“Come on in,” Thobeka said and opened the door wider.

“Enkosi.” Alex stepped over the threshold and closed the door behind him. “Eita girl, you look hot.” He ran his eyes over her frayed skinny denim shorts and racer back tank top. “Good thing the guys at school aren’t seeing you now.”

Thobeka felt the summer heat rest on her cheeks. “Uhm … can I get you something to drink?”

“Yes, please.” Alex slumped onto a chair at the dining table where he’d spotted Thobeka’s books. “Anything that’s ice cold.”

While Thobeka fetched the drinks, Alex pulled his books from his bag, tossed out the rest of the contents, and sighed. “Hey, Thobeka, you got a spare calculator?”

Thobeka returned, a tray balanced on one forearm, a plate of cookies in the other hand. “What’s that about a calculator?” She placed the plate and tray of sweating glasses on the table.

“Forgot mine at home when I did the homework.”

“Yhu, hah-ah … you finished your maths homework already?” Thobeka’s eyes looked like they could pop out of their sockets to inspect Alex’s workbook close up.

“The calculator?”

“Oh … uhm … yes … I saw one in my Ma’s drawer.” As she walked away, her head shook left to right as she thought, I haven’t even looked at that maths homework.

As she lifted the calculator from her mother’s bedside drawer, Thobeka’s eyes latched onto the object beneath it, and she clamped a hand over her mouth. This is fate, she thought. She reached out and her hand lingered over the card before she snatched it up, kissed it and tucked it into the tiny coin pocket of her shorts.

Ma doesn’t use her credit card – she said they’re for emergencies, and my novel is a life-changing one. I’ll hide the bill until I get the money from my book sales. Ma will never know, thought Thobeka.

* * * * *

“Thobeka, come here.”

Ow, Nkosi yam, what now? I don’t like that tone in Ma’s voice. She stretched, yawned. Her vision still bleary, she groped her way off the bed.

In the lounge, Mrs Zotwana beckoned Thobeka closer. “Hlala phantsi.” She unfolded her one hand and placed her warped credit card on the coffee table.

Thobeka’s eyebrows shot up to her hairline. Her eyes darted a record-breaking sprint between the card, her mother’s face, and back again. “Ma … I’m sorry …”

Mrs Zotwana’s lips flapped as a deep breath whooshed out between them. She patted Thobeka on her knee and shook her head. “I don’t know how it got into the washing machine. I could swear I had put it in my drawer.” Mrs Zotwana wrung her hands and emitted a deep sigh. “I probably never got around to putting it away, and didn’t check pockets before switching on the machine.”

Thobeka sank into the sofa, the drum beats of her heart thumping against her eardrums. My shattered nerves. What if she’d found the card in my pocket? I’d be writing my own obituary right about now.

When Mrs Zotwana lifted her gaze, she scanned Thobeka’s face. “Enough about the card. I’ll get a replacement from the bank. I want to talk to you about something more important.”

“Something” – Thobeka swallowed hard – “more important, Ma?”

“Ewe, intombi wam. I think you’re old enough.”

“Hauw, Ma.” Thobeka giggled. “I know about the birds and the bees. They teach us about safe sex and all that stuff at school.”

“Haibo!” Mrs Zotwana’s body jerked ramrod straight. “I’m not talking about ukuphana. You’re too young.”

“Well, they do say knowledge is pow–”

“Stop your silliness, we’ll talk about that another time.” Mrs Zotwana lifted an envelope from the side table and clutched it to her chest. “It breaks my heart that you don’t … didn’t … know your father ― the person he really was.”

Oh, for the love of bloody life! When will Ma stop romanticising Ubaba’s death? He killed himself. He was weak. “Ma, please–”

“Thula, wena.” Mrs Zotwana shot Thobeka a look that could melt the entire North Pole. “It’s time you learnt that you don’t know everything.” Mrs Zotwana placed the envelope on Thobeka’s lap, took her hands and placed them on it “This will answer all the questions you still have about your father. He wrote it when … well he knew he was on a path to self destruction … the drink …”

Thobeka knew better than to argue with her mother. “Enkosi,” she said, but only thought that it was a bit late for excuses and explanations. Where was he when I really needed him?

In her room, she tossed the letter in her cupboard. Maybe I’ll read it some day – when I need fodder for a tragic story.

***

Tell us what you think: Was Thobeka about to ‘steal’ or to ‘borrow’ from her mother? What do you think of her desperate action to get money for the publisher?