The Seven Percent: Chapter 1

PART I: Unease

“All humans are created equal. That’s what we have always been told, but that is a lie. It’s the biggest and most dangerous lie of all time. We are not equal. Some people are different and it’s only a matter of time before they use those differences against the rest of us.”

Xolisa Themba, founder, True World Order

 

  1. Khalani

North West Province, South Africa

I wake up to the news that a Lith kid was stabbed to death in the parking lot of the fanciest shopping centre in Goldcrest. Fifteen times, with a brand new kitchen knife from MPH. The packaging was found on the ground beside his body. There were eleven security guards on duty but none of them witnessed the murder. By the time they found the boy he was dead, even though a medical expert said it would have taken him about an hour to bleed out. He was fourteen. Two years younger than me.

I sit up in bed, heart racing, wishing I had resisted the urge to check my phone before I was properly awake, wishing I had gone for a run first, or had breakfast first, or something. I feel like my stomach’s been ripped out. Last week it was politicians posturing and now it’s murder in shopping malls.

Shoving the duvet away, I stumble out of bed and rush into the adjoining bathroom, barely making it in time. My alarm goes off while I’m retching into the toilet bowl. I let it ring for a while, rocking back on my haunches, and then get up, flush and rinse my mouth. As I head back to my room and shut the alarm off it occurs to me that it might not be true.

The networks are a minefield of rumour and conjecture, doctored video feeds and quotes taken out of context. Maybe nobody was stabbed. Maybe it wasn’t a Lith kid. How would the attackers have known he was a Lith, anyway? Maybe he got mixed up with the wrong kind of friends and things went sour. Maybe someone saw his nice shoes and the hi-tech gadget he was flashing and decided life wasn’t fair, and something should be done about it. Maybe, just maybe, it’s not Us vs Them. Not yet. Not again.

I lean against my desk, taking deep breaths, counting on each exhalation the way I was taught. OK. No need to freak out. I’ll get on with my morning routine and by the time I get to school I’ll know for sure what happened.

My pulse slows as my body slips back into its regular flow. Wrinkled t-shirt and flannel shorts off. Leggings, tank top and sneakers on. No socks. Never socks. Check the time: 6:15. Glance in the mirror to make sure I didn’t become someone else in my sleep. Nope, still me. Too bad. Leave the room, walk to the kitchen, unlock the back door and stand on the stoep. Close my eyes. Breathe in.

Opening my eyes, I look out at the backyard. Plants spill out of the greenhouse and over the soil like a lolling green tongue, leaves and flowers and creeping vines all tangled up together, covering the brick walkway. Somewhere in the midst of it is the gazebo, a tame patch in the wilderness. And then, almost out of place, a perfect strip of pale, dry sand ringing all 100-odd square metres of the garden. The track. My track.

For a minute I forget about the day ahead. School and stabbings and maybe-war. The ground is dry despite yesterday’s rain, so I slip off my sneakers, leave them on the stoep and walk barefoot across the cold walkway, dodging the herbs but not the fallen leaves. Twenty paces. Twenty-five. I stop at the beginning of the track, just short of the line of sand, dig my toes into the grass until they touch the rich soil beneath, and take another deep breath.

Enlithiation isn’t magic. You don’t sense the lithium ions working their way up from the depths of the earth, through the layers of soil. You don’t feel them piercing the skin and rushing up through your bloodstream like an elixir, brightening and strengthening as they go. It’s science, microscopic and interesting but also mundane, and you won’t even know you’re lithed until you start moving, or thinking, or dreaming.

But that has never stopped me from imagining the process. Every single time my feet touch earth I pretend I can feel it happening and sometimes, if I go deep enough, down inside to where I can’t see or smell or sense anything but my own heartbeat, then I can almost feel it for real. A buzz of something electric moving through me. The planet waking me up, reminding me that I’m part of it.

And that’s when the anxiety sets in, and all the thoughts come rushing in on its back. School, stabbings, maybe-war. I see a kid lying in a pool of his own blood and shake my head. Focus, Khalani! Run!

Usually I take my time. Stretch my arms over my head, roll my neck a few times, get into position. On your marks, and all that. But today I can’t handle all the junk in my head. I can’t wait for the flow to find me. I step onto the sand and break into a full sprint, no jog, no warmup. I run, and run and run.

I’m fast. I always have been. I can run like death is at my heels, on and on, for ages. I’m not sure why. All Liths are strong, I guess, but as far as I know there were no athletes in my family. I run one lap, two, three. Chasing something. I’m always chasing something. Peace, maybe. Or something smaller, more attainable. The rush. Another medal, another record. I don’t know. Whatever it is, I don’t find it on the track today. I make a sharp turn to the left halfway through my fifth lap and run back to the house.

As I stop to grab my shoes I hear the sound of someone moving inside. My father. I know that even before I push the door open. We Mbathas are creatures of habit, and my dad made the mould.

“Morning, Baba.”

He’s dressed for work except for the standard bare feet. A half-drunk smoothie rests on the table, but his attention is focused on his phone.

“Hey, sweetie. Training?” He keeps scrolling, not even bothering to look at me.

I reach into the produce basket near the fridge for a banana. “Nothing serious. Just getting lithed. I’m still on break.”

“Right.” This time he raises his gaze to meet mine. Frowning, of course. Hyde Mbatha only smiles for photographs. “How long is this break supposed to be? It seems like you’ve been on hiatus for several months now.”

My mouth is full, so I don’t remind him for the seventieth time that it’s only been four weeks, I’m still attending school five days a week, and three hours out of that time is spent in Athletics. Technically I’m not even required to train beyond my Athletics class during off-season. Hiatus? Really?

“Don’t you think it’s time to get back to work?” Scroll, scroll, scroll. Frown. “You can’t afford to slip, not when your times are so good. You know Lith pros train non-stop. No breaks.”

Ja.” But I’m not a Lith pro. I’m a teenager with exams coming up. I take my time finishing the banana, then turn towards the kitchen door and roll my eyes.

“If you want to have a fighting chance at the Olympics, you need to keep pushing.”

I open the door and toss the banana peel into the composter, then step back indoors. “I know.”

“Is that all you’re having for breakfast?”

“I’ll get something at school.”

“Khalani…”

“Don’t worry.” I’m not in the mood for a lecture on nutrition, so I jerk my chin in the direction of his phone. “Anything interesting?”

“No.”

“I heard they’re discussing segregation in parliament.”

He picks up his smoothie with a sigh. “They discuss a lot of things in parliament.”

Huh. It’s hard to tell how my dad really feels about anything these days. I’ve heard the gossip. I mean, everyone’s heard the gossip, but Goldcrest is not one of those places where people politely stop talking about you when you enter the room. It’s one of those places where they welcome you to the conversation. I don’t know if Baba is worried, but according to the networks he should be.

“My Media Science teacher says it’s only a matter of time before there’s a referendum.” Really casual, like it doesn’t matter either way. I press my belly into the side of the table and scratch the back of my head.

Baba snorts. “And your teachers are the experts now?”

“No, but –”

“Everything’s going to be fine,” he says, with a dismissive wave of his hand. “There are always the prejudiced few out there, making a fuss. It will blow over like it always does, everyone will come to their senses, and life will go on.”

“Well, they say parents are pushing for segregated schools –”

He looks up sharply. “Who are they? Your teachers? They shouldn’t be telling you kids that sort of nonsense.”

“Not teachers, Baba. Everyone. It’s all over the networks.”

“You’re not supposed to know what’s all over the networks.”

I purse my lips, stifling a flash of impatience. “I only get the ones I need for my classes,” I assure my father. “But kids at school talk.”

He nods. Not like he’s agreeing with me, though. One of those old wise man nods grownups give you when they’re about to remind you that you’re still a clueless child.

“You know, once upon a time news was reported by actual journalists,” he says. “People who went to school and were trained. Not just random fools with phones and a few million followers. This business of giving the people a voice is problematic; there needs to be some kind of structure. Order. You can’t have people spouting their rubbish like it’s scripture.”

I’m not even touching that. Baba likes to reflect on a past he never experienced, as if pining for the good old days can change the present. But I have questions. What are his business partners saying? Is the board worried that stocks in Lith-owned companies have started to drop? Is that even true, or just another rumour? Is a takeover brewing? Should I think about getting a part-time job in case we go bankrupt? Is Arietta Pine, a well-known Lith actress, really suing a restaurant because a waiter called her a mutant? Has Baba heard about the shopping mall stabbing? Is he scared under all that big man bravado?

Before I have the chance to ask, he says, “Go get ready for school, Lani. Tell your mother we’re leaving in ten minutes and wake your brother; that boy can sleep through a riot.”

For a second I stand there and think about carrying on with the conversation, asking one more question. Just one more, to test the waters. And then, because I know he’ll dismiss me again, and ja, because I’m a lousy coward, I do as I’m told. As I walk into the corridor I tell myself it’s silly to stand around speculating, anyway. I tell myself if anti-Lith sentiment is growing, being late for school won’t help me. I tell myself it’s better to keep my head down and let the grownups handle things.

But none of that makes the thoughts in my head stop spinning in circles. I’m still picturing a dead kid in a shopping mall parking lot.

I knock on the door of the master bedroom, wait for my mother’s response, then call out Baba’s message. Then I turn back towards my brother’s room. His door is locked, so I head to my own door and enter his room through our shared bathroom.

Khaya’s room is an artful mess. No, that’s a lie. It’s a regular mess, a stop-at-the-door-to-wrinkle-your-nose kind of mess, but since Khaya is a genius who spits rainbows, we’ll call it an artful mess. I wade through the sea of random, shiny crap on the floor and make my way to the bed.

He’s sprawled all over it like he’s posing for one of his fashion shoots, snoring softly. His alarm is ringing, but since it sounds like a romantic sonata, it has absolutely no effect on him. I locate the phone under the jacket by the foot of the bed and shut off the alarm. He fell asleep with his single dangly earring on again; he’s such a diva. I snicker, noting how much his new asymmetrical afro resembles a skateboard ramp, then lean over and shout “Get up!” into his ear.

He wakes with a start. “Wha…? Why…?” His eyes focus on my face and his lips stretch in a warm smile. “Oh. Morning, Lovely.”

That’s how he greets someone who’s woken him in the most obnoxious way, shattering his pleasant dreams with an ungodly yell. I shake my head. I’m still not sure how Mr Always In The Best Mood is my twin.  

“Get in the bath. We’re going to be late.”

“No, we won’t.” He peels himself off the bed and stretches, then glances around for his phone.

“No networking. Bath!” I shove him and he laughs.

“Fine, I’m going. You’re such a bully!”

I follow him into the bathroom and slip out through the other door as he reaches for his toothbrush. Letting him bathe first is tradition, even though I’m the early riser. He leaves such carnage in his wake that I’d have to clean up after him, anyway, and I’d rather go through the hassle of mopping up and drying towels only once.

The bathroom door opens.

“Lani?”

In spite of myself, I smile. “What now?”

“I need the grey jacket back. Oh, and your white loafers. Did you clean them?”

We both ignore the irony of the messiest person on the planet asking the neat-freak whether she cleaned her shoes.

“Of course.”

He grins. “See, this is why you’re the absolute best.”

The door closes. Shaking my head, I walk to my wardrobe and pull out the requested items. I should be annoyed that he’s borrowing my shoes again; they’ll come back looking like they were ravaged by a wild animal, but it takes a lot of determination to stay angry with Khaya.

My own outfit for the day hangs on a hook behind my door, ironed and ready. Black jeans, white shirt, grey hoodie, grey sneakers. As long as we follow the dress code and stick to the school colours, they let us wear whatever we want.

I make my bed, prepare my books and spend ten minutes doing my breathing exercises. By the time I’m done my parents have left and Khaya is out of the bathroom. Time to face the day.

*

Because the universe is a kind and loving place (not), my first lesson is Media Science. The lesson begins with a rundown of the major headlines for the week, courtesy of Timeline, the only news network Mr Machada trusts. Usually I’m as eager as everyone else to pick apart the latest in politics and popular culture, but lately… Well, lately ignorance is bliss.

Lately the kids in school spend more time reading posts on True World Order than real news. Lately the noticeboards in public spaces feature more Parents for Equity flyers than adverts for ladies’ night at local clubs. Lately I feel more Lith, more alien, than ever before.

My body is tense as I walk into the classroom. I force myself to smile and greet my classmates like it’s all good and I’m not wondering whether any of them have murder in their hearts.

“You must be scared skinny,” says Dana, plonking herself into the seat beside me.

She’s sat next to me for two years. I think I’m slightly deaf in my left ear from her constant jabbering. I turn and look into her wide blue eyes.

“Why would I be scared?”

“Oh! Haven’t you heard?” She doesn’t even bother to whisper. “Some Lith kid was murdered last night! It’s all over the networks! What, did your phone die or something? How can you not know?” Without even taking a moment to gauge my reaction, she plunges on. “I would be wetting myself right now if I was a Lith. Everyone says it’s a hate crime for sure, and they don’t even know who did it. I read on The Watch that there’s an anti-Lith gang out there, planning a huge attack.”

Out of the corner of my eye I see that a few others have overheard and are waiting for me to chime in. They’re practically salivating, eager to hear my take on the savage murder of “some Lith kid”. Dana’s words run through my mind on a loop, and I wonder whether people were always this tactless, or whether it’s just our generation.

I roll my eyes, because as far as these NLs are concerned, I’m invincible. “You’ve been taking Media for two years and you still get your news from The Watch?” As I open my bag and pull out my tablet I shoot Dana a pitying glance. “Even if there is some bigoted gang out there, they know they can’t touch us. Why do you think they would pick on a scrawny kid walking around by himself? Look, Liths are pacifists. But…” I lift my shoulders in a shrug, hoping it comes off as nonchalant. “In a fair fight, we all know who would win.”

There’s a moment of sombre silence, and then:

“Man, she’s right.”

“Well, ja, but…”

“Come on, no one would really be stupid enough to take on the Liths. It’s just a rumour.”

“It doesn’t even make sense. Liths are good for the country.”

“Like she just said, they’re pacifists.”

“Hey, Khalani –”  

The final bell buzzes, ending the discussion. Mr Machada steps into the room and we all get settled for the lesson. My heart is a painful bass pump in my chest. I shouldn’t have let myself get drawn into that conversation. It was stupid, and remorse flows hot and fast through my blood, driving the adrenalin away. It doesn’t last, though.

The screen up front flickers and lights up and the first thing I see, beneath the familiar Timeline banner, is a photograph of a parking lot surrounded by police tape and the headline “Murder at the Mall”. The last string of hope I was clinging to vanishes. Timeline has verified it, and Timeline doesn’t lie.

My parents didn’t want me to take Media Science, even though it’s compulsory for all students in the Contemporary Community Dynamics stream. Mama even went behind my back and met with the Student Advisor to have me excused. She was assured that the curriculum was approved by the Health and Wellness Committee and wouldn’t harm my “fragile frame of mind”. Fragile, like I’m a baby bird.

“I’m going to assume you guys have already heard about this,” Mr Machada begins. We murmur in confirmation. “It’s terrible. No parent wants to read this kind of news, Lith or Non-Lith. My own daughter is almost the same age as the victim.” He pauses, and for a moment I see a different, more vulnerable side to him. “But remember, we need to focus on the facts, and that’s going to be difficult because the rumour mill is already churning. Tell me, what do we know so far?”

Hands go up all around me. I keep my arms folded on top of my desk.

“Thando.”

“A Lith boy was walking home from the mall alone because he had no friends because his whole school is NL and he ran into an anti-Lith gang and they hit him once or twice to make sure he was Lith and when they saw that he was trying to take his shoes off they knew for sure…” Every other word is punctuated by a dramatic hand gesture, so he resembles some kind of frenetic robot dancer. “…So they stabbed him in the stomach fifteen times and the security guards let him bleed to death because one of them was rejected by a Lith girl and he asked the others to back him up and they were like, ‘Hundred per cent, bra’, so the guy just lay there and nobody helped him and… Ja.”

The class bursts into applause and wolf whistles.

Shaking his head, Mr Machada grins. “The news, brought to you by The Daily Demon.”

Everyone laughs, including Thando. I force a smile. I’ve been the only Lith in this class since Grade 9, but I have never felt more exposed.

“Anyone have any actual facts? Yes? Mikaila.”

“We know for sure that the boy was stabbed with a brand new knife from MPH, because the knife and the packaging were found at the scene, but there were no fingerprints.”

Mr Machada nods. “What else? Nozipho.”

“There were seven guards on duty, not eleven. The mall released a statement. And the reason the guards never saw the attack was because there was a shoplifter in one of the shops and the guards were chasing the thief.”

“Uh-huh. Jackson?”

“He was still alive when the guards found him and they called an ambulance, but he died before the ambulance could leave the mall. That’s also from the mall’s statement, confirmed by the medical rescue team.”

“Good. So I guess that means no heartbroken security guards with revenge on their minds.”

Everyone laughs again. One of the knots in my stomach loosens.

“Yes, Mmasechaba?”

“The victim had no money or stuff from the shops on him, only an empty wallet and a phone.”

“Good. And what can we conclude from these facts?” Mr Machada strokes his chin. No one answers, because we’re all used to his rhetorical questions. “Not much, correct? We don’t know who stabbed him because they were smart enough not to leave prints. We know that it’s likely they bought the knife that same day, since it was still in its packaging. It was an ordinary kitchen knife. The boy’s wallet was empty, so it could have been a robbery.”

“But he had his phone on him,” Dana points out.

“An early model, according to Timeline.” Mr Machada smiles. “Not the kind of phone people are rushing to steal. Right now we have no idea what happened in that parking lot. The whole nation is jumping to conclusions, but we’re smarter than that, eh? People are saying it’s a hate crime. Maybe it is, but there’s one very important hole in that theory. Anyone want to tell me what it is before we move on to the next topic?” He looks around the room. “Anyone?” Finally, his gaze comes to rest on me. “Khalani?”

Every head in the room swivels in my direction. I lick my lips and clear my throat.

“Uh, I don’t know. I only read the breaking story on my social feed. I haven’t had a chance to check the news networks.”

But he’s not about to let me off the hook. “Think about it. Based on what we’ve said so far, what do you think the major problem with the hate crime theory is?”

Anger surges inside me. Why won’t he leave me alone? I’ve always thought of Mr Machada as a cool teacher, but a cool teacher wouldn’t pick on me like this, knowing how close this story hits to home. I look into his eyes defiantly and see something I wasn’t expecting. Kindness, maybe, and suddenly I realise what he’s doing.

“We don’t know that he was a Lith,” I whisper, finally remembering the most important thing. I clear my throat again. “I mean, we weren’t there. We don’t know. Enlithiation isn’t visible to the naked eye, so even if he was absorbing ions as he lay there, no one would know. Until he’s identified, we can’t assume anything. He could have been anyone.”

The class has fallen silent as the morning’s most sensational story dissipates before our eyes.

Mr Machada smiles and nods. “And that, my friends, is an example of the power of the press.” He reaches for the remote and the image on the screen fades. “OK, next story.”

But I’m not listening anymore. There’s a chance that this was a random crime that has nothing to do with the anti-Lith sentiment building in the country. There’s a chance things will be fine, just like Baba said. All the tension drains out of me, and when my legs start to tremble I realise that I was more afraid than I thought. As I pull myself together and focus on the next story, I find myself hoping desperately that the boy was a NL. It’s not until we’re done with the news roundup that it occurs to me what a horrible thing that is to wish for.

*

By lunchtime the Mall Murder has blown up, leading to a number of heated debates and even, according to the grapevine, a fist fight. I sit in silence, eating my sandwich, while around me Khaya and his crew discuss the fight.

“Wait, wait, wait,” says Ama, Khaya’s long-time girlfriend, raising both hands. “So the NL threw the first punch, right?”

“No! Apparently the Lith struck first.” That’s Han. More on him later.

“Impossible.”

“There’s no way!”

“Hey, I’m just telling you what I heard. The NL said something snarky, the Lith tried to take the high road but the NL wouldn’t shut up. Next thing you know – POW! Thunder klap.”

Shocked laughter, a scandalised gasp and then, “But no. It can’t be true.”

Seriaas!”

“Who’s the Lith?”

“Some Grade 7 kid. Friggin’ dead man walking. Suspension for sure.”

“Forget suspension. What are his parents going to do to him?”

“You’re assuming a lot.”

Everyone turns to look at me, and it takes me a moment to realise I spoke out loud. Looking into five Lith faces isn’t quite the same as looking into five NL ones. First of all there are a lot of distractions. Ama’s glossy, pouty lips. Shelou’s sultry slanted eyes. Modiri’s purple-tinged, triple-peaked afro. Khaya’s soulful frown. Han’s sexier-than-thou smirk. And then there’s the fact that my usual bravado won’t work on them.

Ja?” says Han, leaning towards me and flicking the side of my lunchbox with his middle finger. “And what do you know about it?”

“I know that none of you were there.” I push my lunchbox to one side, away from him. “You’re assuming there was a physical fight. For all we know it could have been an argument. You’re assuming the Lith threw the first punch. And you’re assuming his family is affiliated. Maybe they’re not. Maybe they’ll be glad he stood up for himself.”

Han laughs. “Are you giving up your Olympic dream to be a lawyer like your mum?”

“She’s not a lawyer, jackass, she’s a judge,” says Shelou, as if Han doesn’t know. “And the child has a point. We should find out for sure. Ama, don’t you have a friend in Grade 7?”

I scowl at Shelou. I don’t know where she gets off calling me “the child”. I’m seven months older than her and one grade ahead.

“Lighten up, Lani.” Han gives me a nudge that’s too hard to be friendly. “Life’s not all training and common sense, you know. Don’t be so boring.”

“You didn’t always think she was boring,” says Shelou, and Ama pokes her.

Han shrugs. “I made her cool.”

Everyone protests loudly and Han looks at me, wide-eyed, realising he said something wrong but probably clueless as to why it was wrong. Typical.

“I’m kidding,” he says quickly. “You know I’m kidding, right?” He nudges me again and mouths “Delete?” so no one else will see.

But I’m not deleting a thing. Why can’t he apologise like a decent person? Oh, yes – because he’s not decent. I ignore him and carry on eating my food.

Khaya comes to wrap an arm around my shoulders and plant a kiss on my cheek. “Don’t mind him; he’s bitter,” he whispers. Even though I doubt it’s true, it makes me smile.

I’m not sure why I continue to hang out with Khaya’s friends. They let me tag along like I’m his annoying baby sister instead of his twin. I guess I could spend my lunch hour with the Lith Athletics team, but all they ever talk about is sports. Maybe I should be grateful. Khaya’s crew is the cream of the crop. Besides being brilliant, they are effortlessly cool. Stylish, commanding, real leader-of-the-future material.

I glance at the NL students scattered across the campus, some sitting on their own, others collected in groups like ours, and feel a familiar pang of envy. I wonder what it would be like to have a clique of my own. Not dazzling, talented, good-looking friends. Ordinary friends with ordinary problems. Friends who struggle with homework. Friends who have regular dreams like finishing school without incident, becoming decent, productive members of society and popping out a couple of kids. Not saving the world, but helping it keep spinning. The grunt work. There’s a lot to be said for those who do the grunt work, but Liths were born for greater things, as my dad always tells me.

Turning away from the NLs, I sneak a peek at Han. The twinge I feel whenever I look at him is slowly fading, and if he weren’t so damn hot it might be gone completely. He wears his battered leather jacket and metal-studded boots with the casual flair of the veteran playboy. Every month he has a new intricate hair tattoo; this time it’s a complex geometric print.

He turns suddenly, as though sensing my gaze on him, and our eyes meet. I have no idea what he’s thinking. That was always the trouble, along with his wandering eye, and hands, and attention. The showdown ends with Han breaking eye contact first, and I feel a thrill of triumph. Khaya and Ama have started nuzzling noses like cats, and Han protests by making loud retching noises.

“Don’t be jealous, Radebe,” says Shelou. At some point she moved from her place on the bench to Modiri’s lap.

I take a furtive peek over my shoulder, searching for teachers. Sure enough, there’s one striding towards us.

“Break it up, guys,” she calls out as she approaches.

“We’re not doing anything, Ms Reynolds,” Khaya protests, although Ama is still glued to his side.

Ms Reynolds sighs and points at Shelou. “Can you get off his lap, please? This is not a music video.”

“Human beings thrive on physical contact,” says Shelou, but does as she’s told. “It’s a primal need.”

“You can be primal in your own time. You know the rules; no canoodling on campus.”

“Canoodling?” cries Modiri in horror.

Shelou giggles.

Khaya offers the teacher a blinding grin. “We’re sorry. Won’t happen again.”

Even though she knows they’ll be “canoodling” the second she turns her back, Ms Reynolds softens immediately. “It’s fine, dear. Just be more mindful, OK?”

“Absolutely. Enjoy your lunch, Ms Reynolds.”

She retreats, and I swear there’s a slight spring in her step. Ama gazes up at Khaya in wonder.

“You’re amazing, baby.”

You’re amazing.”

“Aww, Khaya!”

Han groans. I roll my eyes and finish my sandwich. Look at us, the lucky ones. Young, gifted and Lith.

*

Athletics is my last lesson for the day. Khaya spends the afternoon in the studio, so I cycle home alone. I’m surprised to find the front door unlocked when I arrive, and I’m about to call out when I see my mother’s handbag lying on the table in the foyer and her shoes in the corner near the door.

I drop my school bag on the sofa and head to the kitchen to cook. Mama comes in from the garden, wiping her bare feet on the mat.

“Oh, it’s you.” She flashes a distracted smile. “Khaya in the studio?”

“Mhmm. What are you doing home so early?”

“I forgot my tablet. Can you believe it?” Shaking her head. “You can’t imagine the morning I’ve had, working with Sipho’s back-ups. I don’t even understand how he structures his notes. It’s like reading upside down. Where’s my bag now?”

“By the front door. Don’t you have a hearing today, Mama?”

“Yes, and the train leaves in twenty minutes. Imagine if I turned up late!” she says, walking across the floor towards the foyer.

As if that would ever happen. Mama is fastidious about everything. Her appearance, her work, her cleaning roster.

My parents always take the train to work. The 4×4 is only used on weekends. Mama says they use the train because they like the exercise and hate the traffic, but I think they do it because it’s what they’ve always done. For the longest time they lived in Baba’s student flat, too busy to spend their hard-earned money.

“I’m making chicken.”

“That sounds fine.” She comes back and stands in the doorway, sliding on her pumps. “Lani, my darling, you’ve put on weight.”

My hand freezes on the fridge door.

“It’s not a train smash, but you need to keep an eye on it. When are you running again?”

I’m always running. I’ve never stopped bloody running! Geez.

I take a deep breath. “Training starts week after next.”

“Hmm.” She frowns. “That’s too far. There’s no place for curves on the track, my love. I’ll give Sibanda a call; convince her to let you start on Monday.”

“Mama, I really don’t think –”

“I have to go, my darling. See you tonight!” And she’s off.

It takes every bit of willpower not to stop what I’m doing and run to the nearest mirror. Taking deep, steady breaths, I set out the ingredients for supper. I season the chicken and pop it in the oven, then put a pot of rice on the stove. I chop up vegetables for the relish and put them in a pan. Then, unable to wait another second, I dash to the bathroom, pull off my clothes and examine my figure in the mirror.

I see a body that most people would describe as athletic. Slim, strong, toned. The kind of body that easily fits into Khaya’s tailored trousers. The kind of body better suited to athleisure than lingerie. Curves? What curves? I wish I had curves. It’s hard to tell, but maybe my bra is a little snugger than it should be. Maybe my thighs could be sleeker. Then I get on the scale and it’s all the proof I need. I’ve gained two kilos.

I snatch my clothes off the floor, furious with myself for letting this happen, then furious with myself for being furious. I said I wasn’t going to be that person. “You’re a runner, not a ballerina.” Coach Sibanda’s words. I’m not supposed to be tiny and delicate. I’m supposed to be raw power.

As I change into my home clothes, I pump myself up with affirmations. “I’m a rushing river. I’m a leopard on the hunt, bunched muscle and killer instinct. I am not a flower. I am a wave.” Then I realise that I’m running on the spot, as if I could get rid of those two kilos in a matter of minutes.

Ag, damn it. I walk back to the kitchen. As I move towards the stove my phone buzzes and I stop to check it. It’s Khaya, and his message is only four words.

Mall victim ID’d. Lith.

And just like that, the world crumbles around me.

 

 

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The Dark, Dank Pit (from Hard Sell)

Alexandra, Johannesburg
November 2025

Life is a Salvador Dali painting. The figures are stretched, pliant and elastic, eyes bulging out of heads far too small to contain them, the hard solidity of reality dripping down the side of a rickety table. Every element is out of place, warping and melting beneath the gaze of observers, shifting to fit into whatever mould is made for it.

Dela Appiah-Wey knows this. It might have taken her three decades to figure it out, but she knows it now for certain. Beneath the shiny candy-wrapper surface is a rainbow-ringed sphere. A planet of players. Everyone’s got an image to protect, a persona to project, a story to sell. No one wants to be seen as foolish, even if it means going against their instincts, so they stretch, and melt, and slip into whatever shape is relevant.

slsmag 027

Dela sits in a concrete sewer-pipe, knees drawn up to her chest. The floor is damp, but she doesn’t notice. She looks out through the round opening at the little country of Alexandra. Alex, like all the world’s players, is in her graffiti-covered, corrugated iron gown, face freshly painted by some well-meaning community group. Alex is almost pretty now, in that “authentic” way that used to be fashionable.

Hidden in this tiny corner of a post-makeover township, Dela reflects on her life thus far. She has made a mistake. A major, monstrous, life-altering mistake. If she were younger, prettier and with longer legs, she might be allowed to get away with it, but in this paper doll universe mistakes are not forgiven. Those tempted to pity her realise quickly that such sympathy is of the devil, and stamp it out before it corrupts them.

Dela asked for it. She knows she did; she has no one to blame but herself. You see, she had it all. She was part of the inner circle and then – sigh! – she took it upon herself to be the kid who tells the emperor he’s walking down the street in his birthday suit. No one likes a know-it-all.

For five years she was allowed to plague her colleagues with her insistence on a certain level of integrity, because it kept them all out of trouble. Dela believed this was her best quality. She has always been reasonably intelligent and capable, but that was nothing compared to her ability to close the gaps. She stood at the gates of the fortress, pen in hand, defending her agency from lawsuits and customer complaints. She was the girl everyone could count on. Until…well, until she wasn’t.

“There you are.” A figure crawls into the pipe and hunches over in a ball beside her. The person’s face is hidden in shadow and Dela decides it can only be her elder brother, TOS.

“Why are you hiding in here?” The voice ricochets off the cold cement walls.

“My life has fallen apart,” Dela moans. “I’ve ruined everything.”

“Are you sure?”

A flame flares with a hiss, and TOS lights a cigarette. This is odd because he doesn’t smoke. Also, he’s dead. Dela may not know much about the afterlife, but she is certain there are no cigarettes.

“I’m sitting in a sewer in the middle of the night, talking to a ghost. Out loud, for that matter. I think we can agree that I’ve hit rock bottom.”

“A ghost, Copycat? What the hell does that mean?”

She turns to him with a start. He’s never called her that before. Come to think of it, TOS was never that slender, and his voice wasn’t that high-pitched. He also looks rather solid for a ghost. The figure grins, smoke curling out from between its teeth.

“You’re not my brother.”

“Uh, no. Do I look like your brother?”

It occurs to Dela then that she should probably be worried. She’s in a sewer-pipe with a stranger. She is heavily intoxicated, and she can’t remember what happened to her shoes. She looks into the thin face and bulging eyes, and recognition sparks. There’s only one person who knows her as Copycat.

“Fence!”

“Good girl.” The shadow named Fence flicks ash from the cigarette and looks at Dela.

“Don’t worry. You’re safe with me.”

Dela leans back into the wall, not quite convinced, but too miserable to care. “I don’t normally drink this much, you know.” She sits up suddenly as a terrible thought strikes her. “Am I slurring my words? In my head I sound perfectly articulate, but if I’m drunk, truly, properly drunk, I can’t be articulate. Right?”

Fence blinks. “I can understand you just fine.”

Although that doesn’t answer the question, Dela resumes her slumped position with a sigh. What does it matter? The only reality she can engage with is the one in her head, anyway. That’s part of the reason she’s in a pipe in Alexandra instead of her flat in Gaborone.

“I’m normally so sensible,” she tells Fence. “I do the right thing.”

“All the time?”

“Most of the time.”

“No one does the right thing most of the time. People can’t even decide what the right thing is.”

“Not me. I know what I’m supposed to do. The path is clear.” Dela points straight ahead. “There’s no room for error. The rules are black and white, and I’m good at following the rules. It was just this one time. This one stupid thing.”

“Elixir?”

A sigh. A nod. A whimper.

“That’s where it all began?”

“Well, no. It was before that. It was TOS’s fault.”

“Who?”

“TOS. I mean Kwabena.”

“The dead brother.”

“Yes. He led me down the wrong path.”

There’s a long pause. “The dead brother?”

“Yes! He was always there, hovering, worse than Mummy. He was the devil and Mummy was the angel, and then they switched places. I got confused.”

“Everyone gets confused sometimes.”

“You don’t understand. My life was perfect!”

Fence’s chuckle is dry and breathy. “I doubt that. Tell me what happened.”

Dela feels quite gauche suddenly, a middle class girl lost in the township, wallowing in her bourgeois problems. “No, it’s OK. It’s not important.”

“Ja?” Fence blows a stream of smoke into Dela’s face, making her splutter. “You got something better to do?”

There are a thousand excuses on the tip of Dela’s tongue. She realises, with a sudden gaping hollow in her belly, that none of the excuses are valid. She has nothing to do. Nowhere to be. She has nothing but time.

There are no tears yet, just the faint prickly threat of them, but despair descends without warning. Dela’s frantic flight to Johannesburg didn’t keep it at bay, after all. Seeking out Fence didn’t, either, and the alcohol… Oh, the alcohol. After all those years of watching her friend Cy down shot after shot and emerge in a haze of bliss, Dela was convinced drinking to excess would chase the bad things away. Isn’t that why people do it?

“Copycat.” Fence taps a finger against Dela’s cheek. It’s an oddly comforting gesture. “Start talking. Talking helps. Isn’t that what all the smart people say?”

Dela wants to tell her story. She’s a wordsmith, and she has been reconstructing and rehashing it in her head in an attempt to figure out exactly where she went wrong. Perhaps telling it to Fence makes more sense than telling it to herself.

“Come on.” Fence stubs out her cigarette. “Your life was perfect, yadda, yadda.” Her long fingers reach up under her beanie and scratch thoughtfully. “Hey, this might take a while, né?”

Dela’s head bobs in a rueful nod.

“OK.” Fence reaches into the pocket of her hoodie. “I’m gonna need more cigarettes.”

Scarlett

SCARLETT’S BOARD

I knew it would end the way it did. I knew it from the moment we met. He was lust personified, all that was wrong with the world, fire and rage and deep, dark corners. I could smell it on him. Rot. As if the grave was open and beckoning. And there I was, damaged and desperate, so how could I resist?

My eyes were open. I knew there would be blood. Looking back through the veil, I see that there had always been blood, small, secret stains that foreshadowed what was to come. There had always been choking pleas, flailing, eyes seeing stars. There had always been frantic, clawing attempts to breathe, and then…relief.

How else could it have ended? I set the tone. I had been gasping all my life.

Selah

SELAH’S BOARD

My earliest memory is of my mother lying dead in the bathtub, covered in blood.

I was five, maybe six. I had woken up in the night and walked across the corridor from my bedroom to the bathroom to get a drink of water. The door was closed. I opened it, stepped inside, wondered why the light was already on. The tiles were cold. I remember that. It’s funny how details like that stick in your head. Cold tiles, soft light, silence.

I went straight to the basin. Reached for the tap. Glanced in the mirror and saw her. Mummy. Naked in the tub, water reaching only to her navel. Still. Eyes closed. Bleeding. I screamed.

Her eyes opened, because of course she wasn’t dead. I kept on screaming as she got up, splashing red-tinged water on the floor, grabbed her robe and pattered across the tiles to slam and lock the door. And then I stopped screaming, because logic kicked in. Mummy was alive and well and looked somewhat annoyed that I had interrupted her bloody bath and then screamed blue murder in the middle of the night.

She shushed me, knelt down, still pulling the robe over her nakedness, but not quickly enough to prevent me seeing the gashes on her upper arms, her thighs, her sides. Like she was a chicken breast someone had carved up, ready to soak in the seasoning.

I babbled. I was scared. Confused. What had happened? Why was she using this bathroom instead of her own? Who had hurt her? Why was she so calm?

Someone pounded on the door. My father. Sleepy and irritable, demanding to know what the problem was.

Nothing, Mummy told him. Just one of Selah’s monsters.

He left us, grumbling under his breath. I looked at my mother, waiting for her to explain. She did. She told me a story, as colourful as the folktales of our homeland, with their anthropomorphised animals and trickster gods. But this was a different story, about a god who never smiled, a god of steel and stone and cold sidelong glances. A god of knives and wounds and blood, and redemption, a god they called Aran.

She told me of times long past, before doctors in spotless wards, before potions and techno tricks and manipulative magic, when people treated their ailments through trial and error. Times of cutting and leeching to purify the blood. She told me of an angel coming to her in a dream with a message from Aran, a message she had no choice but to heed. To follow in the footsteps of those who went before, to bleed to heal what ailed her.

But we don’t believe in angels, I said, or in the god Aran. Daddy doesn’t like us to talk of gods.

She shushed me again, and told me Daddy didn’t like a lot of things. Kareaan believes, she said. Isn’t that enough?

And I nodded because I loved Kareaan, my paternal grandmother, and didn’t want to shame her by disparaging her faith. But I didn’t understand. I was too young, my soul too dappled with rainbow prisms. I held onto my mother and pretended to agree, to believe her, because she needed me to. But I knew she had lied. There was no angel, no message. She had decided to bleed all on her own.

Did it work? I asked her. Are you healed now?

She held me tight against her and said, Yes.

But that was a lie, too.

The Shimmer

It happened one afternoon, when I was walking through the packed parking lot of a shopping mall, with you at my side. We were nearly clear of the many, many cars, giant beetles in their assortment of bright colours, sunlight glinting off their metal backs.

My foot rested on the cement walkway. I lifted myself up off the tarred road, and then I saw it. It was strange, because my back was turned to it, and yet I saw it all before I even turned around, before my feet found the tar again and rested there, uncertain.

Two dogs, apparently without owners, passed each other as they ran across the road. The air shifted. Reality shimmered, blurred out of focus and then snapped right back. A moment later both dogs whirled around, ears pricked, teeth bared. Each had just noticed the other, and their behaviour was so odd that I said to you, in a wary whisper, “That’s strange. Look!”

The dogs snarled at each other, poised to pounce, looking almost like mirror images. A funny shiver started at the base of my spine. There was something so human about the pair of them. It disturbed me. I felt a brief flash of panic; I didn’t want to see them fight, and I wondered what I could do to stop them.

Then their owners appeared. One was a woman, dressed absurdly in layers upon layers of clothing despite the sweltering heat. She lunged at her dog, burying her pale, pasty face in its side, her long, unruly black curls falling over its dirty back. She screamed, and her words were unintelligible.

The other was a man, tall, so tall, with broad shoulders and a filthy corduroy jacket. He grabbed his dog around the middle and pulled it away, then he and the woman glared at each other, continuing the altercation in silence.

The woman was alone, but the man had reinforcements. A woman appeared behind him, gently touching his back. His wife, I presumed. She wore a ridiculous billowing coat. Behind her was a little boy in a striped red and white t-shirt.

I couldn’t take my eyes off the spectacle. It was bizarre – dirty, poor white people in the middle of Gaborone, fighting over dogs – or for dogs – or against them. It was difficult to tell. The man and his family glared at the lone woman and spoke to her in hushed tones, in that broken, battered tongue of theirs that sounded less like a language the more of it I heard.

The woman backed away, defeated, and returned to her car – an ancient white truck. Her dog was still gnashing its teeth, transformed from a mild-mannered mongrel to a rabid beast in her arms. It had grown to twice its size now, and she struggled to push it into the truck. Its hair had grown long and matted, its eyes wild.

I turned my gaze to the other dog, and noted, with a shiver of revulsion, that it, too had changed, and resembled the other one exactly. I didn’t know what to make of this. I closed my mind before the possibilities could come streaming in. I didn’t want to think about it. I didn’t want to know. And yet I couldn’t stop watching.

I looked at the woman again. She hesitated at the door of the truck, as if she wasn’t ready to surrender just yet. But her enemies were not having it. The other woman opened her long, dust-covered coat, and something small tumbled out of it. The object rolled across the parking lot and came to a stop at the lone woman’s feet.

She leapt back with a terrified cry, and I saw what it was. A bundle of straw, fashioned into the shape of a doll. It wore small, dainty clothes; khaki trousers, a white shirt and a blue hat.

I frowned, puzzled. The lone woman, though, understood the significance of the doll all too clearly. She kicked it away, leapt into her truck and drove off in a cloud of dust, her dog yapping madly all the way.

The dust cleared, and I watched the small family move slowly towards the fallen doll. The mother stooped to pick it up, her coat sweeping the floor, and when she rose….ah, it sounds like madness, even to me, but when she rose, the doll was gone. In its place was a little girl, no older than six, dressed in a white shirt and khaki trousers, with a blue denim hat in her hand.

Before my head could wrap itself around what my eyes had seen, the boy came to me, hands outstretched.

“Please,” he whispered.

I shook my head. “Sorry.”

He persisted. He came right up to where I stood rooted to the ground, and ran his rough, cold little fingers across my arm. His eyes were dark, almost black, and piercing. His lips were so chapped I was afraid they would split apart and spill thick, dark blood on the ground, blood as dark and fathomless as his eyes.

“Please,” he asked again, in his lilting voice. “Please, please. Please? Give us. Give us.”

The words sounded uncomfortable on his lips, not as if he were foreign, but as if he weren’t used to talking at all. I shoved my hands into my pockets and withdrew them, empty with the exception of a few pitiful coins. “I’m sorry. That’s all I have.”

He showed no interest in the money. His gaze passed over the coins and returned to my face, pleading. “Give us…give us. Give us the…”

“The what?”

But he was already moving on to the next person, a dreamy expression on his little face, a weary sigh on his lips as they formed the request again. “Please? Please? Give us.”

The parents watched me warily, as if afraid I might run off with their son. The girl stood in the road, staring at nothing, her dark eyes lowered. I offered them a smile. They didn’t return it.

They were all so lost, utterly out of place in that dusty, crowded mall, with their matted dog, furtive eyes and clothes that hung off their backs. They looked alike, and possessed a certain appeal, but they fell just short of any kind of beauty. The mother and daughter had delicate papery skin that seemed as if it would turn to ash at the slightest touch. Their hair was too fine, too wispy – it caught in the almost negligible breeze, picked up static and clung to their skin.

The father and son had the same thick, dirty hair that looked as if it had once been blond but had since been soaked in oil and grime. Their skin was tough, thick like pigskin and just as unyielding. They were different, and yet exactly the same in their awkward looks, features pleasant, but too strange, too unsettling to be admired.

The parents looked around them, only now becoming aware of the little drama they were starring in, and the curious glances they had attracted. Immediately they drew together, the two of them and their dog, and started to retreat towards their unwieldy vehicle.

There was something sad about their shiftiness, as if too much attention could wither them up like broken leaves left to the elements. I pitied them, and yet…and yet.

“That was a marvellous trick,” I ventured, indicating the girl.

The child looked up at me, her eyes wide with fear.

“It’s not a trick,” her brother declared from behind me.

The words sent the girl fleeing into her mother’s cloak, where she remained, partially hidden in the swirls of fabric.

The woman gave me a strained smile. “Don’t mind him.” Her voice was weak, the voice of a straggler in the aftermath of war. “He’s not…quite…right, you know.” She held a hand out to the boy and he ran forward and grasped it.

“Please?” he went on. “Please give us…”

There was a trace of doubt in his voice, as if he didn’t really know what he was meant to be asking for, and for a moment I believed his mother. Perhaps he wasn’t quite right, after all. But his eyes flickered to mine, holding my gaze for a full minute, and he seemed perfectly right then. Horribly, unnaturally right, like rain that soaks you through before it hits, or night sweats and fever, or an open window that you could have sworn you closed.

They didn’t walk away. They fell back, a retreating army, like the tide, and swept towards their mud-spattered bakkie. As they left, I realised that their dog was missing. I saw it a moment later, barking from the back of the bakkie, a rope tied round its collar, holding it securely to the vehicle. It was a tame mongrel again, nondescript, friendly. Of course.

The boy shrank into his mother’s hand, years running down his shirt like melting ice cream, until she had to lift him in her arms and carry him because he was too small to walk. Her cloak blew around her tiny frame, and her hair blew around her pale, papery face.

The man mumbled something garbled as he climbed into the car, too tall, much too tall to fit, yet fitting anyway. In response, the woman whispered to the little girl still hidden in her cloak, and I saw a small white hand reach up and deposit the denim hat on the dark head.

And then… and then the girl was gone. The bakkie pulled out of the parking lot, and the boy, grown again, sat in the back, stroking the dog. The last thing I saw before they vanished into the distance was the little girl, sitting beside her brother, holding in her hand the hat that was the key to her enchantment.

My feet came unstuck from the tar and turned towards you. “Did you see that?” My voice cracked with awe.

You glanced over your shoulder. “See what, dear?”

And I knew then that I had stumbled onto something I was never meant to see, because no one else seemed to have seen it. Because the mall was just a mall again, the breeze was dry and crackly, and the heat bent the air around us into vague apparitions. Because in the gap between turning around on the walkway and turning back to you, no time had passed at all. You didn’t see me stop. You never even realised I was no longer at your side.

The air sighed softly as I took that step again. My right foot landed on the cement, and a moment later my left foot followed.

“Never mind,” I said, linking my arm through yours. “I thought I saw something.”

“You must have imagined it.” There was laughter in your voice.

“I must have,” I agreed, and we walked on, my secret drifting away, slipping from my mind until I no longer remembered seeing anything.

Of course, that must have been what they had intended all along.