Ubaba had a bad day at work. I can tell by the way he slams the door and drops his bag on the floor without even hanging it up. He stomps into the bedroom where Umama’s waiting for him and locks the door behind him. I walk over to hang his bag up, struggling to climb onto the shoe rack so I can reach. I have to steady myself against the wall, but I make it and hook the strap of the bag onto the wall peg. Now I have to figure out how to get down…
Clinging to the wall, I step one foot back, then the other, walking my hands down after me. My tummy rumbles noisily, but I know we don’t have anything to eat. Ubaba was telling us yesterday that there’s not much money this week. I walk over to my coloring book and lay down on the floor to try to finish my page. It’s so hard to color inside the lines.
“I’m telling you, Isisa, we don’t have enough for me to just quit!” Ubaba yells from their bedroom. I put my hands over my ears to try not to hear. A brown bug crawls across the carpet in front of me.
“There’s no other way?” Umama asks. Her voice sounds so sad that I can’t ignore it, so I walk as quietly as I can to their door and lay down so I can see under it. Their feet stomp back and forth. Between their shouts I hear car alarms going off in the street. More scary people doing more scary things, I guess.
“No,” Ubaba answers softly. It sounds like Umama starts crying, but I can only see their feet through the slit under the door. I can see her walking over to him, though. She probably put her head on his shoulder like she always does when she’s not feeling good. I’m tired of breathing the dirt off the floor, so I go to the window and look out. The izitolo down the streets are on fire. People with blazing sticks run toward our building.
“Baba!” I cry, pattering as fast as I can back to their door. He swings it open and nearly walks over me as he stamps to our apartment window. Flipping the blinds open, he peers out.
“Isisa, get our bags,” he tells Mama. There’s a worried depth to his voice. Baba never worries – not even when he used to take us to the park to watch the stars. Bad noises used to happen all around us, but he never seemed afraid. Instead, he would just pick me up and put me on his shoulders, tuck Mama and Nandi under his arm and guide us down a back road to our apartment.
“What’s going on?” Mama asks, running around the living room, stuffing extra things into our bags.
Mama stands up stick straight with the worst look in her eye. She barely breathes until Baba walks over and shakes her gently. “Get Nandi, Isisa, we have to leave.”
“We don’t have the money!” She screeches. “How can we?” Putting her hands to her face, she sits down at the table and starts crying hard. “How can we go anywhere?!”
“You know how,” Baba tells her, cupping her face in his hand. She looks up at him with tears streaming down her face. “I’ll take the offer,” he says, walking over to get Nandi out of her bouncy seat and pack her into her carrier. “That way I won’t get fired and we’ll have enough money to start over somewhere. Somewhere safe,” he mumbles as he buckles my baby sister into her seat. Mama stands up real shaky and takes my hand to guide me to the door.
I go down the stairs as fast as I can, but they’re so tall that if I don’t take my time I start to tumble down them. By the time we reach the bottom, Baba has to shove us into a stinky, nasty cleaning closet to avoid the black-clothed men running up the stairs. When I peek out, the street is full of people running and crying. I hold Mama’s hand tighter as she follows Baba down the back alley and to our car. He turns left and drives out of town scary fast.
When we turn down a road I haven’t seen before, I look out the window and ask Baba where we are going.
“I have to stop by work, son.” He tells me. I clench my tiny fists, trying not to get scared. The place he works at makes me nervous. It’s so big that when Mama and I visit, she has to cover my ears to protect them from the loud planes that land all the time. The people that work there dress funny, too.
“For long?” I ask.
“No, not for long,” he tells me as he drives us down a long road with forests on each side. Swiping a card to get through a high metal gate, he parks the car in a big, empty parking space then piles us out and directs us inside. Farther down the big parking people are getting out of a plane. There is a man, a woman and one little girl about my height with really long hair. She doesn’t do much, just holds things in her arms and walks behind the man who’s leading them to the other side of the building. I trip a little on the sidewalk as we get closer to the door. My shoes are dirty from the red dust that covers the concrete, but the funny looking workers inside dust me off.
A lady in a white suit tries to talk to me, but I shy away and cling to Mama’s leg, not brave enough to look at her. The people who work here dress in big, white suits that cover their faces. I hate not being able to see their eyes. A man in a striped suit walks up and shakes Baba’s hand. “Bhekizizwe,” He smiles. “It’s good to see you!”
Baba doesn’t smile back. The man looks him in the eye and doesn’t let go of his hand. I look up at Mama and see the sad look in her eyes. Seeing my stare, she pats my head and holds Nandi even tighter. “What beautiful eyes!” The man exclaims, bending down to stare at me with is own icy blue ones. From what I can see from behind Mama’s legs, his teeth are squeezed together so tight that they don’t line up right. He looks like a rabbit when he smiles. “So you’re here to take me up on my offer?” The man asks.
“Yes,” Baba answers through gritted teeth.
“Wonderful! I’m thrilled we’ll be able to keep you on. Right this way,” the rabbit man says, walking us through a set of double glass doors and sliding his card to get through a door made out of something that looks like the pokey fence that lines the streets these days. We take lots of turns down long white halls and end up in front of a solid, white door. Mama grips my shoulder so hard I have to squirm out from under her hand.
“Ow,” I yelp, ducking out from under her fingers.
“I’m sorry, isithandwa,” she coos, rubbing my collarbone where her fingers dug into me.
“Mama, what’s going on?” I ask, my tummy rumbling loudly.
“You’re about to do something really wonderful, Baby.”
“How come Baba is acting so funny?”
“He’s very sad,” she answers, wiping a tear off her cheek.
“Well, here we are!” Chirps the scary rabbit man, swiping his card again and standing back as the door opens inward. Steel doors line this hall and I hear voices from behind each one.
“Mama,” I whimper, wrapping my arms around her thigh. She doesn’t say anything, but silent water drips down her cheeks.
“His room is three doors down on the right. I understand this is difficult,” rabbit man says to Baba and Mama, putting his hand on Mama’s shoulder. Baba steps in between them and pushes the man’s hand off Mama so quickly that the man loses his balance a little bit. Scary man puts his hands behind his back. “Please take all the time you need. I will be right here if you need me,” he finishes nervously. He hands Baba a brown envelope that Baba snatches from him and hides inside his suit jacket.
We walk three doors down and turn to the right. The door opens by itself and I see a room with grey walls and a steel bed, desk and chair. There’s a tiny sink and matching potty in the corner and a grey mattress with grey sheets on the bed.
Everything is quiet. Baba kneels down and looks at me. His cheeks are wet like Mama’s. “We love you very much, Nataniël, and we are very proud of you. Please remember that. You are keeping us safe,” he says, clearing his throat. “Nandi will live because of you,” he tells me, pulling on my baby sister’s tiny shoe. “We will live because of you. Thank you.”
Mama leans down and kisses me on the cheek. “I’m scared, Mama,” I tell her.
“I know,isithandwa. But he promised you’d be safe,” she replies, brushing my short, curly hair back with her fingers. I close my eyes, feeling just a little bit safer.
“Who promised?” I ask. Mama doesn’t answer, just shakes her head, places her forehead against mine and breathes deeply. When she pulls back, the sadness in her eyes makes my chest hurt. I don’t want to make Mama sad. I must look very sad too, because she tries to smile and fails, choosing instead to pass baby Nandi to me to hold.
Baba looks at me again and puts his big hands on my shoulder, “You are already very strong and very brave. Be smart, son, and we will see you again.” He kisses me on the cheek and pats my head. Momma hugs Nandi and me together before taking my little sister away from me. I try not to cry, but I can’t help it. No matter how hard I try to keep them back, the big, hot tears roll down my cheeks as I suck up snot to keep it from dripping down my nose. They don’t say goodbye, just close the door with a click. I hear them walk down the hall. I hear Nandi wail. I hear the first door close. Then I hear nothing.
But I know they hear me, because I’ve never screamed so loud in my whole life. My throat hurts after the first two wails and I taste blood after the first ten, but I keep going. They can’t leave me here. They wouldn’t. Would they? The thought just makes me scream harder.
They don’t come back, though. So I climb up onto the bed and look around. There are two books, a glass of green drink and a lamp. I turn the lamp off like Mama does when she tucks me in at night and roll over, curling up against the cold wall. The chill in the room gives me goosebumps, so I pull the covers tighter as I cry myself to sleep.
In my sleep, I dream I’m walking in the park with my friend from my dreams at home. The sun shines off his dark, curly hair and he picks up a bug for me to look at. “Don’t be scared of it,” he coaxes, holding the winged critter out to me. “Nothing can hurt you when I am with you.”
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