Sun rays pierce through the flimsy curtain and stab Thando awake. The silence in the house is odd. Even on a Saturday Thando wakes to the sounds of Zikhona cooking porridge and cleaning the house. But today there is only silence.

Thando wipes sleep from his eyes. Maybe Zikhona has gone to work, he thinks. Sometimes the Hamiltons ask her to work on weekends. Still, Zikhona would have said so.

“Nandi! Zikhona!” Thando calls out.

There is no answer, but he hears chatter and laughter from the front yard. He peers through the window and sees Nandi with her friends. They are still dressed in pyjamas.

Hheyi nina (Hey you)!” he shouts. “So early in the morning and you are making noise in other people’s houses. When do you guys help out at your houses? When do you clean?”

“We are not maids, wena,” Nandi sneers back at him.

“Whatever,” Thando shoots back. “Nandi, where is Zikhona?”

“I don’t know,” Nandi snaps.

“Did she say where she was going? And when she will be back?”

“Why are you always in everyone’s business? Stop trying to be our dad, Thando. She’ll be back when she is back. She is old enough.”

Usually Thando would fume and come back with his own rudeness. But today there is none of that. Instead, he is overcome with deep concern. A cold feeling squirms in the pit of his belly.

“Have you tried calling her?”

Nandi rolls her eyes in exasperation. “No,” she says.

“Why not?”

“Geez, Thando. I don’t want to disturb her. Maybe she is still getting down with her man,” Nandi says and take fives from the other girls.

“Just listen to yourself.” Thando looks at all of them in turn. “That’s just trashy.”

“Whatever, Thando,” says Nandi.

Thando tries calling Zikhona but he is out of airtime. Maybe Nandi is right, he thinks. Maybe I should let Zikhona be. She has been looking after us for so long she never has time to socialize.

Like all Saturdays, Thando hits the books. He recaps the week’s schoolwork. Nandi comes in, bathes, dresses and is out the door.

“Where to?” Thando calls after her.

“I’m off to see my friends,” she says.

Thando shakes his head. He looks through the window and sees her with her crew of girls. A crew of older boys lurks behind them.

Thando tries to study but his mind is not really on his books. It is unlike Zikhona to not return home; she has never done this.

After an hour of worrying about his sister Thando decides to scour their tiny house for coins. He checks under the sofas, under the bed and in the handbag Zikhona usually carries. The coins only make R3,50. He prays that Samir, the Ethiopian spaza owner, will show pity on him and give him a R5 airtime voucher even though the money is short.

***

Tell us: What might have happened to Zikhona?