There was this chill in the air as the sun set on Peneyambeko Court that Monday, the skyline tinged with rust. It was June, so everything would be icy once the sun disappeared. The gate of the complex churned people in and out and cars dawdled past. As the girls approached the entrance, Uno and Charlize’s conversation about their dislike of Mrs van Schalkwyk, their tenth-grade mathematics teacher, was interrupted.
“Hey! You two over there. Just a second!”
Uno sighed. Can’t girls walk in peace?
Charlize shook her head.
Her arms still by her side, Uno balled her fists. “What?”
Charlize stepped closer to Uno.
“Woah,” the stranger said. “I just want to state my appreciation for your dedication. I’ve seen you ladies running diligently for a while now. I’m impressed.” His skin was the same brown as their school uniform, and he was just a head taller than them, but a strange man was a strange man.
“Thanks, if that will be all, we’ll be going now”, Charlize said. When they first became friends, Charlize felt to Uno like a fluffy scarf, gentle and impossibly soft. This time, it was Uno who leaned in.
“I’m inviting you two to a meeting of an organisation I run,” He said. He stood with his shoulders back, chest out, chin slightly elevated. “We’re looking for people just like you, young, dedicated, willing to apply yourselves to a cause for the greater good.” But he was standing too close, making the girls huddle. He was dressed in an all-white ankle-length kaftan draped over matching pants. His feet were clad in brown leather sandals.
“What makes you think we care about the greater good?” Uno said, crossing her arms.
“Well, you go on daily walks and assuming you’re eating wholesome foods, that leads me to think you care about your health. So, if you keep that up for the next, say twenty or thirty years, you won’t end up taking up government resources getting pills and treatment for coronary artery disease or high blood pressure.”
His elaborate hand gestures were, to Uno, an unwelcome distraction, grating, every single one.
“Interesting,” Charlize said, nodding.
Uno’s eyebrows knit together. “That’s quite the conclusion. What makes you think we eat healthily?”
“I don’t know, just a feeling. Anyway, my name’s Pope. What are your names?”
Charlize and Uno swapped looks, agreeing inaudibly to give him fake names, “My name is Ursula. She’s Casey.”
“Good to meet you guys. I have to head to a meeting. But have a look at our flyer; we meet four times a week. There’s no shortage of good company, free food, and drinks. Well, soft drinks for minors, we don’t promote such behaviour,” Pope chuckled. “The meetings are nearby, just here at Ramatex. You guys mos know where that is.”
“Sure”, Uno said as Charlize took the flyer.
“Great, one of my guys will be standing at the gate. When you arrive, just tell him you’re there for the meeting. He’ll ask for a password. It’s “Apogee”. I’ll see you guys tomorrow night!” Pope clapped and flashed them a Pennywise-smile.
“What a creep,” Uno said when he was out of earshot. “Why is he so sure he’ll be seeing us tomorrow?” They had watched the gate close, and were approaching flat number fourteen with its too-loud Afrobeats music. Charlize made a small sound, shrugging her shoulders.
“Charlize? You’re not actually considering it, are you?”. Uno said. “You like trouble.” she whispered under her breath.
“Hm?” Charlized asked
Charlize shrugged and said, “It’s just one meeting. And there’s free food, chommie. Why wouldn’t we go?”
Uno’s eyebrows shot up. “We?”
“Yes, you’re coming with me.”
Uno sucked her teeth. “Girl bye!”
Post-chores, the girls’ Saturday ritual was to pass the time at Uno’s watching lifestyles vlogs on fashion, food, or makeup. They used Uno’s mom’s old makeup pallets to experiment with different looks. Once, after rummaging through Aunt Pamela’s dresser for mascara and finding only an eyelash curler, they’d learned instead, 1. How to intensify the curl, and 2. How to make it last longer by heating the eyelash curler with a hair dryer.
“I want us to experience it together, chommie. I’m sure we’ll have a great time if not making fun of this guy and his group,” Charlize said. “We’ll have a great time eating their food, plus I’m curious about them. We don’t know what we might find!”
“Ugh, fine! You owe me for this!”
“I don’t owe you nothing. I’m tutoring your dumb ass in maths, remember!” The girls burst out laughing.
They stood outside their homes now, twin flats built side by side––Charlize on the left and Uno on the right. Their laughter died at the sound of a loud crash chased by shouting. Uno watched as Chalize’s lights went out of her eyes––that now familiar slump of shoulders, eyes instantly dim as if a light somewhere in her core had been flicked off.
“Why are they shouting again?” Charlize mumbled.
“You’re always welcome at my house, friend. You can come over right now if you’d like.”
“Thanks, but that’s alright. I’ll still have to come home and face this mess anyway, so there’s really no point in delaying the inevitable”, Charlize said.
“Okay. Good night, chommie.”
“Night night, friend,” Uno said, wishing there was something she could do to get her out of that house.
“I can’t believe you dragged me here, Charlize.”
They approached a man whose arms and head were tucked into his hoodie. He stood where a bent barbed wire fence opened into Ramatex by an even more tired barbed wire gate.
“Apogee?” Uno said, looking over her shoulder.
“Awesome,” he said. The girls stared at each other for a beat, swallowing disgust at the flash of yellow when he smiled. “Pope did say that I should wait for two new members.I’m so glad you could join us. Welcome. My name is Carl. You are?”
Uno jutted her thumb at Charlize and muttered, “She’s Casey. I’m Ursula.”
“Follow me. They are waiting for us.”
They followed, hands held and eyes darting around the space. Uno’s jacket sleeve hid a can of pepper spray she clutched in the other hand with her finger atop it, ready to zap. Her panic, amplified by the growing din of mangled singing, grew.
Carl rapped his fist on a door.
When it opened, Charlize’s eyes grew wide with excitement, while Uno’s mouth dropped into an o. Uno expected people to be seated in neatly lined chairs, instead she saw people singing, others chanting, gyrating bodies, and waving arms. There were tatty black plastic chairs lined up in front of a make-shift podium made of worn school desks haphazardly draped with stained tablecloths. There were speakers on both sides. A steady Afro percussion beat played in the background. Uno was ready to spin around and flee but faltered at the eagerness on Charlize’s face.
“Ah! There you are!” Pope said. He was donning a tie-dye kaftan, trying to hug them.
Uno held up her hands. “Boundaries, my guy, I don’t know you.”
Charlize elbowed her, stifling a giggle.
“My bad,” Pope said, placing both hands on his chest, but Uno caught the annoyance in the way one of his eyes twitched. “Anyway! Welcome ladies. We’re all so happy to have you guys here tonight. Take up your place and we’ll begin shortly.”
Pope marched to the podium. He whispered something to a man in sunglasses who picked up a bell and rang it three times.
Everyone took up their seats, and the girls quickly followed suit.
With a microphone in hand, Pope took the stage and began.
“Comrades in power! I welcome you to our commune tonight and wish you a very good evening. A great evening, in fact, as we welcome two new members, Ursula and Casey. Girls, would you mind just standing where you are and waving to everyone, please.”
The girls stared at each other, standing from their seats. They waved.
“Lovely, aren’t they?” Pope said.
An “Oh yes!” shot out of the crowd as heads nodded vigorously.
“We’ll start the evening as we always do. Remember to embrace at least five of your brothers and sisters. Robbie––music.” Pope gestured to a man close to the speaker who stood at attention.
The girls watched as people embraced, unsure if they should join in until someone patted their shoulders and led them towards the waiting hugs of the other members. The whole time, music blared. In and out of hugs they went. Uno’s movements stiff while Charlize’s smile widened, her movements softening.
When everyone settled back into their chairs, Uno finally found her voice again. “Charlize, this was a one-time thing. I’m never coming back here.”
“You don’t know how the night will turn out, just give it a shot, it’s not that bad. Plus, the hugs are quite welcoming.”
Uno’s eyebrows retreated. “Uhm, what? You’re not going to normalise how weird that was, Charlize, no.”
The woman sitting in front of the girls shushed them.
“C’mon, chommie, it’s not that bad.”
“To welcome our new members, we’ll be reading our credo. Robbie––The Book.”
Robbie turned up the volume of the drum beat, and people started swaying again. He exited through a door to the left of the podium and returned, carrying a thick book with outstretched arms. It was covered in a worn red leather jacket.
When Robbie handed Pope The Book, he rushed to the speakers to turn down the drum beat. Pope began to read.
“Hear ye, hear ye, let it be known that from this day forward, that I, your God, have entrusted the care of Hearthstone to my humble servant, Pope. He is my chosen one, and anyone who should follow Him will be following the light. They will be on the right side of history, and they will be on the path to freedom. To know Him is to know Me. To commune with Him is to commune with Me.”
Uno laughed, “Friend,” she turned to Charlize, “this guy thinks he’s…Jesus?”
But Charlize was wearing that look she got in class when she was enthralled by a lesson––eyebrows furrowed, lips pursed, and everything.
“Cast all your worries on to Him,” Pope continued, “for He will lend His ear. He will hear your plight. He will transform your pain and shame. He is my anointed miracle worker. Can we get a round of praise, family!”
The crowd clapped.
“I have imbued Him with sacred powers beyond human understanding; trust in Him. Hear ye, hear ye, for the mission of Hearthstone is to welcome new members into our midst with great love and care, to offer you a safe space to rest your bones, a meal, a family, or a miracle. We wish to offer you only our best, whatever you need.”
Most of the members were nodding now, the woman next to Uno wiped away tears.
“He is faithful,” the woman who shushed the girls earlier said.
“Our mission,” Pope paused to look over the crowd, “is to return our lost brothers and sisters home to Hearthstone. For Hearthstone is not a place, it is wherever we gather as a family, a unit, a home. And we should strive to be living examples of the work God seeks to do through us, to be a guiding light for souls lost to the darkness. We should sacrifice what we can for our family, even if it means losing our earthly possessions, even if it means laying down our own lives for the greater good,” Pope nodded as he talked. The crowd bobbed their heads in agreement.
“On, Hearthstone!” Pope pounded the air with his fist, and the crowd chorused. “On, Hearthstone!”
“I would like to call on anyone who would like to deliver a testimony of God’s work,” Pope said.
The man with the sunglasses raised his hand.
“Ah, thank you, Sunny.”
Sunny sat at the closest seat to the left of the podium. He got up slowly, shuffling to get to the front. Robbie touched his arm and turned him around to face the crowd. He handed Sunny the microphone.
“Good evening, family,” Sunny said. “As many of you know, I did not always go by this name.” He chuckled.
“But I’m Sunny now. I want to share my story with you today. I bore witness to a terrible crime. I was plagued by it–couldn’t stop seeing visions of it, dreams of it. My life was in shambles. I couldn’t focus, couldn’t do anything, that was until I met Pope. He, with the help of God and everyone at our home, saved my life. He performed a miracle on me that gave me true vision. He restored my faith in the goodness of humanity. He gave me my life back, and now I move with the purpose God intended for my life.” Sunny started blubbering while his shoulders jerked. “I want to thank Pope and Hearthstone for being the family I always needed and for giving me a home. I’m so grateful to all of you.”
The woman next to Uno started sobbing, “This story gets me every time.”
“Bear witness to what the good Lord has done.” Pope raised his eyebrows and nodded to the people in front of him.
“To those needing an ear, please come forward and feel free to book a consultation with me. I am here for you.” Pope put his hands over his heart again. Uno’s skin crawled.
Silently, she was wondering why this gathering would appeal to anyone. This was surely a joke. Her disdain was broken when Charlize stirred in her chair and rose.
“Where are you going?” Uno grabbed her arm.
Charlize bowed her head to Uno’s ear, “Maybe they can, you know,” her voice was small, “help me with the situation at home.”
“I don’t think you should be vulnerable to these people. Something doesn’t feel right here.”
“Please, it spoke to me.” Charlize’s eyes lit up, and Uno couldn’t dim them despite the feeling that the ground wasn’t quite where it should be. “You don’t get it,” Charlize said, “I have to try.” She began walking toward the podium.
When it was over, Uno stood at the door wondering what afflictions haunted the decent-looking people–– that’s when she saw Charlize stepping into Pope’s hug.
Uno broke the silence of their walk home. “What did he say?”
“He’ll see what he can do for me. I’ve booked a consultation with him for tomorrow. He charges 200 bucks.”
“200? And how much will he charge for his miracle, Charlize?”
Charlize was desperate to escape and there was nothing Uno could do to help, but this situation smelled like rotten eggs from the moment they walked in.
“I don’t know. It sounds super sketchy.” Uno scratched her forehead with one hand.
“I have to try. Maybe it will make a difference. Maybe after he’s done the miracle, my mom will finally leave my Dad and we can start a new life.”
Charlize had hope, the same hope that caused her mother to stay. Every so often, Charlize would put AA flyers on the fridge at home. Her mother once went as far as bringing a sponsor to their flat for her husband. After that, there were never more flyers put on the fridge.
They walked the rest of the way home in silence.
At home, Charlize said, “Can you give me 200 from the mattress store, please? I’ll be meeting up with Pope after school.”
Uno hesitated. She wanted to tell her that nothing would fix her situation at home, that when she was done with school, she could finally leave. Instead, she said, “If you’re sure about this, I’ll bring it.”
“I love you. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Love you too.”
Charlize asked Uno to keep the cash she made from tutoring under her mattress. She’d ask Uno to supply her from the mattress store whenever she needed something. She’d learned not to keep cash on her card.
One Friday, after her father cleared her mother’s account, her mother gave Charlize’s bank card to him, and he emptied her account. He returned home Monday morning, hungover. Charlize had stayed at Uno’s that weekend, weeping the entire time. Uno was still haunted by Charlize’s trembling in her arms.
But whatever Pope had promised had renewed Charlize’s hope, which had been dead a long time.
The next morning, Charlize gave Uno a dazzling smile, and Uno was glad to see her mood had not changed since the previous night.
When the time came for Charlize’s appointment, Uno offered to go with her and they set off.
Carl greeted them at the gate. In the light of day, some of the members of Hearthstone lay strewn across the floor in sleeping bags. All the chairs were stacked against the wall, the speakers in a corner, quiet. Pope stood over one of those members, wagging a finger, and scolding them. When he noticed the girls he rearranged his face and rushed to them. He had on a bright yellow kaftan and the same brown leather sandals as when they first met.
“Ladies, I’m so glad you made it. Ursula, have you come for a consultation as well?”
“Nah. I’m just here to support my friend.”
“Well, Casey, we can go to my office if you’re ready.”
The girls followed Pope through a short corridor. At the office, Pope turned to them and said, “This is a private session. I want to focus on young Casey here so that I can help her reach the best solution possible. Ursula, you’re welcome to take a seat. I’ll bring you a chair.”
Before Uno could get a proper look inside the office, Pope offered her a chair about five steps away from the door. Before he entered, he turned to smile at her. Her stomach somersaulted.
For five minutes, she feigned patience, bouncing her leg on her knee before the restlessness won. She stood and ventured to a lone window and cracked it open. With the fresh air, she was met with muffled voices from the other side.
“Did you hear about that, bra? What’s his name? He chose a weird one. Maybe Lafrenz?”
“No, no, I think his name was Lafayette.”
“That’s the one! So he kamma asked Pope to perform a miracle on him, and get this, the guy ends up dead. They said it was an infection.”
“Yeah, I know. Pope told the mal koppe in this joint his death was ultimately his sacrifice and a miracle because through death he was set free, and that they should all strive to be more like him. Imagine that! Kamma, his death will give rise to the new members, and sure enough, those kinders showed up last night!”
“Maybe there is some truth to his miracle.”
“Ja, ja, maybe it was just a coincidence.”
“I don’t know, man. We just need a place to sleep for the next couple of days, then we can bounce. I sure as hell ain’t staying here any longer. These people scare me, man.”
“You feel it too?”
“That settles it then. We move tonight.”
“You’re forgetting we’re still on the run.”
“I know that. Look, I’ll call a friend in Rehoboth. Maybe he’ll have a place for us to crash for a couple of nights before we move.”
It wasn’t just that there were fugitives at Hearthstone. Or that Uno didn’t know what crime they were on the run for. It was the fact that someone had died after a miracle was performed on them.
Uno walked up to the door and thumped on it with her fist. Pope opened the door. A smirk slid across his face.
“Oh, we’re done now. If you’d like to book a consultation with me, my door and our hearts are always open to you.”
A rage bubbled in the pit of Uno’s stomach. “Casey, let’s go!”
“She goes by Charlize now. She chose a new name since she decided to join Hearthstone.”
“Thanks, Pope,” Charlize said.
“No, thank you for opening up to me. I appreciate your candour. And remember three days, okay? I’ll see you girlies soon then.” He closed the door silently.
Uno scurried out while Charlize ambled behind her. “You told him your name?”
“No,” Charlize snickered. “You have to choose a new name when you join the group, and I figured I may as well go for gold.” Her laugh doubled.
Uno paused, shaking her head. Charlize was still a few steps ahead of her.
“I told you I had a bad feeling about these people.” Uno started telling her the story she overheard.
“Maybe it was his time?” Charlize shrugged.
“Ag, nonsense! And what is this about three days?”
“I’ll tell you in three days.”
“I don’t want you to end up dead like that guy Charlize! He harvested his organs for all we know.”
“Now you’re just being ridiculous!”
“You know what’s ridiculous, Charlize? You think that this nutcase is going to solve the problem at home. Nothing will fix that!”
“It’s easy for you to stand here and judge me because you’re not the one always picking up broken dishes, surrounded by shouting. And the beatings. God, the beatings. You have no clue! Your life is perfect, your parents love you and each other, you don’t fear for your life every day. Pope was right about you. You wouldn’t get it!” Charlize stormed off.
Uno walked the rest of the way alone, wiping tears from her eyes.
Apart from school, the girls avoided each other for those three days. Charlize picked up more hours of tutoring.
On the third day, sleep evaded Uno, and when it finally came, a knock at her flat’s door, she shot up.
“I just came to get my supply from the mattress store.”
“What are you using it for?”
“That’s none of your business.”
“Tell me what the miracle is!”
“Tell me, or I won’t tell you where I moved the money!”
“Oh my God! Just give me the money. I need it!”
“Not unless you tell me.”
“He’s going to cut my ear off.”
Uno half-laughed. “You’re joking. Right?” Charlize crossed her arms and rolled her eyes. “You can’t be that stupid to believe that that’s going to fix anything!”
“He says I won’t have to hear them fighting if I don’t have an ear. It’s the proper sacrifice.”
“Charlize, is he going to puncture your eardrum too? Tell me you’re not this naive. Because you’ll still be able to hear without the ear.”
“You think I don’t know that!” Charlize screamed, “I don’t care. Something has to fix this! I can’t live like this anymore!”
Uno retreated, turned to her cupboard door and pulled out a backpack. “I know I can’t stop you, whether now or three months from now. I don’t know how to help you anymore.”
Uno dropped the bag at Charlize’s feet.
Uno tossed and turned for an hour before deciding to take a walk. She took a break at the bridge overlooking the Gammams river.
“Good thing the sun isn’t too hot today. Otherwise, you’d burn to a crisp,” an unfamiliar voice said behind her.
“Huh?” Uno turned to face a young woman, taken aback by her smile.
“I recognised you from your walks. You’d always go with your friend. Where is she today? I also felt like taking a breather this morning. I had a long week.” There was no room for Uno to respond. “I’m sorry, you just looked like you needed someone to talk to. I’ll leave you to your thoughts then.”
“No,” Uno cracked. “Please. Please don’t go,” and like a damn overfilled, she told the woman everything.
“Oh my God, we have to call the police!”
“Anything else. She will hate me forever!”
“She’ll hate you if you let her get her ear cut off and you didn’t do anything to help her! C’mon, let’s go! Taxi!” the woman called out, and one screeched to a stop in front of them.
The woman strung her sentences together again. “Ramatex,” she told the driver. To Uno, she said, “Hopefully, we can stop him from doing more harm.” Then she pulled a phone out of her pocket, dialled and after a few seconds, said, “Yes, I’d like to report a crime at Ramatex. Please send help. A teenage girl is in grave danger.” To Uno again, “You did the right thing telling someone. My name’s Angela.”
“I’m Uno,” Uno said, only half-believing her.
“Thank you for your kidney, my dearest Charlize, and now I’ll cut off your ear so you’ll always have something to remember me by!” Pope laughed maniacally. But just as he lifted his scalpel, a bang shot through the door.
“Police! Drop your weapons!”
“Better act quickly.”
“We said drop it.”
Uno clutched her stomach as a gunshot rang in the air.
Charmaine //Gamxamûs is a Namibian poet and writer with a BSc in Nuclear Medicine Technology from the Cape Peninsula University of Technology in Cape Town. She placed second in the Goethe instituts’ short story competition, in Times of Pandemic, for her story, Dehisce. Charmaine is a lover of language, expression, and storytelling through poetry, literature, and music and is a member of the 2022-2023 Doek Collective. She is a fellow of the Narrating Namibia, Narrating Africa Doek Emerging Writers Program.