The clock above the dinner table chimed at 7:30 pm: supper time in the Milan residence. Even though Klein Windhoek had always been one of those desperately quiet suburban neighbourhoods of Windhoek, there was a new silence which the COVID lockdown imposed. As though it had also clamped down even the faintest hum of tires rolling over tar. Between sips of sparkling water, the two Dr Milans seated across from each other, with their three children between them, took in the dinner scene, with the sound of forks scraping creamy pasta and chicken off plates into the air. Dinner was the only time the whole family was together.
Jack Milan, in his mid-50s, regarded his family. An unintentional crease folded between his eyebrows. His lips were, as always, pressed into a thin severe line.
His wife, Selma, was his opposite: thin, covered in rich brown skin. She looked back at him with golden brown eyes. She was the glue of the family; the voice of reason between her husband and children, especially when it came to their careers. Jack wanted his children to be doctors and take over the Milan Private Hospital. But his first- and second-born children had chosen different paths. His 19-year-old daughter, Monica, was in her second year at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. He had tried to persuade her to become a general practitioner. Instead she had chosen a degree in information technology.
“Is that macaroni enough for you?” Selma asked Jude, the last born, and a grade ten student at St George’s. He was his father’s last hope; he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. He returned his mother’s question with a nod and smile.
Tys, the eldest son, sat quietly. It would be the last dinner he shared with his family.
By tomorrow morning one of them will have found my body floating in the swimming pool.
He never thought he would find himself in such a numb and static state of mind at 22. Yet, there he was, engulfed in heavy feelings of nothingness. He had made a routine of smiling at himself in the mirror, reminding himself to be confident. He sat quietly in his chair staring at his food, certain his friends and family would be better off without him.
Before the lockdown, a holiday in the Maldives had been on the cards. The islands were going to be the perfect place for Tys to take a break from his dreary job in marketing and find the courage to return home and tell his parents he had found a new passion: he wanted a degree in human rights law.
The only problem was his dad. Tys could not face his father. Jack had laughed when his son had decided to get a degree in marketing.
“We will see how far that gets you,” his father had said. A part of him felt like his father was waiting for him to fail.
The lockdown had scrapped the Maldives trip, stolen the getaway that would lend him courage. It had left him imprisoned by the four walls of his room with doubt. Failure. Fraud. Pussy. Your life is shit.
When his mind was not chewing at his character, it was slowly weakened by guilt for what he had done to Bruce, his best friend since high school. During the first weeks of lockdown Bruce and his girlfriend, Anna, were having a hard go of their relationship. Bruce had been stuck in Swakopmund; she was in Windhoek. Tys, being a good friend, had offered to check in on her from time to time. Three hundred kilometres to the coast, a three-hour drive between one friend and another, enough distance to isolate feelings and loyalties. Lockdown rules: love the one you’re with. Tys and Anna had slept together.
He had wanted to tell Bruce about what happened but he could not. Traitor. Liar. Coward. Tys’s mind was a minefield of corrosive self loathing. If he could not forgive himself for what he did to his friend why would Bruce?
Tys was aware that people, in general, saw the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, that there was some way to overcome their struggles. But that was not the case for him. He woke up and sighed in despondence, disappointed to still be alive.
He listened to the sounds at the table: Monica scooping extra pasta for herself; Jude explaining a show called Warrior Nun to his mother; Jack’s finger clicking on his phone. The family barely noticed Tys’s silence. This, he reasoned, would make it easier for his family to get over his absence. He reached into his pocket to touch his release: before dinner he had snuck seven Silenor tablets from the medicine cabinet. But answering Hypnos would not be enough to do the deed; he would swallow the pills in the pool and shorten Charon’s ferry trip.
“Tys, sweetheart, are you okay?” His mother was looking at him, a smile on her face.
After supper Tys stood alone in his room. He folded some of his clothes and put them in the closet. He packed the stack of murder mystery novels on the bookshelf. He wanted to leave his room neat. He did not want his mother tidying it up even though he would not be around to receive her scolding about a messy room.
His phone buzzed.
She was the last person he expected to call.
Sobbing from the other end. “Bruce knows. I told him.”
More sniffling from Anna’s side. Then a loud, shaky breath. “He was livid. He stormed out. I don’t know where he went.”
For a fleeting moment he was worried that his friendship was over; but then relief washed over him: in a few hours none of it would matter.
“He broke up with me,” Anna said.
He cleared his throat. “I’m sorry to hear that.” He ended the call.
“Who was that?” Jude stood in the doorway.
“No one,” Tys said coldly. “Get out. I’m busy.”
“Woah, bro, it was just a question.”
Tys started to apologise. He stopped. If Jude hated him now perhaps it would make what was to come easier. “I’m sick of seeing you. This has been a miserable year and it was worse with all of you!”
Jude’s eyebrows came together, his mouth slightly agape. “I know you don’t mean that. I’ll let you go through whatever it is you’re going through right now. We’ll talk tomorrow morning.”
The stinging hope of it seared his eyes. His bottom lip trembled. He had lost a battle against himself.
Rachel tied her braids into a ponytail as she strutted towards class, caught in the stream of students. She skipped over tiny puddles of water from the previous night’s rain. Something in one of the puddles caught her eye: a dead bird in the water.
All her life, Rachel had despised creatures that flew. She had envied the freedom of their flight. Seeing the bird in the water made her pity it. A shiver crawled down her spine. She hugged herself and rushed to her classroom.
“Morning,” Ndapewa said in her singsong voice.
“Hi, Pewa. How was your weekend?” Rachel took a seat at her desk.
A gasp escaped Ndapewa’s lips. “Friend!” She clapped. “Let me tell you!” She told Rachel a story about a guy she had met.
The homeroom class filed with students.
Over the din, Jude yelled: “Ayo, ayo!” The room quieted down. “My parents are out of town this weekend. I’m throwing a party. You guys better show.”
The classroom, as one, cheered.
Ndapewa squealed. “We are going, right?”
“Of course, we are,” Rachel smiled.
Lucas, the third member of their trio, walked to their desk. “The hell we are! Have you forgotten what happened at that house?”
Rachel and Ndapewa cringed. “Christ, Lucas,” Rachel said, “who can forget a tragedy?”
“Jude is our friend. So we are going.” Ndapewa concluded the discussion.
Rachel, Ndapewa, and Lucas, even if he would not admit it, were impressed by the Milan mansion: its size, its manicured opulence, the absence of parental supervision, and shrieks of laughter that came from an out-of-view pool. Jude was in the atrium chatting to two other friends. When he saw Rachel, Ndapewa, and Lucas enter he approached them.
“I was wondering if you guys were coming.” Jude hugged Ndapewa and Rachel, he fist-bumped Lucas.
“Thanks for inviting us.” Ndapewa grinned, eyes looking around, always impressed by the lush interior.
“Everyone and the drinks are in the backyard. This way.”
Ndapewa linked her arm with Jude’s as they strolled through the large living room.
The backyard teemed with teenagers. There were tables laden with beer, spirits, and juice of all kinds. Some of them swayed to music blaring from speakers near the drinks table. As Jude left them—“Enjoy the party!”—Lucas spun to face the girls: “I can’t believe people have the balls to swim in that pool.” The three of them looked at their classmates splashing in the water.
“Dude, you can’t say that.” Ndapewa scowled.
“Why not? Someone died in there.”
“That was a year ago!” she growled.
Rachel felt an ache in her gut as she imagined Jude finding his older brother’s lifeless body in the pool. She thought of the dead bird she had seen that morning. Tys and Jude had always been close. Jude’s Instagram page was a collage of their selfies. After the suicide, Jude had deleted all of his social media profiles and made himself inaccessible to his friends for months. The back of Rachel’s arms tingled. She shook the dark thoughts out of her head and told Ndapewa and Lucas to enjoy the party. Ndapewa looked at her with surprise: this was hardly Rachel’s preferred scene. She liked watching movies at the cinema and talking for hours with Lucas or Pewa. But this, Rachel had told Ndapewa earlier, was her last year in high school: she had to make memories. She poured herself a heavy-handed drink and allowed her body to sway to the music.
As Rachel washed her hands in the bathroom, there was a knock at the door.
“There is someone in here.” She hoped her response was loud enough for the person on the other side of the door.
When she opened the door she was greeted with empty space.
As she walked down the corridor, she heard the scratching again. It was coming from the door opposite the bathroom. Maybe the Milans had a puppy or kitten that Jude had locked in the room. The hairs on the back of her arms felt a slight breeze.
“Hey.” Jude was at the end of the corridor.
“Hi.” Rachel said followed by a nervous chuckle. “I was just using the bathroom.”
They stood in the hallway looking at each other. Rachel looked at the door again. Jude’s gaze followed hers.
He stared at the door. “That was my brother’s room.” His voice was low.
“Oh, I’m so sorry.” Rachel said as she walked past Jude.
They walked down to the yard together.
At home, Rachel slumped into her bed and scrolled through pictures taken at the party. Ndapewa twerking. Lucas diving into the pool. Her and Jude striking a pose. Her classmates dancing to Jerusalema. She swiped through the photos, savouring each one, remembering the high from being at the party.
One picture froze her. She stared at it: Lucas was in the pool, smiling up at the camera. Behind him, a shadow lingered at the bottom of the pool.
A knock at the door. Rachel dropped her phone.
Her mom poked her head into the room. “Good night.”
“Good night,” Rachel answered. Her mother closed the door gently. Rachel grabbed her phone. She squinted at the photo again. The shadowy figure had disappeared. She rubbed her eyes and looked again. Nothing.
Maybe, she thought, she was exhausted. Or still tipsy. She would have a better look in the morning.
Rachel’s eyes fluttered in the dark room. It was quiet. Too quiet. She could not even hear her own movements in her bed. Not the shuffling duvet or mattress. She heard a scratching coming from the other side of her door. Rachel jerked up, her heart was beating rapidly.
She got out of bed, her trembling feet chilled by the cold floor. It was weird because her room was carpeted, not tiled. When she cracked the door open she saw the foyer of the Milan residence.
The door melted away, leaving only the cream-coloured walls she had walked through earlier at Jude’s party.
She heard loud sobbing coming from upstairs.
Rachel’s feet willed her to walk towards it.
The sobbing came from Tys’s room. She knocked on it. Silence. And then the sobbing again. She reached for the door knob.
Baby blue walls, a queen-sized bed, facing a closet, a tidy little bookshelf, with pictures of Tys, Jude, and Mr and Mrs Milan, and a faceless silhouette which tossed back its head to consume a handful of pills.
Rachel’s skin was hot. She willed herself to wake up. She remained in the room.
The silhouette stood up and, for a moment, looked as though its absent eyes were boring in her. Then it walked past her. Her feet trailed its footsteps to the backyard, and to the edge of the pool.
The silhouette did not hear her. As it walked into the pool Rachel tried to grab its arm. It slipped through her fingers. It lay in the water, floating, waiting to be engulfed.
I can’t do this. I don’t want to put my family through the pain.
Rachel looked around for the faint whisper.
Who will give Jude advice about girls? Who will tell him to stand up for himself?
She looked at the shadow in the pool, its limbs slackening. The pills were taking effect.
“Tys!” Rachel screamed. She jumped in, trying to pull him back to fresh air. He slipped further.
The disappearing figure stretched out an arm for help. She reached out to take it. Again, his black hand slipped through hers. He choked, coughed out water, and tried to fight for the surface, trying to reach the edge of the pool.
Then, above her, on the ground: another silhouette.
It pushed Tys’s head beneath the water until the struggling stopped. Then it let go of him. His lifeless body bobbed in the water. The other silhouette walked away.
“No!” Rachel’s eyes opened. She coughed water onto her bedsheets. “God,” she whispered. Tys was murdered. And she had seen the other silhouette’s face.
Ndawedwa Denga Hanghuwo is a Namibian writer. He is also a student at the Namibia University of Science and Technology pursuing a degree in English Literature. This is his first published story.