It must have been Mzi, thought Ntombi the next morning. Who else would send such a message? It had kept her awake, and then given her nightmares. But in the light of morning the world didn’t seem so scary. Olwethu had SMSed that he loved her. Zinzi was wrong. And Mzi couldn’t hurt her – he was far away. No, she was safe. And today was the second day of rehearsals. She would have to practise her duet again with Alex. But this time she would wait for the coach to arrive first. There wasn’t any way she would be in that room alone with him again. She didn’t trust herself. Don’t play with fire – that’s what Lettie would say. Always the sensible one with good advice. She would SMS Olwethu after breakfast.

This time she made sure she got into the showers before the twins, and there was plenty of hot water. She wondered if the boys had gone on drinking when they got back to their rooms. She wouldn’t be surprised – there were several bottles left in Dirk’s bag. Would they even make it to breakfast, she wondered?

But there they were laughing and joking about how much they could drink and still be up early in the morning.
“Hey, Dirk here nearly got caught with the booze,” Alex laughed.
“It wasn’t funny,” said Andile. “We could have all been thrown out of the competition.”
“Chill, bra. We weren’t caught, were we? Thanks to Mister Smooth-talker.” Dirk punched Alex on the shoulder. Everyone laughed, except Katrina.
“Well, I was up all night because Lindiwe was SMSing every five minutes. All I could hear was her long nails tapping on the keys and the beep of messages coming in,” she said.
“Probably making sure her daddy’s rigged the competition,” replied Alex.

Ntombi thought of the message that had come through to her at midnight and shivered. It had been cruel. Who could hate her so much? Only Mzi.
Then she thought of Olwethu so far away and a seed of doubt crept in. What if Zinzi had been right about the girl? Had Olwethu sent her that loving SMS out of guilt, because he knew Zinzi would talk? She would SMS him later. She needed to find out more.

But there was no time to find out anything. After their duet practice they had just enough time to grab a bite to eat in the rec room before reporting to their coaches to work on their solos. They had only three days until the finals.

Dirk found Ntombi in the rec room munching on a chicken sandwich. “Those twins just ignore me. Give me something to say in Zulu. I want to get their attention.”
Ntombi laughed, remembering how she had tried to speak to them in Zulu. “Don’t speak Zulu to them, they …” But before Ntombi could finish her sentence Alex came up and put his fingers over her lips.
“Don’t you listen to Ntombi,” he said. “Trust your instincts. It’s a good idea, mfethu. This is what you should say to them,” and he whispered something in Dirk’s ear.
“But I won’t remember that,” Dirk said. Alex grabbed a pen and a serviette and jotted down some words. Dirk looked at it, mouthing words to himself as he walked over to the twins.

“What did you tell him to say?” asked Ntombi.
“Wait and see,” said Alex. It didn’t take long. The noise of a hard slap made the whole room go quiet. Dirk stood, looking like a fool, holding his cheek. Lindiwe had just hit him in his face. Sindiwe was hunched over her BlackBerry as if nothing had happened.

“Who do you think you’re talking to!” Lindiwe screamed at Dirk. Then, turning to everyone looking at her, she shouted, “I don’t know why you’re all bothering with this competition! You’re amateurs!” She looked at Dirk and his friends, who were trying to keep straight faces. “You’re a bunch of stupid schoolboys who don’t know how to treat women!” Then, looking at Ntombi, she added venomously, “And you and your friends are all little mommy’s girls. You’re losers, all of you!” And with that, she pulled Sindiwe up from her chair and they strutted out of the room on their high gold heels.

Dirk came back to Alex, who had recovered from the shock of being slapped and was now furious. “What did you tell me to say?”
Alex laughed, but Dirk was mad. “I feel like punching you. You asshole. And you call yourself a friend!” He stormed out, following Lindiwe and Sindiwe.
Eish!” Alex said. “He doesn’t realise I did him a favour. Those twins would eat him for breakfast if they got those long nails into him.” And he laughed loudly. Ntombi couldn’t help giggling. But she did feel sorry for Dirk, with everyone looking at him like that. She would have wanted to hide away forever. And how could they call her a mommy’s girl! As if he’d read her thoughts Alex spoke again more seriously. “Be careful of those twins, Ntombi. It seems they don’t like you either. And you don’t want to get on the wrong side of them. Just keep out of their way.”

That afternoon the coach worked Ntombi even harder at her solo and made her practise the high notes over and over again. When it was finished she was exhausted. So this is what it was going to be like being a singer. After the session she collapsed on a beanbag in the rec room and switched on her phone. She’d missed a call from Olwethu, but he hadn’t left a message. Did he not know how to tell her about his new girlfriend? But then she stopped herself. She mustn’t allow these stupid thoughts. If he did have a new girlfriend he wouldn’t be trying to call her at all.

Suddenly a voice beside her made her sit up. She felt a warm hand on her shoulder.
“Hey – I didn’t mean to scare you.” It was Alex with two Cokes in his hand. “I got you a drink – you look like you need it. It’s hard work, neh?”
“Tell me about it,” said Ntombi, accepting the ice-cold Coke from him.
He sat down beside her on one of the huge beanbags. “Coach is happy with our duet. It’s ‘dog’ man, as they say on American Idols. We’ve got no competition.”
“And your solo – how’s that going?” asked Ntombi.
“Getting there … slowly. You know, you look exhausted. You need to take a break.”
“Like them,” Ntombi said, pointing to where two of the boys had fallen asleep on the couch, their mouths wide open.
“Fly traps,” laughed Alex.
“I wish I could sleep like that,” said Ntombi. “Sometimes I get so tired, I can’t sleep.”
“Why don’t you come and hang out in the practice room with me? I’ve got a cool song we can listen to.”

Ntombi thought of Olwethu. What if Zinzi was wrong? And here she was about to go and listen to music with a good-looking guy who was flirting with her. “I have a boyfriend,” she blurted out, and then blushed as she saw that Alex had raised his eyebrows.
“That’s cool,” he said. “A pretty girl like you – I’m not surprised. All the boys must be after you.”
Oh god, thought Ntombi, I’ve got it so wrong. He’s not really flirting – that’s just the way he talks to girls. He was only being friendly. Now what would he think of her?

But he was standing up and reaching out his hand.
“Don’t worry, I won’t pounce on you in the practice room,” he smiled. “I promise.”
On the way to the practice room Ntombi cursed herself for blurting out that she had a boyfriend. She was angry because she had misread Alex, but also confused because part of her wanted to be free and available. Now she had ruined that. But how could she feel this way?

Alex had taken two beanbags from the rec room and put them on the floor near the music system. Ntombi relaxed into one of them, as he put the CD into the player. Then he sat back and closed his eyes.

He was so handsome. And not at all like some of the boys at Harmony High who were rough with girls, or tried to impress them by being macho and aggressive. They also shared the same dream – they were both passionate about singing. She had never met a boy who shared her love of music and who had a golden voice. Even Olwethu didn’t share this passion, though he had many talents.

“I love the intro to this … Listen to the sax.” He started to hum along.
They were interrupted by the sound of Ntombi’s cellphone ringing. Her bag was on the floor, closer to Alex.
“Bad timing, sorry,” she said, trying to get out of the beanbag. But he had already reached out and got hold of her phone.
“Ntombi’s phone, hello,” he answered. Oh god, thought Ntombi, it could be Olwethu, or Zinzi …

“Alex,” he said, then, “Who is this?” Ntombi held her breath.
A pause, then, “Hello, Zinzi. I’ll pass the phone to Ntombi.”
Ntombi heard her sister’s accusing voice. “Who was that?” And then: “What’s that music in the background? Are you at a disco?”
“No. We’re practising, Zinzi. That’s my duet partner.”
“Duets? You have partners?”
Ntombi could just imagine what was going through Zinzi’s mind right now. “Yes, Zinzi, we have to sing a song with a partner in the finals.”
“Oh,” said Zinzi. “You said you’d phone. Mama was worried. But I see you’re too busy with your new boyfriend.”
“Zinzi, no …,” Ntombi stood up and walked out into the hall. This was so embarrassing. “He’s not my boyfriend,” she said, irritated. “And don’t you even think of making any trouble. Anyway, you told me that horrible thing about Olwethu and I don’t believe it …”

“Oh, so now you’re trying to get back at Olwethu,” said Zinzi.
“No!” shouted Ntombi. “We’re rehearsing!”
“And you expect me to believe that?”
Ntombi could feel that Zinzi was enjoying the situation. She tried to change the subject. “What have you heard of Mzi?”

“He’s being a good boy … for now,” said Zinzi. “But I’ve heard that he’s still angry. I’ll give him your love, shall I?”
“And what’s happening with Dad?” said Ntombi, ignoring this.
“It’s great! Guess what? He gave me R100 … In fact, he’s right here. That’s why we are calling. He wants to speak to you.”

Ntombi couldn’t believe her ears. She had been right about her mom being weak. She had let her dad back into their lives. How could this all have happened so quickly? Was she the only sensible one in the family? All these thoughts rushed through her head. And then she felt a dart of pain in her heart … He had given Zinzi R100 and no mention of anything for her … But before she could say anything, she heard her dad’s voice. “Hello, my girl,” he said. “Congratulations on getting into the finals. I wish I could see you. I’m thinking of you.”

“That’s nice,” was all Ntombi could say.
“Good luck with everything.” His voice was soft and warm. She felt tears in her eyes.
“Thanks, Tata,” she said.
“Here’s your mom.”
“Hey darling …” She could hear the excitement in her mom’s voice. “I know you’re going to want to know everything. I didn’t want Dad to talk to you before we’d explained everything. But he was so keen. He loves you so much.”

Ntombi didn’t know what to say. She had felt so close to her mother lately, but now she had ignored Ntombi’s advice and let their dad back in. It felt like there was a huge gap between them again.
When she returned to the practice room, Alex turned the music off.
“Home?” he asked.
“Families … I know … they can be …”
“Yeah. My dad has reappeared after more than a year. He never gave us a reason for leaving. And I’m worried he’s going to expect everything to carry on as if he’d never left us. But he did, and things feel different now. I just …”

She felt the tears pricking her eyes again.
“You just don’t want everyone to get hurt again.” Alex’s voice was soft.
She looked up. She knew he understood.
“I’ve been there,” he said. “My father came and went like our home was a railway station. Always promises. Then drinking. Then fights. And away he’d go.” He looked at Ntombi. “And I’d beg my mom not to take him back. She’d promise not to. And then – the same old story.”

Ntombi leaned forward and took his hand. He squeezed it, pulled her towards him. She felt tears in her eyes – her own pain and his welling up and overflowing. She felt his lips kiss the tears on her cheeks, and then his arms around her.

It could so easily have gone further. But they quickly moved apart. Without words he put on the song for their duet and they sat back, listening. Ntombi closed her eyes and tried to think of Olwethu, but she couldn’t forget the feeling of Alex’s warm lips against her cheek.