soon.”

They all think I’m a child, thought Zinzi, as she went with Olwethu back to the spaza and chose another treat. I’ll show them.

“What about you?” she asked Olwethu. “Are you missing my sister?” The answer was written all over his face. She smiled to herself. This would be easy – something she knew she would be so good at. She could mess with Olwethu and Ntombi’s love. Then they’d realise she wasn’t such a baby after all …